Julian Symons

Julian Symons novel Sweet Adelaide was published earlier this year. His book of essays, Critical Observations, will appear next spring.

Our Jack

Julian Symons, 22 July 1993

The year is 1920. Young Denis in Crome Yellow is asked by persistent Mary Bracegirdle which contemporary poets he likes best. The reply comes instantly: ‘Blight, Mildew and Smut’. Mary is taken aback, disbelieving, tries desperately to change what she has heard. Perhaps Denis had really said: ‘Squire, Binyon and Shanks’, ‘Childe, Blunden and Earp’, even ‘Abercrombie, Drink-water and Rabindranath Tagore’? But she knows it is not so: Blight, Mildew and Smut were for Denis the poets of the decade.


Julian Symons, 8 October 1992

A parable, an allegory, a moral fable, must convince us first on the literal level to have full effect in its symbolic message. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ and The Trial our attention is immediately engaged by the opening sentences that tell of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a gigantic insect lying on its back and unable to turn over, and by the bald information that Joseph K. ‘without having done anything wrong was arrested one fine morning’. Animal Farm, similarly, is interesting first of all as a story about animals trying to run their own society without the interference of humans. Any visionary or satirical meaning is apprehended later, and in Kafka’s case its nature is still a matter for argument. A friend once called him the last Jesuit, and it has always seemed to me that the ultimate meaning of Kafka’s fictions is that the individual must – and should – lose his fight against society or God.’

Back to the future

Julian Symons, 10 September 1992

Versions of the future (1). The year is 2021, human life is dying out. The last human being was born in 1996, and has just been killed outside Buenos Aires in a pub brawl. Infertility is world-wide, but we are not concerned with its effects in North or South America, Africa or India, or anywhere but Britain, where the apparently benevolent authority of the Council is ruled or guided by the Warden, Xan Lypiatt. Interest in sex is waning, although substitutes in the form of various massages are available on the NHS. Lady Margaret Hall is the massage centre for Oxford, and in Oxford lives the diarist-narrator Theo Faron, cousin and boyhood friend of the Warden and teacher of history (‘the least rewarding discipline for a dying species’) to the last generation born, the beautiful, hostile Omegas.

Timo of Corinth

Julian Symons, 6 August 1992

Corinth, between two seas, the eye of the world. Timoleon, called Timo, son of Timodemos, younger brother of Timophanes. Timo growing up, butt of Timophanes the violent. ‘Violence? How else did father Zeus win Olympus?’ Only winners have respect in Corinth. Timophanes is a winner. Takes power, announces the Programme, becomes the Despot. Yet in battle flinches. Timo saves his life. No thanks, no promotion. Timo’s loving friend Kallias tells of a plot against the Despot. ‘Timo. They need you. Your turn has come.’ The god Hermes whispers to Timo: ‘Dagger.’ Timo stabs and kills his brother, is exiled from Corinth, spends years in the wilderness. Time alters the past. Gods, too, change …

Poe’s Woes

Julian Symons, 23 April 1992

The prosecution case against Edgar A. Poe looks a strong one. Taken in by the Richmond tobacco broker John Allan when left orphaned at the age of two by the death of his actress mother Eliza, brought up as a member of the family and sent to the University of Virginia, he responded by running up gambling debts and drinking, so that he left after a year. Abandonment after a few months of the Army career he had chosen involved more debts to be paid by Allan, who for the three years of life remaining to him was intermittently though unsuccessfully dunned by the young man he condemned as ‘destitute of honor & principle every day of his life has only served to confirm his debased nature’.

Advice for the New Nineties

Julian Symons, 12 March 1992

Every poetic rebellion hardens sooner or later into an ossification of style and language and needs replacement by something at the time believed to be its opposite. In the 20th century it has been sooner rather than later, so that in Britain the almost art-for-art’s-sake purity of Imagism was replaced by the socially-conscious, deliberately objective poetry of the Thirties. When that was killed off by the war the vacuum was filled by the extravagant romanticism associated with Dylan Thomas, George Barker and Edith Sitwell. Less than a decade later, with those roses seen as over-blown, Robert Conquest was deploring ‘the omission of the necessary intellectual component from poetry’, gathering several disparate writers under one umbrella, and announcing the striking out of New Lines. The Movement was succeeded by the Group (now what was that?), and common sense gave way to the desperate metaphorical and mechanical ingenuity of the Martians, which in turn …

Terrible to be alive

Julian Symons, 5 December 1991

To look again at The Shores of Light, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his reviews in the Twenties and Thirties, is to marvel at his ability to discern, analyse and assess the American talents of the period as soon as they poked nose above ground. Hemingway was spotted with the first publication of In our time in 1924 (the edition 170 copies) as a writer of distinctive prose which had ‘more artistic integrity’ than anything else written about World War One by an American. Wilson’s piece about The Waste Land, written on its appearance, remains one of the most perceptive articles about the poem, and in it he remarks that the earlier Prufrock volume can now be seen ‘to stain the whole sea’ of modern verse. His advocacy of Scott Fitzgerald began with, or endured through, the appalling This Side of Paradise to the triumph of Gatsby. Stevens, Cummings, Pound, Crane, Dos Passos: their merits and possibilities of development were noted at an early stage in their careers. For two decades or a little more, Wilson was almost infallibly discerning about recent American writers, about their British counterparts much less so. He observed at one point that Louis MacNeice sometimes sounded like ‘a serious Ogden Nash’.

Unlucky Jim

Julian Symons, 10 October 1991

There is something to be said for encountering some years after publication a fictional work not only popular but critically acclaimed. What is novel in the subject-matter will have become familiarly known, something particularly relevant to J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which fascinated some of its early readers and reviewers because it was based on the writer’s childhood experiences while interned in Shanghai during World War Two. And in the case of this book the wave of indignation when it failed to win the Booker Prize has subsided. Its successor, incidentally, The Kindness of Women, has just failed to make this year’s short list.

A myth now, what is that? ‘A purely fictitious narrative embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena,’ my Shorter Oxford says, adding: ‘Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.’ That seems clear enough, and certainly covers an article recently read called ‘The Myth of President Kennedy’, which says that the assassinated idol of the Western world was little more, though certainly no less, than a rampant penis. The number and variety of his sexual activities (remarkable in view of his back troubles) left him open to blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover, he accepted a Pulitzer award for a book he didn’t write, his clean-living do-gooding reputation was, according to the article, purely fictitious. Is that what Angus Calder means by ‘the Myth of the Blitz’? It’s hard to know, because this Myth is elusive enough to deserve the capital letter it receives throughout. Calder goes eleven exhausting rounds with it here, giving the Myth the old one-two several times without once flooring it, let alone achieving a k.o.

Making up

Julian Symons, 15 August 1991

The first page of Jeremy Reed’s ‘autobiographical exploration of sexuality’ finds him with ‘a red gash of lipstick’ on his mouth, pondering whether to take the ten steps down to a beach where men sunbathe nude. He is androgynous, 16, ‘looking for a new species’. James Kirkup also admits to androgyny and to a passion for make-up, from childhood when he experimented with his mother’s make-up box, through the time when, as head of the English Department at the Bath Academy of Art, he appeared in his own play for children wearing white tights and with gold sequins on his upper eyelids, right into middle age. Swinburne had a sympathetic line or two for androgynes:

City of Dust

Julian Symons, 25 July 1991

What Carlyle called the Condition of England Question – in our day, the country created by Thatcher and her sub-lieutenants – is surely the ripest subject on offer to novelists. The centripetal tendencies of a government that every year has affirmed its centrifugal intentions, the encouragement for financial whizzkids to enrich themselves and the brushing aside of accompanying financial scandals, the building boom based on an everrising tower of credit, and the collapsed public and private notions of morality, all cry out to be dealt with in fiction by the flat power of the Zola who in La Curée excoriated those who made speculative fortunes from Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and in Pot-Bouille savaged the social and moral attitudes of bourgeois lives as seen in an apartment block occupied by the middle class. But Zolaesque naturalism has been out of intellectual fashion for a generation. Although the Condition of England Question does engage the attention of novelists, they approach it with glancing allusiveness, like Martin Amis, or cover it with the cloak of magical realism, which, whatever its dubious imaginative benefits, weakens any intended social point. So it is no surprise that Stuart Hood and Michael Dibdin concern themselves with the present state of society and morality via Science Fiction and a crime story.’

Bourgeois Masterpieces

Julian Symons, 13 June 1991

My friend and fellow crime writer John Creasey published more than seven hundred books under some twenty different names. (He also found time to found a political party called rather grandly the All Party Alliance, although a wit said that his only allies were Anthony Morton, Gordon Ashe, Michael Halliday and other Creasey pseudonyms.) His books were popular but not highly regarded, and this worried and baffled him. Why, he asked me once, was there thought to be so much difference between Creasey and Shakespeare? Wasn’t Macbeth a crime story? Didn’t he, like Shakespeare, write for the people rather than for intellectuals? The subject-matter was similar, the approach was similar, the difference simply that between prose and verse.


Julian Symons, 21 February 1991

What a marvellous title, I said to friends when By Grand Central Station was published in 1945. Better not read the book, it can’t possibly live up to the title. Sure enough, On First Looking into Grand Central Station after nearly half a century’s abstention, that unserious assertion turns out to be dismayingly justified.

What ho, Giotto!

Julian Symons, 7 February 1991

In the beginning there was Cookham, and Pa and Ma and ten other children apart from Stanley, including two who died in childhood. Cookham was Paradise, but Paradise ended with the 1914 War. Afterwards there were years of confusion, then the discovery of sex. And all the while there was religion, and paintings that tried to express religious feeling, latterly including always in various forms the artist and one or other of his two wives. That was the life of Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) who became Sir Stanley, and spoke often of his ‘belief in grandeur and great Art and Religion of the grandest kind ’. The belief was shown through paintings that, if not exactly the grandest, are possibly the biggest and certainly among the oddest done in Britain during the 20th century.

Victor Ludorum

Julian Symons, 20 December 1990

In the lustrum after World War Two the word ‘commitment’ got almost as much work as ‘existential’ in literary magazines. The words represented opposite attitudes to the writer’s stance in relation to the world around him. A literary existentialist owed a little, but not much, to Kierkegaard’s belief in the free and responsible individual discovering his spiritual essence through acts of will. In practice, existentialist writers favoured individual freedom of action against the limits imposed by ‘society’, expressing rebellious feelings outwardly by (according to Mary McCarthy) wearing long dark-belted coats of shaggy material, and in their work by exalting individual values against those of the mass. The work of committed writers, in contrast, was rooted not only in the visible world but also in the rapidly changing pattern of social habits and attitudes. Thoroughgoing existentialists believed in the virtues of irresponsibility, but for others the question of the degree and nature of commitment nagged like an aching tooth.

Who they think they are

Julian Symons, 8 November 1990

Volume One of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, left our hero in January 1960 under sentence of death, no more than a few months to live. With one bound, or at least one letter from the Neurological Institute, he is free. ‘The protein content of my spinal liquor had gone down dramatically’: the death sentence is cancelled. Too late: he is already writing at express speed to provide for his widow, and can’t stop. He is not quite the equal of my friend John Creasey, who once told me he tried to keep himself down to writing a dozen crime stories a year but found he wrote 14. The Burgess production rate worked out at five and a half novels in the pseudo-terminal year. And eight years later it was his wife who died.

Paul and Penny

Julian Symons, 25 October 1990

One day in 1950 I walked down Crown Passage, an alley between King Street and Pall Mall, to call on the Falcon Press in pursuit of money they owed me. The managing director Peter Baker had left letters unanswered and telephone calls unreturned, and sure enough he was out. I saw instead a harassed long-nosed man in a blue suit who said his name was Paul Scott, and that he was the company secretary. Things were in a bit of a muddle, but he would see what could be done. I can’t remember whether I ever got my money, but Scott had good reason to look harassed, ‘with the accounts in front of him and creditors on the telephone’, as one of his friends put it. He wisely left Falcon Press before its collapse and the trial of Peter Baker – Captain Peter Baker, MC, the youngest Tory MP in the 1950 Parliament – for fraud and forgery, at the end of which he received a seven-year prison sentence.’

Dirty Jokes

Julian Symons, 13 September 1990

‘Julia died. I read it in the Times this morning… I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’ The first half-dozen lines of Anita Brookner’s novel suggest the tone, straightforwardly realistic, and tell us the principal subject, the relationship between flamboyant upper-middle-class Julia and Fay, whose father was a cinema manager. The opening chapter’s ten pages enlarge on this, sketch Julia’s youthful success as a diseuse and tell us of her solicitor husband Charles’s death, mention Fay’s own glimpse of fame during the War, when she sang ‘on the wireless’ as the serious spot on comedy shows, and her marriage to Owen, a junior partner in Charles’s firm. One has the feeling too much is being given away, but that isn’t so. The framework provided by this opening chapter is essential to the way Fay’s story is told, its placing a small artistic triumph that would have been appreciated by James or Conrad.

Deep down

Julian Symons, 28 June 1990

What is it really about, and why was it written like this? The questions are never unreasonable when confronted with works that suggest the possibility of other meanings present beneath the surface level of realism, and when a reader has to decide whether suggested profundities really exist or in fact resemble what Eliot in old age called his notes to The Waste Land, an exhibition of bogus scholarship.

Burlington Bertie

Julian Symons, 14 June 1990

In old age Herbert Read wrote an uncharacteristically tart bit of verse, perhaps after a quarrel with his second wife Ludo:

Oms and Hums

Julian Symons, 22 March 1990

There was a time in the Fifties when, no doubt about it, the literary and even extra-literary activities of the Beats were an exhilarating contrast to the careful sobriety of Movement poets and the wistful glances in the direction of social orthodoxy made by the younger English novelists. The heroes of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, ‘destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’ positively bounced with energy when put beside Donald Davie sitting wrapped in his overcoat beside the fire saying Heigh-ho on a winter afternoon. It was possible then to see Ginsberg, Kerouac and their friends as anarchists articulating and exemplifying a morality that flouted the values of liberal Western society and the rigidities of orthodox Communism in favour of a romantic code that valued above anything else personal friendship and the capacity for ‘feeling everything, liking everything and going beyond the need for choice’.


Julian Symons, 9 November 1989

If George Orwell had died in 1939 before the outbreak of war (something perfectly possible, for in the previous year he suffered a bad haemorrhage and spent nearly six months in a sanatorium), he would be recorded in literary histories of the period as an interesting maverick who wrote some not very successful novels, a lively account of a few hard weeks in Paris, a quirky book about the miners that was somehow combined with an attack on sandalled vegetarian socialists, and another about the Spanish Civil War that some reviewers praised but nobody read. Six hundred of the 1500 print-run for Homage to Catalonia were unsold when Orwell died in January 1950.

Darts for art’s sake

Julian Symons, 28 September 1989

Nuclear weapons, by their very existence, ‘distort all life and subvert all freedoms’, and even thinking or reading about them for too long may induce ‘nausea, clinical nausea’. So Martin Amis in ‘Thinkability’, the introduction to his collection of stories Einstein’s Monsters. The monsters are the weapons – but also ourselves, who are ‘not fully human, not for now’. Given such a premise, the weapons must be written about by a novelist – what other subject is there? But how to do it? Amis says the subject resists frontal assault (rather as the concentration camps resisted frontal assault for an earlier generation of fiction writers), but Money was subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’, and London Fields might be called another. Nuclear weapons and their effects stay in the background, but their existence is to be taken as affecting the lives and characters of everybody in the new novel. One of them, Nicola Six, has a make-believe friend named Enola Gay, and Enola Gay was the name of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.’

Beyond Everyday Life

Julian Symons, 5 March 1981

Some time late in 1939, around the time World War Two began, I met Rayner Heppenstall in the street, and we went to a pub, no doubt to exchange gloomy views about our likely futures. His first novel would be coming out soon. ‘It might sell a few copies in the rubber shops,’ he said.

Cityscape with Figures

Julian Symons, 21 August 1980

How does a novelist write about World War Two or the war in Vietnam? About populations deliberately enslaved or exterminated, destruction seen as normal? American writers differ from British novelists in approaching such all-embracing violence as too grotesque to be viewed in any terms except those of fantasy. There are no British novels that, like Catch 22, approach war as lunacy made real, or implicitly ask, like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, why running dope is worse than killing unarmed Vietnamese. Such a mixture of the macabre and the grotesque with a touch of anarchy is not a British vein. There are extraordinary figures in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, some of them, like Apthorpe, pushed to the edge of caricature: but although the people may be comic, the war itself is a serious matter. There is something dotty about Ritchie-Hook, the defence of Crete is a shambles, but in the end Waugh’s work belongs within the realistic tradition of the English novel. So does Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, which is the only other lengthy attempt by an English novelist to handle part of World War Two as a theme. (Anthony Powell’s three relevant volumes in The Music of Time are too closely woven into the rest of the series to be considered.)


Teaching happily

5 December 1991

In a moment of mental aberration I said Randall Jarrell spent much of his life teaching happily at the University of South Carolina (LRB, 5 December 1991). Wrong. It was at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, though ‘teaching happily’ is correct. My apologies to his shade.


15 August 1991

I am sorry that the words ‘patriotic German’ applied to Michael Hamburger’s father (who won the Iron Cross in World War One) should seem offensive (Letters, 12 September). Perhaps ‘good German’ would have been more acceptable, though it has a slightly canting sound I dislike.‘An outsider’: the point is that from adolescence Hamburger was an outsider in England...

Burlington Bertie

14 June 1990

Norman Potter (Letters, 26 July) should read what I said more closely before writing that I found in Herbert Read only a ‘miserable catalogue of insufficiencies’. I praised him as a gentle man, for the most part saintly, a writer of cool orderly prose, the man who helped to purge the British of their inter-war artistic insularity. I can’t understand what he means by saying I rewrote...


22 June 1989

‘Lewis’s manner tends to cancel itself out, to vanish up its own arsehole, as he himself might have put it,’ John Bayley writes in his review of The Essential Wyndham Lewis (LRB, 22 June). As he himself emphatically would not have put it, rather. The writer who early on expressed ‘my naif determination to have no “Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger" ’ certainly...

Diamond Daggers

Stephen Wall, 28 June 1990

Death’s Darkest Face is Julian Symons’s 27th crime story, and its appearance coincides with an award (the Diamond Dagger) for his long service to the genre. This isn’t quite...

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John Bayley, 22 June 1989

There is a cartoon by Beerbohm somewhere showing a distended G.K. Chesterton banging the table with his fist and saying he’d ‘had enough of all this bloody nonsense’. It seems...

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Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 July 1982

The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the...

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