TLS: Cities and Writers/Officers and Novelists

A few weeks ago, the TLS published an article by novelist William Boyd (“Footless giant: A visit to Kafka’s Prague”) about his recent trip to that city. It opens with this:

…it being Prague, my thoughts turn almost instantly to Franz Kafka. This powerful association between city and writer is reinforced when I open the hotel minibar and in it find a kind of circular biscuit, a chocolate-covered hazelnut-brittle wafer (yours for 60 crowns, about £2) emblazoned with the writer’s soulful, big-eyed face in tasteful sepia contrasted with the black and gold of the wrapping. “Prague Kafka Oblaten” it says.

This type of immediate connection applies to other writers and other cities, naturally. Dublin and James Joyce; Bath and Jane Austen, Buenos Aires and Jorge Luis Borges, Chicago and Saul Bellow come to mind. As a notional parlour game one can posit other less obvious ones: Lyme Regis and John Fowles; St Petersburg and Andrei Bely; Trieste and Istvan Szabo [sic]. Or would that be Trieste and Joyce? Or Trieste and Richard Burton? Or Trieste and Rilke? It could be an extension of the game to pitch writers against each other to see who gets to stake the literary claim. What about Edinburgh? Walter Scott or Ian Rankin? Or Robert Louis Stevenson? Or Muriel Spark? – though the last two hightailed it out of their city as soon as was feasible. And who would claim Oxford? Evelyn Waugh? P. D. James? Max Beerbohm? Or New York. Or London. Or Key West. Hours of harmless fun on offer.

This discussion resulted in a letter in later issue of TLS on the Oxford pairing. This is from Gerald Rabie of London NW11 (Golders Green). He wonders where Boyd has “been living these past forty years? Has he never heard of Colin Dexter?” He refers, of course, to the author of the Inspector Morse novels (and ITV serial) about the Oxford police detective. One does wonder how P D James got onto the list since most of her fictional detective’s time is spent (as I recall) in East Anglia and London. Some thought must also have been given to J I M Stewart who wrote a 5 novel series about Oxford called Staircase in Surrey. And while, like Brideshead Revisited, not entirely devoted to Oxford, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure contained a very moving section set in that city.

Anticipating several of the comments above, and in response to Mr Rabie’s letter, William Boyd sent his own letter which appeared in the 13 December TLS issue (which arrived in the USA after the foregoing comments were posted):

Of course Gerald Rabie is absolutely right about Colin Dexter’s association with Oxford.[…] I’m pleased he’s caught the spirit of the parlour game. But, if Dexter, what about Philip Pullman? Or Percy Shelley, C S Lewis, Iris Murdoch, J R R Tokien, Anthony Powell, Lewis Carroll, J I M Stewart (Michael Innes), Compton McKenzie, Dorothy L Sayers, and Edmund Crispin? One could go on and on. Where has Mr Rabie been all these years.

Boyd also seems to get a bit muddled when considering writers connected with another Hapsburg city. This is Trieste which he associates primarily with Istvan Szabo (a filmmaker, not a novelist). He must have confused that name with Italo Svevo who is, indeed, a writer closely associated with Trieste where he set his most widely read novel (Confessions of Zeno) and was a friend of James Joyce. Szabo could properly be matched with yet another Hapsburg city–Budapest.

Also in a recent TLS, there is a review of four WWII novels recently republished by the Imperial War Museum. See previous post. One of these is entitled Trial by Battle and is written by David Piper. The TLS review by Sean O’Brien, makes this observation about that book:

The sense that the death knell of empire has sounded intensifies when the troops come ashore into a military situation that, although they are slow to recognize or admit to it, is already beyond saving. The terror and nightmarish confusion of jungle combat, for which the Allied troops are wholly unprepared, are brilliantly conveyed. Piper’s writing bears comparison with David Jones’s account of the assault on Mametz Wood during the first battle of the Somme in In Parenthesis (1937), and with Ernst Jünger’s depiction of trench warfare in Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern, 1920). Communications collapse, and the scattered remnants of the Allied forces attempt a doomed fighting retreat. Here again the book survives a testing comparison, in this case with Evelyn Waugh’s narrative of the German invasion of Crete in Officers and Gentlemen (1955). […] There is worse to come for the Allies. In the rigorous frankness of his writing, Piper makes it clear why so many veterans said little or nothing about their experiences.

UPDATE (25 December 2019): The 13 December issue of TLS arrived after the above was posted. It contained a letter from William Boyd addressing several points raised in the above posting. This has been added to the post. Another letter in the same issue (from Mitch Abidor, Brooklyn, NY 11234) made the a similar comment to that above relating to the confusion of Italo Svevo and Istvan Szabo.

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