No truth, no thought, is alien to the TLS. Its wings spread wide enough to encompass quantum physics and T.S. Eliot, ornithology and Bob Dylan, adultery and Machiavelli, public debt and Islamic architecture. It makes all of these subjects, and more, coherent to the non-expert and treats each of them in the appropriate tone, from dignified to derisory. I've read it for decades and can't imagine life without it. If they doubled the price tomorrow I'd obediently write them a larger cheque. Mario Vargas Llosa has been reading the TLS since he learned English forty years ago: "It is the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak."
Roman humour, a subject few of us have ever explored, came to me on one of the blogs that TLS editors produce from time to time. Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge and a TLS editor, wrote about the book she's finishing, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, which I will be anxious to read when the University of California Press publishes it in the summer.
Beard explains that the barber story appears in the Philogelos, a collection of more than 200 Roman jokes, though it's written in Greek. "Exactly the same gag," Beard tells us, is attributed by Plutarch to Archelaus, a Macedonian king in the fifth century BCE. Beard has also learned that in the twentieth century it was credited to Enoch Powell, the right-wing British MP, and to get the footnote right she's checked with a Powell expert.
In her blog she writes about her family, her love of beer, her gratitude to the editors of her books, and her travel, such as a recent visit to Rome for the exhibition celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Augustus. She's a don, but her tone is not donnish.
Readers who haven't recently looked at the TLS may be surprised to find that staff members write blogs. Regular subscribers know that in this way it's entirely up to date. It has created not only a version to be read on a smart phone but also an edition for tablets, where its excellent photographs look better than on the newsprint it has used since it began in 1902.
With persistence, talent, and a sense of purpose, a periodical creates its own unique environment, a structure where the subjects it deals with can flourish. Over time the publication begins to look something like a theatre company or an architectural firm, with its stars, its styles, and its delicately carved frame of reference. Eventually, if things work out, it becomes an essential institution. That's the case with the TLS.
But if a capacious sensibility is the paper's essential quality, that's not necessarily a source of pleasure to all of the readers. Some find it too much of a good thing. Some feel guilty about the many articles they ignore. Lydia Davis, the much-admired writer of short stories and translator of Proust, went so far as to declare her feelings in a quasi-poem, "How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS" which she published in the January issue of Harper's and will include in her forthcoming book.
"I do not want to read about the life of Jerry Lewis," Davis wrote, beginning a list of what she refuses to read about: Mammalian carnivores, a portrait of a castrato, the history of the panda in China, a dictionary of women in Shakespeare, bumblebees, Ronald Reagan, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History. On the other hand she admitted to reading about the lectures of Borges, the social value of altruism, the building of the Pont Neuf, dust jackets in the history of bibliography, beer, East Prussia after World War II, philosemitism and the Southport Lawnmower Museum. She thus revealed herself as an ideal TLS reader, since her list of inclusions is as extensive as the list of subjects she rejects. Still, I don't see how anyone can ignore a TLS article on bumblebees.
Those who try to define the category of this exceptional journal sometimes borrow a famous line from Voltaire ("the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire") and point out that the TLS is neither Times nor Literary nor Supplement. It's owned by the Murdoch corporation that controls the Times of London, but its appearance and content owe nothing to the daily newspaper. Nor is it literary, in any strict sense, since the pieces about literature are only a part of its content. When it began, however, it was in fact a supplement of the Times, and it contained mainly material about books. In 1914 it began to appear as a separate publication. Its range of subjects seems to have reflected a perception that literature can be seen best against an educated sense of society, politics, and the natural world.
For many decades it existed in an atmosphere of delicious mystery. Long after just about every other journal in English began publishing bylines, all TLS reviews appeared anonymously. I can remember the professional gossip this created. If England contained in i960 two acknowledged experts on, say, Titian, and if one of them wrote a book about him, it was assumed by everyone that the subtly dismissive review was written by his rival. If a general's memoirs explained how he won the war, the review harshly contesting his claim was obviously written by a colleague who had despised him since Dunkirk. I remember being assured that "everyone" knew the truth, everyone being a few hundred people who had some connections with the editors.
Anonymity had its advantages. In the early days, editors with limited budgets were glad to hide the fact that a few reviewers were writing much of the paper. Bruce Richmond, the editor who created the TLS during 35 years on the job, made one notable discovery in the early days. Through family connections he met a bright 23-year-old, Virginia Stephen, later to be Virginia Woolf. From the start she was wondrously witty and perceptive, and Richmond used her as often as he could, up to 50 or 60 times a year. As she acknowledged, this was where she learned to write for the public.
Over the years of anonymity, piquant speculation only enhanced the question of an important review's authorship. All this changed in 1974, when an excellent new editor, John Gross, began introducing bylines. He thought that reviewers should take responsibility for their opinions.
I remember that Alfred Knopf, the dean of New York publishers, was appalled. He felt that anonymity had curbed the egotism of reviewers and kept the TLS honest. Perhaps, but it has been a much more interesting journal since reviewers' names began appearing.
For much of its life the TLS has had a reputation for intelligent, well-argued judgement. But those who know its history understand that its record was once considered spotty. During the first year a reviewer wondered whether Henry James' The Wings of the Dove was satisfactory "for short railway journeys and drowsy hammocks," and another couldn't see the point of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. On Chekhov's death, two years later, the TLS suggested "he may or may not have been a man of genius."
Ulysses didn't even get mentioned at its first appearance in 1922 in Paris (it was banned in Britain); the 1936 English edition rated only a brief review. D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier were ignored. Eliot's poetry was described as uninspired and "verging sometimes on the catalogue." (Eliot, a good sport, later became a frequent reviewer.) Another kind of classic, The Wind in the Willows, was called "a book with hardly a smile in it."
The paper is edited with the greatest care, which makes its rare editorial disasters far more notable than they would be in a lesser publication. David Gallagher, writing from Chile in the letters column in December 2013, reported on a truly monstrous error (or instance of sabotage) that marred his recent piece on Mario Vargas Llosa. Gallagher wrote that Vargas Llosa has become "a passionate defender of liberal democracy." To Gallagher's astonishment, this was changed to a "passionate defender of the right-wing, neocon, authoritarian establishment." The TLS was apparently too traumatized to give a detailed explanation; it called this an error, apologized, and corrected it in the online version.
Over the years I've often noticed that the TLS editors are particularly adept at producing absorbing and valuable articles about books they don't particularly admire. This was the case with Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, a huge and ugly 704-page monster that emerged from the depths of American journalism last fall. The TLS gave it two full pages by James Campbell, a specialist in American literature, who took this opportunity to think his way through J. D. Salinger's career rather than the book that occasioned his essay. He found the account of Salinger's life "impertinent in its rush to judgement on ... his human appetites and foibles, and even his single testicle, which offers David Shields licence to indulge in a characteristic bit of -- well, bollocks."
Given that most TLS contributors are writers of some repute, they are not known for their egotism. Even so, there is one moment every year when a certain rivalry surfaces. It happens each November, when contributors are asked to name recent books they have admired. This results in eight or nine pages of what we might call competitive choosing, pages that devoted readers study with great intensity. Somehow, writers who are never condemned for showing off in their reviews are transformed into exhibitionists anxious to impress us with the originality, obscurity, or eccentricity of their selections.
Alex Danchev cites the sort of book we might expect in this feature, the Notebooks of Albert Camus, including a sample entry: "An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself." But elsewhere the choices, as often as not, tend toward the obscure. Clare Griffiths names Calon: A Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby, and Gabriel Josipovici suggests The Lost Carving, about a year spent restoring the Hampton Court carvings of Grinling Gibbons, severely damaged by fire. Frederic Raphael expresses affection for a book about the American rowing team that surprised and humiliated Hitler by winning a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. A.E. Stallings moves farther off the beaten track by recommending Faces of Love, translations of three fourteenth-century Persian poets. George Steiner, the polyglot critic, normally wins this competition with critical books that originated in foreign languages. This winter he exceeded even his own standards by recommending Piero Boitani's magnificent survey of the role of the stars in human consciousness. Alas, the translation from the Italian hasn't yet been published, so for the time being we must rely, as we often do, on Steiner's account.
In that same survey Beverley Bie Brahic named Alice Munro's Selected Stories, adding that "Maybe only a Canadian who lives outside Canada can recognize the perfect pitch of Munro's tales." Ferdinand Mount, a former editor of the TLS, wrote: "Impossible to stifle a whoop of joy on hearing that Alice Munro had won the Nobel. No writer I know of gets at life the way she does." Reminding us that the TLS often gets it dead right.