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October 10, 2012
August 25, 2012
On this day in 1949, Martin Amis was born. In any history of the last half-century of English Literature, a chapter will have to be given to the Amis family’s seventy-five books — and still counting, in Martin’s case. Two chapters might be better: one of father Kingsley’s many “failures of tolerance,” to use Martin’s phrase, was his contempt for his son’s postmodern novels, or the few he’d tried reading.
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December 9, 2011
High fantasy for young adults.
by Adam Gopnik
At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”
It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry. Beginning with Terry Brooks’s mid-seventies “The Sword of Shannara”—which is almost a straight retelling, with the objects altered—fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination. A vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first—that is the Tolkien formula. Each element certainly has an earlier template and a source, but they enter the bookstore, and the best-seller list, through Tolkien’s peculiar treatment of them. Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
What did Tolkien do to this stale stuff to make it so potent? Another British don, Christopher Ricks, once dismissed Tolkien as “our Ossian,” referring to a third-century Irish bard, supposed to be the author of “Fingal” and other Gaelic epics, and wildly popular in the eighteenth century, whose works were actually written by his supposed “translator,” James Macpherson. Dr. Johnson knew it was a fraud, and when asked if any modern man could possibly have written such poetry replied, “Many men, many women, and many children.” Ricks meant the comparison to Ossian as a putdown—that there is something fraudulent and faddish about Tolkien’s ginned-up medievalism.
But the remark helps bring out Tolkien’s real achievement.
September 27, 2011
By Sanchez Manning
A treasure trove of gossip-laden letters written by some of the greatest literary figures of the past 100 years were stolen from a Man Booker Prize judge by his window cleaner.
Tyrone Somers, 41, of Clapham, South London, worked for Dr Rick Gekoski, a member of the judging panel for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Yesterday he was jailed for 30 months after pleading guilty to theft.
The stolen documents included private correspondences by Kingsley Amis, TS Eliot, Cecil Beaton, Ted Hughes, Henry Moore, Gore Vidal and Virginia Woolf. Dr Gekoski, a US-born academic and rare bookseller, had given Mr Somers the keys to his north-west London home.
The handyman told police he entered the house on 23 July this year at around 5am intending to carry out maintenance work. However, once inside, he stole a binder full of historic papers, a laptop and £100 in cash.
Dr Gekoski admitted he was initially devastated by the theft, but he has since forgiven his former employee because after a few weeks Somers had a change of heart and returned the manuscripts to the police.