His Dark Materials: A Profile Of Philip Pullman

BEFORE STARTING work on His Dark Materials, a trilogy of what he called “science- fantasy” novels, Philip Pullman wrote an alternative Book Of Genesis to rival God’s own creation story. In Pullman’s version, God was nothing more or less than an angel, the first sentient being. He did not make the universe, but told the younger angels that he had, pretending to an authority that he never possessed. When the more liberal of their number rebelled against his dictatorship, they were cast out of heaven. The wisest of them – Sophia, who was not mentioned in the Bible, but later found a place in the Gnostic gospels – tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit purely and simply because it represented knowledge, which could never be a sin.

The Unquiet Grave Of Pablo Neruda

STANDING over Pablo Neruda’s grave, a young attendant named Lorena said she wasn’t sure about any of this. The exhumation had not yet begun, and the flowerbed looked undisturbed above the poet’s burial mound at Isla Negra, just outside his former home on the rocky black volcanic coast of Chile. But court-appointed investigators had already been out to survey the site and measure the depth of the remains. Asked for her opinion on Neruda’s cause of death, Lorena told me that she didn’t know what to believe. “There’s a lot of stories, but no proof,” she said.

The Universe Is Not On Your Schedule: Junot Diaz

THE late Ray Bradbury once wrote a story called All Summer In A Day. It was set in a primary school on the planet Venus, where it’s been raining non-stop for seven years. The children are too young to remember the sun, except for one girl who has recently arrived from Earth, and feels its absence more acutely than they do. On the day it is due to come out again, if only for a couple of hours, the girl stands apart from the others, waiting for the sun and wanting to go home. The rest of the class hate her for that apartness. They lock her in a cupboard just before the clouds break, and then they all go out to play. Junot Diaz first read that story when he was about the same age as the kids in it.

Moby-Dick In Pictures: Matt Kish

THE whale was never just a whale. After 160 years, there is still no end to the meanings read into Moby-Dick, and the titular monster prevails as symbol for anything and everything that we doubt or dread, including existence itself, and whatever something or nothing that might lie beyond. From Matt Kish’s point of view as an illustrator, this made Herman Melville’s “damned whale” extremely tricky to draw.

At Orwell’s House

George Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.

In The Houses Of Great Writers

MOST writers spend the better part of their days sitting alone in chairs, slouched over desks, occasionally staring out of windows. In his lifetime, even a beloved crowd-pleaser like Charles Dickens would probably have bored his fans to fits of Victorian weeping if they had to watch him work for more than five minutes. But after a great author dies, his or her property begins to take on a kind of mystic fascination. Over decades, or centuries, their chairs become artefacts, their rooms become museums, and their houses become holy to those readers and travellers who consider themselves “literary pilgrims”.

The Three Burials Of Pablo Neruda

WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.

Master, Commander, and Liar: Patrick O’Brian

ON October 11, 1996, a banquet was held in the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich – a huge room designed by the astronomer-architect Sir Christopher Wren, its ceilings detailed with images of British maritime power. This was where Admiral Nelson’s body lay in state after it was shipped back from the… Read more »

Roddy Doyle

DUBLIN is the one city where people know Roddy Doyle when they see him. It’s the only place he has ever lived, and up until his new novel Oh, Play That Thing!, it was the only place he ever set his stories. Today, he tells a true one from a few weeks ago. Doyle was waiting for a friend at Tara Street train station, and a bunch of little hoods were hanging around nearby. In Glasgow they would be neds, in Dublin they’re called gurriers. One of them broke off and came over to stare at him. “Are you Roddy Doyle?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “So what?” said the kid, and walked away again.

Hearts In Antarctica: Writing My Romantic Novel

CASTLE of Park is bright pink. It rises out of the Scottish countryside like a sudden blush on the green cheek of rural Aberdeenshire. Driving up through the grounds, I imagine that this place was custom built as a refuge for budding romantic novelists like myself, the colour acting as a kind of beacon to guide us over the hills in our heightened state of distraction.