The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

A rather pointless book, but not by all accounts; the Internet fairly abounds with praise for this book. Carter is apparently a “master of seductive, luminous storytelling”. According to Ian McEwan this book is a series of “Magnificent set pieces of fastidious sensuality”. Many people think the stories are clever, and they desperately want to be, but they seem to be little or nothing else, as stories. I found the figurative language not just overdone, as it no doubt is meant to be, but to fall flat each time: “A choker of rubies two inches wide, like an extraordinary precious slit throat.” This is not a metaphor which doesn’t work, as metaphors are wont to do, the kind of anti-metaphor of which T S Eliot is the master, but a metaphor which doesn’t do anything, just like each of her stories, which leave the reader wondering: what was the point of that?

Mr A

The 100 best novels: No 50 – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness

Virginia Woolf
‘What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?’ Virginia Woolf takes on the big questions in Mrs Dalloway. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

In the spring of 1924, Virginia Woolf, then in her 40s, gave a famous lecture, later published as the essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, in which she declared that “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature”. She might have been speaking about herself. In the next 15-odd years, before her suicide, Woolf would transform the English literary landscape forever. She would innovate (To the Lighthouse); she would flirt (Orlando); she would provoke (A Room of One’s Own) and, privately, would dazzle herself and her friends with a stream of letters (and diaries), all of which reveal a writer’s mind at full tilt.

Woolf is one of the giants of this series, andMrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, is one of her greatest achievements, a book whose afterlife continues to inspire new generations of writers and readers. Like Ulysses (no 46 in this series), it takes place in the course of a single day, probably 13 June 1923. Unlike Joyce’s masterpiece, Woolf’s female protagonist is an upper-class English woman living in Westminster who is planning a party for her husband, a mid-level Tory politician.

As Clarissa Dalloway’s day unfolds, in and around Mayfair, we discover that not only is she being treated in Harley Street for severe depression, a familiar subject to Woolf, but she also conceals a troubled past replete with unarticulated love and suggestions of lesbianism. Equally troubled is the novel’s second main character, explicitly a “double”, a Great War veteran who fought in France “to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays”. Septimus Warren Smith is suffering from shell shock and is on his way to a consultation with Clarissa’s psychiatrist. Mingled with the preparations for the party, the stream-of-consciousness exploration of Mrs Dalloway’s inner state is broken by an irruption of senseless violence when Septimus, who is waiting to be taken to an asylum, throws himself out of a window. News of Septimus’s suicide becomes a topic of conversation at Mrs Dalloway’s party, where Woolf indicates Clarissa’s deep sympathy for the dead man’s suffering. The novel ends unresolved, but on a note of suspenseful menace. “What is this terror?” writes Woolf. “What is this ecstasy?” Her mature work would be devoted to exploring these questions.


Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

I’m not sure about this book – a selection of connected short stories. It has been described as “A mini masterpiece” by the Sunday Times, as “Truly extraordinary” by Scotland on Sunday, and been labelled the best book of the year more than once, yet it just seems like a fairly good writer telling stories with honesty and humour and a fair amount of skill. The apparent “astonishing beauty” of one of the “best writers of English prose around doesn’t register. It’s good, but I wonder why everyone is getting so excited about Denis Johnson: is it that he writes about characters from the wrong side of the tracks with sympathy and grace?


Mr A

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

 oranges are not

This novel is hugely admired and highly rated, though I am left wondering why. The Evening Standard opines: “Many consider her to be the best living writer in this language”. And even The Observer comments that “Winterson maintains a balance of tone, a trueness of voice… It remains one of the finest things Winterson has written”. The novel has always been massively popular, though it seems a rather poorly executed one – the narrative voice is confused (is it the fourteen year old girl giving us the story, or the older woman?), the narrative is interpolated with bogus magical passages (they don’t mean anything), and the characters are utterly implausible. Perhaps a puerile interest in different sexualities might account for this novel’s success to date; I can’t account for it otherwise. Unless it’s the title: which is inspired.

Mr A

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in pictures

Conrad’s novella of colonial atrocity has inspired powerful images from entrants to a competition to illustrate the book. The winning pictures will be published in a new edition from the Folio Society later this year. 

Magdalena Szymaniec's digital work is inspired by traditional media including watercolour painting and printmaking.
Magdalena Szymaniec is a Polish illustrator who lives in Richmond, Virginia. She is a student at Ringling College of Art and Design. Her digital work is inspired by traditional media including watercolour painting and printmaking.
Illustration by Magdalena Szymaniec
Illustration by Magdalena Szymaniec
Reto Crameri's as also performed live drawing and worked on playful visual settings for exhibitions.
Reto Crameri graduated in visual communication from Geneva University of Art and Design. In 2012 he was awarded a grant for book illustration by the City of Geneva.
Illustration by Reto Crameri
Illustration by Reto Crameri.
Max P. Häring works in mixed media in pen, ink and acrylics then digitally adds shading.
Max P Häring studied at the Akademie der bildenden Künste München in Munich, and has worked as an independent artist since 1983. He works in mixed media in pen, ink and acrylics then digitally adds shading.
Illustration by Max P Häring
Illustration by Max P Häring
Kit Russell  is a 23-year-old Scottish designer living in London.
Kit Russell is a 23-year-old Scottish designer. Having graduated from Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 2013, he has spent the last year freelancing as a designer.
Illustration by Kit Russell.
Illustration by Kit Russell
Bethany White's work aims to lift the veil on the esoteric and arcane.
Bethany White is a 22-year-old artist and illustrator from Manchester. Her work aims to lift the veil on the esoteric and arcane, delving into the vast subjects of occult philosophy and ancient mythology.
Illustration by Bethany White
Illustration by Bethany White
Sean's work combines traditional ink drawing and printmaking with digital techniques.
Sean McSorley’s work combines traditional ink drawing and printmaking with digital techniques, his subject matter often reflecting his interest in early- and mid-20th-century cinema and literature.
Illustration by Sean McSorley
Illustration by Sean McSorley

• The Book Illustration Competition is run by the Folio Society and House of Illustration.


The Great Unread


Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?


Even in our era of blurb inflation, it’s hard to top Giuseppe Verdi’s claim that Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) was “a gift to humanity.” Verdi was hardly alone in praising the author, who ranks second only to Dante in Italian literary history. Manzoni’s contemporaries Goethe and Stendhal celebrated his genius, while the critic Georg Lukács said that The Betrothed was a universal portrait of Italy so complete that it exhausted the genre of the historical novel. In Italy, such is the ubiquity of Manzoni’s novel that Umberto Eco claimed “almost all Italians hate it because they were forced to read it in school.” Manzoni was named senator in 1860 by the Italian government; in his greatest honor, Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

So why do few outside of Italy care about Manzoni—or, even more tellingly, why do they care much more about other books, written around the same time as The Betrothedand devoted to themes similar to its own? By comparison, one of the best-selling Italian books of all time is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), the story of a mischievous puppet who dreams of becoming a boy. The scholar Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg has shown that Pinocchio, in his struggle to assert his individuality against the controlling wishes of the outside world, represented the archetypal Italian child in the newly formed nation: the book first appeared twenty years after unification. Similarly, Manzoni’s Betrothed gives us two typical Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who struggle to marry and build a life together amid class inequality, foreign occupation, and church domination.

But here the similarities end: Manzoni’s novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God’s providential wisdom. Collodi’s story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni’s legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi’s star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni’s thoroughly Christian universe a second thought.

This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work’s ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term:universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what’s supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time—that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.

In his Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that great literature is “a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence … another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed.” Shelley understood that some works have the magical capacity to resist closure—they read us as much as we read them, by revealing what is most important to our lives individually and our age collectively. Each great book, Shelley writes, is “the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially”: the meaning we derive from literature changes over time, though the words on the page remain the same.

Sometimes we even look for meaning that isn’t really there—at least not in the way that the author intended it. In 1756, Voltaire proclaimed “nobody reads Dante anymore,” and indeed the Enlightenment had little time for Dante’s religious allegories and Christian doctrine. He was about to go the way of Manzoni’s Betrothed: a classic that was once much admired but now rarely read. Then the Romantics came along and rediscovered Dante, celebrating his individuality and heroism—those same qualities from Inferno that Dante would reject in Paradiso. But that didn’t matter to the Romantics. They creatively misread Dante, and in so doing made him the literary touchstone he is today. Our interest in Dante’s hell, the universality of its concern with questions of justice and crime and punishment, overrides our indifference to his medieval vision of Christianity.

Manzoni famously announced that The Betrothed would reach only “twenty-five readers,” yet his book became a national treasure. Its inability to attract a non-Italian audience isn’t the result of its artistic shortcomings, but of the nature of its questions and themes, which simply don’t appeal to a contemporary audience. No literary work can predict the future, but some do a better job than others in carving out a space for readers of all types and from all epochs. Where Manzoni failed, others, like Collodi, succeed. Manzoni’s novel exudes a Christian faith at odds with an increasingly secularized world; Collodi’s focuses on the eternal plight of children in the land of grown-ups.

W. E. B. Du Bois defended the necessity of a liberal arts education for recently emancipated African Americans by saying, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” Separated from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England by centuries, he still found in the plays a universal space where he could explore his common humanity with Hamlet,Macbeth, and Othello. The greatest defense of the classics, he understood, was to keep reading them—and to let them keep reading us.