When I was on holiday last week, I finished a book. Not writing one, unfortunately, but reading one. My copy of Balzac's Lost Illusions looks in a wrecked state, as befitting a book that has been taken on holiday three times before being finished. According to Graham Robb's biography, it seems that I took longer to read the book than Balzac took to write it. And it's no good me protesting that I was reading about ten other books at the same time, because Balzac was writing ten other books at the same time, as well as conducting love affairs, travelling frantically and mismanaging a catastrophic business career.
You may be wondering if I read the book in French. People are always amazed by the standard of my French. They find it almost impossible to believe that someone who did A-level French could have such a dismal grasp of the language. Read a book? Last week, I heard myself informing a woman in a Marseilles ticket office that two of my children were "seven hours" and "nine hours" old.
Lost Illusions is a wonderfully savage portrait of the journalistic and literary world of early 19th-century Paris. Obviously, technological and social change means that it is entirely irrelevant to the media of today. Here is a passage from Herbert Hunt's translation (Penguin), in which a journalist lectures the anti-hero, Lucien, about the growing power of the press:
"In due course, all journals will be treacherous, hypo-critical, infamous, mendacious, murderous; they'll kill ideas, systems and men, and thrive on it. They'll be in the happy position of all abstract creations: wrong will be done without anybody being guilty . . . A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled."
An appropriate quotation at a time when the News of the World seems to be hinting that it will "out" the killers of James Bulger when they are released.
I spent last week in rural Provence with an extended family of parents, wife, brother and sister-in-law, and lots of children. It was one of those holidays where you cycle from one place to another and the holiday company moves your luggage on. It was the very last week of the holiday season, and the only other holidaymakers were a middle-aged British couple. It began to seem comic, in a sadistic sort of way. We imagined this couple planning a quiet, romantic week away, perhaps a second honeymoon. The first evening is wrecked by a vast family that seems to have taken over the entire hotel. But, they must have thought, at least it's just for one night. The following morning, they cycled to the next hotel - and there we all were.
As we were finishing off our meal, we observed how the male traveller looked just like David Caute. When our rampaging horde had cycled on to another hotel, we realised that it was David Caute.
I had never met Caute (I recognised his face from his photograph on dust jackets), but what links us is the NS. One of the decisive moments in the history of the paper - and the break with the era of Martin Amis, Claire Tomalin, Christopher Hitchens and so on - was when the board appointed Bruce Page as editor (instead of James Fenton) and then Page appointed Caute as editor of the arts and literary section (instead of Julian Barnes). But Caute is better known as a polemicist. After the fiasco when the Guardian handed back the leaked government document that resulted in Sarah Tisdall's imprisonment, Peter Preston, the Guardian editor, commissioned Caute to write a report on the affair for the paper. But the resulting analysis was such a ferocious denunciation of both the paper and Preston that it finally appeared not in the Guardian, but in Granta.
Sitting late at night in the ruins of another dinner, we realised that three of our party - my father, my wife and I - had, at various times, reviewed Caute's work. My own review of his biography of the film director Joseph Losey was, I think, favourable enough, but it was for the Daily Mail and appeared under the headline "Red martyr who travelled first class". So not only was his out-of-season holiday being disrupted by a rabble of children, but he was being pursued through Provence by three people who had reviewed his books. It was like Murder on the Orient Express rewritten by David Lodge. It could be a good basis for a novel, and I offer it to Caute in recompense for ruining his holiday.