The Craft of Fiction

First published in 1921, by Jonathan Cape, Percy Lubbock’s “The Craft of Fiction” is a classic work on the novelist’s art. When I read it for the first time in the late 1960s it left an indelible impression on me.
The book has a thought-provoking first page, which I quote below:
“To grasp the shadowy and fantasmal form of a book, to hold it fast, to turn it over and survey it at leisure – that is the effort of a critic of books, and it is perpetually defeated. Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its form and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty, that is all we can hope to possess, generally speaking, in the name of the book. The experience of reading it has left something behind, and these relics we call by the book’s name; but how can they be considered to give us the material for judging and appraising the book? Nobody would venture to criticize a building, a statue, a picture, with nothing before him but the memory of a single glimpse caught in passing; yet the critic of literature, on the whole, has to found his opinion on little more.”
Lubbock then goes on to provide the reader with extraordinary insights into the understanding of great fiction. It is a book which warrants reading and rereading, to which my well-thumbed copy will testify.

British and American English

For anyone who speaks British English – or a fairly close variant such as South African English – travelling to the United States can be a linguistically challenging experience. As a frequent visitor to the US (I have a daughter living there) my confusion was eased some years ago by a fascinating book, “Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions” by Orin Hargraves (Oxford University Press).

Subtitled “Making Sense of Transatlantic English”, the book not only catalogues the differences between the “two” languages but places terms in their cultural contexts. For example, Hargraves outlines the structural and terminological differences between the Parliamentary and Congressional systems of government, the legal systems, popular ball games, educational systems etc.

The book is equally useful for Americans heading to countries where British English is used.

Although it is a serious work of scholarship it is also extremely amusing. The chapter entitled “What you don’t say” navigates the reader through the pitfalls of slang terms for body parts, “activities and excretions”, and, under the general heading of political correctness, ethnic and racial classifications, sex and sexual orientation, religion, disabilities and so on. For a Brit to say that he was driving his car with his hand on the hooter is likely to cause shock at a polite American dinner party.

Hatchards bookshop, Piccadilly

In the last few years before I retired my office was at 6 St. James’s Square, London. I had no time for leisure reading in those days, but temptation lay close at hand in the form of Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly.

Sometimes I would take a brisk walk at lunchtime, ostensibly to clear my head and think through one or other problem, but my feet would lead me invariably through the door of that venerable shop which has traded in Piccadilly for well over two centuries.

It had five floors of books and extremely knowledgeable staff. I bought many books that gathered dust for years before I was able to open them. On retirement we were to move to our farm in South Africa, so, in those pre-Kindle days, I needed to stock up with books in advance.

Of course I continued to buy books after I left London at the end of 1997, but I no longer had the same choice, so my library is skewed towards the 20th century. I have been back to Hatchards on subsequent visits to London, but there’s a limit to the number of books one’s baggage allowance will permit.

In the late 1990s Hatchards became part of the Waterstones group and I believe it recently opened a new shop in St. Pancras station. I hope that in spite of these changes the old shop in Piccadilly keeps its uniqueness. I seem to remember, in a picture frame near the door, a telegram to the manager from Queen Victoria ordering her weekend supply of reading. I’m sure they delivered her order pretty promptly, almost as quickly as a Kindle download!