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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 ...

Women

Christopher Ricks, 20 May 1982

My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J.R. Ackerley 
edited by Francis King.
Hutchinson, 217 pp., £8.95, March 1982, 9780091470203
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... Women are bitches.’ It was odd and ugly of J.R. Ackerley to put it like that, since both the sentence before this terse rancour and the one after it dote upon a bitch, his dog Queenie. Much-loved Joe Ackerley was not much-loving, but he did love his dog, loved her even more than he loathed his sister Nancy. Nancy loathed them both back. She also loathed their old aunt Bunny, whom Ackerley only intermittently hated ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Hallo Dad

Christopher Ricks, 2 October 1980

Mr Nicholas Sir Henry and Sons Daymare 
by Thomas Hinde.
Macmillan, 271 pp., £6.95, August 1980, 0 333 29539 0
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... The last word of the reissue of Mr Nicholas, Thomas Hinde’s exquisitely glum and fearingly funny novel of 1952, is probably a misprint. At least, it is minutely different from the last word in the Penguin book in 1962, the issue which brought Hinde’s consummate first novel to an even more widely appreciative public. One tribute to the novel’s exact art is that it matters whether the book ends, as it did then, with the exchange, ‘Hallo Peter ...

Umpteens

Christopher Ricks, 22 November 1990

Bloomsbury Dictionary of Dedications 
edited by Adrian Room.
Bloomsbury, 354 pp., £17.99, September 1990, 0 7475 0521 7
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Unauthorised Versions: Poems and their Parodies 
edited by Kenneth Baker.
Faber, 446 pp., £14.99, September 1990, 0 571 14122 6
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The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse 
edited by Tom Paulin.
Faber, 407 pp., £14.99, November 1990, 0 571 14470 5
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... Adrian Room has garnered umpteen dedications, and some of them are of interest, but what is the point of unrolling them alphabetically as something purporting to be a dictionary? Abbott opens, and Zangwill closes, yet the book is not a work of reference. It is an anthology. A lazy piece of work, or of relaxation, and not just because its compiler has declined the effort of an imaginative ordering and has instead fallen back on A to zzzz ...

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 ...

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 ...

High Punctuation

Christopher Ricks, 14 May 1992

But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse 
by John Lennard.
Oxford, 324 pp., £35, November 1991, 0 19 811247 5
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... Fecund and jocund, well-earned and learnèd, wittily wily, But I digress is a delight and a treasure-house, alive with moving illumination and with benign warning, in short a delight-house of a book. It is the best work at once of literary criticism and of literary history I’ve read for many and many a day.No less agile at dancing than at pouncing, the disciplined movement of mind here is never shifty and always nifty ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

In theory

Christopher Ricks, 16 April 1981

... Is there an honourable, thoughtful alternative to literary theory? Literary theory at present dishonourably pretends that there is not. So the case against literary theory begins with its overbearing insistence that there is no genuine case for anything else. The advocates of theory often declare that we are all theorists whether we realise it and acknowledge it or not ...

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