Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism, by Nathan Waddell

Review by Rob Spence, 17 September 2019 When the newly-elected Brexit party MEPs took their place at the European Parliament in June, they used the opening ceremony as a stunt, turning their backs during the playing of the European Union anthem. That anthem is, as everybody knows, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, by common account a…

We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

Reviewed by Rob Spence Malaysian novelist Tash Aw’s fourth novel marks a departure in style for him. Rather than the broad canvas he presented in earlier works such as The Harmony Silk Factory and Five Star Billionaire, here the focus is relentlessly on the life of one man, Ah Hock, and the murder that constitutes…

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill

Reviewed by Rob Spence When Geoffrey Hill died in 2016, his monumental Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 -2012 was still fresh, its astonishing range and scope providing ample testimony to the poet’s achievements over six decades. It seemed as if that volume would provide a fitting capstone to a career in which he had resolutely followed…

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Reviewed by Rob Spence English-language fiction set in colonial Malaya tended in the past to focus on the lives of the Empire types who ruled the roost back then: Somerset Maugham is particularly guilty of this, and even Anthony Burgess’s masterly Malayan Trilogy, peopled as it is with characters drawn from all of the ethnic…

Winterman by Alex Walters

Reviewed by Rob Spence East Anglia has quite a lot of previous when it comes to crime fiction: Colin Watson’s chronicles of Flaxborough, James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries, and Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series all make use of the particular topography of the fen country. Looming over them all of course is Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine…

To Kill the Truth by Sam Bourne

Reviewed by Rob Spence We live in an age of fake news, propagated by politicians, celebrities and media organisations. Perhaps we always have – from the tricks of Elizabethan propaganda to the Zinoviev letter, there has always existed a tendency to invent, inflate and distort the truth, to present “alternative facts” as Kellyanne Conway characterised…

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

Reviewed by Rob Spence This remarkably compelling memoir is, surprisingly, the first prose publication of George Szirtes, one of our most distinguished poets. At its centre is the disquieting life of his mother, Magda, and its culmination in an ambulance accident following a suicide attempt at the age of fifty-one in 1975. Szirtes, in a…

The Flame – Leonard Cohen

Reviewed by Rob Spence For a while in the mid sixties to the early seventies, the singer-songwriter reigned supreme in popular music. Dylan, of course, was the pioneer, followed by James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and the rest of the hipperati of Laurel Canyon and beyond. Riding on the first wave, Leonard Cohen, recruited…

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen Reviewed by Rob Spence The strap line chosen by the publishers for the cover of this massive novel is instructive: “None of us are ever finished. Everyone is always a work in progress.” Despite its Dickensian length, Murakami’s eighteenth work of fiction has the feel of the unfinished…

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk

Reviewed by Rob Spence I began reading this book just as the outcry over the Trump regime’s treatment of migrants was gathering pace. It seemed an appropriate time to enter Chuck Palahniuk’s dystopian vision of a very-near future in which a bunch of young misfits engineer – almost by accident – a bloody coup in…

Felix Culpa by Jeremy Gavron

Reviewed by Rob Spence The German artist Kurt Schwitters developed a method, which he called “Merz”, by which his canvases would be constructed using hundreds of fragments of material – bits of newspaper, bus tickets, images cut from magazines – to make collages which were often startling in the juxtapositions they presented. In this very unusual…

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Translated by Ekin Oklap Reviewed by Rob Spence A new novel by Orhan Pamuk is always an event, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s an absorbing story, set in the recent past, but overshadowed by ancient epic tales that insinuate themselves into the lives of the protagonists, and propel them to their fates. In the…

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Reviewed by Rob Spence I read most of this novel on a plane, and it struck me that it was appropriate to consume it in the transient, somehow timeless and ambiguous environment of a journey by air. Chaudhuri’s themes are memory, time, self-knowledge, and how they can all be distorted and modified by an individual’s…

The Woodcutter and His Family by Frank McGuinness

Reviewed by Rob Spence It’s startling to note that there’s more secondary writing about James Joyce than there is about Shakespeare. He must be the most investigated, elucidated, glossed and theorized author in the English language. His standing as a literary giant, and, I think, the fact that so much of his output was autobiographical,…

Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess Centenary – a Reading List

Written by Rob Spence Anthony Burgess, whose centenary is celebrated this year, remarked ruefully on more than one occasion that he produced as many novels in a year as E.M. Forster managed in a long lifetime. Yet if Burgess is known at all by the general public, it is as the author of A Clockwork…

David Jones by Thomas Dilworth

Reviewed by Rob Spence Ask a reasonably well-educated person to name some Anglophone modernist poets, and you are sure to hear the names of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Mention might be made of the Imagist poets, such as F.S. Flint, ‘HD’, and Richard Aldington; you may hear a case made for D.H. Lawrence or…

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (pbk)

Reviewed by Rob Spence I come from Manchester, so I know about rain. Actually, Manchester’s reputation as the rainy city is, as I am overfond of pointing out, a result of a mistake in meteorological analysis made in a study of north-west rainfall in the 1920s. I know, I should get out more. Melissa Harrison…

Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel

Reviewed by Rob Spence Berlin is one of my favourite cities, and I have spent a lot of time walking around its fascinating streets. So the republication of Franz Hessel’s guide to the city in a sprightly new translation by Amanda DeMarco is very welcome. Of course, my Berlin is that of the late twentieth-…