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... Why has the Blunt affair generated so much callous humbug? Two highly regarded spy novels of recent years – The Human Factor and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are based on the idea of a ‘mole’ in the British Intelligence services. In neither book does any particular opprobrium attach to treachery. The emphasis is on personal ties rather than national ones (which are implied by both authors to be something of a fake ...

Taking Darwin in

Michael Mason, 16 February 1984

Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and 19th-Century Fiction 
by Gillian Beer.
Routledge, 303 pp., £17.95, September 1983, 0 7100 9505 8
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... This is at once an impressive, even thrilling book, and quite a bad one. Its virtues and vices are connected. The author has a precisely-grounded exhilaration about The Origin of Species; perhaps more than any other literary writer on the work she communicates its exciting essence. Her exhilaration also leads her to claim far too much for the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on Victorian literature ...

Philip Roth’s House of Fiction

Michael Mason, 6 December 1979

The Ghost Writer 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 180 pp., £4.95
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... The Ghost Writer is Philip Roth’s best novel yet. Certainly it is his most ingenious. But this familiar way of putting things may contain a mistake, a mistake which is part of the subject-matter of Roth’s book. ‘Best novel yet’ implies a future of prosperous activity which may be barmecidal. The novelist-hero of Henry James’s story ‘The Middle Years’ is amused by the view that his latest novel is ‘the best thing he has done yet’: it ‘made such a grand avenue of the future ...

MacInnes’s London

Michael Mason, 16 October 1980

City of Spades Mr Love and Mr Justice Absolute Beginners 
by Colin MacInnes.
Allison and Busby, 254 pp., £6.50, April 1980, 0 85031 331 7
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... With his three London novels Colin MacInnes hit on a marvellous subject-matter, into which he saw deeply. In other departments, however, he did not have the qualities to match. The books are consequently a frustrating experience – giving the sense of something thwarted, or half-realised. Taken as a group, indeed, they testify to the author’s unease about how best to convey his materials and vision ...

Downland Maniacs

Michael Mason, 5 October 1995

The Village that Died for England 
by Patrick Wright.
Cape, 420 pp., £17.99, March 1995, 0 224 03886 9
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... Acid rain’ was first identified, and deplored, almost 150 years ago. That is a disconcerting fact for our modern environmental awareness – which thus appears not to be modern at all, but almost as old as the manufacturing processes that have caused all the trouble. We have a triumphalist perception of human treatment of the environment: for a long time there was benighted callousness about it, then wisdom dawned, in isolated heroic acts such as Silent Spring, and now we are blessedly enlightened, like South Sea cannibal islanders converted to Christianity ...

Banality and Anxiety

Michael Mason, 19 March 1981

Thirty Seconds 
by Michael Arlen.
Farrar, Straus/Faber, 211 pp., £5.50, February 1981, 0 374 27576 9
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The Crystal Bucket 
by Clive James.
Cape, 238 pp., £6.95, February 1981, 0 224 01890 6
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The Message of Television 
by Roger Silverstone.
Heinemann, 248 pp., £14.50, March 1981, 0 435 82825 8
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... of Norman Mailer and other modern American writers. All these books are from literary stables. Michael Arlen’s first appeared in the New Yorker, and comes to the British reader via two very respected publishing houses (Fabers, incidentally, are apparently issuing the American edition with its original binding and title-page, without their own imprint: a ...

Coats of Every Cut

Michael Mason, 9 June 1994

Robert Surtees and Early Victorian Society 
by Norman Gash.
Oxford, 407 pp., £40, September 1993, 0 19 820429 9
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... as the novelist of ancient rural survivals, when he is really the novelist of new adaptations. Michael Henchard is a kind of serious version of Jorrocks, socially, temperamentally and in his personal relations. His strange appeal for the reader perhaps lies in things which also make Jorrocks oddly appealing: self-reliance, intense and simple emotions, a ...

Questions of Chic

Michael Mason, 19 August 1993

City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London 
by Judith Walkowitz.
Virago, 353 pp., £16.99, November 1992, 1 85381 517 9
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Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in 19th-century Married Life 
by James Hammerton.
Routledge, 236 pp., £37.50, November 1992, 0 415 03622 4
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Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and Class 
edited by Kristine Ottersen Garrigan.
Ohio, 337 pp., $34.99, August 1992, 0 8214 1019 9
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... the odds this burly two-volume compilation of essays, brought together by Jim Dyos in England and Michael Wolff in America, became a classic. Against the odds, because these essays were, in origin, conference proceedings, and there were nearly forty of them. Conventional publishing wisdom would hope for only a modest success from such a formula, but The ...

Do women like sex?

Michael Mason, 8 November 1990

Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud 
by Thomas Laqueur.
Harvard, 352 pp., $27.50, October 1990, 0 674 54349 1
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... female is spontaneous. The main evidence Laqueur brings forward is an ambiguous anecdote from Michael Ryan’s Manual of Jurisprudence of 1836 about a comatose girl conceiving. He is misleading in not quoting Ryan from his more directly medico-sexual Philosophy of Marriage: ‘amorous impulse ... appears indispensable to the generation of a new ...

George Eliot, Joyce and Cambridge

Michael Mason, 2 April 1981

... For those outside Cambridge University who are curious about recent events in the English Faculty there, and who want to assess the ‘repulsiveness’ of either party, or of both, Colin MacCabe’s book on Joyce* is among the few pieces of hard evidence available. One tendency of the stories coming out of Cambridge has been to represent MacCabe as an irenic figure, peaceably intent on exploring and teaching European culture and English grammar while bayed about by his attackers ...

Tons of Sums

Michael Mason, 16 September 1982

Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer 
by Anthony Hyman.
Oxford, 287 pp., £12.50, July 1982, 9780198581703
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... Most people know that Charles Babbage was a pioneer of the computer. This absorbing, though hagiographical, new life makes very clear how many other things he was as well: pure mathematician, economist, inventor, reformer of scientific institutions, craftsman, even salon host. But Anthony Hyman does not seek to displace the computers from centre-stage in Babbage’s life, and this seems correct ...

Vonnekit

Michael Mason, 7 February 1980

Jailbird 
by Kurt Vonnegut.
Cape, 246 pp., £5.50, October 1980, 0 224 01772 1
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... The publication of Jailbird in Britain is oddly well-timed. The hero of this novel, Walter F. Starbuck, joins the Communist Party before the war while still at Harvard. Later he becomes a civil servant, and in 1949 is investigated by a Congressional committee on Communism. After the hearing he is simply demoted, but in his testimony he mentions the Communist affiliations of a former friend who is now a prominent politician ...

Two Visits to the Dentist

Michael Mason, 5 June 1980

In Evil Hour 
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa.
Cape, 183 pp., £5.50, January 1980, 0 224 01775 6
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... A reader who has some acquaintance with Garcia Marquez is almost bound to approach a new novel by him with certain questions about connectedness in mind. There is first of all the issue of the connectedness of his career: which resolves itself at once into questions about the origins of, and successors to, the extraordinary One Hundred Years of Solitude ...

Thought Control

Michael Mason, 15 March 1984

Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility 
by Germaine Greer.
Secker, 469 pp., £9.95, March 1984, 0 436 18801 5
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... Germaine Greer has three main propositions to advance in her new book. These are, first, that genital, recreational sex is overvalued in our culture. Second, that birth-control programmes in the Third World are unnecessary, ineffectual and cruel. Third, that families which stress the procreative relationship are preferable to those which stress the conjugal relationship ...

Vicarious Sages

Michael Mason, 3 November 1983

John Forster: A Literary Life 
by James Davies.
Leicester University Press, 318 pp., £25, June 1983, 0 7185 1164 6
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Mr George Eliot: A Biography of George Henry Lewes 
by David Williams.
Hodder, 288 pp., £12.95, June 1983, 0 340 25717 2
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Johnnie Cross 
by Terence de Vere White.
Gollancz, 153 pp., £7.95, September 1983, 0 575 03333 9
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... By a considerable coincidence there are now published within a short interval the first biographies of two substantial Victorian literary figures, over a hundred years after the death of either man. The coincidence is made more striking by the similarities between George Henry Lewes and John Forster. They were two of the stars of Victorian literary journalism: much in demand as editors, and absolutely reliable in their capacity to produce essays and reviews of first-rate quality on a huge range of topics at an intimidating speed ...

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