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Perfectly Human

Jenny Diski: Lillie Langtry and Mrs Vladimir Nabokov, 1 July 1999

Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals 
by Laura Beatty.
Chatto, 336 pp., £20, March 1999, 1 85619 513 9
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Véra (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage 
by Stacy Schiff.
Random House, 456 pp., $27.95, April 1999, 0 679 44790 3
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... The legend, essentially, is the one in Beatty’s fevered mind of a Faustian compact, a Dorian Gray-like perversion of human destiny. But Lillie was just trying to make the best of things under the circumstances: a perfectly human way to proceed, I should have thought. As for her soul – who’s to say? Lillie had the good fortune not just to be born ...

A Parlour in Purley

Tessa Hadley: Life as a Wife, 17 June 2021

The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives 
by Diane Johnson.
NYRB, 242 pp., £14.99, July 2020, 978 1 68137 445 1
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... her which begins, ‘Long night succeeds thy little day;/O blighted blossom! can it be/That this gray stone and grassy clay/Have closed our anxious care of thee?’ The vicar of Shepperton church, where she was buried, objected to the first line because it made no provision for immortal life; he and Peacock quarrelled bitterly over it. Jane went mad with ...
... journeys in stagecoaches, carriages, even on horseback. Where did they gather the strength and the patience for so many hardships? Why hadn’t they sooner chosen to stay home? I had dozed and yawned. The conductor prodded my shoulder. We had arrived in Paris. I felt my breast pocket, where I kept my passport and the ship’s ticket, and the trouser back ...

Excellence

Patrick Wright, 21 May 1987

Creating excellence: Managing corporate culture, strategy and change in the New Age 
by Craig Hickman and Michael Silva.
Allen and Unwin, 305 pp., £12.50, April 1985, 0 04 658252 5
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Intrapreneuring: Why you don’t have to leave the corporation to become an entrepreneur 
by Gifford Pinchot.
Harper and Row, 368 pp., £15.95, August 1985, 0 06 015305 9
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The IBM Way: Insights into the World’s Most Successful Marketing Organisation 
by Buck Rodgers.
Harper and Row, 224 pp., £12.95, April 1986, 0 06 015522 1
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Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage 
by Richard Foster.
Macmillan, 316 pp., £14.95, September 1986, 0 333 43511 7
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Ford 
by Robert Lacey.
Heinemann, 778 pp., £15, July 1986, 0 434 40192 7
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Company of Adventurers: The Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company 
by Peter Newman.
Viking, 413 pp., £14.95, March 1986, 0 670 80379 0
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Augustine’s Laws 
by Norman Augustine.
Viking, 380 pp., £12.95, July 1986, 9780670809424
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Peak Performers: The New Heroes in Business 
by Charles Garfield.
Hutchinson, 333 pp., £12.95, October 1986, 0 09 167391 7
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Going for it: How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur 
by Victor Kiam.
Collins, 223 pp., £9.95, May 1986, 0 00 217603 3
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Take a chance to be first: The Secrets of Entrepreneurial Success 
by Warren Avis.
Macmillan, 222 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 02 504410 9
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The Winning Streak 
by Walter Goldsmith and David Clutterbuck.
Weidenfeld/Penguin, 224 pp., £9.95, September 1984, 0 297 78469 2
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The Roots of Excellence 
by Ronnie Lessem.
Fontana, 318 pp., £3.95, December 1985, 0 00 636874 3
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The New Management of Local Government 
by John Stewart.
Allen and Unwin, 208 pp., £20, October 1986, 0 00 435232 7
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... to be a rock in anybody’s idea of a stream. He incorporates ‘change’ and opportunity. Jim Gray, an engineer, recognised the moment when it came. If he was to reach the peak, he would have to abandon that long-haired ex-sailor with Vietnam patches on his sleeves, leaving him to die in the snow: ‘He could no longer be the same old Jim ...

Sisyphus at the Selectric

James Wolcott: Undoing Philip Roth, 20 May 2021

Philip Roth: The Biography 
by Blake Bailey.
Cape, 898 pp., £30, April, 978 0 224 09817 5
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Philip Roth: A Counterlife 
by Ira Nadel.
Oxford, 546 pp., £22.99, May, 978 0 19 984610 8
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Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth 
by Benjamin Taylor.
Penguin, 192 pp., £18, May 2020, 978 0 525 50524 2
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... House had been dictated by Roth’s Connecticut neighbour and flouncy nemesis Francine du Plessix Gray – ‘Francine Duplicitous Gray’, as Roth called her. Interviewing may not have been Miller’s forte but what was his forte? He made such a skimpy mess of the Notes on the Text for Volume Three of Roth’s Library of ...
... been apart, my brother seemed to have aged. The hair surrounding his bald skull had grown nearly gray. Zygmunt Salkin had a head of curly brown hair. He wore a blue suit with red stripes, a shirt of a similar pattern and a gaudy tie. He spoke an old-home Yiddish without the English words employed by the American tourists I had encountered in Warsaw. Still, I ...

If everybody had a Wadley

Terry Castle: ‘Joe’ Carstairs, the ‘fastest woman on water’, 5 March 1998

The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water 
by Kate Summerscale.
Fourth Estate, 248 pp., £12.99, August 1997, 1 85702 360 9
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... When an American newspaper disparaged her pet, Lord Tod Wadley, as ‘an absurd manikin’, her patience ran out.Escape came dramatically. In 1933 Carstairs spotted an advertisement for Whale Cay, a tiny island in the British West Indies thirty miles north-west of Nassau and ninety miles east of Miami. After visiting and chatting with its two residents ...

Even paranoids have enemies

Frank Kermode, 24 August 1995

F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism 
by Ian MacKillop.
Allen Lane, 476 pp., £25, July 1995, 0 7139 9062 7
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... to reinforce Leavis’s right to be called a major critic. To paraphrase Johnson’s remark on Gray and his ‘Elegy’, had he always written like this, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him. Critical commentary of this kind usually had its origin in the classroom. It was essential to Leavis’s project that he should be at the charismatic ...

I whine for her like a babe

Ruth Bernard Yeazell: The Other Alice James, 25 June 2009

Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James 
by Susan Gunter.
Nebraska, 422 pp., £38, March 2009, 978 0 8032 1569 6
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... was inseparable from his great achievement, but it made living with him a constant exercise in patience and flexibility. Whether or not ‘change is … the most imperative of human needs,’ as he later suggested to a young woman with whom he was sufficiently intimate to arouse his wife’s jealousy, there is no question that changeableness was the very ...

Ten Thousand Mile Mistake

Thomas Powers: Robert Stone in Saigon, 18 February 2021

Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone 
by Madison Smartt Bell.
Doubleday, 588 pp., £27, March 2020, 978 0 385 54160 2
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The Eye You See With: Selected Non-Fiction 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., £20.99, April 2020, 978 0 618 38624 6
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‘Dog Soldiers’, A Flag for Sunrise’, Outerbridge Reach’ 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Library of America, 1216 pp., £35, March 2020, 978 1 59853 654 6
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... and in numerous other small ways helping Stone to deliver his novels before his editors lost patience.‘Bob once said, Kesey goes for life, but I’m going for art,’ Janice told Bell. ‘And I thought he made exactly the right decision, because all those great nights of back and forth, you know, they disappeared into the ether.’ She was speaking of ...

On a Chinese Mountain

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1986

The Royal Beasts 
by William Empson.
Chatto, 201 pp., £12.95, November 1986, 0 7011 3084 9
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Essays on Shakespeare 
by William Empson.
Cambridge, 246 pp., £25, May 1986, 0 521 25577 5
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... simple truths about literature and life that were being overlooked. There is a famous page about Gray’s ‘Elegy’ at the beginning of Some Versions of Pastoral which shows how the cleverness and the simplicity worked together. Commenting on the stanza beginning ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene ...’ he points out that it means 18th-century ...

Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Wartime Journalism, 1939-1943 
by Paul de Man and Werner Hamacher, edited by Neil Hertz and Thomas Keenan.
Nebraska, 399 pp., £28, October 1988, 9780803216846
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Critical Writings 1953-1978 
by Paul de Man, edited by Lindsay Waters.
Minnesota, 228 pp., $39.50, April 1989, 0 8166 1695 7
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Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology 
by Christopher Norris.
Routledge, 218 pp., £25, October 1988, 0 415 90079 4
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Reading de Man Reading 
edited by Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich.
Minnesota, 312 pp., $39.50, April 1989, 0 8166 1660 4
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... essence this is the best defence that could be offered. Reviewing books by Erich Heller and Ronald Gray, he remarks that both authors ‘too readily call “German” a general feature of the romantic and post-romantic intellect’, just as he had done himself.The most intense of these speculations concern Mallarmé and Hölderlin, whose question wozu Dichter ...

Alas! Deceived

Alan Bennett: Philip Larkin, 25 March 1993

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life 
by Andrew Motion.
Faber, 570 pp., £20, April 1993, 0 571 15174 4
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... his writing would not have petered out when it did. For all that, it’s a sad read and Motion’s patience with his subject is often hard to match. Larkin being Larkin, though, there are lots of laughs and jokes never far away. Before he became a celebrity (and wriggle though he did that was what he became) and one heard gossip about Larkin it was generally ...

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