‘With a voluptuous fluttering’: Mozart and Freud meet again, in Brigid Brophy’s ‘Snow Ball’

BrigidBrophy-1We have just proudly completed our reissuing of a select set of works by Brigid Brophy, with her exquisite 1968 monograph on Aubrey Beardsley, Black and White. Beardsley was one of Brophy’s heroes/touchstones – and belonged, as such, in a super-elite group.

No appreciation of Brophy’s fiction could be complete without reference to her passionate regard for Mozart and how she placed him in the all-time pantheon of creative artists. (This was right at the top, ‘on the very pinnacle of Parnassus’ alongside Shakespeare, as she made clear in her 1964 study Mozart the Dramatist – also available in Finds.) Mozart is a presiding spirit through all of Brophy’s novels, but arguably the one that is most thoroughly infused is The Snow Ball (1964), a work that consummately melds Brophy’s deep interests in myth, opera, sexuality and psychoanalysis. Its heroine Anna admits freely to a troika of obsessions: ‘Mozart, sex, and death.’ The Freudian opposites of eros and thanatos, which Brophy considered in her non-fictional Black Ship to Hell (1962), are also shadowy guests in the wings of The Snow Ball.

The novel takes for an epigraph Brophy’s own note from Mozart the Dramatist concerning the age-old critical interest in the question of ‘whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna.’ In The Snow Ball ‘Did she or didn’t she?’ is turned around to ‘Will she or won’t she?’ as Brophy, with a dextrous touch and allusive skill, brings Mozart’s age into our own.

snowball2The setting is ideal for the purpose: an eighteenth-century-themed costume ball on New Year’s Eve, in a London residence so grand as to house a ballroom, home to wealthy Tom and his wife, four-times-married Anne. Anna attends alone, dressed as Donna Anna, unhappily preoccupied by her middle years and what they mean for her good looks, as well as by a general distaste for the occasion. (‘If one wants to forget one’s age’, she will lament, ‘new year’s eve is the wrong eve to start.’) Like Brigid Brophy, Anna has a highly developed aesthetic sense, and to her keen eye no-one at this ball looks quite right: too many cut-price Casanovas and third-rate Marie Antoinettes. Anna is of the view that people come to fancy-dress balls as their daydreams, and she is pained by the paucity of imagination on display. Yet the judgement she passes on others could be one from which she is willing to exempt herself.

At least one guest at the ball is wearing a mask; and this element of the bal masque makes the vital bridge for the novel into a Mozartian world – the masquerade being, as critic Terry Castle has put it, ‘part of the eighteenth century of the imagination, which in the end is the only one we have.’ A masked ball is usually a subversive occasion, one where feckless acts may suddenly be permitted, and the world turned upside down if only for a night – including the balance of power between men and women, as it is affected by sexual attraction and consenting sexual intercourse.

So, when at midnight Anna meets a masked Don who kisses her on the mouth – ‘not socially, but on the lips, gently and erotically, then with a voluptuous fluttering, and at last with a violent and passionate exploration’ – she is moved to wonder if this mystery man might share her personal obsessions, and whether a closer union is meant to be.

Patrick Allen & Katharine Blake in a BBC Wednesday Play of 'The Snow Ball' (1966)

Patrick Allen & Katharine Blake in a BBC Wednesday Play of ‘The Snow Ball’ (1966)

First, though, as if feeling eighteenth century mores pressing upon her, Anna flees from her suitor, seeking refuge in the sumptuous boudoir of her friend and hostess Anne. It is white ‘like peppermint creams’, done in a style Anna thinks of as ‘tart’s rococo’. There she and Anne share affectionate, barbed gossip and confidences – the reader conscious all the while of a current of erotic tension that will drive the novel to its very last page. Anna’s dilemma, though the core of The Snow Ball, is complemented by side-plots. Her kiss with the Don has been observed by Ruth Blumenbaum, teenage daughter of another old friend: Ruth is a precocious diarist who has come to the ball dressed as Cherubino, squired by her disagreeable beau Edward (Casanova). The fitful struggle toward intimacy of these two youths makes for a counter-theme in the novel, as does the slightly unsightly but undeniably contented marriage of Anne and Tom (or ‘Tom-Tom’ and ‘Tum-Tum’, as they call one another in confidence.)

In these parallel amours Brophy makes fine use of her gift for describing human carnality. One evocation, from the female perspective, of what the French call la petite mort was thought rather scandalous by readers in 1964, perhaps chiefly because Brophy was a woman and wrote so superbly. And yet Brophy never lets us forget that, however well fitted the partners in this dance, its aftermath can lead nonetheless to thoughts of an entirely different nature. Or to paraphrase Plautus – whom Brophy takes as her other epigraph – even in the midst of the most diverting activities Death may creep up upon us.

This is another tension that persists to the last page of The Snow Ball, where the curtain drops on what is arguably Brigid Brophy’s most seductive fictional performance. Try it for yourself. I swear you will be suitably ravished.

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Of how ‘bloodthirsty Saul’ came to see the light: ‘The Implacable Hunter’ by Gerald Kersh

kershSomewhat in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse’s male codfish ‘which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all’ , we have no favouritism when it comes to the great array of works of high distinction on the Finds list. That said, there are, inevitably, some works which have a special resonance in light of one’s longstanding literary/research interests. One such title for your correspondent happens to be The Implacable Hunter by Gerald Kersh (1960), which we have offered since last November. It’s a joy to have a range of Kersh titles in Finds; but this one is distinctive even within the Kersh oeuvre for taking as its subject the story of Saint Paul prior to his sainthood. And I would urge you with all my heart to read it for yourself.

As the second most formidable figure in the New Testament Paul is of obvious interest to writers of all stripes, despite (or because of?) the fact that scriptural accounts are the only sources we have by which to know him. Yet the literary worth of his Epistles, above all in their King James rendering, is so great that attempts to attain a psychological insight into his character are only natural. For a novelist the challenge has an obvious savour to it, and yet it’s one that has been rarely taken up.

Paul does make a memorable fantasy cameo in the celebrated final act of Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation (1954), as the former ‘bloodthirsty Saul’, ‘a squat, fat hunchback, still young, but bald’, whose zeal to preach of his conversion to Christianity is briefly derailed when he runs into an ageing Jesus of Nazareth who insists that he never died on the cross. Still, after a brow-furrowed pause Paul presses on regardless, more or less threatening the Messiah that he will finish the job himself if needs be. Kazantzakis’s Paul is ‘like a famished wolf, running to eat up the world’: he goes forth in his evangelising mission already anticipating the ‘joy’ of being ‘shunned, beaten, thrown in deep pits and killed.’

In The Implacable Hunter Gerald Kersh follows a more rugged, thorny path towards an understanding of Paul. Not for him the Biblical years in which the narrative line is tolerably clear: Kersh concerns himself with that bloodthirsty period in which Saul of Tarsus was the vigilant and diligent scourge of Nazarene Christians. (And Kersh’s Saul bears two names within these pages, just as a Jewish native of Tarsus who was also a Roman citizen would have done: Saul a natural choice in memory of Israel’s first king, Paulus equally obvious for a Roman.)

Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh

Kersh tells the tale from the vantage of Diomed, Roman prefect in Tarsus, who makes himself a mentor to young Saul, only to be much amazed by what follows. The path takes Kersh and his readers all the way to the famous Damascene conversion where a peculiar vision (or ‘episode’) causes scales to fall from Saul’s eyes. But the purpose of the journey is really to examine how this Pharisee, who took the Torah as divine law and policed the hard barriers between Jew and Gentile, turned into the man who could write ‘For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.’ (Galatians 2:19) To this end Kersh occupies Paul’s mind on the page in ways that stimulate and fascinate. We are quickly made aware of his obvious abhorrence of the notion that a crucified criminal could possibly be ‘the light of the world’; and yet in his mission to purge the Roman-occupied lands of the Christ cult Saul/Paulus confronts sights that unnerve his conviction – none more forcefully than the stoning of Stephen, which Kersh re-imagines from the Book of Acts with great skill.

Along the route there are other insights into a mind ill at ease: Biblical scholars have assumed Paul never married, but Kersh endows him with a beautiful wife. This good fortune, however, doesn’t prevent Kersh’s Paul from expounding anti-female opinions of a disturbing virulence to his friend Diomed – views a good deal stronger, even, than those expressed in the Epistles which have given Paul such a bad reputation for misogyny, and accordingly received close attention from revisionist scholars. Elsewhere, though we know little of Paul’s parentage, his father is accorded a significant place in Kersh’s narrative – in such a way as to make us ponder the possible reasons why a Jew who was the son of a Roman citizen might first have done murderous service to Rome, only to remake himself as a subversive antagonist of both the Pharisees and the Emperor. By the time Kersh’s magisterial novel closes – returning to the Neronian court where it begins – these great mysteries have been both deepened and elucidated.

A note with which to finish concerning Paul in Kazantzaki’s The Last Temptation, and Martin Scorsese’s once-notorious and quite brilliant 1988 film version. The notoriety arose chiefly from the novel’s imagining of Christ on the cross being visited by Satan and shown a life of domesticity – marriage, children – which he could embrace and savour in return for renouncing this whole crazy plan of blood sacrifice for the redemption of mankind… As Scorsese’s screenwriter Paul Schrader put it, ‘The greatness of the book is its metaphorical leap into this imagined temptation; that’s what separates it from the Bible and makes it a commentary upon it.’ The film does Kazantzakis proud, in my view, not least through its powerful acting performances – none better than Harry Dean Stanton, who is quite, quite phenomenal as Saul of Tarsus, he who became Paul. In the clip below Harry Dean is so good I almost want to pick up my mat and follow him.

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‘Good Evening…’: The suspense of what happened when Alfred Hitchcock met Celia Fremlin

Alfred Hitchcock AimsceliaWe were just talking – weren’t we (see passim)? – about the tremendous riches offered by crime fiction as source material for the suspense/thriller/chiller series that abounded on television from the 1950s through to the 1980s. (The tradition has limped on, sure, but to nowhere near the same extent.) Where these series enjoyed a celebrity host presenting the evening’s entertainment at the top of the show then the marquee value was increased immeasurably: thus Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, with its fire-lit intros, shadows etched into Dahl’s seasoned face as he intoned, quietly and ominously. Has there ever been, though, a more distinctive and celebrated and pre-approved master of ceremonies for this kind of thing than Hitchcock? Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran on CBS and NBC in the US from 1955 to 1965 – or roughly from just after Rear Window to just after Marnie – and is remembered to this day as a classic anthology show.

I bring it up in relation to our reissue of the complete works of Celia Fremlin, beginning with The Hours Before Dawn (1958), which won her the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1963 Fremlin’s novel was adapted for the Hitchcock series, with a cast headed by Gena Rowlands (who was just about to embark with John Cassavetes on the long central collaboration of her life and work.) It’s a well-done affair (see below) and makes you wish that more of Fremlin’s work had found what would have been a natural home on screen, big or small. But of course there’s no time like the present…

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A seat-of-the-Armchair-Thriller: Lionel Davidson’s ‘The Chelsea Murders’

chelsea_murdersAll those whose childhoods were spent in the era when television was a diversion one watched across only three channels do tend to have unusually vivid memories of particularly exciting TV programmes – made stronger, perhaps, by the fact that there was generally so little on, such that the chances were your curious peer group had been watching the very same thing as you at the very same time, so making for especially excited chatter the following morning. (It still happens today with some shows, of course, except that Twitter can suck the life out of such chatter before anyone even gets to the water cooler at work, or the school playground or wherever…)

Lionel Davidson

Lionel Davidson

For obvious reasons there was always a special place in the ‘Did you see…?’ pantheon for spooky TV dramas that succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of impressionable viewers: from Tales of the Unexpected to the Hammer House of Horror to Armchair Thriller. Re. the latter, just mention ‘Quiet as a Nun’ to those of a certain age; and another entry in that category for this viewer would be the six-part adaptation of Lionel Davidson’s The Chelsea Murders, with its mute theatrically masked killer cutting a grisly swathe down the Kings Road of the 1970s. For further information let me recommend this excellent essay on Davidson’s novel, the ITV adaptation, the Chelsea milieu and the broader mores of the 1970s – including a refined appreciation of Scary Seventies Telly – by Dermot Kavanagh over at London Fictions.

ChelseaKavanagh therein describes his pleasing discovery of a ‘TV tie-in’ paperback of the novel that featured a shot of the killer’s awful mask on the cover – as above. Naturally, our Faber Finds edition of The Chelsea Murders is adorned by a rather more spartan cover. But it’s the same book, guv’nor, honest it is – and also an ebook. And it is to be cherished, as all of the entries in Lionel Davidson’s brief but brilliant bibliography, works that led the Sunday Telegraph to hail him to be ‘as significant as Len Deighton or le Carré in bringing a gritty new realism to the thriller’, and which earned him no fewer than three Gold Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association, as well as the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. Finds is truly proud and privileged to offer all eight of Lionel Davidson’s novels for adults to contemporary readers.

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Hugh Fleetwood: a Faber Finds retrospective, courtesy of the Calvert 22 Gallery

Hugh Fleetwood, and his work, 16/12/2013

Hugh Fleetwood, and his work: ‘Butterflies’ 16/12/2013

The business of Finds is nothing if not a labour of love; and so we’re not routinely in a position to push out the boat on the re-launching of the esteemed titles that we return to print. However, with a little help, a lot of comradely good will and the generous donation of a little time and resource, we can still make a proper literary soiree happen. Such an evening we had, and in some style, last month in the marking of our reissue of six titles by Hugh Fleetwood: the novels The Girl Who Passed for Normal, The Order of Death, and An Artist and a Magician, and the story collections The Beast, Fictional Lives and The Man Who Went Down with his Ship.

Our host for the night was the splendid Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch: the UK’s only not-for-profit institution dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. The Gallery’s founder and Director Nonna Materkova most kindly made the space available to us in honour of Hugh, and we were ably assisted in getting things together by Polina Abery.

Art galleries do make a nice aesthetic match for the selling of Faber Finds...

Art galleries do make a nice aesthetic match for the selling of Faber Finds…

What made the Calvert 22 Gallery such a splendid site for the evening derives from the fact that Hugh is as accomplished a painter as he is a writer of prose fiction. (As he told me in the Q&A that forms a preface to each of our Finds reissues, back in 1970 in Spoleto he even had the privilege of sharing an exhibition with Picasso.) And so across the elegant white walls of the Calvert 22 Hugh was able to arrange a hanging of 40+ of his canvases, which made a marvellous backdrop to the evening, and offered a rare and cherishable browsing opportunity for the guests.

n475One spare white wall of the space was even given over to the projection of the 1983 movie Order of Death/Corrupt/Cop Killer adapted from Hugh’s novel and starring John Lydon and Harvey Keitel as two sides of the same bad coin. The spread as a whole, offering strangeness, beauty and menace in roughly equal proportions, must have worked its dark charm, as we sold out of our special printing of Hugh’s books for the evening – the first to go, fittingly, his Llewellyn Rhys prize-winning The Girl Who Passed for Normal. But any of the six titles could be recommended to a reader starting afresh on Hugh’s oeuvre. If you want another objective opinion, see this excellent review of The Order of Death from the Raven Crime Reads site – highly extractable as below if you’ve not time for the whole:

“This little rediscovered classic from Faber’s imprint Faber Finds proved a real hit with me. Originally published in the 1970′s, Fleetwood produces an intense, violent yet ultimately satisfying criminal morality tale, that had this reader questioning the motivations of not only the central ‘criminal’ protagonist but also the loose relationship with morality displayed by the main police character… This is an intelligent and clever read that completely immerses the reader into the tale with its spare and beautifully dispassionate prose, playing with our own perception of morality and causing the shifting of allegiances throughout. It has an innate sadness when viewed as a whole, with more than a nod to the traditional tragedy style which could easily translate to the stage, although ostensibly will just labelled as a crime book. A powerful and emotive read.”

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Competition time! A dozen great literary biographies to be won, from Mary Ann Evans and Edith Sitwell to Alfred and Emily Tennyson…

A mini-biography of Milton in Edward Phillips’ Theatrum poetarum, or A compleat collection of the poets, especially the most eminent, of all ages'  (1675)

A mini-biography of Milton in Edward Phillips’ Theatrum poetarum, or A compleat collection of the poets, especially the most eminent, of all ages’ (1675)

Literary biography is a queen among the non-fiction genres: few dedicated readers can resist the natural urge to know more of the lives of the writers they most admire, and of the times that shaped, and were informed by, said writers. That said, for a variety of reasons literary biography may be something of a vanishing art in contemporary trade publishing. Be assured, however, that at Finds Towers literary lives remain endlessly current and vital.

From our bounteous list of major literary biographies we have plucked out a dozen and are pleased to offer a copy of each to be won:

Mrs Browning: A Poet’s Work and its Setting by Alethea Hayter

George Eliot by Rosemary Ashton

E.M. Forster by P.N. Furbank

William Gerhardie by Dido Davies

A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet by Richard Perceval Graves

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker

Dennis Potter by Humphrey Carpenter

In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton

Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions by Victoria Glendinning

Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife by Anne Thwaite

Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart by Robert Bernard Martin

Rebecca West by Victoria Glendinning

For a chance to win the title of your choice, you have to do two things.

1. Answer these two questions correctly:

(i) In which famous cemetery was Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’) buried?

(ii) ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, one of the best-regarded TV plays of the 1970s by Dennis Potter, takes its title from a line in a poem by A.E. Housman. Name the celebrated collection of poems by Housman in which that poem appears.

Update: This competition is now closed.

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Ilsa Barea’s ‘Vienna: Legend & Reality’ in the light of the National Gallery’s ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna – 1900′

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1917-18 by Gustav Klimt.

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1917-18 by Gustav Klimt.

Possibly a fair few of us think of fin de siècle Vienna as, in George Steiner’s phrase, ‘a crucible’ – both of creation and of hope, but of darker incendiary forces too. Vienna circa 1900 gave the world Freud and Mahler, Wittgenstein and Popper, Schoenberg and Adolf Loos – not to mention Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. But with good cause would the satirist Karl Kraus label Vienna as ‘the research laboratory for world destruction.’

The National Gallery’s new exhibition of Viennese portraiture from this period (1867 to 1918 is the actual span under review) prompts us to think anew about the city’s pivotal role in our perception of modernity and what befell the civilized world in the twentieth century. Of course, portraiture was by this time well established as an artistic form through which a settled, prosperous bourgeoisie liked to see itself reflected; and the late nineteenth century Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph, centre of the Hapsburg Empire, saw a brisk trade in this sort of work. But portraiture could not help but be inflected by the times and the make-up of Vienna, energized above all after Franz Joseph’s 1867 Constitution which gave full citizenship and educational access to Vienna’s notably thriving Jewish population. The Expressionism of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka was coming round the corner, poised to change our ways of seeing; but the boldness of this work was by no means to all tastes. Meanwhile Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1906, sought and failed to win admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and began to turn his stunted, peremptory ambitions elsewhere.

The story of Vienna lends itself easily to legend, and readers looking for a substantive history of the great city could be easily conned. Thus the value of a work described by Arthur Koestler as ‘neither the treacly legend, nor the acid anti-legend, but a delicate and scholarly panorama.’ This is Ilsa Barea’s Vienna, first published in 1966 by Secker and Warburg and now returned to print (and unveiled in ebook) as a Find. Those attending the National Gallery’s exhibition could not want for a finer guide to the true history behind the canvases than this rich mosaic of a book: a masterly and highly personal blend of lightly-worn learning, wit and imagination.

Ilsa Barea

Ilsa Barea

Ilsa Barea was born in Vienna in 1902 and studied political sciences at the university. Come the 1930s political reasons compelled her to emigrate to Czechoslovakia, from whence she went to Spain on the Republican side early in the Civil War. There she met Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Frank Capa and others. She married the Spanish writer Arturo Barea and together they settled in England. During World War II Ilsa worked in the BBC Monitoring Service. She translated over twenty books into English (including Arturo Barea’s great Spanish Civil war trilogy The Forging of a Rebel), edited a paperback series of international classics, and wrote, lectured and broadcast in several languages. In the 1960s she returned to Vienna, where she died in 1972. But it was here that her Vienna: Legend and Reality came to life – a work deemed by the Kirkus Review to be ‘informed by the highly sensible intellect of a true daughter of Wien, history in the European tradition.’

Vienna’s long first chapter describes the landscape of the city, stresses its role as frontier fortress and a melting pot, and shows how historic events – such as a virtually forgotten period of Protestant dominance – had already helped mould the Viennese character by the end of the seventeenth century. The remainder of the book interweaves with great skill the various strands of Viennese civilisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story ends in 1914, but in the last chapter Ilsa Barea glances forward to suggest that much more than legend survived the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire.

Between its covers Barea offers keen-eyed interpretations of significant figures from every sphere (the Emperors Joseph II and Franz Joseph, Schubert and the two Johann Strausses, Hofmannsthal and Freud in their early years, to name but a few); highlights how the great writers, as well as actor-dramatists such as Raimund and Nestroy, reflected their times; notes the gradation of social classes revealed in those ornamental labels ’von’ and ‘K.K.’; charts the changing styles of painting, architecture and interior decorations; analyses the influx of immigrants, the spread of appalling slums, and the rise of the labour movement; charts the origin and growth of anti-semitism; and much else besides.

Vienna, then, is warmly recommended to you. Meanwhile, below is the trailer for the National Gallery exhibition; and below that, a recording of George Steiner’s South Bank Show lecture ‘Vienna 1900′: essential, fruitful viewing for students of the period.

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Yours to win: The classic film noir movie version of Gerald Kersh’s ‘Night and the City’ (1950)

night-and-the-city-dvdToday and all week, a very special Finds prize competition – the prize being a cult cinema classic to watch at home with the lights and the blinds down…

In respect of our current reissuing of the mighty Gerald Kersh we have noted more than once the way in which his name has stayed abroad thanks to the classic status of the movie version of his 1938 novel Night and the City. It seems likely that the movie’s director, Jules Dassin, never looked at Kersh’s novel, and the picture is not slavishly faithful to its source. Still, these two very worthy productions have probably been helpful to each other. Doubtless some readers come to Kersh by way of the film, and in turn admirers of the roman noir tend to have a fair bit of time for film noir too. To state it at its very mildest, Kersh certainly gifted the filmmakers a hell of a title. As film historian Paul Arthur puts it, ‘Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles— Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City.’

To quote the Criterion label which have revived the movie on US DVD ‘Night and the City is film noir of the first order and one of the director’s crowning achievements.’ The estimable BFI Video offer a first-rate UK DVD of Night and the City to buy, including fascinating disc extras and accompanying booklet, and they’ve been so kind as to offer Finds a complimentary copy of the disc to give away.

For your chance to win it you have to do two things.

1. Answer these 2 questions correctly:
(i) Night and the City star Richard Widmark appeared in several other classic film noirs. Name the 1953 picture in which he played pickpocket Skip McCoy for writer-director Sam Fuller.
(ii) Gerald Kersh’s short story ‘The Horrible Dummy’ is generally thought to have unofficially inspired a segment of which classic ‘portmanteau’ British horror film of 1945?

This competition is now closed. Thanks to BFI Video.

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Eva Hoffman’s ‘Exit into History’

M1-Dr-Eva-HoffmanLast week the Independent offered a smart selection of the Best 10 Travel Memoirs, and we’re delighted to report that their #2 was a Find: Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe (1993) by the acclaimed writer and literary professor Eva Hoffman. The book is an account of a number of visits paid by Hoffman (a native of Kraków whose parents fled the Nazis) to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Andrew Brown wrote in the Guardian, Exit into History is

‘not a history of the revolutions in eastern Europe, but an examination of how particular lives had been changed by them… an account of how people coped with being exiled into the future at the end of the Cold War.’

Reviewing the book in the Independent Godfrey Hodgson compared it favourably to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, describing it as

‘a mosaic built up of sketches of people, accounts of conversations, descriptions of places…. beautifully written, full of word pictures that stay in the mind: the taste of tokay poured for her by an entrepreneurial priest in a Hungarian village; the uncanny blue of the paint on an old monastery in the foothills of the Carpathians, the throb of gypsy music in a backroom dive hidden under the elegant skirts of a baroque city in Bohemia.’

For a chance to win a copy of Exit into History, you have to do two things.

1. Answer this question correctly: Which was the first of the Eastern European countries to break from the Soviet bloc in 1989 by its election of a non-Communist government?

Update: This competition is now closed.

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‘Larkin at Sixty’ (ed. Anthony Thwaite)

LarkinLarkin at Sixty is a festschrift – as its subject probably didn’t much care to hear it called – for Philip Larkin: a set of twenty essays in celebration of the poet by friends and acquaintances on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 1982. It was edited and introduced by Anthony Thwaite.

Within its pages you will find Alan Bennett on the sheer ‘incongruousness’ of throwing a party for Larkin; Kingsley Amis (who better?) remembering Larkin the undergraduate; Robert Conquest on the poet’s occasional and quite rude limericks; Charles Monteith on the experience of editing and publishing Larkin at Faber; Clive James on Larkin’s passion (!) for John Coltrane; Christopher Ricks on poetic style and structure in Larkin; Seamus Heaney on the ‘minute light’ and ‘poignant score’ of the poems… And that, incredibly, is not quite the half of it.

I happen to have a copy of Larkin at Sixty going spare. For a chance to win it, you have to do two things.

1. Answer this question correctly: For which of Kingsley Amis’s novels was Larkin famously credited by Amis for having made a decisive editorial contribution to the book’s subsequent success?

Update: This competition is now closed.

Good luck!

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