The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: the final novel in Roddy Doyle’s epic, hilarious Irish trilogy, a meditative look at the painter Tiepolo and his love of pink, and an investigation into the strange Chinese obsessions of a forgotten English writer.
Roddy Doyle’s Irish Trilogy
Novelists easily acquire a taste for the series and, if they are lucky, their readers do, too. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle is an addict of the technique, writes Leo Robson in the TLS this week. Of his nine novels, only the bestselling Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) lacks company. Doyle’s new novel, The Dead Republic, is the concluding third part of The Last Roundup, the largest in scope of all his series, the memoirs, in three solid parts, of the gorgeous Dubliner Henry Smart (b.1901, d.2009), beginning four years before his birth (“I’m getting there. I’m getting there.”) and ending on his last afternoon as himself. On the way, he accidentally becomes a Republican hit man, one of the last to surrender at the Easter Rising, a new man in the movie business and occupying the specialized position of Louis Armstrong’s “white man”.
The running joke of The Last Roundup is that to be an Irish Everyman in the 20th century is to live an extraordinary life. The novels are crowded with Henry’s seductions and misadventures, his tall tales and close calls, his menial jobs and moments of transcendence. Henry has the knack, rare in reality (but common in fiction), of being in the right place at the right historical time. He plays a major or minor role in what he calls “big history” (or “big, big history”), and acts as a repository and reflector of Irish fortunes. Henry’s serial memoir is written in an attempt to earn him his rightful place in “the history books,” which credit Eamon de Valera and other notables with things he accomplished, or accomplished alongside them.
The Pink Painter
For a century and more after Giambattista Tiepolo's death, the painter was dismissed as a mere decorator, a purveyor of enormous trifles to flatter the vanity of a declining aristocracy. Roberto Calasso takes his Tiepolo Pink title from the shade which Proust tells us was one of the colors Odette favored for her crêpe de Chine breakfast gowns. The Duchesse de Guermantes liked her Tiepolo Red. Pretty colors for a frock, that’s all Tiepolo was once good for, says Ferdinand Mount, reviewing Calasso's book in the TLS.
Calasso is famous as an imaginative and painstaking explorer of myth rather than as a historian of art. But precisely because of those skills, he succeeds skillfully in changing this view of his subject. Anyone may know what Tiepolo looked like, because he put himself in so many of his frescoes—with his wonky nose and his ironic trembly lips and his lively scared eyes, standing beside the furious figure of Jacob on the wall of the Patriarch’s Palace in Udine, or, 27 years later, the eyes a little sadder, the lip a bit more tremulous, on the ceiling of the staircase at Prince Bishop’s palace at Würzburg. But about what Giambattista Tiepolo thought? We have had scarcely a clue. Calasso reconstruction is, in Mounts' judgment, a superbly ambitious, quirky, querulous, lyrical, and finally persuasive essay.
An Orientalist Vision
Now largely forgotten, the work of Thomas Burke was once the subject of a moral panic. In his own words, Burke described himself as a man in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Ruskin, and London’s Chinatown as a place where “they do not... bother about such trifles as the age of consent.” This was based on what seems to have been a real preference of Chinese men at the time for younger cockney girls (inevitably a cause for concern, although for the most part they treated the girls well—better than the brutal white men in the area, a central crux in Burke—and made stable and happy marriages). The upshot, writes Phil Baker in the TLS, was that Burke wrote his own nympholeptic fantasies in Limehouse Nights (1916) into a Chinese quarter that he claimed to know by experience, but later said was as imaginary as Rider Haggard’s Africa. Anne Veronica Witchard, in her book Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie, comes to a more damning conclusion that what might look like “racial tolerance” on Burke’s part was really just “a peculiarly specific facet of Orientalist projection.”
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.