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One for the road

Ian Hamilton, 21 March 1991

Memoirs 
by Kingsley Amis.
Hutchinson, 346 pp., £16.99, March 1991, 0 09 174533 0
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... Kingsley Amis has a reputation for not liking other people, but – these so-called Memoirs might seem to permit us to enquire – does anyone, could anyone, like him? Is Kingers himself, at the end of the day, the sort of bloke you’d want to run into at – well, at the end of the day, at the club, or the pub, or at some crappy dinner party? On the face of it, no thank you ...

Real Questions

Ian Hamilton, 6 November 1986

Staring at the Sun 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 195 pp., £9.95, September 1986, 0 224 02414 0
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... Julian Barnes once trained to be a barrister and he’s been asking questions ever since – questions, mostly, about questions. In Before she met me, the hero of the book actually suffered from interrogation-mania: try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself wondering about the details of his wife’s past loveaffairs. In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is a biographer – another snoopy type ...

Cold Shoulders, Short Trousers

Ian Hamilton, 12 March 1992

Will this do? 
by Auberon Waugh.
Century, 288 pp., £15.99, October 1991, 0 7126 3734 6
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Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper 
edited by Artemis Cooper.
Hodder, 344 pp., £19.99, October 1991, 0 340 53488 5
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... When Evelyn Waugh died in 1966, his son Auberon felt that a ‘great brooding presence’ had been lifted ‘not only from the house but from the whole of existence’. Auberon was in his twenties then, and – as he tells it in his book of memoirs – he had long ago got used to living in the shadow of his famously unpleasant dad. ‘It was many years before I could break the habit of viewing every event with half an eye to the bulletin I would send to my father ...

Diary

Ian Hamilton: It's a size thing, 19 September 1985

... In the current issue of a magazine called The Face there is an article on Norman Mailer’s recent visit to this country. He was here, it seems, to promote Tough guys don’t dance, his latest novel: he did some ‘major’ TV interviews, a bit of radio, and – towards the end of his stint – he called a press conference in order to complain about the low quality of the reviews he had been getting ...

Diary

Ian Hamilton: Little Magazines in Canberra, 9 July 1987

... I have already reported here, in verse, on my recent trip to a Conference on Literary Journals in Canberra, Australia, and on the death-struggle that did not take place there, but perhaps should have, between – shall we say – Theory and Practice. I won’t go into all that again, although there is plenty more that could be said. By someone else ...

Dogface

Ian Hamilton, 28 September 1989

Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War 
by Paul Fussell.
Oxford, 330 pp., £15, September 1989, 0 19 503797 9
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War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the Forties 
by Andrew Sinclair.
Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp., £17.95, October 1989, 0 241 12531 6
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... In a 1982 essay called ‘My War’ Paul Fussell described how – at the age of 20 – he became a full-time ironist: one who, by means of his experience in combat, had learned to perceive ‘some great gulf, half-comic and half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds’. And in his book The Great War and Modern Memory, the soldier poets and memoirists who featured most prominently were those who had found themselves stranded in that same ‘great gulf’, learning firsthand how wrong they had been in their imaginings of what awaited them in France ...

Phil the Lark

Ian Hamilton, 13 October 1988

Collected Poems 
by Philip Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite.
Faber/Marvell Press, 330 pp., £16.95, October 1988, 0 571 15196 5
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... Philip Larkin, we are told, left instructions in his will that certain of his writings had to be destroyed, unread. His executors obeyed: the word is that several of the poet’s notebooks, or journals, are now ashes. Did Larkin expect to be so obeyed? Or did he imagine that perhaps someone, somehow, might take a peek at the material before it reached the flames? And if such a thought did cross his mind, why didn’t he destroy the stuff himself? He must have known that, by not doing so, he was bequeathing at least the possibility of a dilemma ...

Evil Days

Ian Hamilton, 23 July 1992

The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 
by John Carey.
Faber, 246 pp., £14.99, July 1992, 0 571 16273 8
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... When Henry James’s play, Guy Domville, was booed off the London stage, the embarrassed author remarked that at least some of the audience was clapping. These approvers were powerless to out-clamour the ‘hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs’, whose roars were ‘like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo’, but for James they represented ‘the forces of civilisation ...

Being there

Ian Hamilton, 7 October 1993

Up at Oxford 
by Ved Mehta.
Murray, 432 pp., £17.99, September 1993, 0 7195 5287 7
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... When Ved Mehta enrolled as an undergraduate at Balliol in 1956, he thought he had arrived in heaven. He was at ‘the holiest of holy places’. For three years he would be dwelling ‘among the world’s liveliest minds, in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet’. As a child in India and as an adolescent studying in the United States, he had been told, by his father, his teachers, by the books he read, that Oxford for the British was ‘like the Hardwar of the Hindus, the Mecca of the Muslims, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs ...

Disastered Me

Ian Hamilton, 9 September 1993

Rebecca’s Vest: A Memoir 
by Karl Miller.
Hamish Hamilton, 186 pp., £14.99, September 1993, 0 241 13456 0
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... On the train, sunk on dusty and sagging cushions in our corner seats, Lotte and I spoke of our attachment to one another. I was as weak as I could be when I got off the train. We made our way to the gates of Downing, where – I hope in candour, meaning to show her what I was – I gave her my terrible diary to read in a terrible tea-room, while I entered the college, at five p ...

What’s wrong with Desmond?

Ian Hamilton, 30 August 1990

Clever Hearts: Desmond and Molly MacCarthy 
by Hugh Cecil and Mirabel Cecil.
Gollancz, 320 pp., £18.95, July 1990, 0 575 03622 2
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... The titles of Desmond MacCarthy’s books must have seemed to him unassailably offhand – Remnants, Portraits, Experience: titles nicely in tune with his well-known view of himself as a chap who could surely have done better. One of his favourite lines of poetry was Hartley Coleridge’s ‘For I have lost the race I never ran’ and early on in his career he got used to being spoken of as having squandered a great gift ...

They never married

Ian Hamilton, 10 May 1990

The Dictionary of National Biography: 1981-1985 
edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls.
Oxford, 518 pp., £40, March 1990, 0 19 865210 0
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... On the dust-jacket of the latest supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography there are photographs of David Niven, Diana Dors, Eric Morecambe, John Betjeman and William Walton. Dors has a leering ‘Come up and read me sometime’ expression on her face and Niven wears his yacht-club greeter’s smile. Morecambe seems to be laughing at one of his own jokes ...

How much?

Ian Hamilton: Literary pay and literary prizes, 18 June 1998

Guide to Literary Prizes, 1998 
edited by Huw Molseed.
Book Trust, 38 pp., £3.99, May 1998, 0 85353 475 6
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The Cost of Letters: A Survey of Literary Living Standards 
edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher.
W Magazine, 208 pp., £2, May 1998, 0 9527405 9 1
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... One of the most amusing – or, if you prefer it, one of the most heartwarming – episodes in the history of early Modernism centres on Ezra Pound’s attempt to ‘liberate’ T.S. Eliot from his clerk’s job at Lloyds Bank. In 1921, Pound started up a fund called Bel Esprit and set about trying to persuade 30 subscribers to fork out ten pounds each: £300 p ...

Glittering Fiend

Ian Hamilton: John Berryman, 9 December 1999

Berryman's Shakespeare 
edited by John Haffenden.
Farrar, Straus, 396 pp., $35, February 1999, 0 374 11205 3
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John Berryman’s Personal Library: A Catalogue 
by Richard Kelly.
Lang, 433 pp., £39, March 1999, 0 8204 3998 3
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... In one of John Berryman’s more lucid dream songs (No. 364), there is amusing reference to the reading habits of Henry, the song sequence’s screwed up protagonist: O Henry in his youth read many things he gutted the Columbia – the Cambridge libraries – Widener – Princeton – the British Museum – the Library of Congress but mostly he bought books to have as his own cunningly, like extra wings ...

‘OK, holy man, try this

Ian Hamilton: The Hypothetical Philip Roth, 22 June 2000

The Human Stain 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 361 pp., £16.99, May 2000, 0 224 06090 2
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... Philip Roth likes, or has liked, to describe himself as a ‘suppositional’ novelist. Much of his writing practice, he has said, takes off from a ‘what if?’ What if Franz Kafka had made it to America and there lived on to become a New Jersey schoolmaster? What if Anne Frank had survived and found out about the publication of her diary from a chance reading of Time magazine? What if a man could actually become a breast? What if a decent, shamefaced Jewish boy were to extol the joys of masturbation? And what if we, Roth’s readers, could join in and ask, for instance, what if an earnest young Jewish novelist of the 1950s were to find himself unfairly chastised for his disloyalty to Jews? And what if this same novelist decided to respond by handing his chastisers something they could really, and fairly, get to work on? What if he were to zap them with Portnoy’s Complaint and proceed to sell half a million copies of said horror to the Gentiles? And what if he were then to find himself outlawed and reviled, not just by tribal religious types but even by wise, novel-reading intellectuals? What if one of these intellectuals were to call Portnoy ‘the book of which all anti-semites have been dreaming?’ And what if yet another were to dismiss this earnest young Jewish novelist of the 1950s as a mere pedlar of cheap gags? ‘The cruellest thing anybody can do to Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice,’ said Irving Howe – and this was just about the cruellest thing he could do to Philip Roth ...

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