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Openly reticent

Jonathan Coe, 9 November 1989

Grand Inquisitor: Memoirs 
by Robin Day.
Weidenfeld, 296 pp., £14.95, October 1989, 0 297 79660 7
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Beginning 
by Kenneth Branagh.
Chatto, 244 pp., £12.99, September 1989, 0 7011 3388 0
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Storm over 4: A Personal Account 
by Jeremy Isaacs.
Weidenfeld, 215 pp., £14.95, September 1989, 0 297 79538 4
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... There comes a time in the lives of most public figures, it seems, when the exhortation of agents and publishers becomes too much to resist and there is nothing for it but to start writing books about themselves. In the case of Robin Day (Sir Robin, I suppose, if one is not to repeat Mrs Thatcher’s famous gaffe) that time has come at the age of 68; in the case of Kenneth Branagh, at the age of 28 ...

My Wife

Jonathan Coe, 21 December 1989

Soho Square II 
edited by Ian Hamilton.
Bloomsbury, 287 pp., £12.95, November 1989, 0 7475 0506 3
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... Bloomsbury have again brought out their hefty collection of contemporary writing just in time for Christmas, and indeed the enterprise is suffused with a sort of Christmas spirit. This ‘feast of new writing’ conjures up images of a lavish get-together where the nation’s literati – that quarrelsome but essentially close-knit family – bury their differences and gather noisily around the dinner table ...

Wheezes

Jonathan Coe, 13 May 1993

Cleopatra’s Sister 
by Penelope Lively.
Viking, 282 pp., £14.99, April 1993, 0 670 84830 1
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... Samuel Beckett was one of the first to realise that in a predominantly agnostic and sceptical age, nothing could be more irrelevant than the novel whose plot continued to imitate the workings of a benign deity: the writer’s new task, on the contrary, consisted in finding ‘a form that accommodates the mess’. Half a century has gone by since then, and still, both in and out of the mainstream, novelists are struggling to adapt their narrative strategies to the demands of a reality which, as any glance at the newspapers will remind us, grows daily more grotesque and unmanageable ...

Doing justice to the mess

Jonathan Coe, 19 August 1993

Afternoon Raag 
by Amit Chaudhuri.
Heinemann, 133 pp., £3.99, June 1993, 0 434 12349 8
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... The triumphs of this novel are at once tiny and enormous. Tiny because, like its predecessor A Strange and Sublime Address, it tells only of a placid and uneventful life, a life of domesticity, routine and small daily rituals, in which a ride on a bus or a rendezvous in a café is the closest we are likely to come to adventure; enormous because Chaudhuri has once again turned this unspectacular material into something enchanting, studded with moments of beauty more arresting than anything to be found in a hundred busier and more excitable narratives ...

Principia Efica

Jonathan Coe, 22 September 1994

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 422 pp., £14.99, September 1994, 0 571 17197 4
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... Like his near-namesake, Tristram Shandy, the unlikely hero of Peter Carey’s new novel begins the story of his life at the very beginning. While he doesn’t go into quite as much detail about the moment of his conception, he appears to have a very clear memory of the minutes leading up to his delivery. As his mother leaves her theatre (where she has been rehearsing the Scottish Play) and sets out for the hospital, things started happening faster than she had expected ...

Something else

Jonathan Coe, 5 December 1991

In Black and White 
by Christopher Stevenson.
New Caxton Press, 32 pp., £1.95
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The Tree of Life 
by Hugh Nissenson.
Carcanet, 159 pp., £6.95, September 1991, 0 85635 874 6
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Cley 
by Carey Harrison.
Heinemann, 181 pp., £13.99, November 1991, 0 434 31368 8
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... The traditional self-contained, sensibly-proportioned novel, still very much the dominant influence on today’s literary scene, is called gently into question by each of these writers. Carey Harrison, with ostensibly the second (although in fact the first) volume of what looks set to become a monumental tetralogy, puts pressure on the boundaries of the form by insisting that it absorb a near-infinity of characters, events and incidental detail ...

Skullscape

Jonathan Coe, 12 July 1990

Hopeful Monsters 
by Nicholas Mosley.
Secker, 551 pp., £14.95, June 1990, 0 436 28854 0
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... In the first place, let’s try to forget the word ‘experimental’, which has always been one of criticism’s more useless bits of terminology. There is really only one distinction to be made: between those novelists who think carefully about form, and those who do not. If there is anything new to be said, after all, the chances are that there will have to be found new ways of saying it, and yet nothing seems to send readers running for cover more quickly than the suggestion that they are to be thrown in at the deep end of the novel’s liquid possibilities ...

Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe, 12 September 1991

The Tax Inspector 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 279 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 571 16297 5
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The Second Bridegroom 
by Rodney Hall.
Faber, 214 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 9780571164820
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... Both of these Australian novels describe circles. Carey, forsaking the confident historical sweep of Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker to focus once again on the horrors of modern suburbia, traces the vicious circles of a family history in which successive generations are debilitated by a legacy of abuse. Rodney Hall tells of a convict at large in New South Wales in 1838, caught up in larger, even more powerful cycles of captivity and exploitation, until he finds temporary sanctuary with an Aboriginal tribe and becomes ‘the very centre of their circle ...

Calvinoism

Jonathan Coe, 26 March 1992

Six Memos for the Next Millennium 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh.
Cape, 124 pp., £5.99, February 1992, 0 224 03311 5
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Under the Jaguar Sun 
by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver.
Cape, 86 pp., £10.99, February 1992, 0 224 03310 7
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The Fountains of Neptune 
by Rikki Ducornet.
Dalkey Archive, 220 pp., $19.95, February 1992, 0 916583 96 1
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Small Times 
by Russell Celyn Jones.
Viking, 212 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 670 84307 5
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... What tends to emerge from the great novels of the 20th century is the idea of an open encyclopedia,’ wrote Calvino in 1985, the year of his death. Tracing the lineage of the encyclopedic novel through Perec, Mann, Proust and Flaubert, he homes in on the figures of Carlo Emilio Gadda and Robert Musil, two ‘engineer-writers’ who have one quality in common: ‘their inability to find an ending ...

Gray’s Elegy

Jonathan Coe, 8 October 1992

Poor Things 
by Alasdair Gray.
Bloomsbury, 317 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 0 7475 1246 9
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... This is Alasdair Gray’s funniest novel, his most high-spirited, and his least uneven. All of which does not necessarily make it his best, but certainly means that we have a nice surprise on our hands when you consider that Gray has spent much of the last few years publicly and gloomily announcing the death of his fictional imagination. That process began in 1985, with the postscript to Lean Tales, the short story collection he shared with Agnes Owens and James Kelman ...

Palimpsest History

Jonathan Coe, 11 June 1992

Ulverton 
by Adam Thorpe.
Secker, 382 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 436 52074 5
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Kicking 
by Leslie Dick.
Secker, 244 pp., £13.99, May 1992, 0 436 20011 2
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Frankie Styne and the Silver Man 
by Kathy Page.
Methuen, 233 pp., £13.99, April 1992, 0 413 66590 9
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... In her recent collection Stories, Theories and Things, Christine Brooke-Rose was casting around for a generic term under which to classify such diverse novels as Midnight’s Children, Terra Nostra and Dictionary of the Khazars, and came up with ‘palimpsest history’. What all of these books have in common is their interest in the recreation of a national history: a history which, in each case, has been erased or fragmented, subsumed beneath layers of interpretation, forgetting, writing and rewriting ...

Beautiful People

Jonathan Coe, 23 July 1992

Brightness Falls 
by Jay McInerney.
Bloomsbury, 416 pp., £15.99, May 1992, 0 7475 1152 7
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The Lost Father 
by Mona Simpson.
Faber, 506 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 571 16149 9
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Out with the Stars 
by James Purdy.
Peter Owen, 192 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 7206 0861 9
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... It might seem a rather obvious point to make at the outset, but two of these novels are extremely long. Long novels make specific demands on our patience and attention, and in the end this can hardly help translating itself into a claim for their own importance: both Brightness Falls and The Lost Father constitute invitations to spend at least ten or twelve hours of our pressured lives listening to the voices of their authors ...

What else is new?

Jonathan Coe, 11 March 1993

The Long Night of White Chickens 
by Francisco Goldman.
Faber, 450 pp., £14.99, January 1993, 0 571 16098 0
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... One of the more disarming sentences in Francisco Goldman’s impressive first novel comes near the end, when his hero-narrator, Roger Graetz, takes a bus journey up into the Guatemalan highlands and stops off in a village just as the Indians are packing up their market in a dirt plaza. Brooding over what he knows about the village – how the army has only recently allowed nuns and priests back in, how the Indians have refused to return to the rectory because of all the people who have been tortured to death there – Roger finds himself tiredly incapable of outrage, and almost catches himself responding to the story with a jaded shrug of the shoulders: ‘Poverty, soldiers, nuns and priests, torture’ he reflects, ‘what else is new?’ This exhaustion of response is pertinent to the novel as a whole, particularly in its relationship to the rich and extensive body of fiction which has emerged from Latin America over the last few decades ...

There was and there was not

Jonathan Coe, 4 April 1991

To Know a Woman 
by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange.
Chatto, 265 pp., £13.99, February 1991, 0 7011 3572 7
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The Smile of the Lamb 
by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
Cape, 325 pp., £13.99, February 1991, 0 224 02639 9
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... Amos Oz and David Grossman are both political writers. This might seem an obvious statement, given that they are well-known for being politically vocal and have both written political (non-fiction) books consisting of interviews with their Palestinian and Israeli countrymen. But the main thing is that they also write intensely and truthfully political novels of the sort which tend to be thin on the ground in Britain ...

On the highway

Jonathan Coe, 24 March 1994

Desperadoes 
by Joseph O’Connor.
Flamingo, 426 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 00 224301 6
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Resurrection Man 
by Eoin McNamee.
Picador, 233 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 330 33274 0
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Stir-Fry 
by Emma Donoghue.
Hamish Hamilton, 232 pp., £9.99, January 1994, 0 241 13442 0
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... Young English novelists have a hard time of it these days. Not only must they work in the knowledge of an informed critical consensus which holds that their current productions are generally timid, moribund and insular; but to add insult to injury, they are confronted by the galling spectacle of mini-literary-Renaissances springing up all around them among their English-speaking neighbours, as supportive networks of publishers, small presses, magazines, young writers and editors foster the emergence of new and confident national literatures ...

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