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Complicated Detours

Frank Kermode: Darwin’s Worms by Adam Phillips, 11 November 1999

Darwin's Worms 
by Adam Phillips.
Faber, 148 pp., £7.99, November 1999, 0 571 20003 6
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... in 1689 and known familiarly as Sherlock on Death, was a bestseller in its day and long after. Dr Johnson commended Sherlock’s style as ‘very elegant’. There was a long tradition of ‘how to’ books about dying, and, as his fuller title suggests, Sherlock was offering a modern approach to the problem. I thought of Sherlock when reading this brief new ...

Broken Knowledge

Frank Kermode, 4 August 1983

The Oxford Book of Aphorisms 
edited by John Gross.
Oxford, 383 pp., £9.50, March 1983, 0 19 214111 2
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The Travellers’ Dictionary of Quotation: Who said what about where? 
edited by Peter Yapp.
Routledge, 1022 pp., £24.95, April 1983, 0 7100 0992 5
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... The same names provide most of the substance of both books, though with varying emphases. Thus Dr Johnson is Gross’s champion, with Nietzsche the runner-up, whereas in Auden this ranking is reversed. Gross’s other seeds are Vauvenargues, Schopenhauer, Hazlitt, La Bruyère, Goethe, La Rochefoucauld, in that order; Auden has Nietzsche, ...

Sterling and Strings

Peter Davies: Harold Wilson and Vietnam, 20 November 2008

... and again in June, pressed the Conservative prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, to advise President Johnson against extending the war into the North. Following his election victory in October that year, Wilson was advised by the Foreign Office that, with regard to Vietnam, ‘ministers should agree to support the United States in this limited and controlled ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: The gangster movie, 13 December 2007

American Gangster 
directed by Ridley Scott.
November 2007
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... them, but gripping and troubling all the way through. The film is based on the ‘true story’ of Frank Lucas, a black gangster who reigned in Harlem from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, when he went to jail for 15 years – a sentence reduced from 70 years because he named the policemen he had been paying off. We know what ‘true story’ means in such ...

Gangsters in Hats

Richard Mayne, 17 May 1984

Essays on Detective Fiction 
edited by Bernard Benstock.
Macmillan, 218 pp., £20, February 1984, 0 333 32195 2
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Dashiell Hammett: A Life at the Edge 
by William Nolan.
Arthur Barker, 276 pp., £9.95, September 1983, 0 213 16886 3
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The Life of Dashiell Hammett 
by Diane Johnson.
Chatto, 344 pp., £12.95, January 1984, 9780701127664
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Hellman in Hollywood 
by Bernard Dick.
Associated University Presses, 183 pp., £14.95, September 1983, 0 8386 3140 1
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... and ‘the worm’s-eye view of life’ in seaside postcards. He was hardly concerned with Frank Richards as a novelist or (despite his essay’s title) the art of Donald McGill. A better reason for paying attention to humble work is to identify its virtues. At worst, this can become highbrow slumming – overpraising incompetence like an eager nursery ...


Richard Poirier, 20 December 1979

The Powers that Be 
by David Halberstam.
Chatto, 771 pp., £9.95
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... the disastrous appearance of Nixon in the first of the televised debates), and finally Presidents Johnson and Nixon, both of whom were severely damaged, as was Senator Joe McCarthy, by the dramatisations on TV of such horror shows as Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Truman gets treated very scantily in the book for the reason, I ...

English Changing

Frank Kermode, 7 February 1980

The State of the Language 
edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks.
California, 609 pp., £14.95, January 1980, 0 520 03763 4
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... End (1910), and discovered that the mistaken association with ‘mean’ was old enough for Johnson to record it in his Dictionary. Now the wrong usage is right, and mine is obsolete, as the ‘right’ sense of jejune, and the ‘correct’ homogeneous, may be in a hundred years or less. I am saying, half-heartedly conservative, that some resistance is ...


Frank Cioffi, 22 September 1994

A Pack of Lies: Towards a Sociology of Lying 
by J.A. Barnes.
Cambridge, 200 pp., £35, June 1994, 0 521 45376 3
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... If things get worse tomorrow, tomorrow we will devise other stratagems.’ According to Samuel Johnson, his friend Savage manifested a comparable ingenuity in distorted ratiocination: ‘Savage ... did not suffer his esteem of himself to depend upon others ... he contented himself with the applause of men of judgment; and was somewhat disposed to exclude ...

Closets of Knowledge

Frank Kermode: Privacy, 19 June 2003

Privacy: Concealing the 18th-Century Self 
by Patricia Meyer Spacks.
Chicago, 248 pp., £25.50, May 2003, 0 226 76860 0
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... here delicately analysed, but also Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and others. Dr Johnson remarked that the ‘call for books’ had greatly increased since Milton’s time. ‘To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to ...

Real Absences

Barbara Johnson, 19 October 1995

Post Scripts: The Writer’s Workshop 
by Vincent Kaufmann, translated by Deborah Treisman.
Harvard, 199 pp., £31.95, June 1994, 0 674 69330 2
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The Oxford Book of Letters 
edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode.
Oxford, 559 pp., £20, July 1995, 0 19 214188 0
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... of nine modern (mainly French) writers, and the sprawling Oxford anthology, edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode, of 328 letters written in English between 1535 and 1985 by 175 different hands. But the contrast does not lie only in matters of format and genre. The difference goes to the heart of what a letter is. In a short introduction to ...

Beast and Frog

John Bayley, 4 November 1993

Dr Johnson & Mr Savage 
by Richard Holmes.
Hodder, 260 pp., £19.99, October 1993, 0 340 52974 1
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Samuel Johnson 
by Pat Rogers.
Oxford, 116 pp., £4.99, April 1993, 0 19 287593 0
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... who make death a cliché within the life of language, neither of these wishes makes much sense. Dr Johnson would have pooh-poohed them. Life, for him, hoped to be preparation for a future life: a living for ever by other means. In the meantime we could do it most satisfactorily by travelling briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman. But if we are to live ...

Georgian eyes are smiling

Frank Kermode, 15 September 1988

Bernard Shaw. Vol. I: The Search for Love, 1856-1898 
by Michael Holroyd.
Chatto, 486 pp., £16, September 1988, 0 7011 3332 5
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Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters. Vol. IV 
edited by Dan Laurence.
Bodley Head, 946 pp., £30, June 1988, 0 370 31130 2
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Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies. Vol. VIII 
edited by Stanley Weintraub.
Pennsylvania State, 175 pp., $25, April 1988, 0 271 00613 7
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Shaw’s Sense of History 
by J.L. Wisenthal.
Oxford, 186 pp., £22.50, April 1988, 0 19 812892 4
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Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. III: 1903-1907 
edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies.
Cambridge, 532 pp., £35, April 1988, 0 521 32387 8
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Joseph Conrad: ‘Nostromo’ 
by Ian Watt.
Cambridge, 98 pp., £12.50, April 1988, 0 521 32821 7
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... There were already good biographies of Shaw, notably those of Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson, both of whom knew Shaw and had the benefit of his energetic interventions. Pearson in particular will not be easily supplanted. Nevertheless the archives of the world are full of Shaviana inaccessible before his death, and because there had not been a serious attempt since 1956 – the centenary year – the Shaw Estate sensibly decided that the time had come for a new biography, and invited Mr Holroyd to write it ...

On the Sofa

Yohann Koshy: ‘Small Axe’, 7 January 2021

... The poet​ Linton Kwesi Johnson calls the first two generations of Caribbean people in postwar Britain the ‘heroic’ generation and the ‘rebel’ generation. The Windrush generation, who arrived between 1948 and 1962, when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into force, were ‘heroes’ who, though not politically passive, were forced to cultivate resilience in the face of violence and hostility ...

Not for Horrid Profs

Colin Burrow: Kermode’s Shakespeare, 1 June 2000

Shakespeare's Language 
by Frank Kermode.
Allen Lane, 324 pp., £20, April 2000, 0 7139 9378 2
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... only for the moment in which one is reading the play or seeing a production. Shakespeare is, as Frank Kermode termed him in a lecture given to celebrate the poet’s 400th birthday in 1964, ‘patient’: he endures because his writing has ‘power to absorb our questions’ and has shown an extraordinary ability to adapt itself to the concerns of each ...

Who can blame him?

Frank Kermode, 5 April 1990

Critical Terms for Literary Study 
edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.
Chicago, 369 pp., £35.95, March 1990, 0 226 47201 9
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The Ideology of the Aesthetic 
by Terry Eagleton.
Blackwell, 426 pp., £35, February 1990, 0 631 16302 6
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... as cultural artefacts, we shall recognise that everything is, in the end, inescapably political. Frank Lentricchia, in his Afterword, undertakes to demonstrate that Wallace Stevens’s ‘Anecdote of a Jar’, probably chosen for its apparent remoteness from politics, ‘sharpens our awareness of the structure of power’; and in principle there is no poem ...

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