James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait

The first and easily the most accessible of Joyce’s three novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of the early life of Stephen Dedalus, a fictionalized version of Joyce who will later appear in Ulysses. Cut down from a gigantic experimental autobiography, the work took Joyce the best part of 15 years, so you may be surprised to find how readable it is, especially if you have previously attempted to read his other novels.

The entire text is available here at Project Gutenberg
Here is a downloadable audiobook at Librivox
And here is the book for sale on Amazon

And here’s an episode of In Our Time on the book, if you can only spare half an hour

Kafka’s The Trial

kafka the trial first edition dustjacket

I read The Trial and everything else I could find by Kafka while living a couple of tram stops away from his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague in 2004. The New Jewish Cemetery was opened in 1891 as the Old Jewish Cemetery was full – the vast open space in the lower half of the grounds tells a story more grim than anything found in pre-war fiction. But anyway.

The Trial isn’t my favourite Kafka (that would be The Castle) – but it sums up a lot of what keeps me coming back to his books. What I love most of all is the complete repudiation of free will and meaningfulness in the universe. It’s something many writers play with, but I can think of nobody else who accepts it so completely, and without any sense of melodrama.

Recommended listening: this episode of the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Franz Kafka’s novel of power and alienation ‘The Trial’, in which readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime; courts of interrogation convene in obscure tenement buildings; and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who lived in the Czech city of Prague, during the turbulent years which followed the First World War. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, but by night he wrote stories and novels considered some of the high points of twentieth century literature. His explorations of power and alienation have chimed with existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists – and Radio 4 listeners, who suggested this as our topic for listener week on In Our Time.

And you can buy The Trial here.

Robert Tressell – The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists


1911 is an exciting time for literature, but I would venture that the most important event of the year was not Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s launch of the Futurist Manifestito, nor the publication of the first of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels, and not even Virginia Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant all moving into a house at 38 Brunswick Square to start The Bloomsbury Group.

Instead let’s turn our eyes towards the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, where itinerant painter & decorator Robert Noonan died from pulmonary tuberculosis on the third of February, aged 40. In a box, hidden under her bed, his daughter kept his sole novel, then titled ‘The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’, a semi-autobiographical account of his time working in Hastings. It had been rejected by three publishers, and he had wanted it burned. By chance his daughter met poet Jessie Pope, best known for stirring patriotic motivational poems issued during the first world war. He took it to his publisher (extensively Bowdlerized) and had the thing published. It wasn’t until 1955 that the original was reassembled from notes and scraps of paper which could easily have been lost a dozen times.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists, then, is a seminal work of socialist literature, and inspiration to generations of politically active people of all varieties. As such, I expected it to be more moralistic and preachy than it is, and was pleasantly surprised to find it full of complex characters who are far from ideologically pure. Even in the first chapter there is a debate about whether immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages which works effectively as a demonstration of the kind of “false consiousness” later described by Theodor Adorno, while remaining entirely convincing as a depiction of life as he lived it (and, more importantly maybe, a scene which could play out exactly the same way in the england of 2019.) The nearest parallel I can think of is Emile Zola’s Germinal – but Tressell cares more about his characters, he is not willing to give any of them quite as terrible an ending as he himself suffered.

The book is widely available (here for example) and for people who don’t feel like reading right this moment, here is a very good BBC radio dramatization featuring Andrew Lincoln, Johnny Vegas, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Bill Bailey, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and John Prescott MP(!?)

It also appears to be available to download here – https://archive.org/details/THERAGGEDTROUSEREDPHILANTROPISTS

Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows


An odd book, but not one I’m particularly fond of, The Wind in The Willows is a mix of Edwardian rapture at frolicking in the splendors of nature, the high-church volksgeist mysticism that was in vogue at the time and classic anthropomorphic children’s moral tales. It does sort of hang together, and there are many memorable quotes and characters, but reading it undigested makes me feel uneasy, like there’s an unpleasant aftertaste I can’t quite place.

The 1985 Cosgrove Hall adaptation is how I first knew the story, and it’s still easily my favourite version. It apparently features the work of a young John Squire as a background artist too, and is available on youtube in its entirety¬† (for now)


James Dalessandro – 1906


I don’t have my own phonograph, and it’s impossible to have physical representations of my collection of antique mp3s, but at least I now have a bookshelf full of books about years. Unbelievably, this is only the second or third* one I’ve come across so far (the number is due to go up quite a lot in the 1910s) except it isn’t about the year, it’s a novel set before, during and after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. So basically the kind of thing I’m not reading. But since I bought it, why not give it a go?

Did I like it? Not really. it’s a perfectly serviceable, regular novel, with a standard storyline which doesn’t do much to surprise, though it does its best to mildly shock. The historical context has obviously been thoroughly-researched, but something just doesn’t ring true. The dialogue and inner monologues just don’t seem convincing, everything seems like the voice of the author with imitations of ethnic accents on top. It may just be that I’ve been listening to the cadences of progressive-era speech for too long, but I simply can’t suspend my disbelief.

Here is a scene where the protagonist describes listening to a phonograph recording of Caruso. It’s a good illustration of how factually right and how tonally wrong I found it.

1906 excerpt

So, yes, I didn’t really like it. But if that’s your sort of thing then you can apparently buy it at Amazon for 1p here.

*depending on whether we count ‘London, 1900’


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles

When I was four or five years old I somehow acquired a Ladybird Horror Classics edition of ‘The Hound of The Baskervilles’. This one in fact:


If that cover, or the equally terrifying illustrations within weren’t enough to scare a young child, the book also came with a cassette. The “horror” theme of this publication continued with the introductory music – Mussorsky’s ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ – and the reading, which managed to emphasise the most horrific passages with its tone of blank dread. Look, some kind soul has uploaded it to youtube, so you can hear what I mean. The passage from 3:50 onwards is particularly gruesome.

Naturally this was immediately my favourite book, and I would insist on listening to it at bedtime every night. This possibly led to a lifelong interest in spoken word recordings, a mortal fear of large dogs and a feeling of lingering injustice to the noble-sounding name of Stapleton

I hadn’t read the real book until this year and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s just as good as I feared it wouldn’t be. It’s easily the best of the Sherlock Holmes novels, from the way it starts out as a standard Holmes short story (with a very sinister undertone) to the way Sherlock spends half the book as essentially a ghost (remember that he was supposed to be dead in 1902), to the fantastically dramatic ending out on the Grimpen Mire.

Unfortunately as far as I’m aware nobody has apparently made a decent film version of the story. From this list the Peter Cushing version is ok, but messes with the story too much, the Peter Cook / Kenneth Williams version is a silly mess, the 2002 BBC version is a complete misfire, and the episode of Sherlock from 2012 is perhaps the weakest in that whole series. Nobody seems to have recreated that atmosphere, and nobody has made a dog as terrifying as the one on that audiobook. But there are quite a few I haven’t seen, so please let me know if there is a good one out there.


Here is the book on Amazon, here is the public domain text, and here is a free audiobook version on LibriVox, though as always I recommend this version read by Derek Jacobi.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


I’ve somehow owned a copy of this book since childhood but hadn’t thought to read it until now. It’s weird, and not always in a fun way. I was reminded most of the Grimm fairly tales, with their meandering, unstructured, unresolved plots, confused morals and sudden lurches into violence. The prose itself is a disconcerting mix of the sentimental Victorian style and a sort of pompous late-Twain-esque highfalutin moral fable. Somehow this became one of the best-selling children’s book series of all time and I’m not sure how or why.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Full text at Project Gutenberg)
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Dramatic reading at Librivox)