Classic re-issues round-up: Look back in wonder at love, death and politics

From a reissue of Lydia Davis's only novel to Ralph Miliband's politics

Max Liu
Thursday 19 March 2015 17:00
An era of class war: The Battle Of Orgreave June 1984
An era of class war: The Battle Of Orgreave June 1984

Lydia Davis is lauded for her short fiction, some of which is very short, but I'd argue that her strongest stories are her longest, such as "The Professor". Whether you agree or not, you'll probably relish the overdue reissue of Davis's only novel, The End of the Story (Penguin, £8.99). Narrated by a writer/academic who has an affair with a younger man, it abounds with interesting ideas about relationships, memory, ageing, language and creativity.

Davis looks clearly at opacity and uncertainty, while her metafictional asides are witty and thought-provoking: "I could say more about the house where he read, but I'm not sure how much description to have in the novel." Unpacking the affair from its unlikely beginning to its inevitable end, the narrator's memories and emotions collide. Is love that dies necessarily failed love? Davis writes the way we think. It's thrilling to see her do it at length.

"The blessed itch" is how one character in Mairtin O Cadhain's The Dirty Dust (translated by Alan Titley, Yale, £16.99) describes the urge to write. You would have expected the characters' desires and opinions to be behind them, buried as they are in the clay of a Connemara graveyard. However, their gossip and backbiting is the lifeblood of this novel, which consists almost entirely of dialogue. Published in Irish in 1949, set during the 1940s with war in the background, Colm Tóibín considers it "among the best books to come out of Ireland in the 20th century." Titley says in his introduction he wanted "to get some of the tone and vivacity of the original across without sounding too bizarre". He succeeds and, while there's little plot, it bristles with black comedy: "I wonder what kind of funeral I had? I won't know that until the next corpse comes."

Nora Porteous, the protagonist of Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River (Melville House, £11.99), knows all about claustrophobic communities. At the beginning of this short novel, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1978, Nora returns to Brisbane after four decades in London. She reflects on her life, from childhood, through her miserable marriage, to England where she embodies some of Australia's "rawness and weak gentility, its innocence and deep deceptions." Her dressmaking provides financial independence but reading classic novels helps her make sense of social hypocrisy and oppression. Nora's family think she's "reckless, cynical, frivolous" but, like Anderson's novel, she's brave, perceptive and funny about the challenges everybody – but especially those who, for reasons of gender, nationality, sexuality or good old free spiritedness, feel like outsiders – faces in finding their way in the world.

Speaking of hypocrisy, one rarely feels gratitude towards the Daily Mail but, as Tariq Ali explains in his introduction to Class War Conservatism and Other Essays (Verso, £12.99), the paper's attack on Ralph Miliband in 2013 had the unintended effect of resurrecting interest in the late socialist academic's writings. Whenever critics accuse Miliband's son Ed, the Labour Party leader, of being a "seminar-room Marxist", I think: "If only he were, then I'd vote for him." Plenty of people long for a left-wing alternative to the Westminster parties and these essays indicate that, were he alive today, Miliband père would be among them. "Labour has long lacked the capacity," he writes in 1980, "to project a radically different view" to Margaret Thatcher's "counterrevolution in British life and politics." His analyses of topics including Marxist philosophy, nuclear weapons and the break-up of the Soviet Union, are lively, accessible and relevant.

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