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26 May 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:42am

Reviewed in Short: New books by Jenn Shapland, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, Simon Armitage and Jon McGregor

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Shapland, The Passenger by Boschwitz, A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures by Armitage and Lean Fall Stand by McGregor.

By New Statesman

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

Virago, 288pp, £16.99

“I am hardly qualified to write a biography of Carson McCullers,” writes Jenn Shapland. “I have read enough biographies to know, in no uncertain terms, that they are built of artifice and lies. I am not a fiction writer, and this is not a biography.” Instead, this book weaves together criticism, biography and memoir in a blended approach to non-fiction popularised by writers such as Olivia Laing and Maggie Nelson. It begins when Shapland, a closeted young queer person working in an archive in McCullers’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, finds a series of love letters written to the mid-century American novelist by a woman. She is shocked, thrilled, moved – and full of doubt. “If Carson was a lesbian, and if her relationships bore that out, wouldn’t someone have said so before?”

In this intelligent, invigorating book, Shapland links her discovery of McCullers’s work, and her romantic relationships with women, with realisations about her own identity. It is, without a doubt, not a biography – but it is sharp-eyed and sensitive about biography as a form, and is a vital piece of life-writing in its own right.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated by Philip Boehm

Pushkin Press, 288pp, £14.99

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The Passenger, a novel written hurriedly just after Kristallnacht in 1938, is a book of two tragedies. The first is that of Otto Silbermann, a German-Jewish businessman who leaves it too late to get out of Germany as anti-Semitic fervour comes to the boil. When brownshirts knock on the front door he scuttles out of the back door. Then the Aryan-looking Silbermann tries by train to get across the border, any border, without his ethnicity being discovered by his fellow passengers – “ordinary Germans” who are all “backstabbers and sellouts”. Silbermann’s predicament becomes thriller-tense just as the stripping of his moral assumptions becomes more poignant.

The second tragedy is that of the author. Ulrich Boschwitz was like Silbermann in every respect except that he escaped Germany just in time. He eventually made it to Britain, where he was interned before being sent to Australia. In 1942, returning to Europe, he was killed when his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat. Like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, The Passenger is a rediscovered book, and not only shares its menacing claustrophobia but more than matches it for potency and profundity.

By Michael Prodger

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A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures by Simon Armitage

Faber & Faber, 376pp, £25

A good poem, Simon Armitage writes, must find an “equilux between writer and reader”. This occurs “when the amount of daylight in a poem – that which is clear – and the amount of night-time in a poem – that which must be imagined or figured – correspond”. The best poems also rely on a careful balance of what the Poet Laureate determines “interesting” and “dull” words; the ideal language will be specific, but not unnecessarily grandiose.

Armitage’s thesis works just as well as advice for would-be poets as it does as a means of understanding the workings of his own writing, both in verse and prose. In this collection of 12 essays, given as lectures over the course of four years during his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Armitage speaks as much to the learned scholar as to the everyday poetry dabbler. He begins an episode on TS Eliot by recalling the occasion on which, as a student, he bought a pancake mix without realising he also needed to purchase milk and eggs; he describes the lyrics of Bob Dylan, if held up to the usual standards of poetry, as “pretty ordinary”. Best of all, he instils in his reader an intense desire to devour the poetry over which he takes such care, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Claudia Rankine.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

4th Estate, 288pp, £14.99

Jon McGregor’s potent and consistently surprising new novel, his successor to Reservoir 13 – winner of the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – concerns the challenges of communication, from the banal to the cataclysmic. “Doc” Wright, an expedition guide in Antarctica, is struck on the head during a blizzard and suffers a stroke which robs him of speech. His wife, Anna, an oceanographer based near Cambridge, is forced to play an unfamiliar and unwanted role: helpmate.

In one memorable sequence, McGregor offers a litany of things that Anna “had to” do on an average day during Doc’s recovery. But as in Reservoir 13, the immersion in detail, far from building a realist or domestic portrait, tends towards abstraction. What unites these interests is McGregor’s openness to mystery. Even before Doc’s attack, “words didn’t always fit”. McGregor finds ingenious ways of escaping this bind himself, at times accepting vagueness with words like “something”, at others striving for maximal precision by coining terms (“pillowed”, “bluely”), all the while offering a dazzling series of variations on the idea of reflecting reality, covering semantics, acronyms, photographs, signals, nicknames and maps.

By Leo Robson

[see also: Reviewed in short: New books by Heather McGhee, Marc Morris, Véronique Tadjo and Francisco Garcia]

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism