Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads by the editor of The Times Literary Supplement. This week: Kazuo Ishiguro's new Hollywood short story, and musical influences in Joyce, Beckett, and other classic Irish writers.
Kazuo Ishiguro Flips a Coin
A Meg Ryan chess set and an Academy Award stuffed inside a turkey: These are two of the star turns in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes, a Hollywood short story from the Booker Prize-winning novelist best known for an English butler's memories in The Remains of the Day. The story's human stars are an actress abandoned by her singer husband and a saxophonist abandoned by his wife—both hoping, in different ways, that expensive plastic surgery will relaunch their careers. The TLS critic, Michael Gorra, reviews Ishiguro's career this week—from the England of the Thatcher era to the “exquisite embarrassment” of waiting for the Los Angeles bandages to come off.
Britain’s Post-War Thaw
How was it that Britons went from being Romans to Italians in one generation? Raymond Aron’s famous question is revived by Peter Hennessy in his review of an important new book on the U.K. in the years 1951-70, two decades in which the temperature of our average living room rose by 5ºF, the national anthem disappeared from cinemas, and police cars came to sound like props from American films. Politics played a part, too, but not the primary one in Brian Harrison’s Seeking a Role, an assemblage of persuasively chosen themes that begins with an “evocation of the United Kingdom in 1951 which ranks with Macaulay’s famous chapter on the State of England in 1685.”
The Music of Irish Writers
Ireland, meanwhile, was suffering from its usual weakness in classical music. According to a new book by Harry White, Music and the Irish Literary Imagination, in the absence of any strong classical tradition, the Dublin baton had long passed to the writers—with 3,000 references to opera in Finnegans Wake, multiple musical effects in the work of Samuel Beckett, and the playwright Brian Friel bringing the analysis up to date. Yeats, he claims, was only in a narrow sense “tone-deaf.” But the distinguished critic, Angela Leighton, of Trinity College, Cambridge, is skeptical of the interdisciplinary approach that places Schoenberg and Joyce in a symmetrical relationship to Webern and Beckett. Such statements, she says, “tend to flap in the wind” and the idea that literary music compensates for the real thing is, “to musicians at least, wishful thinking.”
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.