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Diamond Daggers

Stephen Wall, 28 June 1990

Death’s Darkest Face 
by Julian Symons.
Macmillan, 272 pp., £12.95, May 1990, 0 333 51783 0
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Vendetta 
by Michael Dibdin.
Faber, 281 pp., £12.99, June 1990, 0 571 14332 6
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Gallowglass 
by Barbara Vine.
Viking, 296 pp., £13.99, March 1990, 0 670 83241 3
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... Death’s Darkest Face is Julian Symons’s 27th crime story, and its appearance coincides with an award (the Diamond Dagger) for his long service to the genre. This isn’t quite enough for his publishers, keen to promote the book as a proper novel rather than another addition, however distinguished, to their crime list. The implied claim that, despite the format, it’s serious stuff not only revives old and no doubt perennial problems about how to take this sort of fiction, but also echoes the author’s concluding comment that, in this case, he’s been less interested in puzzle than personality ...

Self-Slaughters

Stephen Wall, 12 March 1992

Ever After 
by Graham Swift.
Picador, 261 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 330 32331 8
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... Graham Swift’s new novel, like its two predecessors, is about a man who wants to reconstruct the past. In Waterland (1983) this enterprise was conducted – plausibly enough if rather insistently – by a history teacher who saw in his imminent redundancy more than the demotion of his subject. Cutting back on history meant cutting off adults as well as children from the stories about the world that are among their deepest needs ...

Word-Processing

Stephen Wall, 12 September 1991

Hidden in the Heart 
by Dan Jacobson.
Bloomsbury, 182 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 7475 0981 6
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A Landing on the Sun 
by Michael Frayn.
Viking, 256 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 670 83932 9
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... is the last thing he proposed to himself in his Bloemfontein adolescence, reading Joyce and taking Stephen Daedalus’s intention to fly by the nets of nationality, language and religion as a guide. He is too ambitious to be content with becoming a second-rate writer (which is what the poems included tactfully indicate), and settles for a Civil Service career ...

Asking too much

Stephen Wall, 22 February 1990

Lust, and Other Stories 
by Susan Minot.
Heinemann, 147 pp., £12.95, February 1990, 9780434467570
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In Transit 
by Mavis Gallant.
Faber, 229 pp., £12.99, February 1990, 0 571 14212 5
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The Perfect Place 
by Sheila Kohler.
Cape, 148 pp., £11.95, February 1990, 0 224 02748 4
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Howling at the moon 
by Paul Sayer.
Constable, 174 pp., £10.95, February 1990, 0 09 469590 3
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Happiland 
by William Bedford.
Heinemann, 186 pp., £12.95, February 1990, 9780434055593
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... Susan Minot’s volume is a slim one, and some of the pieces in it will not placate those who complain that short stories are too often too short, rather as one might hold it against the sonnet that it’s over after only 14 lines. Brevity can be the soul of more qualities than wit, and it would be a dim view of Webern to say that he lacks Schubert’s heavenly length ...

Roses

Stephen Wall, 27 June 1991

Regeneration 
by Pat Barker.
Viking, 252 pp., £13.99, May 1991, 0 670 82876 9
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Rose Reason 
by Mary Flanagan.
Bloomsbury, 388 pp., £14.99, April 1991, 0 7475 0888 7
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Rose 
by Rose Boyt.
Chatto, 182 pp., £13.99, April 1991, 0 7011 3728 2
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... Craiglockhart Hydro – an Italianate pile near Edinburgh – opened in 1880, but it figures in literary history because it was taken over as a military hospital in 1916. Wilfred Owen was sent there, and so was Siegfried Sassoon. That their meeting, and the place itself, had a catalytic effect on Owen’s poetry has long been recognised. When, in her new novel, Pat Barker shows Sassoon and Owen discussing the diction and title of the latter’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, she is following manuscript evidence of Sassoon’s suggestions and Owen’s revisions ...

Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall, 1 October 1987

A Friend from England 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 205 pp., £9.95, August 1987, 0 224 02443 4
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The New Confessions 
by William Boyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp., £11.95, September 1987, 0 241 12383 6
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The Colour of Blood 
by Brian Moore.
Cape, 182 pp., £10.95, September 1987, 0 224 02513 9
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... Anita Brookner’s novels have been preoccupied with women who feel themselves to be profoundly separate. This may be the result of either choice or necessity, or of stoically making a choice of necessity. They are often tempted to alleviate this solitariness by falling in love with a man or attaching themselves to a couple or a family, but this usually ends in recoil and failure ...

Cityscapes

Stephen Wall, 1 September 1988

Quinn’s Book 
by William Kennedy.
Cape, 289 pp., £11.95, June 1988, 0 224 02580 5
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In the Country of Last Things 
by Paul Auster.
Faber, 188 pp., £9.95, June 1988, 0 571 14965 0
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... Historical novels regularly try to hook you in to their unfamiliar worlds by some arresting initial display of their subject’s narrative potential. The technique goes back to Scott, and William Kennedy’s Quinn’s Book is orthodox enough in providing a sensational set-piece in its opening pages. He hasn’t deserted his habitual location of the town of Albany but has gone back to how it was in 1849, the date of a freak accumulation of ice on the Hudson River which briefly forms a huge iceberg before exploding through internal stress, flooding the adjacent wharves and indirectly causing a fire which destroys six hundred buildings ...
The Trick of It 
by Michael Frayn.
Viking, 172 pp., £11.95, September 1989, 0 670 82985 4
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The Long Lost Journey 
by Jennifer Potter.
Bloomsbury, 179 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7475 0463 6
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Falling 
by Colin Thubron.
Heinemann, 152 pp., £10.95, September 1989, 0 434 77978 4
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Coming to Light 
by Elspeth Davie.
Hamish Hamilton, 191 pp., £12.95, August 1989, 0 241 12861 7
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A Careless Widow 
by V.S. Pritchett.
Chatto, 176 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7011 3438 0
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... Michael Frayn hasn’t published a novel for 16 years, but it’s immediately clear from his new one that he hasn’t lost the trick of it. After so long a lay-off some self-consciousness might have been expected, but Frayn has turned this potential liability to advantage by making it an essential part of his subject. The Trick of It is, among other things, an essay on itself, but the reflexive element is saved from a merely formal aridity by its comic brio and its uneasy respect for human mysteriousness ...

Mockmen

Stephen Wall, 27 September 1990

Brazzaville Beach 
by William Boyd.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 314 pp., £13.95, September 1990, 1 85619 026 9
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A Bottle in the Smoke 
by A.N. Wilson.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 279 pp., £13.95, September 1990, 1 85619 019 6
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Temples of Delight 
by Barbara Trapido.
Joseph, 318 pp., £13.99, August 1990, 0 7181 3467 2
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... In his new novel William Boyd returns to Africa, the scene of his first successes, but not to the west of A Good Man in Africa or the east of An Ice-Cream War. Brazzaville Beach goes for the centre – and appropriately so, since the questions it raises are more searching than before. They’re pursued with a narrative fluency and clarity of design that rewards and deserves attention ...

Admiring

Stephen Wall, 26 March 1992

Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green 
edited by Matthew Yorke.
Chatto, 302 pp., £18, February 1992, 0 7011 3900 5
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Pack my bag 
by Henry Green.
Hogarth, 242 pp., £9.99, February 1992, 0 7012 0988 7
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Loving 
by Henry Green.
Harvill, 225 pp., £6.99, February 1992, 0 00 271185 0
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... the defamiliarising effect seems essentially lyrical in intention: And water dripped from tap on wall into basin and into water there. Sun. Water drops made rings in clear-coloured water. Sun in these shook on the walls and ceiling. As rings went out round trembling over the water shadows of light from sun in these trembled on walls. The phrasing of the ...

Being splendid

Stephen Wall, 3 March 1988

Civil to Strangers 
by Barbara Pym.
Macmillan, 388 pp., £11.95, October 1987, 0 333 39128 4
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The Pleasure of Miss Pym 
by Charles Burkhart.
Texas, 120 pp., $17.95, July 1987, 0 292 76496 0
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The World of Barbara Pym 
by Janice Rossen.
Macmillan, 193 pp., £27.50, November 1987, 0 333 42372 0
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The Life and Work of Barbara Pym 
edited by Dale Salwak.
Macmillan, 210 pp., £27.50, April 1987, 0 333 40831 4
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... After a lonely visit to Poland in 1938, Barbara Pym complained in a letter that ‘I honestly don’t believe I can be happy unless I am writing. It seems to be the only thing I really want to do.’ In a 1978 broadcast printed in the latest collection of her previously unpublished work, she looks back over more than forty years spent trying to write novels – a career with, as she laconically puts it, ‘many ups and downs ...

Nuvvles

Stephen Wall, 16 March 1989

The Art of the Novel 
by Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher.
Faber, 165 pp., £9.95, June 1988, 0 571 14819 0
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Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers 
by Dan Jacobson.
Deutsch, 144 pp., £12.95, May 1988, 0 233 98204 3
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... Novelists on the novel – or, at any rate, good novelists on the novel – often write with a vigour and a commitment to the form that shames more academic approaches. Such practitioners’ confessions, as Milan Kundera calls them, may be more partial but they’re also more impassioned. They know what it is like, and they know what they want. It is Henry James, of course, who exhibits at the highest level the combination of the practising novelist’s experience and the finest critical intelligence, but lesser if still considerable writers, such as E ...

A Little Local Irritation

Stephen Wall: Dickens, 16 April 1998

The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. IX: 1859-61 
edited by Graham Storey.
Oxford, 610 pp., £70, July 1997, 0 19 812293 4
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... In October 1860 Dickens finally moved what remained of his family from Tavistock Square in Bloombury to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He’d bought it four years earlier (for £1750), steadily improved it, and it remained his home until he died there in 1870. On high ground between Rochester and Gravesend, it was the very spot, as his letters insist, where Falstaff ran away ...

Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland, 2 February 1989

Trollope and Character 
by Stephen Wall.
Faber, 397 pp., £17.50, September 1988, 0 571 14595 7
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The Chronicler of Barsetshire: A Life of Anthony Trollope 
by R.H. Super.
Michigan, 528 pp., $35, December 1988, 0 472 10102 1
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Dickens: A Biography 
by Fred Kaplan.
Hodder, 607 pp., £17.95, November 1988, 0 340 48558 2
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Charlotte Brontë 
by Rebecca Fraser.
Methuen, 543 pp., £14.95, October 1988, 9780413570109
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... Stephen Wall sees as crucial those passages in An Autobiography where Trollope rhapsodises on his equality with the personages of his fiction: ‘There is a gallery of them, and of all in that gallery I may say that I know the tone of voice, and the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the clothes they wear ...

Rites of Passage

Anthony Quinn, 27 June 1991

The Elephant 
by Richard Rayner.
Cape, 276 pp., £13.99, May 1991, 0 224 03005 1
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The Misfortunes of Nigel 
by Fiona Pitt-Kethley.
Peter Owen, 176 pp., £12.95, June 1991, 0 7206 0830 9
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Famous for the creatures 
by Andrew Motion.
Viking, 248 pp., £14.99, June 1991, 0 670 82286 8
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Double Lives 
by Stephen Wall.
Bloomsbury, 154 pp., £13.99, June 1991, 0 7475 0910 7
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... The story is to be continued, presumably, but I can’t see this ‘Dance ...’ catching on. Stephen Wall’s first novel Double Lives is a strange, enfolded book, similar to Motion’s in its use of layering but considerably more subtle in the way it yields up its narrative key. It takes quite some time – nearly the whole book, in fact ...

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