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Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster

25 April 1991
The Search for Modern China 
by Jonathan Spence.
Hutchinson, 876 pp., £19.95, May 1990, 0 09 174472 5
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Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s to the 1980s 
by Jack Gray.
Oxford, 456 pp., £35, April 1990, 0 19 913076 0
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... interposé. (An example is given below.) Most important, perhaps, continuities in values and habits provide keys to otherwise puzzling patterns of behaviour. Among the persisting values discussed in JackGray’s Rebellions and Revolutions are those of collective responsibility, respect for the elderly, economic egalitarianism and outward conformity to the changing dictates of authority. Surprisingly ...

Oh my oh my oh my

John Lanchester

12 September 1991
Mao II 
by Don DeLillo.
Cape, 239 pp., £13.99, September 1991, 9780224031523
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Introducing Don DeLillo 
edited by Frank Lentricchia.
Duke, 221 pp., £28, September 1991, 0 8223 1135 6
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... exclusively on his work, Pynchon had paradoxically made it very difficult for any novel to compete with the wonderfully satisfying, wonderfully interesting fiction he has made of his life. Bill Gray, the central character of Mao II, Don DeLillo’s tenth novel, is one of these Pynchon/Salinger recluses: the mysterious power of the image of the writer-cum-herrnit is one of the book’s main ...

Tall Tales

Joanne O’Leary: ‘Jackself’

31 May 2017
by Jacob Polley.
Picador, 67 pp., £9.99, November 2016, 978 1 4472 9044 5
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... see a great white swan circling the village. Much of my time with Jacob Polley’s latest book of poems was spent deciding whether Jackself was a boy or a bird. In the course of a few lines in ‘Jack Snipe’, a stocky wader becomes a teenager heeling off his trainers. ‘Peewit’ frustrates your ability to say whether it’s a child or a lapwing that limps across boggy ground: a little one ...

Our Jack

Julian Symons

22 July 1993
Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare 
by Theresa Whistler.
Duckworth, 478 pp., £25, May 1993, 9780715624302
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... and vision that marked the beginning of the 20th century. As Wordsworth and Coleridge found it necessary to discard Augustan formality (Wordsworth used for odious comparison a sonnet in which Gray wrote that ‘reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire’), so the rejection of a decayed Palgravian romanticism, and the stale or weakened language in which it found expression, were prerequisites of ...

Poetry to Thrill an Oyster

Gregory Woods: Fitz-Greene Halleck

16 November 2000
The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck 
by John W.M. Hallock.
Wisconsin, 226 pp., £14.95, April 2000, 0 299 16804 2
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... sake’ not his body’s. Only the teacher, a woman, dares to kiss him – whereupon, every inch the sleeping beauty, he wakes up. Although Halleck explicitly lays claim to the influence of Thomas Gray (‘I borrow music from the Muse of Gray’), his Grayness keeps veering off uneasily into the tones of Alexander Pope (‘And I – a victim to love’s cruel dart,/Went – to the Opera – with a ...

Because We Could

David Simpson: Soldiers and Torture

18 November 2010
None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture 
by Joshua Phillips.
Verso, 237 pp., £16.99, September 2010, 978 1 84467 599 9
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... American soldiers he does discuss tend to follow the same sequence: homecoming, deep regret, depression, sometimes suicide. His two principal homecoming narratives certainly follow this pattern. Adam Gray was a sergeant in the tank regiment in which his friend Jonathan Millantz was a combat medic. There is strong evidence that both committed suicide, although their deaths were ruled accidental by the ...

Everyone, Then No One

David Nasaw: Where have all the bowler hats gone?

23 February 2006
Hatless JackThe President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat 
by Neil Steinberg.
Granta, 342 pp., £12, August 2005, 1 86207 782 7
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... tips they then had to hand over to their bosses). The story of the hat-check girl, borrowed in part from an A.J. Liebling New Yorker article, is told in Neil Steinberg’s shaggy-dog history, Hatless Jack. The book floats amiably back and forth, but spends most time on JFK. Steinberg’s thesis is simply stated. Once upon a time, everyone wore hats; then no one did; Kennedy was not to blame. Almost ...


John Sutherland

3 December 1992
Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of Exile 
by Ian Bell.
Mainstream, 295 pp., £14.99, November 1992, 1 85158 457 9
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... that, however moist-eyed, they carry with them an undimmed recollection of how awful the place was and how right any sane person is to get out and stay out: ‘There is no special loveliness in that gray country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly-looking cornlands; its quaint, gray, castled city ...
7 October 1982
The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power 
by Garry Wills.
Atlantic/Little, Brown, 310 pp., $14.95, February 1982, 0 316 94385 1
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... as Wilson’s and as pointed as Laski’s. Wills is a brilliant seminarian turned sceptic, and a savvy journalist turned historian who has written with acuity on Madison and Jefferson and on Jack Ruby (the assassin of Kennedy’s assassin) and Richard Nixon. He is the closest thing the New World has to a Chesterton or a Burke. Who better to reflect on the relationship of sin and power, of ...

Pure TNT

James Francken: Thom Jones

18 February 1999
Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine 
by Thom Jones.
Faber, 312 pp., £9.99, February 1999, 9780571196562
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... finally come face to face with the fearsome boxer and the boy receives a signed photo: ‘To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston.’ But a cornerman’s heavy-handed intervention (‘a man in a gray sweatshirt demanded two dollars each for the photographs’) and the boy’s subsequent failure in the ring stress the lessons of adult life that remain to be learned; the photo and the friendship ...

The Right to Murder

Gaby Wood: ‘In a Lonely Place’

22 March 2018
In a Lonely Place 
by Dorothy B. Hughes.
NYRB, 224 pp., $14.95, August 2017, 978 1 68137 147 4
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In a Lonely Place 
directed by Nicholas Ray.
Criterion Collection, £14.99
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... just petulance. A couple of feeble jokes.’ Dix doesn’t let up. ‘I grant you, the jokes could have been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you.’ Enter his alibi: Laurel Gray, a neighbour who saw him come home with Atkinson. At the threshold of the captain’s office she raises an eyebrow, just slightly, and over the next few moments it becomes clear that, for the ...

Incandescent Memory

Thomas Powers: Mark Twain

28 April 2011
Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. I 
edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.
California, 736 pp., £24.95, November 2010, 978 0 520 26719 0
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... like frank language, which was Twain’s stock in trade, and she was equally disturbed, perhaps even frightened, by Twain’s nose for the whiff of hypocrisy. He went for it immediately, much as a Jack Russell terrier would snap at the neck of a mewling kitten. Livy did what she could to make her standards his, at least in public, and she mainly succeeded. The loss to the world cannot be calculated ...

On Some Days of the Week

Colm Tóibín: Mrs Oscar Wilde

10 May 2012
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde 
by Franny Moyle.
John Murray, 374 pp., £9.99, February 2012, 978 1 84854 164 1
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The Picture of Dorian GrayAn Annotated, Uncensored Edition 
by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nicholas Frankel.
Harvard, 295 pp., £25.95, April 2011, 978 0 674 05792 0
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... that ‘most writers on Wilde see in him the aesthete, the predestined victim of a theory, and the martyr to a subversive cult.’ This was wrong: ‘His childish hints at strange sins in Dorian Gray and other works are mere rhetoric … His one great hatred was of dullness, which is very dangerous and can raise a whole nation in its defence.’ Ford Madox Ford, in an article written in 1939 ...
24 January 1985
The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age 
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Faber, 595 pp., £20, March 1984, 0 571 13177 8
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... at its existence than to raise hopes as to its eradication. The history of the world is the history of many things, but in most places, at most times, and for most people, it was and is as Thomas Gray described it in 1750: ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’. So far so good. But if poverty is promoted from a platitude to a problem, things become much more difficult. For the problems of ...

Last in the Funhouse

Patrick Parrinder

17 April 1986
Gerald’s Party 
by Robert Coover.
Heinemann, 316 pp., £10.95, April 1986, 0 434 14290 5
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by Edmund White.
Picador, 342 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 330 29291 9
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Lake Wobegon Days 
by Garrison Keillor.
Faber, 337 pp., £9.95, February 1986, 0 571 13846 2
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In Country 
by Bobbie Ann Mason.
Chatto, 245 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 7011 3034 2
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... I have taught it myself, and it is splendid seminar material.) The principal characters of ‘The Babysitter’ are a married couple going out to an evening party, their children, the babysitter, Jack (her boyfriend) and Jack’s buddy Mark. There is no single authoritative story-line, though some readers might claim that it is possible to deduce one. In a series of discontinuous paragraphs Coover ...

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