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Skiving

P.N. Furbank, 1 April 1982

You, You and You: The People Out of Step with World War Two 
by Pete Grafton.
Pluto, 169 pp., £2.95, February 1982, 9780861043606
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... It is right to be suspicious of books produced by the tape-recorder, for they offer endless scope for deception and self-deception. It is perfectly possible for such a book to be saying nothing whatever for long stretches, and no one, not even the compiler, will have noticed. Or it can be saying something important which, again, the compiler never intended and is not aware of ...

Worries

P.N. Furbank, 5 May 1983

John Galsworthy: A Reassessment 
by Alec Fréchet, translated by Denis Mahaffey.
Macmillan, 229 pp., £20, January 1983, 0 333 31535 9
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... The Edwardians, it is well known, were great worriers. If it was not the national physique or the Teuton menace they were worrying about, it was the ‘warped vitality’ of Bank Holiday crowds, or it was bicycling. I have always been rather struck by the warning against bicycling issued by the Liberal historian R.C.K. Ensor: ‘The nervous craving of modern people for soulless and thoughtless exhilaration sufficiently explains its deplorable vogue, which will last until the stronger natures set a saner example ...
Cross Channel 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 211 pp., £13.99, January 1996, 0 224 04301 3
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... It was Wittgenstein’s objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it going on indefinitely? On Julian Barnes, who is so addicted to the business or game of interpretations, the question does not seem to weigh so heavily. We perhaps misunderstand Barnes if we take him to be profoundly worried by hermeneutic doubts: by the fictionality of the past and the inaccessibility of truth ...

Lord Fitzcricket

P.N. Furbank: The composer’s life, 21 May 1998

Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric 
by Mark Amory.
Chatto, 274 pp., £20, March 1998, 1 85619 234 2
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... and junk’ – a gaudy necklace twined round an exquisite figurine, Corots on the wall and a pink, squeaking Disney pig on the table. It reveals too much the cloven foot of the millionaire, who alone can afford to treat much-prized objects with such disrespect. Martin Green, in Children of the Sun (1977), classes Berners as a dandy, but this again is ...

Flower Power

P.N. Furbank: Jocelyn Brooke, 8 May 2003

'The Military Orchid’ and Other Novels 
by Jocelyn Brooke.
Penguin, 437 pp., £10.99, August 2002, 0 14 118713 1
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... An unjustly neglected author’? This was at least how Anthony Powell wrote of Jocelyn Brooke, none of whose books remained in print at the time of his death in 1966. But the neglect was to some degree remedied when, in 1981, Secker and Warburg reissued his Orchid Trilogy as a single volume, with an introduction by Powell, and it is nice to see this trilogy now reprinted as a Penguin Classic ...

Are your fingers pointed or blunt?

P.N. Furbank: Medical myths of homosexuality, 22 July 2004

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 342 pp., £18.99, November 2003, 0 330 48223 8
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... Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the 19th century, although homosexual love and homosexual fraternising were hardly admitted to exist, except perhaps in court reports, they were an omnipresent and vital part of the national life ...

Is it a crime?

P.N. Furbank, 6 June 1985

Peterley Harvest: The Private Diary of David Peterley 
edited by Michael Holroyd.
Secker, 286 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 0 436 36715 7
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... As is well known, there is a curious association between bibliography and crime. It has something to do with a relationship to books as physical objects, and something to do with the fact that bibliographic crime is not felt to be crime quite in the pound-note-forging, or even Vermeer-forging, sense. Some gentlemanly code of ethics enfolds the activities of Thomas Wise and his fellows ...

The Earnestness of Being Important

P.N. Furbank, 19 August 1982

John Buchan: A Memoir 
by William Buchan.
Buchan and Enright, 272 pp., £9.95, May 1982, 0 907675 03 4
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The Best Short Stories of John Buchan. Vol. II 
edited by David Daniell.
Joseph, 240 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 9780718121211
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... a dragon’s’ in every direction. ‘The immediate result... was that most of the white-painted pine wall-panelling in the morning-room and drawing-room cracked clean down the middle. Tortoise-shell and ivory inlay in cabinets began to buckle. Worst of all was that, unless you leant over the banisters and gazed down at the grille, or stood right on top of ...

Good Sausages

P.N. Furbank, 20 October 1983

Maiden Voyage A Voice Through a Cloud 
by Denton Welch.
Penguin, 256 pp., £2.95, July 1983, 0 14 009522 5
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... The facts of Denton Welch’s brief life are fairly well known, partly of course because they were his sole subject-matter as a writer. He was born in 1915, the youngest of three brothers, and spent much of his boyhood in China, where his father had business interests. His adored mother (an American, and a Christian Scientist) died when he was 11, and this event caused him a deep emotional disturbance, at the height of which he ran away from his much-detested public school ...

Dress for Success

P.N. Furbank, 2 November 1995

Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade 
by Gary Kates.
Basic Books, 368 pp., $25, May 1995, 0 465 04761 0
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... In his famous paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950), Alan Turing described something he called the ‘Imitation Game’. In this game, a man and a woman are shut up in a room, and an interrogator, communicating with them from outside by means of written messages, attempts, by questioning, to discover which is the man and which the woman – it being the object of the man to pretend to be a woman and of the woman to expose him as a man ...

Oppositional

P.N. Furbank, 3 August 1995

Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France 
by Thomas Crow.
Yale, 288 pp., £29.95, January 1995, 0 300 06093 9
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... From one point of view, Thomas Crow’s remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and ‘noblest’ genre and the summit of a painter’s ambition, by the middle of the 18th century the theme of critics and philosophers was that, in the France of Louis XV, history-painting was simply impossible ...

Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank, 10 October 1991

Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War 
edited by Ronald Blythe.
Viking, 310 pp., £16.99, September 1991, 0 670 83204 9
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... The Second World War, writes Ronald Blythe in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of 1918, it was greatest such avalanche there had ever been, and went with the most furious appetite for books – any kind of books, but Penguins for preference – and with the greatest impulsion to try ‘writing’ in the other sense too ...

Falling for Desmoulins

P.N. Furbank, 20 August 1992

A Place of Greater Safety 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 896 pp., £15.99, September 1992, 0 670 84545 0
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... When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country of The Pointed Firs’, to ‘the present-intimate, that ‘throbbed responsive’ and was so much missing her ...

‘If I Could Only Draw Like That’

P.N. Furbank, 24 November 1994

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies 
by James McNeill Whistler.
Heinemann, 338 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 434 20166 9
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James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth 
by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval.
Murray, 544 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 7195 5027 0
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... There is a curious little circumstance about the painter Whistler which catches at one’s imagination. It concerns his draughtsmanship. William Rothenstein recalls Whistler talking to him contemptuously of Oscar Wilde’s house in Tite Street and doing him a little drawing of it, to illustrate the monotony of such a terrace house. ‘I noticed then,’ says Rothenstein, ‘how childishly Whistler drew when drawing out of his head ...

Kafka’s Dog

P.N. Furbank, 13 November 1997

The Treasure Chest 
by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd.
Libris/Penguin, 175 pp., £19.95, May 1995, 0 14 044639 7
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... It is important not to misinterpret what the disgruntled hero of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’, tired of hearing about the vaunted ‘universal progress’ of the dog community, says about ‘old and strangely simple stories’: I do not mean that earlier generations were essentially better than ours, only younger; that was their great advantage, their memory was not so overburdened as ours today, it was easier to get them to speak out, and even if nobody actually succeeded in doing that, the possibility of it was greater, and it is indeed this greater sense of possibility that moves us so deeply when we listen to those old and strangely simple stories ...

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