Autodidact: self-taught


Nightingale Papers by David Nokes

by V. L. Craven


The Nightingale Papers by David Nokes (published by the fantastic Hesperus Press) is a delightful novel about the world of academics. I’m not normally a person for whom the word ‘delightful’ is a compliment, but this time it is a compliment and a big one at that. Novels about academics are some of my favourites– Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon and Changing Places by David Lodge are both excellent–and this one lives up to my somewhat high expectations.

The story focuses on a gathering of scholars of an eighteenth-century English poet, Madoc, in the somewhat decrepit house once owned by the poet but now the property of a religious order. One of the main speakers is to be the most famous of Madoc scholars, Reginald McWhinnie, but he’s nowhere to be found. It’s thought that he’d discovered lost bits and bobs of manuscript– and an American attendee, rather desperate to publish something…anything, believes those papers are hidden in the house in which they’re staying. Off she goes to snoop. And what does she discover?

She’s not the only conniving one–every character has one reason or another for getting up to mischief in this black comedy–an excellent satire of what goes on in the ivory tower. Done in a way that only the English seem capable of doing. Wonderful stuff.

Hesperus Press is one of my favourite publishers. Besides printing hard-to-find classics, they put out a lively selection of contemporary authors. This week’s Sunday Funnies is from The Nightingale Papers by David Nokes, a nuanced comedy about academics, reading and writing.


A group of literary critics is far more assiduous in unravelling clues, deciphering plots and analysing subconscious motives than any provincial constabulary.

He had long ago abandoned the idea that there was any point in reading books. Perfectly useless–that was their essential charm. He’d given up reading new books altogether. Someone, he couldn’t remember who, had recommended he read a novel by some Jewish chap. Turned out to be all about wanking. ‘Whacking-off’ he called it. Summed up modern literature perfectly. [My sentiments exactly about Portnoy’s Complaint.]

*’Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Marxism as a concept, McWhinnie grinned. It just didn’t work in practice. Much the same as you could say about Christianity; all right as a concept. I trust I don’t offend you,’ he tugged at his jacket-cuffs.
‘Not in the slightest.’
McWhinnie looked disappointed.

*For him scholarship had been a refuge: he valued literature not as a reflection of reality, but as an escape route from it. … [In literature] nature was methodised, the poet was always a prince, and the scholar found himself elevated to an all-powerful magus reducing the randomness of events to a dream of traditional order.

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