Saturday, July 26, 2008


Crime fiction jag this week: I went to the stacks with the thought of perhaps checking out some of Susan Howatch's novels to read again, only really I have read them so many times that the rereading potential is fully leached out of them. Susan Hill's name caught my eye, and I took a few of those instead, and read them with great enjoyment over the rest of the week: the first three of the Simon Serrailler books, The Various Haunts of Men, The Pure in Heart and The Risk in Darkness. Her protagonist is perhaps slightly too reminiscent of P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh, who I have always found intolerably affected, but the books are an interesting mix of the conventional (in a good sense) and the rule-breaking. Well worth reading if you are fond of the British police procedural. Then I read M. J. Rose's The Venus Fix, which had been sitting untouched on the shelf and happened to catch my eye - also quite satisfactory.

Meanwhile, considerable riches in the latest issue of the NYRB. I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Wheatcroft's James Bond piece (available to all - hmmm, I must get those Ben Macintyre books, they sound great!) and Jonathan Spence's piece about China specialist and historian of science Joseph Needham (subscriber-only - I was utterly enraptured by Needham's history of embryology when I first came across it in the early days of reading for breeding book), and there's all sorts of other good stuff too.

Perhaps the most extraordinary piece, though, is Richard Holmes's essay on Theophile Gautier. I've been a huge fan of Holmes's writing ever since I fell in love (c. 1992-93?) with Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. This one is also subscriber-only, but I will take the liberty of pasting in a few paragraphs of Holmes's prose for the hallucinatory intensity of his historical imagination, in this case autobiographical:
In 1974, I had gone to live in Paris, just after completing Shelley: The Pursuit. I was aged twenty-nine, living in a fifth-floor attic room near the Gare du Nord on £100 ($150) a month and supporting myself by freelance journalism, most of it published by The Times in London. At least once a fortnight, well after midnight, I used to walk down to the all-night Bureau de Poste near the Bourse, anxiously carrying my new article in a brown manila envelope.

In the cavernous hall of the Bureau, pleasantly perfumed with Gitanes and cow gum and lino polish, I would stick on the big blue Priorité label and gingerly slide the envelope through the grill, surreptitiously watching till the Existentialist night clerk had actually put it in the Special Delivery canvas bag, hung on a brass hook behind his seat. Then our eyes would meet and occasionally I would get a reassuring greeting along the lines of "Ça va, vous, heh?"

Then came the triumphant stride back up the boulevard Magenta and the sharp left turn into the steep, narrow, cobbled, and deserted Marché Cadet (where Gautier's friend Gérard de Nerval was once arrested for removing his trousers in public), now smelling faintly of crushed peaches. Next a quick lateral diversion past Gautier's own tall, shadowy house at 14, rue de Navarin (with a salute to his mistress in the house opposite, no. 27), and finally several congratulatory ballons de rouge at a quiet little café I knew near the place Anvers off Pigalle, which always remained open until 4 AM.


  1. Aargh!!!!! To imagine having, by age 29, published an acclaimed biography of Shelley, and to be living in Paris . . . I tend not toward envy, but I will admit to it here!!!!

    Is adulthood nothing more than admitting that one is not as talented or as dedicated or as smart as others? I'm willing to admit that, gleefully most of the time, in exchange for the general peace of mind I get to enjoy . . . but this is one of those cases where that admission becomes more difficult than I'm used to.

    But hell, his book on Johnson and Savage is unforgettable; I shouldn't begrudge Holmes anything.

  2. First, thanks for the heads up, I'll look for that issue of the NYROB starting today. Second, though, could you please try not to post things where the list of subject highlights begin with the word "bondage", when there's a chance that it'll be the first thing I see in the morning? I almost choked on my Froot Loops.