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Ian Sansom: Dave Eggers, 16 November 2000

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius 
by Dave Eggers.
Picador, 415 pp., £14.99, July 2000, 0 330 48454 0
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... The title of Dave Eggers’s book is fair warning: it prepares the reader to put on a happy face. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes emulsioned with the kind of compliments and absurd little pronunciamentos that stretch credulity. ‘The force and energy of this book could power a train,’ apparently. Goodness knows what kind of vehicle you might be able to start up if you could harness the force and energy of Ulysses or King Lear – a giant Ariane V, powered by a 170-ton liquid-propellant rocket motor assisted by twin 270-ton solid-fuel boosters, perhaps ...

Fanfares

Ian Sansom, 11 December 1997

The Bounty 
by Derek Walcott.
Faber, 78 pp., £14.99, July 1997, 0 571 19130 4
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... They call him Mister Bombastic: ‘Because he is well capable of rhetoric and flourish, he too often allows these two-edged gifts to deflect him from a real, vivid self into a bombastic stance’ (Eavan Boland); ‘I have found Walcott’s extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller ...

Through Plate-Glass

Ian Sansom: Jonathan Coe, 10 May 2001

The Rotters’ Club 
by Jonathan Coe.
Viking, 405 pp., £14.99, April 2001, 0 670 89252 1
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... There are those who like to mortise a plot, carefully and neatly, and there are those who are content simply to bang it together with panel pins and a tube or two of Gripfill. Jonathan Coe is undoubtedly the craftsman – a counter-sinking, dove-tailing, professional-finishing kind of writer. But he does get away with the occasional bodge. The framing device for his new novel, The Rotters’ Club, for example, seems to be held together with two blobs of mastic, intended to provide a solid fixing onto a sequel ...

Everything You Know

Ian Sansom: Hoods, 3 November 2016

Hood 
by Alison Kinney.
Bloomsbury, 163 pp., £9.99, March 2016, 978 1 5013 0740 9
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... The​ 21st-century version of Aristotle’s Poetics – and for that matter of Cicero’s On the Orator, Robert McKee’s Story, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the entire works of Syd Field, and just about every other book ever written that pretends to reveal the ways fiction, drama or poetry ‘work’ – is tvtropes.org, the self-described ‘all-devouring pop-culture wiki’ which has done so much to contribute to our understanding of modern literary and artistic tropes, trends, devices, possibilities and all forms of story structure ...

Wayne’s World

Ian Sansom, 6 July 1995

Selected Poems 
by Carol Ann Duffy.
Penguin, 151 pp., £5.99, August 1994, 0 14 058735 7
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... on my list of examples.’ ‘Carol Ann Duffy is a poet at the height of her powers,’ insisted Ian McMillan in a review of Duffy’s last collection, Mean Time (1993). ‘True. Read. This. Book.’ Beryl Bainbridge provides the key to understanding Duffy’s popularity when she writes that ‘to me, Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are more accessible than ...

Half-Timbering, Homosexuality and Whingeing

Ian Sansom: Julian Barnes, 1 October 1998

England, England 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 272 pp., £15.99, September 1998, 0 224 05275 6
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... of the most brilliant metaphors make Barnes more like Alan Bennett than he is like Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. Indeed, on page 71 of England, England the following serio-ludicro simile suddenly unfurls: It’s like looking for the tag to unwrap a CD. You know that feeling? There’s a coloured strip running all the way round, and you can see what’s ...

All the Cultural Bases

Ian Sansom, 20 March 1997

Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland 
by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell.
Faber, 160 pp., £7.99, November 1996, 0 571 17539 2
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... This is tricky. First the facts. In 1936 W.H. Auden persuaded Faber and Faber to commission a travel book about Iceland. He spent three months in the country, part of the time travelling with his friend Louis MacNeice and a group of schoolboys and a teacher from Bryanston School. Auden and MacNeice collaborated in the writing of the book, which was published in 1937 as Letters from Iceland ...

Happy Knack

Ian Sansom: Betjeman, 20 February 2003

John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 736 pp., £25, November 2002, 0 7195 5002 5
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... If there is one pleasure available to mankind it’s doing what we’re not supposed to do – playing, fiddling, mooching, galooting and otherwise tickling our fancies. This explains, for example, why people come home early, or stay out all night long, why we sleep in, sleep over, drink to excess, write, read or publish literary criticism, and commit crime ...

Whamming

Ian Sansom: A novel about work, 2 December 2004

Some Great Thing 
by Colin McAdam.
Cape, 358 pp., £12.99, March 2004, 9780224064552
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... Novelists are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings, obviously. It’s a necessary part of the job, that languid repose; that successful weakening of the usual human determination to do something useful and purposeful rather than just sit around all day trying to think up amusing names for people and places that don’t exist. Trollope, renowned for his determined working habits, and often held up as an exemplar with his little charts and his writing slope and his 250 words per page, used to put in a couple of hours a day, which is less time than my grandfather used to put in on his vegetable patch ...

Every Rusty Hint

Ian Sansom: Anthony Powell, 21 October 2004

Anthony Powell: A Life 
by Michael Barber.
Duckworth, 338 pp., £20, July 2004, 0 7156 3049 0
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... I happened to read Michael Barber’s rather off-beat and amusing biography of Anthony Powell while waiting for a delayed easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast and enduring all the usual privations of short-haul, low-cost flying: being shunted from gate to gate, and from sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge to sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge; and being jostled, and jostling, on this occasion in the very burly company of the young men and women of the Scottish Gymnastics Display Team, and an elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, and a man tattooed from neck to wrist, and possibly lower, who was working his way loudly through a large box of Quality Street ...

Omdamniverous

Ian Sansom: D.J. Enright, 25 September 2003

Injury Time: A Memoir 
by D.J. Enright.
Pimlico, 183 pp., £12.50, May 2003, 9781844133154
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... This is the end of something – although of what exactly it’s not quite clear. The death of D.J. Enright, in December 2002, makes one ask some serious questions about poets and about critics. To put it bluntly: there will be no more books from Dennis Enright. Does it matter? Should we be sad? Should we be bothered? Writing in the LRB just over twenty years ago, the near-omniscient Donald Davie pre-empted these questions and delivered a cruel judgment ...

Diary

Ian Sansom: I was a teenage evangelist, 8 July 2004

... Jean 1.1). At the same time, I threw out almost my entire top shelf, or cupboard-top, of books: Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites, Junkie, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Lolita, books which I had lovingly collected from jumble sales and Oxfam shops, and which I now had a strong sense were somehow ‘wrong’. We’d done ‘The Wife of Bath’s ...

Cheesespreadology

Ian Sansom, 7 March 1996

Garbage 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 121 pp., £7.50, February 1995, 0 393 31203 8
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Tape for the Turn of the Year 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 205 pp., £8.95, February 1995, 0 393 31204 6
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Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow 
by August Kleinzahler.
Faber, 93 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17431 0
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The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs 
by Charles Simic.
Michigan, 127 pp., £30, January 1996, 0 472 06569 6
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Frightening Toys 
by Charles Simic.
Faber, 101 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17399 3
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The Ghost of Eden 
by Chase Twichell.
Faber, 78 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17434 5
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... In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had ‘Just a Smack at Auden’: What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end. Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend, Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end. By contrast, in a lecture on ‘Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry’ to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson gave William Carlos Williams and his reviewers an exasperated wallop: The most unexpected American critics will be found speaking of him with tender reverence; they feel he is a kind of saint ...

Bobby-Dazzling

Ian Sansom, 17 July 1997

W.H. Auden: Prose 1926-38, Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse 
edited by Edward Mendelson.
Faber, 836 pp., £40, March 1997, 0 571 17899 5
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... W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and reappears in every religion, metaphysic and code of ethics; it is reflected in (or perhaps reflects) the earliest social system of which we have knowledge – the Dual Organisation in Ancient Egypt; one of its most important projections is war ...

‘I was there, I saw it’

Ian Sansom: Ted Hughes, 19 February 1998

Birthday Letters 
by Ted Hughes.
Faber, 198 pp., £14.99, January 1998, 0 571 19472 9
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... Captain Hook, ‘cadaverous and blackavised’, ‘never more sinister than when he is most polite’, lives in fear of the crocodile who ate his arm and swallowed a clock. ‘That crocodile,’ Hook announces in Act II of Peter Pan, ‘would have had me before now, but … before he can reach me I hear the tick and bolt.’ ‘Some day,’ retorts the bespectacled boatswain Smee, ‘the clock will run down, and then he’ll get you ...

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