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Armadillo

Christopher Ricks, 16 September 1982

Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent 
by Donald Davie.
University of Notre Dame Press, 154 pp., £11.85, June 1982, 0 268 00852 3
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These the Companions 
by Donald Davie.
Cambridge, 220 pp., £12.50, August 1982, 0 521 24511 7
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... Donald Davie’s critical arguments are often happily reminiscential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn’t make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie’s earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church ...

The Braver Thing

Christopher Ricks, 1 November 1984

T.S. Eliot 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 241 11349 0
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Recollections Mainly of Artists and Writers 
by Geoffrey Grigson.
Chatto, 195 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 7011 2791 0
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... Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal. Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book. It has none of the sleazy sanctimony of Robert Sencourt’s biography, or the vanity of T.S. Matthews’. That it is a feat to be without spite is coincidentally manifested by the appearance of Geoffrey Grigson’s Recollections ...

It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Using Biography 
by William Empson.
Chatto, 259 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 0 7011 2889 5
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Seven Types of Ambiguity 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 258 pp., £4.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0556 3
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Collected Poems 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 119 pp., £3.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0555 5
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... Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and his unique accents. Profoundly comic and yet incandescent with convictions, Using Biography is so rammed with life that it shall gather strength of life with being ...

Donald Davie and the English

Christopher Ricks, 22 May 1980

Trying to Explain 
by Donald Davie.
Carcanet, 213 pp., £6.95, April 1980, 0 85635 343 4
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... Since Byron and Landor, no Englishman appears to have profited much from living abroad.’ So said an American who rightly believed himself to be profiting from living abroad, T.S. Eliot in England in 1918, honouring the American who had likewise profited and who had then become – as Eliot would – an Englishman: Henry James. ‘The fact of being everywhere a foreigner was probably an assistance to his native wit ...

Donne’s Will to Power

Christopher Ricks, 18 June 1981

John Donne: Life, Mind and Art 
by John Carey.
Faber, 303 pp., £9.50, May 1981, 0 571 11636 1
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... Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single-minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord ...

For good or bad

Christopher Ricks, 19 December 1985

Easy Pieces 
by Geoffrey Hartman.
Columbia, 218 pp., $20, June 1985, 0 231 06018 1
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... Geoffrey Hartman’s Easy Pieces can be hard going. ‘To see, oneself unseen, as at the movies, is only less than the ecstasy of an unseeing seeing: of going beyond the non-language of images to the non-language of non-images, or a glance that is not guilty, that is both knowing and pure.’ This is not incomprehensible, but it is not by any stretch easy either, and it tips a glance that is guilty ...

Playing with terror

Christopher Ricks, 21 January 1982

The Comfort of Strangers 
by Ian McEwan.
Cape, 134 pp., £5.95, October 1981, 0 224 01931 7
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... Ian McEwan’s tale is as economical as a shudder. It never itself shudders, which is one reason why it makes you do so. By staying cool in the face of the murderous madness which it contemplates, it precipitates an icy sweat. What it does even with equanimity is not to display it. A characteristic McEwan sentence is one of which it might be said (here in Venice revisited) that the law allows it and the court awards it ...

A Novel without a Hero

Christopher Ricks, 6 December 1979

The Mangan Inheritance 
by Brian Moore.
Cape, 336 pp., £5.50
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... Jamie Mangan, left at 36 by his wife and then suddenly left all her money, takes it into his heart to go off from New York to Ireland to find out whether or not he is the great-great-grandson of the poet James Clarence Mangan. Jamie’s father had once halfheartedly tried this, but he wasn’t prey to a sufficiently insatiable hunger for the quest. But then it is Jamie, not his father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man in an heirloom daguerrotype which has ‘J ...

Version of Pastoral

Christopher Ricks, 2 April 1987

The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections 
by V.S. Naipaul.
Viking, 318 pp., £10.95, March 1987, 0 670 81576 4
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... The Enigma of Arrival: V.S. Naipaul’s title is the one at which Apollinaire enigmatically arrived, for the painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A detail of it illuminates Naipaul’s cover and his book: making their huddled way from a classical quayside (the scene bathed both in shadow and in sun), two stoled figures have their obscured faces towards us and their backs to a wall ...

Faber Book of Groans

Christopher Ricks, 1 March 1984

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 
by Philip Larkin.
Faber, 315 pp., £4.95, November 1983, 0 571 13120 4
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... How,’ asked Dr Leavis, vaulting into his review of T. S. Eliot’s On Poetry and Poets, ‘can a book of criticism be at once so distinguished and so unimportant?’ Of Philip Larkin’s comparable and incomparable ‘miscellaneous pieces’, it might be asked: How can a book of criticism be at once so un-‘distinguished’ and so important? But then how can this Faber book of groans be so exhilarating? The open unsecret is: by being unremittingly attentive and diversely funny ...

Appelfeld 1990

Christopher Ricks, 8 February 1990

... The upright fiction of Aharon Appelfeld arises from the level facts of his anguished and brave young life. Like the novels themselves, a note on their author is laconic, lapidary and on oath:Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now part of the USSR). His mother was killed by the Nazis, and he was deported at the age of eight to a concentration camp, from which he escaped ...

Masters

Christopher Ricks, 3 May 1984

Swift: The Man, His Works and the Age: Vol III. Dean Swift 
by Irvin Ehrenpreis.
Methuen, 1066 pp., £40, December 1983, 0 416 85400 1
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Swift’s Tory Politics 
by F.P. Lock.
Duckworth, 189 pp., £18, November 1983, 0 7156 1755 9
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Jonathan Swift: Political Writer 
by J.A. Downie.
Routledge, 391 pp., £25, March 1984, 0 7100 9645 3
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The Character of Swift’s Satire 
edited by Claude Rawson.
Associated University Presses, 343 pp., £22.50, April 1984, 0 87413 209 6
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... The life of Swift by Irvin Ehrenpreis is a great act of consonance. But one reviewer has deprecated the fact that Ehrenpreis does not write with Swift’s genius. So the first thing to say is that Ehrenpreis, though he has the great good sense never to emulate the supreme Swiftian manner, does nevertheless command the steely style which T.S. Eliot praised ...

Speaking well

Christopher Ricks, 18 August 1983

Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir 
by David Pryce-Jones.
Collins, 304 pp., £12.50, July 1983, 0 333 32827 2
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J.B. Yeats: Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1922 
edited with a memoir by Joseph Hone.
Secker, 296 pp., £7.95, May 1983, 0 436 59205 3
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... Unlike the publication in 1975 of the touching acute letters of Cyril Connolly to Noel Blakiston, the publication of Connolly’s Journal (1928-1937) does not serve him, except right. He found D.H. Lawrence insufficiently magnanimous (‘Notice how carefully Lawrence refuses to recognise virtue in anyone but himself’), and his sponsor David Pryce-Jones now finds F ...

Short is sweet

Christopher Ricks, 3 February 1983

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs 
edited by J.A. Simpson.
Oxford, 256 pp., £7.95, October 1982, 0 19 866131 2
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A World of Proverbs 
by Patricia Houghton.
Blandford, 152 pp., £5.95, September 1981, 0 7137 1114 0
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... The alphabet does happy things. The first entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is able to give unforced priority to some of the most important properties of proverbs. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ First, that it is more recent than you think (c.1850). Second, that nobody has ever heard of the talented person who endowed it with the anonymity of genius (T ...

Mailer’s Psychopath

Christopher Ricks, 6 March 1980

The Executioner’s Song 
by Norman Mailer.
Hutchinson, 1056 pp., £8.85, November 1979, 0 09 139540 2
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... Gary Gilmore robbed the unresisting service-station attendant, told him to lie down, and then shot him in the head. Twice, fast. The next day, Gilmore robbed the unresisting motel manager, told him to lie down, and then shot him in the head. Once only, because the gun jammed, and so the man died slowly. Convicted, Gilmore chose to die as quickly as the law would allow, and chose to be shot ...

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