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Patrick Parrinder

Patrick Parrinder is a reader in English at the University of Reading. His books include Authors and Authority and Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. A study of James Joyce has recently appeared.

To arms!

Patrick Parrinder, 20 March 1997

Is every fictional character a kind of doll? Thackeray presented his characters as puppets, which he took out of the box at the beginning of the novel, and shut away again at the end. E.M. Forster spoke of round and flat characters, as if they were two types of doll; the flat ones could be made lifelike by shaking them vigorously. The gulf between childhood toys and adult reading is bridged by fantasy tales such as Pinocchio, where the puppet comes to life, and Hoffmann’s ‘The Sand-Man’, in which the beautiful Olympia turns out to be a mechanical doll. Contemporary popular fiction swarms with robots, mannequins, genetically engineered androids and talking computers, not to mention human beings who behave in programmed and entirely predictable ways.

By an Unknown Writer

Patrick Parrinder, 25 January 1996

Italo Calvino was born in 1923 and came to prominence in post-war Italy as a writer of neo-realist and politically committed short stories, some of them published in the Communist paper L’Unità. A major social-problem novel set in contemporary Italy was naturally expected of him, but he found himself unable to write it. Instead, as he subsequently explained, he ‘conjured up’ the sort of books he himself would have liked to read – ‘the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic’. He began with stories strongly suggestive of traditional romance, and later published in a volume called Our Ancestors: ‘The Cloven Viscount’, in which both halves of the viscount chopped neatly in two by a Turkish cannon-ball return home separately to haunt one another, and the novel-length ‘Baron in the Trees’, where a 12-year-old aristocrat decides never again to set foot on the ground after a family row in which he refuses to eat up his plateful of snails. This fantasy of an 18th-century Tarzan is a form of modern pastoral, a highly sophisticated reminder of primitive and innocent reading experiences.’

Mannequin-Maker

Patrick Parrinder, 5 October 1995

A winter evening in Istanbul in the late Seventies. Political murders, disappearances and torture are daily events, and a military coup seems to be in the offing. Galip, a young lawyer whose speciality is defending political prisoners, returns home to find that his wile Rüya has left him. His instinctive response is to pretend that nothing has happened – Rüya is simply too ill to leave the apartment or come to the telephone. He then begins to scour the city looking for her.

Over-Indulging

Patrick Parrinder, 9 February 1995

Like his elder contemporary Henry James, Eça de Queirós belongs to the small and distinguished group of 19th-century novelists who wrote in exile. He was born in 1845 in a remote town of northern Portugal, but spent most of his working life in England and France. He liked to maintain that his novels were fundamentally French, and that he himself was French in everything but his fondness for ballad-singers and cod with onions. Certainly he was no Englishman, nor likely to become one, despite 14 years spent in the consular service in Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His sparkling Letters from England, contributed to a Brazilian newspaper, contain resounding denunciations of English chauvinism and of British Imperial policy in Egypt, Ireland and India. These were presumably ignored at the time by the English, just as they have ignored Portugal’s greatest novelist ever since.

Rachel and Her Race

Patrick Parrinder, 18 August 1994

When Lucy Snowe goes to the theatre in Villette, she is entranced by the performance of the great actress Vashti, a plain, frail woman ‘torn by seven devils’, a ‘spirit out of Tophet’ delighting her audience with a glimpse of hell. Vashti is easily identified as the tragedian Elisa Rachel, whom Charlotte Brontë had seen in London in 1851. Sarah Bernhardt may be better known today, but it was Rachel who haunted the English literary imagination throughout the 19th century. In James’s The Tragic Muse, the Jewish Cockney actress Miriam Rooth claims to be in the same style as ‘that woman’, and George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth foolishly thinks of herself as destined for stardom because she is more beautiful than the ‘thin Jewess’.

Flying the flag

Patrick Parrinder, 18 November 1993

Cheered on by the Tory faithful, John Major recently dismissed as ‘claptrap’ a letter signed by 500 university teachers of English attacking the proposed revisions to the National Curriculum. The academics were accused – falsely, I believe – of wanting to undermine the teaching of Shakespeare. A few months earlier, the Education Secretary John Patten sent back an official report on English in schools with the comment that 15-year-olds perhaps ought to be made to study the ‘great tradition of the novel’. There have been solemn consultations about this with educational experts, and it remains to be seen whether Mr Patten’s opinions will become part of a legally enforceable literary canon.’

Rapture

Patrick Parrinder, 5 August 1993

Mythology was once defined by Robert Graves as the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Mythical stories are disturbing and invite disbelief; but our own myths are so taken for granted as to be largely invisible. Conventional encyclopedias of mythology exclude Biblical narratives. ‘Religious knowledge’ remains a compulsory school subject, while instruction in traditional mythology is normally a by-product of some more reputable form of training. In English culture one might think that the Greek myths have been exploited largely for decorative effect. The myths are domesticated and trivialised in modern intellectual and popular culture: we speak of the Oedipus complex, Cupid’s arrows and Pandora’s box. But the dissemination of the Greek myths in England since the Middle Ages, so far from being an accidental or casual affair, was a direct result of the pedagogical revolution embodied in the rise of the universities and grammar schools.

Flying Mud

Patrick Parrinder, 8 April 1993

Late in 1900 H.G. Wells sat down to draft the series of articles which were to make his reputation as the foremost prophet of the new century. His working title was ‘Speculations’ or ‘The New Prospectus’, and the essays were later published as Anticipations. His friend Arnold Bennett referred to them mockingly as ‘Uncle’s-dissipations’, but for Wells futurology was anything but a sideline. In fact he was tempted to regard the scientific romances and humorous journalism with which he had made his mark in the Nineties as little more than dissipations.

Sausages and Higher Things

Patrick Parrinder, 11 February 1993

I‘t seems to me the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the source for this epigraph to the best-known British novel of the Eighties set in Eastern Europe, Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange. The Soviet Empire in those distant days was scarcely conceivable to English novelists except as a setting for a comedy or a thriller – two genres which tend to lionise the Englishman abroad, and to subtly belittle the natives. There are no English characters in The Porcupine, thank goodness. Julian Barnes’s seventh novel is a brief but wholly serious example of political fiction, and, if I had to choose an epigraph for it, it would come from Arthur Koestler rather than Bram Stoker.’

Nationalising English

Patrick Parrinder, 28 January 1993

Last September, at the very moment when hundreds of thousands of teenagers began to follow the first GCSE courses under the National Curriculum, the Education Minister John Patten infuriated the teaching profession by announcing an immediate review of the Statutory Order for English. No sooner had the review been announced than Mr Patten and his fellow ministers did their best to pre-empt its outcome. They let it be known that their intention was to reinforce the teaching of spelling, traditional grammar and Standard English, and to insist on a compulsory canon of literary texts.

Whitehall Farces

Patrick Parrinder, 8 October 1992

‘In its attitude towards Dickens,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling … One knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days doubtless read John Mortimer, and dons read the new university wits like David Lodge and Tom Sharpe. But in any wider competition for the post of English humorist-in-residence, Michael Frayn would surely be a prime contender. Now verging on sixty, his collected plays and translations fill three thick volumes, his early newspaper columns for the Guardian and the Observer have been reprinted, and he is well launched into the second phase of his career as a novelist. Frayn’s is a consistently inventive and innovative comic talent, and though he is no Dickens he brings something more than a feather-duster to bear on the British public’s hide.

Watercress

Patrick Parrinder, 20 August 1992

What do a story written by primary schoolchildren, a study of 19th-century policing, a biography of Margaret McMillan and an account of a working-class childhood in South London in the Fifties have in common? They give some idea of the range of Past Tenses, a selection from Carolyn Steedman’s prolific output of books and articles during the last ten years. Steedman is an academic – she remarks wryly on the Universities Funding Council as a source of the pressure she feels to write and publish – but her research and her theoretical insights are interfused with the obsessions and narrative quirks of an imaginative writer. One could quite easily see the series of ‘life stories’ summarised in Past Tenses as the oeuvre, not of the educationalist and historian that Steedman is usually taken to be, but of a new sort of storyteller, perhaps even a new sort of novelist.’

Heads and Hearts

Patrick Parrinder, 28 May 1992

‘Last week, in another part of the city, a human head turned up.’ The severed head which opens Peter Conrad’s first novel suggests that contemporary fiction might be defined by its increasing convergence with the weird tale, the story based on a deliberate disruption of the natural order. The head is anonymous, sealed in a plastic bag, and being used as a football by a group of boys. The other novels in this batch begin in a similarly disturbing manner. Allen Kurzweil’s A Case of Curiosities opens with the amputation of the hero’s finger. A historical novel set in pre-Revolutionary France, it shares with Lawrence Norfolk’s recent Lemprière’s Dictionary the knowledge of some hitherto unsuspected developments in 18th-century robotics. In Paul Micou’s Rotten Times the main character suffers from a hyperactive access of memory, known as Tourraine’s Syndrome, brought on while he was shaving in an aircraft flying through a thunderstorm. Even Carol Shields’s The Republic of Love, by far the most mundane of these novels, starts off with a sentence that could easily have graced a Science Fiction magazine: ‘As a baby, Tom Avery had 27 mothers’.

Sea Changes

Patrick Parrinder, 27 February 1992

The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock, but the British Utopia is a fertile commonwealth surrounded by beaches in which, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, we would by contraries execute all things. Both the word and the island of Utopia were the teasing inventions of Sir Thomas More. More’s vision of the good place which is no place may have been inspired by the voyages of Columbus’s follower Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the coast of Venezuela and, absurdly, managed to adorn with his name both of the continents of the New World.

An American Genius

Patrick Parrinder, 21 November 1991

‘This man has been called America’s greatest writer,’ boasts Cape’s press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years’ labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time. A sort of Midwestern version of Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, its 800 pages of first-person narrative are formless, plotless and graceless. Harold Brodkey, who began his career in the New Yorker in the Fifties, has been slowly maturing not a well-tempered masterpiece but the garrulous, profligate self-celebrations of a precocious adolescent who never grew up. It is not even clear why the novel ends where it does, since ‘let us pause’ is all the narrator says in the middle of his last paragraph. Few of those lulled by the publicity into buying this book are likely to get that far.

Auchnasaugh

Patrick Parrinder, 7 November 1991

David Craig has an unfashionable concern with truth-telling in fiction. In his earlier role as a literary critic, he wrote a book called The Real Foundations in which he showed how some of the most respected 19th and 20th-century novelists and poets had blatantly falsified social reality. If a work of realistic fiction is to be convincing in general, according to Craig, it ought to convince us in particulars. Now he has written a historical novel which opens with the solemn affirmation that ‘many of the people, incidents and other items in this story are real. Where a fact existed, I have never knowingly substituted an invented item for it.’

Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder, 29 August 1991

‘The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in the difference of the rich has one thing to be said for it: it makes far more sense of the history of the novel. The rich and their doings are clearly over-represented in the house of fiction, and access to wealth almost invariably affects or confirms a fictional character’s identity. It may do so for the better or worse, and either way it tends to act as an enticement to readers.’

It’s only a paper moon

Patrick Parrinder, 13 June 1991

‘Brush up your Shakespeare,’ instructed Cole Porter. Is Shakespeare part of popular culture, and if so, whose popular culture? Does the Bard’s writ extend to the wrong side of the tracks – say, to 49 Bard Road, Brixton, where Wise Children begins? Is he still in any sense the poet of the groundlings, and not merely of the powerful and the chattering classes whose legitimation-anxieties he so searchingly addresses? (There is no one so anxious nor so devoted to Shakespeare as a legitimate prince, to judge by the current heir to the throne.) We have heard all too many earnest pronouncements, including a correspondence in the London Review, in recent months, as if these alone could determine the future place of Shakespeare in the educational and cultural life of the nation. What a relief then, to come upon Angela Carter’s new novel, an uproarious Bottom’s-eye view of Bardolatry and Bardbiz, full of cardboard crowns, asses’ heads, and actors strutting, fretting, singing and dancing! Wise Children will give pleasure to thousands of readers, and it may even have the added merit of conveying without tears a hard-fought slice of the National Curriculum.’

Missing Pieces

Patrick Parrinder, 9 May 1991

In 1830 the prophet John Wroe asked his congregation of Christian Israelites in Ashton-under-Lyne for seven virgins to serve in his household. The Israelites had already built a Sanctuary and four gatehouses at Ashton, in the belief that the Lancashire cotton town was to be the site of the New Jerusalem. Mr Wroe got his virgins, but less than a year later he was almost lynched by his flock after the church elders had acquitted him on charges of indecency. His later career was pursued as a missionary, notably in Australia where the Christian Israelite sect still survives. He died at Melbourne in 1863. Who the seven virgins were, and what happened to them, is not recorded.

Embracing Islam

Patrick Parrinder, 4 April 1991

‘Our lives teach us who we are,’ Salman Rushdie observed in one of three widely-read and somewhat contradictory statements of faith that he published last year. These are now reprinted at the end of Imaginary Homelands, a compendious collection of book reviews, cultural critiques and political essays written over the last ten years and, for the most part, in much less fraught circumstances. Inevitably one’s reading of the volume is dominated by the fact that it is by the author of The Satanic Verses, a book which has brought down more vilification on its author’s head than any other text in the history of the novel. In February 1990, after a year spent in hiding under the protection of the British Security forces, Rushdie’s essay ‘In Good Faith’ reiterated his stance as a secular man, a man without religion, and one who was ‘not a Muslim’. Then last December he published a three-page declaration: ‘Why I have embraced Islam’.’

Funny Old Fame

Patrick Parrinder, 10 January 1991

Once upon a time, before the Channel Tunnel was built, there were two contemporary French novelists. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 45, and nobody in England who was not a French specialist had ever heard of him. With Philippe Sollers it was different. Editor of the avant-garde theoretical journal Tel Quel, and associate of literary and psycho-analytic thinkers such as Barthes, Kristeva and Lacan, his was a name of which no self-respecting British intellectual could afford to remain entirely ignorant – though his novels, so far as I can discover, were neither translated nor read. But as Sollers grew older he abandoned his youthful Maoism to become a worshipper of American capitalism and, finally, some sort of Catholic mystic. Tel Quel changed its name to L’ Infini. And, since fame is capricious, in the last years of Mrs Thatcher’s reign it was Perec, not Sollers, who – with the publication of David Bellos’s translation of Life: A User’s Manual – found a keen British audience.’

Superhistory

Patrick Parrinder, 6 December 1990

All novels are historical novels, as my late teacher Graham Hough used to say; but some are more historical than others. Novelists can improve on history, and if they are Science Fiction writers they can anticipate it. History can be invented, but most novelists only do so within strict limits. According to Hough, they would tend to invent a Prime Minister but not a major political party, a provincial town but not a capital city. A writer like Joyce can put together an immensely painstaking reconstruction of the past without linking it in any way to a historical narrative, while other novelists treat strictly contemporary events as history-in-the-making, much as journalists do. Rather like Joyce in Ulysses, Jose Donoso in Curfew tracks his protagonist’s adventures during a 24-hour period in the life of a modern city, but there the resemblances stop.

Troglodytes

Patrick Parrinder, 25 October 1990

‘See Naples and die,’ the old saying has it. But a better motto would be: ‘See Naples and go underground.’ Tourists since the 18th century have enthused over the subterranean wonders of this part of Italy. In 1818 Mary Shelley and her husband visited the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, and eighty years later H.G. Wells joined the throng of sightseers at the entrance to the Blue Grotto of Capri. Lake Avernus, the site of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, was a place of pilgrimage for the Victorians even though (as one of them reported) it meant being carried on the backs of porters through a ‘black, repulsive pool’ of water. The ancient Romans’ skill in tunnelling had joined Avernus to the sea, and made it into a naval base. The half-mile-long road tunnels through the Ridge of Posilippo, connecting Naples with Pozzuoli, are also of Roman origin. The modern age has added an epic railway tunnel beneath the city.

What his father gets up to

Patrick Parrinder, 13 September 1990

A novelist’s freedom, Nadine Gordimer wrote in 1975, is ‘his right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society’. In her new novel Will, the son named by his book-loving father after William Shakespeare, describes the secret lives led by his parents. He cannot publish what he has written, partly because every other member of his Coloured family is deeply involved in revolutionary politics, and partly because – where prying and direct observation did not suffice – he has filled the multiple gaps in his story with his own words and inventions. ‘I wish I didn’t have imagination. I wish that other people’s lives were closed to me,’ Will writes.’

Mizzlers

Patrick Parrinder, 26 July 1990

Half a century after it was fought, the Second World War is still being written, and still being judged. The run of new fiction, like the current debate over war crimes trials, bears witness to our continuing obsession with the events of 1939-45. Things silenced and hushed up, perhaps for good reasons, in the late Forties are now being disinterred and subjected to lengthy post-mortems. The question of collaboration amongst intellectuals in the occupied nations has again become a talking-point, thanks largely to the posthumous revelations about the Belgian-American literary theorist Paul de Man. But what about the ordinary people of the Low Countries? Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel first published in Holland in 1983, presents a world in which collaboration with the Nazis is made to seem as inevitable as breathing.

Uncle Kingsley

Patrick Parrinder, 22 March 1990

The folks that live on the hill? It’s not exactly what you’d expect of a Kingsley Amis title, but in another two years the old devil will be 70 and perhaps he is beginning to mellow. John McDermott remarks in his appealing study of Amis’s novels that the hero-as-shit, at large in a world of mutual animosity and obsessive self-interest, is one of their most characteristic figures. In The folks that live on the hill the hero-as-shit has given way to the hero-as-patriarch. Harry Caldecote, a retired librarian, heads an extended family of the weak, the lost and the habitually drunk who constantly turn to him for assistance. Harry feels mysteriously responsible for his tribe of feckless relatives. Outside his family, he is fondly regarded by the shopkeepers, bartenders and minicab drivers of Shepherd’s Hill, his chosen patch of North London. Folksiness in Amis’s new novel is only intermittently an object of satire.

Acapulcalypse

Patrick Parrinder, 23 November 1989

Christopher, the new Columbus, is conceived on a beach at Acapulco at the beginning of 1992. Mexico’s overseas debt stands at $1492 billion, soon to rise to $1992 billion, and the Yucatan peninsula has been ceded to the Club Mediterranée in the vain hope of paying the interest. The population of Mexico, or Makesicko, City has reached thirty million human beings and four times as many rats. Further north, the greater part of the old republic has been annexed by the United States, and further north still the Last Playboy Centerfold Contest is being held in Chicago – perhaps the one cheerful prophecy that Carlos Fuentes has to offer. Meanwhile, Chile is struck by a catastrophic earthquake, so that the whole country together with General Pinochet (who is still its leader) dissolves like a sugar lump into the sea.’

Nohow, Worstward, Withersoever

Patrick Parrinder, 9 November 1989

‘Stirrings’ are, among many other things, what poetry can cause in us, as I.A. Richards once noted. In a notorious passage in Practical Criticism, Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

Austward Ho

Patrick Parrinder, 18 May 1989

Driving across America, one of the characters in Richard Powers’s new novel remarks that the whole country has become a gigantic theme park. The same impression might have been gained from reading American novels, or from going to the movies. From Oklahoma to Mount Rushmore, and from the Devil’s Tower to Zabriskie Point, the activities of being on the road and imagining being on the road feed into one another, as one might expect. More generally, the principle of growth in American fiction has often coincided with the search for new places to mythologise, which is why the Science Fiction of galactic empires is such a typically American form.

Jolly Jack and the Preacher

Patrick Parrinder, 20 April 1989

‘I belong to the Beardsley period’, said Max Beerbohm, thereby beginning one of criticism’s most imperious habits. The authors of scholarly books such as The Shakespearean Moment, The Pound Era or The Auden Generation are following Beerbohm’s precedent in appropriating a cultural epoch under the name of a single artist. Yet, as D.L. LeMahieu points out, the great majority of their contemporaries had never heard of, still less read, these totemistic figures. A Culture for Democracy is concerned to argue that there was a genuinely common culture in mid-20th-century Britain, a culture which embraced ‘the unemployed labourer in Huddersfield, the Oxford don, the shopkeeper in Leeds, and the typist in Grimsby’. The book pursues cultural history by the accumulative method, piling up instance on instance and secondary source on secondary source; those in need of the information it contains will find that it amply repays study. LeMahieu conscientiously shuns autocratic value-judgments and their advocates, but his approach is more literary and imperious than at first appears. He, too, has his culture-heroes and representative spokesmen.

Let’s get the hell out of here

Patrick Parrinder, 29 September 1988

Here, in these three novels, are three representations of the state of the art. In The Satanic Verses the narrator, who may or may not be the Devil, confides that ‘what follows is tragedy.– Or, at least, the echo of tragedy, the full-blooded original being un-available to modern men and women, so it’s said.– A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times.’ The Lost Fattier recounts a domestic tragedy which, in the end, is knowingly undermined by a narrator who recognises that the story she has reconstructed is only a ‘family romance’, an operetta played out on her own toy stage. And David Lodge’s heroine complains that she is ‘getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How can I get out of it?’ Trust the contemporary novelist for that, we might think – though, for Lodge’s characters, it’s a close shave.’

Mini-Whoppers

Patrick Parrinder, 7 July 1988

There are not many facts available about Donald Barthelme, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He has been hailed as a leading Post-Modernist, but Post-Modernism (to the extent that it has a credo) stresses the unreliability of facts and the supremacy of fictions. He has also been viewed as a pungent satirist. One thing that can be stated is that Barthelme’s literary career has mostly been pursued in the pages of the New Yorker. For at least twenty-five years his stories and novels have first appeared under the imprint of America’s best-dressed literary magazine.

I am a Cretan

Patrick Parrinder, 21 April 1988

The story goes that, on the day when William Empson moved into Magdalene College, Cambridge, to take up a fellowship, his suitcases (as was the custom in those days) were unpacked by one of the college servants. The gyp was so shocked by the contents of Empson’s bags that he decided to report him to the college authorities. Next morning the young poet and critic was summoned before the senior dons and accused of concealing ‘sexual machinery’ in his luggage. Empson received his marching orders, and the best that his mentor I.A. Richards, also a fellow of Magdalene, could do was to fix him up with a hastily-arranged professorship in Tokyo.

Verbing a noun

Patrick Parrinder, 17 March 1988

In 1910 the German photographer August Sander began work on a never-to-be-completed ethnographic project which he called ‘Man of the 20th Century’. This grandiose scheme provides one of the sources of Richard Powers’s first novel. The title, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, refers to a photograph of young men in felt hats and starched collars walking along a country road, which Sander took in May 1914. Graham Swift is another novelist who, like Powers, is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for these writers, is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and now seems to have been nourished on chauvinistic legends rather than the brutality of facts.

Diary: On Raymond Williams

Patrick Parrinder, 18 February 1988

No one could describe the last ten years as an uneventful period in English criticism, but there are times, and this February is one, when it all seems to boil down to a couple of brawls and a series of obituary notices. One by one the giants have departed: Leavis, Richards, Empson, and now Raymond Williams. The first three had come through to ripe and embattled old age, but Williams was still in his prime as a writer and critic. When I visited him in Saffron Walden in late December, he had been laid up for several months with a painful but curable illness (not the one from which he died). His talk, however, was vigorous and forward-looking. We spoke of the research that he and his ever-supportive wife Joy had done for a major historical novel, People of the Black Mountains. Then we laughed over the paperback reissue of his first novel, Border Country, with the old signalman, Harry Price, on its front cover: the artist had endowed Price with Williams’s own unmistakable features. That now seems painfully close to the mark. In the novel, Price was shown dying from a series of strokes. On 26 January, Williams suffered a fatal heartattack.

Tall Storeys

Patrick Parrinder, 10 December 1987

Like Hoyle and Stephen Potter, Georges Perec was a devotee of indoor games. La Vie Mode d’Emploi (1978), a title combining lifemanship, gamesmanship and one-upmanship, was the monumental creation of an author whose other productions included a treatise on Go (the Japanese board-game) and a weekly crossword for the magazine Le Point. Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of 46, is credited with the invention of the longest known palindrome (over five thousand letters). He saw reading as a pastime and literature as a strenuously recreational art. The writer, he thought, was at his best when, like an obsessed games-player, he was struggling to comply with some rigid system of formal constraints. Perec was often dismissed as a mildly amusing exponent of la folie littéraire, but he was far more than this.

Real Madrid

Patrick Parrinder, 1 October 1987

The 1912 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Gerhart Hauptmann. In that year two new names were added to the list of great non-winners of this prize, a list headed by Henrik Ibsen (d.1906) and Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910). August Strindberg died on 14 May; he at least had had the consolation of a ‘People’s Nobel Prize’, awarded at the climax of a public parade through the streets of Stockholm a couple of years earlier. The fate of Benito Perez Galdos was more poignant. Though nominated in 1912 as Spain’s official candidate, he was defeated thanks to a campaign got up by his Spanish political enemies. Galdos died in 1920, at the age of 77, with his dream of reaching a foreign readership largely unrealised. To be read in another language was, for Spain’s greatest novelist since Cervantes, the equivalent of Stendhal’s determination to be read by the ‘Happy Few’ who would discover him posthumously. It is only now, more than a hundred years after he began work on the Novelas Españolas Contemporaneas, that Galdos seems to be finding the ‘impartial’, non-Spanish-speaking audience of which he dreamed. Agnes Moncy Gullon’s lively translation of Fortunata y Jacinta (1887) is the second recent English version of a novel which is as representative of the mid-19th-century European imagination as are Middlemarch, L’Education Sentimentale, and War and Peace.

Unquiet Deaths

Patrick Parrinder, 3 September 1987

According to John Ruskin, ‘in the work of the great masters death is always either heroic, deserved, or quiet and natural.’ Not so in Marguerite Yourcenar’s world. She is renowned for her timeless narrative gift and lucid style, and she regards her books as defining that unfashionable thing, an ‘ideal of humanity’. Yet death occurs in these fictions with what Ruskin would have seen as a morbid regularity and an unwholesome virulence. Her best-known novel, the Memoirs of Hadrian (1954), impersonates the Roman emperor on his death-bed, torn between his reminiscences and his attempts to prepare for the final agony. Her coldly brilliant essay on Yukio Mishima culminates in a detailed reconstruction of the gruesome last rites of seppuku performed by the Japanese novelist. The body-count in the first twenty pages of ‘An Obscure Man’, the longest of the three novellas collected in Two Lives and a Dream, rivals that in the whole of Bleak House (which Ruskin denounced for its sensationalism). Yourcenar published a much earlier version of Two Lives and a Dream in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart), a title that she now repudiates as too oversimplified: ‘Death does drive the cart, but so, too, does life.’

Speaking for England

Patrick Parrinder, 21 May 1987

Here is the note of a quite distinctive sort of English novelist:

Charmed Lives

Patrick Parrinder, 23 April 1987

The English title of Dan Vittorio Segre’s Storia di un Ebreo Fortunato, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, has complex resonances. If, as Frank Kermode has recently remarked in this paper, memoirs and confessions are still to some extent separate genres, then it may be said that a conviction of his own good fortune is the distinguishing mark of the memoirist. The memoirs of famous sportsmen, actors and television personalities seem constantly to be saying: ‘Look what a fortunate person I am!’ There are primitive and more or less magical reasons for the perennial popularity of such books. What we hope to get from their authors is a kind of secular blessing, a vicarious laying on of hands. In writing down their charmed lives they themselves are casting a spell, and offering us a share of their good fortune. Lady Luck is the presiding deity of such narratives.

Shedding one’s sicknesses

Patrick Parrinder, 20 November 1986

‘In the middle of the journey of this life, I found myself in a dark forest, where the straight way was lost.’ The theme of mid-life crisis has inspired a number of great novels – Little Dorrit, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and perhaps Ulysses – although the majority of fictional heroes and heroines are conspicuously youthful. Traditionally, as the novelists themselves grew older, they continued to write about the young. In the later 20th century, it seems, this is no longer the case. Perhaps it is because the novel is becoming more uninhibitedly autobiographical that there is a thinning-out of conventional stories about the spiritual and material hungers of adolescence. The serious novel today is more likely to centre on a mid-life crisis than on the young man up from the provinces, or the young woman affronting her destiny.’

Games-Playing

Patrick Parrinder, 7 August 1986

Why not a novel in verse? It’s all a question of expectations, and in The Golden Gate the Indian-born poet Vikram Seth single-handedly overturns most readers’ expectations about what can, and cannot, pass as a novel. Whatever the frame of mind in which you begin it, by the end it has come to seem the most natural – and the most accessible, and easily assessable – thing in the world. One takes the poetic dexterity for granted, and begins to see its faults as a novel. Perhaps neither reaction is wholly fair to the author, but it is he who has taken a gamble and broken the rules.’

Celtic Revisionism

Patrick Parrinder, 24 July 1986

Nationality is a strange thing. Modern technologies, economic systems and much of our culture are international as never before. Yet as national barriers have been lowered, the sentiment of nationality has often increased. Leopold Bloom’s sublimely rational definition of a nation as ‘the same people living in the same place’ sounds even less adequate today than it would have done eighty years ago.

Last in the Funhouse

Patrick Parrinder, 17 April 1986

If the preferred style in American fiction of the last two decades could be summed up in a single title, it would surely be ‘Lost in the Funhouse’. John Barth’s short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, was a composite text in which an account of a family’s visit to a fairground was spliced in with what appeared to be a set of instructions from a fiction-writer’s manual. The funhouse (in British English, a Hall of Mirrors) was both the climax of the visit to the fair and an apt metaphor for the complex distortions of multiple-narrative self-conscious fiction. Prodigious vitality, virtuosity, erudition, self-parody and a grossly anarchic humour were the characteristics of the ‘funhouse’ style, which soon came to be identified with novelists such as Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon and Von-negut as well as with Barth. Funhouse fiction appealed simultaneously to two rather different audiences. Its narrative self-consciousness (later to be renamed Post-Modernism) satisfied the demand in universities for an intellectually challenging mode of contemporary fiction which could be expounded to students. On the other hand, its promise of unbridled entertainment opened the way to a cult following and eventually to the best-seller lists. Older novelists joined in the fun: there was Nabokov’s Ada, and there was Portnoy’s Complaint. Self-conscious comic fiction caught the mood of the late Sixties, as we shall see: but it was nonetheless fairly remarkable that a novelist could be a ‘Post-Modernist’, a member of the avant-garde, without foregoing fashionable success, academic honours and large royalty cheques. The heavy price which novelists since Henry James had had to pay for being labelled as experimental artists was, it seemed, no longer being exacted.

Making poison

Patrick Parrinder, 20 March 1986

‘Fear is a powerful stimulant,’ says Offred, the heroine of Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale of the near future. Trained at the Rachel and Leah Centre and habited in red, Offred belongs to a quasi-religious order of ‘sacred vessels’, ‘two-legged wombs’ whose task it is to produce the next generation of the ruling élite in the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a Puritan tyranny set up, after the assassination of the President and Congress of the United States, in breakaway New England; Offred herself is confined to the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the university is closed and the football stadium is used for public executions, now known as Salvagings.

Manly Scowls

Patrick Parrinder, 6 February 1986

Now that the three-volume novel and the circulating library are dead,’ I imagine someone as saying around the year 1900, ‘novels will have to be shorter, sharper, more up to date. The future lies with an Associated Press dispatch, not with the slow unfolding of generations. Nobody wants to read elaborate descriptions of things that might have happened, but didn’t, decades ago.’ The fact is that no prediction of the shape of the modern novel could have been more misleading than this one. Nor is it just a question of writers like Proust and Mann, who may be said to belong to the last flowering of the 19th century. In the 1980s the tradition of setting a certain kind of novel ‘one generation back’ in time remains as vital as ever. We are accustomed to the paradox that most people’s notions of the texture of life in, say, the 1830s are derived from George Eliot’s novels, written more than thirty years afterwards. Yet it is strange to consider that – after all the instant histories and TV documentaries – the versions of the 1940s and 1950s with which future generations will be most familiar may still be in process of construction.’

Was Carmen brainwashed?

Patrick Parrinder, 5 December 1985

Is there a law of gender among fictional narratives, according to which some types are characteristically male and others characteristically female? This question – posed by some recent critics – is answered almost too neatly by the first two novels under review. Alan Sillitoe’s Life goes on is a rampant adventure-tale of a male rogue, or rogue male, on the loose between two marriages. Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels shows a happily-married heroine struggling tenaciously, in her husband’s absence, to preserve her own integrity by defending her home and children against an intruder.’

Thirty Years Ago

Patrick Parrinder, 18 July 1985

Like The Virgin in the Garden (1978) to which it is a deeper and darker-toned successor, A.S. Byatt’s Still Life has the classical English narrative setting of a generation ago. Apart from the prologue, which evokes the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980, the events here take place in 1954-7. Further sequels are promised, though it seems likely that this chronicle of middle-class English life has reached the half-way stage. Already its scale and substance begin to rival the sequences of C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell. Byatt’s view of the middle class centres on the Potter family: Northern, Nonconformist, and professionally preoccupied with teaching, writing, and caring for others. The poor, in this view of England, are unthinkable except as marginal presences, the objects of teaching and pastoral care. The rich come on stage from time to time to make casual, scarcely articulate raids on the Potter girls’ friendship and sexual favours. Both the narrator and the main characters testify to the centrality of what remains, in our society, of the old Puritan conscience: a continuing activity of mental exploration, a commitment to active relationship with others, the positive and forceful employment of one’s gift for words.

Naming of Parts

Patrick Parrinder, 6 June 1985

We name things in order to have power over them; but we must also name them to cower before them in worship. Novelists in particular are aware of the paradoxical magic of naming. To the narrative theorist, stories are made up of simple structural units, like biological cells endlessly replicating: but the novelist, who takes possession of the story by giving names to its narrative agents and formulae, is like Glendower conjuring spirits from the vasty deep but not knowing if they will come at his call. The novel is distinguished from the ancient sagas and epics by the freshness of its specification and nomination, which stamps the author’s signature (but not, in the everyday sense, his ‘personality’) on the narrative. Not only are the names in a novel its recognised trademarks, but each kind of novel embodies a different habit of nomenclature. And where names are bestowed, they may also be artfully concealed or withheld. The greatest of all novels begins with a hero of disputed name in a small village of La Mancha which the author refuses to name.

Cover Stories

Patrick Parrinder, 4 April 1985

‘Here’s something out of the quaint past, a man reading a book,’ remarks E.L. Doctorow’s narrator as he rides the New York subway. The other passengers in the subway are not readers but listeners, hooked to their earphones and tape-players, ‘listening their way back from literacy’. And before literacy? ‘The world worked in a different system of perception, voices were disembodied, tales were told.’ If tale-telling is the sign of a primitive culture, we – this would seem to imply – have the novel; and the more self-consciously civilised among novelists have sometimes been anxious to disclaim the form’s own origins. As E.M. Forster wearily put it, ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ But storytelling will outlive the novel, and it is also elemental to the novel. It is not coincidental that each of the books under review ends with the lure of a further, untold story: a story which might or might not turn out to be the one we have just read.’

Father, Son and Sewing-Machine

Patrick Parrinder, 21 February 1985

Once upon a time the novelist’s task was to be realistic and to tell a story that was lifelike, convincing and ‘sincere’. Today’s novelists are counter-Aristotelians, spinners of tall tales and colourful yarns, engaged, as it seems, in some eternal childlike competition to impress their hearers and see who can get away with telling the biggest whopper. Each of the three novels under review reads, at times, like a gigantic leg-pull. Yet all three are historical novels, set in the first half of the present century and significantly concerned with world war, its origins and aftermath. Garden, Ashes and Star Turn, though unlike in most other respects, share a preoccupation with the Holocaust.

Pamphleteer’s Progress

Patrick Parrinder, 7 February 1985

Terry Eagleton’s books have been getting shorter recently. It is eight years since he offered to re-situate literary criticism on the ‘alternative terrain of scientific knowledge’; three since, self-canonised, he included his name in a list of major Marxist theoreticians of the 20th century. The Function of Criticism is a history of three centuries of English criticism in little more than a hundred pages. Its conceptual basis seems (not for the first time) to have been hastily borrowed for the occasion. The scholarship is cobbled together from the works of others. Since he makes great play with the split between the professional and amateur pretensions of literary critics, it would be tempting to adapt his own style and portray him as the helpless victim of contradictory impulses. Yet in many ways he thrives on contradiction. His struggle against ‘bourgeois’ criticism has the agility, the opportunism and the sniping provocativeness of a guerrilla campaign. Though his books have grand titles, he has lately abandoned any pretence of working towards a Grand Theory. His recent work has consisted of critical introductions, essays, and theoretical pamphlets like the present one.

Letter

Bernal’s Legacy

18 July 2019

Craig McFarlane is, no doubt, right to argue that J.D. Bernal’s role in the Lysenko affair was unforgivable, but it is another matter to suggest that his ‘commitment to Marxism-Leninism’ remained unchanged from the Stalin years to 1969. I never knew Bernal, but in 1970 or thereabouts his son Martin told me his father had confided to him that he now realised he was more a Wellsian...
Letter

Devil take the hindmost

14 December 1995

The ‘smoking gun in Wellsian scholarship’ which John Sutherland has now quoted twice in your columns (LRB, 14 December 1995 and Letters, 25 January) is actually nothing of the sort. Sutherland claims (1) that Wells’s comments on the ‘sterilisation of failures’ in 1904-5 were not meant for public consumption; (2) that they put their author ‘in the minority on the...
Letter
We used to be told that liberalism was dead. What we now get, paradoxically, are repeated attempts to discredit the progressive liberal thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries by smears and innuendoes rather than responsible argument. I am sorry to see John Sutherland stooping to this kind of thing in his remarks on T.H. Huxley (LRB, 23 March). According to Sutherland, Huxley in his last years...
Letter
David Lewisohn (Letters, 9 March) wonders what effect European copyright extension will have on the availability in this country of American scholarly editions of English writers out of copyright in America 50 years after their death, but still with 20 years’ protection in the United Kingdom. He should know that British, not merely American, scholarly editions of English writers are likely to...
Letter
John Ellis (LRB, 14 May) seems addicted to the notion of literary criticism as inter-generational struggle. Frank Kermode’s tolerance and responsiveness to the variety of literary texts thus becomes an attribute of ‘criticism as Kermode’s generation understood it’. (This is the generation of Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Paul de Man and other critics famous for not having an...
Letter
Suppose that in England crimes of violence, ranging from domestic murder and rape to organised football hooliganism, are rife. A Martian visitor asks Craig Raine (LRB, 22 June) if he is himself a mugger or rapist, and Mr Raine for reasons best known to himself replies: ‘Yes, I’d like to kill off the whole human race.’ The visitor sends his postcard home and another Martian uses the...
Letter

Ulyssean Realism

18 April 1985

SIR: Denis Donoghue has taken the part for the whole in saying that I read Ulysses as a ‘realistic novel, complete with characters and plot’ (LRB, 18 April). In fact, as stated in the preface to my James Joyce, I specifically avoided using the term ‘novel’ to describe Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Ulysses does have characters, and a plot based on the Odyssey – who ever doubted...
Letter
SIR: As the perpetrator of one of the ‘unpublished theses’ (actually, a brief essay) cited in Colin MacCabe’s James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word, may I say how delighted I am that Miss Brophy, author of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, is bringing her sledge-hammer to bear on works of literary criticism (LRB, 21 February)? How soon may we expect to know...

Devil take the hindmost

John Sutherland, 14 December 1995

Among other certain things (death, taxes etc) is the rule that no work of science fiction will ever win the Booker Prize – not even the joke 1890s version. H.G. Wells’s The Time...

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Outside the Academy

Robert Alter, 13 February 1992

These two meticulous surveys of modern criticism in all its vertiginous variety lead one to ponder what it is all about and where it may be heading. The book by René Wellek, focused on...

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Post-Humanism

Alex Zwerdling, 15 October 1987

When the history of late 20th-century literary culture comes to be written, the extraordinary vogue of metatheoretical works will surely require explanation. What can account for the obsessive...

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Raiding Joyce

Denis Donoghue, 18 April 1985

Patience is a mark of the classic, according to Frank Kermode. ‘King Lear, underlying a thousand dispositions, subsists in change, prevails, by being patient of interpretation.’ It...

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