Karl Miller

Karl Miller was the first editor of the LRB.

Northern Laughter: Macrone on Scott

Karl Miller, 10 October 2013

Students of the life and works of Walter Scott and James Hogg may have glimpsed the shadowy, not to say meteoric, not to say dubious presence of the publisher John Macrone, and learned of his prompt desire, after Scott’s death in September 1832, to write his Life, basing it to a large extent on rural informants. Here was the promise of a main event in the comet’s six-year visit to...

This book is preceded by two two-volume books that have been praised by journalists to the skies. They belong to a grand design, to a project set to tell the story of modern Britain (modern England as a rule) from 1945 to 1979; the present instalment, Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, covers the narrow gap from 1957 to 1959. David Kynaston tells the story in his own measured words, and he also...

Pouting: Smiley and Bingham

Karl Miller, 9 May 2013

John le Carré has now published 23 books, the Great Bear of that night sky being the series of novels lit by the round English gentleman, spymaster George Smiley, he who wipes his glasses with the thick end of his unfailing tie. Among the features of these spy stories is a concern with patriotism and uncertainty, not least with the uncertainties of patriotism. There are passages which...

On Thatcher

Karl Miller, 25 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher is the third most written about person in the ‘LRB’ archive, after Shakespeare and Freud. Here Karl Miller’s memories of the paper in her day are accompanied by extracts from some of the pieces published at the time.

On the morning Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, the lesser lights of television who were minding the shop did her proud. A river...

Gallivanting: Edna O’Brien

Karl Miller, 22 November 2012

‘They ran that woman out of County Clare,’ said one of the plain people of the West of Ireland, following the notoriety caused by Edna O’Brien’s fine first novel, The Country Girls, published in 1960. The notoriety was echoed in England: the last of England’s eminent Edwardian novelists, L.P. Hartley, described the novel, she has recalled, as ‘the skittish...

Eric Hobsbawm

Karl Miller, 25 October 2012

I am not an economic historian, which did not prevent me from being friends with Eric Hobsbawm for many years. It keeps me from opinionating here about his work as a historian, a more than economic historian, in fact, who wrote for a wide public. But it doesn’t stop me from writing about him in a personal way, with recourse to memories.

My first memory of him lingers in my cells as...

Stephen Spender was a visitor to the city of Hamburg both before the war and after, when he played a part in the work of occupation and recovery. He was well on his way to being the noted ex-communist poet, whose lyricism of the left spoke up in praise of pylons and the landing aeroplane, gliding over the suburbs, ‘more beautiful and soft than any moth’. It was in shattered...

Memories of Frank Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley, 23 September 2010

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and...

Diary: What is rugby for?

Karl Miller, 5 December 1991

By most of those who watched it, I imagine, the Rugby Union World Cup will be seen, now that the dust has settled, as a success, for all the aspects and episodes that there were to object to and quarrel over. But I doubt whether the same could be said of the discursive part of the ITV presentation of events. The party atmosphere which is sometimes thought by producers to be the thing on such occasions was given its head, and national sentiment ruled. The New Zealander David Kirk was first-rate: but the Scotsman too often talked through his kilt, and the Englishman proclaimed that he was absolutely sure that England would beat Australia in the final. At times it was like one of those ethnic jokes that people like to tell. There will never be a day when the national interest is invisible, or is reckoned to be invalid, in sport, but it is sad that it should have been obtruded to this degree, that the tournament should have been presented, by officials and by producers, as a Whitehall ceremony that was also a fairly jolly little world war. Much of this, admittedly, is, as they say, traditional, and I expect we shall have to go on looking at the players lined up like latex puppets to shake the toff’s hand and stare unflinchingly through the anthems. But perhaps New Zealand might one day be persuaded to drop that dubiously ethnic Maori war-chant: for a museum piece, it has a surprising capacity to sour the already fired-up, and it isn’t as if the All Blacks are as black as all that.

Agro’s Aggro

Karl Miller, 10 October 1991

Staten Island, New York, is a sombre place as islands go, but it has managed to cast some spells. Once upon a time there was a Prospero there in the shape of Marius Bewley, literary critic, Anglophile and Adlai Steven-sonian, who held court among his cats in a Gothic villa above the ferry terminal, where crowds would leave for work in their instalments, churning past the Statue of Liberty towards the Wall Street skyline. Many of these people were descendants of the weary masses summoned by Liberty from their hard times in Europe; and many of them have since been diverted across the Verrazano Bridge, by car, to Brooklyn. Up the road from Marius’s villa, moreover, in the years that followed, there came to live, with his Dobermans, a fairy godfather – of the kind that used to be seen as the immigrant’s friend – and in Marius’s time, too, there were indications, sounds and airs, that the black magic of the Mafia was known to the island.’

Literary Supplements

Karl Miller, 21 March 1991

Denis Donoghue has written a seductive book. Perhaps it could be said that he has spliced together two books, one of which is more seductive than the other. One of them narrates. The othes contemplates. Warren-point is a series of passages, not unlike journal entries, some of which deal with his youth in the Northern Irish seaside town of that name, and in particular with his awareness, and acceptance, of his father, while the others consist of the annotations of the professor and man of letters. I don’t mean to do as the Leavises did with Daniel Deronda and propose a Solomonic severance: let’s just say that many readers would he very sorry to lose the memories if it were to come to a cut.

Elephant Head

Karl Miller, 27 September 1990

Naipaul’s grandfather, a Hindu of the Brahmin caste, left India to work as an indentured labourer in the West Indies. In 1962, Naipaul went to India for a year’s stay which became a book, entitled An Area of Darkness. The title refers to what the country had been for him in his West Indian Hindu enclave. In 1977, India: A Wounded Civilisation appeared, in the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency: sombre thoughts were expressed about the country’s instability, its ‘intellectual vacuum’, its ‘fantasies of spirituality’. The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi were felt to offer no escape from ‘the present uncertainty and emptiness’. Both books have rankled with citizens of his ancestral country, and I have heard that he has lately been reported there as regretting some part of what he wrote about it in earlier times. An Area of Darkness is a literary travel book which seems now to taste of the British Fifties, to incorporate a Movement comedy of manners. It is markedly forthcoming both of himself and his opinions: he is no more loth than Salman Rushdie has sometimes been to give offence. He speaks of a ‘static, decayed society’. He says that he’d gone to India with a vague sense of caste and a Hindu ‘horror of the unclean’, and he emerges from the book a seasoned coprophobe: ‘Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.’ This Churchillian passage may be among his current regrets.

Diary: On the 1990 World Cup

Karl Miller, 26 July 1990

An article in the Independent of 10 July was headed with these remarkable words: ‘Patrick Barclay reflects on a World Cup which was largely lacking in drama, individual dynamism and moments to cherish in the memory.’ This is not a description of the World Cup that I have been watching. But it is a good description of the coverage of the football which was offered by Patrick Barclay, by other British journalists, and by experts and commentators who were heard from on television. The 1990 World Cup produced, as it was bound to, its disappointments, patches of dullness and travesties of justice. It was doubtfully regulated and often poorly refereed. But its best stuff was enthralling, and as an occasion in the history of the human race its interest was first-rate. No one team was a match for the Brazilians of 1970 and before, but the Italians were among the most skilful and beautiful sides ever to grace the world game: the true winners of the cup, in my opinion, let down at the last by a lack of aggression and brute force, and of the luck that was so lavishly bestowed elsewhere.

Great Portland Street Blues

Karl Miller, 25 January 1990

Boswell’s life of Boswell has reached its conclusion, this being the 13th in the series of journals brought out by the team responsible for the Yale Editions of his Private Papers. It opens two hundred years ago in London, during the winter of 1789. Frosty weather – the widower is warm against ‘the French insurrection’. Christmas Day takes him to church. Three years go by, and on the same day the same church receives him. ‘It vexed me that even on the festival of Christmas I was melancholy. I went with my son James to St George’s, Hanover Square, and had some elevation of heart in that hallowed dome. Saw Miss Upton at a distance’ – then back to the family turkey in Great Portland Street. The content of this last journal – previewed in the account of Boswell’s later life which was published six years ago by one of the present editors, Frank Brady – is the worse for its author’s frustrations, prostrations and despairs, interesting though he can sometimes make them appear; it conveys what can often seem like a bitter end for the likely lad from Ayrshire; Boswell’s last legs are apt to give way. Nevertheless, he gets up and keeps going, and keeps writing it down. Such states are his old friends, after all. The journal is no discouragement to supposing that Boswell’s life of Boswell is among the crown jewels of confessional literature.’

Diary: Ten Years of the LRB

Karl Miller, 26 October 1989

There are more of them now in London, more reviews, than there used to be. A welcome shake-up in the newspaper world has brought this about. New papers have occasioned a remarkable and continuing exodus of notable writers from the old ones, which have set themselves, in defence, to expanding their book sections, and may in desperation have to turn their hand to the task of discovering and developing new writers to fill their vacant spaces. It would be good if this were to send up the ratio of books reviewed to books published. But that won’t happen. Most books will remain unnoticed; the same small number will be reviewed, for a while, in a larger number of places. In all too many of these places there will simply be more of the customary rubbishing and rave. Few people can be looking forward to the dawn of a new respect for the judgments purveyed by reviewers.

Off Narragansett

Karl Miller, 28 September 1989

Paul Watkins’s novel and Patrick McGrath’s The Grotesque are second books by young British writers whose work has been well-received in America, to which, together with its surrounding seas, both of these writers have been drawn. Paul Watkins used, they say, to set off from Eton for spells on an oilrig, and after graduating from Yale he fished for three years off the New England coast, where this novel of his is located. Patrick McGrath’s father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital: he grew up nearby, and went on to write about criminal lunatics, and to spend a number of years on an island in the Pacific Ocean. The reader of their books is unlikely to forget these facts, but is also unlikely to forget that the adventurer and the recluse can be intent on marketing their words. All three of these entertaining books exhibit a professional writer, and the two McGraths could be called entertainments.

Tracts for the Times

Karl Miller, 17 August 1989

There can’t be all that many people who are willing, in the presence of others, to call themselves intellectuals. There may even be those for whom intellectuals are a fiction, like fairies. But most people would struggle to their feet to attest to their existence. ‘Intellectual’ is a word which is hard to use without irony or reproof; often, it is a slur, and it has often seemed to invite the qualification ‘so-called’ or ‘supposed’. An intellectual need not be intelligent, and may be a fool. We think of him as someone who has no religion, as someone who is concerned with ideas but unable to commit himself to any, or to do anything with them. There are intellectuals who have wished to change the world, and a very few who have managed to do so: but some intellectuals have been thought to have difficulty in changing their socks. Bertrand Russell, Paul Johnson reports, was unable to make himself a cup of tea. The term came to currency with the classifications employed in the Marxist sysem, and has been used to deplore the scarcity in this country of a certain someone supposedly thick on the European ground.

Diary: Football Tribes

Karl Miller, 1 June 1989

Football, and football violence, go back a long way in this country, to a distant past of tribal conflict – family against family, clan against clan, ain folk against the world. They are to be found in the Middle Ages among the fighting families of the Anglo-Scottish Border, as George MacDonald Fraser’s book The Steel Bonnets makes clear. His synonymous reivers, raiders or riders used to get off their horses and play the football that became soccer and rugby, and they were not afraid of a few fouls: ‘some quarrel happened betwixt Bothwell and the Master of Marishal upon a stroke given at football on Bothwell’s leg by the Master, after that the Master had received a sore fall by Bothwell.’’


Karl Miller, 2 March 1989

Studying the West Coast of Scotland from the yacht Britannia, the Queen is said to have remarked, not long ago, that the people there didn’t seem to have much of a life. James Kelman’s stories make clear what life is like in Glasgow, and what James Kelman’s life is like. They are not going to change the royal mind. This is the queen who was greeted, on a visit to a Scottish university, by the sight of a student emptying down his throat, at top speed, the contents of a bottle of alcohol.

Kingsley and the Woman

Karl Miller, 29 September 1988

A recent photograph of Kingsley Amis shows him with a cat – a hairy cat with arched back, which is manoeuvring in relation to the author’s typewriter. The author’s face wears a witch’s smile of appreciation. He is clearly familiar with and fond of that cat. The smile may have come as a surprise to connoisseurs of pictures of the author which have been issued to the world. These pictures, rarely cordial, have become more and more baleful: it is as if he is holding himself back from physical assault on a reader supposed to be a trendy and a lefty, which is, indeed, what many of his readers have always been. The smile contrasts, moreover, with the expression to be imagined on the face of the male lead, Patrick Standish, in Amis’s novel of 1988, Difficulties with girls, when the cat in Patrick’s life pays him a visit. You feel at first that on a bad day (there are quite a few) Patrick might give it one of the kicks that the novelist seems about to direct at his readers. Then it turns out that Patrick rather likes it after all. But then it turns out that the female lead, his wife Jenny Standish (née Bunn), unreservedly cherishes their cat. All this could suggest that Amis isn’t altogether sold on Patrick Standish.’

Levi’s Oyster

Karl Miller, 4 August 1988

The Italian writer Primo Levi died a year ago, on 11 April 1987, to the dismay of his readers, and The Drowned and the Saved may well be the last of his writings to be translated and reviewed in this country. There was a time when it must have seemed to many that he would never receive a bad review, or even a cross word. His first book, If this is a man, about his months in Auschwitz, and its sequel, The Truce, were hard to fault, and the successive publications of his middle age have been greeted by an admiration responsive both to his skills as a writer and to his character as a man. In October 1985, however, the chauvinistic American-Jewish magazine Commentary did succeed in performing the outlandish act of disparaging Levi and his books. ‘Alas,’ wrote Fernanda Eberstadt, a German-American, the later ones are inferior to the first two, and alas, the personal character freely imparted in his writings is flawed. ‘Reading Primo Levi’ is in some respects a strong essay. The later books are in large measure accurately described, and the experience of the assimilated Jew in Italy, where the Jews came to harm under Mussolini but where they were never the strangers they have been in several other countries, is summarised in a well-informed and pertinent fashion. At the same time, the article is tainted by what seems to be a desire to inflict damage on Levi’s reputation, of a kind which may be thought to serve the ideological tendency of the magazine in which it appeared.

Heroes of Our Time

Karl Miller, 19 May 1988

Suicide was thought damnable in the Middle ages, and I expect there are those who will be brought to feel by the first of these books that the Middle Ages had a point. The Monument commemorates a young couple who lived together for 17 years in a solitude à deux and who then took their own lives – incompetently and lingeringly. Representatives of the few people they had come to know in the course of their wanderings round the world were left to clear up. Suicide tends now to command sympathy, even when the reasons for it are hard to understand. Not everyone who reads the book will be able to sympathise with Justin and Ursula, or to believe that they understand them. But there will also be those who will stay with it for its relish of damnation.

Poor Toms

Karl Miller, 3 September 1987

Peter Ackroyd’s new novel has been caught in the Gadarene rush of fiction brought out in time for the Booker Prize deadline. It won’t be lost in this year’s profusion of titles, and it won’t be harmed by the published assurance of a colleague of his on the Times that it is ‘a sure contender’ for the prize. But it will also have to contend for the admiration of Ackroyd’s readers with its predecessor of 1985, Hawksmoor. These are books which do much to explain one another. Both books mingle old times and new times, and both give expression to fantasies of replication, with Hawksmoor a hard act to follow.

Diary: London to Canberra

Karl Miller, 25 June 1987

Roy Jenkins believes this to have been an insular election: it has also had more than its share of the infantilism of show business, and was one of the foulest and most name-calling for a long time. Government will now resume, promises will be kept and broken, and the keepers of official secrets will try some more of their dirty tricks, secure in the knowledge that this was an issue which was never to arise in the course of the election. This was one name that was never called. When it came out in America that covert actors had been set on by the President to circumvent the will of Congress, politicians of both parties, together with the maligned American media, managed to force the President onto the defensive, and, for once, into apology. Nothing of that kind has happened here. British secrecy is more secret than American secrecy. At the same time, it would appear to have been less culpable, in certain important respects, than that of several other countries. Across the world, government chicanery has risen to new levels. One aspect of this has to do with what happens when the clandestinity of government and the clandestinity of organised crime shake hands. What brings them together is the private enterprise of drug-smuggling, and the rewards and opportunities associated with that.


Karl Miller, 2 April 1987

Ghosts did not go out when electric light came in, though it could be felt at the time that this was bound to happen. They can look like a trick of the moonlight and candlelight of the past: and yet most of the pieces in the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories are taken from the well-lighted last quarter of the last century and first quarter of this one. Readers of this book could be excused for thinking that ghosts have been switched on to accompany, or to compete with, the illuminations of the modern world, that they are a relief from the exactions of reason. Ghost stories can look like a nostalgic game, a trivial make-believe, played when it was no longer widely held, by readers of books, that the spirits of the dead return to the land of the living – mopping, mowing, gibbering, giving their owl’s cries, causing the tapers to burn blue, sheeted, but never in any circumstances nude. The last of these superstitions is commemorated in a story by A.E. Coppard, chosen for the Oxford Book, in which a dressy female revenant performs a more than usually disappointing strip-tease. She is also taking part in a literary jeu d’esprit.’


Karl Miller, 5 February 1987

We live at a time when reporters go to foreign countries where there is trouble and come back to write books in which they say that it was hard to make out what was going on. When they say this, they are apt to be called writers, rather than reporters. Writers don’t know what is going on. But they can be very good at conveying what it was like to be there, and to be writing it down. An arch-priest of these mysteries is V.S. Naipaul, whose foreign countries figure as areas of darkness, where coups and crises are glimpsed but may remain inscrutable. Another is Ryszard Kapuscinski, an expert in what his new book calls ‘confusion’, who has attended 27 revolutions in the Third World. These revolutions, he believably reports, have been confusions. There he sat in his writer’s hotel room, venturing out into a series of tight corners, filing his copy, then leaving for Warsaw to compose his short books – objects physically slight but charged with these confusions. They are wonderfully done, and they have caused a stir of approval in this country, while also raising doubts. In a recent New Left Review Benedict Anderson made sharp criticisms of the work of the journalist and poet James Fenton in which a comparison with that of Kapuscinski was noted: you were left with the sense of two talented crisis-fancying literary tourists.’

Ariel goes to the police

Karl Miller, 4 December 1986

Revolution, literature and love, and the roads and side-roads which join them together, are concerns of Kundera and Klima, whose name is a further concern of Kundera’s, and is used for the uxorious philanderer of his novel The Farewell Party. With the arrival of these two Czech writers Central Europe’s roman à K has taken a new turn. There is a sense in which the hero of the latest of Kundera’s novels to appear in Britain is also the hero of Klima’s collection of stories. Revolution, and its betrayal by a regime which both prescribes and proscribes literature, are described in the literature to which both men contribute. Both are interested in the subject of remembering and forgetting. In the books they write, music is heard in country places – trumpets, fiddles, the cimbalom – and love shows its face in country hotels, pleasant places, set down beside a stretch of water.’

Diary: Balance at the BBC

Karl Miller, 9 October 1986

I don’t expect to forget Edgar Reitz’s 11 – part film Heimat, which ran like a river on BBC 2 in the early summer, and which tells the story of a family, and of a community, in the Hunsrück region of Germany over the years 1919 to 1982 – a long film for a long haul. Towards the end of that interval of time Reitz’s work became an object of hostility for the exhibitors of the German film industry: I gathered as much from an interesting Observer Profile, which also explained that, in making Heimat, this highbrow chose to ‘stick to hard facts’ and to ‘curb his “intellectuality” ’, directing it into a notebook, and which claimed that the film had restored a sense of the national past in delivering a tension between traditional ways and a ‘thrust for individual identity’ in the technological modern world. The Profile may have enlivened what I took to be a rather anaemic response to the film since it was first shown in cinemas in this country. My impression is that cinéastes shrank from it as from some sort of solid up-market soap opera, and that in being seen as unduly popular, it has failed to flourish. So much the worse, if so, for British audiences. Heimat strikes me as one of the most important events in the history of the cinema.

Poor Boys

Karl Miller, 18 September 1986

These are books by middle-aged semi-Scots who have chosen to publish accounts of their early lives which lay stress on the troubles they experienced, on the troubles inflicted by poverty and servitude, and on the responsibility of relatives for some of what the writers had to suffer. The question could be thought to arise of whether they are seeking revenge. Authors are not supposed to avenge themselves in their writings, but they do, and if they were to be prevented, there would be far fewer books. I am not confident that either book may be said to be well-written; that question, too, could be thought to arise. In Search of a Past affects not to be written at all – so much as researched, recorded and compiled. But the editorial method which is applied to the data has much to display that is well-spoken. They are both interesting books because they tell interesting stories, and are arranged to dramatic effect in interesting ways. Ralph Glasser’s is fresh from the oven, while Ronald Fraser’s appeared in 1984, gained a second impression last year, and is still being discussed. Juliet Mitchell has called it ‘a miniature masterpiece’, and it is a work which should have been discussed in this journal long before now, and would have been but for a miscarriage of plans. Growing up in the Gorbals, too, is liable to be called a miniature masterpiece. According to Chatto, it ‘may well become a classic of modern autobiography’.’

State-Sponsored Counter-Terror

Karl Miller, 8 May 1986

‘This has been an exceptionally serious debate,’ said Denis Healey on Wednesday 16 April, in contributing to the principal occasion on which the House of Commons gave its mind to the American air strike on Tripoli and Ben Ghazi, two days before, and to the Prime Minister’s decision – with the minimum of Cabinet consultation – to play the part of an ally by sanctioning the use for that purpose of bases in Britain. The best of the debate justified Mr Healey’s words of praise, and those of other participants. A high standard of argument was achieved, there was far less of the usual bombast, posturing and silly uproar, and the essential issue was identified. Little doubt was expressed about the atrocities of Gadaffi, his ‘state-sponsored terrorism’: the debate turned on whether or not the strike would protect the peace of the world, such as it is. At the same time, the debate produced plenty of contributions of a kind which helps, even more than the uproars, to explain the distaste widely felt for the behaviour of MPs – a distaste to which they would do well to give more of their minds than they appear to. And if most of the good discussion, from all sides of the House, took the same negative view of Britain’s part in the raid that was exhibited by two-thirds of the country in a subsequent poll, the House nevertheless voted to support Mrs Thatcher. One way and another, this was an occasion which set the authority and significance of the House of Commons in an equivocal light, and it is worth reviewing Hansard’s record of what was said.’

Andante Capriccioso

Karl Miller, 20 February 1986

The fame of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza became known to the work in which they appear. In discussing itself as it goes along, the work examines the question of their fame, and in the second of its two parts it even takes avoiding action in respect of its own apocryha. Their fame has lasted from that day – the first years of the 17th century – to this. Quixote, his squire, his adventures and enchanters, still matter; they are one of the legends of the romantic modern world.

Clarissa and Louisa

Karl Miller, 7 November 1985

One of these books is very long and the other is very short. Each in its own way is a wonderful piece of work. They stand at opposite ends of the century that runs from the 1740s to the 1840s, but they may be thought to bear each other out, in ways which affect an understanding of the family life of that time, and of its incorporation in the literature of Romanticism – that part of it, in particular, which is premised on conceptions of the divided or multiple self and can be referred to as the literature of romantic duality. One of the books is fiction – of a kind, however, which is often investigated for its affinity to fact; while the other records the facts and feelings and constructions of the biographer of a friend. The first is the more than a million words of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, whose first edition has been issued by Penguin in the guise of a slab of gold bullion. The second is by an admirer of Richardson’s novels, two generations later – Lady Louisa Stuart, whose Memoire of Frances Scott, Lady Douglas as she became, has been redeemed from the archives of the Border nobility, with the blessing of a former prime minister, Lord Home. The memoir appears to have been written at some point in the 1820s, and is addressed to Frances’s daughter in order to acquaint her with certain passages in her mother’s early experience of an anxious family life. Frances died in 1817, the year before Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian delivered its spectacle of an invincible female will. Louisa Stuart fancied that her friend Scott might have modelled his exemplary Jeanie Deans on her friend Frances. She seems to have been wrong: but it is never wrong to look for fact in fiction, and for fiction in fact.’

Memphis Blues

Karl Miller, 5 September 1985

There is an occasion in Sense and Sensibility when the three sisters go for a walk and perceive, in the distance, the coming-on of an interesting horseman. His approach casts something of the spell cast by that long take in the film Lawrence of Arabia where a mirage shimmers on the horizon and sways towards the watcher in the stalls to be read in due course as a man mounted on a camel. The sisters in Jane Austen’s novel perceive a single rider, whom they eventually distinguish ‘to be a gentleman’: but this, too, could be called a mirage. The occasion is almost over by the time we are able to gather that there have been two riders, one of them a servant. An invisibility of underlings is among the features of her fiction which might encourage one to think of it as grounded in the delineation, and in the perceptions, of a social class. No such grounding, no such principle of invisibility, can be found in Dickens.

Diary: On Doubles

Karl Miller, 2 May 1985

It is possible that C.J. Koch’s novel The Doubleman, which has just been published in London, will be reviewed as a pathfinding contribution to literary psychology. A clever and diverting book it certainly is – by the Tasmanian author of The Year of Living Dangerously, who now lives in Sydney – and it applies to established themes a new ambience and a new geography. It takes the double into a delirious realm of folk music, radio, television and the charts. The inhabitants of a land of Faery cut their discs and their capers dressed in Medieval costume; the Mersey sound is emulated by Sydney’s very own elf sound. But this is not a novel novel. It is a Gothic novel, which abides by a tradition of which the writer is learnedly aware, and which can lead him to telegraph his punches. Some of it reads like Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story, of a long time before, which ends up, as it happens, in Australia, with a kind of atomic-diabolic explosion.’

Diary: Sponsored by the Arts Council

Karl Miller, 24 January 1985

The Arts Council is weeding its garden. It is taking steps, as many institutions have had to do over the last few years, to effect economies and redundancies. Operas, orchestras, spectacles for the wealthy, as they might sourly be described, are unlikely to be much affected. But there are small papers, including this one, for which the small steps in question will seem like giant steps, for which they may spell the end of the road. We have been very grateful for the Arts Council’s encouragement. Together with the tremendous support which we have received from publishers, it has enabled us to build up a satisfactory circulation in the course of our five years’ existence, and to look forward to a further two-year period by the end of which we hoped to be in profit. If this public funding is to stop, we shall have to see whether we must do the same. This money is not all there is to our existence even as a commercial concern, but it matters.

Some Names for Robert Lowell

Karl Miller, 19 May 1983

Robert Lowell is not difficult to represent as the mad poet and justified sinner of the Romantic heritage. He is the dual personality who breaks the rules, kicks over the traces: he did this in the course of a series of manic highs which came and went from maturity, if not before, until the end of his life in 1977 at the age of 60. He goes up and he comes down. He was a man, as he said himself, of ‘tumbles and leaps’, a man of extremes, of moods and moments, and of the moment, of nerves, fresh starts and escapes, whose illness and convulsive life gained access to, if they were not inseparable from, an art nerved to resist them. He was a bear, a bull, a threat to those who knew him. ‘A born joiner,’ said his second wife, but more of a born leaver, a disjoiner and divorcer. He was a maker of poems but also their unmaker and negator, falling into a habit of revision which became a compulsion: so that the scholarship of his verse bears an element of anguish, which sends its shadow before it into the 21st century.

Lost Artist

Karl Miller, 4 November 1982

The painter Rory McEwen, who died on 16 October, was born, the fourth of seven children, on 12 March 1932. The family was Catholic, and his father a Conservative politician. His childhood was spent at the beautiful house of Marchmont, set in the storied countryside of the Merse in Berwickshire. The landscape is apparent if we go, as Rory did, to the work of another local talent, Alexander Hume, who flourished four hundred years earlier. In his poem, ‘Of the Day Estivall’, the natural world is seen in a state of trance:


Karl Miller, 21 October 1982

There were reports in the papers two years ago concerning identical twins, Freda and Greta Chaplin, who had been had up at York for making a nuisance of themselves, and who seemed like creatures in a fable. Infatuation with a lorry-driver had turned to hostility, and Hansel and Gretel had been hitting him with their handbags. These siblings were eventually sent to jail for a month: the defence found them inexplicable, and the magistrate found that ‘there is no other way of dealing with you.’ In and out of court, they were given to speaking ‘in unison’: ‘We won’t go, we won’t be separated.’ The press dearly loves a twin, and Neil Lyndon did a good piece on the harassment for the Sunday Times, in which he let us know that the lorry-driver was no oil-painting.

Diary: Conflict of Two Egos

Karl Miller, 3 June 1982

After a preliminary bombardment, a party of Conservative politicians has assaulted the BBC, enraged by its treatment of the Falklands crisis. Fierce fighting took place, but there was no loss of life, as a Ministry of Defence spokesman sepulchrally confirmed.

Dostoevsky’s America

Karl Miller, 3 September 1981

In 1979 there appeared Norman Mailer’s long book The Executioner’s Song – a thousand paperback pages, as it subsequently became, on the strange case of Gary Gilmore, the murderer who insisted on being put to death, insisted that the state keep its word. In March of the following year, in the London Review of Books, the book was examined at length by Christopher Ricks, whose piece was reprinted – at Mailer’s suggestion, or so I was told at the time – in the form of an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. The piece was laudatory – excited, even exalted: it argued for special qualities of sympathy and self-effacement on the part of a writer long thought of as richly self-advertising, which were held to impart a balanced view of the human realities that constituted the Gilmore story. I wondered at the time whether this praise of Mailer’s ‘magnanimity’ might not conceal, on the part of both writers, an infatuation with the murderer as victim, at the expense of those whom his misery leads him to destroy. Then I read the book. It is, as Ricks says, a masterpiece, and it was clear that the review was not reprinted just because it was favourable. It is a fitting homage to the work it examines.

Peeping Tam

Karl Miller, 6 August 1981

Robert Burns wrote about art, friendship, religion, animals, drink, marriage and love. The First two and the last of these themes – poetry, sociability and sexual adventure, to call them by other names – commemorate activities which enabled him in youth, as did his drinking, to face the prospect of a lifetime’s hard labour on the land. After just such a life, his own auld farmer addressed his auld mare in these words:

Death of a Poet

Karl Miller, 22 January 1981

I write this during the world silence which Yoko Ono has asked for in remembrance of her husband, John Lennon, murdered by a crazy fan. I can’t say I’m observing it, but I’m not ignoring it either. ‘The soul of Adonais, like a star’ is to concentrate the thoughts and lift up the hearts of the many people who mourn him. The idea of a silence seems a good one for Lennon. The communion of absent friends at some appointed hour – or, as it has often been, of parted lovers, who arrange to watch the Moon together – is a romantic practice which goes back a thousand years, to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and further still, and Lennon was a romantic artist, who helped to bring people together. In his departure can be seen the early death of a poet as this has long been known to the culture of romance.

Settling down

Karl Miller, 20 November 1980

‘Davies? Oh, he was a sort of natural, wasn’t he – like Clare?’ James Reeves’s Introduction to his Penguin anthology of Georgian poetry puts this absentminded question into the mouth of an unidentified intellectual of recent times. It refers to the author of the present book, who is also the author of the once-famous Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and of some six hundred poems. Young Emma is a sequel of sorts to the Autobiography, but it is a startlingly different performance. It will restore Davies, for a season, to the prominence from which he has fallen since his death in 1940, though there are others besides Reeves who have remembered him, and Old Mortality Larkin has removed the lichen from his grave with an ample display in the Oxford Book of 20th-century Verse. This posthumous fame, however, may prove to be of a kind Davies would not have welcomed. He was a strange person, and one whose interest in publicity blew hot and cold. This book is indeed the work of a natural, if by that we may mean someone who took to reading and writing as a bird to the wing, and who was a bit of a simpleton. In the supportive Introduction which he wrote in 1907 for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp George Bernard Shaw calls him an ‘innocent’. Davies – the wisest fool ever to escape from a dosshouse? The second of the autobiographies will cause some people to think of him as a holy fool rather than a wise one, while others will be quick to dispense with both adjectives.

Burke and Smith

Karl Miller, 16 October 1980

Sydney Smith and William Burke lived at the same time and in the same country: but at opposite ends of the spectrum of class, ends which rarely met, except in court. Such people were strangers to one another, foreigners, and could hate and suspect one another in the style that has been reserved for foreigners. Smith and Burke lived for a while in the same place, Edinburgh – the city of Calvin and caller air, of metaphysics and foul smells, according to Smith, who claimed, in a typical tease, that he had to detach a passer-by ‘blown flat against my door’ by the prevailing winds, and ‘black in the face’. The authors of these interesting books resemble their subjects in having themselves come to live in the city from, respectively, England and Ireland. The books can be said to stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of emotion. Alan Bell’s is cool, elegant, efficient, eminently printable, while the other smacks of excitement, adrenalin, and of an oral tradition. Smith is present in the Burke book, as an ideological partner of the Whig advocates who were briefed in the legal proceedings which followed the discovery of the Burke and Hare murders.


Karl Miller, 18 September 1980

Volume IV of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’ has all the fiction published between March 1888 and 1 January 1889, and it brings to an end Ronald Hingley’s nine-volume annotated translation of the plays and of a proportion, six volumes’ worth, of the stories. Mr Hingley has been taxed with the ‘layman’s’ question as to whether all the stories of this great writer were to be made available in English: he points out that most of the copious early fiction was written ‘for money’ and to suit the ‘numerous humorous magazines of the period’, and that the early work, from 1880, for all that it contains ‘not a few minor masterpieces’, has therefore been excluded. The case for treating Chekhov as one of the few acknowledged masters whose minor masterpieces, not to speak of his potboilers and shavings, laundry lists and every last word, need not be bothered with is hardly unanswerable: but it would probably carry weight even at the best of times for publishers, and it is unlikely to curtail the welcome extended to the ‘Oxford Chekhov’. The lay reader is bound to take pleasure in the present translations, though there are occasional infelicities, and the usual yokel difficulties with peasant vernacular. The editor explains how he has been helped by the Soviet Complete Collection of the Works and Letters in 30 Volumes, in which we can take for granted plenty of stomach for the numerous humorous early pieces. This edition started to appear in 1974 – too late for use in relation to previous instalments of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’, which were able, however, to draw on the 20-volume Moscow edition of 1944–51. Debts to these editions are not specified in the notes and appendices, both of which are brief; the latter largely consist of Chekhov’s own comments, as a rule disparaging, on particular stories.

The Whole Secret of Clive James

Karl Miller, 22 May 1980

A little over a year ago, a very good play was screened on BBC Television, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. A troupe of adult actors climbed into shorts and re-enacted the days of Potter’s youth – fights, ordeals, boasts, burnings, with an Indian file of girls manoeuvring in relation to the Indian file of boys, each brave or squaw as solemn as Sioux. It made eerie watching. You were taken back to your own youth, and the very awkwardness of those miming, patently impersonating full-bottomed adults seemed to contribute a frame to the experience, serving as the walls of the well at the bottom of which were your origins. You could taste what child’s play used to be like in the semi-countryside just beyond the boundaries of suburban settlement.

The first issue of the London Review of Books appeared on 27 September last year, and the present issue is the 14th we have produced. The journal was started when some newspapers were in abeyance, and others had taken to cutting back on the space allowed for the discussion of books. Publishing houses were rumoured to be in financial difficulty – such as Penguin, and Collins were presently said to have become ‘over-heated’ in Australia. Publishers were felt to be peculiarly exposed to the fortunes of the economy, and the country, for all its oil rigs, was felt to be keeling over. It is still felt to be keeling. But the absent newspapers have resumed. Publishing houses have righted themselves. And it is also the case that the whole British rig has yet to descend into the North Sea.

Taking sides

Karl Miller, 17 April 1980

In 1960, Auden completed his third decade as a poet with the volume Homage to Clio. By then, Charles Osborne writes, he was ‘widely regarded as among the few really great poets of the century’. No slur on the century seems intended here: part of what we mean by talking of great poets is that there are never very many of them about. But Mr Osborne goes on to mention that the poets Larkin and Gunn refused to kneel to the new collection. Larkin said of Auden’s progress that ‘almost all we value is still confined to its first ten years,’ that ‘the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has.’ Mr Osborne never engages with the implications of this opinion. But it is surely sound, and nothing Auden was afterwards to write required that it be amended.

Barbara Pym’s Hymn

Karl Miller, 6 March 1980

Several authors have died in the course of Britain’s current and by now customary hard winter. V.S. Pritchett writes, nearby, about one of them, and I would like to write about another – the novelist, Barbara Pym. To think of her in relation to a literary world, with its apparatus of publicity and reward, gives a sense of incongruity, but, of course, there’s a tale that hangs on the connection – the story of how this world turned from her in middle age, after her work of the Fifties, which was indeed ‘of the Fifties’ to a degree that was barely understood at the time. In the altered climate of the following decade she lapsed from book pages and publishers’ lists, but rose again, to fame, when readers were alerted to her fiction by the commendations of two admirers, Philip Larkin and David Cecil. Having been out, she became ‘the in-thing to read’, and reviewers rushed to praise the late novel Quartet in Autumn – now in paperback – as if it were a match for her early work.

Sound Advice for Scotch Reviewers

Karl Miller, 24 January 1980

The manuscripts of Henry Cockburn’s letters have been gathered together in the National Library of Scotland, where they cry out for a collected edition. When such an edition appears, they cannot fail to be recognised as a masterpiece of Scottish literature. I came, while engaged in writing a book about Cockburn, to love his letters, and I have even managed to love those which turned up too late for consideration in the book. A further letter has now arrived in the Library, from Canada.

Salim and Yvette

Karl Miller, 25 October 1979

The discussion of V.S. Naipaul’s new novel needs to refer to two in particular of his previous fictions. The novella In a Free State depicts – more accurately, glimpses or surmises – a coup in an emergent African country: in this respect, it is like the new novel. But the novel which immediately precedes the new one, Guerrillas, stands closer to it still. In Guerrillas, which is set in the Caribbean, the description of an emergent country’s state of emergency is combined with the description of a sexual relationship between two people of different races: the rebellion glimpsed there is mysterious, cryptic, the sexual relationship is fully lit.

The London Review of Books

Karl Miller, 25 October 1979

The London Review of Books is something new. This, for the first time, is it. The journal will appear fortnightly, with a summer layoff, and it will appear, for the present, marsupially or bisectingly, together with the New York Review of Books. Editorially, it will be separate and independent.

The writers we publish, and the writers and publishers whose books we review, will generally be...


Too extreme

11 July 1991

Karl Miller writes: When I was literary editor of the New Statesman, I was in the habit of publishing verse and prose by Sylvia Plath, and I came to know her a bit. When a selection of her last poems was sent, my first response was to consider her state of mind and to make enquiries. I was afraid she might take her life. Such is the tormented state of Plath studies that it is only to be expected that...
Karl Miller writes: If he can manage a letter like this, Bruno Nightingale should surely be writing for the Observer. It was once a great newspaper, and is still a good one. I don’t suggest that Neal Ascherson is snobbish, or that John Naughton is, or that the news pages are. But it has too much of its own kind of snobbery. It is far too interested in top persons, eminent politicians, media stars...

About Myself: James Hogg

Liam McIlvanney, 18 November 2004

On a winter’s evening in 1803, James Hogg turned up for dinner at the home of Walter Scott. The man his host liked to call ‘the honest grunter’ was shown into the drawing-room,...

Read More

Roaming the stations of the world: Seamus Heaney

Patrick McGuinness, 3 January 2002

In a shrewd and sympathetic essay on Dylan Thomas published in The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney found a memorable set of metaphors for Thomas’s poetic procedures: he ‘plunged into...

Read More

Disastered Me

Ian Hamilton, 9 September 1993

On the train, sunk on dusty and sagging cushions in our corner seats, Lotte and I spoke of our attachment to one another. I was as weak as I could be when I got off the train. We made our way to...

Read More

Being two is half the fun

John Bayley, 4 July 1985

‘The principal thing was to get away.’ So Conrad wrote in A Personal Memoir, and there is a characteristic division between the sobriety of the utterance, its air of principled and...

Read More

Adulterers’ Distress

Philip Horne, 21 July 1983

The order in which we read the short stories in a collection makes a difference. Our hopping and skipping out of sequence can often disturb the lines or blunt the point of a special arrangement,...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences