Podcast: Sarah Churchwell on The Ambassadors: Henry James


The Ambassadors is arguably the greatest of Henry James’ late works, and his own favourite of his novels. In it, Lambert Strether is sent by his wealthy fiancée to Paris to rescue her son from what is presumed to be the clutches of a gold-digging temptress. When he arrives, he discovers Chad needs very little rescuing, and far from being a den of iniquity, Paris – and the people he meets – is sophisticated, cultured and charming.
I met with Sarah Churchwell to talk about Henry James,her introduction to the new Everymans Library edition of the novel, Americans in Paris, and why reading Henry James is infinitely less daunting than one might suppose.

The Ambassadors, Henry James. With an introduction by Sarah Churchwell. Everymans Library



Trump’s America – the podcast


With less than a month to go to the US presidential election, Donald Trump is barely seven points behind Hilary Clinton in the polls. How do you explain the astonishing rise of an unlikely demagogue like Trump? How much does he reflect signs of a deeper division in America – one which has possibly been there since the country was founded ? And how much is he simply an anomaly, whose popularity will dissipate once the first woman president of the United States is in the White House?

This week I was joined at Mark’s Club by  best-selling author Lionel Shriver, and writer, broadcaster and academic Professor Sarah Churchwell to talk about Trump’s America: why post-truth politics is stranger than fiction.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles, at once satirical and dystopian, maps an isolated America in 2029, on the cusp of a financial apocalypse as the world switches to a new global reserve currency, backed by a coalition of countries led by Russia’s ‘ruler for life’ Vladimir Putin. In 2029, there’s already a ‘great wall’ – built by the Mexicans to keep the US economic migrants out, and the Republican party has imploded, leaving the US as a single party democracy. Is this simply fiction, or the likely consequences of the current political crisis in the US?

Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, is an exquisite analysis of the politics, economics and social context of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. As Sarah has said, ‘the America Trump inhabits is actually the one that Fitzgerald predicted in Gatsby, where we slip by unknowing degrees into accepting what once we would have deplored….Jay Gatsby is redeemed by his idealism: Donald Trump is what Gatsby would have been if he had no soul to corrupt in the first place.’The question is, how did we get here from there? And, if the 1920’s hold a mirror up to where we are now, what lessons can be drawn as we reflect on what the future can hold?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes here or below on soundcloud

Event: Trump’s America: what fiction tells us about post-fact politics.

As the US election draws ever closer, is it time to think the unthinkable? If the world wakes on 9th November to find President Trump in the White House, what will the future hold for the world’s most powerful nation?

On Wednesday 12th October, best-selling author Lionel Shriver and academic, writer and broadcaster, Professor Sarah Churchwell join me at Mark’s Club in Mayfair to talk about the possible, the probable and the untenable in the run up to the election.

Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel, The Mandibles, set a hundred years after the Wall Street Crash, imagines a (near) future America in terrible crisis; the country is bankrupt, defaulting on its debt obligations, the Republican party has imploded, and Mexico has built a wall to keep desperate US citizens out of its country. Far from feeling far-fetched, The Mandibles seems chillingly prescient: perhaps, as one of the novel’s characters says, “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”

Professor Sarah Churchwell says Trump is nothing new – the United States has seen it all before. Trump’s much vaunted ‘America First‘ was originally the campaign slogan of Warren G Harding, who became the nation’s very first ‘businessman President’ in 1920, breeding the anti-immigration nativism, isolationism and cult of profit that defined the twenties and ended with the Great Depression.

Churchwell and Shriver are two of the most incisive and fascinating of commentators on contemporary America and the evening promises a unique and vivid analysis of the spectre of a Trump presidency, the lessons of the past, and why post-truth politics seems stranger than fiction.

Trump’s America. Wednesday 12th October, 630pm to 800pm, Mark’s Club, Mayfair.

Tickets are £40 and include drinks and canapés, a copy of The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver and a copy of Careless People; Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

Mark’s is London’s most exclusive private members’s club. I have a small number of tickets available to non-members: to reserve your place, please email me on mrstrefusis@gmail.com.

Guests of The Books That Built Me may also book for dinner (please let me know whether you’d like to dine when you email). Club dress code applies.


Sarah Churchwell

Last Thursday evening, in the elegant setting of The Club at Café Royal, I played literary hostess to Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, in the first of a series of salons called  The Books That Built Me.

The Books That Built Sarah Churchwell

1.The Great Gatsby (Modern Classics (Penguin)) Bantum , 6th (sixth) Edition by F. Scott Fitzgerald [2005]
: subject of Careless People, her ‘histoire trouvé’. Gatsby is, she tells us, the book that ‘taught her how to read as a writer’, a ‘litmus test’

2.The Fairy Books of Andrew Lang
: Andrew Lang’s fairy books are a compendium of every familiar and unfamiliar fairy story, a compendium of delights, and unlocked the door for Sarah to a magical world of stories and storytelling, which has preoccupied her ever since.

3.The Grand Sophy
: screwball comedy meets Jane Austen.

4. My Antonia (Oxford World’s Classics)

5.A Farewell To Arms (Vintage Classics)
, The Sun Also Rises (with a nod to Eliot along the way, not so much for his being one of Sarah’s desert island books, but because like Cather, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Eliot is another extraordinary writer that bubbled from the literary wellspring of the American Midwest: I’d add Sarah Churchwell to that list. Interestingly, Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald all, like Sarah, migrated to Europe – only as expatriates were they able to write so eloquently about America.

6. Careless People – the book, which as Harper’s Bazaar wrote, ‘will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about The Great Gatsby.’ It’s an exhilarating read and a stunning piece of scholarship, a unique literary biography which reconstructs in exquisite detail the year in which Fitzgerald set his finest novel.
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby

The Club at Café Royal created a delicious Careless People cocktail for the evening –  a beautiful, jewel-coloured blend of vodka, plum sake, pomegranate juice and fresh lime juice, served in a cocktail coupe with a curl of orange zest: ‘suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform….The party has begun‘.

F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, quoted in Careless People in a chapter that so glitters with detail you step straight through a magic door into one of the real jazz-age parties that inspired those in Gatsby. I also learned from Sarah that ‘cocktail’ is a verb as well as a noun – I’ll forever be inviting people to cocktail with me.