Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A stupendous shit and an incorrigible cad.

Not the first sign of madness, but the protagonist Georges Duroy.

His blatantly ironic nickname, Bel-Ami, typifies the duplicity coursing through this deliciously unsettling book.

His secret to success in four words? Use your wily willy. Five? Erm. Get off to get on.

Well, well, old boy, I hope you realise you really do hit it off with the ladies? You must cultivate that. It could take you far… they’re still the quickest way to succeed.

And boy, does he slather on the ‘charm’. It’s a shame to see it abused so. And the trust that goes with it. Makes you shiver.

But before we look at some gems, let’s put down a marker and reflect on author Laurie Lee’s sense of pure charm (from his excellent 1975 collection of essays, I Can’t Stay Long).

Continue reading Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (2014)

Wish I’d been intimate with Lynn Barber. Got in the offie queue by mistake.

Perhaps some of the how-to-interview magic might’ve rubbed off.

While we’re at it, let’s get that stunning run rate out of the way. From Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.

Continue reading A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (2014)

I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

Continue reading I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

It’s the hokey-cokey. (Behave, hokey-pokey is an ice cream.) And before you go there, Looking for Nookie lacks gravitas.

How apt that it should start with a chase.

“Child hunt tomorrow, Fanny.”

What a boring life I lead. Walked through the market in the rain today.

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. [aged about eight, I think] My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

Neat nest of nesses. And here’s another, more insidious.

Continue reading The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

Don Quixote by Cervantes (1605 – what!?)

There’s a line in this that absolutely kills me. Gets me every time. Perfectly pitched.

Well, they’re lotsa funnies, but this one takes the galleta.

It ain’t much good in isolation, so let’s get the giggle glands going with some also-rans.

But first a run-up. For those of you who think you’ve got better things to do than loll around reading an 800-pager written four hundred years ago, I say, oh yeah, what’s that?

If you aren’t going to tell me and you’re still not going to read it, here it is in a sentence.

Continue reading Don Quixote by Cervantes (1605 – what!?)

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962)

Why’d he go? He’s upfront upfront about it.

When you start getting old and perhaps not so well (he’s 58 at the time of writing) you begin to realise the head of the house becomes the youngest child.

I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why should she should inherit a baby.

Steinbeck had been ill. He’d had a couple of scares. He could see the scythe’s shadow under the door.

So he decided to get off his ass and move. To go on a journey. To see the America he had written so much about. To feel it again after twenty-five years. To see if it was the same.

Continue reading Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962)