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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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... most attractive of the 18th-century French philosophes, and certainly the most elusive. The problems that he poses are enough to frighten off the most intrepid biographer and one can only admire P.N.Furbank, not merely for tackling the job at all, but for doing it so well. Diderot’s long life, from 1713 to 1784, almost spanned the whole period between Louis XIV and the French Revolution. He was a ...

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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... It is right to be suspicious of books produced by the tape-recorder, for they offer endless scope for deception and self-deception. It is perfectly possible for such a book to be saying nothing whatever for long stretches, and no one, not even the compiler, will have noticed. Or it can be saying something important which, again, the compiler never intended and is not aware of. As always with a book ...

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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... The Edwardians, it is well known, were great worriers. If it was not the national physique or the Teuton menace they were worrying about, it was the ‘warped vitality’ of Bank Holiday crowds, or it was bicycling. I have always been rather struck by the warning against bicycling issued by the Liberal historian R.C.K. Ensor: ‘The nervous craving of modern people for soulless and thoughtless exhilaration ...

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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... An unjustly neglected author’? This was at least how Anthony Powell wrote of Jocelyn Brooke, none of whose books remained in print at the time of his death in 1966. But the neglect was to some degree remedied when, in 1981, Secker and Warburg reissued his Orchid Trilogy as a single volume, with an introduction by Powell, and it is nice to see this trilogy now reprinted as a Penguin Classic. For ...

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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... Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the 19th century, although homosexual love and homosexual fraternising were hardly admitted to exist, except perhaps in court reports, they were an omnipresent and vital part of the national life. Moreover, homosexuals ...
4 January 1996
Cross Channel 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 211 pp., £13.99, January 1996, 0 224 04301 3
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... It was Wittgenstein’s objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it going on indefinitely? On Julian Barnes, who is so addicted to the business or game of interpretations, the question does not seem to weigh so heavily. We perhaps misunderstand Barnes if we take him to be profoundly ...

Kafka’s Dog

P.N. Furbank

13 November 1997
The Treasure Chest 
by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd.
Libris/Penguin, 175 pp., £19.95, May 1995, 0 14 044639 7
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... It is important not to misinterpret what the disgruntled hero of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’, tired of hearing about the vaunted ‘universal progress’ of the dog community, says about ‘old and strangely simple stories’: I do not mean that earlier generations were essentially better than ours, only younger; that was their great advantage, their memory was not so overburdened as ours ...

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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... hideous. The same, moreover, is true of his style in indoor decoration, the ‘juxtaposition of elegance and junk’ – a gaudy necklace twined round an exquisite figurine, Corots on the wall and a pink, squeaking Disney pig on the table. It reveals too much the cloven foot of the millionaire, who alone can afford to treat much-prized objects with such disrespect. Martin Green, in Children of the ...

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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... The facts of Denton Welch’s brief life are fairly well known, partly of course because they were 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 ...

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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... As is well known, there is a curious association between bibliography and crime. It has something to do with a relationship to books as physical objects, and something to do with the fact that bibliographic crime is not felt to be crime quite in the pound-note-forging, or even Vermeer-forging, sense. Some gentlemanly code of ethics enfolds the activities of Thomas Wise and his fellows. As for purely ...
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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... It is difficult, yet not impossible, to imagine Bernard Shaw at a loss for words. The thing indeed occurred in 1928 at Thomas Hardy’s funeral, when Shaw and Kipling were paired in the procession of mourners but could find nothing whatever to say to each other. Shaw’s own excuse was that it was absurd to have coupled such a tall man with such a very short one. This is very weak, and actually we ...
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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... If I were offered one wish by a benevolent Providence, mine would be not to be squeamish – a miserable affliction which locks one out from so much within the walls of disgust and shame. It occurs to one how enormously this matter must figure for an anthropologist. There is a story told by Lévi-Strauss of some Brazilian tribe with whom he was staying, who spoke with the greatest scorn and a disgust ...
20 August 1992
A Place of Greater Safety 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 896 pp., £15.99, September 1992, 0 670 84545 0
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... When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country ...
24 November 1994
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies 
by James McNeill Whistler.
Heinemann, 338 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 434 20166 9
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James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth 
by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval.
Murray, 544 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 7195 5027 0
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... There is a curious little circumstance about the painter Whistler which catches at one’s imagination. It concerns his draughtsmanship. William Rothenstein recalls Whistler talking to him contemptuously of Oscar Wilde’s house in Tite Street and doing him a little drawing of it, to illustrate the monotony of such a terrace house. ‘I noticed then,’ says Rothenstein, ‘how childishly Whistler ...

Oppositional

P.N. Furbank

3 August 1995
Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France 
by Thomas Crow.
Yale, 288 pp., £29.95, January 1995, 0 300 06093 9
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... From one point of view, Thomas Crow’s remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and ‘noblest’ genre and the summit ...

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