Self & I by Matthew De Abaitua review – my Withnail days with Will Self

When a graduate moved into the cottage where Self was living, he was instructed on everything from writing to eating oysters to the consumption of drugs

In 1995 Will Self interviewed Martin Amis for Esquire, at a time when Amis was making headlines for receiving a £500,000 advance for his novel The Information. “It’s an awful thing,” he told Self, “to be treated phenomenally rather than in a literary way.” But for as long as I can remember Will Self has been more phenomenon than mere author: columnist, gameshow contestant, Question Time panellist, Newsnight talking head. In Sam Mills’s 2012 novel, The Quiddity of Will Self, a man is asked if he has read any of Self’s books. “No, I haven’t,” he replies, “I’ve just – well, read about him, seen him on telly … ”

Unlike Amis, it sometimes appears that Self prefers being treated more as ...

Complete fiction: why ‘the short story renaissance’ is a myth

With soaring sales, viral hits like Cat Person and a cameo by Tom Hanks, the form seems to be staging a comeback. But did it ever go away?

In 2017, almost 50% more short story collections were sold than in the previous year. It was the best year for short stories since 2010. Booksellers are reporting a surge in popularity for the form, commentators note publishers are buying more collections and issuing them with greater care and enthusiasm; in December the newcomer Kristen Roupenian cut five- and seven-figure deals in the UK and US after her New Yorker story “Cat Person” went viral. On top of all that, collections are being reviewed more than ever before, the Sunday Times EFG short story award (worth £30,000) has received its highest ever number of entries and the BBC national short story award continues to grow in popularity. We are experiencing the renaissance ...

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr review – the collapse of normality

Perception and reality blur in a compelling fable about otherness, anxiety and the alienating effects of illness

Reading Eley Williams’s brilliant story collection Attrib., published earlier this year, I encountered a phrase – “unheimlich manoeuvres” – that captures perfectly the most notable element of Tom Lee’s writing. He has a pronounced ability to take normal, even mundane situations and nudge them out of true, propelling his characters into positions of strangeness and danger that they are often fatally slow to identify. He did it in the best stories in his first book, Greenfly, and now he does it at novel length in The Alarming Palsy of James Orr.

Lee wastes no time in setting things askew. “When James Orr woke up,” the book begins, “he had the sense that there was something not quite right, some indefinable shift in the normal order of things.” That shift turns out ...

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson review – extraordinary Nordic short stories

Psychology, fantasy and fable collide in a hygge-free northern collection

To begin, a quick test: which are the countries, possessions, autonomous territories and indigenous peoples that make up the Nordic region? It is a much more encompassing term than Scandinavia, which comprises only Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Use “Nordic” and you can include not only Finland, but the Åland Islands (an autonomous possession of Finland, although the inhabitants all speak Swedish), the Faroe Islands and Greenland, which are both autonomous but part of the Kingdom of Denmark. You also have Iceland, which became sovereign 100 years ago but before that belonged first to Norway, then to Denmark-Norway, then only Denmark. And there are the Saami people – indigenous to Scandinavia and Fennoscandia, who live in a band across northern Norway, Sweden and Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

That sounds confusing and disparate, but the Icelandic author Sjón, who has edited ...

A brief history of the short story: James Salter’s unreliable genius

Some of his short stories have conspicuous faults – not least in their portrayal of women – but the best show a unique, sad beauty “There is no complete life. There are only fragments.” These lines from James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years express a belief, perhaps even a philosophy, which informs all his writing. It is one that would favour the short story, which prioritises the extraordinary moment above the changes over time found in novels. So does Salter’s prose, which is lyrical but extremely economical. Structurally, however, his instinct is towards the expansive: he likes to move through large stretches of time. This combination has resulted in a relatively small body of short stories (two collections, from 1988 and 2006) that is unlike the work of any other writer. In American Express, Salter spends half the story summarising the legal careers of Frank and Alan, two young, ...

David Jones by Thomas Dilworth review – the lost great modernist

TS Eliot thought Jones stood alongside himself, Joyce and Pound. But the poet and painter has remained obscure. Why?It is rare to read a major biography of a minor figure, but then David Jones, an artist who produced outstanding and original work in several media, primarily poetry and painting, is minor by mistake. To prove it, Thomas Dilworth, who has written two other books on Jones’s life and work in the 30 years since he was commissioned to write this one, begins with an enfilade of praise from TS Eliot, WH Auden, Kenneth Clark, Graham Greene, Seamus Heaney, Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. The effect is to make the reader wonder how someone possessed of such genius could become so obscure. “If Beckett was the last great modernist,”  he writes, “Jones was the lost great modernist.” In his introduction to In Parenthesis, one of ...

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin review – terrifying but brilliant

Longlisted for the Man Booker international prize, this dangerously addictive first novel in which a woman’s life speeds towards doom is haunted by the bleak landscape of rural Argentina“Each thing she tells you is going to be worse,” someone says about two thirds of the way through Samanta Schweblin’s short, terrifying and brilliant first novel, now longlisted for the Man Booker International prize. It could be the book’s strapline, as she remorselessly cranks up the tension until every sentence seems to tremble with threat. Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, is the Argentinian writer’s first book to appear in English (she has written three short story collections). In it, Amanda has left her husband working in Buenos Aires and travelled, with her daughter Nina, to a holiday home in the countryside. She becomes friendly with a neighbour, Carla, who tells her a horrible, apparently supernatural story ...

Lucia Berlin: ‘Conversational, confessional snapshots into domestic life’

Sketching lives very similar to her own, Berlin’s stories of hardscrabble lives resemble Raymond Carver’s – while also invoking some of Proust’s spirit “It’s not that I’m worried about the future that much”, explains an ageing woman in Lucia Berlin’s story A New Life. “It’s my past that I can’t get rid of, that hits me like a big wave when I least expect it.” The waves of memory crash again and again in Berlin’s work as she, and a variety of narrators who typically share many of the details of her biography, relate episodes that together form a body of work that is part memoir, part auto-fiction, and part single, extended story cycle. Related: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin review – an acute talent that deserves to be celebrated Continue reading...

Tales of Persuasion by Philip Hensher review – a frustrating collection

Too many stories outstay their welcome in the latest offering from a usually reliable talentIn Philip Hensher’s introduction to his recent two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story, he wrote of his determination to “not include famous writers on the basis of achievement that, in reality, lay elsewhere”. In the same spirit, although Hensher is capable of very good, sometimes brilliant writing, I can’t say much of it is on show in his new collection of short stories. The frustrating thing about Tales of Persuasion is that most of the stories are overlong, and it is easy to identify the fat that should have been trimmed. Take, for example, “My Dog Ian”, about an affair between an English museum administrator and a visiting Italian professor. It has interesting things to say about hindsight, and the moments that, surprisingly, turn out to be the most important in your life. But a good 15 ...

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker review – unusual perspectives on warfare

When a British army captain loses his legs to an IED, his trauma and slow recovery are narrated by the objects around him in this stylistically ambitious debut from a former soldier Harry Parker’s first novel begins just after British army captain Tom Barnes steps on an IED. The location is unspecified, but Parker’s own biography – an army officer, he lost both his legs to an IED in 2009 – suggests Afghanistan. Like Parker, Barnes loses one leg to the blast and one to infection, although that isn’t apparent right away since the book’s chapters jump back and forward in time, describing scenes from Barnes’s deployment, his lengthy and traumatic recuperation, and the lives of locals, including insurgents, whose paths he crosses. Parker has said he wanted it to be possible to read the book’s chapters “in any order, because that’s what it’s like to be blown up. I liked the ...

A brief survey of the short story: Elizabeth Taylor

Her work may be set in a world of dated manners, but its hard insights into social vanity and anxiety speak all too clearly to our own If it wasn’t for Paul Theroux, I might never have got around to reading Elizabeth Taylor. In the face of a succession of articles that praise her, and bemoan the fact she is ignored, I continued to ignore her. But when I heard Theroux reading her 1958 story The Letter Writers, I suddenly knew I was missing out. The Letter Writers takes place in an English coastal village where Emily, a middle-aged spinster, is nervously preparing for the visit of a man called Edmund, a writer she has been corresponding with for a decade. They have become close without meeting – although Emily did once stand outside his apartment in Rome without having the courage to announce herself. Continue reading...









Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald – a song-by-song history of the Beatles

Open any page of Ian MacDonald’s collection of essays about every song recorded by the Fab Four and you’ll find yourself hooked by this fascinating, exploration of songwriting and celebrity

The most pleasurable gifts to give are the ones you would most like to receive, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that your favourite books are the ones you should give to others. I’ve had to learn this lesson repeatedly, the most recent occasion being earlier this year, in my local bookshop, when I handed the bookseller a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

“Great book,” she said, “you’re going to love it.”

Continue reading...









Playthings by Alex Pheby review – the madness of Daniel Paul Schreber

This compelling take on a 19th-century German judge’s experience of psychosis is swollen with buried truths

In 1903 Daniel Paul Schreber, a high-ranking judge coming to the end of a severe psychotic episode, published an account of his illness. It has become one of the most studied books in psychiatric history. Sigmund Freud wrote a case study on Schreber (pictured), as did Jacques Lacan, and Playthings is not the first novel about him. Alex Pheby puts us disturbingly close to this troubled individual, but pointedly opts for third person instead of first: throughout this compelling novel the space between reader and Schreber becomes a sombre reminder of how alone we all are.

This was especially true of Schreber, who when ill believed that all other people were “false” beings: rag dolls, playthings of the “upper and lower gods”. “These people were nothing,” Pheby relates early in the novel, “their lives ended the ...

A brief survey of the short story: Silvina Ocampo

While her collaborator and fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges created fantastical worlds, Ocampo infected the recognisable with strangeness and cruelty

In 1940 a book was published in Buenos Aires that drew together a vast array of fantastic tales, from Petronius and Pu Songling to Edgar Allan Poe and Kafka. Its editors were three Argentinian bibliophiles: Silvina Ocampo, her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and their best friend, Jorge Luis Borges. All three were gifted creators, as well as aficionados, of the fantastic. The extraordinary worlds Borges created are famous, and Bioy’s mysterious islands, particularly the one described in his novel The Invention of Morel, are relatively well known. Far less trodden, however, are the forking pathways of Silvina Ocampo’s fiction.

The stories collected in The Book of Fantasy range from ghost and horror stories to mysteries with twist revelations, to the more deeply and less explicably strange. ...

Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson – travels with a solitary soul

This extraordinary book is a journey into loneliness that encompasses all the stuff of life

Kate, the narrator of David Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, is a world traveller. She has sailed the Aegean and the Bering Strait, and driven across Russia and western Europe. A painter, Kate has not only visited but lived in some of the world’s most famous art museums: the Met, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate. She has displayed her own canvases beside Renaissance masterpieces. She has visited Hisarlik in Turkey, supposed site of Troy, made pilgrimage to a Mexican village, and poured hundreds of tennis balls down the Spanish Steps in Rome. Kate can, in theory, do whatever she wants, whenever she wants. But her absolute freedom is also a form of imprisonment, because Kate is the last person – in fact the last life form – on Earth.

Or is she? Perhaps ...

A brief survey of the short story: David Foster Wallace

For all its elaborate formal tricks, Wallace’s work is marked by a deep desire for authentic connection, to his subjects and to his readers

David Foster Wallace was a maximalist. His masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is a 1,000-page, polyphonic epic about addiction and obsession in millennial America. His journalism and essays, about television and tennis, sea cruises and grammar, always swelled far beyond their allotted word counts (cut for publication, he restored many of them to their full length when they were collected in book form). In a letter sent to a friend from a porn convention in Las Vegas, Wallace exclaimed that, “writing about real-life stuff is next to impossible, simply because there’s so much!” It might seem surprising that a writer like this could or should want to function within the confines of the short story, yet besides Infinite Jest it is arguably his three story collections that ...