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
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London