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Gaby Wood

Gaby Wood’s The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness was published by the LRB in 1998. She is the literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation.

Diary: How to Draw an Albatross

Gaby Wood, 18 June 2020

Before my appointment​ with the albatross, I’d planned to draw it differently. We first met through glass: the skeleton was in a cabinet in the museum, displayed on a high shelf. If you looked up and dodged the reflections you could see the curved sweep of its beak and the Z-shaped slashes of its vast folded wings. Diomedea exulans, the wandering albatross, was an improbable bird,...

‘In a Lonely Place’

Gaby Wood, 22 March 2018

What does it mean for a romance to take the shape of a murder investigation? In a Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray’s elegantly bitter film about damaged trust, throws that question at its viewers. If all love stories are inquiries of one kind or another, the movie seems to suggest, perhaps they differ only in their relative violence. When filming began, Ray was married to its female lead, Gloria Grahame; by the time it ended, they were living apart. Ray said it was ‘a very personal film’ – and as parting gifts go, it was both poisonous and immortal.

At the Imperial War Museum: Lee Miller

Gaby Wood, 17 December 2015

How​ close can you get? That seems to be the question Lee Miller’s war photographs are trying to answer. In theory, it’s the question behind any action shot, or any embedded reporting, but in Miller’s case it was especially wilful. The only cameras she took with her when she joined the 83rd infantry division of the US army, as it advanced across Europe in 1944, were...

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Gaby Wood, 4 June 2014

At​ the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a two-hour wait will get you ‘priority access’ to the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition. It’s available only to friends of the museum, members of the press, and those who bought tickets in advance and naively thought they’d walk straight in. As the American woman behind me remarked, it’s the kind of queue that would be generated...

In the centre of the room there are two skeletons. Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, faces the front. His skeleton, tainted brown because of the speed and secrecy of its preparation, is seven feet ten inches tall. So towering are the bones, and so impossibly hefty is their accompanying leather boot, that it’s easy to walk past without noticing the adjacent filigree form. Mounted at eye-level, with its back to you as you look at the giant, is the skeleton of Caroline Crachami: tiny, clean, almost transparent. It stands with the support of a metal rod, which is threaded along the spine and pokes out from the skull. The vertebrae could be beads in a large necklace, the ribs starched lace, the fingers fallen milk teeth. The height given for the whole is one foot ten and a half inches. The smallness and the proportion of the thing (an adult shape the size of a newborn) are breathtaking, and from the back it is possible to see the articulated ivories (the marionette shoulders, the butterfly hips) as a work of art, a windless mobile. But the view from the front makes its one-time personhood inescapable: bottomless eye-sockets, a dark triangle for a nose, a pointless smile.

Boxing the City

Gaby Wood, 31 July 1997

He was Primarily an archivist, but an archivist of a world that didn’t exist. He was a compulsive collector, a browser, cross-indexer. When he died the basement where he worked was full of cardboard boxes marked with labels like ‘stamps’, ‘maps’, ‘Dürer’, ‘plastic shells’, ‘glasses’, ‘cording’. He left a diary, which he called a ‘repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key’. And he left his art, wooden cabinets filled with what he considered to be the most felicitous combinations of those objects and images: photos of Lauren Bacall arranged to look as if they could be in a penny arcade, a Renaissance prince framed in a vending machine, a baby doll in a forest of twigs, a painted lady in a French hotel, marbles among the stars and ballerinas in the sky – each box a dreamed universe or fantasised cohabitation.’

My Mummy’s Bones

Gaby Wood, 24 April 1997

Towards the end of The Foundation Pit, our wandering hero pours a miscellany of inanimate objects onto the desk of the local Communist Party ‘activist’ and asks him to make an inventory of his findings.

A man has been mistaken for somebody else. He has been kidnapped, forced to drink a bottle of bourbon and sent off to meet his death in a stolen car. He survives, and decides it is time to get things straight. He bribes his way into the hotel room of the man he is supposed to be. On the table he finds a photograph of the person who tried to kill him the night before. In the bathroom he finds a ‘bulleted’ hairbrush – his double had dandruff. In the wardrobe he finds a suit. He takes off his impeccably tailored Hitchcock-grey jacket and pulls on the other man’s. He shrugs uncomfortably to make the collar sit, then lets his arm hang in mid-air as he stares with distaste at the shortness of the cuffs. He holds the trousers up to his waist. They couldn’t be less his style. Gangster bags with woven stripes and turn-ups – and they stop halfway down his shin. ‘Obviously,’ he exclaims, as if this were the worst injustice done to him, ‘they’ve mistaken me for a much shorter man!’’

I look at pictures of her and I just can’t see it. She’s elegant, composed, straight-backed. She’s in a tweedy suit on the beach, scowling at the sun, one hand in pocket, the other holding sunglasses, as if about to make some school-ma’amish point. She’s neat, both modern and quintessentially luxurious; dark hair pulled back into a bun, eyes like soft triangles, sweeping cheekbones, it is a sculpted head, a lukewarm, intelligent face. She might be an actress, a spy, a photographer.

Diary: On Gene Kelly

Gaby Wood, 21 March 1996

For years, all that passed across our TV screen was a series of grins. Harpo, Chico, Groucho, wide-eyed and cheesy, and, over and over again, Gene Kelly. There must have been other videos, programmes even, but all I remember are these movies my brothers and I gazed at as if we knew all about classics (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris) though for all we cared they could have been made the day before. We would rerun ‘Moses Supposes’ (Kelly and Donald O’Connor spinning and pinning down their elocution teacher in a tap dance of schoolboy naughtiness), ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (flu-defying splashes in puddles), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Kelly teaching French kids how to dance like aeroplanes and ‘chu-chu trains’), an instrumental in It’s Always Fair Weather (three soldiers crashing rhythmically around the streets with enormous trash-can lids on their shoes). It was an endless party, a crazy magic show set to music, and every so often Gene Kelly’s raised eyebrow, sidelong smile would open up his face like an upside-down wink.

Involuntary Memories

Gaby Wood, 8 February 1996

My great-grandfather’s watch did not confer immortality … it was proof against age and against all those processes by which we are able to say that a man’s time runs out, but it was not proof against external accident.

What did it matter who I was?

Gaby Wood, 19 October 1995

Richard Rayner’s The Blue Suit is a memoir, a work of non-fiction. In it his father dies several times: of cancer, in a car crash, missing presumed drowned and, finally, of a heart attack. He makes guest appearances in between, as a sick man in Scotland, as a diplomat in Australia, as a stepfather. These events all form part of a story, a sort of Arabian Nights of the confessional, in which Rayner admits his real life to his girlfriend (‘one confession veiling the next’), and the whole truth turns out to be a narration of the lies he has told.

Only Incognito

Gaby Wood, 6 July 1995

Of all the Hollywood beauties of her time, only Katharine Hepburn had the grace to be irritating. She was beautiful, but not always, her looks could change from shot to shot. She was oddly elegant, sometimes bouncy, sometimes brittle. She was mocking, brash, hoity-toity. What she never was, in her films, was silent. John Ford admired her ‘strange, sharp face’ which made Tennessee Williams think of ‘a medieval saint in a Gothic cathedral’. Her voice has been described as ‘nasal’, ‘metallic’, and by one biographer as ‘a cross between Donald Duck and a Stradivarius’. She has been nicknamed ‘Katharine of Arrogance’ and she reminded Tallulah Bankhead of ‘a New England spinster’. Humphrey Bogart, her co-star in The African Queen, was clear about his first impressions: ‘She won’t let anybody get a word in edgewise and she keeps repeating what a superior person she is. Later, you get a load of the babe stalking through the African jungle as though she beat Livingstone to it … About every other minute she wrings her hands in ecstasy and says, “what divine natives! what divine morning glories!” Brother, your brow goes up … is this something from The Philadelphia Story?’…

The Kiss

Gaby Wood, 9 February 1995

Jean Renoir was admired by his followers and contemporaries far the relaxed feel of his films. He himself loved the improvisatory quality of the Commedia dell’Arte, which he saw as a struggle between ‘the tendency toward exterior realism and that toward interior realism’, and wrote that what he considered to be ‘the ultimate in cinema as in theatre’ was ‘a style and dialogue that sometimes borders on the burlesque’. Much is left to chance, or a belief in happy coincidence: he wrote the script for La Règle du jeu as it was being filmed, bad weather turned Une Partie de campagne from a feature-length into a 40-minute film, and when a whole reel from La Nuit du carrefour was lost he screened it anyway. Yet none of these is ‘unfinished’.

Automata

Jonathan Rée, 9 May 2002

Descartes’s Meditations tells the story of six days in the life of a rather self-important, busy young man who has granted himself a short sabbatical. Quite a few years have passed, he...

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