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Words washed clean

David Trotter, 5 December 1991

From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature 
by Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury.
Routledge, 381 pp., £35, August 1991, 0 415 01341 0
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... the death of one child and abduction of another, to behave like a cross between Margaret Mead and David Attenborough. It is quite untrue to suggest that she averted her eyes from the realities of the ‘wilderness’; and equally untrue to suggest that her faith encouraged her to do so. It was precisely her conviction that providence works in mysterious ways ...

Book Reviews

David Trotter, 24 January 1980

... There is a poignant moment in the recent New Left Books volume of interviews with Raymond Williams* when he is congratulated on the ‘combativity’ of his writings. Poignant because the neologism, however barbarous, answers to a real scarcity: the scarcity, in our cultural repertoire, of sustained polemical address: Not that our literary pages don’t witness occasional outbreaks of revenger’s tragedy ...

Transcendental Criticism

David Trotter, 3 March 1988

The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections 
by Richard Poirier.
Faber, 256 pp., £14.95, March 1988, 0 571 15013 6
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... What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he decided, as a moderate man, to compound with half, the question still remained, which half? And that stumbling-block he never got over.’ What to believe, Mr Boffin’s chief difficulty in Our Mutual Friend, is also likely to be the chief difficulty facing the reader of Richard Poirier’s ambitious and eloquent plea for the ‘renewal’ of literature and criticism through a better understanding of Emerson ...

Buffers

David Trotter, 4 February 1988

Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Chatto, 657 pp., £25, October 1987, 0 7011 3083 0
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... I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English Literature, which it is my business to know about, and try to examine the fundamentals, the basic tools.’ As he turns to literature, he shelves the old-buffer prejudices and begins to display instead the rationalism which spoke habitually of the ‘basic tools’ of imagination, and the sensitivity to language which enabled him to examine and test those tools ...

Internal Combustion

David Trotter, 6 June 1996

The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol. III: 1900-1910 
edited by Thomas Pinney.
Macmillan, 482 pp., £50, December 1995, 9780333637333
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... Day after day in the course of October 1907, Rilke returned to the two rooms at the Salon d’Automne devoted to Cézanne’s memory. The letters he wrote to his wife describe his intense admiration for the ‘emptying out of love in anonymous work’ which had enabled Cézanne to render the ‘substantiality’ of the natural world. What finally persuaded him, however, of the essential loneliness of Cézanne’s effort to strip away the preconceptions which separate us from that world was not the pictures themselves, but a quirk of scheduling: ‘the Salon no longer exists; in a few days it will be replaced by an exhibition of automobiles which will stand there, long and dumb, each one with its own idée fixe of velocity ...

Saved for Jazz

David Trotter, 5 October 1995

Modernist Quartet 
by Frank Lentricchia.
Cambridge, 305 pp., £35, November 1994, 0 521 47004 8
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... There are some curious aspects to Frank Lentricchia’s study of four Modernist poets: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. For a start, it’s a book about poets which doesn’t seem much interested in poems. Lentricchia has written a lengthy chapter on each member of his quartet. Yet Eliot is represented by ‘The Love Song of J ...

At the Towner Gallery

David Trotter: Jananne Al-Ani, 12 May 2022

... Jananne Al-Ani​ is an artist whose recent work has done much to illuminate the ways in which modern media can resemble a process of delineation: a drawing or writing with light (photo-graphy) or with motion (cinemato-graphy). The resemblance is established in Shadow Sites I (2010), which reinscribes by means of its own kind of graphic manoeuvre an already existing inscription ...

Troubles

David Trotter, 23 June 1988

The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and Other Critical Writings 
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber, 172 pp., £12.95, June 1988, 0 571 14796 8
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... In Belfast, in 1972, Heaney planned to record some poems and songs with his friend, the singer David Hammond. While they were on their way to the studio, a number of bombs exploded in the city: casualties were reported. Hammond decided not to perform: ‘the very notion of beginning to sing at that moment when others were beginning to suffer seemed like an ...

Making doorbells ring

David Trotter: Pushing Buttons, 22 November 2018

Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing 
by Rachel Plotnick.
MIT, 424 pp., £30, October 2018, 978 0 262 03823 2
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... Towards​ the end of his time at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin began to direct as well as star in the short slapstick films that were the company’s staple product. The crucial event in one of these films, The New Janitor, which was released in September 1914, is the pressing of an electric button. It’s Charlie’s first day at work, and his enthusiastic abuse of soap and water soon earns him the sack ...

Savage Rush

David Trotter: The Tube, 21 October 2010

Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf 
by David Welsh.
Liverpool, 306 pp., £70, May 2010, 978 1 84631 223 6
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... as an occasion for otherwise elusive experience. It came to represent the modern in general, as David Welsh ably demonstrates in two immense chapters, one on utopian fantasy from the turn of the 20th century, the other on the inevitable ensuing sourness. In Anticipations (1902), H.G. Wells imagined the Metropolitan Railway’s ‘black and ...

Platz Angst

David Trotter: Agoraphobia, 24 July 2003

Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia 
by Paul Carter.
Reaktion, 253 pp., £16.95, November 2002, 1 86189 128 8
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... The last three decades of the 19th century were phobia’s belle époque. During this first phase of investigation there was, it must have seemed, no species of terror, however febrile, which could not talk its way immediately into syndrome status. In 1896, Théodule Ribot spoke of psychiatry’s inundation by a ‘veritable deluge’ of complaints, ranging from the relatively commonplace and self-explanatory, such as claustrophobia, to the downright idiosyncratic, such as triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13 ...

Messages from the 29th Floor

David Trotter: Lifts, 3 July 2014

Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator 
by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer.
NYU, 309 pp., £21.99, April 2014, 978 0 8147 8716 8
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... According​ to elevator legend, it all began with a stunt. In the summer of 1854, at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, an engineer called Elisha Graves Otis gave regular demonstrations of his new safety device. Otis had himself hoisted into the air on a platform secured on either side by guide-rails and – at a suitably dramatic height – cut the cable ...

Into the Future

David Trotter: The Novel, 22 March 2007

The Novel: Vol. I: History, Geography and Culture 
edited by Franco Moretti.
Princeton, 916 pp., £65, June 2006, 0 691 04947 5
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The Novel: Vol. II: Forms and Themes 
edited by Franco Moretti.
Princeton, 950 pp., £65, June 2006, 0 691 04948 3
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... What counts as a novel? Any ‘fictitious prose work’ over fifty thousand words was E.M. Forster’s answer, in Aspects of the Novel. It’s a broad enough definition, in all conscience, though it has begun to do some useful work by excluding a wide variety of short fiction in prose, and some long poems, such as Eugene Onegin or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which are not quite prepared to admit to being long poems ...

Stir and Bustle

David Trotter: Corridors, 19 December 2019

Corridors: Passages of Modernity 
by Roger Luckhurst.
Reaktion, 240 pp., £25, March 2019, 978 1 78914 053 8
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... In​ the original film noir, John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941), private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) visits criminal mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) in his San Francisco hotel room to discuss the delivery of a mysterious ornament. The elevator attendant points him in the direction of Room 12c. After some cagey preliminaries, Spade delivers a ferocious ultimatum ...

In the Soup

David Trotter: Air Raid Panic, 9 October 2014

The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-41 
by Brett Holman.
Ashgate, 290 pp., £70, June 2014, 978 1 4094 4733 7
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... appalling effect. The pronounced if uneven enlargement and sophistication during the 1930s of what David Edgerton terms Britain’s ‘warfare state’ has been extensively studied from a variety of angles, most recently in Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45, which includes an authoritative account of the evolution into doctrine of the belief ...

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