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One Herring in a Shoal

John Sturrock: Raymond Queneau, 8 May 2003

Oeuvres complètes: Tome II: Romans I 
by Raymond Queneau, edited by Henri Godard.
Gallimard, 1760 pp., €68, April 2002, 2 07 011439 2
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... In Pierrot mon ami, the last of the eight novels laid end to end in this life-enhancing volume, the footling but resilient Pierrot works on and off at a fairground, where his job description includes steering teenage girls by hand past a jet of air that wraps their skirts around their thighs. Low-tech as sideshows go no doubt, but it helps to sustain the morale of the laddish tendency at the Palace de la Rigolade, or Palace of Fun, on a fairground modelled by Queneau on the celebrated Luna-Park in Neuilly, to which it’s good to imagine him, that living A-Z to the city of Paris and its public transport, bussing out, with a view to researching the site rather than wreaking a pile-up on the dodgems ...

Give me calf’s tears

John Sturrock, 11 November 1999

George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large 
by Belinda Jack.
Chatto, 412 pp., £20, August 1999, 0 7011 6647 9
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... The first work of fiction to which Proust returns in A la recherche du temps perdu – and also the last, one complete, 2500-page orbit later – is George Sand’s François le champi, the first ‘real’ novel the narrator remembers having read. Or rather, remembers having had read to him, by his mother on that seminal evening of anxiety when she fails to come up and give him a goodnight kiss ...

A bas les chefs!

John Sturrock: Jules Vallès, 9 February 2006

The Child 
by Jules Vallès, translated by Douglas Parmée.
NYRB, 343 pp., £8.99, August 2005, 1 59017 117 9
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... Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader – epigraphs, ‘author’s notes’, prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin – the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book’s dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has nothing to tell us about the contents ahead ...

Donald’s Duck

John Sturrock, 22 August 1996

Bradman 
by Charles Williams.
Little, Brown, 336 pp., £20, August 1996, 0 316 88097 3
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... Don Bradman did poorly by me in my youth: all I saw of him was his parting Oval duck in 1948, the most untimely nought in the history of cricket. It came on the first day of the fifth and last Test, with Australia three-nothing up, so whether our own side won or lost made small difference and we could watch the game as dilettantes instead of partisans, hoping that Bradman would bat, as he nearly always had, lavishly, or even brutally ...

Why the Tortoise Lost

John Sturrock, 18 September 1997

Bergson: Biographie 
by Philippe Soulez and Frédéric Worms.
Flammarion, 386 pp., frs 140, April 1997, 9782080666697
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... In the years before 1914, the open lectures that Henri Bergson gave at the Collège de France were the prototype in intellectual chic for the barnstorming Parisian ‘seminars’ of Jacques Lacan in the Sixties and Seventies, even if the topics that the fashionable came to hear were as dry as the lecturer’s podium manner: ‘The Evolution of Theories of Memory’, ‘Theories of the Will’, ‘The Nature of Mind and Its Relation to Cerebral Activity ...

I resume and I sum up

John Sturrock: Robbe Grillet’s Return, 21 March 2002

La Reprise 
by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Minuit, 253 pp., €15.09, November 2001, 9782707317568
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... The first novel that Robbe-Grillet wrote, Un Régicide, had a quotation at the start from Kierkegaard, an out of the way source for an agronomist turned writer who gave an impression of never having known a moment’s metaphysical unease in his life. It came from The Seducer’s Diary: ‘One might have said that this man passed through life without leaving any trace … and one might even claim that he had no victims ...

How stupid people are

John Sturrock: Flaubert, 7 September 2006

Bouvard and Pecuchet 
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Mark Polizzotti.
Dalkey Archive, 328 pp., £8.99, January 2006, 1 56478 393 6
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Flaubert: A Life 
by Frederick Brown.
Heinemann, 629 pp., £25, May 2006, 0 434 00769 2
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... Of the three books that Gustave Flaubert was able to write only after a lengthy cohabitation with his sources, Bouvard et Pécuchet is by some way the most approachable. The other two are exhibition pieces, admirable for their form but keeping their distance, full as they are of the rare knowledge he had come to by his reading. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the desert-dwelling anchorite of that name – an antisocial paragon to whom Flaubert felt sufficiently drawn to go on writing and rewriting the book for thirty years – endures a punishing series of night-time intrusions from various biblical, classical and other phantasmal interlocutors, until the sun comes up and the saint can go back to his solitary prayers ...

Hound of Golden Imbeciles

John Sturrock: Homage to the Oulipo, 29 April 1999

Oulipo Compendium 
edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie.
Atlas, 336 pp., £16.99, March 1999, 0 947757 96 1
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... Cape Y2K once safely rounded, and we shall be faced in short order by 2002, a date that stands suggestively out to the numerological eye as a palindrome. We’re allowed only one of these amphisbaenic years per century, though we lived through the last of them a bare eight-some ago, in 1991. Lived through it and failed for sure to spare it a glance ...

Monsieur Apollo

John Sturrock, 13 November 1997

Victor Hugo 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 682 pp., £20, October 1997, 0 330 33707 6
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... The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo: I took pleasure in studying him closely; I gazed at him with astonishment, like a casket in which there were millions and a king’s diamonds, reflecting on all that had come from this man now sitting beside me on a small chair, and fixing my eyes on the right hand that has written so many beautiful things ...

The Great Accumulator

John Sturrock: W.G. Grace, 20 August 1998

W.G. Grace: A Life 
by Simon Rae.
Faber, 548 pp., £20, July 1998, 0 571 17855 3
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W.G.’s Birthday Party 
by David Kynaston.
Night Watchman, 154 pp., £13, May 1998, 0 9532360 0 5
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... As English cricket’s first, and permanent, icon, W.G. Grace was a pair of inseparable initials – two doors down from that other High Victorian celebrity, ‘W.E.’ – and a ruling presence on the field of play, the muscular and assertive embodiment of the game in the years of its benign colonisation of the nation’s summers. The physique that famously sustained him was in truth a luxury: Grace was stronger than there was any call for a cricketer to be, ready to go off when young to run hurdle races between innings, and still up to bowling 75 overs in the match at the age of 50 (he was captain, and didn’t think of taking himself off ...

Le pauvre Sokal

John Sturrock: The Social Text Hoax, 16 July 1998

Intellectual Impostures 
by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.
Profile, 274 pp., £9.99, October 1999, 1 86197 074 9
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... Way back in the pre-theoretical Fifties, a journalist called Ivor Brown used to have elementary fun at the expense of a serial intruder on our insular peace of mind, a bacillus known as the LFF, or Latest Foreign Fraud. By this he meant any thinker from abroad (Paris, nine times out of ten) whose alembicated ideas were being taken up with more excitement than he thought they – or, I daresay, any ideas – were worth ...

Bit by Bit

John Sturrock, 22 December 1994

Roland Barthes: A Biography 
by Louis-Jean Calvet, translated by Sarah Wykes.
Polity, 291 pp., £25, October 1994, 9780745610177
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... What should a man famous for having wished the Author dead wish for himself once he becomes a dead author? To leave no trace behind would seem right. But if Roland Barthes was hostile to the neighbourly image of the Author as an extra-textual being, he took pleasure in the thought of himself returning as a biographical subject (i.e. object) once he was dead ...

The Paris Strangler

John Sturrock, 17 December 1992

‘L’Avenir dure longtemps’ suivi de ‘Les Faits’: Autobiographies 
by Louis Althusser.
Stock, 356 pp., frs 144, May 1992, 2 234 02473 0
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Louis Althusser: Une biographie. Vol. I: La Formation du mythe 
by Yann Moulier Boutang.
Grasset, 509 pp., frs 175, April 1992, 2 246 38071 5
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... a verbal inventiveness greater than that of James Joyce. This is to demean by overstatement, as John Stuart Mill famously demeaned Harriet Taylor in his Autobiography by his reckless eulogising of her. Hélène was also accused by those who had known the pre-war Althusser as a decorous lycéen and good Catholic of having turned him after 1946 into an ...

Champion of Words

John Sturrock, 15 October 1987

Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel 
by Michel Foucault, translated by Charles Ruas.
Athlone, 186 pp., £29.50, April 1987, 0 485 11336 8
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Raymond Roussel: Life, Death and Works. Essays and stories by various hands 
Atlas, 157 pp., £5.50, September 1987, 0 947757 14 7Show More
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... Michel Foucault, for once and for now, may stand aside: who is the Raymond Roussel about whom he wrote this, his one real essay into literature? Roussel was a writer, of sorts, of the early 20th century; a man both glamorously rich and mentally odd. His money he spent to the hilt in the furtherance of his oddness, for Roussel laboured to write the most uncommercial works and then paid to have them published ...

Jamboree

John Sturrock, 20 February 1986

Handbook of Russian Literature 
edited by Victor Terras.
Yale, 558 pp., £25, April 1985, 0 300 03155 6
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Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time 
by Roman Jakobson, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy.
Blackwell, 208 pp., £25, July 1985, 0 631 14262 2
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Historic Structures: The Prague School Project 1928-1946 
by F.W. Galan.
Croom Helm, 250 pp., £22.50, May 1985, 0 7099 3816 0
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Mikhail Bakhtin 
by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist.
Harvard, 398 pp., £19.95, February 1985, 0 674 57416 8
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The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics 
by M.M. Bakhtin and P.M. Medvedev, translated by Albert Wehrle.
Harvard, 191 pp., £7.50, May 1985, 0 674 30921 9
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Dialogues between Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska 
translated by Christian Hubert.
Cambridge, 186 pp., £15, August 1983, 0 521 25113 3
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The Dialogical Principle 
by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Wlad Godzich.
Manchester, 132 pp., £25, February 1985, 0 7190 1466 2
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Rabelais and his World 
by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Hélène Iswolsky.
Indiana, 484 pp., $29.50, August 1984, 0 253 20341 4
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... Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin agree on so little as theorists of literature that they must count as alternatives. To read one and then the other, preferably Jakobson first and then Bakhtin, as a sort of anti-Jakobson, is a literary theoretical education. Where Jakobson is dry, Bakhtin is convivial; where Jakobson is technocratic, Bakhtin is impulsive; where Jakobson is magisterial, Bakhtin is a groundling ...

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