Adrian Poole

Adrian Poole is a lecturer in English at Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College.

Getting back

Adrian Poole, 1 July 1982

In what is by far the most rewarding item in Calder’s New Writing and Writers 19, the main character of Harry Mulisch’s ‘Antique Air’ thinks of the war as ‘an almost impenetrable barrier of death, fear, hunger’, separating him from his childhood. Yet paradoxically, the war is ‘perhaps his most precious possession, without which he can hardly imagine himself. Nor can he imagine what it can be like to live as he imagines his children have done, a life undivided by such a cataract. In his introduction to A crowd is not company, Robert Kee voices some similar thoughts about the experience of war in youth. In fact, the subject of his book is not so much ‘death, fear, hunger’, as the effects of a unique kind of confinement on a young middle-class Englishman of his generation – namely, the experience of a prisoner-of-war camp. He originally published it in 1947 as a novel and has now reissued it as an ‘autobiographical memoir’, unchanged except for a brief explanatory preface. It might seem odd for an author to claim a more intimate kind of formal responsibility for a narrative that now seems to him in retrospect to have ‘a strange authenticity, almost as if it had been written by someone else’. A meal could be made of this, but it would be a dull one. Everyone knows what it means, and there are many more interesting things about the book than what to call it. ‘Personal Narratives, British’ in the British Library Cataloguing Data on the fly-leaf has a quaint rightness to it.

Fiction and Failure

Adrian Poole, 15 April 1982

There is a point in Stanley Middleton’s Blind Understanding at which a man does not eat a dry biscuit. Listening to the sound of the nine o’clock television news from the distance of his kitchen, a 70-year-old retired solicitor remarks his immunity to the sad record of violent death, industrial disorder and foreign famine in worlds elsewhere. ‘Such did not touch him nearly; he could be disgruntled without adventitious help. He decided against eating a dry biscuit.’ By such minute and precise notations (‘piled up, fragment by fragment’, as another character observes) is this rich and dense account of a life rendered. As John Bainbridge sifts through his rag-bag of memories, we close in on the events and people and things that have nearly touched him nearly: the death of a young subaltern in the war, an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law and with many others, a painting, an unsuccessfully defended murderer – but usually, death. He is a man who has devoted himself to shrinking feeling to the point where the renunciation of a dry biscuit can signal a tiny, disgruntled triumph of the will.

In the Teeth of the Gale

A.D. Nuttall, 16 November 1995

‘Traduttore traditore,’ the translator is a betrayer. In other words, every translation is an act of treachery against the loved original, a stab in the back. If this Italian proverb...

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