Heat o’ the don

Katherine Duncan-Jones and Alastair Fowler, two great scholars of Renaissance literature and much else besides, have died on adjacent October weekends – what an autumnal blast that is. Both widely admired as academics, they were also longstanding contributors to the TLS.

Professor Duncan-Jones first wrote for the paper in 1980, on the subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; she ends with an acute speculation about why people are so keen to penetrate that sequence of poems to the heart, or rearrange them to their liking:

We all know that we can never write Othello or Hamlet, and that is a painful limitation of our horizons. But in the Sonnets We can find, to console ourselves, our very own do-it-yourself Shakespeare collage kit … this provides us all with an endlessly intricate and fascinating hobby for the long winter evenings…

This was a foretaste of the sharpness that stage or screen productions might coax from the Duncan-Jones pen, over three decades of writing for the TLS‘s arts pages. Only she, we feel, could have opened a review of Lucy Prebble’s Enron by comparing it (favourably) with Ben Jonson’s urban comedies. There were also, of course, several mighty interventions in the everlasting Shakespeare wars, on subjects such as play texts, portraits and the clown William Kemp. Did we not mention that none other than AL Rowse took exception to that first review, in 1980? Typically, Rowse wrote to defend his theory identifying the poet Emilia Lanyer as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets with a pompous, proprietorial remark that “KD-J” simply turned on its head: “While that the original identification was Professor Rowse’s unique achievement I realized that he was not the only person now to believe in it”. If you can’t hear the soft hiss of the blade going back into its scabbard after reading that seeming compliment, then count yourself lucky not to be acquainted with the keener modes of scholarly combat.

Professor Fowler might also be remembered for some vigorously combative entries into the reviewing arena published in this paper – most notably, in both 1981 and 2005, Stephen Greenblatt’s vogue-ish attempts to “make Renaissance man in our own image”. “I’m sorry to have given Stephen Greenblatt another bad notice”, Fowler wrote on the latter occasion (when he reviewed Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare). “But he could have avoided that by learning, in the course of thirty years, at least a little British history.”

More happily, Fowler also wrote for the TLS about everything from allegory (in 1965) to Thomas Wyatt (in 2013) – taking in Gavin Douglas, James Hogg and much more Scottish literature along the way. He also contributed poems; “Taupe”, a comic take on the Book of Genesis, published in 1997, we suspect to be uncollected.

The American writer and academic Charles Johnson – the author of Middle Passage (1990), among other novels – is also the cartoonist Charles Johnson. Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1948, he made a name for himself drawing prolifically for publications in the Chicago area during the 1960s; As a Black student, Johnson expressed views that attracted the interest from the faculty adviser to the college newspaper, who requested that he give up the cartoons in which “I was calling for revolution”. He later made some friends in the Black Panther Party – “Their iconography was simply too rich for me, as a cartoonist, not to want to draw.”

As Johnson recalls in All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End (New York Review Comics, $34.95), his literary success eventually proved a distraction from cartooning; he kept at it, all the same, via publications such as Black Issues in Higher Education and American Book Review. We will let the example reproduced above speak for itself. Turning the pages of this new book, we also find a Pilgrim Father pointing at the healthy meal an Indigenous American is holding and asking him, “Do you think there’s a chance we can turn these into recipes for a bestselling cookbook?”. On the opposite page, an extraterrestrial disembarks from its spaceship but declines the invitation to be taken to Earth’s leader. “We just came for the Octavia Butler book party!”

The many fans of the Nobel prize in literature may find themselves asking the question that Alex Faulkner writes from Lewes to put to us. In a second-hand bookshop, “have you ever come across a section, pile, etc devoted to winners of the Nobel?”. The question arises from Mr Faulkner’s recent excursion to a shop in East Sussex, in search of the novels of 2014’s Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. “Neither the proprietor nor their main shop-sitter, whom I know to be quite well-informed, had heard of Modiano.”

Admirers of this year’s winner, Annie Ernaux, will want to hang on to their copies of last week’s TLS for the sake of Lauren Elkin’s appraisal of Ernaux’s cool confessions. Those admirers who are also collectors, meanwhile, once they have ticked off the French originals (almost all published by Gallimard), should have no difficulty in obtaining the common British editions of, say, Se perdre (2001; Getting Lostpublished in the UK last month) or Mémoire de fille (2016; A Girl’s Story, 2020), both translated by Alison L. Strayer. Completists will pursue the American editions published by Dalkey Archive and Seven Stories.

A lazily inquisitive glance at AbeBooks last week suggested that the most highly priced Ernaux out there – we state this half-hoping that somebody will write in to prove us wrong – was a fine first edition of La Place (1984). (The English translation by Tanya Leslie was first published as A Man’s Place in 1990, by the Psychology Press; it must surely be a little scarce itself nowadays.) The bookseller, DB Waters, in Lincoln, was quick to update the listing for this particular copy of La Place, pointing out that this “rare early work in signed presentation state” was by the winner of this year’s Nobel. The copy’s dedicatee: Ulrike Bergweiler, who was then head of foreign rights at Gallimard, and therefore a person with whom Ernaux’s journey to international recognition may perhaps be said to have originated. Asking price: £2,250. It has now been sold.

We have certainly seen whole second-hand bookcases devoted to winners of the Booker prize. Nobel winners as collectible types seem more prone to be indifferently scattered among the shelves, with only cover announcements such as that supplied for La Place to dull – all right, to distinguish – them.

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