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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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Disorientation

Jonathan Coe, 5 October 1995

The Island of the Day Before 
by Umberto Eco.
Secker, 513 pp., £16.99, October 1995, 0 436 20270 0
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... Umberto Eco began formulating his theories of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text in the late Fifties, and then more than twenty years later, with the publication of The Name of the Rose, he appeared to achieve the impossible, by proving that these two seemingly incompatible forms could in fact be reconciled. This was particularly good news for publishers, who suddenly found themselves dealing with a product which not only had solid highbrow credentials but was also able to shift units, as they say, in the international marketplace, and throughout the Eighties there was much talk of this fabulous hybrid called the ‘Euronovel’, of which the next memorable example was Patrick Süskind’s Perfume ...

Dunny-Digging

Jonathan Coe, 11 May 1995

The Riders 
by Tim Winton.
Picador, 377 pp., £14.99, February 1995, 0 330 33941 9
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... Tim Winton’s new novel is full of shit. There are references to it every three or four pages, almost: characters are forever feeling like it, or smelling of it, or coming out with it, or at least kicking it off their boots. Winton’s hero, a builder called Fred Scully, is put through some harrowing emotional paces, and as often as not they affect him primarily in the bowels, which thereby become a potent index of spiritual well-being ...

Tact

Jonathan Coe, 20 March 1997

The Emigrants 
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse.
Harvill, 237 pp., £14.99, June 1996, 1 86046 127 1
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... This curious, mesmerising book, a hybrid of fiction and memoir which tells the life stories of four unhappy exiles, is the work of a German writer until now almost unknown in this country. It has already scooped up prizes in continental Europe and been published to great acclaim both in Britain and America. The epithets which have been flung at it include sober, delicate, beautiful, moving, powerful, mysterious, civilised and a hundred others: but it would be hard to praise The Emigrants more highly than by saying that it is a supremely tactful book ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Shuddering Organisms

Jonathan Coe, 12 May 1994

Betrayals 
by Charles Palliser.
Cape, 308 pp., £14.99, March 1994, 0 224 02919 3
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... Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx has been one of the more intriguing literary successes of recent years, and one which raises some interesting questions about the always fraught and problematic relationship between contemporary novelists and the reading public they like to imagine themselves serving. Briefly, the situation is this. In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a narrative of some 400,000 words (1,191 pages in the recent ‘Collector’s Edition’) which so scrupulously recreated the language and conventions of mid-Victorian fiction, its labyrinthine plotting, its vivid characterisation and breadth of social canvas, that it was an immediate success with thousands of readers hungry for a return to the narrative and moral certainties of Dickens, Eliot and Collins ...

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 ...

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 ...

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