William Heinemann, £25

Review: Meeting the Devil: A Book of Memoir from the London Review of Books

Trauma, illness and grim remembrance comprise this memoir collection – and that’s not to mention the genital warts

In his introduction to this curious gallimaufry of essays from the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett assures the reader that “the variety and oddity of the contributions make it an adult version of the annuals one was happy to find in one’s stocking as a child.” I’m not sure anyone’s Christmas morning would be greatly cheered by the 29 pieces in Meeting the Devil.

Death, graveyards and funerals feature highly. Illnesses are present in livid profusion, among them leukemia, colorectal cancer and necrotising fasciitis. Physical trauma, hallucinations, genital warts and the menopause all make appearances, along with child abuse and nervous breakdowns. Clearly, it’s not all beer and skittles down in LRB Land.

No editor is credited with the selection of items, but the jacket promises that they amount to “a study in the art of the self-portrait,” which is poppycock: there are poems here, essays about work, portraits of other people, complaints about inept psychoanalysis, thoughts on online dating and Google Maps.  There are flashes of personal involvement, but little self-portraiture.

 Several pieces are familiar: Julian Barnes’s reflections on the Booker Prize as “posh bingo”, Lorna Sage’s gothic evocation of her horrible grandparents from her book Bad Blood, Andrew O’Hagan’s chilling essay on James Bulger, in which he recalls his routine daily torturing of a fragile schoolboy. Tony Harrison’s graffiti-in-the-churchyard poem V is on the school syllabus. Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van was re-cast years ago as a West End play. Readers may feel these have been included to ballast some pretty ropey material, including (surprisingly) the  LRB’s distinguished editor  Mary-Kay Wilmers’s tentative and unengaged review of Germaine Greer’s The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause, and other  queasy examples of what was once called “Ill Literacy.”

It is, of course, possible to bring energy and wit to descriptions of illness, and some pieces here zing with imaginative recall. In the title essay, Hilary Mantel evokes the hallucinative aftermath of a major operation with metaphorical zeal: “Our inside is outside, the body’s sewer pipes and vaults exposed to view, as if in a woodcut of our own martyrdom.” RW Johnson, by contrast, chronicles his run-in with flesh-eating bacteria with prosaic flatness, veering bathetically into a discussion of South African health insurance. When not swimming in blood, tubes, germs and cells, several pieces offer a note of genteel hopelessness. Keith Thomas, the eminent historian, surveys his lifelong research methods, his years of note-taking, card-indexing and box-filing, and concludes, “The sad truth is that much of what has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning.”  Paul Myerscough, an LRB editor, charts his career as a not-very-good poker player, noting that, after gambling £25,000 over two years, his net gain has been £500. “If this were a job,” he groans, “it would be a stressful way to earn slave wages.” Eighty pages later we’re told what real slave wages and really stressful work is like, in Joe Kenyon’s harrowing memory of working in a Barnsley coal mine in 1936.

Standing out like beacons of joy amid the encircling gloom are two fine studies of literary monsters. John Henry Jones’s piece on the poet and critic William Empson begins with gush but shades into gleeful bitching at his friend’s eccentric gait, his fascination with toads, his unspeakable soup… While Terry Castle’s memoir of Susan Sontag begins in complaint and ends by describing her as a paradigm of “what mental life could be.” Along the way are some terrific stories, as when she and a friend call on Sontag in mid-afternoon. After half an hour, the intellectual titan emerges “blowsily” from a back room and Castle timidly hopes they haven’t disturbed her nap.  Sontag is furious. “It was as if I’d accused her of never having read Proust, or of watching soap operas all day.” It’s a welcome breeze of ironical humanity in this fetid hothouse of grim remembrance.

Order at the discounted price of £18.95 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power