Christopher Prendergast

Christopher Prendergast is a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.

Pirouette on a Sixpence: Untranslatables

Christopher Prendergast, 10 September 2015

On​ the face of it a Dictionary of Untranslatables looks like a contradiction in terms, either self-imploding from the word go, or, if pursued, headed fast down a cul-de-sac in which it is doomed to end by putting itself out of the business of dictionary-making. Strictly speaking, all the definitions of the listed terms would have to be blanks, a new version of Flaubert’s dream of the...

Short Cuts: Student Loans

Christopher Prendergast, 6 January 2011

A ‘progressive’ system means, broadly speaking, that some people pay more than others for the same benefit, on the grounds that they can afford to, just as some pay more taxes, both absolutely and proportionally, to fund government services. There can be no doubt that the Coalition policy on student debt is ‘progressive’ in the sense that some will pay (back) more than...

Short Cuts: Sarah Palin’s Favourite Frenchman

Christopher Prendergast, 2 December 2010

Hands up who knows that a major source of Tea Party ideological fervour is a long-forgotten 19th-century French economist – French no less (it wasn’t so long ago that John Kerry was derided for being ‘a bit French’). Indeed, hands up who has even heard of Frédéric Bastiat. The name, canonical and talismanic in Tea Party circles, means nothing to most...

I am old enough to remember the Maigret series on television, with Rupert Davies in the starring role. To the accompaniment of a mildly haunting theme tune, a portly figure would appear onscreen, drably but comfortably dressed in raincoat and hat, strolling through the damp, mist-laden streets of Paris, pausing on a bridge to light his pipe and look over his shoulder, the whole scene held in...

Diary: Piss where you like

Christopher Prendergast, 17 March 2005

My parents were militantly radical Dubliners working in Belfast when their first-born – me – came along. My mother, Celia, was vivacious, highly strung, something of an actress, both metaphorically and literally: she had had a brief career with the Unity Theatre in Euston and played the part of Ethel Rosenberg in a play whose title and author I can’t remember. She also...

Capital’s Capital: Baron Haussmann’s Paris

Christopher Prendergast, 3 October 2002

In September 1848, Louis-Napoleon returned from his long exile in London armed with a startling blueprint for what he was later to call his ‘plan for the embellishment of Paris’. It consisted of a colour-coded roll of parchment representing the soon-to-be Emperor’s provisional thoughts on the renovation of the capital’s thoroughfares. This was the Urtext of the drastic...

Amused, Bored or Exasperated: Gustave Flaubert

Christopher Prendergast, 13 December 2001

And so another literary ‘life’, framed, as is the custom, by a beginning (childhood) and an ending (death), although Geoffrey Wall, on retiring from his story, decorates the frame with a nicely incongruous detail: ‘Flaubert’s coffin, too big to fit into the grave, had to be left stuck at an angle, headfirst, and only halfway into the earth.’ Flaubert’s...

‘I am not dead’: H.C. Andersen

Christopher Prendergast, 8 March 2001

Can it be, as Jackie Wullschlager maintains, that in the 1840s and 1850s Hans Christian Andersen was ‘the most famous writer in Europe’, and that ‘two centuries after his birth Andersen is still not appreciated as the world-class author that he undoubtedly was, as representative of the European Romantic spirit as Balzac or Victor Hugo’? These are grand claims and, if...

From The Blog
25 September 2015

Trouble over Trident has struck deep into the souls of disaffected Labour politicians, from those who say they ‘disagree with Jeremy’ to those making clear they will go to the stake for the ‘independent’ deterrent. Their belief in it turns on three considerations, spelled out three years ago by Luke Akehurst in Progress. First, jobs: the renewal of Trident is a jobs-protection scheme, worth £100 billion (Akehurst asks ‘what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal’). Second, ‘punching above our weight’ to ensure a ‘place at the table’, most notably as a member of the Permanent Security Council of the UN, a politically bankrupt arrangement if ever there were one. Third, insurance, a policy with a very high premium but worth every penny when heart-wrenchingly packaged: ‘I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats.’ This is the family-man doctrine of deterrence.

From The Blog
4 March 2013

The Oxford Student recently ran – and later retracted – a story about a Bullingdon Club initiation ceremony which allegedly included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp. Whether or not the story’s true, it pales beside Baudelaire’s narrative prose poem ‘Let’s Beat Up the Poor’.

By the Width of a Street: literary geography

Christopher Prendergast, 29 October 1998

Somewhere around the middle of An Atlas of the European Novel, in a discussion of images of London in the 19th-century novel, Franco Moretti throws in a parenthetical aside on the whereabouts of his publisher (‘in a rather bleak part of Soho’). It’s a sort of joke, consistent with the laidback tone that Moretti seems able to combine effortlessly with high intellectual endeavour. It’s not often that one can speak of the charm of an academic book: Moretti’s oozes it. Although he says that his principal aim is to be ‘useful’, he also furnishes many pleasures, as he wanders through the landscapes of (mostly) 19th-century Europe like some Bolognese equivalent of Gil Bias or the good soldier Schweik, sustaining a conversation with his reader that is endlessly informative and entertaining.‘


Christopher Prendergast, 5 June 1997

In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) remarks that Las Vegas is about ‘selling people dreams for cash’ and, in a memorable elaboration of this cliché, that ‘it does for us what Lourdes does for hunchbacks and cripples.’ Much the same has been said about the culture of cinema, and how Scorsese’s film stands in relation to its subject is an interesting question. In fact, the marriage between movietown as the factory of illusions and Las Vegas as the palace of dreams is ostentatiously consummated in the credits sequence, as lights and camera-work produce a cascade of glittering special effects that mirrors the dazzle of Vegas itself. But the cascade is also enveloped by flames and this narrative allusion to the car firebomb that nearly finishes off Rothstein can also be read as a kind of hellfire, consuming both the world of Las Vegas and the cinematic image before us. It is accompanied on the soundtrack by an excerpt from the St Matthew Passion.

Il n’y a pas de Beckett

Christopher Prendergast, 14 November 1996

‘You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that,’ says Hamm to Clov in Endgame. This is sometimes taken as a summary of what is alleged to be the distinctively bleak Beckettian world-view, but for it even to be a starter in this role, one would have to figure out what it means. For, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell observed, the meaning(s) will vary according to the stress-pattern the actor’s voice imposes on its principal terms; if, for example, on ‘cure’, this of itself would not preclude other worthwhile possibilities for our terrestial condition, and if on ‘that’, there could be an implicit invitation to countenance other-worldly aspirations. Similar considerations of a less starkly ultimate kind might arise in connection with the subtitle of James Knowlson’s new biography: ‘The Life of Samuel Beckett’. (The main title looks suspiciously like a publisher’s wheeze, a low-grade spin on Beckett’s desperate formula for the modern artist as doomed to fail or, more tantalisingly, as driven by a ‘fidelity to failure’ and the mind-bending imperative of Worstward Ho: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’) In the subtitle, is the stress to fall on noun or definite article? If the former (implying an account of the life-story of Samuel Beckett), there is already a problem. How might such an account proceed in relation to its subject given the peculiar inflection of ‘autobiographical’ discourse provided by the subject himself (in his description of How It Is)?

La Bête républicaine

Christopher Prendergast, 5 September 1996

In September 1894, the Intelligence Bureau of the French Army intercepted a memorandum (the so-called ‘bordereau’) sent to the German military attaché in Paris, informing him that important details concerning French national defence would shortly be communicated to the Germans. The military authorities were baffled as to the source, but suspicion fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, at the time serving in a probationary capacity on the General Staff. The ‘bordereau’ was submitted secretly to handwriting experts, the first expressing doubts that it was by Dreyfus, the second (Bertillon, the inventor of anthropometry, a system for identifying criminals on the basis of an inherent ‘criminality’) concluding in connivance with the authorities that it was indeed in Dreyfus’s hand. Arrested, tried, found guilty of treason, publicly stripped of military office and sentenced to both deportation and life imprisonment, Dreyfus was sent to French Guiana and from there to Devil’s Island.

Happy Babble

Christopher Prendergast, 7 March 1996

Imagine a ‘movement’, not retrospectively constructed by the tidy, potty-trained minds of academics, but consciously created by its actors with a view to putting an end to the culture of potty-training (perhaps one of the meanings of Duchamp’s notorious urinal). Surrealism was such a creature. It was a ‘movement’ in the sense of having a whole apparatus: committees, bureaux, meetings, manifestos, publicity, recruits, sectarian disputes, purges, punch-ups and, of course, in André Breton, a leader. Its proclaimed goal was the liberation of ‘man’ from the chains of the super-ego and of ‘life’ from the constraints of the reality-principle (‘reality’, Breton wrote in one of his many lofty pronouncements, was ‘a miserable mental expedient’). Almost permanently divided within itself, the movement proclaimed an end to division and the transcendence of contraries and contradictions in a new life-emancipating harmony, ‘a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom; in the sense that contemporary man, full of contradictions and lacking in harmony, will pave the way for a newer, happier race.’

Tears in the Café Select

Christopher Prendergast, 9 March 1995

Paris figures in the titles of both James Campbell’s and Peter Lennon’s books, but this is a restricted, specialised Paris. Campbell takes us into something called the ‘Interzone’ (the term is odd, and troublesome), inhabited by assorted exiles, misfits and drop-outs during the Fifties and late Forties. Lennon’s jaunty impressionistic book takes us into the Sixties, with an account of his experiences as a young journalist writing, sporadically, for the Guardian, while, in the intervals, getting caught up in all kinds of adventures (best of all an improbable encounter, in the company of Samuel Beckett, with Peter O’Toole).

Horrible Dead Years

Christopher Prendergast, 24 March 1994

While Baudelaire, speech-bereft, lay on his sick-bed in Brussels, his mother, rummaging through his overcoat, came across some photographs of her son taken by Nadar. It was a strange but instructive find. Baudelaire detested photography (as a mere technology of mechanical reproduction, it was the emblem of modernity’s threat to art), and yet his own photographic image, notably the portraits left by Nadar, is in many ways a capital document for understanding the tormented, self-destructive trajectory of his ‘life’. Gaëtan Picon remarked that in the Nadar photograph of 1862 the 41-year-old Baudelaire looked as if he were a hundred (Baudelaire himself, in one of the ‘Spleen’ poems, made it a thousand). The face, above all the eyes with their look at once haunted and hunted, confirm the sentiment of overwhelming weariness expressed two years previously in a letter to his mother: ‘Oh how weary I am, how weary I’ve been for many years already, of this need to live twenty-four hours every day!’ He also wrote to his mother, in ghostly retrospect, as if he were the true author of the Mémoires d’ outre-tombe: ‘I gaze back over all the dead years, the horrible dead years.’ The photograph, too, suggests something of the ghost, akin to the spectral presences-absences that populate the street poems in the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ section of Les Fleurs du mal (the title for the collection as a whole was originally to have been Les Limbes).

English Proust

Christopher Prendergast, 8 July 1993

Much or the last volume of Proust’s novel is devoted to life in Paris during the First World War. Proust, the least chauvinistic of writers, is nevertheless so moved by patriotic sentiment as to transgress the convention which keeps a fictional world separate from its author.

Making the world

Christopher Prendergast, 16 March 1989

In his Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne, Emile Bernard records a conversation in which he raised with Cézanne the topic of Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu – the story of the fictional painter Frenhofer, who spends ten years trying to create the perfect picture of a woman but ends up painting what, in the story itself (which mixes fiction with 17th-century fact), the young Nicolas Poussin describes as ‘nothing [ … ] but confused masses of colour contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint’. Cézanne, who, Gasquet informs us, had a copy of the book tout fripé, sâli et décousu almost permanently by his bedside, said not a word but rose to his feet, pointing agitatedly, and tearfully, at himself: il se leva de table, se dressa devant moi, et frappant sa poitrine avec son index, il s’accusa, sans un mot, mais par son geste multiplié, le personnage du roman. Il en était si ému que des larmes emplissaient ses yeux. More eloquent testimony to the enduring power and relevance of Balzac’s story could scarcely be imagined. In the essay Anthony Rudolf appends to his new translation, this anecdote figures as exemplary, and serves to buttress the case for Balzac’s story as exemplary anticipation of the adventure of modern painting.’


Lethal Appropriation

20 October 2005

Thomas Jones’s resurrection of the long-forgotten 1864 pamphlet by Maurice Joly, Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, is timely in ways even more apropos than he suggests (LRB, 20 October). The Dialogue was ostensibly a satire on Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état (shortly after its publication Joly was arrested by Louis-Napoleon’s police), but at a deeper...

Vote Prendergast

17 March 2005

Gerard McBurney is right to point out that my father couldn’t have fallen on the non-existent escalator at Tufnell Park (Letters, 31 March). The name of the tube station was mistakenly inserted by the LRB’s editors; the episode in fact occurred at St John’s Wood.

Rimbaud’s Brahmas

9 October 2003

It’s a pity that Jeremy Harding (LRB, 9 October) did not pick up on Mark Treharne’s superlative 1998 translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Saison en enfer. Treharne would have proved useful, too, on a point of textual scholarship raised by Harding. In respect of the prose poem ‘Villes 1’, he reports that André Guyaux (who is currently revising the Pléiade...

On War and Intervention

20 February 2003

Conor Gearty and David Ramsbotham refer to ‘pre-emptive war’ in their respective accounts of the Iraq crisis. The matter is complicated however by the reference to ‘preventive’ war in a text by Michael Quinlan quoted by Gearty. Is there some confusion here between two distinct doctrines? As I have been given to understand it, the justification of ‘pre-emptive war’...

Boggs the Forger

6 June 2002

I wonder how Terry Eagleton’s argument on the topic of forgery, counterfeiting and plagiarism (LRB, 6 June) would stand to the intriguing case of the currency-artist, J.S.G. Boggs. Some fifteen years ago, Boggs produced a series of facsimiles of the US dollar in various denominations but on one side of the paper only. He then used them to trade, not as pretend legal tender but as works of art,...

11 September

4 October 2001

Marjorie Perloff (Letters, 18 October) is moderately well known as an academic literary critic particularly gifted in the skills of close reading. Her comprehensively illiterate comments on the round-table ‘Reflections on the Present Crisis’ suggest that this time round she must have been reading with her eyes shut. The premise of her intervention (that, ‘with a few exceptions’,...

Saving Masud Khan

22 February 2001

In her response to Wynne Godley’s story (Letters, 22 March), Kirsty Hall appears to confuse ‘true’ with ‘real’. There can be no doubt that Godley’s states of mind at the time of his analysis with Masud Khan were real, but it is clear that they did not constitute the ‘truth’ of Wynne Godley (other than in the merely tautologous sense that it is true that...
George Steiner, while charitable to a number of its local insights, takes a somewhat dismal view of the general worth of Franco Moretti’s recent book, Modern Epic (LRB, 23 May). I take a very different view. That is clearly a matter of opinion. But what will not do is to give an account of the book that is in many ways misleading, mainly by omission. Thus, Steiner begins his review by rehearsing...

Why is luck good or bad, an incentive to gambling, while chance seems weirdly neutral? And what was it like in the old days when Fortune played a larger role in ordinary consciousness, taking up quite...

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The Thing: Versions of Proust

Michael Wood, 6 January 2005

What was it Proust said about paradise? That all paradises are lost paradises? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? That it isn’t paradise until it’s lost? That paradise is...

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Unreal City

Michael Wood, 7 October 1993

Baudelaire’s city is swarming with people and full of dreams, a place of daylight ghosts. Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves Où le spectre, en plein jour,...

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I am a Cretan

Patrick Parrinder, 21 April 1988

The story goes that, on the day when William Empson moved into Magdalene College, Cambridge, to take up a fellowship, his suitcases (as was the custom in those days) were unpacked by one of the...

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