The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman


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Let’s pause for a brief glance over the shoulder. KfC has already confessed to an attraction to “school” novels, first in a review of two recent U.S. ones (reviewed here) that attracted prize attention, later with Tobias Wolff’s excellent Old School. And I have also admitted a fondness for “foodie” novels; see Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody.

But there is an even bigger KfC reading talisman — novels about journalism. My first real job in 1969 was as a summer reporter at The Calgary Herald; 26 years later I walked out of the Herald as its departing publisher. The last 30 years of the 20th century were, in North America at least, an amazing time for journalists and I was proud to be part of it. And I will also admit I am very glad that I am not a part of the struggles that newspapers are facing now.

So when I read two falling-off-the-wall, upbeat, complimentary reviews of Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, in the NY Times (see them here and here), I will admit that the book was ordered immediately and moved to the top of the reading pile. Journalists are protective of their turf and often resent fictional descriptions of it — but when they are well done, that grumpiness means we love them even more. And while Breslin or a couple of others might have been around long enough to allow description, a “kid’s” view (that would be anyone under 50) would not be appropriate, unless it was truly exceptional. The Imperfectionists has now been read and — ta da — it is every bit as good as those NY Times reviews said it would be. While I won’t be revealing any of my “newspaper” favorite novels until the comment discussion opens (okay, Scoop is one), this novel will be on the list, I assure you.

In the early 1950s, Cyrus Ott is a rich American wandering around Rome without a purpose. He decides to found an international, English-language newspaper based there. While that may sound like a strange economic decision, he is also buying, almost like ju-jubes or some other candy, art work by Leger, Modigliani and Turner, so this “newspaper” is just another trifle where his considerable fortune can be put to use.

A trifle for Ott, but not for the people who work there. The current time of The Imperfectionists is more than a half century later — 2007 to be precise. The paper (it is never given a title in the novel) continues to publish, although not thrive. Its early circulation, stuck at about 15,000 a couple of decades ago, “soared” to 25,000 and now is back to about 10,000 — the paper is draining money every day, kept alive by Ott’s hapless survivors (who are blowing most of his fortune anyway — beware the third generation) in his memory. It is home to a beehive of interesting characters.

The Imperfectionists is being marketed as a novel and I have no objection with that. What it really is, at least for me, is 11 character sketches of individuals whose shared experience happens to be their relationship to “the paper”, headquartered in a building on the Corso Vittorie Emanualle II in Rome. If you have been to Rome, you know about that address — if you haven’t, rest assured you will see it on your first visit. And if you stay there long enough and are a perceptive observer, you will see some of these characters. The ex-pat who finds a way to survive in Rome is one of the sub-themes that Rachman is most effective at developing. He lives there and did work for The International Herald Tribune so he knows whereof he speaks.

I am not going to try to give you a portrait of all 11 but would like to provide a few quotes to illustrate a couple, if only to interest you in the other nine. Rachman introduces each of his chapters with a headline from the paper. Under the heading of “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”, here are some observations about Herman Cohen, Corrections Editor of the paper:

* GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor’s job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.

He hits save. It is entry No. 18,238. “The Bible” — his name for the paper’s style guide — was once printed and bound, with a copy planted on every desk across the newsroom. Now it exists solely within the paper’s computer network, not least because the text has grown to approximately the size of metropolitan Liechtenstein. The purpose of the Bible is to set down laws: to impart whether a “ceasefire” is, properly speaking, a “cease-fire” or indeed a “cease fire”; to adjudge when editors must use “that” and when “which”; to resolve quarrels over prepositions, false possessives, dangling modifiers — on the copydesk, fisticuffs have broken out over less.

If you ever worked at a daily newspaper prior to, say, 1990, you would know a version of Herman Cohen (the version at the one that I ran — “Gus” — was rigorously insistent that no one could talk to him when he arrived at work until he removed his street shoes and put on the rabbit-fur-lined slippers that were his work attire). These guys had been there forever, been through most jobs (Herman has been “acting” editor-in-chief three times in his career) and they knew more about corporate history than any of the legitimate files could ever reveal. They did not just have a copy of Strunk and White or Fowler on their desk, they had all of the last five editions and could tell you just where changes had been made in each, usually to their dismay. A young reporter going over to their lair to consult on an apostrophe would be risking an hour of direction.

(ASIDE: My personal favorite: “To the manner (manor) born.” I knew enough that “manner” was correct but headed over anyway. After more than 30 minutes discussion with two of these creatures — and reference to numerous works — it was agreed that both versions are correct, but a reporter has to know when to use each. E.g. Prince Charles is “to the manner” born because of the way he leans on his birth to justify his shortcomings. Diana, Princess of Wales, is “to the manor born” because of the way that she exploits her birth in her upward surge, moving on to bigger castles.)

Consider the editor’s relationship with Herman:

She often stops by for advice. Her deputy may be Craig Menzies, but Herman is her true counselor. He has worked at the paper for more than thirty years, has held most editorial jobs here (though never reporter), and served as the acting editor-in-chief during interregnums in 1994, 2000 and 2004. Staffers still shiver to recall his stewardship, Yet for all his bluster Herman is not disliked. His news judgment is envied, his memory is an unfailing resource, and his kindness emerges for all those who hang around long enough.

Then there is Ruby Zaga, a copy editor “who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.” Here’s the opening of Ruby’s chapter — since she is a copy editor who writes headlines, it is titled with one of her better ones, “Kooks With Nukes” (for those visitors who don’t know about headline writing that is a one column, three deck — i.e. you need to have three words, none of which are longer than about eight letters).

The jerks tooks her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It’s amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then. “Pricks”, she mutters. She should just quit. Hand in her resignation. Never set foot in this place again. Leave these idiots in the dirt.

Here are a few more of the characters and the headlines for their respective chapter: Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko (“Bush Slumps To New Low In Polls”); obituary writer Arthur Gopal (“World’s Oldest Liar Dies At 126”); business reporter Hardy Benjamin (“Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says”); chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola, universally known as Accounts Payable to the staff (“Markets Crash Over Fears Of China Slowdown”) and reader Ornella de Monterecchi (“Cold War Over, Hot War Begins”).

My fascination with Rachman’s exceptional portrayal of detail is getting in the way of my description of the volume itself (although it is the detail that truly makes the book). The novel may be a collection of character sketches but at the end of each one the author goes to the back story for a page or two and gives us some history of “the paper”. It is a highly effective device for knitting together the present and the past — and very unusual for a first novelist to be able to carry off.

I loved this book and I am pretty sure anyone who has ever worked in the “news” business — or is a spouse of those of us who have — will have the same response. Does that make it a great novel? I’m not sure. But it is certainly good enough to join a canon (which we will talk about in the comments) of books about journalism. And finally, if you have never worked in the news writing business but wonder about it, this is as good (well, funny) a fictional portrayal of what was happening there in the last few decades as any I have read. And, not to be overlooked, it is set in Rome and Rachman obviously knows that exceptional city very well.


55 Responses to “The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    books about journalism ,tom stacey the man who knew everything springs to mind but only because i read and enjoyed it earlier in the year ,i want read this book ,heard a interview on a podcast with rachman and was struck by the book ,plus always like inter connecting stories round a theme or place ,all the best stu


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stu: I’d heard about Deadline but hadn’t read it — then got put off when Stacey had his hissy fit about the BBC adaptation and had the reprint retitled. Journalist turned authors may be even more sensitive than authors who are just authors.

    To be more positive, Michael Frayn’s Towards The End of Morning is a favorite. Rachman’s book does compare since both are fascinated by the more obscure creatures who haunt newsrooms.


  3. Gavin Says:

    I want to read this book. Great review, Kevin. I also need to add Towards The End of Morning to my must read list.


  4. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve already added this one to the wishlist, thanks to your earlier tip-off, but now I’m going straight to Amazon to buy it!

    In terms of books on journalism, I second Scoop AND Towards the End of the Morning. Both are wonderful!

    Recently, I loved Monica Dickens My Turn to Make the Tea and many many moons ago I laughed my way through Ted Heller’s very funny Slab Rat.

    Sadly, as one of those newspaper editors watching circulations and ad revenues sliding into oblivion, I can say it’s quite a distressing experience. But I love the industry and it aint going down without a damn good fight! 😉


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: I remember seeing a link on your blog to another blog that specialized in “media” books — if you still have it, could you put it in a comment here.

    There is no doubt the industry is on a downward curve, but I agree with you. Ink on paper will be with us for a while and I am heartened that another generation is in there leading the fight. Keep it up. What I loved about this book is that the character types haven’t changed that much.


  6. kimbofo Says:

    It was possibly Philip Young’s blog

    He hasn’t updated it in a long while, but it’s worth digging through the archives for fictional stories about journalists.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kim, that was it. There are a few in there that tend to get overlooked.


  8. Isabel Says:

    I’ve been looking for a novel with this theme.

    I miss the real papers.

    My local paper is getting smaller each day. The editing is falling way off. And many writers are contract writers.

    Here’s what laid-off journalists are doing to earn a living writing:


  9. leroyhunter Says:

    Sounds great Kevin, it’s straight on the wishlist.

    Scoop is a favourite – is there anyone who’s read it who doesn’t say that? – and I have Towards the End… on the shelf, might go to it next (or soon).

    The final season of The Wire uses the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun as a key setting – the script works in lots of the kind of debate you describe above, about usage, house style etc. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of the show Kevin, but it struck me as a pretty convincing portrayal (David Simon was of course a City Desk boy before getting into writing, producing etc).


  10. leroyhunter Says:

    Great link as well from kimbofo, thanks for that…


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroyhunter: Mrs. KfC and I did watch all seasons of The Wire and certainly appreciated that final season — although if I hadn’t been in the business, I think I would have to say it was not quite up to some of the previous ones. It did explore an aspect of the business that is pretty much an American-only affair — the drive for prizes. I’d say Simon opted for a more directly critical approach rather than Rachman’s satire. For me, there is no doubt that the best part of The Impersonators is that it is laugh-out-loud funny, which is where the comparison with Sccop comes in. In fact, I would say one chapter (“The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists” about a try-out Cairo stringer) is an homage to Waugh and Scoop.

    Isabel: It is a shrinking business and that probably is going to continue. I would observe, however, that in many ways that is offset by the access to information that the web provides.


  12. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    I have one chapter to go in “The Imperfectionists” and I dont want it to end. It is funny in the manner of Waugh, and a jolly good read.


  13. leroyhunter Says:

    Totally agree about The Wire, Kevin: my own view is that seasons 2 & 3 are the best. Nice coincidence that the chap you mention from your own career was also a “Gus”…

    I’m struggling to think of other novels that are about journalism, as opposed to ones that feature journalists as characters. Of the latter, I can think of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (which I read) and Not Untrue and Not Unkind (which I didn’t).


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My own interest tends to be a subset for the satirical novels as opposed to ones like Not Untrue and Not Unkind (which is truly dreadful — I reviewed it last year here).

    One of my favorites is William Weintraub’s Why Rock The Boat?, based on his short career at the Montreal Gazette. He was a friend of Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant and Brian Moore, so he brings some very sharp thoughts and excellent writing skills to the experience — it has been a long time since I read it (it appeared in 1961) but I remember it as hilarious. Out of print, alas, but copies show up on most of the used online sites and you might come across it a bin somewhere.

    Things also get confusing because there are scores if not hundreds of memoirs out there, most of them very bad. I’ll admit to not being a memoir fan, but those produced by journalists may have the highest failure rate of all. Particularly those produce by retired editors and publishers who spent the last decades of their career comfortably ensconced in the executive suite (which is where I was for the last half of mine).


  15. Former J Prof Says:

    My favorite new novel about journalism and daily newspapers is “Going to See the Elephant” by Rhodes Fishburne. Wonderful stuff and highly recommended.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    This is a novel that I haven’t heard of but some quick research leaves me very interested (not just journalism, but San Francisco and orchestras, too — that’s three positive readiing prejudices to which it caters. I was hoping this post would provide some new journo-book leads and it has. Thank you, very much, Former J Prof (if I can ask, “former” from where?).


  17. whisperinggums Says:

    LOL Kevin … I like school and foodie novels too. And, while I wasn’t a journalist, I tend to be interested in them, and in writers in general. This sounds great BUT I think I’m going to have to stop reading your blog. Too many suggestions for my already toppling pile! What I should do of course is stop reading my current read which is not really engaging me (one third of the way in) but it is for my f2f bookgroup discussion so am soldiering on. And, I never know, I might just like it by the end.


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I know exactly what your problem with your current read is. When you get a book that you don’t like, but feel you have to finish, you find 100 other things to do (like visit this blog — thank you) to avoid the experience. The result is that a book that would take an evening to finish if you even half-liked it ends up taking three or four days (and hence a huge waste in reading time). I’ll admit that is one reason why I don’t belong to a book club — I certainly enjoy online exchanges but I can’t stand the thought of feeling that I have to read a book that I know I won’t like. Rest assured, when you get to this book it will go very quickly because it is that funny.


    • whisperinggums Says:

      LOL Kevin. True … it’s not a particularly hard read so I would finish it faster if I were truly engaged. Fortunately most of the books we schedule in this group (now nearly 22 years old and very important in my life) are fine so I can manage the odd less than engaging one. I do take your point though!


  19. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, I got a copy of this from today, and the British cover isn’t quite as nice as yours. See

    Looking forward to reading it, though.

    And thanks to Former J Prof for the recommendation of “Going to See the Elephant” — it sounds great. The name of the newspaper (“The Morning Trumpet”) is enough to make me want to read it straight away! LOL.


  20. kimbofo Says:

    While I remember, another good novel about journalism is Michael Collins’ The Keepers of Truth which I remember reading in the wake of 9/11. It seemed to fit the mood of the times superbly. It was dark and slightly terrifying — and made me want to read more of Collins’ stuff.


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I don’t like that UK cover much either — and don’t think it represents the book very well either. I haven’t heard about Collins book but will do some searching on it. I have ordered Going to See the Elephant and can’t wait until it arrives.


  22. winstonsdad Says:

    agree with both you and kim uk cover is dreadful ,was put off when i heard about it first off but book sounds so good going have get it ,all the best stu


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stu: While the UK cover is visually gross, that is not my main objection to it. The cover implies the characters are gallivanting youths in Rome and there for a good time drinking wine on the patios. Rachman’s characters are not that — most are older, many are married. They chosen their lives (or perhaps it chose them) and being employed at the paper is a necessary thing to make survival possible. That’s part of the poignancy which makes this a novel, once you get past the humor.


  24. Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop Says:

    This is a fantastic review. I’ve never read any books about journalism but this one is a definite contender.


  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lydia: You could do a lot worse than starting your reading of “journalism” novels with this one — it is a wonderful cast of characters. Thanks very much for your kind words.


  26. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m in the middle of Frayn’s book now and no surprise it’s brilliant. Heretical thought, but might it be better then Scoop….? I know I shouldn’t entertain such a judgement until I’ve finished, but it did occur to me.

    If only the Rachman cover for these parts (ie other side of the pond) wasn’t so garish.


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have no idea what they were thinking with that cover. I would be inclined to revert to school days, grab a sheet of newsprint and make my own version of a dust jacket. 🙂 As for Waugh and Frayn (and it has been a while since I read both books) my memory is that Scoop perhaps has more of a serious, bitter edge to it than Frayn who seems to be playing it more for laughs, although he too has some satirical edge to him.


  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That UK cover looks intentionally misleading. I’ll have to try to get a North American copy.

    Which is another way of saying like Leroy this is going straight on my wish list. That said, I’m bookmarking the whole comments thread since there’s so many other recommendations here.


  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It certainly seems that there is not a lot of law going on in London today 🙂 , but I appreciate the comments. And the chance to provide an update on this book:

    1. Brad Pitt bought the movie rights yestereday. I know for a lot of visitors here that will be viewed as moving the novel down, not up, several notches. Don’t do that. In some ways, it is the perfect book for a film since it is a collection of character sketches — six, eight, 10, 12 character actors will get a shot at doing a “character” with Rome as a backdrop. Can’t ask for more, I’d say.
    2. For some reason (probably because it was a NY Times review that introduced me to the novel), I thought Rachman was American. Not so, he was born in London, raised in Vancouver, went to university in Toronto. I’m assuming he has either UK or Canadian citizenship, which would make this Booker and perhaps Giller eligible. Booker juries love to have an oddball, funny novel on their list — I have every reason to predict that this book will make it to the longlist and I am pretty sure I will be cheering for it to go further.

    The Book Depository has the American version listed (it is the Dial Press one), because I do think that UK cover is dreadful. They also list the Australian/NZ version, which has a much more conventional cover.

    And like you this comment thread has proved somewhat expensive (in a very nice way) for me. A number of volumes have been ordered and they are all headed for that very, very special of the shelves: “books that I know I will like and am saving for when I need that comfort”.


  30. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s a strangely bitty day Kevin, strangely bitty.

    Actually, I can see how it could make a great movie given the description. Pitt, Clooney, an ensemble piece. Could be a lot of fun, probably quite different in tone but the book’s still there for the original tone.

    It’s still in hardback I see, I’ve broken by hardback rule once recently but I can’t make a habit of it. I’ll see what the US mass edition is like and if it’s still bad I’ll get the UK one and cover it in newsprint as you suggest…


  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I admit that there is a part of me that would love to see a serious, grumpy reader on the tube with a copy of The Imperfectionists, carefully wrapped up in pages from the Daily Mirror or The Sun (you would have to be really serious to put the International Herald-Tribune on the cover).

    “Good book?”, I’d ask.

    “Fine”, he would respond.

    And we would both move off to more serious pursuits.


  32. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s a lovely image Kevin. The European back when it was in print would probably have been particularly appropriate.


  33. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, just finished it. Really enjoyed it. Wouldn’t class it as a great novel, but it’s certainly an entertaining one, and I got quite a few chuckles out of it. Mind you, it’s not a barrel of laughs all the way through, there’s quite a few tragic characters in this book.

    My favourite chapter was the one about the hapless wannabe Cairo stringer, who did not have a clue about journalism, and then got trampled all over by the very experienced bloshi foreign correspondent who took off with his house key and laptop! I found that chapter particularly hilarious — would have quite easily read an entire book about these two characters at loggerheads with each other!


  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I agree that it is an entertaining book not a “Great” — but I am pretty sure that it is one that I will return to just because I liked so many of the characters. And have met versions of more than a few of them (including that pushy foreign correspondent).


  35. Going To See The Elephant, by Rodes Fishburne « KevinfromCanada Says:

    […] came to my attention in a comment from “Former J Prof” in the discussion section of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Like Rachman’s book, which I loved, it is a very worthy addition to the “journalism […]


  36. Colette Jones Says:

    This is an excellent book, Kevin. My one criticism pertains to the Winston Cheung chapter (referred to by kimbofo above). That story was too farcical for me, whereas the other stories, though just as funny, were quite believable.


  37. Colette Jones Says:

    Also loved the name of the internal newsletter: “Why?”

    Who, What, When, Where, and How. That is what I remember being taught in grade school about the opening paragraph of a news article. Was “Why” really left out, or is it just my memory?


  38. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I think your memory is playing a trick on you — it was always taught as 5Ws and an H. “Why” was usually left for last, since it is the most complex of the six. Which, of course, is the reason that it is the journalists’ favorite.

    I am glad you liked the book — it remains my “most enjoyable” of the year to date. Although I do have to admit that it might not have the gravitas required to be a prize winner.


  39. John Self Says:

    The Imperfectionists is being marketed as a novel and I have no objection with that. What it really is, at least for me, is 11 character sketches of individuals

    I see that the UK edition (having just received a copy) is subtitled “A Novel in Stories”, which may go some way to meeting your observation, Kevin. Is this present in the North American edition?


  40. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I think “a novel in stories” is the perfect description. I have not seen any second printing yet (and the paperback is not due out until January) so I can’t say if the North American publishers have changed the description. As you can see from the cover photo in the review, it would be rather disruptive to the original cover.


  41. John Self Says:

    Yes, and speaking of the cover, and the (in my opinion justified) negative comments above on the UK cover, I was surprised to see when I received a proof of the UK edition (rather late I know but they had run out of finished copies), the following listed as one of the selling points of the book:

    “A charming and witty novel with fabulous cover artwork from Miguel Gallardo”

    Each to his own.


  42. KevinfromCanada Says:

    One of the problems that I had with the UK cover was that it is actually misleading about the book’s content. It implies that the gang who work at the paper spend a fair bit of time hanging around and drinking at outdoor Roman bars. In fact, one of the interesting constants that runs through the diverse chapters of the book is how little they have to with each other, outside the necessary interaction at the workplace — most of which is negative, stealing other people’s chairs, mocking them, etc. Still, whatever sells the book, I guess.


  43. Pat Preston Says:

    I read Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists” twice and recommended it to all former journalists I knew. Just last weekend, I thought I was being so clever suggesting to Mrs. KFC that she tell KFC about it! I should have known you would be all over it. Your review was great and I am forwarding it to others. It’s a must read as is the novel. Calgary Herald days and Brantford Expositor, for me, revisited. I am now going to find others that you have mentioned.


  44. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Pat: Thank you for the comment. As you can see from previous comments, the review provoked a pretty good list of other books about journalism. I think you would particularly enjoy Going to See the Elephant (Rodes Fisbourne) which I read and reviewed — it is excellent.


  45. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Kevin – a few months ago, in response to a comment I left you about Ian McEwan’s Solar, you suggested I give The Imperfectionists a read. Just wanted to say thank you thank you thank you for that wonderful recommendation. I adored The Imperfectionists and didn’t want it to end. It was beautiful, well-written and so so very very clever. The ending of the Abbey Pinnola/”Accounts Payable” story still makes my blood run cold! As for books by journalists writing about journalism, Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali haunts me still.


  46. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: Thanks for bringing The Perfectionists back into attention — it remains one of my favorities from 2010.


  47. kimbofo Says:

    Oh wow. By some weird coincidence I am three-quarters of the way through A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. It is one of the most confronting, in-your-face novels I have ever read — and yet I can’t put it down. Kevin, it’s the kind of novel I wanted Ed O’Laughlin’s ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ to be like…


  48. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Two recommendations from two trusted sources in one day means that I have to add Courtemanche to my list — it will be on the next book order. I have heard of Sunday at the Pool but never really looked at it.


  49. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just finished writing this one up Kevin. Thanks again for the recommendation. Overall a really worthwhile read and a lot of fun.


  50. Bob Parkins Says:

    Finally got around to this terrific novel (!) and it recalled another fabulous take on The Trade:

    from Balthazar
    Lawrence Durrell
    Alexandria Quartet

    Invisible behind the lens itself that morning stood Keats – the world’s sort of Good Fellow, empty of ill intentions. He smelt lightly of perspiration. C’est le métier que exige. Once he had wanted to be a writer but took the wrong turning, and now his profession had so trained him to stay on the superficies of real life (acts and facts about acts) that he had developed the typical journalist’s neurosis (they drink to still it): namely that Something has happened, or is about to happen, in the next street, and that they will not know about it until it is too late to “send.” This haunting fear of missing a fragment of reality which one knows in advance will be trivial, even meaningless, had given our friend the conventional tic one sees in children who want to go to the lavatory – shifting about in a chair, crossing and uncrossing of legs. After a few moments of conversation he would rise and say “I’ve just forgotten something – I won’t be a minute.” In the street he would expel his breath in a swish of relief. He never went far but simply walked around the block to still the unease. Everything always seemed normal enough, to be sure. He would wonder whether to phone Mahmoud Pacha about the defence estimates or wait till tomorrow. . . . He had a pocketful of peanuts which he cracked in his teeth and spat out, feeling restless, unnerved, he did not know why. After a walk he would come trotting back into the café, or barber’s shop, beaming shyly, apologetically: an “Agency Man” – our best-integrated modern type. There was nothing wrong with John except the level on which he had chosen to live his life – but you could say the same about his famous namesake, could you not?


  51. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bob: Many thanks for that — I know the Alexandria Quartet well, but had forgotten about Keats, the journalist (even Durrell can’t resist a double entendre). Your excerpt does bring him back to life.

    And on the journalism novel front, I’ve tracked down a copy of William Weintraub’s 1961 novel Why Rock The Boat set in Montreal where the author worked for The Gazette and Weekend Magazine. And hung out with the novelist crowd (Mordecai Richler, Hugh Hood, Brian Moore, etc.). I remember reading it with great fondness some decades ago and can’t wait to read it again — once the Giller list is done, it will be very near the top of my list. Stay tuned.


  52. leroyhunter Says:

    Having finished this I thought I’d add to the consensus that this is entertaining, but short of being particulalrly memorable. I would say it aspires to Waugh and Frayn, rather then deserving to sit alongside them. Still, the episodic structure is used well (albeit the episodes are uneven) and the Roman setting is well done. The wider issues about the changing face of journalism (and by extension, book publishing) are certainly pertinent.


  53. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A couple of years on, I would have to agree with that consensus. I remember some of the incidents, but needed a reread of the review to bring most back to mind. And it does not cry out for a second read to further contemplate ideas that I gave short shrift the first time. Yet it is still a book that I recommend.


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