The Best of Brit Lit: Great Picks From the TLS, Aug. 16

From the legendary poet and religious radical John Donne to Julian Barnes’ latest novel, the editor of the TLS Peter Stothard picks his favorite new reads from Britain.

John Donne in the Labyrinth

A short list might be made of English poets who witnessed with their own eyes a hanging, drawing, and quartering. Among them would certainly be John Donne, a Roman Catholic by upbringing, closely related to some of the leading Catholic families in England. This week in the TLS, the critic Robert Fraser considers the hidden network of connections sustaining Elizabethan and Jacobean Catholicism in hostile Protestant times.

He notes the poet’s maternal grandfather, John Heywood, was reprieved on the scaffold in 1543 after a fearful journey to the block and had—on the ninth anniversary of the death of Donne’s great-great-uncle Thomas More—publicly to read a recantation of his faith at St. Paul’s Cross, a location at which Donne would later frequently preach.

Afterward Donne penned an allegorical spoof, “The Spider and the Flie,” in which insects of several species torment one another to no purpose, though at no time does its author disclose which insect represents which sect. Ambiguity of this kind was to be his trademark. Donne’s sermons were so finely tuned that, following his death in 1631, Calvinists felt able to quote them in support of predestination, while Catholics cited them in endorsement of the reestablishment of the papal hierarchy in England.

Fraser is reviewing the new Oxford Handbook to John Donne. The “handbook” has become a favorite publisher’s device, suggesting completeness, usefulness, and permanence, all seen as attractions to buyers chary of spending money on the partial, ephemeral, and possibly useless. So while some handbooks are rather dull, this one is most certainly not. It often resembles “less a work of reference than a debating chamber” about one of the most complex figures in the whole of English literature, author of exquisitely crafted sexual lyrics and satire.

“Donne changes as you look at him across genres and it is hard to think of a compilation of fifty original essays containing more concentrated scholarship than these do.”

Julian Barnes Grows Up

In 1980, the British novelist Julian Barnes published Metroland, in which Chris, a pretentious suburban schoolboy, patronizes his parents and yearns for escape, sex, art, adventure. As Lidija Haas recalls in the TLS this week:

"that book’s first part saw Chris and his friend Tony waiting for life to begin; Chris spends its middle section in Paris in 1968, where the student revolutions pass him by unnoticed; in the last section, when he is about thirty, he finds himself married and back in the suburbs, living pretty much as his parents did and, to Tony’s horror and his own bemusement, rather enjoying it. More than thirty years separate that book from Barnes’s latest; Metroland was a coming of age novel, Haas writes, and The Sense of an Ending, in its darker way, is one too."

Barnes’s new book also begins in the 1960s. The two main characters are now the narrator, Tony Webster, and the new boy, Adrian Finn, who soon joins a “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic” group. Adrian is much the most intelligent, and he comes from a “broken home,” which the rest envy because “the key to a happy family life was for there not to be a family—or at least, not one living together.”

The boys get into different universities. Adrian goes to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol, where he manages to find a girlfriend and aspires to “full sex”: “You couldn’t appreciate the gravity of that ‘full’ unless you’d had a lot of the half-empty kind.” He has a good deal of “infra-sex” with Veronica, introduces her to Adrian and the others and spends an awkward weekend with her family, but the relationship fails.

During Tony’s final year, Adrian writes to say he is going out with Veronica; Tony replies telling them both what he thinks of them. Some months later, he hears that Adrian has killed himself. Adrian’s letter to the coroner explains that it is the duty of “the thinking person” to examine the nature and conditions of life, “the gift no one asks for,” and that he may then choose to renounce it. This confirms Adrian’s superiority in Tony’s eyes.

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The book’s second part, which is twice as long as the first, begins, with a lawyer’s letter. Tony’s past is about to start rearranging itself. One great problem of aging, he complains, is that “as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.” He still envies Adrian, who has taken control of his life and its narrative by ending it so early. The tape in an airplane’s black box erases itself if there is no crash, so if nothing goes seriously wrong, “the log of your journey is much less clear.”

The way in which we construct our histories, our fictions, is the subject of the novel. Poised between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas, Barnes has it both ways. He succeeds in this partly because he is too clever to let his cleverness get in the way: the ideas are filtered through a mind less agile than his own, so that theory is always bound by character. He is very disciplined, remaining within Tony’s limitations: the style is more restrained, less showy than it has sometimes been in the past; the wit is quieter, more sparingly used.

Why the City?

In 1934, Martin Heidegger wrote an essay explaining why he had refused an invitation to teach in Berlin. “Why I Still Remain in the Provinces” was an anti-urban philippic, warning that cities exposed thinkers to what he called “destructive error.” But when the philosopher listened to the local peasants and to “what the mountains, and the forest and the farmlands were saying,” he was reassured. Heidegger was by no means the only twentieth-century intellectual to subscribe to an inexhaustible liturgy of anxieties about modernity and the perils of city life.

By contrast, Leif Jerram’s Streetlife, says Anson Rabinbach in the TLS, might have been entitled “Why we still remain in cities.” It offers an unromanticized, sweeping, and informed cultural history of European cities in the long 20th century. It does not understate alienation, poverty, violence, and racial strife, but it pays a good deal of attention to how neighborhoods, factories, sports teams, clubs, dance halls, and bars provided camaraderie and cohesion unique to urban life.

Jerram considers the place of the modern city both in ameliorating and manipulating the lives of its inhabitants. He recalls the days when a visit to the cinema was a rare opportunity to experience carpets and central heating; but he notes too how city planning became “both poison and antidote mixed together,” the eradication of cholera requiring the social data used by those considering the “health of the national race or stock.”