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John Sturrock: A Bath in the Dock, 18 December 2003

... It’s a strange thing when, in the course of a murder trial at the Old Bailey, a cracked plastic bath is carried into the courtroom, and a second strange thing when no one at the time thinks to ask why on earth it was needed there. The bath had been unplumbed from a house in Cambridgeshire, driven to London and, like a fair few of the arrested before it, been roughed up when in police custody, bearing two cracks once it was on display in the courtroom where before it had only one ...

Short Cuts

John Sturrock: Don't Bother to Read, 22 March 2007

... A few years ago, a brilliant small book on detective fiction appeared in France called Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? It got talked about at the time for demonstrating, rather neatly it was thought (by the then sitting tenant of this space in the LRB, Thomas Jones, among others), that at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot hit on a wrong solution to the crime, that the too devious Dame Agatha had for once thrown even herself off the scent ...

Short Cuts

John Sturrock: Plain Sailing, 26 April 2007

... Island race or not, we have not been doing at all well when putting out to sea in past weeks. First, in the benign setting of the Caribbean, the vice-captain and muscular icon of the England one-day cricket eleven, Freddie Flintoff, was sacked from the vice-captaincy, though not, for sure, from his iconicity, for having had a great deal too much to drink before driving a pedalo out into the local waters in the middle of the night and then capsizing it; something which I’d have thought was beyond even a man as large and as heavy as Flintoff, so reassuringly stable did pedalos always seem when we far frailer pedallers sat in them ...

Short Cuts

John Sturrock: Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, 7 October 2004

... We live in an age, or if not an age a country, where seemingly novel disorders of the mind or body are given names that leave you in no doubt as to their novelty. Who would have thought, for example, that the 18th-century shooter of lines, Baron Munchausen, would one day have his place on the list of state-of-the-art ailments as the patron of something called Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy? This is not the snappiest form of words that diagnosticians have at hand to scare a patient with; indeed, it trips so uneasily from the tongue that you wonder how often it actually gets said when the professionals confer on what they take to be cases of it ...


John Sturrock, 3 July 1980

Nature and Language 
by Ralf Norrman and Jon Haarberg.
Routledge, 232 pp., £10, May 1980, 0 7100 0453 2
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... space. The sources are astonishingly various, but some authorities recur: Browning, Tennyson and John Updike would probably rank highest here on any cucurbit-count. I shall not question the charm or the exhaustiveness of Norrman and Haarberg’s research – though some at least of their quotations have been wrongly transcribed. What I do now turn to ...


John Sturrock, 31 March 1988

The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection 
by Rodolphe Gasché.
Harvard, 348 pp., £19.95, December 1986, 0 674 86700 9
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by Christopher Norris.
Fontana, 271 pp., £4.95, November 1987, 0 00 686057 5
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The Truth in Painting 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod.
Chicago, 386 pp., £39.95, October 1987, 0 226 14323 6
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The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass.
Chicago, 521 pp., £36.75, August 1987, 0 226 14320 1
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The Archaeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by John Leavey.
Nebraska, 143 pp., $7.95, June 1987, 0 8032 6571 9
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... Bait them and the Derrideans certainly rise. When the English version of Derrida’s Glas appeared last year in the United States*, I wrote a griping review of it, to regret mainly that a philosopher as brilliantly fresh and radical as Derrida should want to publish something so mannered and so hard to follow. Some of the North American faithful objected to this review, and one, a professor of philosophy in Scranton, wrote a letter warning that I had failed not just Derrida but our whole benighted community ...

Ego’s End

John Sturrock, 22 November 1979

Psychoanalytic Politics 
by Sherry Turkle.
Burnett Books/Deutsch, 278 pp., £6.95
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... Sherry Turkle has written a reasonable, useful and heroically neutral book on the Lacan phenomenon: the sudden celebrity in France as maître à penser of Jacques Lacan, an elderly psychoanalyst whose writings are of a unique, some would say repellent difficulty. Venerated on the one side as the foremost agent of ideological subversion, reviled on the other as an intolerable, conceited obscurantist, Lacan is a living symbol of division between opposed temperaments, parties and generations ...

Darkest Peru

John Sturrock, 19 February 1987

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta 
by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Faber, 310 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 571 14579 5
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The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor 
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Randolph Hogan.
Cape, 106 pp., £8.95, November 1986, 0 224 02160 5
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... Mario Vargas Llosa has written a fine novel, political and unstintingly pessimistic, a dire collation of the fiasco of a single Peruvian life with the chronic mismanagement and distempers of Peru. As narrative, it may be complicatedly told, with much canny transiting between present and past, but the formal ingenuities work to the one end, of delivering a full and unhappy report on the way things have been or are in the novelist’s homeland ...

Doing what doesn’t come naturally

John Sturrock, 16 December 1993

French Lessons: A Memoir 
by Alice Kaplan.
Chicago, 221 pp., £15.95, September 1993, 0 226 42418 9
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... Second languages don’t come naturally to us, they have to be learnt, formally in large part and deliberately. The language we are born into the midst of is not learnt but ‘acquired’, by the occult, labour-saving means of Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, an innate predisposition in our neurons which, once we are attuned to the local syntax and prevailing vocabulary, ensures that we eventually ‘know’ our native tongue without having had to try, and empty of memories as to how we internalised it ...


John Sturrock, 4 January 1996

L’Accent du souvenir 
by Bernard Cerquiglini.
Minuit, 165 pp., frs 99, September 1995, 2 7073 1536 2
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... Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to his publisher of October 1862, and after two other grumbles about the typesetting on the page-proofs of his new book: ‘3º The circumflex accent on Salammbô has no profile. Nothing could be less Punic. I demand a more open one.’ To demand with Flaubert was to get: within a few days he had an accent that straddled its underlying vowel in the comprehensive way that he wanted, and gave the name of the heroine of his Carthaginian novel a suitably Punic appearance on the title-page ...

E-less in Gaza

John Sturrock, 10 November 1994

A Void 
by Georges Perec, translated by Gilbert Adair.
Harvill, 285 pp., £15.99, October 1994, 0 00 271119 2
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... We hear a lot about floating signifiers and how they bob anchorless around on the deep waters of meaning; we hear too little about sinking signifiers, or language items that have stopped bobbing and been sent silently to the bottom, if not for the duration then at least provisionally, while we see how well we can do without them. To scuttle a signifier in this way is to play at lipograms, an elementary language game that has been around for two and a half millennia ...

Agitated Neurons

John Sturrock: Michel Houellebecq, 21 January 1999

by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Paul Hammond.
Serpent’s Tail, 160 pp., £8.99, January 1999, 1 85242 584 9
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Les Particules élémentaires 
by Michel Houellebecq.
Flammarion, 394 pp., frs 105, September 1998, 2 08 067472 2
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... The writer in France is having a good winter, whose autumn novel is no sooner out than it is being roundly abused on all sides for its dubious attitudes, and is then passed over by the jurors of the Prix Goncourt, who would rather argument turned, as by custom it does, on the forgettability of the novel they have picked, not on any bad smell given off by its contents ...

Lights by the Ton

John Sturrock: Jean Echenoz, 18 June 1998

by Jean Echenoz, translated by Guido Waldman.
Harvill, 122 pp., £8.99, June 1998, 1 86046 449 1
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Un An 
by Jean Echenoz.
Minuit, 111 pp., frs 65, September 1997, 2 7073 1587 7
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... The weightless characters who track about in Jean Echenoz’s novels are granted a sense now and again that that’s where they are, in someone else’s story, fulfilling burlesque routines not of their own devising. They’re not great thinkers, merely see-through functionaries of the plot. There’s a droll exchange marking one of these twinges of self-awareness in an early novel called Cherokee – named for the Forties song, not for the Native Americans as such – between the driver of a Deux-Chevaux and his captive passenger: ‘ “We could take you somewhere ...

Goodbye to Borges

John Sturrock, 7 August 1986

by Jorge Luis Borges, in collaboration with by Maria Kodama, translated by Anthony Kerrigan.
Viking, 95 pp., £12.95, March 1986, 0 670 81029 0
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Seven Nights 
by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Eliot Weinberger.
Faber, 121 pp., £3.95, June 1986, 0 571 13737 7
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... governess, Miss Tink. Miss Tink, for all the monosyllabic innocence of her name, had a bad cousin, John, who may well also have influenced the child Borges, because he was one of the street-corner ‘hoodlums’ who later fascinated him, partly for being so brave as well as bad, when they fought, and partly because he saw them as ideal compendia of the local ...

Doctor No

John Sturrock, 2 February 1989

Journey to the end of the night 
by Louis Ferdinand Céline, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Calder, 448 pp., £14.95, June 1988, 0 7145 3800 0
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La Vie de Céline 
by Frédéric Vitoux.
Grasset, 597 pp., frs 190, May 1988, 2 246 35171 5
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... and publisher were not on good terms? It could, if the letter of apology (‘Dictated by John Calder and signed in his absence’) inserted into the review copy is anything to go by, in which the publisher climbs shamefacedly down over two changes made to the text without Ralph Manheim’s permission: ‘This terrace is for jerks’ has been changed ...

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