The Mrs Jellyby of Manchester: Sarah Moss, ‘Bodies of Light’

I don’t often write here about new or recently published books; mostly I read from the teetering TBR pile of older works – as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. Modern English fiction I find uneven in quality (Americans like Denis Johnson seem to me superior to what the UK can offer at present). All the fuss in the media and blogosphere about what’s on or should have been on the Man Booker long list published yesterday doesn’t pique my interest too much.

Sarah Moss

Image of Sarah Moss taken from Granta books website

Earlier this month, however, I read a review on Susan Osborne’s site A Life in Books of Sarah Moss’s new novel, Signs for Lost Children, a sequel to Bodies of Light, which was published by Granta last year; Susan put this sequel on her own list of Booker predictions. She mentioned that the central character of the first book, Ally, becomes a doctor in an asylum in Truro, Cornwall. As that’s where I live, and I find literature to do with mental health fascinating – one of my earliest posts was about Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, and I’ve long admired the seminal work on women, mental health and literature The Madwoman in the Attic, and Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present (the link is to Viv Groskop’s 2008 Guardian review) is excellent – I decided to give Ally’s story a try.

Susan did a fine job reviewing Bodies of Light, so I won’t summarise the plot in detail. It’s an account of a family’s ordeal at the hands of a fiercely idealistic and evangelical Victorian mother who, like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House, who also neglects her own children while obsessing about an obscure African tribe’s plight, devotes all her attention to the care and welfare of the poor and ‘fallen women’ while neglecting and abusing (physically and emotionally) her own two daughters – as her own mother had with her and her sister. Her husband, Alfred, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite type who builds a successful career as painter and interior designer, is also excluded by his wife, and he finds solace elsewhere.

The epigraph from RD Laing and A. Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family is salutary and apt: ‘We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not disturbing persons’.

The novel is mostly very well written. The theme of parental neglect and cruelty passing on through the generations is Dickensian in its seriousness and emotional clout. I found the novel a little slow, however. Despite the often beautiful prose (Susan gives some fine examples) the relentless narration of the mother’s cruel, deluded treatment of her girls is just too long and repetitive.

There is interesting use of catalogue-type descriptions of artworks by Alfred and his friend Aubrey West at the head of each of the ten chapters, which poetically and symbolically foreshadow the sexually ambiguous, hypocritical treatment of the growing sisters by parents and by West – but these are brief points of light in a gloomy plot.

I also found the latter part of the novel, in which Ally struggles against social prejudice and general misogyny to become one of the first women doctors, rather contrived and predictable. The author’s research (the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and its disastrous consequences for Victorian women is a central feature, for example) is a little too evident and becomes intrusive. The (justifiably) angry message dominates the narrative. Ally is ultimately a credibly damaged but insubstantially realised character.

S Moss Bodies coverI feel Sarah Moss missed the opportunity to introduce a little contrast into the depiction of this deeply unhappy family’s life. The father, Alfred, doesn’t share his wife’s tormented, demented obsessions; why couldn’t he have stood up to her more, defended his suffering children – and himself? His acquiescence seemed to me unlikely, and his character fades quietly into the background as the novel proceeds, and his wife’s tyrannical domestic regime is unchallenged.

At the end, though, Ally has developed an interest in mental illness, and has moved at last to Truro. I hope to find the sequel (I shall certainly read it) less predictable and a bit more varied in tone. Sarah Moss can write, but she needs to preach a little less and let her characters breathe.

Postscript: in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book Sarah Moss points out that she wrote much of it in cafes in Penryn and Falmouth; is this JK Rowling type activity coming into vogue? She also states that she wrote and read a lot on the Cornish Riviera trains from Paddington to Truro, and expresses gratitude for their provision of Quiet Coaches. I would have thought that tapping away on her laptop would not have endeared Ms Moss to her fellow quiet-seeking passengers…

‘It’s good enough for the market!’ George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’

‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ is a cleverly funny comedy series on BBC Radio 4. Its protagonist is a grumpy, disillusioned writer whose highest achievement was the scripting an episode of the cheesy early-80s BBC TV series ‘Tenko’ – an achievement on which he still dines out. Since then he’s scratched a living as a writer of hack pieces, while teaching a desultory evening class in creative writing to a group of jaded, equally cynical pensioners.

When I discovered that this opinionated failure was based on the central character of George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. It’s deeply moving, and a scathing portrait of the lives of struggling writers in Victorian London, striving to make a living in a literary world, like Ed Reardon’s, which seems to be run by ignorant plutocrats supplying crass product for an undiscerning, low-brow public of equally ignorant consumers.

New grub street Penguin C editionIt relates two parallel, intertwining stories: we first meet Jasper Milvain (Jaz in the radio show), a cynically ambitious, moderately talented and clever writer whose lazy selfishness is matched by his ruthless determination to study what the literary ‘market’ wants and provide it, dismissing anyone with literary pretensions as hopeless romantics; this is revealed in many of his discussions with his family and friends. Here he’s pontificating to his long-suffering sisters, whose meagre allowance he sponges from their mother:

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business… There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare… I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar… I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes.

His plan is to milk his family’s small financial resources – his sisters will have to fend for themselves by becoming hack writers also (for the children’s market, naturally, as they are mere ignorant girls!) – in order to network with important literary and journalistic contacts, flattering and flirting with the rich and influential. Authorial merit has little to do with commercial success; ‘modesty helps a man in no department of modern life’, he declares.

His polar opposite is Edwin Reardon. After some modest success with his first few novels (traditional three-deckers) his star is waning. He receives less money for each successive book; if it weren’t for the small fees he earns for earnestly academic articles he publishes in literary journals he’d already be penniless. He’s headed for penury. As his plight worsens, his wife’s support declines. Amy, a beauty, had married him mostly because she relished the prospect of being feted as the wife of a successful author – and of being rich.

Eventually they separate; she can bear his blocked, sullen artistic sterility and refusal to compromise no longer. He meanwhile is rendered unable to work because of her hostility, and the pressing urgency to produce fiction just to pay the bills. Inspiration has deserted him, as poverty has dried up his source of stories.

The main interest in the novel rests in the painful decline of poor idealist Reardon. As it reaches its climax this plot pitilessly traces his tortured inner struggle: should he compromise his artistic soul and sell out, as Milvain, Amy and others repeatedly urge him to do? The answer has tragic consequences for him.

This desperately heart-rending story is counterpointed by the career of Milvain, whose tactics work so well that his success is as stellar as Reardon’s downfall is crushing. After a brief dalliance with Marian, who briefly becomes an heiress, he’s forced to make a critical decision. As with Reardon, the outcome is cruelly exposed in Gissing’s unstinting prose.

This is so much more than a critical attack on the petty squabbles and liaisons of the moderately talented literary figures of the time; it’s more a serious examination of what it is that drives people to become authors, to expose their most intimate and sensitive selves to public scrutiny, often to meet with derision, dismissal, or, worst of all, indifference.

As a portrayal of that part of late Victorian London it’s fascinating, emotionally draining (in a good way) and powerful. As a three-decker itself it’s probably 200 pages too long (it has 551 pages in my Penguin Classics paperback, bought at the Oxfam shop near Chiswick Park underground station when I was visiting friends last month). There are longueurs; Milvain and Reardon are given far too many speeches in which they reiterate their philosophies at wearying length; there are some colourful minor characters, but they fail to enrich the narrative as inventively as Dickens’, for example, in whose shadow this novel inevitably falls. It is perhaps a little too relentlessly dour; the talented few are dashed down, fail, while the greedily talentless thrive. The romantic/sensational elements of the plots descend into the cartoonish and clichéd at times.

New Grub Street is, nevertheless, a classic, and worth persevering with. I urge you to read it, and would love to hear what you think. Let me finish with one of the most evocative, moving descriptions of a blocked author struggling to write that I’ve ever encountered:

 For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink, and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III’, but that was all. And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall…[O]n his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.  The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.

 Familiar plight!

 

Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.

 

 

 

 

 

Book podcasts again

Over the last few weeks, among my posts about Julia Harvey’s two novels about the family drama set in the Greek diaspora community of Smyrna and then Thessaloniki, I’ve been recommending some of my favourite book podcasts. Today I’d like to round this sequence off with a brief summary of a final few.

I’ve already mentioned some BBC Radio 4 programmes with podcast versions available free online; here I’d like to add the Radio 4 Bookclub. It’s hosted engagingly by the astute James Naughtie (about to leave the prestigious Radio 4 morning news programme Today after some twenty years to take up the post of books editor, among other things, with the BBC). It’s very like book clubs in the real world, except that here the author of a book is invited to the studio to be interviewed by Naughtie, then the audience is free to pose questions of their own. It’s more than an opportunity to market a new book: often the work chosen was published some time ago, so there’s genuine reader engagement with a rare opportunity to hear what the author was striving to achieve. Recent guests include Jon McGregor, Lorrie Moore, Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel. Although the names tend to come from the more popular end of the literary spectrum, there’s usually plenty of interest.

Also broadcast by the BBC, the World Service this time, is the general arts programme Strand. Although no longer on air – it finished in 2013 – its archive is still freely available online, and has many features of merit in it. For example there’s an obituary/tribute to Chinua Achebe, and an interview with Javier Marías on his novel The Infatuations (which I reviewed here). Being a World Service production, though, Strand has a far wider remit; other pieces include profiles of Romanian cinema, Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, the Indian film director Anurag Kashyap, and Michael Haneke’s production of Cosí fan Tutte in Madrid. Pretty eclectic, then.

I have to declare an interest about this next choice of general literary website, but with a cool podcast attached: The Mookse and the Gripes — I’m an occasional contributor, with pieces on Joyce’s Dubliners and an ongoing series on the stories of Henry James. But this is one of the best podcasts out there for its mix of conversations (mainly) about NYRB Classics titles, and in particular of literature in translation. Apart from well-known names that the irrepressible Trevor Berrett and his brother consider, such as Kingsley Amis, Theodor Fontane and John Williams, there are (to me) less prominent figures like Lydia Millet and the Russian writer of short stories Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (b. Kiev 1887).

Another site that specialises in critical discussions on modern world literature is Three Per Cent, produced by the University of Rochester. It takes its title from the sad fact that only that percentage of books published in the USA are works of  literature in translation. All kinds of new names have been brought to my attention here (and on the related website).

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.Image from the Sylph Editions website

Next choice for world literature in translation (description taken from its website): ‘That Other Word is a collaborative podcast between the Center for Writers and Translators at The American University of Paris [which also publishes the ‘Cahiers Series’ of texts in association with Sylph Editions – this illustration is taken from one I bought and enjoyed] and the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. The podcast offers discussions on classic and contemporary literature in translation, along with engaging interviews with writers, translators, and publishers. Hosts: Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito.’ Although this podcast also has in-depth discussions on writers from across the world, there’s also professional consideration of the translator’s role and art.

Finally, to turn attention to podcasts which feature readings of fiction, I’d recommend the New Yorker‘s offering. The format is intriguing: a prominent contemporary writer chooses a favourite story published in the New Yorker magazine, reads it and then discusses it with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. A random selection of some recent gems includes Joshua Ferris reading Robert Coover’s ‘Going for a Beer’, Etgar Keret – Donald Barthelme’s ‘Chablis’, and Joseph O’Neill – Muriel Spark’s ‘The Ormolu Clock’.

Most of these podcasts last between 30 and 45 minutes — ideal listening when walking (or in my case, cycling) to work or driving down Desolation Row.

I’d love to hear what book podcasts you’d recommend – and maybe where and how you listen to them.