The Best of Brit Lit

A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: the dark, complicated fiction and life of Roald Dahl, a "difficult" poet reconsidered, and looking at Britain's nuclear history.

11.08.10 7:28 AM ET

Rotten Roald Dahl

There are many ways of describing Roald Dahl: "storyteller," as in the title of Donald Sturrock's new biography; "arthritic giraffe", as he came to seem in the wake of a "personality-changing" plane crash in the Western Desert, in Africa, and the multiple operations it entailed; and "Roald the rotten," as his first wife, Patricia Neal, dubbed him. Reviewing Sturrock's book for the TLS, Kate McLoughlin finds that Dahl made it his business throughout his life to provoke and alienate, although within his immediate family, he was not alone in suffering terrible physical misfortunes: the "rotten" tag, for example, only came about after Dahl "devised a rehabiliative regime" of "daily physiotherapy and speech therapy," for his wife, after she suffered a massive stroke. 

A painful story in many ways, it will not surprise those familiar with the "streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness" (as recognized by Noël Coward, no less) that runs through Dahl's stories. In fact, Sturrock also puts the "Dahlian dark side" down to the writer's Norwegian heritage: "tales of wicked trolls and forest-dwelling creatures told to him by his mother." 

Poems By J.H. Prynne 590 pages. Bloodaxe Books. $41.95.

Discovering J.H. Prynne  

The British do not like their writers to be obscure or difficult—at least they don't like contemporary poets to be like that. They particularly, it seems, dislike the word "Cambridge," whatever it vaguely signifies, when attached to difficult (or obscure) poets. This week Robert Potts, the TLS's managing editor, formerly the co-editor of Poetry Review, makes the case for re-examining both the label "Cambridge School" ("now a pejorative catch-all dismissal for poets who work outside the narrow boundaries established by the Movement poets and their successors") and the work of the most Cambridge poet of them all, J. H. Prynne. Prynne's latest publication, Sub Songs, is no disappointment in the difficulty stakes, being full of "bitten-off phrases," in the manner of the late works of Samuel Beckett, alluding to biotechnology, politics, philosophy and terrorism. What can it all mean? Even a "committed and diligent reader" is hard pressed to pin down the "rewarding but intimidating complexities of Prynne’s poetry."

The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst, 1945-2010 By Peter Hennessy 528 pages. Penguin. £10.99.

Britain’s Nuclear Plans

What would the British government have done in the aftermath of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union? No doubt Professor Peter Hennessy would have liked to have been able to answer that question back in 2002, when his book The Secret State first appeared, but the relevant piece of documentation, the "lengthy and detailed" War Book, had not yet been declassified. Hennessy can now tell you where the nuclear bunkers were, and how the country would have been run—although he cannot say whether the "intended inhabitants" would have had to leave their families behind. 

Since the threat of nuclear war is by no means a thing of the past, however, our reviewer Michael Goodman, a lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, turns from this book by a very well-informed outsider to a collection of documents compiled and analyzed by an insider, David Owen, a former foreign secretary when Britain conducted its last major review of the nuclear deterrent. What would nowadays constitute "minimum deterrence"? Owen admits the world has changed since his day in office. But what should be done instead? Frustratingly for Owen, as it must have been for Hennessy eight years ago, his case hinges on the contents of a document that remains classified, the Duff-Mason Report; not only that, but "several previously available files, which hinted at its [the Duff-Mason Report's] contents, were reclassified, following their release 'in error.'"

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.