The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: the story of Thomas Carlyle's writing of his history of the French Revolution, Philip Pullman's provocative retelling of the Jesus story, and a Nobel Prize-winner's blog posts collected.
Thomas Carlyle’s Revolutionary Fire
There can hardly be a writer who has not experienced that peculiar loss when a paragraph, a chapter, even sometimes a mere half-sentence, goes missing, all too certainly lost to a misused mouse or some other failure in the management of Microsoft Word. Sometimes it is possible to say to oneself: “Well, at least John Stuart Mill has not just knocked on my door with the news that the only copy of my French Revolution has been used by the maid for fire-lighters.” But often even that is little comfort. Even such a terrible story as that one, vividly retold in the TLS this week by Ruth Scurr in an introduction to a new Continuum edition of Thomas Carlyle’s masterpiece, cannot remove the embarrassment of so personal a pain.
Carlyle had broken new ground in his work—and he knew it. As Scurr puts it, “the sensation of being dragged along, faster and faster, through unstoppably darkening events, is familiar to all who work on the Revolution, and resonates with the memoirs of its survivors but Carlyle was the first historian to capture that trajectory of frightening acceleration into Bedlam: the first to locate it at the heart of his narrative.” His initial step was one of simple, bold imaginative engagement. He asked himself what was it like to be there? Fortunately, the result survived its rewriting after the fire.
The Myth of Jesus Retold
There are still places where books are deliberately burnt—or removed from our computer screens—for the offense to the powerful that they might cause. If that practice were still fashionable in Britain, Philip Pullman’s new account of the gospel story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, would be a leading candidate for the flames, as once would its author too. During the past two decades, Pullman has established himself as one of the great authors in the British tradition of fantasy fiction, and hostility to organized religion has been a trait that has distinguished him from some of the best-known earlier writers in this tradition.
So, in Ronald Hutton’s view in the TLS this week, it is not surprising—though it is “highly provocative”—that on making a contribution to the Canongate Myths series, which invites prominent writers to retell famous imaginary, Pullman has chosen to tackle “what he regards as the myth of Jesus Christ.” The similarity of his title to a Brecht play is not coincidental: The action is broken up into a series of self-contained dramatic episodes, like a stylized piece of theater. They are narrated in a flat, simple, and dispassionate voice, bereft of color and personal engagement in the manner of a traditional religious text. The result, Hutton says, could be read as satire, or perhaps as blasphemy, but perhaps most convincingly on its own apparent terms, as heresy.
A Nobel Blogger
In September 2008, at the age of 85, the great Portuguese novelist José Saramago was feeling restless, writes Toby Lichtig in the TLS. “Here’s a job for you,” said Saramago’s wife. “Write a blog.” And so the 1998 Nobel laureate began to record his reflections on an almost daily basis, jubilantly freed from the constraints of fiction and awed by the “infinite page” of the Internet: “That place where I can most express myself according to my desires.” So close has this blog since become to the novelist’s heart that a review of it in a Portuguese newspaper caused him to break a vow, “which hitherto I have fulfilled to the letter—never to respond to, or even comment on, any criticism of my work.” The reviewer had remarked on Saramago’s “excesses of indignation.” The blogger was outraged—a new edition to the changes that the Internet is making to our literary life.
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.