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Illusionists

Norman Hampson, 20 August 1992

Diderot: A Critical Biography 
by P.N. Furbank.
Secker, 524 pp., £25, February 1992, 0 436 16853 7
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This is not a Story and Other Stories 
by Denis Diderot, translated by P.N. Furbank.
Missouri, 166 pp., £22, December 1991, 0 8262 0815 0
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Diderot: Political Writings 
edited by John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler.
Cambridge, 225 pp., £30, May 1992, 0 521 36044 7
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... Once upon a time, a distinguished French Department in a well-known British university set a question on Diderot in its Final Examination. Owing to a couple of unfortunate misprints, his name appeared as ‘Piderst’. Understandably, it was not a popular question. But it did attract one answer, from a candidate who discussed the merits of Piderst with enthusiasm, if in rather general terms ...

Skiving

P.N. Furbank, 1 April 1982

You, You and You: The People Out of Step with World War Two 
by Pete Grafton.
Pluto, 169 pp., £2.95, February 1982, 9780861043606
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... events of forty years ago, and only this way? No jokes, no affection or ideas, no imaginative response to the things happening in Warsaw or Stalingrad or Auschwitz – either then or now? It would be a depressing conclusion. It is different with the stories of horror: one can perfectly understand a person brooding over ...

Worries

P.N. Furbank, 5 May 1983

John Galsworthy: A Reassessment 
by Alec Fréchet, translated by Denis Mahaffey.
Macmillan, 229 pp., £20, January 1983, 0 333 31535 9
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... genre we are discussing first really captured the public with The Forsyte Saga and there is an aptness in this, in that Galsworthy’s technique as a novelist depends on a trick or device closely akin to ‘background music’. Many novelists in the past have grown sentimental about their own created characters and convey ...

Lord Fitzcricket

P.N. Furbank: The composer’s life, 21 May 1998

Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric 
by Mark Amory.
Chatto, 274 pp., £20, March 1998, 1 85619 234 2
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... of all from the mere look of it, ‘these black waves of notes undulating across the page’. He spent a year or two at Eton, losing more knowledge than he gained, and emerged, he said, with ‘a distaste for the Classics and, what was more serious, a distaste for work itself’. It was a question what, if anything, he was fitted to do, but at last the ideal ...

Flower Power

P.N. Furbank: Jocelyn Brooke, 8 May 2003

'The Military Orchid’ and Other Novels 
by Jocelyn Brooke.
Penguin, 437 pp., £10.99, August 2002, 0 14 118713 1
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... volume, with an introduction by Powell, and it is nice to see this trilogy now reprinted as a Penguin Classic. For his work is oddly appealing, and it is worth probing why. The form, as he invented it in his first book, The Military Orchid (1948), and exploited further in A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, as ...
Cross Channel 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 211 pp., £13.99, January 1996, 0 224 04301 3
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... of truth. When the Flaubert addict in Flaubert’s Parrot writes to the Grocers’ Company to ask whether redcurrant jam was the same colour in the great novelist’s day as it is now, he receives a reassuring answer: it almost certainly was, though perhaps a little cloudier. But there will be no such easy answer, he is forced to realise, to ...

Are your fingers pointed or blunt?

P.N. Furbank: Medical myths of homosexuality, 22 July 2004

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 342 pp., £18.99, November 2003, 0 330 48223 8
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... it seldom rained. Most of them suffered, not from the cruel machinery of justice, but from the creeping sense of shame, the fear of losing friends, family and reputation, the painful incompatibility of religious belief and sexual desire, the social and mental isolation and the strain of concealment. Loveless marriages cause more lasting grief than laws, and ...

Good Sausages

P.N. Furbank, 20 October 1983

Maiden Voyage A Voice Through a Cloud 
by Denton Welch.
Penguin, 256 pp., £2.95, July 1983, 0 14 009522 5
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... his sole subject-matter as a writer. He was born in 1915, the youngest of three brothers, and spent much of his boyhood in China, where his father had business interests. His adored mother (an American, and a Christian Scientist) died when he was 11, and this event caused him a deep emotional disturbance, at the height of which he ran away from his ...

Fools

P.N. Furbank, 15 October 1981

Ford Madox Ford: Prose and Politics 
by Robert Green.
Cambridge, 218 pp., £16.50, July 1981, 9780521236102
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... at a particular point in time and in particular places’, and from the point of view of his response to ‘astonishingly rapid changes in European politics and culture’. Ford, that is to say, as a thinker. From a political point of view, Ford, as Green depicts him, was in a quandary. He found himself, at the time of the Boer War, bitterly hostile to the ...

The Earnestness of Being Important

P.N. Furbank, 19 August 1982

John Buchan: A Memoir 
by William Buchan.
Buchan and Enright, 272 pp., £9.95, May 1982, 0 907675 03 4
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The Best Short Stories of John Buchan. Vol. II 
edited by David Daniell.
Joseph, 240 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 9780718121211
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... he was on the side of books. He thought, it is true, that he ought to have been a Guardian, shaping the Empire, or dominating Cabinets, or, at worst, ‘a power behind the throne’. However, after his spell in Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’, the nation didn’t seem to want him in the Guardian line, so he did the next best thing and became an ...

Is it a crime?

P.N. Furbank, 6 June 1985

Peterley Harvest: The Private Diary of David Peterley 
edited by Michael Holroyd.
Secker, 286 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 0 436 36715 7
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... the phenomenon of Peterley Harvest, a novel composed by the librarian and bibliographer Richard Pennington and offered to the world by him and his first publisher – in what spirit it is for us to examine – as the genuine diary, covering the years 1930 to 1939, of a certain David Peterley, scion of an ancient landed family. Peterley’s diary and other ...

Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank, 10 October 1991

Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War 
edited by Ronald Blythe.
Viking, 310 pp., £16.99, September 1991, 0 670 83204 9
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... in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of 1918, it was greatest such avalanche there had ever been, and went with the most furious appetite for books – any kind of books, but Penguins for preference – and with the ...

In the Golfo Placido

P.N. Furbank, 9 October 1986

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. II: 1898-1902 
edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies.
Cambridge, 483 pp., £27.50, August 1986, 0 521 25748 4
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... by the pleasure and excitement when his writing went right. With writing like his, which depends so much on brilliant ‘effects’, successes would be particularly palpable. But further, as Ford Madox Ford conveys in innumerable anecdotes of him, Conrad had enormous zest and simply was not a mere limping and ...

Sick mother be damned

P.N. Furbank, 6 March 1986

Bernard Shaw’s Collected Letters. Vol. III: 1911-1925 
edited by Dan Laurence.
Bodley Head, 989 pp., £25, May 1985, 0 370 30203 6
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... a very short one. This is very weak, and actually we find the silence quite natural. It is worth pondering why. No doubt Shaw regarded his companion as a madman, and Kipling regarded his as Mephistopheles, but this in itself need not have been a barrier to conventional civilities. The answer lies elsewhere, I suggest, and ...

On wanting to be a diner not a dish

P.N. Furbank, 3 December 1992

The Rituals of Dinner 
by Margaret Visser.
Viking, 432 pp., £17.99, September 1992, 0 670 84701 1
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... governing the sharing of food – are a supreme example. As she points out, the words ‘companion’ and ‘company’ derive from the sharing of panis (bread); and the portioning out of food presupposes, and no doubt helped give rise to, many basic human activities: ‘language ...

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