The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a look at five new novels on the financial crisis, an overlooked Irish writer’s work and a persnickety letter from Beckett, and the disappearance of horses from English culture.
Financial Novels’ Moral Lessons
Although we are still waiting for a great novel—or even a good novel—of the financial crash, the attempts are piling up in the offices of the TLS. Our critic, David Horspool, has been searching for decent nuggets like a creditor sifting through the relics of the Madoff empire. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here shows a familiar descent from self-deception into orgies of sexual violence and self-destruction, but is too heavily reliant on the high-end consumerism that Bret Easton Ellis employed two recessions ago in American Psycho—and offers none of its antecedent’s dispassionate amorality. In Talitha Stevenson’s Disappear, we are with Charlie and Leila, a gilded couple, he a hedge-fund manager, she a doer-up of flats in the seemingly endless property boom. Trouble strikes and Charlie’s father offers to give him his inheritance early. “His face was elated, strangely radiant now. Charlie’s body felt cold, his head felt hot. He pictured putting the keys into the ignition of his car—but then he remembered he didn’t have one".
Paul Torday's The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers includes a man whose family crest shows a cat licking its paws, along with the no-nonsense motto “Semper plus,” a charming bully who will do business with anyone and inevitably, rather too inevitably, it is not he who suffers when his fund runs out of money. Charlie Summers' own business ventures, Japanese dog food and Dutch wine, do not spare him a tragic end. Like Torday’s narrator, Alex Preston’s hero Charlie Wales works for a hedge fund during the collapse of the bond market, and the wiping out of funds totaling millions. Charlie Wales? Remember the name? No, you haven't read This Bleeding City in your sleep, you are merely recalling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story about the aftermath of an earlier economic crash, Babylon Revisited (1940). To different degrees, says Horspool, all these new novels reflect a theme of Fitzgerald’s story about a man returning to the scene of his excesses and his downfall, the idea that market corrections are not only financial episodes, they are also moral ones. But only one of them takes the risk of identifying so closely with the master of the crash craft.
A Neglected Irish Genius
The Irish writer Aidan Higgins is often regarded as a “writer’s writer,” which is usually code for contrary, experimental and out-of-print, writes Keith Hopper, reviewing a revised edition of his best-known novel, Balcony of Europe. And yet Higgins has one distinction that many a reader's writer might envy, a lengthy critique of his work in a letter from Samuel Beckett. In his note dated April 22, 1958, Beckett commented extensively on the manuscript of an earlier work by Higgins, Killachter Meadow, beginning his critique by tackling some of the more extravagant similes, "reckless as the sibyl of Cumae" and "incorrigible as murder." “You want to be careful about that,” Beckett cautions. Higgins also gets ticked off for his poor spelling—“phenominally” instead of phenomenally—and for some errant diction: “portentious” instead of portentous. “All unimportant,” writes Beckett, “but they had better be corrected before you send it out.” Then comes the final judgment on the story’s complex narrative style: "What I have to do now, and it’s not easy, is to try and tell you what it is that spoils the text for me and obscures its great qualities. I think it is, briefly, a kind of straining towards depth and inwardness in certain passages.... I simply feel a floundering and a labouring here and above all a falsening of position. I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within.... The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is a possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not."
If four legs really are good, then in the eyes of many two-legged Britons it is horses who have seemed the acme of quadruped perfection. But outside the world of sport, horses have largely disappeared from the public imagination, writes Pat Rogers, reviewing Donna Landry's Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Fox-hunting bans and motor transport have played their part in the literary decline. Even the world of pony clubs once celebrated by Betjeman and Thelwell now seems a quaint relic of the rural past. Interested in a new take on Gulliver's Travels? Landry contends that in his great work Swift “appears to be participating in the comparison of imperial styles of rule that arose in discussions of horse-keeping in this period, and in which European brutality was contrasted with Ottoman leniency.”
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.