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It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Using Biography 
by William Empson.
Chatto, 259 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 0 7011 2889 5
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Seven Types of Ambiguity 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 258 pp., £4.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0556 3
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Collected Poems 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 119 pp., £3.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0555 5
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... Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and his unique accents. Profoundly comic and yet incandescent with convictions, Using Biography is so rammed with life that it shall gather strength of life with being ...

Playing with terror

Christopher Ricks, 21 January 1982

The Comfort of Strangers 
by Ian McEwan.
Cape, 134 pp., £5.95, October 1981, 0 224 01931 7
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... Ian McEwan’s tale is as economical as a shudder. It never itself shudders, which is one reason why it makes you do so. By staying cool in the face of the murderous madness which it contemplates, it precipitates an icy sweat. What it does even with equanimity is not to display it. A characteristic McEwan sentence is one of which it might be said (here in Venice revisited) that the law allows it and the court awards it ...

Hallo Dad

Christopher Ricks, 2 October 1980

Mr Nicholas Sir Henry and Sons Daymare 
by Thomas Hinde.
Macmillan, 271 pp., £6.95, August 1980, 0 333 29539 0
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... The last word of the reissue of Mr Nicholas, Thomas Hinde’s exquisitely glum and fearingly funny novel of 1952, is probably a misprint. At least, it is minutely different from the last word in the Penguin book in 1962, the issue which brought Hinde’s consummate first novel to an even more widely appreciative public. One tribute to the novel’s exact art is that it matters whether the book ends, as it did then, with the exchange, ‘Hallo Peter ...

Version of Pastoral

Christopher Ricks, 2 April 1987

The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections 
by V.S. Naipaul.
Viking, 318 pp., £10.95, March 1987, 0 670 81576 4
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... The Enigma of Arrival: V.S. Naipaul’s title is the one at which Apollinaire enigmatically arrived, for the painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A detail of it illuminates Naipaul’s cover and his book: making their huddled way from a classical quayside (the scene bathed both in shadow and in sun), two stoled figures have their obscured faces towards us and their backs to a wall ...

Donald Davie and the English

Christopher Ricks, 22 May 1980

Trying to Explain 
by Donald Davie.
Carcanet, 213 pp., £6.95, April 1980, 0 85635 343 4
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... Since Byron and Landor, no Englishman appears to have profited much from living abroad.’ So said an American who rightly believed himself to be profiting from living abroad, T.S. Eliot in England in 1918, honouring the American who had likewise profited and who had then become – as Eliot would – an Englishman: Henry James. ‘The fact of being everywhere a foreigner was probably an assistance to his native wit ...

Donne’s Will to Power

Christopher Ricks, 18 June 1981

John Donne: Life, Mind and Art 
by John Carey.
Faber, 303 pp., £9.50, May 1981, 0 571 11636 1
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... Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single-minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord ...

For good or bad

Christopher Ricks, 19 December 1985

Easy Pieces 
by Geoffrey Hartman.
Columbia, 218 pp., $20, June 1985, 0 231 06018 1
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... Geoffrey Hartman’s Easy Pieces can be hard going. ‘To see, oneself unseen, as at the movies, is only less than the ecstasy of an unseeing seeing: of going beyond the non-language of images to the non-language of non-images, or a glance that is not guilty, that is both knowing and pure.’ This is not incomprehensible, but it is not by any stretch easy either, and it tips a glance that is guilty ...

Dark Tom

Christopher Ricks, 1 December 1983

Beyond the Pale: Sir Oswald Mosley 1933-1980 
by Nicholas Mosley.
Secker, 323 pp., £8.95, October 1983, 0 436 28852 4
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Rules of the Game: Sir Oswald and Lady Cynthia Mosley 1896-1933 
by Nicholas Mosley.
Fontana, 274 pp., £2.50, October 1983, 0 00 636644 9
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... The human craving to believe in something is pathetic, when not tragic; and always, at the same time, comic.’ The life of Sir Oswald Mosley was pathetic, tragic and comic, and his son’s humane deliberated biography is itself a notable contribution to ‘The Literature of Fascism’ which T.S. Eliot was judging with that sentence in 1928. In 1928 Oswald Mosley was still an up-and-coming Labour MP ...

Short is sweet

Christopher Ricks, 3 February 1983

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs 
edited by J.A. Simpson.
Oxford, 256 pp., £7.95, October 1982, 0 19 866131 2
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A World of Proverbs 
by Patricia Houghton.
Blandford, 152 pp., £5.95, September 1981, 0 7137 1114 0
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... The alphabet does happy things. The first entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is able to give unforced priority to some of the most important properties of proverbs. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ First, that it is more recent than you think (c.1850). Second, that nobody has ever heard of the talented person who endowed it with the anonymity of genius (T ...

High Punctuation

Christopher Ricks, 14 May 1992

But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse 
by John Lennard.
Oxford, 324 pp., £35, November 1991, 0 19 811247 5
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... Fecund and jocund, well-earned and learnèd, wittily wily, But I digress is a delight and a treasure-house, alive with moving illumination and with benign warning, in short a delight-house of a book. It is the best work at once of literary criticism and of literary history I’ve read for many and many a day.No less agile at dancing than at pouncing, the disciplined movement of mind here is never shifty and always nifty ...

Armadillo

Christopher Ricks, 16 September 1982

Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent 
by Donald Davie.
University of Notre Dame Press, 154 pp., £11.85, June 1982, 0 268 00852 3
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These the Companions 
by Donald Davie.
Cambridge, 220 pp., £12.50, August 1982, 0 521 24511 7
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... Donald Davie’s critical arguments are often happily reminiscential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn’t make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie’s earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church ...

Appelfeld 1990

Christopher Ricks, 8 February 1990

... The upright fiction of Aharon Appelfeld arises from the level facts of his anguished and brave young life. Like the novels themselves, a note on their author is laconic, lapidary and on oath:Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now part of the USSR). His mother was killed by the Nazis, and he was deported at the age of eight to a concentration camp, from which he escaped ...

Umpteens

Christopher Ricks, 22 November 1990

Bloomsbury Dictionary of Dedications 
edited by Adrian Room.
Bloomsbury, 354 pp., £17.99, September 1990, 0 7475 0521 7
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Unauthorised Versions: Poems and their Parodies 
edited by Kenneth Baker.
Faber, 446 pp., £14.99, September 1990, 0 571 14122 6
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The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse 
edited by Tom Paulin.
Faber, 407 pp., £14.99, November 1990, 0 571 14470 5
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... Adrian Room has garnered umpteen dedications, and some of them are of interest, but what is the point of unrolling them alphabetically as something purporting to be a dictionary? Abbott opens, and Zangwill closes, yet the book is not a work of reference. It is an anthology. A lazy piece of work, or of relaxation, and not just because its compiler has declined the effort of an imaginative ordering and has instead fallen back on A to zzzz ...

A Novel without a Hero

Christopher Ricks, 6 December 1979

The Mangan Inheritance 
by Brian Moore.
Cape, 336 pp., £5.50
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... Jamie Mangan, left at 36 by his wife and then suddenly left all her money, takes it into his heart to go off from New York to Ireland to find out whether or not he is the great-great-grandson of the poet James Clarence Mangan. Jamie’s father had once halfheartedly tried this, but he wasn’t prey to a sufficiently insatiable hunger for the quest. But then it is Jamie, not his father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man in an heirloom daguerrotype which has ‘J ...

Speaking well

Christopher Ricks, 18 August 1983

Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir 
by David Pryce-Jones.
Collins, 304 pp., £12.50, July 1983, 0 333 32827 2
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J.B. Yeats: Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1922 
edited with a memoir by Joseph Hone.
Secker, 296 pp., £7.95, May 1983, 0 436 59205 3
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... Unlike the publication in 1975 of the touching acute letters of Cyril Connolly to Noel Blakiston, the publication of Connolly’s Journal (1928-1937) does not serve him, except right. He found D.H. Lawrence insufficiently magnanimous (‘Notice how carefully Lawrence refuses to recognise virtue in anyone but himself’), and his sponsor David Pryce-Jones now finds F ...

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