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Above the Consulting-Room

John Sturrock, 26 March 1992

Le Séminaire, Vol VIII 
by Jacques Lacan.
Seuil, 464 pp., frs 190, March 1991, 2 02 012502 1
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Le Séminaire, Vol XVII 
by Jacques Lacan.
Seuil, 251 pp., frs 140, March 1991, 2 02 013044 0
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Lacan 
by Malcolm Bowie.
Fontana, 256 pp., £5.99, February 1991, 0 00 686076 1
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Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis 
by Samuel Weber.
Cambridge, 184 pp., £30, November 1991, 0 521 37410 3
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... Sessions with Dr Jacques Lacan were famously short, but none I dare say as short as mine. We met professionally not as doctor and patient, but as author and editor, and over the telephone, voice to voice. Newly taken on at the TLS, I was the one appointed to give Lacan the bad news, that an article he had been commissioned to write could not be used ...

The man who wrote for the ‘Figaro’

John Sturrock, 25 June 1992

Selected Letters: Vol. III, 1910-1917 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Philip Kolb, translated by Terence Kilmartin.
HarperCollins, 434 pp., £35, January 1992, 0 00 215541 9
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Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XVIII, 191 
edited by Philip Kolb.
Plon, 657 pp., frs 290, September 1990, 2 259 02187 5
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Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XIX, 1920 
edited by Philip Kolb.
Plon, 857 pp., frs 350, May 1991, 2 259 02389 4
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Correspondance de Marcel Proust: Tome XX, 1921 
edited by Philip Kolb.
Plon, 713 pp., frs 350, April 1992, 2 259 02433 5
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... Proust wrote too many letters: he thought so and so anyone might think, as Philip Kolb’s expanding series of annual volumes edges towards the writer’s death, in 1922. Sheer numbers would not have mattered had they been stronger letters, but Proust’s correspondence is too much of it mechanical or emptily ingratiating, the one remaining exercise of the social virtues by a man who had taken to his bedroom (with occasional querulous sorties late at night to the Ritz Hotel) in order to be alone with his asthma and the prodigiously radiating manuscript of his novel ...

Monsieur Apollo

John Sturrock, 13 November 1997

Victor Hugo 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 682 pp., £20, October 1997, 0 330 33707 6
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... The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo: I took pleasure in studying him closely; I gazed at him with astonishment, like a casket in which there were millions and a king’s diamonds, reflecting on all that had come from this man now sitting beside me on a small chair, and fixing my eyes on the right hand that has written so many beautiful things ...

How stupid people are

John Sturrock: Flaubert, 7 September 2006

Bouvard and Pecuchet 
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Mark Polizzotti.
Dalkey Archive, 328 pp., £8.99, January 2006, 1 56478 393 6
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Flaubert: A Life 
by Frederick Brown.
Heinemann, 629 pp., £25, May 2006, 0 434 00769 2
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... Of the three books that Gustave Flaubert was able to write only after a lengthy cohabitation with his sources, Bouvard et Pécuchet is by some way the most approachable. The other two are exhibition pieces, admirable for their form but keeping their distance, full as they are of the rare knowledge he had come to by his reading. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the desert-dwelling anchorite of that name – an antisocial paragon to whom Flaubert felt sufficiently drawn to go on writing and rewriting the book for thirty years – endures a punishing series of night-time intrusions from various biblical, classical and other phantasmal interlocutors, until the sun comes up and the saint can go back to his solitary prayers ...

Doctor No

John Sturrock, 2 February 1989

Journey to the end of the night 
by Louis Ferdinand Céline, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Calder, 448 pp., £14.95, June 1988, 0 7145 3800 0
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La Vie de Céline 
by Frédéric Vitoux.
Grasset, 597 pp., frs 190, May 1988, 2 246 35171 5
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... and publisher were not on good terms? It could, if the letter of apology (‘Dictated by John Calder and signed in his absence’) inserted into the review copy is anything to go by, in which the publisher climbs shamefacedly down over two changes made to the text without Ralph Manheim’s permission: ‘This terrace is for jerks’ has been changed ...

Wasp in a Bottle

John Sturrock, 10 February 1994

Charles Sanders Peirce 
by Joseph Brent.
Indiana, 388 pp., £28.50, January 1993, 0 253 31267 1
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The Esssential Peirce: Vol. I 
edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Koesel.
Indiana, 399 pp., £17.99, November 1992, 0 253 20721 5
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... whereby we are enabled to test reasons’. This was a science which, Peirce was to argue, contra John Stuart Mill and others, must have nothing to do with psychology but be purely formal, with the task of classifying the products of thought, not of investigating the manner of thought’s production. As the study of validity in argument or inference, logic ...

Call Her Daisy-Ray

John Sturrock: Accents and Attitudes, 11 September 2003

Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol 
by Lynda Mugglestone.
Oxford, 354 pp., £35, February 2003, 0 19 925061 8
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... the headwords with a view to eliminating wrong pronunciations, a method followed also by John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, which went through more than a hundred editions, and by William Cobbett in his survey of the regional possibilities when it came to pronouncing the word corn. In Walker, the pronunciation of chop-house (‘a ...

Give me calf’s tears

John Sturrock, 11 November 1999

George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large 
by Belinda Jack.
Chatto, 412 pp., £20, August 1999, 0 7011 6647 9
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... The first work of fiction to which Proust returns in A la recherche du temps perdu – and also the last, one complete, 2500-page orbit later – is George Sand’s François le champi, the first ‘real’ novel the narrator remembers having read. Or rather, remembers having had read to him, by his mother on that seminal evening of anxiety when she fails to come up and give him a goodnight kiss ...

Why the Tortoise Lost

John Sturrock, 18 September 1997

Bergson: Biographie 
by Philippe Soulez and Frédéric Worms.
Flammarion, 386 pp., frs 140, April 1997, 9782080666697
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... In the years before 1914, the open lectures that Henri Bergson gave at the Collège de France were the prototype in intellectual chic for the barnstorming Parisian ‘seminars’ of Jacques Lacan in the Sixties and Seventies, even if the topics that the fashionable came to hear were as dry as the lecturer’s podium manner: ‘The Evolution of Theories of Memory’, ‘Theories of the Will’, ‘The Nature of Mind and Its Relation to Cerebral Activity ...

A bas les chefs!

John Sturrock: Jules Vallès, 9 February 2006

The Child 
by Jules Vallès, translated by Douglas Parmée.
NYRB, 343 pp., £8.99, August 2005, 1 59017 117 9
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... Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader – epigraphs, ‘author’s notes’, prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin – the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book’s dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has nothing to tell us about the contents ahead ...

One Herring in a Shoal

John Sturrock: Raymond Queneau, 8 May 2003

Oeuvres complètes: Tome II: Romans I 
by Raymond Queneau, edited by Henri Godard.
Gallimard, 1760 pp., €68, April 2002, 2 07 011439 2
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... In Pierrot mon ami, the last of the eight novels laid end to end in this life-enhancing volume, the footling but resilient Pierrot works on and off at a fairground, where his job description includes steering teenage girls by hand past a jet of air that wraps their skirts around their thighs. Low-tech as sideshows go no doubt, but it helps to sustain the morale of the laddish tendency at the Palace de la Rigolade, or Palace of Fun, on a fairground modelled by Queneau on the celebrated Luna-Park in Neuilly, to which it’s good to imagine him, that living A-Z to the city of Paris and its public transport, bussing out, with a view to researching the site rather than wreaking a pile-up on the dodgems ...

I resume and I sum up

John Sturrock: Robbe Grillet’s Return, 21 March 2002

La Reprise 
by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Minuit, 253 pp., €15.09, November 2001, 9782707317568
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... The first novel that Robbe-Grillet wrote, Un Régicide, had a quotation at the start from Kierkegaard, an out of the way source for an agronomist turned writer who gave an impression of never having known a moment’s metaphysical unease in his life. It came from The Seducer’s Diary: ‘One might have said that this man passed through life without leaving any trace … and one might even claim that he had no victims ...

‘I’m going to slash it!’

John Sturrock, 20 February 1997

Oeuvres complètes 
by Nathalie Sarraute, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié.
Gallimard, 2128 pp., £52.05, October 1996, 2 07 011434 1
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... Nathalie Sarraute had her own, esoteric way of doing well at school. When, at her Paris lycée, her class was asked whether anyone had read War and Peace, the 13-year-old Nathalie (née Natalya Tcherniak, in Russia), did not want to say that she had. She was fearful: not of advertising how grown-up her reading had already become but of what she might have to listen to should her teacher ‘dare to touch’ the book and the ineffable Tolstoy be invested by the crass discourse of a pedagogue ...

Jamboree

John Sturrock, 20 February 1986

Handbook of Russian Literature 
edited by Victor Terras.
Yale, 558 pp., £25, April 1985, 0 300 03155 6
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Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time 
by Roman Jakobson, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy.
Blackwell, 208 pp., £25, July 1985, 0 631 14262 2
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Historic Structures: The Prague School Project 1928-1946 
by F.W. Galan.
Croom Helm, 250 pp., £22.50, May 1985, 0 7099 3816 0
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Mikhail Bakhtin 
by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist.
Harvard, 398 pp., £19.95, February 1985, 0 674 57416 8
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The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics 
by M.M. Bakhtin and P.M. Medvedev, translated by Albert Wehrle.
Harvard, 191 pp., £7.50, May 1985, 0 674 30921 9
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Dialogues between Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska 
translated by Christian Hubert.
Cambridge, 186 pp., £15, August 1983, 0 521 25113 3
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The Dialogical Principle 
by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Wlad Godzich.
Manchester, 132 pp., £25, February 1985, 0 7190 1466 2
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Rabelais and his World 
by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Hélène Iswolsky.
Indiana, 484 pp., $29.50, August 1984, 0 253 20341 4
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... Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin agree on so little as theorists of literature that they must count as alternatives. To read one and then the other, preferably Jakobson first and then Bakhtin, as a sort of anti-Jakobson, is a literary theoretical education. Where Jakobson is dry, Bakhtin is convivial; where Jakobson is technocratic, Bakhtin is impulsive; where Jakobson is magisterial, Bakhtin is a groundling ...

Latent Prince

John Sturrock, 22 March 2001

Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity: Journeys between Cultures 
by Charles Forsdick.
Oxford, 242 pp., £40, November 2000, 0 19 816014 3
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... Ten years ago, the Harvard New History of French Literature made not one mention of the remarkable Victor Segalen. How wrong that was. It’s a big book and progressive almost to a fault in what it chooses to cover; Segalen should have been in it, as a writer and theoriser about both life and literature whose concerns are more timely now than they were when he was expressing them ...

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