Book review: Things I learned on the 6.28, by Stig Abell

Stig AbellStig Abell
Stig Abell
Hovering somewhere between literary criticism and companionable gossip, Stig Abell’s record of the books he read during a year of commuting offers up a lucky dip of delights, writes Allan Massie

Stig Abell has written an unusual and engaging book about books. It’s a record of a year’s reading on his early morning commute to London where he was editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He read a different genre each month, starting with Crime in January, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca his first book, and ending with a "Lucky Dip” into Dumas, Angela Carter and JK Rowling in December. His reading was varied and eclectic, following no discernible pattern. I suppose much of this book hovers on the verge of literary criticism, but it’s better and fairer to think of it as conversation about books, even a gossip, the title Stevenson gave to a couple of his best essays.

His observations are often acute, not surprisingly. Who would have thought to find a character in George Eliot’s “Romola” who seems to have stepped out of a Dumas novel? Choosing “Romola” as one of the two historical novels he read in May is itself a surprise. I wonder how many of Eliot’s admirers, some of whom claim Middlemarch as the greatest Victorian novel, have read this book set in late 15th century Florence. Abell finds much to like, even while admitting it is heavy going at times, overburdened perhaps by research like so much historical fiction. All the same he leaves me thinking it might be worth having a go at it; and this surely is one of the things one hopes to get from a book of this sort.

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It is always interesting when an intelligent reader comes fresh to books you have known for a long time and read again and again. Responding to a question raised in the TLS office – “who still reads Anthony Powell?” – he devotes the second half of February the first two volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, and finds them “good on a cold wet morning on a commuter train”; quite a good test, I should say. On the other hand he misses or downplays the comedy. This is the case too when he reads the first two volumes of Proust. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet come upon Charlus, except in passing, or the Dickensian comedy of the Verdurins’ salon. But while there are long passages of Proust I skip now, the comedy still delights, and I would expect that it would appeal to Abell, a devotee of Wodehouse and early Waugh.

Things I Learned on the 6.20, by Stig AbellThings I Learned on the 6.20, by Stig Abell
Things I Learned on the 6.20, by Stig Abell

If, as a result, his recommendation of Proust is less than it might, indeed should be, his appreciation of Joseph Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March as “sad, remorseless and wonderful” is absolutely just .I can’t imagine anyone reading Abell on Roth who won’t be eager straight away to read the novel; and this of course is one of the justifications of criticism or literary gossip, call it what you will.

Likewise Abell’s exuberant response to Byron’s Don Juan will surely have readers turning or returning to what he calls “a fizzing, clever, funny, charming tour de force of the imagination… matched by acute precision,” evident in “the sheer skill of its versification.” Paradise Lost may indeed be the greatest long poem in the English language, but Milton is not companionable as Byron is. Moreover, Abell quotes Scott’s praise for the poem: it “has embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string of the divine harp.” Beat that if you can.

He has sensible things to say about the cant word “relevance,” this provoked by a novelist (kindly not identified) whom he has heard say that Shakespeare wasn’t relevant because “he wrote in difficult language and not about things that matter to young people today.” He knocks this nonsense on the head. “Excellence is always relevant… and some things are universal: love, hate, revenge, death, jealousy, anxiety.” So too, as he says, is beauty, but one of the remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the plays work and have meaning even in translations which fail to mirror the beauty of the language.

The last chapter, as I’ve said entitled “Lucky Dip.” But the whole book is a lucky dip: put in your thumb, pull out a plum, and relish it. A book for Christmas and the fireside, but a book also for all days and weathers, even for a chilly morning commuter train – once commuting is back in fashion.

Stig Abell: Things I learned on the 6.28, John Murray 322pp. £18.99

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