Jeremy Gavron - The great majority of lines in this novel are sourced word for word from the hundred or so books, by some eighty authors. Fourteen of the chapters, including the last nine, are made up entirely of sourced lines

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Jeremy Gavron, Felix Culpa, Scribe, 2018.

Whose stories deserve to be told? And whose words should do the telling?
In Felix Culpa, Jeremy Gavron conjures up a work of extraordinary literary alchemy: a novel made out of lines taken from a hundred great works of literature.
It follows a writer on the trail of a boy recently released from prison, who has been discovered dead in the cold north, frozen and alone. But in searching for the boy’s story, will he lose his own?
Magical and moving, Felix Culpa is a living demonstration of how storytelling works, by sound and by rhythm, by elision and by omission, as well as by reference and by allusion. It asks what happens when we lose the narrative of our own life, and fall into someone else’s.

Felix Culpa is extraordinary: a wild, beautiful book which patchworks tiny scraps of other novels to create something haunting, resonant and absolutely original.’ - Olivia Laing

'Felix Culpa is a brilliantly eccentric accomplishment - one that is difficult, on a single reading, fully to appreciate - and it raises fascinating questions about authorship, plagiarism, and textual integrity … Felix Culpa's ingenious appropriations bring the dead to life and offer the living a parallel existence in very good company.' - TLS

‘One of our more innovative, quietly inventive and exciting novelists.’ Ali Smith, TLS

'Gavron is essentially a Mary Shelley of words: he seeks to galvanise old sentences, the members of all stories, with new life, in a new body made of the severed parts of many others.' - Mika Provata-Carlone

The pursuit of the Noble Savage — the wild child who seems to embody freedom — is an evergreen theme in romantic literature.
Not surprising. The rhapsodic writer is perennially aware of that shadowy other, which in his bourgeois garret he is not.
Will Self contends that imaginative authors are threatened by the advent of creative-writing schools. Group think and immediate critique are inimical to the long, needful inwardness in which phantoms grow into characters and situations to make fiction.
Jeremy Gavron teaches a master of fine arts (MFA) course in creative writing at a college in the United States. He has won the Encore Award and a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, where his latest book began life. It relies on an extraordinary stylistic trick — doubtless impressive to colleagues and students alike. The Self question: does such artifice substitute for deep writerly inspiration?
Single sentences, often just words or phrases, become discrete paragraphs. Most are lifted from texts of great writers — Conrad, Chandler, Oz, Grossman, Cormac McCarthy.
The plot resembles a thriller: a prison visitor morphs into a detective following the track of a lad who was drawn into crime and sent to prison only to vanish on release. Theme: we cannot know ourselves fully unless we vicariously live the struggles of those less privileged, on the wind.
Gavron’s singular approach nudges his narrative towards the universal. Specifics are inconstant — are we in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe? Is the tale a parable about refugees and what their experience can teach us, or should that word be modified to include all fugitives?
In either case, survival is the aim: how to regain animal cunning and endure the elements; how to evade hostile mankind and civilisation’s miseries to beat death.
The last is not possible. Felix’s end becomes Gavron’s narrator’s obsession: its where, when and how. In a cave in high mountains where the boy apparently perished comes a new perception. Neither the wild child nor his pursuer should veer from the world of men for too long. Without mutual aid — the kindness of strangers — one cannot endure.
This poetic book may be self-consciously wrought but it is hardly false. Origins in writers’ enclaves notwithstanding, it rates high on the imaginative scale. A rite of passage conceived not just in mind but in heart, it recalls D H Lawrence’s dictum after Walt Whitman: “The soul is a wayfarer along the open road”. Gavron did not use that quote, but he could have. - Stoddard Martin

The German artist Kurt Schwitters developed a method, which he called “Merz”, by which his canvases would be constructed using hundreds of fragments of material – bits of newspaper, bus tickets, images cut from magazines – to make collages which were often startling in the juxtapositions they presented. In this very unusual novel, Jeremy Gavron does something similar. The vast majority of the text comprises lines lifted from other novels, and then stitched together to form an intriguing narrative, each element separated from the next by blank space. It makes for an unsettling read, but also a compelling one: its brevity allows the reader to devour the tale almost at a single sitting, and there is something about the unexpected relationships between each short snippet and the next that demands close attention.
Gavron has, paradoxically, produced something entirely original from his hundred or so sources, investing what might have been a rather hackneyed tale of a writer’s search for some sort of meaning with an edgy noirish sensibility, and in the process also providing a kind of literary spot-the-source parlour game for readers. Handily, he provides a list of his sources in an author’s note, which I wish I had discovered earlier than I did whilst reading.
The narrative concerns a writer-in-residence at a prison who becomes obsessed with discovering the fate of a young prisoner found dead shortly after his release. In terms of setting, we are in a modern, rather desolate urban environment, though because of the nature of the technique, there is no consistency: it might be contemporary America, it might be Victorian London. Gavron’s sources are nothing if not eclectic, ranging from Mark Twain to JG Ballard, from Nadine Gordimer to Mary Shelley. The writer’s desire to know what led to the death of a young petty criminal leads him to question his own existence and to embark on a journey that takes on an almost mystical dimension as he abandons the trappings of civilisation.
The use of lines (and almost all the novel is single lines, often just short clauses, or even single words) from other novels means that the sense of character as well as location is slippery. The central character is sometimes ‘he’ if the quoted text is a third-person narrative, sometimes ‘I’, and there’s obviously no consistency in the tone, since we might have a line from an early eighteenth-century novel following one from a work published in the last few years. Quite a few of the sources are in translation, though some are used in the original language, so the reader is sometimes caught off-guard by a phrase in German or Spanish.
It is hard to convey the flavour of the novel without quotation, but a quotation doesn’t really manage to present the overall experience of reading the novel, an experience which I found oddly unnerving. All the usual narrative signposts by which we as readers navigate a story are removed by Gavron’s technique of textual assemblage, so that we seem to experience a central tale – the writer’s search for the truth about the boy, the Felix of the title – as well as simultaneously being immersed in a series of ghost narratives, prompted by half-remembered snippets of dialogue or description.  Here is a passage from early in the novel, when the unnamed central character has decided to pursue his enquiries. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a touch of metafiction, with the text presenting as a character a writer who writes about his own writing, and here seems even to be writing about this novel itself:
In his pocket an old half-used notebook he has turned round and begun scrawling in from the back frontwards.
Spidery handwriting full of crossings-out and corrections.
Fragments, nonsense syllables, exclamations.
Observations which he found scribbled on the walls of subway washrooms.
Overhears in the streets.
In the café where he sometimes takes his meals.
Eavesdropping, if necessary, and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me.
Foraging in used bookstores.
Pieces, it seems to him, of other stories, yet to be told.
By turns intriguing, exciting and exasperating, this is certainly worth your attention if you are interested in possible new directions for the novel. In the end, I was not wholly convinced by the experiment, which seemed to me to take over from the business of telling the story. As with Georges Perec’s La Disparition, written without the use of the letter ‘e’, one is moved to admiration by the author’s inventiveness and verbal dexterity, but not necessarily by the totality of the work. - Rob Spence

Collage works best when it works all at once, which is why it meets with most success in the visual arts and music, where, for instance, DJ tracks built out of a swarming multitude of samples are organised around the through line of a beat. In writing, poetry is where collage recurs most frequently, at least partly because poems are short and generally not dependent on the elaboration of plot in order to succeed. In a longer piece of prose it is less effective. That’s because the fundamental building block of prose narrative is not language: it’s time. So any piece of narrative prose that wants to work as a collage must do something more than just skilfully edit together a bunch of quoted words. It must do something with, and to, time: squeeze it, dilate it, punch holes in it, twist it into weird striations.
Felix Culpa is a collage novel in that the bulk of its text is made up of lines lifted from other novels. An appendix lists the 100 works by 80 or so writers that Jeremy Gavron has used as his raw materials, though the text is not purely collage: only 14 of the 33 chapters are made up of “entirely sourced lines”. In other words, 19 contain some original interventions. While this may have been impossible to avoid, it can’t help but take the gloss off Gavron’s attempted feat. It’s as though the French novelist Georges Perec, author of the seminal Oulipian novel La Disparition/A Void, a book that famously does not contain a single E, instead wrote a book containing some Es.
The plot of Felix Culpa is framed as a mystery: when the novel opens, Felix, a young thief who was sent to prison after accidentally killing an old woman, has died in mysterious circumstances a short while after his release. A writer in residence at the prison begins to investigate Felix’s death, encountering a young woman he was in a relationship with and finally the shepherd for whom he once worked. Felix culpa is also the Latin term for the Christian concept of the “fortunate fall”, the bad action leading to an ultimately good outcome, the archetypal example being humankind’s expulsion from Eden that presaged the coming of Christ. The plot is Christian-contoured, with Felix depicted as a criminal and killer but also as an unworldly innocent, ripe for transcendental redemption whatever his earthly transgressions.           
The book progresses in very short chapters, the well-spaced lines singly descending the page, as though it is in fact a poem:
Still going into the prison, reading the men’s writings, listening to their talk.

Fascinating facts and tales from the poky.

Pale wall of dreams.

Standing in a cell one evening while its occupant brews tea in the wing kitchen.

Hung with old calendars and magazine pictures.

High narrow slit of a window.

Looked out on a bare courtyard lit by electric lamps.

Full of the melancholy which seeps into the bones in prison at night.
This method does produce interesting, if mild, effects, with just enough variation in the sourced registers to impart a sense of a “voice” that is unsettlingly off, negotiating a liminal world brimming with negative space. But as the story proceeds more or less in sequence, the effect of the collage, as a purely linguistic device, begins to wane. The voice works best early on, when the plot is at its most notional, but by its final phase, lacking the ability to return to the kind of established plot points that drive traditional narrative conclusions, the energy dissipates. The novel is as short as a book of poems, with a word count not far into five figures, and it might have worked better as a series of (not necessarily related) collage poems.
A closer inspection of the appendix raises another slight disappointment: the source texts are a very respectable but tame collection of largely 20th-century literary classics written overwhelmingly by men. The few genre books in there are safely canonical selections – JG Ballard, Raymond Chandler. I did wonder if the novel was an elaborately dry satire of the essential sameness of the conventional male “literary” voice, but I don’t think so: in a book that is around 70% description of physical landscape, Gavron makes things very easy on himself by using no fewer than five Cormac McCarthy novels as sources.
And if the point of collage is the bringing together of not just disparate, but actively incongruous and even dissonant material to generate new perspectives and tonalities, then Felix Culpa fails to distinguish itself in this way, too. Although Gavron edits his sourced lines skilfully enough, he is not doing anything transformative with the repurposed material. In the end he is making a tastefully “literary” novel out of a bunch of other tasteful literary novels. Imagine if he pulled off a novel in a “high” literary style using only lines lifted from the works of, say, Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown. Now that would be a feat. - Colin Barrett

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them,” said Vladimir Nabokov. In Felix Culpa, Jeremy Gavron challenges the notion by really putting readers through their paces in this literary mosaic. Gavron is the writer of the critically acclaimed A Woman on the Edge of Time which stretched the boundaries of biographical writing, and now he does the same with this ingeniously crafted novella. This story is composed of lines taken from a hundred great works of literature including classics like Oliver Twist and Frankenstein to relatively recent works like The Road and Train Dreams.
Seamlessly tessellating the works of 80 writers in a cohesive narrative is no mean feat but Felix Culpa, while a challenging read at times, succeeds in putting an innovative spin on storytelling. The book begins with a struggling writer who, in absence of any inspiration, has taken to visiting prison and penning letters for prisoners because he feels a kinship with them as they, like him have “lost the plot, lost the thread of their own lives”.
One day the prisoners find a familiar face in the newspaper in an article about a young boy who was recently released from prison. Felix was found dead in the cold north, possibly from hypothermia. The inscrutable mugshot of the boy immediately intrigues the writer who begins “looking for clues in the camera’s description. Biographies in the line of a face.’’
The writer then begins sleuthing to connect the dots of the boy’s ignoble life. From his acquaintances in prison, he finds out that the boy had a talent for breaking and entering and was duped by a group of criminals, which led to his mistaken arrest. Felix seems like a lone wolf and his time in prison made him fold into himself even more. He kept to himself and did not apply for leave even to attend his mother’s funeral, something that struck the prison’s crew as peculiar.
Negligence or guilt
Culpa is a Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese word for negligence or guilt, a predominant theme in the narrative. A sense of intense self-reproach and persecution unatoned permeates this work. It is interesting to note how much the writer is projecting his own experiences and state of mind on to Felix, a person he never met in life. He considers Felix as a solitary vagabond and as someone who had given up on life, something which is quite true for him as well.
The narrative occasionally digresses into stimulating musings about what constitutes storytelling. In one passage, the writer admonishes himself to avoid descriptions of characters and leave the parts that readers want to skip. But then he ponders, “which parts are these exactly? And which readers? And what if these are the parts that prevail on a writer?’’ The structure of this novel makes one assess this question by stripping down the story to the bare bones.
While our protagonist’s own life lacks any semblance of order, Felix’s mystery proves as an anchor and helps him navigate his way out of uncertainty. He wants to trail the boy’s elusive last days but at the same time is aware of his fallacious need to put together a compact narrative of Felix’s life. The story of someone’s life has as much to do with the author’s perspective as with the subject’s life. “Writer’s craft to pull from the myriad possibilities of all that could happen those that did and had to happen.”
Frames of reference
Felix Culpa really is more than the sum of its parts and requires a re-read because the story can be viewed through different frames of reference. On first read, it is hard not to be distracted from the narrative by familiar lines from some of the seminal works of modern literature. The first half of the story specially is quite disjointed since, beside comprising of one-liners sourced from other books, the story initially has little action and relies heavily on stream of consciousness to drive the narration.
It’s only in the last quarter of the book that the narrative begins to take shape and it is there where the perseverance pays off. This is one of those books that rewards readers’ patience as the vague phrases and ruminative passages only begin to come together near the ending, which is at once revelatory and profound. Adroitly written, this is a melancholic story about reconstructing a life and chasing after what is lost. In this story of a man who takes a detour into someone else’s story in order to find his own narrative, the writer ponders which stories deserve to be told and how. The book’s plot is best described as a line from the book, taken from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing “Own journeying began to take upon itself the shape of a tale.” - Rabeea Saleem

The vintage parlour game Consequences requires each player to take turns in writing a phrase or a sentence on a piece of paper, then, concealing their contribution, to fold the paper and pass it on to the next player to repeat the action until a story is made out of the fragments. Postmodern writers such as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec played similar games, allowing their novels to emerge from formal schema and seemingly disconnected elements. Rich in literary and historical allusion, the results — Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, say, or Perec’s Life a User’s Manual — are both dazzling and disconcerting: wordplay as serious literature.This is the territory Jeremy Gavron ventures on to in his new novel Felix Culpa. Its 33 brief chapters are made up of lines from 100 works of international literature (including Calvino); yet it’s clear that Gavron — a consistently interesting novelist who also wrote a much-admired memoir of his mother, A Woman on the Edge of Time — is aiming for more than a clever arrangement of borrowed finery.Gavron, for the most part, succeeds — thanks not simply to his choice and placement of quotations but also to the wholly credible tale that he creates in the process, merging detective story, mythic romance and medieval quest into a short, affecting parable for modern times. In many cases the lines he has lifted are so terse as to defy identific­ation, though there is a bibliography at the back for those who can’t resist an early peek at his sources — from Ballard and Bolaño, through to Kapuscinski and the King James Bible, with hefty doses of Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy among the 80 writers listed.The body of a young man called Felix, newly released from prison, is found in the rural uplands to the north of an unnamed country — recognisably England in several lights, although Gavron constantly wrongfoots the reader with lines from non-English writers, making Felix’s plight a universal one.The novel’s landscape might variously contain the olive trees of Amos Oz’s Israel, the boulevards of Patrick Modiano’s Paris, the loud, colourful birds of Alan Paton’s South Africa and the cottonwoods of Mark Twain’s Missouri, often all on one page. So seamless are these juxtapositions that they do not appear incongruous.
The narrative, too, is elusive, slipping frequently from first to third person, as a writer stymied by his own lack of imagination (“Maybe the story I’m looking for doesn’t exist”) seeks inspiration from the inmates of the prison in which he teaches. -
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“A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion in me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet. The fragmentary nature of thought,” says Jeremy Gavron with reference to his new novel Felix Culpa in the Granta series Notes on Craft where writers discuss their work. Except he doesn’t, as the article, like the novel itself, is largely made up of the words of other writers. In an interview on the Radio 4 programme Open Book, Gavron spoke of the book’s origins, noting that ten years ago it began as a conventional novel about a young man released from prison. As he wrote, a line from The Great Gatsby echoed in his head, a line he felt perfectly conveyed the experience of working in a prison (as he has): “Privy to the secret griefs of men.” As time went on he became more and more aware that the atmosphere and mood of works he had met as a reader encapsulated what he wanted to express as a writer, and so the novel increasingly became a patchwork of stolen lines – in the end from some hundred other novels, as he explains in a note at the end:
“The great majority of lines in this novel are sourced word for word from the hundred or so books, by some eighty authors, listed below. Fourteen of the chapters, including the last nine, are made up entirely of sourced lines.”
As Gavron has said, “All stories are made to some degree out of earlier stories,” though few writers have taken it quite so literally. In doing so he joins the ranks of writers who have previously rejected the traditional novel as inadequate, opting for a form of collage promoted by David Shields and seen in the late work of David Markson. Interestingly, he has not rejected plot but instead fragmented it. The novel tells a story: that of a young man, Felix, who, shortly after being released from prison, is found dead in mysterious circumstances. The prison’s writer-in-residence attempts to investigate the death, lending the novel the tension of the mystery genre.
The collage works best when differing voices are juxtaposed:
“Hours to commune with his own thoughts.
Learned your place.
Good dog and all’ll go well and the goose hang high.
Transferred eventually to the adult system.”
The slightly jarring change of person (which is frequent) and the appearance of dialect in the third line keep the reader on edge, further adding to the sense of mystery and ensuring identification with the writer’s need to piece together what has happened. Felix’s character, that of a criminal, but one who seems innocent to the ways of the world, further increases the gaps the reader must search to fill, evident in the book’s layout.
The style is particularly effective for evoking mood through the description of landscape:
“Sun swam across the sky
Hole in the road suddenly wink like a cyclops.
Few miles further.
Lilac evening.”
It also works well portraying the stilted conversations between strangers as the writer asks about the boy:
“Don’t suppose you know where he is?
Moves around should be here soon now it’s spring.
Anyone taken notice of a boy?
Stayed with him.
Sull young’n.”
If anything, however, Gavron has been too successful in blending together the lines he has chosen. With seventy-three of his writers male (not counting God) and only a few pre-dating the twentieth century, there is, strangely, a lack of variety in the narrative voice at times. Gavron also has a tendency to choose very short sentences, rarely over a line long: of the twenty-three sentences on the final two pages eighteen are six words or fewer (five are only two words). This slows the pace of the novel and, again, emphasises the search, but also creates a sameness of tone throughout.
Gavron has described Felix Culpa as “a journey through my own literary landscape” and it’s a pity he did not make the decision to go hard-core Oulipo by setting stricter rules on his sources. Think, for example, of Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, a novel made entirely from fragments of text clipped from 1960s women’s magazines. Despite this, it’s a fascinating experiment with an interesting story to tell: a novel to read and re-read. -

Part of me was so drawn to reading “Felix Culpa” simply for the sheer audacity of its creation and out of a curiosity to see how it would work. This is a novel that’s composed almost entirely from the lines of other works of fiction by (approximately) eighty authors as varied as Italo Calvino, Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy and Mary Shelley. In poetry this is known as a cento where different verses or passages from multiple authors are composed into a new order. Jeremy Gavron forms in this fictional collage experiment a story about a young man named Felix who mysteriously died after he was arrested in a botched robbery. The narrator is a writer/teacher at the prison where Felix was incarcerated and he embarks on a mission to discover more about Felix’s life and what happened to him. Amidst his travels to interview people Felix encountered he slides into his own epistemological crisis and radically alters his life. It’s a moving tale in itself, but through the very nature of its innovative construction it also poses fascinating questions about the meaning of narrative and the way in which readers connect with fiction.
I think one of the greatest works of art produced thus far in the 21st century is Christian Marclay’s video art installation ‘The Clock’. This is a looped 24-hour video montage that takes scenes from hundreds of films and television shows featuring clocks that are synchronized to show in real time. In doing so, these pieces of disparate video footage link up in a mesmerising way and meaningfully comment upon the way we are all caught in the flow of time. It’s interesting how when we’re confronted with a series of fictional works that are artfully mixed together we begin to imaginatively form narratives in our heads. As I was reading “Felix Culpa” I became aware that I was filling out scenes or adding details to characters based only on a few suggestive phrases that Gavron has paired. Of course, this is what we do all the time when reading fiction. But, somehow, because I was aware that this narrative was a construct of preformed sentences, I had a greater self-consciousness about the active role I play as a co-creator of the fiction that I’m reading.
In the course of reading this novel I also became more aware of the playful ambiguity of language and the plasticity of sentence construction. Lines or phrases that mean something in one context can come to mean something entirely different in another. Again, this is something fiction does all the time and part of its great beauty is how it can mean many things all at once. In this novel lines are spaced out with gaps in between them to demarcate how they’ve been taken from different sources. This also has the effect of highlighting passages and the reader must take an infinitesimally small pause in going from one line to another. This is something that’s often done in poetry, but in this book lines consciously flow together to form a cohesive narrative. So a line like “Time comes to leave” stands on its own. This has a meaning within the story where it’s time for a character to depart to go somewhere else. However, staring at this line on its own it also takes on connotations of how time is fleeting, that a moment only arrives to depart. But, in reading these lines on their own, I also often felt curious about how this line might have been used in its original story.
What’s impressive about “Felix Culpa” is that this elaborate self-conscious assembly of hypertext doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the story Gavron forms himself. I felt totally emotionally drawn into this tale and sympathised with Felix’s struggles in life as the narrator uncovers piece after piece about the journey that led to Felix’s untimely death. This character is formed more through an outline than through direct descriptions of Felix himself, yet the reader is still keyed into the ambiguities of Felix’s heart and mind. I grew to feel a sense of loneliness in Felix where his circumstances led him to make poor choices and end up in isolation. I haven’t felt this way about a character since reading about the nearly silent figure of Stevie at the centre of Rachel Seiffert’s brilliant novel “The Walk Home”. Felix’s struggle is something that the narrator of the novel also connects with and his obsession with Felix’s plight says something significant about the unspoken crisis in the narrator’s own life. This novel is a richly rewarding work of art. - Eric Karl Anderson

Picasso said "Art is theft", but what about if you quote your sources? That’s just one of the questions raised by author Jeremy Gavron in his latest book, "Felix Culpa". The novel features original writing alongside borrowed lines from dozens of literary classics. The author tells us why the regeneration of artistic ideas and tropes is a natural process and why he prefers "paying homage" to plagiarism.

Felix Culpa is a short noir made up (almost) entirely of sentences taken from about 100 other texts—mostly novels (from Calvino to Tolkien, Raymond Chandler to Cormac McCarthy), but also the King James Bible, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Elmore Leonard’s tips for writers, and a choice selection of literary non-fiction, including director Werner Herzog’s memoir, Of Walking in Ice (translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg), Ryszard Kapuściński’s account of the Angolan Civil War, Another Day of Life (translated by Willim R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand), and Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard, about the author’s wanderings through the Himalayas in search of the eponymous beast. Instead of being organised in paragraphs, each sourced sentence is given its own space, an opportunity to stand out, like verses in a poem—for example:
Vast plate-glass window.
In front of him a tower still under construction.
Gleaming skeleton of a building going up, from which came the busy beat of hammers.
Beams hung from the cranes.
Dizzy drop into empty air.
Below the city laid out like a puzzle.
Wilderness of brick and mortar.
Streets like the floors of valleys or river beds.
Rough and rudimentary like an artist’s initial pen sketches.
As you can see, the sentences are “clipped” in such a way that it doesn’t feel like each comes from somewhere different book, except in a very small handful of easily recognisable quotes that border on jarring (for example, there’s an unexpected “Ring a ding dillo” from the Tom Bombadil chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, which I don’t think is entirely necessary). None of the characters have names (except for the Felix Culpa himself, of course), the protagonist oscillates between referring to himself in the first person and being referred to in the third person, and I’m not sure the setting corresponds to a real-world location (though perhaps there are slightly more clues that the story is set in Southern Africa than anywhere else—the Xhosa/Zulu word “umfundisi”, a reference toa type of African plover named titihoya, and the presence of both mountains and jungle).
The plot is simple. A writer in residence at a prison learns that one of the prison’s former detainees, a young man named Felix Culpa, was found dead, possibly from hypothermia, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, in the mountains north of the city. The writer becomes obsessed with this story, and interviews all sorts of people Felix knew both to have a better sense of who the young man was, and to reconstruct his final days. Finally, the writer embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts to the place where Felix’s body was found.
Did Gavron start with a vague outline of the story? Did he write a rough draft first, then ctrl-f’d his way through digital copies of his 100 sources, searching for sentences with which to replace his own? Did he follow any other rules besides the main one—for example, putting a cap on the number of his own words he could use in each chapter, or only using certain authors for certain things—e.g. Walter Mosley and Raymond Chandler for the protagonist’s encounters with lowlifes, Matthiessen for descriptions of the natural landscape, and so on? If he did start out with a vague outline or rough draft, how much was the story changed, if at all, by the process of sourcing sentences from other texts?
Most importantly, is there something to the fact that Felix’s story—the story of a marginalised figure, a young, solitary working class man who stumbled early into a life of petty crime, and who was seen as dim by most who knew him—is told through lines taken from classic literature? Felix Culpa is the kind of book that you “get” a bit more every time you read it—in terms of enjoying it more, noticing new things, and having a clearer sense of what the text is doing and saying—and, luckily, it’s short enough (190 pages, with those big spaces between lines) that reading it multiple times is a fairly reasonable feat. I’ve read it twice, enjoyed it both times, and I’m already itching for a third go. However, I did not find an answer to the last question that I was happy with until I started reading another book, Know Your Place, Dead Ink’s excellent anthology of writing by working class authors about the working class experience in modern-day Britain. In her contribution, ‘An Open Invitation’, Kit de Waal writes:
The truth is, and I heard this more than once, ‘literature is a record of the middle classes for the middle classes.’ Certainly the definitions of ‘literature’ and what constitutes ‘good taste’ are tightly bound up with class. What the working class or underclass produce is rarely included in the canon; street literature, songs, hymns, spoken word, dialect and oral storytelling is nowhere to be found, neither is it taught in schools or universities. […] Even Jane Eyre, a ‘poor’ orphan, was well educated, spoke French and played the piano, ultimately and conveniently becoming a rich heiress.
After reading that passage, the idea came to me that Felix Culpa might be about the empathy gap between classes. The protagonist, who appears to be middle class, uses the literature he’s familiar with to understand people who have very different life experiences from his own—the inmates at the prison, Felix of course, and Felix’s friends and acquaintances—but this literary filter he places between himself and the world may have a more distorting effect than he realises, since it’s still produced by middle class white men and meant for other middle class white men. He’s like one of the card images in one of my favourite board games, Dixit—a mummy walking obliviously across a stormy landscape, all wrapped up in pages from books (right). By the end, the writer-protagonist may think he “gets” what Felix went through, what his life was like, but does he really?
This also casts a different light on something that bugged me about the novel since before I even read it. At the back of the book, all the texts Gavron sourced his lines from are listed alphabetically, and I noticed straightaway that, out of about eighty authors, only three are women (Willa Cather, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Shelley), and only three are authors of colour (Walter Mosley, Kenzaburo Oe, Akira Yoshimura). At first, I found it jarring and a little depressing to encounter, in 2018, yet another list of classic literature that is written almost entirely by white men, many of whom are long dead. Now, however, I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice, rather than the usual case of a white man forgetting that people who don’t look like him also write books. And even if it wasn’t deliberate, it fits wonderfully with the idea that the book is about the writer-protagonist’s (and by extension most white male middle-class readers’) unconscious biases—how the very literature he loves and aspires to contribute to ends up limiting and distorting his perspective.
Not that this is necessarily the right way of looking at the book—I’m sure many other interpretations are possible, and I’d very much recommend you read it and come up with your own—and once you’ve done so, come back here and tell me what you thought in the comments section below!
You can read the (very short) first chapter here, and if you’re interested in learning a little about the thought process behind the book, Gavron wrote these brief “notes on craft“—which, once again, he sourced from similar pieces by other authors and artists, from Zadie Smith to Svetlana Alexievich to Pablo Picasso. - enricocioni
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Jeremy Gavron, A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son's Search for a Mother Who Wanted More, Scribe, 2015.              

It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, north London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.
Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no-one had ever imagined that she might take her own life. Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life.
But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals. Piecing together the events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price, and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death. Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.
A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the twentieth century.

‘Gavron has written a book as brave and honest as it is heart-stopping and gripping. With the meticulousness of a detective and the heart and soul of an abandoned son, he sets out to examine a family tragedy so raw and agonising that it is rarely talked, let alone written, about. I felt for him — and every man, woman and child in this book — whilst at the same time finding myself unable to put it down. Yes, you sense him stepping, with touching sensitivity, through some desperately painful (and potentially dangerous) territory. But if authors can’t write about the mysteries closest to their hearts, then what point is there, really, in memoir?’ - Julie Myerson

“Jeremy Gavron’s quest to find his mother has produced a groundbreaking book and moving portrait of a spirited young woman—a ‘captive wife’—who refused to accept the social constraints of her time. Unforgettable.”—Tina Brown

A Woman on the Edge of Time possesses all the signature verve, imagination and elegance of Gavron's writing but he brings to this, the story of his mother's suicide when he was four years old, a particular burning, restless intelligence. The result is a memoir of devastating, heartbreaking power: I had to put my life on hold to finish it.’ -Maggie O'Farrell

‘I’ve just finished reading Jeremy Gavron’s new book, and I'm quite overwhelmed by the artistry of this memoir/detective story/sociological study. It is in essence a reconstruction of his mother’s life — but it's not only about his mother, and what drove her to kill herself at twenty-nine. It is about so much more. About women — vibrant, ambitious, intelligent women, who came of age in the ’50s in that precarious post-war decade before feminism took hold. It is a beautifully written and remarkably honest book that many women will identify with — what it means to try to have it all, while society does nothing to support you. I found it deeply moving, insightful, and gripping.’ - Esther Freud

“Occasionally one comes across a book that needs to be read as much as it clearly needed to be written. Jeremy Gavron’s impressive, tough yet affecting investigation into his mother’s suicide at the age of twenty-nine in 1965 is such a story. Hannah Gavron was one of the brightest and most vivid young women of her generation—I know because it was my generation too. She killed herself inexplicably only months before the publication of her study of young mothers’ lives in the early 1960s, the very first book of its kind in this country. She called her book The Captive Wife. Her son’s book, A Woman on the Edge of Time, is both his story—the story of the aftermath of a suicide—and his mother’s story. Growing up knowing little about her, with no memories of her himself (he was four years old when she died), he has pieced together her life with meticulous attention: digging up documents, tracking down scores of people who knew her, both bringing her alive and coming, at the end, to a heartbreaking understanding of her death. In one sense, what he has uncovered is a tragic personal story, one woman’s story, but it is more than that: Jeremy Gavron evokes the lives of all women in those pre-feminist years and so constructs a masterly portrait of an era. This is such a fine and beautiful book. A testament to a lost mother, and times past.”—Carmen Callil

‘The story is deeply affecting in itself but it is Gavron's sensibility and vulnerability that make this book so special, and so stunning. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a love letter to a remarkable woman as much as an obituary.’ - The Saturday Paper

‘Mesmerising … Meticulous, even-handed and quietly revelatory, [A Woman on the Edge of Time] may be read both as a kind of detective story, the reader’s stomach fluttering wildly each time he tracks down another witness, and as a work of social history, a sly skewering of the limitations, whether spoken or unspoken, which were then placed on women.’ - Rachel Cooke, The Observer

‘Jeremy Gavron’s quest [in writing A Woman on the Edge of Time] is a double quest: to find out what his mother was like in life and to find out why she killed herself … The tenacity with which he pursues this goal is extraordinary … The taboo of silence that shrouded Jeremy’s childhood is broken. Those complicit with it aren’t arraigned; the tone is patient and compassionate. But Hannah [Gavron] steps out of the shadow, 50 years on, and “the great unsaids” are finally spoken.’ -
Blake Morrison, The Guardian

‘Gavron is a skilled storyteller. “Like an archaeologist conjuring a jar out of a few shards”, he talks to extended family, colleagues and friends, piecing together who his mother might have been. The result is a tremendous personal narrative that is guiltily compelling … The only clear and tragic conclusion is that any suicide is a terrifying puzzle, and those that live in its wake are forever haunted.’ - Helen Davies, Sunday Times

‘I stayed up all night to finish A Woman on the Edge of Time, this doggedly reported, elegantly written tale of Jeremy Gavron’s search to uncover the reason for the suicide of his clever, beautiful, academic mother … It’s deeply personal, but without self-indulgence.’- Alex O'Connell, The Times

‘An investigative journey into the identity of a young woman who wanted more from life than her era allowed her, and for the reader an introduction to a person who, by the memoir’s close, feels like a friend.’ - Mariella Frostrup

‘[Hannah Gavron] was ahead of her time. She was before Betty Friedman and long before Germaine Greer and all those others ... It was a painful and lonely business trying to work out how to even talk about the problems of men and women back in the 50s and 60s.’ - Kate Grenville

‘[A] pioneering, intense and visceral work … both an act of mourning and a revelation of life. The genius of A Woman on the Edge of Time is that the impossible, very real Hannah Gavron — cheeky, warm, clever, determined, brilliant, shining, paradoxical — comes so fully back to life.’ - Ali Smith, TLS

‘A moving enquiry, a compelling search for a lost mother, and a revealing account of what life was like for adventurous and intelligent women in the 1960s.’  - Cathy Rentzenbrink, Stylist

‘Gavron is too subtle and intelligent to make the mistake of believing that suicide is ever about only one thing. And here, in beautiful, mesmeric prose, he delves deep into the shadow side of his mother’s life … The result is a memoir that is surely going to be regarded as a classic of the genre.’ - Andrew Wilson, The Independent

‘In A Woman on the Edge of Time, Gavron sets out to give form to the mist of a lifetime’s emotions and barely understood certainties … A brave reckoning with family secrets.’- Hester Abrams, Jewish Chronicle

‘Profoundly moving …Painstakingly, Jeremy has pieced together scraps of interviews, letters and photos to form a coherent picture … This remarkable book will appeal to anybody interested in mid-20th-century feminism. It’s also a fascinating document about the devastating legacy of suicide … I cannot recommend it highly enough.’- Henrietta Garnett, Literary Review

‘‘[A Woman on the Edge of Time] has the heartstopping thrill of a page-turning detective novel; it’s rich with thought-provoking observations about families, particularly mothers, negotiating the narrow straits of the late ’50s/early ’60s; and it is underpinned with profound, though never sentimental, personal emotional tumult. Intelligent, skilful, and terrifically moving, it remains in the heart long after it goes back on the shelf.’- Jane Graham, The Big Issue

‘A haunting book … A family’s guilts and jealousies are a Pandora’s box. Jeremy Gavron, a first-rate writer and novelist, unfolds the story at the same fragmented, hesitant pace at which he made his discoveries, and it is a gripping formula.’ - Valerie Grove, The Oldie

‘With energy and skill [Jeremy Gavron] has pursued old school and college friends, aged relatives, psychiatrists, neighbours long out of touch, and Hannah’s teaching colleagues from the Hornsey College of Art … He has ranged through letters, newspaper archives and the internet … [His] attempt to understand, and thus forgive the mother who abandoned him, is admirable … But ultimately, Hannah’s ending remains rationally inexplicable.’- Gillian Tindall, FT

‘‘Hannah's humanity sings from the pages, and it’s a feat of both skill and compassion that Gavron is able to make me feel like I intimately knew someone he never had the chance to know properly himself.’ - Jessie Thompson, Huffington Post

‘[V]ery moving … recreates a personality and life trajectory that seem both representative and exceptional: a woman living in a time when more seemed possible but the resistance was still fierce.’ - Owen Richardson, Sydney Morning Herald

‘This book is an act of piety, a memorial and a tribute to a mother who found life too difficult to continue with … [Gavron] writes it for himself, and for his children, who are also of her blood. It is certainly a record of failure, of waste, but also of great love, and that is what moves us.’ - Marion Halligan, Canberra Times

‘Beautifully written — wholly unique — A Woman on the Edge of Time is an elegy/memoir that is also a kind of detective story — in which the author investigates, with as much dread as hope, the circumstances leading to the suicide of his charismatic and accomplished mother many years before. It is difficult not to rush through Jeremy Gavron’s compelling story.’ - Joyce Carol Oates
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Jeremy Gavron, An Acre of Barren Ground, Simon & Schuster, 2005.               

read it at Google Books

At number 30 the victim of a savage serial killer is found, and Inspector Abberline wonders whether he'll ever find the murderer they're calling Jack. At number 41 a man tries to hide his family in the shadows of a ruined London; 1500 years later, a gangster plays out the same story. At 246 a mammoth dies, and long afterwards, a giant's thighbone is discovered. Bangladeshis, Jews, Huguenots, brewers, soldiers, farmers and medieval monks - men on the run and families determined to make a new home. Each has come to Brick Lane. Each has left its ghosts.

Last year I published a book that was the true story of everyone who'd ever lived here in our home in Clapham. Though at the time I was proud that I'd managed to delve back in time as far as 1872 (when the house was built), it was only as the project evolved that it dawned on me what a meagre drop in the ocean that really was. What about all the centuries before? What about prehistory? I found myself strangely moved to discover that the land 34 Lillieshall Road was built on had previously been a cricket ground bordered by an orchard. But when, I wondered, was that ground mown and rolled, when was the orchard planted? My youngest son clamoured for us to go back to Roman times, but I had to call a halt. I'm no historian and anyway I needed to finish the book.
So I'm very much in awe of Jeremy Gavron for doing precisely what I could not begin to do. His daunting and completely extraordinary novel-come-social history deftly excavates one single London street, the East End's Brick Lane, but in such depth and with such empathy and gusto that it leaves you breathless. It's not all true - he calls it a novel and much of it necessarily admits to being fiction - but somehow the scale of what he's managed to achieve still knocks you out. No measly 100-year time limits here. Archives have clearly been used, but as a springboard not an end in themselves. Here, you feel, is an imagination that has let rip. The chapters - and their subjects, which range from people to plants, from mammoths to buildings - feel like random, bloody slices gouged straight from the whole shuddering raft of history 
So, for that matter, does the prose. Gavron bounces from immigrant Jews a century or more ago, through to more recent Bangladeshis, Huguenots, soldiers, medieval nuns - and I don't think I've ever read such a ventriloquism of diverse styles so dazzlingly and successfully combined in the course of a single novel. So the flat deadpan of historical text book is laid alongside bald 21st-century East End dialogue, a Victorian detective hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper is laid against an aching tale of a tortured dancing bear. And when, about half-way through the book, you reach a cluster of pages of graphic novel, you accept and swallow them unerringly - they make a perfect and neat sort of sense in the context of that part of the story (grasping young square-chinned City guy with mobile phone in search of funding for his dotcom business considers the financial sense of making his base the Old Brewery on Truman Street where his Jewish tailor grandparents lived from hand to mouth).
Gavron doesn't stop at people and animals either. Mosses and liverworts that have unfurled on this patch of land are touchingly catalogued - and the farther back in time the writer trawls, the more urgent his stories seem to become. In one of the most chilling chapters, a woman who belongs to some long-ago but unspecified age, gives birth to a baby clearly fathered by her own father. While she sleeps, he feeds it to the hog in the yard. The bloodiness of the episode is echoed later in a strange yet entirely fitting chapter on artist Gunther von Hagens and the (real-life) media frenzy that accompanied his exhibition of corpses called "Bodyshock" at the Old Brewery on Truman Street. And later, a touching description of the life of one Willy Wilson who sold birdseed outside No 216 Brick Lane and whom the author himself met.
Of course, Gavron has cheated. His book feels intensely complete precisely because he's abandoned the rules and gone where he liked and filled in the gaps wherever he fancied. But it doesn't matter a bit - still the effect is somehow dazzlingly, scarily real. And though I suppose it's inevitable that some chapters are more obviously gripping than others, in the end, a patient reading of this book pays off. I felt as though I'd swallowed a time-drug - it's exactly the effect of all these contrasts, the cumulative magic of the trip the author takes you on that leaves you so moved. Here, in fact, is the best sort of living museum - a novel of imagination and daring whose pages precisely convey the romance of that dizzying idea which lurks at the heart of all history. Stand on any given piece of ground in any place in the world and you won't be the first. Though no palpable trace may remain, you know that every sort of animal, vegetable and mineral drama must in the past have unravelled itself on that very spot.
Julie Myerson

Jeremy Gavron's third novel is so winsomely self-indulgent that it will probably be showered with literary prizes. The author himself calls the book a "narrative jigsaw", which is a joke. The point about jigsaws is that, once complete, they reveal a pattern: the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. An Acre of Barren Ground has no such pattern. It is just a series of loosely connected vignettes: some skilful, some adequate, some toe-curlingly awful. There are a lot of traps awaiting clever young novelists in contemporary Britain, and Gavron has fallen into most of them.
The framework for the so-called narrative jigsaw is Brick Lane in the East End of London. It is a richly cosmopolitan area, put on the literary map by Monica Ali's recent novel of the same name; but where Ali concentrated on the Bangladeshi community, Gavron spreads his tentacles wider, using individual buildings on Brick Lane as the starting-point for stories spanning many centuries.
Led by the author, as if on a walking tour, we meet Jewish and Asian refugees; James Boswell battling gonorrhoea; a bear being baited by dogs; a detective investigating the Whitechapel murders; a man starting a dotcom business; sailors on shore leave; an installation artist; Sidney and Beatrice Webb; members of the East London Female Total Abstinence Society; and many more.
On paper, it sounds like a colourful cast-list; but because the only thing the characters share is that, at different points in history, they lived in the same place, the only glue holding the novel together is the quality of the writing, which is erratic, to put it kindly.
Like other narrative-jigsaw merchants, Gavron deludes himself that he can master, not only different periods of history, but different literary styles, mixing and matching at will. Newspaper cuttings, county records, even cartoons, are all tossed into the mix, as fiction and non-fiction jostle for supremacy. There is even a mock 15th-century poem in which, in defiance of the rules of scansion, "The Fishmongers' Worshipful Company" becomes a line of verse. You would have to be pretty gullible to be taken in by such sleight of hand.
Anyone interested in Brick Lane will find some fascinating topographical nuggets. Anyone else is likely to be irritated by the way months of serendipitous research have been shovelled into the same fictional bucket. - David Robson

‘Jeremy Gavron's astonishing book, An Acre of Barren Ground, is one of a handful of novels that I must return to and re-read about once a year.’ - Maggie O'Farrell

‘The most original novel I’ve read for some years. It is a masterpiece of both research and imagination and deserves to put Jeremy Gavron among the front rank of contemporary writers. The weaving of fiction and non-fiction, and the short story with the written and graphic novel, almost heralds the arrival of a new genre; historical-contemporary graphic docu-fiction perhaps. Whatever you want to label it, it is a remarkable achievement, and unlike anything you will have read before. I thoroughly recommend it — for once a novel actually deserves the accolade “unique”.’ - Tim Lott

‘Clever, witty, tender, droll — this remarkable book offers up quite the most extraordinary confection of delights that I have come across in years.’ - Simon Winchester

New Stateman review by Natasha Tripney The Herald review by Teddy Jamieson The Telegraph review by Sinclair McKay Sunday Times review by Tom Deveson  
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Jeremy Gavron, The Book Of Israel,  Simon & Schuster, 2003.       

read it at Google Books

Dunsk, Lithuania, 1874: brought home dying from the mill, an old man leaves his new grandson the only thing of value he owns - his name. In one Jewish family, the forename Israel is handed down from generation to generation. But as parts of the family move across the world - beginning in Lithuania at the end of the 19th century and finishing in London at the beginning of the 21st - different Israels in different countries have very different relationships with the name and the weighty expectations it represents.

There are those novels you feel have striven self-consciously to be different and those that are naturally and confidently different - they carry that quality of inevitability all fine writing contains. Within a few pages the reader knows that Jeremy Gavron has found a structure for his second novel, The Book Of Israel, that is his own and effortlessly unique.
Innovative and engrossing, this literary mosaic recreates the history of a family within which is contained the history of a people. Gavron achieves this by naming most of the chapters after books in the Bible - Genesis, Kings, Judges - though not in the same order. The device links a modern Jewish family (1874-2001) with its past.
Doris Lessing once wrote that there are no longer any rules for writing a novel. Narrative could now progress through prose, drama, letters, diary, stream of consciousness, quotations - anything.
This is what Gavron has done. Each chapter is a different voice in a different form - grandmother talking to grandson, the minutes of the synagogue's committee meetings, letters between sisters in England and South Africa. And, to recreate that "anti-semitism never far below the surface of English life", as Hugh Montefiore, the retired Bishop of Birmingham, once observed, there's a chapter quoting lines from novels by John Buchan, Warwick Deeping and Graham Greene which begins with the third edition of the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary in which "Christian" was defined as "Human, civilised, decent, respectable", while to "Jew" was "to cheat or overreach".           
Not that Gavron presents a picture of Jewish life that is all winningly full of suffering and honour. The squalor of immigrant life with six to a room, the urgency of sweating their employees as well as themselves over sewing machines and hot irons, the little bribes to survive, and the petty domestic squabbles are all recorded, but with the gentle touch of pity.
The writing is so confidently at home in its structure that by the time the author came to one of his last chapters he could create a character who took his place without needing to be named. It was enough to see from the style of diary he wrote ("Food B, wine B-") that it was a certain kind of gentile business acquaintance who admired Jews but couldn't resist describing them as "thrusting".
What confirmed for me the book's achievement was reaching the final chapter, discovering that it began with reflections on circumcision, and thinking to myself: oh no, Mr Gavron you can't write such a saga of Jewish family life and end with ambivalences about circumcision. You surely must end acknowledging the terrible conflicts raging within most Jews and Jewish communities over Israel's moral dilemmas in its conflict with the Palestinians. Which, later on in that last chapter, is exactly what he did. - Arnold Wesker

In its bare bones, this is a Jewish family saga. A Lithuanian Jew called Israel has a grandson of the same name who emigrates to England and thence to South Africa. That Israel also has a grandson called Israel, who ends up back in England and is last seen presenting the prizes at a tennis tournament in Tel Aviv. The novel spans more than a century and, in linking the fortunes of one family with the wider Jewish diaspora, is a narrative of a familiar type.
What distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill sagas, and confirms Jeremy Gavron as a young novelist of high promise, is the elegance with which the story is constructed. It is made up entirely of fragments: letters; diaries; newspaper cuttings; snatches of conversation. The perspective changes the whole time and, although the reader has to keep on his toes, the effort is worth it. There is real artistry in the way the fragments are selected and juxtaposed; and as the story hurtles forward to the present day, its theme of cultural dissipation comes sharply into focus.
From the devout Lithuanian community with whom the narrative opens, with their age-old customs and their instinctive deference to the village rabbi, to the couple of 2001, whose only remaining Jewish ritual is going to the latest Woody Allen film, the tide flows remorselessly in the same direction. However strong their commitment to a Jewish homeland - a recurring theme in the book - it is only by submerging their identities that the characters can prosper. Thus the last Israel in the family chain has to re-invent himself as Jack Dunn. His CBE for services to industry confirms his place at the heart of the British Establishment. But at what cost?
Despite the underlying seriousness of the subject matter, The Book of Israel is delivered with a light touch. A blank entry for 1943 indicates that the Holocaust will play little or no part in what is essentially a comedy of Jewish manners. Gavron has an eye for odd incongruities - like the English-born Jewish family on a kibbutz in Israel laughing themselves silly at an Ealing comedy. He also has a fine ear for dialogue, capturing the speech cadences of everyone from Yorkshire labourers to upper-class twits. It is a formidable combination and makes for a consistently entertaining novel. - David Robson

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Jeremy Gavron, Moon Pb, Penguin, 1997.

On a farm in the highlands of Kenya, a young white boy befriends his father's enigmatic African driver, Ernest. But their time together is short-lived: as racial tension in the country escalates, confidences are betrayed, trust is broken and loyalties divided.
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Jeremy Gavron, King Leopold's Dream: Travels in the Shadow of the African Elephant, Pantheon, 1993.

The author's travels chronicle the African elephant's struggle for survival in a world where its tusks carry a deadly value, a battle paralleling old Africa's struggle to survive in the age of modern Africa.

On the trail of the African elephant, Jeremy Gavron has woven an extraordinary tale that is at once an adventure, a philosophical inquiry, and a haunting, evocative portrait of Africa. The elephant his explorations reveal is an intensely social being, loyal to its own kind, often traumatized by the disruption of its herd, and even able, according to some experts, to understand its own predicament: the deadly value of its magnificent tusks. For Gavron, the elephant's fight for survival is also a powerful metaphor for the broader battle of the old Africa to survive in the modern Africa of Coca-Cola, automatic weapons, and dictators with Swiss bank accounts. In his travels, Gavron has illuminating and sometimes comic encounters with most of the leading elephant experts in Africa, as well as with notorious poachers, ivory smugglers, and famous elephants themselves. Along the way he also explores other paths and listens to other voices, from forest Pygmies to wealthy hunters on safari, from mud-hut talk to the silent message of the ruined palace of an African Ozymandias. "Africa does not readily yield its heart, its secrets," Gavron learned in his years as a correspondent in Africa. "It must be approached indirectly, from aslant." This is the approach Gavron takes through his choice of haunting, resonant subjects, from the last elephant in Burundi and the history of the primeval gomphothere to the dream of a nineteenth-century king - once a grandiose colonial fantasy, but now the germ of an idea that may point the way forward for both the African elephant and the wondrous, beleaguered continent in which it lives.

A former Africa correspondent for the (London) Daily Telegraph , Gavron, who has a personal interest in elephants, returned to the continent to talk to scientists, game wardens, rangers, hunters, poachers, ivory smugglers and the keepers of elephant orphanages. He presents a sharply defined account of the conflict between wildlife advocates and the needs of the increasing human population. Gavron discusses "sustainable utilization," pointing out that governments and people alike should underscore economic imperatives to justify the preservation of wilderness. He cites the Kruger National Park in South Africa as a model system: species with destructive feeding habits are strictly controlled, and the park makes a profit from hunting, tourism and culling. Other innovative schemes for wildlife can be found in Zimbabwe, he notes, where some cattle ranchers are finding greater profit in wild animals because of tourism and sport hunting. Readers who follow the elephant story will find Gavron's account even-handed and illuminating. - Publishers Weekly

Gavron's book is an episodic retelling of his travels throughout the African continent. He recounts his efforts to locate the last elephant in Burundi, tagging along on a hunting safari in Kenya, and conversations with conservation officials in Tsavo national park. Along the way, the reader learns much about African history, both natural and political, and efforts to preserve African wildlife, especially the elephant. Gavron's elephants are noble, even intelligent, animals that must be saved. He accepts the necessity and wisdom of the ivory ban and condemns culling elephant herds. (For another point of view, see Raymond Bonner's At the Hand of Man , LJ 4/1/93.) Gavron is a good travel writer, and this is a very readable book. But he fails to deliver an in-depth exploration of Africans and their complex relationship to nature. For travel and natural history collections. - Randy Dykhuis
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Jeremy Gavron, The Last Elephant: African Quest,  HarperCollins, 1993.
Of all the endangered species, elephants are the most intriguing. Like whales, they are huge and intelligent. Much is known about them - their close family ties, their care for their own dying, their interest in their dead, their complex communication. This book is a journey in the shadow of the great beast, a portrait of its character, nature, culture and life, but also taking the broader view, looking at the elephant in the political, natural and human context. It is a book about the researchers, conservationists, the ivory carvers and elephant artists, the white hunters and African poachers, and the elephant's hired protectors. It shows too, how the fate of the elephant is entwined with some of the key African themes: overpopulation, land shortages, political instability, corruption and the lopsided meeting between African tradition and the modern world.