The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind a pseudonym, literary provocation

James Campbell’s ‘NB by J.C.’ brings together the columns of an incendiary cultural critic. Steven Moore’s ‘Dalkey Days’ looks back on a career of publishing artistically ambitious authors.

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7 min

Even before catching up with the latest scholarly kerfuffle in the Letters column, readers of Britain’s Times Literary Supplement turn first to its last page. There, one can find a weekly feature somewhat enigmatically titled NB, the Latin abbreviation for “nota bene,” which could be translated as “pay close attention.” Overall, NB might be loosely described as a gossip column for the erudite, but during the first 20 years of the present century, James Campbell made it into something more — a uniquely personal miscellany of wit, weirdness and waspish provocation.

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NB by J.C.” — a selection of columns — highlights its singularity. First off, those initials matter because J.C., which is how the TLS pieces were always signed, differs slightly from James Campbell. The latter is a well-regarded Scots literary journalist and biographer whose several books include “Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin,” “Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank” and, most recently, “Just Go Down to the Road,” a memoir of its author’s working-class youth and rackety misadventures during the 1970s in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The J.C. persona, however, is a gleeful literary provocateur, an eviscerator of cultural imbecility and something of an old-fashioned bookman.

During J.C.’s tenure (1997-2020), the NB back page regularly mocked the platitudes of the poet Maya Angelou (“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart”), inaugurated an award for the year’s most incomprehensible academic criticism (too many examples to cite) and speculated about the most overused book titles (e.g., “The Kindness of Strangers”). Campbell — let’s just call him by his name — pointed out “the pointlessness of awarding sumptuous real-world prizes to authors already wealthy beyond the dreams of the average scribe who has been toiling valiantly in the ranks for years.” He learned that long before J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard there was a good minor poet named Harry Potter, faithfully subscribed to the journal of the George Gissing Society (honoring the novelist best known for “New Grub Street”) and declared John Galsworthy’s too-seldom-read “Forsyte Saga” to be “fantastic.”

A learned playfulness characterized much of Campbell’s early NB period. For instance, he challenged his readers to unearth mentions of the TLS in modern fiction or to determine the earliest appearance of the telephone in literature (Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore,” which premiered in 1878, carries off the honors with the line “No telephone/ Communicates with his cell”). He shared his pleasure in Drummond Moir’s “Just My Typo,” a collection of amusing instances of typographical errors, such as the hotel sign reading “Please leave your values at the front desk” and a government report that insisted “there can be no scared cows.” Against commentators who foolishly argue that “who” can do all the work of “whom,” Campbell’s elegantly snide riposte began “To Who It May Concern,” before listing other absurdities such as a retitled Hemingway novel, “For Who the Bell Tolls.”

Perhaps the most beloved of all NB’s regular features is “The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook,” continually updated by the graybeard Elders of the Basement Labyrinth. While the handbook is imaginary, its stylistic prohibitions are anything but. Never use “‘interrogated’ (except in legal contexts), ‘robust’ (except in sporting contexts) and ‘limn’ (in any context).” Don’t resort to reflexive cliches: Must a Scot be invariably described as “dour” and all wit as “mordant”? Other no-nos include such wearisomely familiar catchphrases as “game changer,” “level playing field,” “perfect storm” and “wake-up call,” as well as those ugly verbs “curate” and “gift.”

Throughout his years as NB’s presiding genius, Campbell never shied away from being controversial. As a champion of aesthetic excellence and artistic freedom, he viewed the present-day literary scene as “fueled to a large extent by identity approval, not critical judgement.” Despite William Faulkner being (arguably) the greatest American novelist, he lamented that “it must be next to impossible to teach books such as ‘Intruder in the Dust’ and ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ in American literature departments today, policed as they are by linguistic censors and peopled by the shocked, the appalled, and the offended.” Deeming the semi-classic lesbian romance “Carol” to be “one of the dullest of Patricia Highsmith’s 22 novels,” he strongly recommended instead “The Tremor of Forgery,” “This Sweet Sickness” and “any of the Ripleys.”

In commenting on what we now label cancel culture, Campbell reminded us that, in 1946, Random House announced that a standard anthology would no longer contain anything by Ezra Pound because of the poet’s antisemitism. W.H. Auden — who didn’t even like Pound’s poetry — protested: “Begin by banning his poems not because you object to them but because you object to him, and you will end, as the Nazis did, by slaughtering his wife and children.” Random House changed its mind.

By Sept. 18, 2020, the date of his last NB column, Campbell — today a freelance writer — had grown openly disheartened by our pseudointellectual zeitgeist:

“From the 1920s through to the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ trial in 1960 and beyond, it was the legal and political authorities who tried to ban books and restrict the freedom of the imagination,” he wrote. “Radicals and rebels fought against the very act of banning. Prohibitions on speech and publication now arrive from the identity-conscious children of those same radicals, leaving it to the law to protect what were once taken for granted as freedoms of expression.”

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In one minor way, “NB by J.C.” may disappoint some readers: While it does feature a few author interviews — with Seamus Heaney and Gore Vidal, among others — and occasionally names various TLS staffers, it’s hardly “A Walk Through the Times Literary Supplement,” as its subtitle promises. By contrast, Steven Moore’s new memoir, “Dalkey Days,” vividly re-creates the heady years of the 1980s and ’90s when Dalkey Archive Press and its related magazine, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, were discovering, reissuing and celebrating such innovative writers as Gilbert Sorrentino, David Markson, Julian Rios, Felipe Alfau, Arno Schmidt, Jacques Roubaud, Viktor Shklovsky, Rikki Ducornet, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, W.M. Spackman, Alexander Theroux and a dozen others. Daredevils one and all, they created some of the most imaginative and enjoyable fiction of the 20th century.

Moore, himself an authority on William Gaddis and the history of the novel, almost immediately disliked John O’Brien, Dalkey’s temperamental and fast-dealing founder. Quickly appointed the firm’s deputy editor nonetheless, Moore found that his work helped him through a period of personal depression by providing daily challenges and an almost constant intellectual rush: Year after year for a decade, he got to publish the artistically ambitious authors he deeply admired, many of whom became friends. In the second half of “Dalkey Days,” Moore relates the secret history of every title he saw into print. This impressive backlist reminds us, yet again, how often great books emerge from small presses.

NB by J.C.

A Walk Through the Times Literary Supplement

By James Campbell. Paul Dry Books. 374 pp. Paperback, $24.95

Dalkey Days

A Memoir

By Steven Moore. Zerogram Press. 120 pp. Paperback, $14

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