Art’ll fix it

John Bayley

  • The Penguin Book of Lies edited by Philip Kerr
    Viking, 543 pp, £15.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 670 82560 3

When the great German archaeologist Schliemann exclaimed (if indeed he did so), ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!’ he was not uttering a lie, nor was he being economical with the truth. His imagination was carried away by the soaring possibilities, in the world of fact, which his successful excavations had revealed. The imagination adores whatever can give the appearance of fact, as most good writers know. When Hardy tells us that the raindrops before a thunderstorm make spots on the road as large as nasturtium leaves, no reader is going to take him up on it. When Kipling tells us that a man’s blood on an Indian parade ground dries in the sun like goldbeaters’ skin, cracks lozenge-wise, and curls up like dumb tongues, we are too mesmerised to be sceptical, although, in his brief and sensible treatise on English prose style, Herbert Read very pertinently enquired if anyone had actually seen those ‘tongues’.

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