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10.27.10

The Best of Brit Lit

A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a notorious Bloomsbury love affair reconsidered, the story of a famous house and its occupants, the Sackvilles, and Salman Rushdie’s new novel.

The Violet Trefusis Affair

Vita Sackville-West’s love affair with Violet Trefusis is one of the more notorious episodes of her colorful life. Writing in the TLS this week, Michael Holroyd shows how the fallout from this affair lies behind Violet’s unkind treatment by other novelists, memoirists, and biographers ever since. (One of them, Harold Acton, said that in later life she reminded him of a poodle; another, Peter Quennell, called her the “stupidest and most conceited woman I have ever come across.”) Conceited, snobbish, and “socially unnegotiable” Violet might have been, but, says Holroyd, the best of her novels deserve the attention of a new generation of readers.

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Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles. By Robert Sackville-West. 320 pages. Walker & Company. $26. ()

Of Houses and Inheritance

One of the greatest of the great Elizabethan houses is surely Knole in west Kent—a “conglomeration of buildings half as big as Cambridge,” Virginia Woolf called it—seat of the Sackvilles for over 400 years. A successor to the scandalous Vita, Robert Sackville-West, has described the place, in a new book, as a “curse”: “too big, too cold, too much pervaded by the unhappy spirits of forebears whose belongings are strewn everywhere.” Norma Clarke reviews Sackville-West’s book Inheritance, along with books about two slightly more modest houses, and the complicated and not always happy histories of the families who have lived in them.

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Luka and the Fire of Life. By Salman Rushdie. 240 pages. Random House. $25. ()

Rushdie’s Shah of Blah  

The family at the heart of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, was happy until the story-telling father Rashid, the so-called Shah of Blah, falls unconscious, and stays that way; it seems that only the efforts of his younger son Luka, in an alternative, “Left-Handed” dimension inhabited by humanity’s discarded gods and Rushdie’s assorted allusions to pop culture, can save him. Our reviewer Michael Caines asks if the eclecticism adds up to an adventure.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.