01.16.11

The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks the best British reads. This week: New diaries reveal Christopher Isherwood's complicated life, a poet's disastrous commentaries on Shakespeare's sonnets, and mapping the British Isles.

Living With Isherwood

The TLS this week learns how to live with Christopher Isherwood: When Isherwood took up with the 18-year-old Don Bachardy (who was still living at home), neither knew what to expect, since men living together as couples was a relatively recent development, claims James Fenton. "Everything has changed so fast. A single lifetime witnessed a gay world transformed. E.M. Forster’s recent biographer, Wendy Moffat, reminds us that Forster was 16 at the time that Oscar Wilde went to prison, and that he died the year after the Stonewall riots." The second volume of Isherwood's diaries records the changing world of gay relationships—including, of course, his own.

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Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By Don Paterson. 528 pages. Faber and Faber. 17.99. ()

A Poet’s Abuse of Shakespeare

"The idea that poets make the best critics has long been discredited:" Alastair Fowler takes a dim view of the poet Don Paterson's chatty, controversial Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets—"Questions arise about what Don Paterson is hoping to accomplish. Does he suppose it advances the cause of modern literature to show contempt for elite standards of scholarship? Why did he write in such a hurry? Why did he not correct his proofs? Why did he take so little trouble over a poet he claims to admire?"

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Map of a Nation. By Rachel Hewitt . 436pp. Granta Books. £25. ()

Mapping the British Isles

We discover this week that Ordnance Survey maps were prompted by the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6, when the chief of the Fraser Clan was able to hide from the English army for two full months in the Highlands, so uncharted were they. Alan McNee explores how a "combination of military necessity and high-minded scientific curiosity" charted the British Isles for the next 200 years.

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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.