“What women they were!” A TLS review by Dervla Murphy, the Irish travel writer, who died on May 22, began with this exclamation, in the spring of 1977. It was followed by an allusion to Shakespeare: “We shall not look upon their like again.” Reviewing a book by Luree Miller called On Top of the World: Five women explorers in TibetMurphy was talking about formidable types such as Isabella Bishop (who was seventy years old when she rode 1,000 Moroccan miles on horseback) and Alexandra David-Néel (“the first European woman to see Lhasa”).
There are still admirers of Murphy’s own formidable achievements as both a traveler and a writer. We hope there are, at least; pick up a copy of her Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle (1965) if the idea of joining their ranks appeals. An explorer of the old school, Gerald de Gaury, praised Full Tilt in the TLS for the “new view” it offered – of “the changing world from between the bars of her bike”.
“Is book reviewing an art?”, some might ask. It is, we would answer, when it comes to Murphy’s TLS reviews of Patricia Cockburn (“Anglo-Irish eccentricity was – and remains – a superbly individual phenomenon. Unpredictability is its hallmark…”), Ranulph Fiennes (he of the “obsessional craving for abnormally dangerous challenges”), or Sybille Bedford (“for Many people traveling can be an endeavor to abandon the ego for the sake of absorption by the world”). When Murphy found herself reviewing a book on the familiar subject of getting about on two wheels – Riding the Mountains Down (1984) by Bettina Selby – the result was a piece that may be read as a quasi-postscript to Full Tilt.
Amid these travelers’ tales, meanwhile, is a paragraph that questions the rationale for a whole emerging category of books: Young adult fiction. Now established in many readers’ minds as a genre in itself, virtually beyond question, the term “young adult” could still, in 1982, bring a reviewer up short. When Murphy saw the term used to identify the presumed readership for Farrukh Dhondy’s collection of stories Poona Company,
That made me stop and think. In my day adolescence was a time of literary vacillation: one moved from Just William to Jane Eyre, and back to Biggles and on again to Hardy and back to Arthur Ransome – as the turbulent glands dictated. We were left to struggle on from childhood to adulthood as best we could, without any particular concessions. Now, however, adolescents have been made aware of their unique place in society and publishers occasionally experiment with them as a distinctive group needing delicately adjusted printed matter. Literary vacillation seems to be a natural part of growing up, from which adolescents do not need to escape.
Not-so-young adults, Murphy went on to say, in a later review, could be readers of good writers such as Dhondy. It would be a shame – now as then – if an age-specific label put them off.
“It is a pity that this secondhand copy of A Heritage and Its History has a back cover”, said Walter Challenger. “The back cover is as misleading as the front – which is illustrated by John Holmes, he of the famous cover for The Female Eunuch – is disquieting.”
“Show it to me,” Simon said.
The paperback volume passed between the brothers in silence.
“But this is simply a plot summary. There is nothing awry here.”
“You have always had a fondness for being misled.”
“Novels are notorious for containing plot”, Simon said. “Panther, who published this edition of A Heritage and Its History ten years after it was first published by Victor Gollancz, in 1959, ought to be commended rather than castigated, for giving you fair warning.”
“I do not read the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett for the plot.”
“Your habits have always been of doubtful value.”
“Dame Ivy would have agreed.”
“None of us can escape falling into an unpleasant consensus from time to time.”
“Well, we must strive to avoid falling into a wrong one, Simon. This ‘blurb’, for example, besides its obsessional craving for plot, begins: ‘No other woman novelist of the 20th Century has probed so mercilessly beneath the outwardly respectable and serene surface of middle-class family life as has Ivy Compton-Burnett’ .”
“Walter, your abhorrence of description is indescribably unnecessary.”
“I am particular. I merely abhor the deployment of the word ‘woman’ in this context. Oh, and the conceit concerning depth. A Heritage and Its History is all surface. It is a book of dialogue. Assertions are made, questions asked, a butler prompted to raise his shoulders. These are the mighty matters with which this book is concerned, and which the knowing reader may readily savour.”
“Such readers make a minority.”
“I cannot call that an untruth.”
“Well, you must learn to savour faster. You are on page forty-two, after several weeks of reading.”
“A bookmark may lie as easily as an Etonian politician.”
“After being the general editor of an international language journal for more than twenty years”, John Edwards writes, from Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, “I recently became the reviews editor.” In this role Professor Edwards can testify against some publishers’ “mean-spirited practice” of offering a book reviewer a “digital avatar” instead of a book (see NB, May 13). You know, a book – an actual, printed book. This is not a wholly negligible point for consideration – “after all, a published review is a very minor addition to most scholarly resumés – and being able to keep an expensive book is a definite attraction”.
Instead of this “small payment-in-kind for their services”, reviewers may receive a PDF. Some will be driven to the “expense and annoyance” of printing it out for themselves. A further twist of the knife we were unaware of: “Some publishers have told me that, having first provided only an electronic version, they will send along a print copy on the receipt of the completed review.” review the book, then receive a copy? Well, what could be fairer than that?
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