Michael Irwin

Michael Irwin is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kent. His books include Picturing: Description and Illusion in the 19th-Century Novel and Reading Hardy’s Landscapes.

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.

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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