Wedded bliss … Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Eli Gottlieb’s debut novel, The Boy Who Went Away, won the Rome prize and the McKitterick prize. He began his career as a poet in New York, worked for US Elle magazine, then lived in Italy for six years.
Now You See Him is his second novel, published after a 10-year gap. It is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £9.99
1. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway
From the last great phase of his writing life, and fully in command of his resources, the old boy here draws the clearest lines he ever has between the genders, and makes it all explicit: love is combat. The gorgeous descriptive prose doesn’t conceal the preposterous archness with which the main characters – a middle-aged couple at war while on safari in Africa – assault one another. But if their dialogue grates on our modern ears, we should remember that people, in Hemingway’s thrall, were actually – incredibly – talking to each other like this for a brief few years.
2. Herzog by Saul Bellow
Arguably his most perfectly achieved book (Auden told him it’s only fault was it was too well-written) it’s also a novel of paybacks for real-world slights. That may account for the prussic acid nastiness with which the adulterous lovers at the heart of the book are depicted. Bellow stands quite justly accused of writing somewhat one-dimensional female characters, but the dialogues between the power-mad bluestocking wife and the thwarted professor-husband, are fabulously, irresistibly mean-spirited.
3. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
Michaels is finally getting his posthumous due as one of the prose masters of the 20th century. This thinly novelized memoir of living with a batty, argumentative, hyperneurotic and compulsively sexual Jewish coed in 1960s Manhattan has some of the great inter-gender firefights in contemporary literature. The book mesmerises like a bad accident. Not until you’re done, shaken and exhausted, do you realise how much art went into its making.
4. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
The characters natter on like Bloomsbury mannequins, but the scrupulousness with which Murdoch records every jot and tittle of a cuckold’s (and adulterer’s) inner life is astonishing. The narrator struggles for the length of the book in the coils of his ultra-understanding wife and her American shrink lover (and his sister, the significantly named Honor Klein), and Murdoch’s touch is light but scalpel-keen throughout.
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
The Ur-text of male-female combat in our times. And one of those rare plays whose iconic performance was sealed for all time in celluloid. Has Taylor ever been more suavely castrating? Has Burton ever been more magnificently, resonantly shitfaced on screen? Strident and dated though it may be in places, the play is still without peer in describing the place to which a bad marriage leavened with stunted career ambitions, bitchery and gin, can drive a couple.
6. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
An underappreciated American masterpiece, the book employs subtraction and foreshortening as narrative methods and glories in reducing all its characters to diagrams of their cruellest, most base selves. West zeroes in on the way in which we internalise clichés as a method of communication with one another, and in some of the book’s strongest scenes shows a young couple falling in love via the stilted bright language of ad slogans. It’s like watching two televisions mating.
7. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
After the shimmering Saturday this tiny, concentrated novel unpacks the world of two newlyweds struggling with the cumbersome gear of their pre-1960s genitals. Wielding his insight with characteristic aplomb, McEwan lays bare the mountain of contradictory assumptions held by the virginal young couple as they head for bed on their wedding night. The rage of their botched sexual encounter and its fatal aftermath is rendered with nearly forensic precision.
8. The Collector by John Fowles
Creepy is as creepy does. I’ve always remembered this book fondly, as a kind of antidote to the decorous mood-music of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The dialogues in which the imprisoned girl pleads for her life with her nerd assassin, employing an alternating mix of rage and winsomeness, are stomach-churning, and the best thing Fowles ever did.
9. Miss Julie by August Strindberg
The play thumps and bumps along its track like a car needing an oil change. and with its duelling maids, manservants and the chatelaine herself, Miss Julie, clearly reflects Strindberg’s own insecurity as the son of a maidservant married to a baroness. But especially towards the end of the last act, as things mount to their anguished climax, the play still reveals much about the eternal verities of sexual competition between men and women, and still has the power to shock.
10. Tickets, Please by DH Lawrence
The story of a preening male ticket-taker on a tramline, used to having his way with his female colleagues, whose comeuppance comes in a Lysistrata-through-the-looking-glass moment of collective girl-on-boy violence. You can almost hear Lawrence cheering on his proxies as they mass to pluck the peacock. I’ve never seen another story which, as regards men and women, makes so refreshingly real that which is almost always metaphorical.