Fiction remains funny – the best comedy is found in dark, unhappy novels

It makes sense that the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic novels cannot find a worthy winner in 2018. Times, and books, have changed

This year, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse judges have decided not to award a prize for best comic novel “in the spirit of of PG Wodehouse”, which might lead some to believe that comic writing is in decline. “There were a lot of witty submissions, bloody good novels,” said judge David Campbell, “but they weren’t comic novels”.

Related: Wodehouse prize for comic fiction withheld after judges fail to laugh

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TS Eliot’s The Waste Land remains one of the finest reflections on mental illness ever written

The poet’s modernist masterpiece gathered fragments of an arduous life, some of which can be traced to a seafront shelter in Margate

In 1921, having taken time off from his job at Lloyds Bank for what would now be called depression, TS Eliot spent three weeks convalescing in Margate. It was the hottest October in years. Every day, he got the tram from the Albemarle Hotel in Cliftonville to the sea front, and, sitting in Nayland Rock shelter, he wrote “some 50 lines” of his poem The Waste Land.

These days, the hotel is a block of flats, and while the shelter is still a shelter, it is at present fenced off. Yet Eliot’s time in Margate, a brief interlude before travelling to a Swiss sanatorium, is preserved in Part III of The Waste Land: “On Margate Sands,” he wrote, “I can connect / Nothing with Nothing. / The broken ...

Pushkin’s pride: how the Russian literary giant paid tribute to his African ancestry

His black great-grandfather was abducted as a child and raised in Peter the Great’s court. A new Pushkin translation includes the little-known history of Russia’s Shakespeare

For Russians, Alexander Pushkin inhabits a space beyond taste, where nationalism has given subjective art the patina of fact. He is the undisputed father of their literature in the way Shakespeare is for Brits. Given the insular nature of contemporary Russian politics, it might be hard to imagine that the creator of Eugene Onegin was not only a proponent of multiculturalism and global exchange but an example of it: Pushkin was mixed race, and proud of his African ancestry.

His great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in what is now Cameroon in 1696. Gannibal was kidnapped as a child and taken to Constantinople, where, in one of those confounding literary footnotes, one of Tolstoy’s ancestors “rescued” him (this is Pushkin’s own word – ...

Mumbo Jumbo: a dazzling classic finally gets the recognition it deserves

Praised by the likes of Tupac and Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed’s experimental novel about race in the US is, more than ever, a book for today America, wrote Ishmael Reed in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, is “mercurial, restless, violent ... the travelling salesman who can sell the world a Brooklyn Bridge every day, can put anything over on you”. Forty-five years later, Reed has performed a magic trick reminiscent of something found in that book, a dazzling novel about Voodoo, jazz and white supremacy: his personification of the US has taken a step beyond rhetoric and become flesh, in the mercurial, violent and restless salesman who is now America’s president. Continue reading...

Can male writers avoid misogyny?

It’s deeply embedded in the culture, and the likes of Philip Roth and Martin Amis are often thought to reproduce what they sought to expose. Is there any way out? In a 1997 essay, David Foster Wallace aligned himself against writers regularly called out for their misogyny, dubbing John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer as “the Great Male Narcissists”. But 20 years later, the content of Wallace’s books, scrutinised in tandem with his readership, leaves the work vulnerable to similar questions. Wallace, it seems, is now the mascot for a new generation of male narcissists. In her recent essay Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me, Deirdre Coyle recalled reading David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men for the first time. She admired much of it, but said it “feels bad to read a book by a straight cis man about misogyny … This ...

With Mysteries, Knut Hamsun rewrote the novel’s rules

This strange tale of a quixotic young man disturbing the equilibrium of a Norwegian town also disturbed accepted ways of depicting inner life We’ve all heard of rebels without a cause, desperate for something to defy. Then there are rebels without a clue, who have no idea what they are defying, or why. The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun specialised in the latter. His 1892 novel Mysteries follows a young man, Nagel, who arrives at a Norwegian coastal town and defies polite society in a series of almost inconsequential actions. He brings only a yellow suit, a fur coat in summer, and a violin case that doesn’t contain a violin; he leaves telegrams out for people to see which indicate that he’s rich, then claims they are false; he makes up for bad first impressions, then spoils it all by admitting that his behaviour had all been deliberate. Continue reading...