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German Jew

Michael Irwin, 17 April 1980

The Missing Years 
by Walter Laqueur.
Weidenfeld, 281 pp., £5.95, March 1980, 0 297 77707 6
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Jack be nimble 
by Nigel Williams.
Secker, 213 pp., £5.50, March 1980, 0 436 57155 2
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Identity Papers 
by Anthony Cronin.
Co-op Books, 194 pp., £4.50, February 1980, 0 905441 23 0
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Narrow Rooms 
by James Purdy.
Black Sheep Books, 185 pp., £5.95, March 1980, 0 906538 60 2
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Six Moral Tales 
by Eric Rohmer, translated by Sabine d’Estrée.
Lorrimer, 252 pp., £4.95, February 1980, 0 85647 075 9
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... The Missing Years attempts to show what it was like to be a Jew in Germany during the first 45 years of this century. Dr Richard Lasson, the narrator, traces his own career from front-line service in the First World War, through the mounting uncertainties and perils of the Twenties and Thirties to desperately precarious survival in Berlin during the Second World War ...

Ante Antietam

Michael Irwin, 24 January 1980

Confederates 
by Thomas Keneally.
Collins, 427 pp., £5.75, October 1980, 0 00 222141 1
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Just Above My Head 
by James Baldwin.
Joseph, 597 pp., £6.95, October 1980, 0 7181 1764 6
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Winter Doves 
by David Cook.
Secker, 213 pp., £4.95, October 1980, 0 436 10673 6
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All Girls Together 
by Paula Neuss.
Duckworth, 141 pp., £5.95, November 1980, 0 7156 1454 1
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... Historical fiction is difficult to write, and often unrewarding to read, because it declines so readily into fictionalised history. Famous men utter quotations, strike familiar postures and reach predestined conclusions. Descriptions of uniforms, weapons and furnishings clog the narrative. The novel becomes a farrago of information. In choosing to write about the American Civil War Thomas Keneally ran several additional risks ...

Honey and Water

Michael Irwin, 7 August 1980

The Beekeepers 
by Peter Redgrove.
Routledge, 156 pp., £5.50, July 1980, 0 7100 0473 7
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F for Ferg 
by Ian Cochrane.
Gollancz, 117 pp., £5.95, July 1980, 0 575 02862 9
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Events Beyond the Heartlands 
by Robert Watson.
Heinemann, 241 pp., £6.50, July 1980, 0 434 84200 1
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... In the first chapter of Peter Redgrove’s novel we are introduced to a poet named Guy, who is about to read aloud some poems he has written about bees. He breaks off a meandering introduction to tell his audience: I can see you saying, ‘Why doesn’t he keep to the point?’ But not keeping to it, is the point. You need poets to remind you of what you keep on forgetting by keeping to the point ...

The Art of Arno Schmidt

Michael Irwin, 2 October 1980

Evening Edged in Gold 
by Arno Schmidt.
Marion Boyars, 215 pp., £60, September 1980, 9780714527192
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Confessions of a Lady-Killer 
by George Stade.
Muller, 374 pp., £6.95, September 1980, 0 584 31057 9
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Seahorse 
by Graham Petrie.
Constable, 169 pp., £5.95, August 1980, 0 09 463710 5
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... The reviewer of fiction can pretty easily acquire enough second-hand information to enable him to imply easy familiarity with the oeuvre of a writer he has only infrequently encountered. There can even be a temptation to go a step further, by seeming to assume that this knowledge will be common to all cultivated people. In the case of Arno Schmidt I am tempted towards no such subterfuges, partly because my ignorance of the man and his work, prior to my reading of Evening Edged in Gold, was total, partly because I imagine numerous other potential British readers will be in a similar position ...

Household Sounds

Michael Irwin, 22 November 1979

The Old Jest 
by Jennifer Johnston.
Hamish Hamilton, 167 pp., £4.95
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The Goosefeather Bed 
by Diana Melly.
Duckworth, 139 pp., £5.95
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The Snow Man 
by Valerie Kershaw.
Duckworth, 159 pp., £5.95
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Spring Sonata 
by Bernice Rubens.
W.H. Allen, 215 pp., £4.94
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... The Old Jest is set in a village on the Irish coast, not far from Dublin, in the summer of 1920. Nancy Gulliver, the heroine, an orphan just turned 18, lives in a fine old house with her Aunt Mary and a senile, hymn-singing grandfather. In this holiday between school and university she strikes up a relationship with a middle-aged Republican gunman hiding out in a hut on the shore ...

Flowering and Fading

Michael Irwin, 6 March 1980

Wrinkles 
by Charles Simmons.
Alison Press/Secker, 182 pp., £4.95, January 1980, 9780436464904
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Devotion 
by Botho Strauss, translated by Sophie Wilkins.
Chatto, 120 pp., £5.50, January 1980, 0 7011 2421 0
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The Followed Man 
by Thomas Williams.
Sidgwick, 352 pp., £5.95, January 1980, 9780399900259
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Reverse Negative 
by André Jute.
Secker, 264 pp., £5.95, January 1980, 0 436 22980 3
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... Two of the novels under review consist of a series of fragments that the reader is tacitly invited to relate. This elliptical mode carries certain obvious advantages: it makes for tautness; it does away with irksome problems of exposition, verisimilitude and consistency. The reader is likely to be particularly alert, apprehensive lest he miss the point: it could be that something deucedly sophisticated is going on ...

Final Jam

Michael Irwin, 2 June 1988

The Sykaos Papers 
by E.P. Thompson.
Bloomsbury, 482 pp., £13.95, May 1988, 0 7475 0117 3
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... It isn’t easy to describe this Protean work, but the 18th-century flavour of the title page offers a useful preliminary hint. Essentially the story is an inversion of Gulliver’s Travels. The voyager, Oi Paz, views Sykaos, our own dear planet, with the pained, baffled rationality of a visiting Houyhnhnm. His early adventures among us, however, are picaresque in their variety and indignity ...

Reconstructions

Michael Irwin, 19 February 1981

Kepler 
by John Banville.
Secker, 192 pp., £5.95, January 1981, 0 436 03264 3
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The Daughter 
by Judith Chernaik.
London Magazine Editions, 216 pp., £5.50, January 1981, 9780060107574
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We always treat women too well 
by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.
Calder, 174 pp., £8.95, January 1981, 0 7145 3687 3
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... A reviewer must allow for his personal reading temperament, his instinctive critical preferences and dislikes. John Banville roused my own antipathies as early as the second page of his novel: Kepler, arriving at a Bohemian castle, is greeted by a hump-backed dwarf who pipes, ‘God save you, gentles,’ and to make matters worse has second sight ...

Point of Principle

Michael Irwin, 2 April 1981

The Country 
by David Plante.
Gollancz, 159 pp., £6.95, March 1981, 0 575 02938 2
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The Radiant Future 
by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Gordon Clough.
Bodley Head, 287 pp., £7.50, March 1981, 0 370 30219 2
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Farewell to Europe 
by Walter Laqueur.
Weidenfeld, 310 pp., £6.50, March 1981, 0 297 77870 6
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... The Country, which is concerned with old age, death and family bereavement, is adroitly restricted to an account of four visits. The first two, at intervals of a year, are paid by Daniel Francoeur, an American writer long resident in London, to his aging parents in Rhode Island. He finds them unhappy, constrained by repressed hostility and old disappointments ...

Hidden Privilege

Michael Irwin, 16 September 1982

Russian Journal 
by Andrea Lee.
Faber, 239 pp., £8.95, May 1982, 0 571 11904 2
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... Andrea Lee spent ten months in Russia in 1978-9, together with her husband, on an academic exchange – eight months at Moscow State University and two at Leningrad State. Her Russian Journal, some of it written during her stay, some of it worked up subsequently, consists of thirty or forty fragments, each encapsulating an incident, an experience or a character ...

The Future of John Barth

Michael Irwin, 5 June 1980

Letters 
by John Barth.
Secker, 772 pp., £7.95, May 1980, 0 436 03674 6
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The Left-Handed Woman 
by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Eyre Methuen, 94 pp., £4.95, April 1980, 0 413 45890 3
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Passion Play 
by Jerzy Kosinski.
Joseph, 271 pp., £5.95, April 1980, 0 7181 1913 4
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... Offering a critical account of John Barth’s new book within the confines of a periodical review is like trying to haul a whale on board a fishing smack. For the sake of brevity, even my formal description of the work must be brutally oversimplified. It is an epistolary novel, divided into seven sections, one for every ‘letter’ of the title. Each section consists of a series of missives from the same seven correspondents: Lady Amherst ...

Humiliations

Michael Irwin, 4 December 1980

Collected Short Stories 
by Kingsley Amis.
Hutchinson, 303 pp., £6.95, October 1980, 0 09 143430 0
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World’s End 
by Paul Theroux.
Hamish Hamilton, 211 pp., £6.50, October 1980, 0 241 10447 5
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Packages 
by Richard Stern.
Sidgwick, 151 pp., £5.95, November 1980, 0 283 98689 1
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Oxbridge Blues 
by Frederic Raphael.
Cape, 213 pp., £5.95, October 1980, 9780224018715
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The Fat Man in History 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 186 pp., £4.95, October 1980, 0 571 11619 1
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... In the introduction to his Collected Short Stories Kingsley Amis strongly implies that the genre is not at present in a healthy state. He claims that subsidisation by the Arts Council, or other such bodies, of the magazines in which short stories often appear, fosters self-indulgence. Certainly this is a term that came to my mind more than once when reading the works under review ...

Another A.N. Wilson

Michael Irwin, 3 December 1981

Who was Oswald Fish? 
by A.N. Wilson.
Secker, 314 pp., £6.95, October 1981, 0 436 57606 6
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... The Sweets of Pimlico, published in 1977, was an assured and attractive first novel. It moved well. The light, fluent, shapely narrative encompassed with equal facility episodes of mannered comedy and passages of simple feeling. Here, plainly, was a writer who combined imagination and literary intelligence: but his prospects were difficult to assess because he was working in a mode which, while fashionable enough to be taken for granted, is both demanding and problematic ...

Sweet Porn

Michael Irwin, 1 October 1981

George’s Marvellous Medicine 
by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake.
Cape, 96 pp., £3.95, April 1981, 0 224 01901 5
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... The publisher’s note on the jacket of George’s Marvellous Medicine says that ‘Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was voted No 1 (above Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland) in a Sunday Times survey to find the best ten children’s books.’ Even if the word ‘best’ is translated into reasonable terms (‘currently most popular’?), the claim remains impressive, and implies classic status ...

True Stories

Michael Irwin, 30 March 1989

Have the men had enough? 
by Margaret Forster.
Chatto, 251 pp., £12.95, March 1989, 0 7011 3400 3
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Aurora’s Motive 
by Erich Hackl, translated by Edna McCown.
Cape, 117 pp., £10.95, March 1989, 0 224 02584 8
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The Open Door 
by Alan Sillitoe.
Grafton, 358 pp., £11.95, February 1989, 0 246 13422 4
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... Fiction derives from facts as paper derives from trees, but in either case the transformation can be left incomplete. While many a novel of the past twenty years or so has hinted or advertised its fictionality, others have asserted in various ways their entanglement with real life. The three works to be discussed here are of this latter kind, fibrous with circumstance ...

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