John Gross (1935–2011) was an English editor and critic. From 1974 to 1981, he was editor of The Times Literary Supplement; he also served as senior book editor and critic at The New York Times. His memoir, A Double Thread, was published in 2001.

The Ultimate Reader

Alberto Manguel, Hamburg, 2007; photograph by Isolde Ohlbaum
The Library at Night is a disquisition on libraries in general—on their history, their nature, their significance, and some of their idiosyncrasies. It is a bold undertaking, but then large subjects hold no terrors for Manguel. Probably his best-known book, published fourteen years ago, is nothing less (as its title …

A Constant Reader

Adolf Hitler, circa 1935
In 1942 an American journalist called Frederick Oechsner published a book about Hitler entitled This Is the Enemy . It included an account of Hitler’s personal library, based on interviews Oechsner had conducted with the Führer’s associates while working as the United Press International correspondent in Berlin. And the first …

‘Something Marvellous to Tell’

Every eight or nine years over the past four decades John Updike has published a collection of reviews, essays, sketches, memoirs, and miscellaneous prose. These volumes are substantial affairs—some of them run to eight or nine hundred pages—and for most writers the work that has gone into them would represent …

Empson: Argufying Against Mufflement

From the start of his career William Empson enjoyed a double reputation, as a poet and as a critic. It now seems clear that he has an additional claim to be remembered, as a letter-writer. The first volume of John Haffenden’s biography of him, which appeared two years ago, broke …

A Scandal at the Villa Paradiso

All the world loves a scandal. The affair of Princess Louise of Belgium and Géza Mattachich is forgotten today, but a hundred years ago newspapers and magazines were full of it. With good reason, since it had a great deal to offer their readers: adultery in high places, a royal …

The Genius of Ambiguity

William Empson was a prodigy. He arrived at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1925, with a scholarship in mathematics: his college supervisor regarded him as one of the best mathematicians he had ever had. In 1928, however, he switched to English, under the supervision of I.A. Richards, and within a year …

The Reader Strikes Back

It was Coleridge who launched the Latin word “marginalia” on its English career. In his mid-thirties, around 1807, he began to be known for his habit of annotating books in elaborate detail. (He had been more abstemious when he was young.) Friends cherished his scribbled comments, and encouraged him to …

‘A Nice Pleasant Youth’

In 1952, reviewing the first edition of Alan Bullock’s biography of Hitler, the historian Lewis Namier began on a note of revulsion: “Must we talk of Hitler?” But he knew that we have no real choice in the matter: “We must, however distasteful the subject.” And nearly fifty years later, …

The Case of the Loony Lexicographer

The work which eventually became known as the Oxford English Dictionary had a checkered early history. Proposals for it were first put forward in 1857; the following year the Philological Society of London began making arrangements for the publication of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (which was to …

A Garland of Ibids

Footnotes perform many different roles. They can enlarge on a statement, modify a judgment, broaden a context; they can provide solemn reassurance (“You’ll find it in the archives”) or light relief. Some footnotes are guides to further reading; some offer a home for the inessential detail which is too good …

Lessons of an Immoderate Master

Few critics are accorded the compliment of a biography; very few indeed can ever have been accorded the compliment of two, as F.R. Leavis has been in the UK—one following the other in quick succession. But then Leavis was not as other critics. He was a guru, a leader, a …

Marked Man

In 1943 Paul Touvier joined the Milice, the newly formed paramilitary police force created by the Vichy authorities in order to combat the Resistance. He was quickly appointed one of the organization’s senior officers in the Lyon region. In 1994, after numerous legal twists and turns, and almost fifty years …

Keeping the Hard Gemlike Flame

Walter Pater published his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, in March 1873, when he was thirty-three. As one of his early reviewers, Emilia Francis Pattison, pointed out, the title created a misleading impression, since there was little in the book that could properly be called history: …

The Book of Books

We live in a contentious world, but one thing we can all agree on is the general excellence of the Columbia Encyclopaedia. Since the first edition appeared in 1935, the Encyclopaedia has established itself as the leading work of its kind, certainly the leading work in the English language, and …

Hollywood and the Holocaust

Suppose the Disney organization announced that it was planning a film about the Holocaust. Better still, suppose Walt Disney himself had, thirty or forty years back. In common fairness, we would have had to wait and see how it all worked out; but common sense would have suggested heavy misgivings.

Trollope’s Comédie Humaine

It is not the kind of thing you could prove by statistics, but I suspect that nowadays Trollope is the most genuinely popular of the great Victorian novelists. Dickens or George Eliot rate higher, of course, and loom larger as college texts; but when people want to read something for …

Shaw and Super-Shaw

The first volume of Michael Holroyd’s three-volume biography of Bernard Shaw was warmly received by reviewers, but offstage one has heard some moans about excessive length. All those hundreds of pages stretching out ahead…. Yet how could it have been otherwise? Shaw lived so long, wrote so much, fired off …

Petit Maître

In 1954, when he was well over eighty, Max Beerbohm wrote a letter thanking a young admirer who had sent him a copy of The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham Smith’s account of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the two commanders responsible for that celebrated disaster, Lord Lucan and …

Star

The literature surrounding Oscar Wilde is vast, varied, and, on the whole, entertaining: it would almost warrant a full-length study in itself. Consider, for a start, the accounts by firsthand witnesses. They range in time and spirit—to cite only the full-scale books—from L’Affaire Oscar Wilde, an ignoble attack by an …

Unwrapping Edmund Wilson

The journals and papers which make up The Forties are of great interest—coming from Edmund Wilson, it would be very odd if they were not—but taken as a whole the book is not really in the same class as The Twenties and The Thirties. For one thing, as Leon Edel …

The Wise and Gentle Lamb

In one of Stephen Potter’s manuals of Lifemanship there are some useful hints on the art of reviewing (“Newstatesmanship,” in those days), notable among them the Hope-Tipping gambit. Hope-Tipping’s formula for getting on top of the books he reviewed was simple but effective: he would find out the quality for …

Life Saving

When Oskar Schindler first visited Israel, in 1961, he was given a tumultuous welcome; when the West German government finally got around to honoring him, in 1966, Adenauer presided over the ceremony; when he died in 1974 The New York Times ran a piece about him. And his story has …

Buddies

Oscar Wilde was only two years older than Bernard Shaw, but time and longevity play strange tricks: it is odd to reflect that if Wilde had lived as long as Shaw he would still have been around in the days of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift, that in …

The Wars of D.H. Lawrence

Shortly after the death of D.H. Lawrence in 1930 Aldous Huxley began collecting Lawrence’s letters for publication, and within two years—taking time off from his own writing, working without benefit of grants or Guggenheims or microfilm or an Editorial Board—he was ready to see through the press a volume of …

Lieutenants and Luftmenschen

With The Military Philosophers Anthony Powell reaches forward into the mid-Forties and completes the third, penultimate movement of “The Music of Time.” The concluding installment of his wartime trilogy, it is also to my mind the most successful—partly, I think, because in spite of the title it is the one …

Life with Father

V. S. Pritchett opens the first installment of his autobiography (at least, one hopes that it is only the first installment) by resolutely waiving any claims to a distinguished or even a distinguishable ancestry. “Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forbears vanish into the common …

Poverty Program

The Poor are always with us—or such, at least, was the accepted Victorian view. But exactly how many of them were there, and precisely how poor were they? Until the very end of the nineteenth century, these were questions which it was hard to answer with any marked degree of …

A Question of Upbringing

Life is short, and Anthony Powell’s “Music of Time” sequence is long: eight volumes down, apparently at least four to go. Is it worth all the trouble? Tastes differ, and some magisterial votes have been cast against Powell. According to Edmund Wilson, he is “just entertaining enough to read in …