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Archive by tag: Sam LeithReturn
Sep 13, 2022

The Spanish author’s death has robbed us of his unique, riddling investigations into reality

Spanish novelist Javier Marías dies in Madrid hospital aged 70
Javier Marías: modern literature’s great philosopher of everyday absurdity

Javier Marías won’t get the Nobel prize that many people, including me, think he deserved. No matter. He had plenty of prizes while he was alive. The greater loss is that we won’t get any more of his extraordinary novels. There is no other writer like him, certainly not in English. He was a complete original, at ease with philosophy and pop-cultural trivia, genre and literary fiction. He looked the great writers of the past, from many national traditions, squarely and companionably in the eye.

Marías, perhaps above all, was a profoundly cosmopolitan writer. He taught all over the world and said he did “not much believe in national literatures”. Translation was a central preoccupation of his life and work – he translated Nabokov, Hardy, Faulkner and Conrad, among many others. He was at home in Oxford and Madrid alike, and didn’t mind having a character notice a multilingual pun or tick off Lady Diana Spencer, in a slightly peevish aside, for her “awful, mistake-ridden English”.

This is what Tupra said in a fake accent which was perhaps his real accent, inside his fast car, in the lunar light of the streetlamps, sitting on my right, with his hands still resting on the motionless steering wheel, squeezing it or strangling it, he wasn’t wearing gloves now, they were hidden away, dirty and sodden and wrapped in toilet paper, in his overcoat, along with the sword. -- “That’s the thing, Jock. Fear,” he added ...

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Aug 06, 2022

The literary cartoonist talks about taking graphic novels mainstream, his feelings of imposter syndrome, and processing his darkest childhood memories in his latest book

Nick Drnaso finds himself in a disconcerting position. His hobby has become his job. He is still struggling to get used to a world in which it makes more financial sense for him to sit at his drawing board from the moment he wakes up until 2am. He feels, he admits when he speaks to me from his home studio in Chicago, like an “impostor”. Until 2016 he was working behind a pressing machine in a factory that made tin badges. “You would kind of assemble the pieces. It just felt like cartooning,” he says, “problem solving and repetitive motion and working delicately with your hands. So I loved it.”

The mundanity of ordinary work, and its way of anchoring people in their lives, is a theme that runs through his new book, Acting Class. As well as the button badges, Drnaso, 33, has done nine-to-fives as a janitor, and painting slogans on to dolls at “a weird ornament company” – both jobs that are faithfully (and wanly) reproduced on the page.

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Jan 25, 2022

A group of friends hole up in the countryside to ride out New York’s pandemic in the ‘Dacha of Doom’

Gary Shteyngart’s contribution to the burgeoning genre of the lockdown novel is very, very Russian – in the best possible way. The premise is that a group of old friends are to spend a month in the country (well, several months) riding out New York’s pandemic in a little ad hoc colony in the Hudson valley. The cast is a collection of privileged, mournful “lishnii cheloveks” (as the “superfluous men” of 19th-century Russian literature were known) in late middle age, pottering and squabbling in rural exile, wondering what the world is coming to and regretting the past.

The host at what comes to be called the “Dacha of Doom” is Sasha Senderovsky, a dishevelled Russian-Jewish-American author who, like Shteyngart, has had considerable success with a series of comic novels about the Russian-Jewish-American experience. Now, though, his career is on the slide and if he can’t get a troubled TV script across the line he faces losing the country estate (well, house with a few bungalows attached) that is his pride and joy. He doesn’t have an actual cherry orchard, but the reader very much gets the drift. Here’s something of a departure – or at least a mellowing – for Shteyngart; the antic international satire of Absurdistan or the science-fictional Super Sad True Love Story is muted, while on his stylistic mixing board the slider marked melancholy has been notched up to 11.

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Nov 06, 2021

The author on returning to the dystopian world of big tech in his sequel to The Circle, and how he’s taking a stand against Bezos’s empire

In 2013, Dave Eggers’ techno-dystopian satire The Circle described a sinister social media company that aims to abolish privacy for good. Its devotees aspire to “go transparent” – allow every moment of their lives to be captured on camera and beamed to the world. After his debut memoir, it is probably his best-known book, spawning a Hollywood movie.

Nearly 10 years on, Eggers has written a sequel. The Every returns to the world of The Circle and takes its premise even further. The titular social media/search company of the first novel has swallowed up a competitor – “an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle” – and created the “richest company the world has ever known”.

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May 12, 2021

After 35 years of work, the feted comic creator has published Monsters, a drama featuring Nazi science and psychic powers. He talks about Marvel and how his drawing style has evolved

How long would you wait for a comic? My 10-year-old son, staking out the letterbox (“Dad! My Beano still hasn’t arrived!”) has a limit of about 48 hours. I want to say to him: “Two days? Try 35 years!” For that is how long the world has waited for Barry Windsor-Smith’s new graphic novel, Monsters.

In an industry that has, for most of its history, been dominated by fast art and on-the-hoof storytelling, owing to the ferocious pace of weekly production, to call Monsters an outlier would be an understatement. The reason that anyone is prepared to wait that long for it is the 71-year-old behind it. Before Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Dave McKean, Warren Ellis, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons and all the other UK creators who have had a disproportionate impact on the US comic book scene, there was Windsor-Smith. He showed up fresh from art-school – more or less literally, to hear him tell it – on Marvel Comics’s doorstep in 1968 and he has been, sometimes turbulently, in and out of the funny books ever since.

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Apr 29, 2021

What if the Incas had invaded Europe? Flights of fancy reimagine a 16th century that never happened

French author Laurent Binet is preoccupied with real-life events, AKA history, and how we tell it. There was the fretful meticulousness of his debut HHhH, a “nonfiction novel” about the assassination of Nazi chief Reinhard Heydrich; then The 7th Function of Language, a metafictional thriller about Roland Barthes and his fatal encounter with a laundry van.

Now, still not content just to make up some imaginary characters and have them interact, he presents something that reads more like a collection of primary sources than a conventional novel. What to call it? A historical systems novel, preoccupied with the roots of great power conflict, and the historical forces that underpin it? Or just a jeu d’esprit? It’s a bit of both, and it’s tremendous fun.

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Apr 16, 2021

The author of the bestselling Southern Reach trilogy talks about taking notes on leaves, the adaptation of Annihilation and his new ecological thriller

In Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Hummingbird Salamander, the unnamed protagonist is presented in the opening pages with the key to a safety deposit box. Inside, she finds a taxidermied hummingbird and a note with just three words (and six dots) on it:

Hummingbird

......

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Apr 03, 2021

Kale smoothie or a necklace of dead rats? A dissatisfied woman embarks on a fierce and filthy challenge to capitalism, big tech and wellness culture

“Inter faeces et urinam nascimur,” St Augustine of Hippo is credited with remarking. “We are born between shit and piss.” But in most societies, most of the time, we strive to keep those things out of sight and out of mind: there are deep taboos settled on these most basic human commonalities. Why might that be?

Sam Byers’ third novel poses the question in earnest. Not since Timothy Mo’s Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, I think, has there been a mainstream literary novel so fiercely and lovingly committed to the feculent: whole paragraphs and pages are dedicated to mucous, vomit, slicks of warm diarrhoea, puddles of piss, maggoty sores and liquefying rotten meat. You may find that disgusting. There again, you may be part of the problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Jan 19, 2021

Bad taste has a purpose in this outrageous satire on tribalism, family relationships and the weight of history

In his new novel, Shalom Auslander applies his satirical scalpel to the delicate issues of identity politics. And anyone who has read Auslander before will know that when I say “applies his satirical scalpel”, I mean something more like “tosses a hand-grenade and runs away laughing”.

The protagonist of Mother for Dinner is Seventh Seltzer: loving husband, father of a young daughter, and a publisher’s reader in New York who is weary of the cynically pious turn in his industry towards foregrounding marginal voices. The manuscripts he sifts through are all, he complains to himself, “another tedious version of what he had taken of late to calling the Not-So-Great Something-American Novel. It was all anyone wrote these days, and all Rosenbloom, his boss, cared to publish.”

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Jan 13, 2021

A writer with a stutter offers a thought-provoking defence of disfluency and takes a sideswipe at Freud

When Jonty Claypole was growing up with a stutter, the role models available were not encouraging: Porky Pig; Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours; and, of course, the novelty single “Stutter Rap”. A condition that humiliated Claypole and countless stuttering contemporaries was seldom played for anything but laughs in popular culture.

That may have changed – a little – but it has not changed enough. The project of this book is to unravel some of the cultural and medical history of, and explain the complex and varied conditions that affect, what are usually called “speech disorders” – and to argue that their impact on those who have them is substantially worsened by a society that insists on seeing them straightforwardly as disorders in the first place. Claypole marshals everyone from Deleuze and Guattari to Lewis Carroll and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to give evidence.

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Nov 11, 2020

Pantomime misanthropy is tempered with bursts of sweetness in the secondhand bookseller’s latest dispatches from Wigtown

There’s a moment in the first season of the short-lived but influential sitcom Black Books in which an elderly customer appears with a box of attractive old editions of classics to sell to Dylan Moran’s crosspatch bookseller Bernard. Barely looking at them, Bernard offers him £40. But they’re worth more than that, the man says. “I know, I know,” Bernard concedes. “But I don’t want them. I’ll have to price them, then, and put them up on the shelves, and store them, and people will come in and ask about them, and buy them, and read them, and come back and sell them and the whole hideous cycle will just go on and on and on ...” He gives the man £40 to take the books away.

Shaun Bythell’s dispatches from the Wigtown Bookshop, which he has run for nearly 20 years, read like a knowing riff on the persona of Bernard Black. He started out grousing about his life, pillorying his eccentric staff and venting about his noisome customers on a Facebook page. Then he did the same in his hit Diary of a Bookseller, continued with Confessions of a Bookseller, and here he is – an actual franchise – with a slim little listicle-titled till-point follow-up for the Christmas market. His inner Bernard Black will be heaving a world-weary sigh. The more he parades his contemptus mundi, the more the world loves him.

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Oct 17, 2020

Forty years on from ‘the first masterpiece in comic-book history’, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist talks fame, switching styles and why he doesn’t want to draw Trump

Early in the second volume of Maus – the graphic novel about the Holocaust that made Art Spiegelman’s reputation – he includes a passage showing the reaction to the publication of volume one. The artist is sitting at his drawing board, perched atop a mountain of dead bodies, as a succession of importunate reporters crowd in bombarding him with questions: “Okay... let’s talk about Israel...” “Could you tell your audience if drawing Maus was cathartic? Do you feel better now?”

As the questions come in, he struggles to answer – “A message? I dunno...” “Who am I to say?” – and over the course of the following panels shrinks to the size of a toddler, marooned in his writing chair. “I want... ABSOLUTION. No... No... I want... I want... my MOMMY! WAH!” The reporters vanish, and mini-Spiegelman confesses: “Sometimes I just don’t feel like a functioning adult.”

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Sep 07, 2020

Love blossoms between a young black man and a middle-aged white mother in Hornby’s assured, if cosy, new novel

In this age of anxiety about cultural appropriation and suchlike, kudos to Nick Hornby’s bold move in Just Like You. He narrates one half of it from the point of view of a working-class black man in his early 20s and the other half from the point of view of a 42-year-old middle-class white mother. And, what’s more, he makes a social comedy of the two of them falling in love, one that gently dramatises their differences of class, race and generation.

Joseph is broke and a bit aimless. He lives with his God-fearing old mum, coaches football in his spare time and works in a north London butcher’s shop while nursing dreams of making it big as a DJ. One of his regular customers is Lucy, head of English at a local school, mother of two boys and separated from Paul.

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Jul 11, 2020

The screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has written a novel - about a film critic who hates Charlie Kaufman

When Charlie Kaufman was seven years old, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He knows because he went as far as to write it down. “Actor, doctor or fireman,” he says, and laughs. He ended up being, at least briefly, one of those things – but he’s best known as the screenwriter and/or director of some of the trippiest and most metafictional films in recent history: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.

Now, with the publication of his first novel, Antkind, he’s also the author of a trippy and metafictional book. This isn’t some sort of Hollywood big-name vanity project of the sort on which Sean Penn lately came unstuck: Kaufman wrote the book, he says, because he couldn’t get work in the movies. “I got the contract to write it in 2012,” he says. “The movie and TV business wasn’t really working out for me at the time.”

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Apr 23, 2020

Think a mashup of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a David Nicholls weepie and a crime caper ...

Robert Webb’s first book, the memoir How Not to Be a Boy, established that as well as being funny on the telly he could write both sensitively and well. His first novel confirms it: it’s well paced, nicely written and highly entertaining. It’s also a very rum concoction indeed – as if someone had sandwiched a David Nicholls novel in the middle of a comedy thriller, using a Tardis.

When we first meet Webb’s protagonist Kate Marsden, she’s in her mid-40s, drunk, unwashed and suicidal. She is mourning the loss of her husband Luke, who died suddenly as a result of an undiagnosed brain tumour. Luke was an aspiring novelist who had been working on the same awful manuscript for 28 years. The awfulness hadn’t changed but every few years the title had: “From Whatever to Whenever to Why? to, briefly, Who Cares? And then triumphantly back to Whatever.” But with a Houllebecq novel of the same title, “Luke worried that he would be accused of plagiarism and that was not to be borne. By the time of his death, Luke’s unpublished masterpiece was called Fuck Off.”

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Apr 06, 2020

Kicking off a series where writers revisit the book they loved most as a child, Sam Leith returns to a ‘sinister’ classic

‘Say! In the dark? Here in the dark? Would you, could you, in the dark?” Dr Seuss’s masterpiece – among his many masterpieces – is Green Eggs and Ham. It transfixed me as a child and it transfixes me now as I read it to my own children.

Perhaps the most haunting passage in it comes with those words. This demented little creature, desperate to press his unappetising brunch on the grouchy protagonist, is in a car, on a train, and that train is now hurtling through a distinctly cloacal tunnel. The egg-and-ham refuser teeters backwards on the bonnet of the car, retreating from the proffered plate. And those words: the cadence of them, the sinister whisper: here in the dark. It could be the strapline for a serial-killer movie starring Morgan Freeman, and here it is in the middle of a zany children’s book.

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