March 30, 2004



I must admit that I am a Le Carre fan, and I am not familiar with James Wood, but this review is pure sophistry. To suggest that Le Carre is not literary because his plots are "betrayed by the simplicity and the neatness" of his prose is specious at best, as though peppering one's writing with deliberately ambiguous phrases like "final unfinality" will elevate you to literary status. You might just as easily suggest that a fat wallet necessarily implies wealth. I did enjoy the "bald-faced illiteracies" crack.

Steve of In Writing

I won't read this review for fear of discovering Wood's opinion on the invasion, and thereby hate him if he follows Leon Wieseltier's line. But I did skip to the final para and see the events described "George W. Bush's policy in Iraq". He should know better than use such euphemisms for mass murder.


I'm with you, Sean-o. The last half is ingenuity wasted on something that's pretty obvious -- the badness of Le Carre's latest book.

The first half is right in some particulars, wrong overall. Le Carre's fiction obviously falls short of depicting the real world, where men are heroic and garrulous. Greene, Hem, and Le Carre are the worst of writers -- unless you consider all the rest.


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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."