Bookworm: Joyce material | No.1 translation

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IT’S good to see that Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series seems to be finally cracking America. The ninth novel, A Man Without Breath, which was glowingly reviewed in these pages, is his first to make it onto the New York Times bestseller charts.

For Edinburgh authors, however, this is becoming inceasingly common: only last month Kate Atkinson appeared there with Life After Life, and Ian Rankin and a certain JK Rowling have been similarly successful.

Yet when compared to Joyce Placzek (1901-53), none of them have had anything like as big an influence on American public opinion. Joyce who, I hear you ask. Well, she was born Joyce Anstruther, the daughter of a Scottish MP and was at school with the future Queen Mother (still none the wiser?). She married into the Maxtone Grahams, a Perthshire landowning family before divorcing to wed her long-time love, a penniless refugee. She wrote poems and hymns, including Lord of all hopefulness (getting warmer?). And she’s the subject of a wonderful 2001 biography by granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham that has just been republished in a limited edition of 2,000 by Slightly Foxed. Its title? The Real Mrs Miniver.

The original Mrs Miniver was, of course, the fictional heroine of the 1942 Hollywood film that Churchill reckoned did more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships. Mrs Miniver was a contented, balanced, happily married Christian based on a character that Jan Struther (Joyce’s nom de plume) had created in her column in the Times. As her granddaughter’s captivating biography reveals, Joyce herself – who suffered badly from depression near the end of her all-too-short life – was none of these things, but a remarkable woman all the same.


Alexander McCall Smith is, of course, yet another Scottish writer who sells well in the States, even if his latest book in Scots won’t be on sale there. Precious and the Mischief at Meerkat Brae (Itchycoo, £9.99) has been translated into Scots by James Robertson. “Fat cakes”, a kind of fried doughnut according to McCall Smith’s original text, held him up for a while before he settled on “creeshy cakes” (literally “greasy cakes”) in the Scots version, and described them as “a sneyster that’s awfie popular in Botswana”.