Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: self-reviewing authors, an overhaul of Roman guidebooks, and understanding Khomeini’s revolution.
It is an occasional dream of writers, occasionally communicated to the editor of the TLS, that they should somehow be allowed to be the reviewers of their own books. Who, after all, can understand their work better than they? It was very recently considered in poor taste for writers to respond to book reviews. Now there is a strong trend for writers to offer in letter form the review that they would prefer a newspaper had published in the first place. The names of Anthony Burgess, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, and Walt Whitman already appear in the history of those who, in one way or another, have managed to cheat the literary editor’s right to choose. But few, it seems, have been more substantial self-reviewers than the Triestine poet Umberto Saba, who in the early 1940s argued in a lengthy, pseudonymous commentary that his great literary strengths should be saved from neglect—while criticizing, in the best independent tradition, his own points of weakness. Peter Hainsworth reviews the selected poems of a modern Italian master whose most famous work is an affectionate comparison of his wife to a wide range of animals.
Ever since the publication of Mary Beard’s The Parthenon, there has been a handy guide for tourists to Greece, showing how ruthless archaeologists and politicians, often working hand in hand, have defined what we see (and don’t see) of the Acropolis and its surroundings. David Watkin has now written a similarly useful book on the Roman Forum, denouncing vigorously the policies that have removed so many Renaissance churches and left behind so many ancient ditches. The Arch of Titus is a distinguished work of the 19th century and the Temple of Vesta a tribute to 1930s style, though most guidebooks fail to draw attention to those truths.
The ideology of the regime in Iran has its own policy toward the Italian Renaissance (the starting point of “human decline into barbarity,” according to the former president and reputedly moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami). Rosemary Righter, a veteran pricker of foreign-policy illusions, examines Western responses to this week’s events through Amir Taheri’s The Persian Night, and other books on the Khomeinist legacy, 30 years on.
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.