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An American Genius

Patrick Parrinder, 21 November 1991

The Runaway Soul 
by Harold Brodkey.
Cape, 835 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 224 03001 9
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... This man has been called America’s greatest writer,’ boasts Cape’s press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years’ labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time ...

Sausages and Higher Things

Patrick Parrinder, 11 February 1993

The Porcupine 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 138 pp., £9.99, November 1992, 0 224 03618 1
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... It seems to me the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the source for this epigraph to the best-known British novel of the Eighties set in Eastern Europe, Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange. The Soviet Empire in those distant days was scarcely conceivable to English novelists except as a setting for a comedy or a thriller – two genres which tend to lionise the Englishman abroad, and to subtly belittle the natives ...

By an Unknown Writer

Patrick Parrinder, 25 January 1996

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks.
Cape, 276 pp., £15.99, November 1995, 0 224 03732 3
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... Italo Calvino was born in 1923 and came to prominence in post-war Italy as a writer of neo-realist and politically committed short stories, some of them published in the Communist paper L’Unità. A major social-problem novel set in contemporary Italy was naturally expected of him, but he found himself unable to write it. Instead, as he subsequently explained, he ‘conjured up’ the sort of books he himself would have liked to read – ‘the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic ...

What his father gets up to

Patrick Parrinder, 13 September 1990

My Son’s Story 
by Nadine Gordimer.
Bloomsbury, 277 pp., £13.99, September 1990, 0 7475 0764 3
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Age of Iron 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Secker, 181 pp., £12.99, September 1990, 0 436 20012 0
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... A novelist’s freedom, Nadine Gordimer wrote in 1975, is ‘his right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society’. In her new novel, Will, the son named by his book-loving father after William Shakespeare, describes the secret lives led by his parents. He cannot publish what he has written, partly because every other member of his Coloured family is deeply involved in revolutionary politics, and partly because – where prying and direct observation did not suffice – he has filled the multiple gaps in his story with his own words and inventions ...

Mizzlers

Patrick Parrinder, 26 July 1990

The Sorrow of Belgium 
by Hugo Claus, translated by Arnold Pomerans.
Viking, 609 pp., £14.99, June 1990, 0 670 81456 3
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Joanna 
by Lisa St Aubin de Teran.
Virago, 260 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 1 85381 158 0
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A Sensible Life 
by Mary Wesley.
Bantam, 364 pp., £12.95, March 1990, 9780593019306
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The Light Years 
by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Macmillan, 418 pp., £12.95, June 1990, 0 333 53875 7
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... Half a century after it was fought, the Second World War is still being written, and still being judged. The run of new fiction, like the current debate over war crimes trials, bears witness to our continuing obsession with the events of 1939-45. Things silenced and hushed up, perhaps for good reasons, in the late Forties are now being disinterred and subjected to lengthy post-mortems ...

Funny Old Fame

Patrick Parrinder, 10 January 1991

Things: A Story of the Sixties, 
by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos and Andrew Leak.
Collins Harvill, 221 pp., £12.50, July 1990, 0 00 271038 2
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Parcours Peree 
edited by Mireille Ribière.
Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 162 pp., frs 125, July 1990, 2 7297 0365 9
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Women 
by Philippe Sollers, translated by Barbara Bray.
Columbia, 559 pp., $24.95, December 1990, 0 231 06546 9
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... Once upon a time, before the Channel Tunnel was built, there were two contemporary French novelists. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 45, and nobody in England who was not a French specialist had ever heard of him. With Philippe Sollers it was different. Editor of the avant-garde theoretical journal Tel Quel, and associate of literary and psycho-analytic thinkers such as Barthes, Kristeva and Lacan, his was a name of which no self-respecting British intellectual could afford to remain entirely ignorant – though his novels, so far as I can discover, were neither translated nor read ...

Thirty Years Ago

Patrick Parrinder, 18 July 1985

Still Life 
by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 358 pp., £9.95, June 1985, 0 7011 2667 1
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Wales’ Work 
by Robert Walshe.
Secker, 279 pp., £8.95, July 1985, 9780436561450
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... Like The Virgin in the Garden (1978) to which it is a deeper and darker-toned successor, A.S. Byatt’s Still Life has the classical English narrative setting of a generation ago. Apart from the prologue, which evokes the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980, the events here take place in 1954-7. Further sequels are promised, though it seems likely that this chronicle of middle-class English life has reached the half-way stage ...

Tall Storeys

Patrick Parrinder, 10 December 1987

Life: A User’s Manual 
by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos.
Collins Harvill, 581 pp., £15, October 1987, 0 00 271463 9
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The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room 
by Paul Auster.
Faber, 314 pp., £10.95, November 1987, 0 571 14925 1
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... Like Hoyle and Stephen Potter, Georges Perec was a devotee of indoor games. La Vie Mode d’Emploi (1978), a title combining lifemanship, gamesmanship and one-upmanship, was the monumental creation of an author whose other productions included a treatise on Go (the Japanese board-game) and a weekly crossword for the magazine Le Point. Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of 46, is credited with the invention of the longest known palindrome (over five thousand letters ...

Auchnasaugh

Patrick Parrinder, 7 November 1991

King Cameron 
by David Craig.
Carcanet, 212 pp., £12.95, May 1991, 0 85635 917 3
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The Hungry Generations 
by David Gilmour.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 194 pp., £13.95, August 1991, 1 85619 069 2
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O Caledonia 
by Elspeth Barker.
Hamish Hamilton, 152 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 0 241 13146 4
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... David Craig has an unfashionable concern with truth-telling in fiction. In his earlier role as a literary critic, he wrote a book called The Real Foundations in which he showed how some of the most respected 19th and 20th-century novelists and poets had blatantly falsified social reality. If a work of realistic fiction is to be convincing in general, according to Craig, it ought to convince us in particulars ...

Missing Pieces

Patrick Parrinder, 9 May 1991

Mr Wroe’s Virgins 
by Jane Rogers.
Faber, 276 pp., £13.99, April 1991, 0 571 16194 4
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The Side of the Moon 
by Amanda Prantera.
Bloomsbury, 192 pp., £13.99, April 1991, 0 7475 0861 5
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... In 1830 the prophet John Wroe asked his congregation of Christian Israelites in Ashton-under-Lyne for seven virgins to serve in his household. The Israelites had already built a Sanctuary and four gatehouses at Ashton, in the belief that the Lancashire cotton town was to be the site of the New Jerusalem. Mr Wroe got his virgins, but less than a year later he was almost lynched by his flock after the church elders had acquitted him on charges of indecency ...

It’s only a paper moon

Patrick Parrinder, 13 June 1991

Wise Children 
by Angela Carter.
Chatto, 234 pp., £13.99, June 1991, 0 7011 3354 6
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... Brush up your Shakespeare,’ instructed Cole Porter. Is Shakespeare part of popular culture, and if so, whose popular culture? Does the Bard’s writ extend to the wrong side of the tracks – say, to 49 Bard Road, Brixton, where Wise Children begins? Is he still in any sense the poet of the groundlings, and not merely of the powerful and the chattering classes whose legitimation-anxieties he so searchingly addresses? (There is no one so anxious nor so devoted to Shakespeare as a legitimate prince, to judge by the current heir to the throne ...

Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder, 29 August 1991

A Closed Eye 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 255 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 0 224 03090 6
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Underwood and After 
by Ronald Frame.
Hodder, 246 pp., £14.99, August 1991, 0 340 55359 6
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Lemprière’s Dictionary 
by Lawrence Norfolk.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 530 pp., £14.95, August 1991, 1 85619 053 6
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... The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in the difference of the rich has one thing to be said for it: it makes far more sense of the history of the novel. The rich and their doings are clearly over-represented in the house of fiction, and access to wealth almost invariably affects or confirms a fictional character’s identity ...

Uncle Kingsley

Patrick Parrinder, 22 March 1990

The folks that live on the hill 
by Kingsley Amis.
Hutchinson, 246 pp., £12.95, March 1990, 0 09 174137 8
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Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist 
by John McDermott.
Macmillan, 270 pp., £27.50, January 1989, 9780333449691
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In the Red Kitchen 
by Michèle Roberts.
Methuen, 148 pp., £11.99, March 1990, 9780413630209
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See Under: Love 
by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
Cape, 458 pp., £13.95, January 1990, 0 224 02640 2
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... The folks that live on the hill? It’s not exactly what you’d expect of a Kingsley Amis title, but in another two years the old devil will be 70 and perhaps he is beginning to mellow. John McDermott remarks in his appealing study of Amis’s novels that the hero-as-shit, at large in a world of mutual animosity and obsessive self-interest, is one of their most characteristic figures ...

Sea Changes

Patrick Parrinder, 27 February 1992

Indigo, or Mapping the Waters 
by Marina Warner.
Chatto, 402 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 9780701135317
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Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History 
by Alden Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan.
Cambridge, 290 pp., £35, January 1992, 0 521 40305 7
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... The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock, but the British Utopia is a fertile commonwealth surrounded by beaches in which, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, we would by contraries execute all things. Both the word and the island of Utopia were the teasing inventions of Sir Thomas More ...

Games-Playing

Patrick Parrinder, 7 August 1986

The Golden Gate 
by Vikram Seth.
Faber, 307 pp., £9.95, June 1986, 0 571 13967 1
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The Haunted House 
by Rebecca Brown.
Picador, 139 pp., £8.95, June 1986, 0 330 29175 0
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Whole of a Morning Sky 
by Grace Nichols.
Virago, 156 pp., £9.95, July 1986, 0 86068 774 0
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The Piano Tuner 
by Peter Meinke.
Georgia, 156 pp., $13.95, June 1986, 0 8203 0844 7
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Tap City 
by Ron Abell.
Secker, 273 pp., £10.95, July 1986, 0 436 00025 3
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... Why not a novel in verse? It’s all a question of expectations, and in The Golden Gate the Indian-born poet Vikram Seth single-handedly overturns most readers’ expectations about what can, and cannot, pass as a novel. Whatever the frame of mind in which you begin it, by the end it has come to seem the most natural – and the most accessible, and easily assessable – thing in the world ...

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