Michael Irwin

Michael Irwin, a professor of English at the University of Kent, is the author of Picturing: Description and Illusion in the 19th-century Novel. He taught in Poland for several years.

True Stories

Michael Irwin, 30 March 1989

Fiction derives from facts as paper derives from trees, but in either case the transformation can be left incomplete. While many a novel of the past twenty years or so has hinted or advertised its fictionality, others have asserted in various ways their entanglement with real life. The three works to be discussed here are of this latter kind, fibrous with circumstance. The characteristic could be seen alternatively as a strength or a limitation. It suggests relevance, authenticity: a real-life problem has been addressed, a true story transliterated. These are no mere flights of the imagination. But to claim so much, even by implication, is to invite a potentially damaging counter-argument. Why has ‘imagination’ been invoked at all? Would not the work in question be yet more authoritative and persuasive as frank documentary or autobiography?

Final Jam

Michael Irwin, 2 June 1988

It isn’t easy to describe this Protean work, but the 18th-century flavour of the title page offers a useful preliminary hint. Essentially the story is an inversion of Gulliver’s Travels. The voyager, Oi Paz, views Sykaos, our own dear planet, with the pained, baffled rationality of a visiting Houyhnhnm. His early adventures among us, however, are picaresque in their variety and indignity. He points contrasts and passes judgments like Quixote or Parson Adams. The punning suggestiveness of ‘Sykaos’ and the related adjective ‘Sykotic’ is, of course, deliberate. As with Swift, names are significant: ‘Oitar’ (Oi Paz’s home planet) should be read backwards as well as forwards.

Hidden Privilege

Michael Irwin, 16 September 1982

Andrea Lee spent ten months in Russia in 1978-9, together with her husband, on an academic exchange – eight months at Moscow State University and two at Leningrad State. Her Russian Journal, some of it written during her stay, some of it worked up subsequently, consists of thirty or forty fragments, each encapsulating an incident, an experience or a character. The entries are chronologically ordered: there is little theorising and no thesis. Andrea Lee likens them to ‘a set of photographs taken by an amateur who is drawn to his subject by instinct and capricious inclination’. This unpretentiousness is one of the great strengths of her book. She obviously has no interest in selecting or distorting evidence to make out a case.

Another A.N. Wilson

Michael Irwin, 3 December 1981

The Sweets of Pimlico, published in 1977, was an assured and attractive first novel. It moved well. The light, fluent, shapely narrative encompassed with equal facility episodes of mannered comedy and passages of simple feeling. Here, plainly, was a writer who combined imagination and literary intelligence: but his prospects were difficult to assess because he was working in a mode which, while fashionable enough to be taken for granted, is both demanding and problematic.

Sweet Porn

Michael Irwin, 1 October 1981

The publisher’s note on the jacket of George’s Marvellous Medicine says that ‘Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was voted No 1 (above Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland) in a Sunday Times survey to find the best ten children’s books.’ Even if the word ‘best’ is translated into reasonable terms (‘currently most popular’?), the claim remains impressive, and implies classic status. Sales figures tend to confirm it: they had reached the half-million mark before the book went into paperback. But sales figures alone can be misleading. As the hapless recipients of gifts, children, even more than adults, tend to give house-room to books they don’t actually read, juvenile equivalents to The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. My own research, however, admittedly based on a grotesquely small proportion of the pre-teen reading public, suggests that Charlie and the Chocolate factory, James and the Giant Peach and Danny, Champion of the World are far from being mere bookshelf-ballast. More or less normal children revealed, under intensive cross-examination, that they not only enjoyed these stories but remembered their respective plots, and numerous particular episodes, images and jokes, with considerable clarity.

Point of Principle

Michael Irwin, 2 April 1981

The Country, which is concerned with old age, death and family bereavement, is adroitly restricted to an account of four visits. The first two, at intervals of a year, are paid by Daniel Francoeur, an American writer long resident in London, to his aging parents in Rhode Island. He finds them unhappy, constrained by repressed hostility and old disappointments. His mother, now an invalid who confines herself to the house, has borne seven sons. She sees herself as the victim of her husband’s sexual appetites. She resents his lack of sympathy with her tastes, her humour. For his part, he feels a failure: he carries the wound of dismissal from his life-long work as a toolmaker through having broken a strike on a point of principle.


Michael Irwin, 19 February 1981

A reviewer must allow for his personal reading temperament, his instinctive critical preferences and dislikes. John Banville roused my own antipathies as early as the second page of his novel: Kepler, arriving at a Bohemian castle, is greeted by a hump-backed dwarf who pipes, ‘God save you, gentles,’ and to make matters worse has second sight. When Tycho Brahe, Kepler’s host, appears, sporting the metal bridge in his damaged nose, he bemoans the loss of a pet elk that has fallen down a staircase and broken its leg after drinking a pot of beer. This is the sort of thing one expects in historical fiction, the implication that folk of bygone times were all larger than life – or smaller, of course, in the case of dwarfs – gamey, eccentric, picturesque. From this root of platitude can sprout a hundred clichés of incident or expression: thighs will be slapped, wenches ploughed, unwieldy insults bartered. The very attempt to make the characters more vigorous devitalises them. It’s of no great relevance that in this instance elk, dwarf and reconstituted nose are all ‘real’, all biographically authenticated. The effect of the immediate emphasis on freakish detail is to suggest that the past is to be viewed through a conventional kind of distorting glass.


Michael Irwin, 4 December 1980

In the introduction to his Collected Short Stories Kingsley Amis strongly implies that the genre is not at present in a healthy state. He claims that subsidisation by the Arts Council, or other such bodies, of the magazines in which short stories often appear, fosters self-indulgence. Certainly this is a term that came to my mind more than once when reading the works under review. For the novelist, experimentation is both demanding and risky, in that his whole enterprise may go haywire and prove unsaleable. The short-story writer is enabled, whether by subsidisation or merely by the brevity of the form or by both, to experiment without commitment. This would be fair enough if the unsuccessful experiments were scrapped. But several of these collections, including Amis’s own, have been topped up with sketches or squibs that scarcely pay their way. It is plain, too, that certain of these stories are founded upon the doings of minor cultural celebrities of the moment, and that a large part of the pleasure proposed relates to the reader’s desire or ability to identify the real-life writers or actors who are being burlesqued, represented or glanced at. Should not works of this kind merely be circulated in manuscript round the small metropolitan group that might find some fun in them?

The Art of Arno Schmidt

Michael Irwin, 2 October 1980

The reviewer of fiction can pretty easily acquire enough second-hand information to enable him to imply easy familiarity with the oeuvre of a writer he has only infrequently encountered. There can even be a temptation to go a step further, by seeming to assume that this knowledge will be common to all cultivated people. In the case of Arno Schmidt I am tempted towards no such subterfuges, partly because my ignorance of the man and his work, prior to my reading of Evening Edged in Gold, was total, partly because I imagine numerous other potential British readers will be in a similar position.

Honey and Water

Michael Irwin, 7 August 1980

In the first chapter of Peter Redgrove’s novel we are introduced to a poet named Guy, who is about to read aloud some poems he has written about bees. He breaks off a meandering introduction to tell his audience:

The Future of John Barth

Michael Irwin, 5 June 1980

Offering a critical account of John Barth’s new book within the confines of a periodical review is like trying to haul a whale on board a fishing smack. For the sake of brevity, even my formal description of the work must be brutally oversimplified. It is an epistolary novel, divided into seven sections, one for every ‘letter’ of the title. Each section consists of a series of missives from the same seven correspondents: Lady Amherst. Todd Andrews, Jacob Horner, A.B. Cook, Jerome Bray, Ambrose Mensch and the Author. The last-named ‘character’ is the ‘real’ John Barth, and Lady Amherst is a new invention; the other five are protagonists, or the proxies of protagonists, from earlier works of fiction by Barth. Each of the letter-writers is caught up in a drama of his own, but through the seven stages of the novel these stories increasingly move towards dense interrelationship.

German Jew

Michael Irwin, 17 April 1980

The Missing Years attempts to show what it was like to be a Jew in Germany during the first 45 years of this century. Dr Richard Lasson, the narrator, traces his own career from front-line service in the First World War, through the mounting uncertainties and perils of the Twenties and Thirties to desperately precarious survival in Berlin during the Second World War. Walter Laqueur is Director of the Institute of Contemporary History, and effectively The Missing Years, his first novel, is history masquerading as fiction masquerading as autobiography. The fictional impulse seems slight: Dr Lasson, scarcely individualised, is less a protagonist than a spectator. The writing is often colourless: ‘A1l this time our life was hanging by a thread’; ‘I felt drawn as if by a magnet to the young lady at my side.’ But the narrative is pretty continuously absorbing for what it tells us about everyday life in Hitler’s Germany and, in particular, about the predicament, the reactions and the motivation of the doomed Jewish community. The value of the book lies in the information that it assembles: about the popular songs of the period, say, or the range of the Messerschmidt, or the bombing of the zoo, or the number of Jews living in Berlin. Perhaps the quasi-fictional mode is the most effective means of linking and mobilising such data. In its aims and method The Missing Years is very reminiscent of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and it has something of the density and verisimilitude of that work. But Defoe’s handling of anecdote and descriptive detail agitates the imagination as Dr Lasson’s rather flat story-telling does not.

Flowering and Fading

Michael Irwin, 6 March 1980

Two of the novels under review consist of a series of fragments that the reader is tacitly invited to relate. This elliptical mode carries certain obvious advantages: it makes for tautness; it does away with irksome problems of exposition, verisimilitude and consistency. The reader is likely to be particularly alert, apprehensive lest he miss the point: it could be that something deucedly sophisticated is going on. But there are risks. The attentive reader will want an adequate recompense for his attentiveness. The white gap that follows each fragment is a space within which its significance will reverberate: an elliptical novel can subside dolefully into a series of flat notes.

Ante Antietam

Michael Irwin, 24 January 1980

Historical fiction is difficult to write, and often unrewarding to read, because it declines so readily into fictionalised history. Famous men utter quotations, strike familiar postures and reach predestined conclusions. Descriptions of uniforms, weapons and furnishings clog the narrative. The novel becomes a farrago of information.

Household Sounds

Michael Irwin, 22 November 1979

The Old Jest is set in a village on the Irish coast, not far from Dublin, in the summer of 1920. Nancy Gulliver, the heroine, an orphan just turned 18, lives in a fine old house with her Aunt Mary and a senile, hymn-singing grandfather. In this holiday between school and university she strikes up a relationship with a middle-aged Republican gunman hiding out in a hut on the shore. The action of the novel is concerned with this relationship and what it leads to.

Scenes from British Life

Hugh Barnes, 6 February 1986

The instruments agree that Britain is running down, getting seedy or seedier. The novels under review pay tribute to our decline. They also find evidence of it in unlikely places. The most likely...

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