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Nicholas Spice

Nicholas Spice is the publisher of the LRB.

Diary: In the Isolation Room

Nicholas Spice, 4 June 2020

I was in the Whittington Hospital for just over a week: a night in A&E, sitting on a trolley waiting for a bed; two days in an isolation room on one ward; six days in an isolation room on another. The illness climbed quickly to its apex and then subsided in a straight line towards recovery, although two months after symptoms first appeared, I am still not quite myself. I guess I should say that the experience was traumatic, but it was more Traum than trauma. Events took on a certain gratifying theatricality, rather as they do in dreams. I watched myself as the protagonist of an enthralling drama, even as I experienced it as acutely uncomfortable, lonely and, at times, frightening. To be a patient is to be a solipsist: for a while, the world revolves around you. This is why being ill as a child was so special – I had my mother to myself. And it was to childhood that I reverted throughout my time with Covid. 

Debussy’s Mission

Nicholas Spice, 24 October 2019

He understood that, in our minds, music and nature are connected through a web of metaphors of movement, that we animate nature and music through the third term of language: the light dances on the sea, the music heaves like water. At the same time, he was captivated by the states of mind and body elicited by nature: intimations, fleeting impressions, elusive sympathies, but also feelings of exhilaration with life. One way to think about Debussy’s music is as an invitation to attention: at its most rapt, his music seems itself to listen, and the act of listening to which it draws us becomes the value of which it speaks – its ‘content’.

On Loathing Rees-Mogg

Nicholas Spice, 21 February 2019

Brexit will give us back control of our borders. For the person who is temperamentally safer at home than abroad, this makes sense and can only be good. But for me the UK Border is a threat not a reassurance. Theresa May presumably felt a deep affinity with the Border Force when she was home secretary. She’s someone who likes things to be well defined. She has her red lines. She’s the exception to the adage ‘Nomen est omen’: she should have been called Theresa Must.

Little Mr De Quincey

Nicholas Spice, 17 May 2017

How he didn’t buckle under the weight of his circumstances, how he remained unbroken by such pain and loss, how, despite it all, he kept writing, would seem almost a miracle of fortitude were it not for the suspicion that his creative life required him to live on the cusp of ruin, to the extent even of an unconscious calibration of misfortune with productivity.

At Tate Modern: Agnes Martin

Nicholas Spice, 9 September 2015

Agnes Martin​’s lifelong dedication to simplicity of mind was perhaps made easier (it was certainly not impeded) by the faint trace of simple-mindedness in her nature. Had she not had about her a touch of the holy fool, the strange and specialised soul of a secular saint, her life and work would not have attained its compelling singularity. She famously said that the artist should...

Marlen Haushofer

Nicholas Spice, 18 December 2014

Among​ the leading Austrian writers of the postwar period, Marlen Haushofer is an unobtrusive presence. Where Bachmann and Bernhard, Handke and Jelinek all in their time achieved international recognition, Haushofer hung back, failing to take the chance, when it came, to break beyond Austrian borders, and, at her untimely death (she died of bone cancer in 1970, three weeks short of her...

Is Wagner bad for us?

Nicholas Spice, 11 April 2013

In one of the European galleries at the British Museum, there’s a bronze medal of Erasmus made in Antwerp in 1519 by the artist Quentin Metsys. A portrait of Erasmus in profile is on the front of the medal. On the reverse, the smiling bust of Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, and the words ‘concedo nulli’ – ‘I yield to no one.’ It’s said that Erasmus kept a figurine of the god Terminus on his desk. He wrote: ‘Out of a profane god I have made myself a symbol exhorting decency in life. For death is the real terminus that yields to no one.’

Peter Carey

Nicholas Spice, 5 August 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America is the singular and surprising offspring of an unlikely coupling between two different novels: one, a fantasia on Tocqueville’s travels in America in 1831, the other a picaresque romance about an Englishman called John Larrit (known as Parrot for his talent as a mimic) who is suddenly and brutally torn from an idyllic childhood as the son of an itinerant printer in late 18th-century Devon and transported to Australia, where he grows up to become a topographical artist and engraver. The novel announces its hybrid nature in its title.

Dull Britannia

Nicholas Spice, 8 April 2010

In 1954, at the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for homosexuality, the counsel for the prosecution, G.D. ‘Khaki’ Roberts (‘fruity-voiced, with a bottle of bright pink cough mixture always at hand’), put it to Peter Wildeblood, one of the co-defendants, that his lover Edward McNally was ‘infinitely his social inferior’, as though this social miscegenation...

The Interment of Elisabeth Fritzl

Nicholas Spice, 5 June 2008

On 1 May, only five days after news broke that a 73-year-old man, Josef Fritzl, had immured one of his seven children, his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth, in a specially fortified cellar under his house in the small town of Amstetten in Lower Austria, and kept her there for 24 years, abusing her persistently and fathering seven more children on her, Elfriede Jelinek, Austria’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, posted a short essay on her website under the title ‘Im Verlassenen’. It begins: ‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal. The performance takes place in the very much smaller cellar dungeon in Amstetten – daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed … Performances are all there can ever be.’

Hanif Kureishi

Nicholas Spice, 10 April 2008

Sometimes what is left out of a poem or a story creates a more arresting sense of reality than what is left in. Keats’s poetic fragment ‘This Living Hand’ ends with the hand thrust towards the reader: ‘See here it is/I hold it towards you.’ The poem’s rhetoric conjures a space in which the spectral hand appears like a hallucination, hovering somewhere...

This brief, disconsolate and in certain respects disagreeable novel starts with the funeral of the anonymous (eponymous) hero and ends with his death. The circularity in the narrative is a powerfully expressive feature of a book whose formal intricacy could be thought the most interesting thing about it. Of course, we only fully appreciate the novel’s structural virtues once we have finished reading it, and if we came to it fresh from the invigorating experience of Sabbath’s Theatre or the American Trilogy or The Plot against America, and were hoping for something less well-behaved than structural virtue, we will have had a lot of adjusting to do. Resolute about facing up to the bleakest facts of the human condition (the progressive deterioration of the body, the miseries of illness, the humiliation of old age and, at the end of it all, death’s unrefusable invitation to oblivion), Everyman defines itself in Roth’s ebulliently productive oeuvre precisely by what is missing from it of his irreverence and vitality.

Wild Analysis

Nicholas Spice, 8 January 2004

“To be moved by Desdemona’s death we must in one way believe in it totally, while knowing that it would be absurd to leap onto the stage and stop Othello suffocating her. The child who knows that Father Christmas is his father but does not allow this knowledge to spoil his belief in Father Christmas does the same thing as an adult at a play or a patient in psychoanalysis. The complication for the patient in analysis, however, is that he himself is acting in the play; and his difficulty is that he is both Bottom and the ass.”

John Marsh

Nicholas Spice, 18 May 2000

An item in the 11 May 1889 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, quoted by Ruskin in a footnote to Praeterita, reports ‘extraordinary’ events in some allotments in Leicester. Every evening for several days a nightingale has been singing in a thorn bush above the mouth of a railway tunnel on the Midland mainline, attracting so large a crowd of listeners (some of whom have stayed regularly until the early hours of the morning) that the Chief Constable has seen fit to draft in a number of policemen ‘to maintain order and prevent damage’.‘

From The Blog
25 September 2012

For 33 years, all LRB subscriptions outside North America have been ‘fulfilled’ from our London offices. But from this week that will change. Our fulfilment software has come to the end of its useful life (it happens to us all, sooner or later) and there are no suitable subscription fulfilment products to replace it. So, from now on, subscribers will be cared for by data operators and customer service staff at an excellent company in Northampton, the fairly recently established UK subsidiary of the German firm DSB AG. The shutting down of our own system feels quietly momentous.

From The Blog
16 November 2010

Judging by the number of hits on her YouTube clips, the 23-year-old Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili can scarcely be called a discovery, but, when I chanced on her for the first time the other day on Radio 3, her playing came as a revelation to me. She was in the middle of the Schumann C major Fantasy, playing it as if it really meant something to her, and the sense of release in the flow of musical energy was wonderful, creating great emotional intensity without any distortion to the architecture of the piece.

Dreaming of Vikram Seth

Nicholas Spice, 29 April 1999

I met Vikram Seth by chance, he met me by mistake. He sat down next to me at an occasion he had never meant to attend. It was 6.45 p.m. on Thursday 25 March at the Royal Society of Literature in Bayswater. Seth had come to hear a friend of his read. I had come to hear the Minister for the Arts describe the Government’s support for literature. At 7 p.m., as the Minister began to speak, Seth looked nonplussed and started for the door. It was too late, he was trapped.

A Very Low Birth Rate in Kakania

Nicholas Spice, 16 October 1997

There is only one baby in The Man without Qualities. Her mother is Rachel, maid to Ermelinda Tuzzi who is the wife of Section Chief Tuzzi, a bureaucrat in the service of the Imperial Austrian Government in Vienna. The year is 1913:

Music Lessons

Nicholas Spice, 14 December 1995

I notice that I often hold back from Mozart’s music. When I listen to the opening of Haydn’s Creation – the ‘Representation of Chaos’ – I do not inhibit my feelings. Yet the opening of Mozart’s Dissonance String Quartet (K.465, in C), which, as Maynard Solomon intimates, may partly have inspired Haydn’s vision of loss, leaves me comparatively unmoved. And it is the same with the String Quintet in G minor (K.516) and the Fantasy in C minor (K.475) and the B minor Adagio (K.540). In the face of these pieces I am like Coleridge gazing at the stars and the crescent moon in the western sky: ‘I see them all so excellently fairy/ I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!’’

Hubbub

Nicholas Spice, 6 July 1995

Around eleven o’clock on Monday morning, I phone Dell Computers to query an invoice, but the accounts department is engaged, so I get put through instead to the development section of the first movement of the New World Symphony. The music I intrude on is intense and self-absorbed. I am like a child in a children’s book who has stumbled through a gap in reality and fallen headlong into another world. I pick myself up and follow Dvorak’s gangly, adolescent theme as it strides from instrument to instrument and key to key on its way home to the tonic. I think of it as healthy, wide-eyed and affirmative, trumpeting an ingenuous faith in energies which will lead to a new world far braver than any Dvorak might have imagined, the world of Dell Computers in Bracknell, of fax-modems, of the Internet, of telephones capable of pouring Dvorak’s impassioned certainties into the ears of office workers on humdrum Monday mornings.

Inspector of the Sad Parade

Nicholas Spice, 4 August 1994

The Gulf of Paria, Naipaul’s mediterrnanean, lies between the coast of Venezuela and the island of Trinidad. The water is almost encircled by land, with only two outlets to the wider ocean. Here, on the Venezuelan side, close to the mouth of the Orinoco, the Destiny lay at anchor, while on board Raleigh watched for the outcome of his last doomed expedition to discover El Dorado. Two hundred years later, across the Gulf in Port of Spain, the exiled revolutionary Francisco Miranda languished for a year, as hope of relaunching his invasion of Venezuela dwindled and with it his credibility and self-respect. Raleigh and Miranda: ‘obsessed men, well past their prime, each with his own vision of the New World, each at what should have been a moment of fulfilment, but really near the end of things, in the Gulf of Desolation’.

Tucked in

Nicholas Spice, 24 February 1994

In Fima the asymmetry in relations between men and women is presented with indulgent humour and excessive sensitivity, and from a predominantly, if not dominatingly, male viewpoint. Oz’s treatment of the theme is ragged and passionate, discursive and repetitive. This is inevitable given that the novel is almost entirely entrusted to a single character, Efraim Nomberg Nisan (known as Fima to his friends), whose profligacy with words and speculation and sympathy is a symptom of his constitutional inability to contain himself. Everything in Fima’s personality tends to spill over. Usually there are women around to wipe up.

‘Ruth gave the Prime Minister as a Christmas card an old map of the Broadstairs area of Kent.’ The Prime Minister thanked her for it, writing from Chequers ‘in his own hand’. In his 1970-74 diaries Cecil King records a warm relationship between his wife, Dame Ruth Railton, and Edward Heath. ‘I think he is fond of her,’ he wrote on 6 March 1971 after Ted had been round for tea, ‘and finds the friendship of an intelligent and musical woman, with no possible axe to grind, very welcome.’

I hear, I see, I learn

Nicholas Spice, 4 November 1993

The question of how we are to take Iris Murdoch’s characters (indeed, whether we can take them at all) is raised, even before we get to know them, by their names. In The Green Knight we have to contend with Lucas and Clement Graffe, Harvey Blacket, Bellamy James and his dog Anax, the Anderson women – Louise and her daughters Alethea (Aleph), Sophia (Sefton) and Moira (Moy) – Emil and Clive and the Adwardens. A reader alert to social differences will find such names far from neutral. An odour of class hangs about them. As emphatically as Tracy or Darren, Sharon or Keith, Bellamy, Alethea, Lucas and Clement map out a distinct social territory. It lies in pockets of Hampstead and Barnes, in Oxford north of St Giles or on Boar’s Hill, where large families live in rambling old houses full of innocent laughter and fun, and favourite aunts and uncles and friends of the family come for lunch on Sunday, and amiable dogs bound about answering to clever names. Mama and Papa are perhaps academics (although Mama can be just lovable), and everyone is frightfully well educated and intelligent. By the age of six the children enjoy Beowulf and Greek myths. At eight they devour Dickens. By 12 they have read most of Shakespeare. Television is anathema to them; audio, video and disco just Latin verbs.’

Thick Description

Nicholas Spice, 24 June 1993

To write simply is always to seem to write well. Bad writing is usually identified with over-writing: too many adjectives and adverbs, flowery figures of speech, verbosity. No one is ever accused of under-writing. Yet the unadorned prose which often passes for good writing these days could aptly be described as under-written. The sentences which open several of the pieces in Granta’s much trumpeted Best of Young British Novelists are plain to a fault. ‘Andy runs across the ice,’ ‘I had no time for vices,’ ‘Lisa was meeting her father for supper,’ ‘He didn’t like attending County Hall,’ ‘The first person I was in love with was called Mark Lyle’ – all these sentences could have been written by the same person, the person who wrote ‘Frank drops me off outside the sisters’ flat,’ ‘You could hear the kids yelling in the pool,’ ‘I could hear kids on the waste ground behind me,’ ‘The travel-agent smoked in the empty church’ – first sentences, by different writers, from an anthology of new fiction published last year by Faber.’

Darkness Audible

Nicholas Spice, 11 February 1993

Among the minor characters to appear in this biography, the least important (he only gets two sentences) is a manservant whom Britten employed early in 1950, just before starting work on his opera Billy Budd. The man, who is not named, went mad. He believed he was a great composer and that Britten was his servant. In the middle of the night, he would come downstairs at Crag House, in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, where Britten was living at the time, and play crashing discords on the piano. Eventually, his mother came and took him away.

Diary: Karl Miller is leaving

Nicholas Spice, 5 November 1992

Karl Miller’s decision to resign from the London Review of Books is a sad moment for the magazine which, with Mary-Kay Wilmers and Susannah Clapp, he founded in 1979. In all important respects, the present character of the London Review was established then, in the closing months of 1979 and the first months of 1980, even though it appeared as an insert in the New York Review of Books. I can well remember the experience of reading those early issues, usually at dinner, solitary in some Northern European hotel, on trips as a sales rep trying to flog novels to the Norwegians or poetry to the Finns. The LRB was a wonderful companion, and the impact it made on me was of a new voice in serious journalism pitched subtly between the slightly stuffy intonations of the TLS and the too easy drawl of the New York Review with its tendency to long-windedness unleavened by wit. The voice of the LRB seemed sharper and more quirky, never coming quite from the expected direction.

Ways of being a man

Nicholas Spice, 24 September 1992

Can a penis sleep like a sea horse? The question arrests us on the first page of The English Patient:

How to play the piano

Nicholas Spice, 26 March 1992

It’s unfashionable these days to play Bach on the piano. This, plus the fact that the authentic piano repertoire is Classical and Romantic, makes it easy for us to forget that the piano is above all a polyphonic instrument. No other keyboard instrument permits such subtle differentiation of parts (voice-leading, as it is called) through variation in the intensity and tone colour separately allotted to them. Yet it was possible for Alfred Brendel to remark in 1976: ‘pianists are about to lose the skill of “polyphonic playing”, once held in high esteem, a loss that makes itself felt not only in Bach, and not only in dense contrapuntal structures.’ He was discussing ‘Bach and the Piano’ in a dialogue reprinted, with a short reflective coda written in 1989, in his most recent collection of essays, Music Sounded Out. It is typical of the slightly unfocused nature of Brendel’s thinking that he should make the telling observation that pianists are about to lose the skill of polyphonic playing, and then fail to register its true, indeed its devastating significance, allowing it to be a matter of taste (‘once held in high esteem’) and of only slight or partial misfortune (‘a loss that makes itself felt’). For if in 1976 pianists really were about to lose the skill of polyphonic piano-playing, then to all intents and purposes the skill of playing the piano was at an end.

Unfair to Furtwängler

Nicholas Spice, 5 December 1991

The special venom we reserve for collaborators has something defensive about it, as though we reviled them so as to separate ourselves from them, warding off the fear that in their situation we might have acted as they did. Trial of Strength is written in the conviction that those who have never known the dilemmas of the subject in an occupied state, are in no position to judge those who have. He that is sure he is free from sin, Prieberg seems to say, let him cast the first stone.

Thatcherschaft

Nicholas Spice, 1 October 1987

A Labour victory in the 1987 British General Election would have been a good thing for The Book and the Brotherhood and a disaster for The Child in Time. As it is, with Mrs Thatcher set to complete at least 13 years in office, Iris Murdoch may now be thought to look a little out of touch with the times, addressing herself to a danger – the destructive beauty of the fanatic left-wing soul – that we have, for the time being at least, left behind. Meanwhile McEwan, setting his novel several years into the future of the Thatcherite epoch, that timeless ‘on and on’ of which our leader herself has spoken, seems especially prescient and up-to-the-minute. Such are the risks of writing political fiction in democratic societies. In this instance, McEwan stood to lose far more than Murdoch has in fact lost.’

Looking after men

Nicholas Spice, 9 July 1987

A novel may have a coherent plot, passably differentiated characters, fluent dialogue, passages of well-turned prose, and still be worthless if it isn’t also about something that matters. In this respect, the contemporary British novelist has a hard time of it, coming to the form when so much has already been said, when the necessary subjects have already been turned into novels many times over. For the African or South American, Indian or Australian novelist, it is easier to command attention, especially in the European market, where ignorance makes the reading of non-European novels a matter of basic education.

The Things about Bayley

Nicholas Spice, 7 May 1987

There is a certain kind of knowledge – perhaps the most important – that cannot be explicitly taught or diligently learnt. For example, a tribe of Indians on the river Xingu lives on the water. Their houses are built on stilts in the swamps and the inhabitants move from place to place by boat. The survival of the tribe depends on good boats, and the chief task of the men is to make them. The art is handed down from father to son, but without any direct instruction. The boys learn it from the men by watching them, by being around when the boats are being built.

Underparts

Nicholas Spice, 6 November 1986

Readers of John Updike’s previous novel, The Witches of Eastwick, will not have forgotten Darryl Van Horne’s bottom: how, at the end of a game of tennis, Darryl dropped his shorts and thrust his hairy rump into his partner’s face, demanding that she kiss it, which she did. In Roger’s Version the roles are reversed. Now it is a young woman – Verna Ekelof – who exposes herself. She is standing only a few inches from where her uncle, Roger Lambert, is sitting, so that when she lifts her skirt above her un-underpanted thighs, he finds himself face to face with ‘her pubic bush’, which he describes as ‘broad, like her face’, and, a moment later, as ‘a sea urchin on the white ocean floor’.’

Open Book

Nicholas Spice, 4 September 1986

Shmuel Yosef Czaczes, one of the finest writers of the 20th century, was born in 1888, in Buczacz, a small town in Galicia. Take out a large atlas and look up Buchach. You will find it in the Ukraine, about a hundred miles east of Ivano-Frankovsk (formerly Stanislav) and two hundred miles south-east of Lvov (formerly Lemberg). To the south-west lie the Carpathian mountains, and beyond them Transylvania. To the west and north, the eastern borders of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. To the north and east, the vast expanses of the Ukraine and of White Russia. At the back end of Eastern Europe, well this side of the Russia that tourists are allowed to visit, Galicia is now a forgotten zone, a part of old Europe whose existence we are not aware of and do not even know that we are not aware of. Perhaps it was always like that. In 1888, when Galicia still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the citizens of cosmopolitan Vienna must have looked on it as the ultimate backwater. It is where A Simple Story is set, most of the novel taking place in Szybusz – Buczacz in disguise.

Images of Displeasure

Nicholas Spice, 22 May 1986

Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chairman, was displeased by television coverage of the American attack on Libya. British public opinion had swung so decisively against the raid, he said, because of the pictures people had seen on their television sets. Not pictures of bombed-out military installations, which would have been all right, but pictures of dead and wounded civilians. Pictures, in fact, not unlike those pictures of Mr Tebbit which became emblematic of the Brighton bombing two years ago, and which doubtless did a lot to turn the public against the justice of that assault too.

Worlds Apart

Nicholas Spice, 6 March 1986

As a biology teacher at a large comprehensive school, my sister was given the job of taking the second-formers for sex education. To unblock inhibitions in the first lesson, she decided on a mild form of aversion therapy: covering the blackboard with taboo words, words normally out of bounds in the discourse between a teacher and her twelve-year-old pupils. She tried to include everything likely to embarrass them. But a small boy, anxious for the completeness of the inventory, put up his hand. ‘Please, miss,’ he mumbled, ‘you’ve missed something out.’ Scanning the shameless lexicon on the board and wracking her brains for obvious omissions, my sister asked the boy what he was thinking of, but no amount of persuasion would get him to say. After the lesson, when his peers were gone, he managed to tell her what he had in mind. ‘Breasts, miss,’ he hissed, ‘breasts’.

Ashes

Nicholas Spice, 19 December 1985

‘Il Figlio dell’Uomo’, ‘The Son of Man’, an essay by Natalia Ginzburg written in 1946 for the paper Unita, begins: ‘There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by.’ Thirty-six years went by and in 1982, in Holland, Harry Mulisch published De Aanslag, a novel in which Anton Steenwijk, aged 12, watches his family home, the house he has grown up in, reduced, in a matter of minutes, to rubble, by the action of a couple of German grenades and a flamethrower. Standing around in the dark and the cold, ‘laughing and talking’, members of the Grüne Polizei warm themselves at the fire that is consuming Anton’s world, where only a moment earlier, quiet and secure, he had been playing ludo with his mother and brother before going up to bed. As the house collapses ‘under a fountain of sparks as high as a tower’, Anton hears a burst of machine-gun fire. He never sees his mother and father and brother again.

Take that white thing away

Nicholas Spice, 17 October 1985

‘A novel must be a house,’ wrote Iris Murdoch in 1960, ‘fit for free characters to live in.’ The Good Apprentice carries within it an apt image of itself as a house. Seegard stands in a coastal fen within sight of the sea. Architecturally it is singular and original, the creation of Jesse Baltram, an artist of disputed greatness who specialises in paintings with a heavily symbolic content. ‘A long high almost windowless building’ connects at one end to something that looks like an 18th-century house, and at the other to a tall, hexagonal, concrete tower. From the outside, Seegard is a ‘weird-looking object’ with features that can only be understood when one has explored it thoroughly from within. From a distance, it is hard to ‘read’:

An Outpost of Ashdod

Nicholas Spice, 1 August 1985

Of all the raw deals meted out in the Bible – not excluding Job’s or that blighted fig tree’s – Moses surely suffered the meanest. After all he had gone through for Yaweh and the Chosen People, his exclusion from the Promised Land within sight of it was cruelly unfair. Or so it seemed to my child’s mind, as repeatedly in Scripture classes and Sunday school we rehearsed the story of the Exodus, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness and the entry of the Children of Israel into the Land of Canaan. My sense of solidarity with the patriarch, in which I am sure I was not alone, was mixed with awe that this sort of thing could happen to grown-ups too, and behind that a dim perception that perhaps it was in the nature of promised lands and the bid to reach them that they should entail a high vulnerability to disappointment and dashed hopes. Clearly, growing up was no solution, unless growing up meant putting by such longings altogether.’

Costa del Pym

Nicholas Spice, 4 July 1985

In a letter to Robert Liddell dated 12 January 1940, Barbara Pym speaks well of her progress on a new novel, Crampton Hodnet, which she finished later that year, but which has only now surfaced for publication: ‘It is about North Oxford and has some bits as good as anything I ever did. Mr Latimer’s proposal to Miss Morrow, old Mrs Killigrew, Dr Fremantle, Master of Randolph College, Mr Cleveland’s elopement and its unfortunate end … I’m sure all these might be a comfort to somebody.’ As well, it seems to me, call The Rite of Spring restful or Guernica entertaining as expect Crampton Hodnet to administer comfort.

Phattbookia Stupenda

Nicholas Spice, 18 April 1985

With the publication of his latest novel, Illywhacker, the author of The Fat Man in History has secured himself a prominent place in the history of the fat book. If you’re not normally a fat book reader, you mustn’t be outfaced by the fatness of Illywhacker, nor by the price, which is hardly a fat book price, especially when the fat book is as comely as this one. Indeed, all the signs are that this is a book the publishers believe in. They’ve put their production values where their blurb is, printing the book on paper likely to outlast the century, and binding it so that you can prop it open on the breakfast table without breaking the spine or knocking over the lemon curd. They must think they’ll sell a lot. They’re right, and their salesmen won’t need to be illywhackers.

Forgetting

Nicholas Spice, 7 February 1985

Anyone who has had experience of the sad and subtle ways in which human beings torment one another under licence of family ties will appreciate the merits of A.B. Yehoshua’s A Late Divorce. The public for the book should therefore be large. Yehoshua is an Israeli writer writing about Israelis (the action of A Late Divorce takes place in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem one spring in the late Seventies), so only those readers with an intimate feeling for life in modern Israel will be able to measure fully the accuracy and depth of the book’s portraiture. But the reach of Yehoshua’s satiric talent extends far beyond his immediate subject-matter. If his characters are typically Israeli, they are also typically human. Whether they verge at times on being stereotypically so is open to argument. That, after all, is the great danger in writing satire, and I am not clear that Yehoshua has entirely avoided it.

Arsenals

Nicholas Spice, 18 October 1984

It can’t be doubted that On the Perimeter and The Witches of Eastwick are quite different kinds of book. They were destined to be sold, reviewed and read separately. They have fallen together here by chance and a certain editorial logic, and though at first they appear strange bedfellows, they turn out to breed fruitfully with one another. They should be bought and read together, for they are both in their different ways texts for (and perhaps of) the end of time, books of the Apocalypse. Between them they raise many important issues about the nature of men and women and the nature of nature: On the Perimeter by virtue of a chilling subject-matter fixed with a steady eye, The Witches of Eastwick through the potency of John Updike’s imaginative release.

Sensitive Sauls

Nicholas Spice, 5 July 1984

Thirty hours’ drive west of Chicago, out beyond the Dakotas, on the far side of Montana, you come to Red Lodge – a small cowboy town at the foot of the Rockies, special in nothing except a single neglected curiosity: an opera house, built on a modest scale in the grandest late 19th-century style. Boarded up and crumbling, quizzical caryatids (Fin-de-Siècle Viennese, half-laughing, half-weeping) silhouetted against the big blue sky, this diminutive Staatsoper tells the story of how prosperity, moving westwards, flared for a moment in Red Lodge, Montana, supporting European cultural pretensions at the far edge of the Great Plains. A sort of meta-relic of Western civilisation, the opera house in Red Lodge commemorates two lost worlds: Austria-Hungary in its last phase and modern America in its first. A concise, if forgotten emblem of Europe dislocated, uncoupled from its past, and shifted westwards – Europe disorientated.–

Attercliffe

Nicholas Spice, 17 May 1984

In the press box of the Morristown football ground ‘the stockily-built, the tousled-haired, the pugnaciously-featured Attercliffe’ – 47 years old, father of five, separated from his wife – takes notes on the Saturday afternoon match. One eye on the game below, he chats to his fellow journalists: ‘the pug-nosed, the pug-eared Morgan’, Davidson-Smith (‘overcoated’, ‘deerstalker-hatted’) and Freddie Fredericks, Frank Attercliffe’s aging and alcoholic mentor, and co-author with him of Pindar’s Weekend Round-up, a sports column on the Northern Post. After the match, in the Buckingham Bar, Fredericks introduces Frank to Phyllis Gardner – eyes ‘long-lashed’, teeth ‘pearl-buttoned’ between ‘brightly-fashioned lips’. Phyllis is an actress, and Fredericks’s idea is that Attercliffe should interview her for the Northern Post. Maybe it’ll help him get interested in writing plays again. Maybe it’ll be the start of a new romance.–

Spicy

Nicholas Spice, 15 March 1984

In English nurseries little boys are known to be made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Little girls, as in my childhood I knew to my cost, are made of sugar and spice. And all things nice (which was a small consolation). Prickly, the infant protagonist of the sixth story in this collection of 14 by Michel Tournier, would agree. Maleness repels, femaleness attracts him. Papa is grizzled, tobacco-smelling, stiff and, above all, stubbly: rebarbative, in fact. Mama – soft, creamy, sweet-scented, supple Mama – summarises all things nice. Much else in the adult world reinforces these categories for Prickly. Including the public conveniences in the park which he goes to some afternoons with Marie his nanny. On the left, the Gents: foul-smelling and incommodious; on the right, the Ladies: perfumed, decorative and sumptuously furnished; in the middle, Mamouse, the large lady caretaker who sits ‘like the dog Cerberus’ at the gates of hell, watching over her pourboires and her pot of simmering chicken-giblet broth. Prickly’s chief aim in life is to sneak past Mamouse into the Ladies, where behind closed doors, and without having to stand up (a position which inhibits him), he can pee in peace. When Mamouse gets wise to this Prickly seeks advice from his friend Dominique, who is older than him and who passes in and out of the forbidden zone with mysterious immunity. At the centre of the park maze Dominique reveals how this can be: ‘Next, opening them wide, he pulled down the red underpants he had exposed. His smooth, white stomach ended in a milky slit, a vertical smile in which there was just a trace of pale down.’ The logic of the situation begins to dawn on Prickly. The vexatious problem of peeing like a man, Marie’s threats to have his willie cut off if he doesn’t stop wetting his bed, the curious statue in the park of Theseus and the Minotaur where Theseus, dressed like a girl, is apparently about to cut off the Minotaur’s willie, the hideous vision of a man’s genitals glimpsed one day in the urinals (‘the quantity of swarthy, flabby flesh he was trying with difficulty to cram back into his fly was incredible’), those chicken giblets in Mamouse’s pot … it all adds up. Prickly no longer wets his bed. His mind is made up. He takes Papa’s cut-throat razor and pre-empts the inevitable. He cuts off his willie himself. The outcome of ‘Prickly’ is a shock because it is unforeseen, but also because it is not unforeseeable. Prickly’s self-mutilation precipitates the sudden recognition of an awful congruity in everything that has led up to it, and we experience a sudden rush of meaning to the brain. This effect is typical of Tournier’s control of the short story form.–

Kl’Empereur

Nicholas Spice, 22 December 1983

Inevitably, as time passes, the art of Otto Klemperer is identified in the memories of those who heard him with caricatures of the qualities that happened to distinguish it at the end of his career. In London, where between 1955 and 1972 that career was played to its close, Klemperer is recalled as a grand, old-style, Continental man of music, who presided over ponderously literal readings of the German and Viennese classics. People speak of his performances as if they were the over-mighty monuments of a defunct religion, mausoleums in orchestral sound for the burial and commemoration of Europe’s greatest musical dead, unfriendly, lugubrious places from which one emerged into the fresh night air, spiritually chastened but physically chilled. Accordingly, weight, breadth, depth, architecture and austerity are now seen as the canonical attributes of the Klemperer interpretation. And slowness.

In Hiding

Nicholas Spice, 30 December 1982

The year Strauss was born, 1864, saw the publication of Robert Browning’s Dramatis Personae. The author of Andrea del Sarto would have found in Richard Strauss a subject ideally suited to his imaginative powers. He would have cast the composer, not, I think, in his early years, but towards the end of his life: in 1940, perhaps, in late summer. The scene: Strauss’s tastefully furnished study in his villa at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps; outside, the forest motionless in the heavy, pine-scented air of a hot afternoon. At his desk by the window, looking out on this untroubled world, the 76-year-old composer would pause from his work – on Capriccio perhaps – and begin to talk. It is hard to imagine a more satisfactory solution to the problems posed by Strauss as the subject of a biography than the monologue that might have followed. Moreover, the thought of this unborn soliloquy brings into focus the qualities of Schuh’s book.

Letter

Love and Hate

26 March 1992

Of the many objections that could be raised to my article about the history and institutions of piano-playing (LRB, 26 March), the least substantive, I should have thought, was that I treated Brendel and Gould unequally. This imbalance could only have deformed my article if, as Imogen Cooper believes (Letters, 23 April), I had set out to ‘compare and contrast’ Alfred Brendel and Glenn Gould....
Letter

Faculty at War

17 June 1982

SIR: I am writing to lament the absence from the LRB of a judicious consideration of Against Criticism by Iain McGilchrist. The book raises issues which all concerned with the state of English studies at the present time must wish to see intelligently debated. But all we get from Tom Paulin is coarse invective (LRB, 17 June). That your readers have been deprived in this way is a pity, and especially...

With more than eight hundred high-grade items to choose from, London Reviews gets the number down to just 28. But already it is the third such selection from the London Review of Books. Is three...

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