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In the New Statesman this week: Autumn Fiction Special

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by the biggest names in British literature.

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by two British literary heavyweights, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Our own critical prizefighter Leo Robson argues that scientists and historians have captured the brains of these two writers, now in their mid-60s, bringing them to the point where facts overpower their fiction. You can read Leo’s review online now, as a taster of our Autumn Fiction Special, which also includes:

Lionel Shriver on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances Wilson on the Booker-longlisted How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Eimear McBride on The Wake by Paul Kinsnorth, published by innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Rachel Holmes on The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Olivia Laing on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Neel Mukherjee on The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Ian Sansom on J by Howard Jacobson

And finally, although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS’s critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

This week’s New Statesman, “The New Caliphate” is available in shops NOW. To purchase a copy, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store.

And if that wasn’t enough to chew on, Philip Maughan has written a preview of the next clutch of new big-name novels, due out later this year:

The year’s most beautiful season is also the busiest for those in the book business. Canadian dynamo Margaret Atwood kicks off the second wave of notable titles this autumn with a new collection of dark fables, Stone Mattress, on 28 August (look out for an interview soon in the NS). Competing with her for the prize of hottest story collection of 2014 is Hilary Mantel (the deliciously titled Assassination of Margaret Thatcher lands on 25 September), Kirsty Gunn, whose Infidelities will be published on 6 November along with another Canadian, Eliza Robertson, who publishes her hotly-tipped debut Wallflowers on 16 September.

Virago will release the new novel by Marilynne Robinson on 9 October, the third instalment in the Gilead series, Lila, which tells the story of a rogue child coming to terms with her new life as a minister’s wife. Irish writer Colm Tóibín begins what might turn out to be a Robinson-style character survey in Nora Webster, when Nora, the sister who stayed behind in his 2009 novel Brooklyn, attempts to rebuild herself after a shattering bereavement.

On a break from producing the film script for Tóibín’s Brooklyn (which stars Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and will be released in 2015), Nick Hornby returns on 6 November with Funny Girl, the story of a Blackpool beauty queen, Sophie Straw, beginning to doubt whether she is cut out for the showbiz world. After the unearthly cool of Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, Faber returns with The Book of Strange New Things, also on an extraterrestrial theme. Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian, is a missionary expedition to the planet of Oasis, where he must translate the Gospels into a language comprehendible to the alarmingly enthusiastic natives.

The beginning of November sees the return of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s most endearing alter-ego, surveying the damage done to his New Jersey home by Hurricane Sandy in Let Me Be Frank with You. Finally, on the slippery slope to Christmas, trains and planes worldwide to fill up with copies of Us, the new novel from One Day author David Nicholls, published in hardback on 30 September.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser