Saturday 24 March 2018

How to make enemies in a novel manner

It was in the New York Review of Books that John Banville famously demolished Ian McEwan's 2005 novel Saturday as "a dismayingly bad book" -- leading the Irish author to subsequently comment, "Boy, have I made a lot of enemies".

And it is in a recent issue of the same august literary magazine that you'll find another eminent novelist attacking an equally esteemed contemporary -- this time Joyce Carol Oates taking a scalpel to the much-loved and admired Anne Tyler.

She begins by damning with faint praise, describing Tyler's "most engaging" novels as "sweetly sentimental valentines to the ordinary, domestic, unambitious life", while also noting that in her more recent books her "cranky eccentrics" cause the reader to feel little more than "exasperation".

But she is only getting into her knife-wielding stride. In Tyler's new book, The Beginner's Goodbye (enthusiastically reviewed by myself in these pages), the characters are "suburban whites prone to see what they want to see, and Tyler is their tirelessly indulgent chronicler".

Indeed, in the view of Oates (author of more than 50 novels herself, many of them provocative), Tyler has "a special place in her heart for people who lack enthusiasm, zeal, spirit", while her latest book -- like "a slender autumnal tree from which most leaves have fallen" -- makes "no great claim on our imaginations or our emotions".

It is not expected that the famously reclusive Tyler will respond to this withering put-down by one of her peers.


Meanwhile, Banville's summer reading will be a book far removed from anything by McEwan. I learn from the Sunday Telegraph that he will be immersing himself in Stefan Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday, "a marvellous recapturing of a Europe that Hitler and his thugs destroyed".

And marvellous, too, are Montaigne's essays, the choice of the great travel writer Jan Morris, whom I was privileged to encounter recently on the Dun Laoghaire seafront. "The best of all friends", she says of Montaigne, "always available, never a bore".

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