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No Way Out

Colin Burrow: John McGahern, 20 October 2005

Memoir 
by John McGahern.
Faber, 272 pp., £16.99, September 2005, 0 571 22810 0
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... John McGahern is an extraordinary writer of charm and violence. His most recent novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), has a looseness and a gaiety which it took him nearly seventy years to allow himself. His earlier work marked him as one of the great writers of claustrophobia. His novels tend to evoke small places – single houses or tiny communities – and to crush into those places a set of family and moral ties that make them feel even smaller and tighter ...

Pissing on Idiots

Colin Burrow: Extreme Editing, 6 October 2011

Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment 
by Kristine Louise Haugen.
Harvard, 333 pp., £29.95, April 2011, 978 0 674 05871 2
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... Many years ago, when there were still second-hand bookshops in which to skulk, I found a leather-bound volume with ‘BENTLEY’S HORACE’ on its spine. It was only twenty quid, so I dropped into the standard routine for bagging a bargain. You’d toy with a few other things, then take the one you really wanted to the desk with some gesture that said, ‘Oh well, I might as well pick up this old thing too ...

The Audience Throws Vegetables

Colin Burrow: Salman Rushdie, 8 May 2008

The Enchantress of Florence 
by Salman Rushdie.
Cape, 356 pp., £16.99, April 2008, 978 0 224 06163 6
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... Even serious and persistent readers often say they can’t finish Salman Rushdie’s novels. His unfinishability has some obvious causes. Wearyingly encrusted description is the natural mode of the earlier fiction. In Midnight’s Children the central character’s dog dies, but dogs can’t just die in Rushdie: they have to be abandoned on the other side of town, they have to be cursed, they have to be superhumanly loyal, they have to run after their owner’s car for miles ...

She Doesn’t Protest

Colin Burrow: The Untranslatable Decameron, 12 March 2009

Decameron 
by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.G. Nichols.
Oneworld, 660 pp., £12.99, May 2008, 978 1 84749 057 5
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... In Florence in 1348, shortly after two of its biggest banks collapsed because the English king had defaulted on a loan, roughly two-thirds of the population died of the Black Death. Egg-shaped buboes swelled up in the victims’ armpits or groins, and then black bruising spread across their bodies. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father and stepmother died during the outbreak, the disease was so infectious that pigs who nuzzled the discarded clothing of the dead began instantly to writhe in agony, and then dropped down dead ...

Then place my purboil’d Head upon a Stake

Colin Burrow: British and Irish poetry, 7 January 1999

Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse 1625-1660 
edited by Peter Davidson.
Oxford, 716 pp., £75, July 1998, 0 19 818441 7
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... The traditional view of mid-17th-century verse is that it consists of ‘mere anthology pieces’. As a statement of fact this has a ghost of truth to it, since much of the verse from this period originally circulated in miscellaneous collections – manuscript gatherings of verse, or volumes of elegies by various hands. As a statement of value, though, that ‘mere’ is profoundly wrong ...

A Pickwick among Poets, Exiled in the Fatherland of Pickled Fish

Colin Burrow: British Latin verse, 19 August 1999

The English Horace: Anthony Alsop and the Traditions of British Latin Verse 
by D.K. Money.
Oxford, 406 pp., £38, December 1998, 0 19 726184 1
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... On 16 June 1783, Samuel Johnson was rendered speechless by a stroke. His first action was not to try croaking for a doctor, but to compose a prayer in Latin: ‘The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.’ Johnson was relieved that he could still pray in Latin, but the greater part of his relief was that he was still enough of a critic to know that his verses were not much good ...

Pinned Down by a Beagle

Colin Burrow: ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’, 1 December 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur 
by Arthur Phillips.
Duckworth, 368 pp., £16.99, September 2011, 978 0 7156 4137 8
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... It’s easy to think of literary forgers simply as greedy people who are good at making bits of paper look old. But there is nothing simple about the history of Shakespearean forgery. It began more or less at the height of the late 18th-century mania for everything Shakespearean – life, works, documents, laundry lists, anything. Some of it was driven by a desire to make a quick buck out of gullible bardophiles, but most of it had more complex origins ...

Big Head, Many Brains

Colin Burrow: H.G. Wells, 16 June 2011

A Man of Parts 
by David Lodge.
Harvill, 565 pp., £18.99, March 2011, 978 1 84655 496 4
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... In 1892, while H.G. Wells was transforming himself from a draper’s assistant to a student of science, he married his cousin Isabel. He ungallantly described her in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) as being at the time of their marriage ‘the one human being who was conceivable as an actual lover’. She did not much like having sex with him, however, and when he started teaching in Holborn he rapidly moved his attention to a student, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he married (having divorced Isabel) in 1895, and whom he came to call ‘Jane ...

How to Twist a Knife

Colin Burrow: Wolf Hall, 30 April 2009

Wolf Hall 
by Hilary Mantel.
Fourth Estate, 653 pp., April 2009, 978 0 00 723018 1
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... There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all. His surviving correspondence shows the energy, efficiency and brutality of someone born to get things done. Whenever he says, ‘I remain still your perfect and sincere friend,’ you can be fairly sure he is about to terminate the addressee’s career with extreme prejudice ...

I Am Brian Moore

Colin Burrow, 24 September 2020

The Dear Departed 
by Brian Moore.
Turnpike Books, 112 pp., £10, April, 978 1 9162547 0 1
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... In a review​ of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, the novelist Brian Moore remarked: ‘For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner, forcing them, no matter how far away they wander, to return again and again in their writing to the place which in some atavistic way they believe to be the source of their literary powers ...

Song of Snogs

Colin Burrow: Catullus Bound, 2 December 2021

Catullus: Shibari Carmina 
by Isobel Williams.
Carcanet, 100 pp., £12.99, March, 978 1 80017 074 2
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... that’s an easier one to guess from its English derivatives. So, OED, please henceforth cite Burrow 2021: Catullus wants to fuck his critics up the arse and irrumate them, viz, fuck them in the mouth. Without their consent, just to be clear.As soon as I spit out my translation in its literal form I see it has lost the genuine obscenity of Catullus, who ...

Imperiumsinefinism

Colin Burrow: Virgil, 2 March 2000

Virgil’s Experience: Nature and History; Times, Names and Places 
by Richard Jenkyns.
Oxford, 712 pp., £50, November 1988, 0 19 814033 9
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... Virgil is the only Western writer to have been a set work for schoolchildren more or less continuously from the moment his verse appeared. No sooner were the Eclogues and Georgics published, in the mid-20s BC, than they were taught as canonical works; children in European schools have sweated over the grammar of the Aeneid ever since 19 BC. To add to the poet’s misfortune, his work has attracted more, and more various, commentary than any Western text apart from the Bible ...

You and Your Bow and the Gods

Colin Burrow: Murder mysteries, 22 September 2005

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels and Systems of Thought 
by Stephen Kern.
Princeton, 437 pp., £18.95, August 2004, 0 691 11523 0
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... Why do we want to read about murder? Most of us do not want to kill people, and most of us would feel a little squeamish if we discovered that one of our friends had done somebody in. Part of the reason must be simple ghoulishness, if it can ever be entirely simple to take pleasure in imagining how people kill each other. In most murder fictions these dark pleasures are overlaid by other, superficially more respectable, kinds of interest ...

Brattishness

Colin Burrow: Henry Howard, 11 November 1999

Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life 
by W.A. Sessions.
Oxford, 448 pp., £60, March 1999, 9780198186243
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... Although Surrey’s surviving poems can be read in an afternoon, they represent a major achievement for someone whose life was cut short (literally: he was beheaded) at the age of 30. He invented blank verse, as well as the ‘Shakespearean’ form of the sonnet. His poems habitually dwell on isolation: they adopt the voices of Petrarchan lovers brooding on an inner hurt, prisoners lamenting past happiness, or psalmists threatening destruction to their enemies ...

What is a pikestaff?

Colin Burrow: Metaphor, 23 April 2015

Metaphor 
by Denis Donoghue.
Harvard, 232 pp., £18.95, April 2014, 978 0 674 43066 2
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... Metaphors.​ The little devils just wriggle in everywhere. ‘Put a lid on it,’ ‘get stuck in,’ ‘shut your trap’: they’re a routine feature of vernacular usage, even when the metaphors are (as we metaphorically say) ‘dead’ or ‘buried’. It’s the only figure of speech which not only everyone uses but which more or less everyone can name, even if they can’t instantly rattle off the OED’s definition of it as ‘a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable ...

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