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Dirty Jokes

Julian Symons, 13 September 1990

Brief Lives 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 217 pp., £12.95, August 1990, 0 224 02747 6
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Deception 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 208 pp., £12.95, September 1990, 0 224 03000 0
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Homeboy 
by Seth Morgan.
Chatto, 390 pp., £12.95, August 1990, 0 7011 3664 2
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... Julia died. I read it in the Times this morning... I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’ The first half-dozen lines of Anita Brookner’s novel suggest the tone, straightforwardly realistic, and tell us the principal subject, the relationship between flamboyant upper-middle-class Julia and Fay, whose father was a cinema manager ...
The Myth of the Blitz 
by Angus Calder.
Cape, 304 pp., £17.99, September 1991, 9780224022583
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... A myth now, what is that? ‘A purely fictitious narrative embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena,’ my Shorter Oxford says, adding: ‘Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.’ That seems clear enough, and certainly covers an article recently read called ‘The Myth of President Kennedy’, which says that the assassinated idol of the Western world was little more, though certainly no less, than a rampant penis ...

Paul and Penny

Julian Symons, 25 October 1990

Paul Scott: A Life 
by Hilary Spurling.
Hutchinson, 429 pp., £16.99, October 1990, 0 09 173984 5
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Paul Scott’s Raj 
by Robin Moore.
Heinemann, 246 pp., £18.50, October 1990, 0 434 47588 2
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... One day in 1950 I walked down Crown Passage, an alley between King Street and Pall Mall, to call on the Falcon Press in pursuit of money they owed me. The managing director Peter Baker had left letters unanswered and telephone calls unreturned, and sure enough he was out. I saw instead a harassed long-nosed man in a blue suit who said his name was Paul Scott, and that he was the company secretary ...

Beyond Everyday Life

Julian Symons, 5 March 1981

The Blaze of Noon 
by Rayner Heppenstall.
Allison and Busby, 166 pp., £6.50, July 1980, 0 85031 288 4
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... Some time late in 1939, around the time World War Two began, I met Rayner Heppenstall in the street, and we went to a pub, no doubt to exchange gloomy views about our likely futures. His first novel would be coming out soon. ‘It might sell a few copies in the rubber shops,’ he said. The book was The Blaze of Noon. It appeared in November 1939, and its success was assured by an article in the Evening Standard which said in a headline that the novel was a challenge to the censor, and added two subheads: ‘An Affront to Decency ...

Poe’s Woes

Julian Symons, 23 April 1992

Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance 
by Kenneth Silverman.
Weidenfeld, 564 pp., £25, March 1992, 9780297812531
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... The prosecution case against Edgar A. Poe looks a strong one. Taken in by the Richmond tobacco broker John Allan when left orphaned at the age of two by the death of his actress mother Eliza, brought up as a member of the family and sent to the University of Virginia, he responded by running up gambling debts and drinking, so that he left after a year ...

Cityscape with Figures

Julian Symons, 21 August 1980

The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, Friends and Heroes 
by Olivia Manning.
Penguin, 287 pp., £1.25, March 1980, 0 14 003543 5
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... How does a novelist write about World War Two or the war in Vietnam? About populations deliberately enslaved or exterminated, destruction seen as normal? American writers differ from British novelists in approaching such all-embracing violence as too grotesque to be viewed in any terms except those of fantasy. There are no British novels that, like Catch 22, approach war as lunacy made real, or implicitly ask, like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, why running dope is worse than killing unarmed Vietnamese ...

Victor Ludorum

Julian Symons, 20 December 1990

The Complete Short Stories 
by V.S. Pritchett.
Chatto, 1220 pp., £25, November 1990, 0 7011 3712 6
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Lasting Impressions 
by V.S. Pritchett.
Chatto, 171 pp., £15.99, November 1990, 0 7011 3606 5
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... In the lustrum after World War Two the word ‘commitment’ got almost as much work as ‘existential’ in literary magazines. The words represented opposite attitudes to the writer’s stance in relation to the world around him. A literary existentialist owed a little, but not much, to Kierkegaard’s belief in the free and responsible individual discovering his spiritual essence through acts of will ...

Burlington Bertie

Julian Symons, 14 June 1990

The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read 
by James King.
Weidenfeld, 364 pp., £25, May 1990, 0 297 81042 1
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... In old age Herbert Read wrote an uncharacteristically tart bit of verse, perhaps after a quarrel with his second wife Ludo: Tired of this lonely life Gone to find another wife.                                               HR Couldn’t find one. Shot myself You’ll find my body on the larder shelf ...

Terrible to be alive

Julian Symons, 5 December 1991

Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life 
by William Pritchard.
Farrar, Straus, 335 pp., $25, April 1990, 0 374 24677 7
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Randall Jarrell: Selected Poems 
edited by William Pritchard.
Farrar, Straus, 115 pp., $17.95, April 1990, 0 374 25867 8
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... To look again at The Shores of Light, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his reviews in the Twenties and Thirties, is to marvel at his ability to discern, analyse and assess the American talents of the period as soon as they poked nose above ground. Hemingway was spotted with the first publication of In our time in 1924 (the edition 170 copies) as a writer of distinctive prose which had ‘more artistic integrity’ than anything else written about World War One by an American ...

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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... The year is 1920. Young Denis in Crome Yellow is asked by persistent Mary Bracegirdle which contemporary poets he likes best. The reply comes instantly: ‘Blight, Mildew and Smut’. Mary is taken aback, disbelieving, tries desperately to change what she has heard. Perhaps Denis had really said: ‘Squire, Binyon and Shanks’, ‘Childe, Blunden and Earp’, even ‘Abercrombie, Drink-water and Rabindranath Tagore’? But she knows it is not so: Blight, Mildew and Smut were for Denis the poets of the decade ...

Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 July 1982

The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations 
by Julian Symons.
Orbis, 143 pp., £7.95, October 1981, 0 85613 362 0
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Critical Observations 
by Julian Symons.
Faber, 213 pp., £9.95, October 1981, 0 571 11688 4
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As I walked down New Grub Street: Memories of a Writing Life 
by Walter Allen.
Heinemann, 276 pp., £8.95, November 1981, 0 434 01829 5
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... The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective is lured away from his bee-keeping activities (Holmes has ‘developed a cage of a new type that can be slipped between two combs in the brood chamber’) by a distressed young woman posing, rather pointlessly, as a local journalist ...

Diamond Daggers

Stephen Wall, 28 June 1990

Death’s Darkest Face 
by Julian Symons.
Macmillan, 272 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 0 333 51783 0
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Vendetta 
by Michael Dibdin.
Faber, 281 pp., £12.99, June 1990, 0 571 14332 6
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Gallowglass 
by Barbara Vine.
Viking, 296 pp., £13.99, March 1990, 0 670 83241 3
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... Death’s Darkest Face is Julian Symons’s 27th crime story, and its appearance coincides with an award (the Diamond Dagger) for his long service to the genre. This isn’t quite enough for his publishers, keen to promote the book as a proper novel rather than another addition, however distinguished, to their crime list ...

Diary

Nicolas Freeling: On Missing the Detective Story, 11 June 1992

... a delicate practitioner in this art of detective fiction we had all consigned to musty attics. Julian Symons has brought scholarship to this historical phenomenon, technical skills to a preposterous idol (symbolised by the Poe statuettes, still distributed yearly by the Mystery Writers of America). He has illuminated it.* This is no straight-faced ...

Porcupined

John Bayley, 22 June 1989

The Essential Wyndham Lewis 
edited by Julian Symons.
Deutsch, 380 pp., £17.95, April 1989, 0 233 98376 7
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... its own object, a picture of itself rather than a prophecy. The bold self-portrait on the cover of Julian Symons’s excellent selection from Lewis’s work in a sense tells us all we need to know about his manner, which is a kind of distillation of Art Déco – fierce, highly-coloured, angular, ugly, but with a grotesque tactile solidity which compels ...

The Pouncer

Julian Barnes, 3 March 1983

The Mystery of Georges Simenon 
by Fenton Bresler.
Heinemann, 259 pp., £8.95, February 1983, 0 434 98033 1
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... forensic solecism in the Maigret books, he tends to rely for criticism on the judgments of Julian Symons and Maurice Richardson. This is probably wise – Mr Bresler arouses little confidence in his own literary footing. When, for instance, he quotes Simenon’s dictum about style – ‘If it rains, I write: “It rains” ’ – he seems ...

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