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Costa del Pym

Nicholas Spice, 4 July 1985

Crampton Hodnet 
by Barbara Pym.
Macmillan, 216 pp., £8.95, June 1985, 0 333 39129 2
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Foreign Land 
by Jonathan Raban.
Harvill, 352 pp., £9.50, June 1985, 0 00 222918 8
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Black Marina 
by Emma Tennant.
Faber, 157 pp., £8.95, June 1985, 9780571134670
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... In a letter to Robert Liddell dated 12 January 1940, Barbara Pym speaks well of her progress on a new novel, Crampton Hodnet, which she finished later that year, but which has only now surfaced for publication: ‘It is about North Oxford and has some bits as good as anything I ever did. Mr Latimer’s proposal to Miss Morrow, old Mrs Killigrew, Dr Fremantle, Master of Randolph College, Mr Cleveland’s elopement and its unfortunate end ...

Ashes

Nicholas Spice, 19 December 1985

The Assault 
by Harry Mulisch, translated by Claire Nicolas White.
Collins Harvill, 204 pp., £8.95, November 1985, 0 00 271011 0
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All Our Yesterdays 
by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Angus Davidson.
Carcanet, 300 pp., £9.95, March 1985, 0 85635 593 3
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Family Sayings 
by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low.
Carcanet, 181 pp., £7.95, May 1984, 0 85635 504 6
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The Little Virtues 
by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Dick Davis.
110 pp., £6.95, June 1985, 0 85635 553 4
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Strange Loop 
by Amanda Prantera.
Cape, 175 pp., £8.50, June 1984, 0 224 02210 5
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The Cabalist 
by Amanda Prantera.
Cape, 184 pp., £8.95, September 1985, 0 224 02326 8
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... Il Figlio dell’Uomo’, ‘The Son of Man’, an essay by Natalia Ginzburg written in 1946 for the paper Unita, begins: ‘There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by ...

Hubbub

Nicholas Spice, 6 July 1995

Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music 
by Michael Chanan.
Verso, 204 pp., £39.95, May 1995, 1 85984 012 4
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Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak Easy Listening and other Moodsong 
by Joseph Lanza.
Quartet, 280 pp., £10, January 1995, 0 7043 0226 8
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... Around eleven o’clock on Monday morning, I phone Dell Computers to query an invoice, but the accounts department is engaged, so I get put through instead to the development section of the first movement of the New World Symphony. The music I intrude on is intense and self-absorbed. I am like a child in a children’s book who has stumbled through a gap in reality and fallen headlong into another world ...

Music Lessons

Nicholas Spice, 14 December 1995

Mozart 
by Maynard Solomon.
Hutchinson, 640 pp., £25, May 1995, 9780091747046
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... I notice that I often hold back from Mozart’s music. When I listen to the opening of Haydn’s Creation – the ‘Representation of Chaos’ – I do not inhibit my feelings. Yet the opening of Mozart’s Dissonance String Quartet (K.465, in C), which, as Maynard Solomon intimates, may partly have inspired Haydn’s vision of loss, leaves me comparatively unmoved ...

Darkness Audible

Nicholas Spice, 11 February 1993

Benjamin Britten 
by Humphrey Carpenter.
Faber, 680 pp., £20, September 1992, 0 571 14324 5
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... Among the minor characters to appear in this biography, the least important (he only gets two sentences) is a manservant whom Britten employed early in 1950, just before starting work on his opera Billy Budd. The man, who is not named, went mad. He believed he was a great composer and that Britten was his servant. In the middle of the night, he would come downstairs at Crag House, in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, where Britten was living at the time, and play crashing discords on the piano ...

Inspector of the Sad Parade

Nicholas Spice, 4 August 1994

A Way in the World 
by V.S. Naipaul.
Heinemann, 369 pp., £14.99, May 1994, 0 434 51029 7
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... The Gulf of Paria, Naipaul’s mediterrnanean, lies between the coast of Venezuela and the island of Trinidad. The water is almost encircled by land, with only two outlets to the wider ocean. Here, on the Venezuelan side, close to the mouth of the Orinoco, the Destiny lay at anchor, while on board Raleigh watched for the outcome of his last doomed expedition to discover El Dorado ...
The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752-1828) 
edited by Brian Robins.
Pendragon, 797 pp., $76, December 1998, 0 945193 94 7
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... An item in the 11 May 1889 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, quoted by Ruskin in a footnote to Praeterita, reports ‘extraordinary’ events in some allotments in Leicester. Every evening for several days a nightingale has been singing in a thorn bush above the mouth of a railway tunnel on the Midland mainline, attracting so large a crowd of listeners (some of whom have stayed regularly until the early hours of the morning) that the Chief Constable has seen fit to draft in a number of policemen ‘to maintain order and prevent damage ...

She shall be nameless

Nicholas Spice: Marlen Haushofer, 18 December 2014

The Wall 
by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside.
Quartet, 211 pp., £12, June 2013, 978 0 7043 7311 2
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Nowhere Ending Sky 
by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Amanda Prantera.
Quartet, 178 pp., £12, June 2013, 978 0 7043 7207 8
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The Loft 
by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Amanda Prantera.
Quartet, 173 pp., £12, May 2011, 978 0 7043 7313 6
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... Among​ the leading Austrian writers of the postwar period, Marlen Haushofer is an unobtrusive presence. Where Bachmann and Bernhard, Handke and Jelinek all in their time achieved international recognition, Haushofer hung back, failing to take the chance, when it came, to break beyond Austrian borders, and, at her untimely death (she died of bone cancer in 1970, three weeks short of her fiftieth birthday), left a miscellany of work that has neither fallen into complete neglect nor settled into general acceptance ...

Ne me touchez pas

Nicholas Spice: Debussy’s Mission, 24 October 2019

Debussy: A Painter in Sound 
by Stephen Walsh.
Faber, 368 pp., £15.99, March 2018, 978 0 571 33016 4
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Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography 
by François Lesure, translated by Marie Rolf.
Rochester, 478 pp., £40, June 2019, 978 1 58046 903 6
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... The musicians​ of my generation, and I myself, owe the most to Debussy,’ Stravinsky said, but he would also say that, much as he admired Jeux, he found some of the music in it ‘trop Lalique’, a remark of a certain cattiness, calculated to put Debussy’s protean and elusive masterpiece back in its box, at a moment (it was 1959) when, perhaps not altogether desirably for the composer of Le Sacre du printemps, Jeux was belatedly becoming the poster piece of the avant-garde, the work everyone at Darmstadt would be talking about ...

Don’t Look Down

Nicholas Spice: Dull Britannia, 8 April 2010

Family Britain 1951-57 
by David Kynaston.
Bloomsbury, 776 pp., £25, November 2009, 978 0 7475 8385 1
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... In 1954, at the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for homosexuality, the counsel for the prosecution, G.D. ‘Khaki’ Roberts (‘fruity-voiced, with a bottle of bright pink cough mixture always at hand’), put it to Peter Wildeblood, one of the co-defendants, that his lover Edward McNally was ‘infinitely his social inferior’, as though this social miscegenation were as much an offence as the act of buggery itself ...

Forged, Forger, Forget

Nicholas Spice: Peter Carey, 5 August 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 451 pp., £18.99, February 2010, 978 0 571 25329 6
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... Parrot and Olivier in America is the singular and surprising offspring of an unlikely coupling between two different novels: one, a fantasia on Tocqueville’s travels in America in 1831, the other a picaresque romance about an Englishman called John Larrit (known as Parrot for his talent as a mimic) who is suddenly and brutally torn from an idyllic childhood as the son of an itinerant printer in late 18th-century Devon and transported to Australia, where he grows up to become a topographical artist and engraver ...

Tomorrow it’ll all be over

Nicholas Spice: The Trouble with Philip Roth’s ‘Everyman’, 25 May 2006

Everyman 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 182 pp., £10, May 2006, 0 224 07869 0
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... This brief, disconsolate and in certain respects disagreeable novel starts with the funeral of the anonymous (eponymous) hero and ends with his death. The circularity in the narrative is a powerfully expressive feature of a book whose formal intricacy could be thought the most interesting thing about it. Of course, we only fully appreciate the novel’s structural virtues once we have finished reading it, and if we came to it fresh from the invigorating experience of Sabbath’s Theatre or the American Trilogy or The Plot against America, and were hoping for something less well-behaved than structural virtue, we will have had a lot of adjusting to do ...

The Animalcule

Nicholas Spice: Little Mr De Quincey, 18 May 2017

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey 
by Frances Wilson.
Bloomsbury, 397 pp., £25, April 2016, 978 1 4088 3977 5
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... De Quincey’​ s size mattered to him. He was uncommonly small. But he was also uncommonly clever, and his ambitions were large. As a young man, he idolised Wordsworth and Coleridge, and then sought them out and tried to make them his friends. For a while they all got on, but then increasingly they didn’t. Wordsworth was in the habit of condescending to De Quincey, but Wordsworth condescended to most people and anyway condescending to De Quincey was hard to resist: ‘He is a remarkable and very interesting young man,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘very diminutive in person, which, to strangers, makes him appear insignificant; and so modest, and so very shy ...

A Very Low Birth Rate in Kakania

Nicholas Spice, 16 October 1997

The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.
Picador, 1774 pp., £40, November 1995, 0 330 34682 2
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The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins.
Picador, 1130 pp., £15, October 1997, 0 330 34942 2
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... There is only one baby in The Man without Qualities. Her mother is Rachel, maid to Ermelinda Tuzzi who is the wife of Section Chief Tuzzi, a bureaucrat in the service of the Imperial Austrian Government in Vienna. The year is 1913: Rachel was 19 and believed in miracles. She had been born in a squalid shack in Poland, where a mezuzah hung on the doorpost and the soil came up through the cracks in the floorboards ...

Is Wagner bad for us?

Nicholas Spice, 11 April 2013

... In one of the European galleries at the British Museum, there’s a bronze medal of Erasmus made in Antwerp in 1519 by the artist Quentin Metsys. A portrait of Erasmus in profile is on the front of the medal. On the reverse, the smiling bust of Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, and the words ‘concedo nulli’ – ‘I yield to no one.’* It’s said that Erasmus kept a figurine of the god Terminus on his desk ...

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