In a media mire of tragedy porn and toothrotsweet sentimentality designed to blunt both our senses and our judgement, revisiting Jenny Diski’s essays, with their wonderful jokes and deftly contained anger, is both a pleasurable experience and a salutary exercise.
Ezra Pound was a fascist and, even after the Holocaust, an unrepentant antisemite, yet he was also a brilliant poet, a great synthesiser of cultures and absolutely central to Modernism in English as an associate of Eliot and Yeats and a fierce champion of the young James Joyce.
Large numbers of Moroccan women confided to Leila Slimani, on a book tour to promote her first novel, their ‘sexual suffering, frustration and alienation’. Their stories, with a blistering commentary from Slimani, make for a frightening but fascinating account of her country’s repressive culture.
Cities are smells: Cairo is mango and ginger, Beirut sun, sea, smoke and lemons. But in many of our cities the waters are rising. In Bangkok the water is inexorably reaching up and those familiar fragrances we have loved ‑ of noodles, tiger balm and teak – may soon be washed away.
Making a ‘national’ anthology of stories poses a problem: is there an essence that has to be captured? To be British in the 1920s was to believe that the national story had been progressive, from hut to glass tower, feudalism to universal suffrage, and that the future was a continuum.
After a crisis of faith in the early 1890s Paul Valéry abandoned poetry for some decades. He didn’t stop writing, however, getting up at dawn each day to work on his notebooks, 250 of them eventually, occupying 27,000 pages. This intellectual exercise he kept up for fifty years.
His indisputable genius ensured that William Shakespeare assumed the status of England’s chief literary emblem, in the same way that Cervantes was chosen to represent Spain, Dante Italy or Molière France. But why was it that he seemed so uninterested in writing about the place?
‘I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided to write,’ the narrator tells us at the opening of a Brazilian classic which owes something to Laurence Sterne’s ‘Shandy’, but with the added psychological depth attained in the 19th century French novel.
Anne Tyler’s twenty-third novel is her shortest to date, a concerto rather than a symphony, she has conceded. Her hero, brought up in a chaotic family, values order and routine and thinks social contact unimportant, but he discovers that it is more important than he thought.