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By an Unknown Writer

Patrick Parrinder, 25 January 1996

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks.
Cape, 276 pp., £15.99, November 1995, 0 224 03732 3
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... Italo Calvino was born in 1923 and came to prominence in post-war Italy as a writer of neo-realist and politically committed short stories, some of them published in the Communist paper L’Unità. A major social-problem novel set in contemporary Italy was naturally expected of him, but he found himself unable to write it. Instead, as he subsequently explained, he ‘conjured up’ the sort of books he himself would have liked to read – ‘the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic ...

An American Genius

Patrick Parrinder, 21 November 1991

The Runaway Soul 
by Harold Brodkey.
Cape, 835 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 224 03001 9
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... This man has been called America’s greatest writer,’ boasts Cape’s press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years’ labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time ...

Sausages and Higher Things

Patrick Parrinder, 11 February 1993

The Porcupine 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 138 pp., £9.99, November 1992, 0 224 03618 1
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... It seems to me the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the source for this epigraph to the best-known British novel of the Eighties set in Eastern Europe, Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange. The Soviet Empire in those distant days was scarcely conceivable to English novelists except as a setting for a comedy or a thriller – two genres which tend to lionise the Englishman abroad, and to subtly belittle the natives ...

Thirty Years Ago

Patrick Parrinder, 18 July 1985

Still Life 
by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 358 pp., £9.95, June 1985, 0 7011 2667 1
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Wales’ Work 
by Robert Walshe.
Secker, 279 pp., £8.95, July 1985, 9780436561450
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... Like The Virgin in the Garden (1978) to which it is a deeper and darker-toned successor, A.S. Byatt’s Still Life has the classical English narrative setting of a generation ago. Apart from the prologue, which evokes the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980, the events here take place in 1954-7. Further sequels are promised, though it seems likely that this chronicle of middle-class English life has reached the half-way stage ...

Mini-Whoppers

Patrick Parrinder, 7 July 1988

Forty Stories 
by Donald Barthelme.
Secker, 256 pp., £10.95, April 1988, 0 436 03424 7
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Tiny Lies 
by Kate Pullinger.
Cape, 174 pp., £9.95, April 1988, 0 224 02560 0
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Ellen Foster 
by Kaye Gibbons.
Cape, 146 pp., £9.95, May 1988, 0 224 02529 5
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After the War 
by Frederick Raphael.
Collins, 528 pp., £11.95, April 1988, 0 00 223352 5
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... There are not many facts available about Donald Barthelme, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He has been hailed as a leading Post-Modernist, but Post-Modernism (to the extent that it has a credo) stresses the unreliability of facts and the supremacy of fictions. He has also been viewed as a pungent satirist. One thing that can be stated is that Barthelme’s literary career has mostly been pursued in the pages of the New Yorker ...

Diary

Patrick Parrinder: On Raymond Williams, 18 February 1988

... No one could describe the last ten years as an uneventful period in English criticism, but there are times, and this February is one, when it all seems to boil down to a couple of brawls and a series of obituary notices. One by one the giants have departed: Leavis, Richards, Empson, and now Raymond Williams. The first three had come through to ripe and embattled old age, but Williams was still in his prime as a writer and critic ...

Tall Storeys

Patrick Parrinder, 10 December 1987

Life: A User’s Manual 
by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos.
Collins Harvill, 581 pp., £15, October 1987, 0 00 271463 9
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The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room 
by Paul Auster.
Faber, 314 pp., £10.95, November 1987, 0 571 14925 1
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... Like Hoyle and Stephen Potter, Georges Perec was a devotee of indoor games. La Vie Mode d’Emploi (1978), a title combining lifemanship, gamesmanship and one-upmanship, was the monumental creation of an author whose other productions included a treatise on Go (the Japanese board-game) and a weekly crossword for the magazine Le Point. Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of 46, is credited with the invention of the longest known palindrome (over five thousand letters ...

Games-Playing

Patrick Parrinder, 7 August 1986

The Golden Gate 
by Vikram Seth.
Faber, 307 pp., £9.95, June 1986, 0 571 13967 1
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The Haunted House 
by Rebecca Brown.
Picador, 139 pp., £8.95, June 1986, 0 330 29175 0
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Whole of a Morning Sky 
by Grace Nichols.
Virago, 156 pp., £9.95, July 1986, 0 86068 774 0
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The Piano Tuner 
by Peter Meinke.
Georgia, 156 pp., $13.95, June 1986, 0 8203 0844 7
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Tap City 
by Ron Abell.
Secker, 273 pp., £10.95, July 1986, 0 436 00025 3
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... Why not a novel in verse? It’s all a question of expectations, and in The Golden Gate the Indian-born poet Vikram Seth single-handedly overturns most readers’ expectations about what can, and cannot, pass as a novel. Whatever the frame of mind in which you begin it, by the end it has come to seem the most natural – and the most accessible, and easily assessable – thing in the world ...

Mannequin-Maker

Patrick Parrinder, 5 October 1995

The Black Book 
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Güneli Gün.
Faber, 400 pp., £14.99, July 1995, 0 571 16892 2
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... A winter evening in Istanbul in the late Seventies. Political murders, disappearances and torture are daily events, and a military coup seems to be in the offing. Galip, a young lawyer whose speciality is defending political prisoners, returns home to find that his wile Rüya has left him. His instinctive response is to pretend that nothing has happened – Rüya is simply too ill to leave the apartment or come to the telephone ...

Whitehall Farces

Patrick Parrinder, 8 October 1992

Now you know 
by Michael Frayn.
Viking, 282 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 9780670845545
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... In its attitude towards Dickens,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling ... One knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days doubtless read John Mortimer, and dons read the new university wits like David Lodge and Tom Sharpe ...

Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder, 29 August 1991

A Closed Eye 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 255 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 0 224 03090 6
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Underwood and After 
by Ronald Frame.
Hodder, 246 pp., £14.99, August 1991, 0 340 55359 6
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Lemprière’s Dictionary 
by Lawrence Norfolk.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 530 pp., £14.95, August 1991, 1 85619 053 6
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... The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in the difference of the rich has one thing to be said for it: it makes far more sense of the history of the novel. The rich and their doings are clearly over-represented in the house of fiction, and access to wealth almost invariably affects or confirms a fictional character’s identity ...

Heads and Hearts

Patrick Parrinder, 28 May 1992

Underworld 
by Peter Conrad.
Chatto, 252 pp., £14.99, April 1992, 0 7011 3895 5
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A Case of Curiosities 
by Allen Kurzweil.
Hamish Hamilton, 358 pp., £14.99, March 1992, 0 241 13235 5
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Rotten Times 
by Paul Micou.
Bantam, 266 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 593 02621 7
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The Republic of Love 
by Carol Shields.
Fourth Estate, 366 pp., £14.99, March 1992, 1 872180 88 4
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... Last week, in another part of the city, a human head turned up.’ The severed head which opens Peter Conrad’s first novel suggests that contemporary fiction might be defined by its increasing convergence with the weird tale, the story based on a deliberate disruption of the natural order. The head is anonymous, sealed in a plastic bag, and being used as a football by a group of boys ...

Watercress

Patrick Parrinder, 20 August 1992

Past Tenses: Essays on Writing, Autobiography and History 
by Carolyn Steedman.
Rivers Oram, 224 pp., £22, June 1992, 1 85489 021 2
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... What do a story written by primary schoolchildren, a study of 19th-century policing, a biography of Margaret McMillan and an account of a working-class childhood in South London in the Fifties have in common? They give some idea of the range of Past Tenses, a selection from Carolyn Steedman’s prolific output of books and articles during the last ten years ...

Sea Changes

Patrick Parrinder, 27 February 1992

Indigo, or Mapping the Waters 
by Marina Warner.
Chatto, 402 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 9780701135317
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Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History 
by Alden Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan.
Cambridge, 290 pp., £35, January 1992, 0 521 40305 7
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... The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock, but the British Utopia is a fertile commonwealth surrounded by beaches in which, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, we would by contraries execute all things. Both the word and the island of Utopia were the teasing inventions of Sir Thomas More ...

Rachel and Her Race

Patrick Parrinder, 18 August 1994

Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 
by Bryan Cheyette.
Cambridge, 301 pp., £35, November 1993, 0 521 44355 5
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The Jewish Heritage in British History: Englishness and Jewishness 
edited by Tony Kushner.
Cass, 234 pp., £25, January 1992, 0 7146 3464 6
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... When Lucy Snowe goes to the theatre in Villette, she is entranced by the performance of the great actress Vashti, a plain, frail woman ‘torn by seven devils’, a ‘spirit out of Tophet’ delighting her audience with a glimpse of hell. Vashti is easily identified as the tragedian Elisa Rachel, whom Charlotte Brontë had seen in London in 1851. Sarah Bernhardt may be better known today, but it was Rachel who haunted the English literary imagination throughout the 19th century ...

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