A Literary View

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The Death of the Book?

‘Out with the old, in with the new.’ Innovation might be exciting, but it also makes us nervous. The Industrial Revolution replaced man with the machine; the Digital Age has not been short on victims either. Last year the digital revolution took a firm hold of the book world. Sales in eBook fiction sky-rocketed by 149% in 2012. Is the book being pushed into the past? 

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The Value Of Celebrity

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A famous name can have an extraordinary impact upon the value of something. With celebrity comes a superpower: the Midas touch. The right name can sell just about anything, and at a vastly inflated price. Kanye West – stellar musician – put his name to a clothing line. The most basic item, a plain white t-shirt, retails for $120. Celebrity memorabilia is the mundane made expensive. In recent auction, a coat once owned by John Lennon sold for £7,000. Elsewhere, a plain, greyish t-shirt worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II sold for £900. Taken as they are, these items boast no especial worth. Threadbare, worn, basic – but minted by association. Is this not a little insane? Or do these vicariously valuable items boast some significance of their own?

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The Rise of the Individual

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The Centennial of Independence, oil on canvas by Henri Rousseau, 1892.

In an essay of 1924, Virginia Woolf declared that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ Writing from the vantage point of the ‘twenties, Woolf rewinds past the so-called ‘Great War,’ marking instead the date that the first Post- Impressionist Art exhibition was displayed in London. Is this Bloomsbury aesthete just being facetious? Or is there more to this comment?

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Lost Libraries

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Girolamini Ancient Library, Naples

It recently came to light that London’s Lambeth Palace, home to an impressive historic library as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the scene of a ‘major crime’ that remained undetected for decades. In a sequence of events that might have read as the sensational formula of a Victorian mystery, a sealed letter was sent to the palace by an unfamiliar solicitor. Disclosed within, was the admission of a deceased, former employee of the library.

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Our Decadent Neighbour

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Aubrey Beardsley lived in 114 Cambridge street, just a few doors up the road from Classic Rare Books. If accounted for in years, Beardsley barely lived at all, dying from tuberculosis at the age of 26. Measured seismically, though, his life pounded within the late Victorian atmosphere.

Beardsley was an illustrator, an author; a decadent, an aesthete. The high priest of decadence – Oscar Wilde – first met Beardsley at Edward Burne-Jones’ house, 12th July 1891. Wilde and his wife, Constance, took Beardsley (and his sister Mabel) home in their carriage. They became friends. Wilde later claimed that he “created” Beardsley. But Beardsley had sufficient projects and initiatives independent of Wilde to contend such a claim. There was one collaboration, however, that achieved the height of erotically infused, decadent, artistry.

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Writing a Person

Rendering a person in language is not an easy task, even less so in the controversial case of Margaret Thatcher. The ex-prime minister and late Baroness divorced public opinion to the furthest ends of the spectrum. Is it possible to reconcile these polar perceptions into one compact, comprehensive figure? Faced with this unenviable job, in his eulogy for Thatcher the Bishop of London opted to confront her controversy directly. ‘It’s almost as perplexing,’ he declared, ‘to identify the real me in life as it is in death. The atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time through wear and tear, eating and drinking; we are atomically distinct from what we were when we were young. What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven? What constitutes her identity?’ The Bishop’s musings extend beyond Thatcher, as he considers the absurdity of fixing an individual and their myriad, fluid forms, to one identity, to one centre of being. Can one ever truly describe a person?

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The Mystery of the Unsolved

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Countless theories proliferate in response to David Lynch’s films.

A sublime production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times is entering into its last week at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The play – consisting of only three characters, played by Rufus Sewell, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Lia Williams – is difficult to follow. Actually, that is an understatement.

It runs for an hour and a half – without interval – and demands the constant, unremitting attention of the audience. As the narrative veers between the past and present, the relationships between the characters become ever more convolute. The past pushes up through the seam of the present; linear time is abandoned and replaced with chronological muddle. The mysteries of the present are, it would seem, only explicable by the events of the past, and as the characters recall and retell their memories from their youth, the audience trusts that all will become clear, all revealed. That is the usual form a mystery takes. But not so here. The director’s (Ian Rickson) decision to cast the two female leads as both female characters, alternating which role they play according to the night, is surely emphatic of the dynamics of convergence and divergence that characterise the relationships in this play. Critics have heartily recommended that the keen audience member books tickets for two performances to experience this role reversal. It is unlikely, however, that a second viewing will clear up any of the residual ambiguities and unanswered questions hanging over from the first. This play is tenaciously enigmatic.

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Unlovable Characters; Unlovable Fiction?

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Writing in her diary in late 1919, Virginia Woolf records E. M. Forster’s reaction to her latest (and second) published novel, Night and Day. As a ‘strictly formal and classical work,’ Night and Day requires ‘a far greater degree of lovability in the characters’ than the novel (as it stands) presents. This, I think, is one of the most common criticisms that I hear levied against fiction. I’ve had many a friend denounce a novel or drama for denying them a character to care for. Stunning aesthetics and stellar casts be damned: if the characters are empathetically impervious then the work fails to appeal.

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Writers’ Rooms

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Martin Amis’s writing room. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

A couple of years ago, The Guardian ran a series that explored writers’ rooms. A photograph of the room was accompanied by three-hundred words or so from the featured author, describing their writing habits and habitat. The series proved enormously popular, and ran for quite some time. These visual and verbal snapshots are seductive in their apparent revelation of the private. They tantalise with their microcosmic divulgences. One feels that they know something intimate about the author, as we are, as if by personal invitation, permitted to gaze at the art on their walls, the books on their shelves, the discarded scrumpled pages in the bin under their hallowed desks.

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Representing the Royals

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‘Paul Emsley’s Duchess of Cambridge portrait is catastrophic,’ said Michael Glover in the Independent. The cheeks are ‘hamsterish,’ the face, ‘saggy’ and ‘a touch dropsical.’ Glover blames Emsley’s photoreal method of painting. It seems to him as though the painter is envious of the ‘truth-telling powers of photography,’ so has resolved to attempt the same effect in the hope that the achievement of the skilled ‘hand’ proves the more impressive than that of mere ‘machine.’ Unfortunately the clamour of critics pronouncing Emsley’s likeness to be not like-enough has virtually drowned out any positive response, including that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge themselves.

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