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Timo of Corinth

Julian Symons, 6 August 1992

A Choice of Murder 
by Peter Vansittart.
Peter Owen, 216 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 7206 0832 5
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Portrait of the Artist’s Wife 
by Barbara Anderson.
Secker, 309 pp., £13.99, June 1992, 9780436200977
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Turtle Moon 
by Alice Hoffman.
Macmillan, 255 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 0 333 57867 8
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Double Down 
by Tom Kakonis.
Macmillan, 308 pp., £14.99, April 1992, 0 333 57492 3
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... has fled from New York to Verity with her baby daughter Rachel. There’s an eccentric cop named Julian Cash, so ugly that his mother fainted when she first saw him and tree frogs go limp with fear in the palm of his hand. This material for a Faulknerian comedy is made instead into sticky romantic mush. There is a murder, Keith takes off with baby ...

Intolerance

Julian Symons, 8 October 1992

The God-Fearer 
by Dan Jacobson.
Bloomsbury, 160 pp., £13.99, September 1992, 0 7475 1258 2
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... A parable, an allegory, a moral fable, must convince us first on the literal level to have full effect in its symbolic message. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ and The Trial our attention is immediately engaged by the opening sentences that tell of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a gigantic insect lying on its back and unable to turn over, and by the bald information that Joseph K ...

City of Dust

Julian Symons, 25 July 1991

A Den of Foxes 
by Stuart Hood.
Methuen, 217 pp., £13.99, July 1991, 9780413651105
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Dirty Tricks 
by Michael Dibdin.
Faber, 241 pp., £13.99, June 1991, 0 571 16216 9
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A Strange and Sublime Address 
by Amit Chaudhuri.
Heinemann, 209 pp., £13.99, June 1991, 9780434123483
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Spider 
by Patrick McGrath.
Viking, 221 pp., £13.99, April 1991, 0 670 83684 2
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... What Carlyle called the Condition of England Question – in our day, the country created by Thatcher and her sub-lieutenants – is surely the ripest subject on offer to novelists. The centripetal tendencies of a government that every year has affirmed its centrifugal intentions, the encouragement for financial whizzkids to enrich themselves and the brushing aside of accompanying financial scandals, the building boom based on an everrising tower of credit, and the collapsed public and private notions of morality, all cry out to be dealt with in fiction by the flat power of the Zola who in La Curée excoriated those who made speculative fortunes from Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and in Pot-Bouille savaged the social and moral attitudes of bourgeois lives as seen in an apartment block occupied by the middle class ...

Making up

Julian Symons, 15 August 1991

Lipstick, Sex and Poetry 
by Jeremy Reed.
Peter Owen, 119 pp., £14.95, June 1991, 0 7206 0817 1
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A poet could not but be gay 
by James Kirkup.
Peter Owen, 240 pp., £16.95, June 1991, 0 7206 0823 6
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There was a young man from Cardiff 
by Dannie Abse.
Hutchinson, 211 pp., £12.99, April 1991, 0 09 174757 0
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String of Beginners 
by Michael Hamburger.
Skoob Books, 338 pp., £10.99, May 1991, 1 871438 66 7
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... The first page of Jeremy Reed’s ‘autobiographical exploration of sexuality’ finds him with ‘a red gash of lipstick’ on his mouth, pondering whether to take the ten steps down to a beach where men sunbathe nude. He is androgynous, 16, ‘looking for a new species’. James Kirkup also admits to androgyny and to a passion for make-up, from childhood when he experimented with his mother’s make-up box, through the time when, as head of the English Department at the Bath Academy of Art, he appeared in his own play for children wearing white tights and with gold sequins on his upper eyelids, right into middle age ...

Unlucky Jim

Julian Symons, 10 October 1991

The Kindness of Women 
by J.G. Ballard.
HarperCollins, 286 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 00 223771 7
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... There is something to be said for encountering some years after publication a fictional work not only popular but critically acclaimed. What is novel in the subject-matter will have become familiarly known, something particularly relevant to J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, which fascinated some of its early readers and reviewers because it was based on the writer's childhood experiences while interned in Shanghai during World War Two ...

Advice for the New Nineties

Julian Symons, 12 March 1992

HMS Glasshouse 
by Sean O’Brien.
Oxford, 56 pp., £5.99, November 1991, 0 19 282835 5
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The Hogweed Lass 
by Alan Dixon.
Poet and Printer, 33 pp., £3, September 1991, 0 900597 39 9
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Collected Poems 
by Les Murray.
Carcanet, 319 pp., £18.95, November 1991, 0 85635 923 8
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... Every poetic rebellion hardens sooner or later into an ossification of style and language and needs replacement by something at the time believed to be its opposite. In the 20th century it has been sooner rather than later, so that in Britain the almost art-for-art’s-sake purity of Imagism was replaced by the socially-conscious, deliberately objective poetry of the Thirties ...

Urgent

Julian Symons, 21 February 1991

By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept 
by Elizabeth Smart.
Paladin, 112 pp., £3.99, January 1991, 0 586 09039 8
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The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals 
by Elizabeth Smart.
Paladin, 112 pp., £3.99, January 1991, 0 586 09040 1
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Necessary Secrets: The Journals of Elizabeth Smart 
edited by Alice Van Wart.
Grafton, 305 pp., £14.99, January 1991, 0 246 13653 7
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... What a marvellous title, I said to friends when By Grand Central Station was published in 1945. Better not read the book, it can’t possibly live up to the title. Sure enough, On First Looking into Grand Central Station after nearly half a century’s abstention, that unserious assertion turns out to be dismayingly justified. On publication, the Book got few reviews, but caused considerable stir in the admittedly limited circle of those attentive to the publications of Tambimuttu’s Editions Poetry London ...

What ho, Giotto!

Julian Symons, 7 February 1991

Stanley Spencer 
by Kenneth Pople.
Collins, 576 pp., £25, January 1991, 0 00 215320 3
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... In the beginning there was Cookham, and Pa and Ma and ten other children apart from Stanley, including two who died in childhood. Cookham was Paradise, but Paradise ended with the 1914 War. Afterwards there were years of confusion, then the discovery of sex. And all the while there was religion, and paintings that tried to express religious feeling, latterly including always in various forms the artist and one or other of his two wives ...

Deep down

Julian Symons, 28 June 1990

The Last World 
by Christoph Ransmayr, translated by John Woods.
Chatto, 202 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 0 7011 3502 6
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The End of Lieutenant Boruvka 
by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson.
Faber, 188 pp., £12.99, May 1990, 0 571 14973 1
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The Dwarves of Death 
by Jonathan Coe.
Fourth Estate, 198 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 1 872180 51 5
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Last Loves 
by Alan Sillitoe.
Grafton, 190 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 0 333 51783 0
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... What is it really about, and why was it written like this? The questions are never unreasonable when confronted with works that suggest the possibility of other meanings present beneath the surface level of realism, and when a reader has to decide whether suggested profundities really exist or in fact resemble what Eliot in old age called his notes to The Waste Land, an exhibition of bogus scholarship ...

Who they think they are

Julian Symons, 8 November 1990

You’ve had your time 
by Anthony Burgess.
Heinemann, 391 pp., £17.50, October 1990, 0 434 09821 3
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An Immaculate Mistake: Scenes from Childhood and Beyond 
by Paul Bailey.
Bloomsbury, 167 pp., £14.99, October 1990, 0 7475 0630 2
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... Volume One of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, left our hero in January 1960 under sentence of death, no more than a few months to live. With one bound, or at least one letter from the Neurological Institute, he is free. ‘The protein content of my spinal liquor had gone down dramatically’: the death sentence is cancelled ...

Bourgeois Masterpieces

Julian Symons, 13 June 1991

Literature and Liberation: Selected Essays 
by Arnold Kettle, edited by Graham Martin and W.R. Owens.
Manchester, 231 pp., £9.95, February 1991, 9780719027734
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... My friend and fellow crime writer John Creasey published more than seven hundred books under some twenty different names. (He also found time to found a political party called rather grandly the All Party Alliance, although a wit said that his only allies were Anthony Morton, Gordon Ashe, Michael Halliday and other Creasey pseudonyms.) His books were popular but not highly regarded, and this worried and baffled him ...

Darts for art’s sake

Julian Symons, 28 September 1989

London Fields 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 470 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 224 02609 7
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... Nuclear weapons, by their very existence, ‘distort all life and subvert all freedoms’, and even thinking or reading about them for too long may induce ‘nausea, clinical nausea’. So Martin Amis in ‘Thinkability’, the introduction to his collection of stories Einstein’s Monsters. The monsters are the weapons – but also ourselves, who are ‘not fully human, not for now ...

Orwellspeak

Julian Symons, 9 November 1989

The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of ‘St George’ Orwell 
by John Rodden.
Oxford, 478 pp., £22.50, October 1989, 0 19 503954 8
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... If George Orwell had died in 1939 before the outbreak of war (something perfectly possible, for in the previous year he suffered a bad haemorrhage and spent nearly six months in a sanatorium), he would be recorded in literary histories of the period as an interesting maverick who wrote some not very successful novels, a lively account of a few hard weeks in Paris, a quirky book about the miners that was somehow combined with an attack on sandalled vegetarian socialists, and another about the Spanish Civil War that some reviewers praised but nobody read ...

Beyond Everyday Life

Julian Symons, 5 March 1981

The Blaze of Noon 
by Rayner Heppenstall.
Allison and Busby, 166 pp., £6.50, July 1980, 0 85031 288 4
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... Some time late in 1939, around the time World War Two began, I met Rayner Heppenstall in the street, and we went to a pub, no doubt to exchange gloomy views about our likely futures. His first novel would be coming out soon. ‘It might sell a few copies in the rubber shops,’ he said. The book was The Blaze of Noon. It appeared in November 1939, and its success was assured by an article in the Evening Standard which said in a headline that the novel was a challenge to the censor, and added two subheads: ‘An Affront to Decency ...

Cityscape with Figures

Julian Symons, 21 August 1980

The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, Friends and Heroes 
by Olivia Manning.
Penguin, 287 pp., £1.25, March 1980, 0 14 003543 5
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... How does a novelist write about World War Two or the war in Vietnam? About populations deliberately enslaved or exterminated, destruction seen as normal? American writers differ from British novelists in approaching such all-embracing violence as too grotesque to be viewed in any terms except those of fantasy. There are no British novels that, like Catch 22, approach war as lunacy made real, or implicitly ask, like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, why running dope is worse than killing unarmed Vietnamese ...

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