September 1, 1939
“As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade.” As our own dishonest decade draws to a close, Ian Sansom’s “biography” of WH Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” seems perfectly timed. Sansom’s self-deprecating tone weaves through his account of Auden – a failed scholar but a successful if polarising poet – and what his New York poem says about the world then and now. Erudite yet infinitely cordial, Sansom dissects every word of the piece, using it as a platform for literary analysis alongside jovial and digressive anecdotes.
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £16.99
“No longer is the harvest a private endeavour, a small garden tended by its owners; now it is one shaped by the desires of distant others and their small choices,” writes Edward Posnett. Harvest begins in Canary Wharf, an insular world of glass and steel from which Posnett longs to learn of the natural world that surrounds him. In this collection of essays, he sets out to trace the stories and traditions of seven natural wonders, from eiderdown collected on the coastal plains of Iceland to the edible nests of swifts plucked from a cave in Borneo, mapping their journeys across the globe.
Bodley Head, 336pp, £16.99
This collection has surfaced 25 years too late, according to the note with which the manuscript was found, which said “for publishing 1994”. Naguib Mahfouz’s legacy as Egypt’s greatest novelist is sustained with these engaging short stories, translated from Arabic by Roger Allen and set in Cairo’s Gamaliya quarter. Belated though they may
be, their themes are timeless: “The most precious thing I lost at the gambling table… was my life, not the money,” says Ali Zaidan in “Life is a Game”. “Life begins at 60,” responds the narrator.
Saqi Books, 128pp, £10.99
This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler