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The Name of the Rose 
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 502 pp., £8.95, October 1983, 0 436 14089 6
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... Semiotics is a fashionable subject, but semioticians do not normally become international best-sellers, which is the fate that, in apparent violation of this familiar cultural assumption, has befallen the Professor of Semiotics at Bologna, Umberto Eco. Academic novelists aren’t rare, of course, but it’s hard to think of one who regards fiction as not only entertainment but material for the practice of a professional discipline ...
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 
edited by Simon Karlinsky.
Weidenfeld, 346 pp., £12.50, October 1979, 0 297 77580 4
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Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute 
edited by Peter Quennell.
Weidenfeld, 139 pp., £6.95
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... These letters are a partial record of a literary friendship; and they offer more than the usual pleasure to be had from eavesdropping on the talk of eminent writers. Nabokov and Wilson had a few specific common interests, the most important of which was a passion for language as the stuff of literature: but in temperament and formation they were almost wholly different ...
... The conversion of Ford’s novel into a television play was an enterprise even more foolhardy than the BBC’s Golden Bowl some years back. The adapter must at once resign himself to the sacrifice of dozens of ambiguities and implications, for they are made possible by purely novelistic means – in this instance, by the taste of the narrator for seeming irrelevance, for digressions that do not digress, for missing apparently obvious connections and for insisting hysterically upon others that look imaginary and without point, Ford professed to despise story: the idea was, by using all the available liberty of discourse, to represent an ‘affair’ in such a way as to extract every drop of meaning from it, which you could not do if you recounted it in story sequence ...

Playing the Seraphine

Frank Kermode: Penelope Fitzgerald, 25 January 2001

The Means of Escape: Stories 
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Flamingo, 117 pp., £12.99, October 2000, 0 00 710030 2
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... This is a collection of eight stories, the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on until there seemed to be nothing more to say. Her novels are exactly long enough. They accommodate her unique ability to imagine and record all the necessary authenticating detail of her settings: Cambridge before the Great War, Germany in the time of Goethe and Novalis, Pre-Revolutionary Moscow ...

This Charming Man

Frank Kermode, 24 February 1994

The Collected and Recollected Marc 
Fourth Estate, 51 pp., £25, November 1993, 1 85702 164 9Show More
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... It sometimes happens that an exceptionally talented person dies rather young, leaving behind him friends, still in their prime, who happen to be good writers – witness the posthumous celebrations of Shelley and D.H. Lawrence. Mark Boxer was famous at Cambridge; he was even famous for the manner of his leaving it; and then, without serious intermission, he became and remained famous in London ...

Jogging in the woods at Bellagio

Frank Kermode, 19 April 1984

Small World 
by David Lodge.
Secker, 339 pp., £8.95, March 1984, 0 436 25663 0
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... Small World is in the author’s words ‘a kind of sequel’ to Changing Places, published nine years ago. The place-changers, Zapp and Swallow, are again central characters; the dreadful Ringbaum, whose competitiveness enabled him to win a famous game of Humiliation, though at the cost of his job, now turns up again in even more bizarre predicaments, urging his wife to have sex under blankets in a jumbo jet so that he can apply for membership of ‘an exclusive fraternity of men who have achieved sexual congress while airborne’, and which he hopes will allow sexual congress with wives to count ...

Apocalyptic Opacity

Frank Kermode, 24 September 1992

The End of the Century at the End of the World 
by C.K. Stead.
Harvill, 220 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 0 00 272662 9
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... The title sounds apocalyptic, but all it means on the face of it is that this novel is set in New Zealand now. Doubtless it could be interpreted as having other implications, and there is some reason to believe the author would encourage his readers to discover or invent them. C.K. Stead is a poet and an academic critic as well as a novelist. As a critic, he has written a lot about Modernism, and what he admires about the writers he thinks worthy of the appellation ‘Modernist’ – Ezra Pound above all – is a habit or quality of ‘openness ...

Young Marvin

Frank Kermode, 24 January 1991

A Tenured Professor 
by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 197 pp., £12.95, November 1990, 1 85619 018 8
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Shade those laurels 
by Cyril Connolly and Peter Levi.
Bellew, 174 pp., £12.95, October 1990, 0 947792 37 6
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... The author of A Tenured Professor is not only a famous tenured professor of economics but, unlike many of the breed, an elegantly witty writer. From time to time he demonstrates his versatility by turning out a novel. This one is, in part anyway, an unimpassioned satire on the recently fashionable school of economic thought that deals in Rational Expectations ...

Knowing

Frank Kermode, 3 December 1981

Bliss 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 296 pp., £6.50, November 1981, 0 571 11769 4
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Exotic Pleasures 
by Peter Carey.
Picador, 192 pp., £1.95, October 1981, 0 330 26550 4
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... When I started reading Bliss I hadn’t read Mr Carey’s first book, The Fat Man in History, though like everybody else I had heard the stories acclaimed in terms which made the prospect of his first novel very attractive. It is therefore both surprising and regrettable that I have to say that Bliss is a bad novel, though by a talented author. In the ordinary way I don’t approve of using blurbs against authors, but this time there is point in quoting the publisher’s hype, since it represents something the novel itself pretends to deplore when it shows consumers as the victims of the advertisers who ruin our bodies and minds for profit ...

England’s Troubles

Frank Kermode, 17 October 1996

The Scent of Dried Roses 
by Tim Lott.
Viking, 275 pp., £16, September 1996, 0 670 86460 9
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... The author, now about forty, has long since shown how easy he finds it to be a success in the world. As magazine editor, television producer, businessman, he has made money without great effort. He is acquainted with grief in the predictable varieties that hardly anybody escapes, but he has also experienced a serious depression which almost drove him to suicide ...

At Tate Britain

Frank Kermode: William Blake, 14 December 2000

... A great many people seemed willing to incur the expense, and the discomfort of prolonged queueing, to see the big Blake exhibition at the Tate.* Some, no doubt, were expert even in the most rebarbative of the Prophetic Books. Others perhaps only remembered some poems and some stimulating aphorisms glorifying Desire (‘the whole creation will appear infinite and holy … This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment’) or insulting Joshua Reynolds (‘This Man was Hired to Depress Art ...

Diary

Frank Kermode: Jerusalem, 16 September 1982

... Retirement, like other less pleasant conditions, is something one never seriously expects to suffer. After a lifetime of compliance with constraints which, however gentle, were not of one’s own choosing, one experiences for the first time a dreadful liberty to do as one likes. In principle, anyway. For example, in principle I can now live anywhere I want ...

Under threat

Frank Kermode, 21 June 1984

Tributes: Interpreters of our Cultural Tradition 
by E.H. Gombrich.
Phaidon, 270 pp., £17.50, April 1984, 0 7148 2338 4
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... Sir Ernst Gombrich here collects various memorial lectures and memoirs of distinguished colleagues. He is a lecturer of high accomplishment – indeed I doubt if he has any serious rival in the shaping and illustration of an argument. Normally he uses not one but two magic lanterns. Some years ago he gave the Romanes Lecture and was denied the use of even one, but this did not deter him, for he simply used the interior of the Sheldonian as an image source, and voyaged on, with Karl Popper, as usual, his pole star, into very difficult waters: the relations of synchronic and diachronic in art history, the problems of canonicity and value ...

Losers

Frank Kermode, 5 September 1985

Family and Friends 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 187 pp., £8.95, September 1985, 0 224 02337 3
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... than before. Betty has escaped to Paris, where she means to be a dancer and do a double act with Frank. Mimi and Alfred go to fetch her back. Mimi takes over the negotiations; she knows Betty won’t come back, and hopes to have Frank herself. Even before she sets out we know she is hoping that the union of ...

Vérités Bergères

Frank Kermode, 7 March 1991

Lilac and Flag 
by John Berger.
Granta, 211 pp., £12.99, January 1991, 0 14 014214 2
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... This is the third volume of John Berger’s trilogy, ‘Into their Labours’ (‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours,’ John 4.38). The enterprise has occupied him at intervals for 17 years, so it is not surprising that the result is a work of considerable density. But it has a simple enough theme, suggested by its title and developed at some length in a ‘Historical Afterward’ to the first volume, Pig Earth (1979 ...

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