David Trotter

David Trotter is emeritus professor of literature at Cambridge. Brute Meaning, a book of essays, some of which were first published in the LRB, came out in 2020.

No Shortage of Cousins: Bowenology

David Trotter, 12 August 2021

There are​ more weird households per novel in the work of Elizabeth Bowen than in that of any comparable writer. She liked to imagine the nuclear family as radically estranged from itself – by the death of a parent or a child, by childlessness, by emergency or neglect. Twenty-year-old Roderick Rodney in The Heat of the Day (1948) ‘would have esteemed, for instance, organic family...

Stainless Steel Banana Slicer

David Trotter, 18 March 2021

Agimmick​ is a gadget that flatters to deceive. It reminds us of the difference between what we need and what we can be persuaded to want. Raspberry mojitos hint at arcadia, but they’re never going to taste as good as the ones nobody thought to add raspberries to. An ironing board is a plank with a collapsible undercarriage right up until the moment you try to replace the one you have...

Head in an Iron Safe: Dickens’s Tricks

David Trotter, 17 December 2020

What​ most distinguishes Dickens’s novels from those by almost any other writer, and from life, is that hardly anything in them ever recedes entirely into the background. Dickens fought long and hard against the human tendency to focus exclusively on what is of immediate pressing concern in any given situation. His often anodyne protagonists have to compete for our attention with the...

Charlot v. Hulot: Tativille

David Trotter, 2 July 2020

Charlie Chaplin​ had already starred in 41 films before he became an icon, universally recognisable by his appearance, mannerisms and pattern of behaviour. A lot happens in these films, mostly having to do with the hero’s pursuit of basic needs (food, money, sex, status) through the exercise of a kind of flighty, Zen belligerence. In Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), a cameraman’s...

Stir and Bustle: Corridors

David Trotter, 19 December 2019

In​ the original film noir, John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941), private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) visits criminal mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) in his San Francisco hotel room to discuss the delivery of a mysterious ornament. The elevator attendant points him in the direction of Room 12c. After some cagey preliminaries, Spade delivers a ferocious...

Diary: Bearness

David Trotter, 7 November 2019

If​ there is a god of small things, it could be said to have taken up residence, for a while at least, in a remote valley in the northern highlands of Vietnam. A lush forest canopy spreads evenly up the slopes of the surrounding hills. On the valley floor sits a group of five single-storey concrete sheds with corrugated iron roofs, each opening onto a broad grassy enclosure. Dotted among the...

Making doorbells ring: Pushing Buttons

David Trotter, 22 November 2018

Towards​ the end of his time at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin began to direct as well as star in the short slapstick films that were the company’s staple product. The crucial event in one of these films, The New Janitor, which was released in September 1914, is the pressing of an electric button. It’s Charlie’s first day at work, and his...

‘But​ where does the Potemkin go?’ That, according to Sergei Eisenstein, was what the people who had just seen his most famous film really wanted to know. At the climax of the film, the battleship’s mutinous crew, having got rid of all its officers and intervened decisively in the first stirrings of revolt in the Black Sea town of Odessa, head out of harbour to confront...

Orwell may have become more important as a symbol than for anything he actually wrote. Both of these books seek to reverse that suspicion, one by tethering the symbol to some distinctly fallible human flesh, the other by subjecting Orwell’s political prose to the kind of scrutiny ordinarily reserved for the novels of Henry James.

Even the biographers, watching the life ‘start at zero’, have struggled to establish where the motivation for the inventiveness came from. The most popular hypothesis, not least because Hitchcock himself promoted it so vigorously, concerns timidity. ‘The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person,’ Truffaut observed, ‘and I suspect that this trait of his personality has a direct bearing on his success.’ The most substantial biography to date includes plenty of anecdotes about fear, but supplies little by way of evidence of its ultimate cause.

On 14 March​ 2011, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, endorsed a Five-Year Plan incorporating a firm commitment to enhance the nation’s capacity for innovative research in science and technology. In the United States, this commitment was interpreted as a green light for no-holds-barred military and industrial espionage. Cyber-warfare became one of the...

In the Soup: Air Raid Panic

David Trotter, 9 October 2014

Hitchcock’s​ comedy thriller The 39 Steps, first released in June 1935, has become a ‘classic’. But it’s also a film of its moment, or more precisely of the difference between two moments: the summer of 1915, when the novel by John Buchan on which it’s based began to appear in serial form, in the middle of one world war; and the summer of 1935, when the odds on...

Messages from the 29th Floor: Lifts

David Trotter, 3 July 2014

According to elevator legend, it all began with a stunt. In the summer of 1854, at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, an engineer called Elisha Graves Otis gave regular demonstrations of his new safety device. Otis had himself hoisted into the air on a platform secured on either side by guide-rails and – at a suitably dramatic height – cut the cable. Instead of plummeting to the ground fifty feet below, the platform stopped dead after a couple of inches. ‘All safe, gentlemen, all safe,’ Otis would bellow at the expectant crowd.

Lady Chatterley’s Sneakers

David Trotter, 30 August 2012

In a letter written in July 1926, a couple of months before he embarked on the first version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence gave voice – as he often did – to the hatred he felt for ‘our most modern world’. Tin cans and ‘imitation tea’ feature prominently on his list of things not to like about being ‘most modern’. Tin cans often...

Savage Rush: The Tube

David Trotter, 21 October 2010

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) includes a quietly compelling scene set on a Tube train packed with office-weary commuters. The dim and sluggish hero finds himself standing next to an attractive blonde in a beret and white raincoat, whom he manages to ignore completely as he struggles to stay upright while unfurling his newspaper. She doesn’t quite return the lack of...

The Person in the Phone Booth: Phone Booths

David Trotter, 28 January 2010

Anyone old enough to have made use of public phone booths on a regular basis will know that they were more often than not damp, cold, filthy and foul-smelling, and while amply supplied with the phone numbers of prostitutes, practically impossible to make any sort of call from. So folk memory insists, at any rate. So literature insists too. Urban phone booths in particular have become...

Into the Future: The Novel

David Trotter, 22 March 2007

What counts as a novel? Any ‘fictitious prose work’ over fifty thousand words was E.M. Forster’s answer, in Aspects of the Novel. It’s a broad enough definition, in all conscience, though it has begun to do some useful work by excluding a wide variety of short fiction in prose, and some long poems, such as Eugene Onegin or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which are...

In the years since their publication in 1948, Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos have given rise to interpretative bad faith on a scale unusual even by the lofty standards of literary criticism. The reason for this is not some special failing on the part of Pound’s adherents, but rather the burden of expectation laid from the outset on a sequence of 11 poems written in the US Army’s...

His name was Franz Kafka, and he quite often went to the movies. Some such statement constitutes both the basis of Kafka Goes to the Movies and its primary impediment: the rock it has to roll up the hill. According to Max Brod, his lifelong friend and first editor and biographer, Kafka loved the movies; at times, Brod reported, he would talk about little else. For the most part, however,...

McTeague’s Tooth: Good Fetishism

David Trotter, 20 November 2003

When Robinson Crusoe tries to convey what it felt like to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck, he finds himself at almost as much of a loss now, in the telling, as he was then, gloomily pacing the shoreline of an uncharted and to all appearances inhospitable island; until, that is, objects come to his rescue. He cannot describe the ‘thousand gestures and motions’ he made, in his...

Platz Angst: Agoraphobia

David Trotter, 24 July 2003

The last three decades of the 19th century were phobia’s belle époque. During this first phase of investigation there was, it must have seemed, no species of terror, however febrile, which could not talk its way immediately into syndrome status. In 1896, Théodule Ribot spoke of psychiatry’s inundation by a ‘veritable deluge’ of complaints, ranging from the...

Apoplectic Gristle: Wyndham Lewis

David Trotter, 25 January 2001

The day he first met Wyndham Lewis, shortly after the end of the First World War, Ernest Hemingway was teaching Ezra Pound how to box. The encounter took place in Paris, where Pound had a studio, and Lewis, impassive beneath his trademark wide black hat, seemed content to watch in silence. ‘Ezra had not been boxing very long and I was embarrassed at having him work in front of anyone he...

One day in 1914, Ford Madox Ford, then 40 years old and feeling it, found himself for a while in the custody of the youthful Percy Wyndham Lewis, a writer whose work had appeared in Ford’s magazine, the English Review, and who was about to launch a magazine of his own, the rather more intemperate Blast. Gripping Ford by the elbow, Lewis, who was as usual in incendiary mood, poured scorn on him and his associates. ‘You and Mr Conrad and Mr James and all those old fellows are done,’ he was to be heard insisting. ‘Exploded! … Fichus! … No good! … Finished!’ Lewis’s beef was with literary ‘impressionism’: with novels which sought intricately to render the movements, at once furtive and immense, of a consciousness enmeshed in and inseparable from worlds not of its own making. ‘You fellows try to efface yourselves; to make people think that there isn’t any author and that they’re living in the affairs you … adumbrate, isn’t that your word? … What balls!’ Adumbration had been Flaubert’s method, and Turgenev’s, and James’s, and Conrad’s. It was rather ostentatiously the method of Ford’s The Good Soldier, whose opening chapters were shortly to appear in Blast. Lewis thought that people had had enough of all that. They did not want self-effacement. They wanted brilliant fellows like him performing stunts and letting off fireworks. ‘What’s the good of being an author if you don’t get any fun out of it?’‘

Will to Literature: Modernism plc

David Trotter, 13 May 1999

Modernism must be reckoned one of the lengthiest and most strenuous campaigns ever undertaken in the name of literature. Acutely conscious at once of the burden of the past – the intimidating totality of what had already been written – and of the present’s lightness, its free and easy way with burdens, its failure to be intimidated, the Modernist did not propose to carry on as before. To be literary at all, in such circumstances, one would have really to mean it, to work at it. And the best way to mean it was to begin all over again, to rebuild literature from the ground up, to demand obtrusively the privileges of inauguration. For it might be possible to alleviate and even to resolve one’s own anxiety by making other people anxious.’

Internal Combustion

David Trotter, 6 June 1996

Day after day in the course of October 1907, Rilke returned to the two rooms at the Salon d’Automne devoted to Cézanne’s memory. The letters he wrote to his wife describe his intense admiration for the ‘emptying out of love in anonymous work’ which had enabled Cézanne to render the ‘substantiality’ of the natural world. What finally persuaded him, however, of the essential loneliness of Cézanne’s effort to strip away the preconceptions which separate us from that world was not the pictures themselves, but a quirk of scheduling: ‘the Salon no longer exists; in a few days it will be replaced by an exhibition of automobiles which will stand there, long and dumb, each one with its own idée fixe of velocity.’ The public wanted its preconceptions back in a hurry.

Bodily Waste

David Trotter, 2 November 1995

No other 19th-century artist made quite such a spectacle of the female body as Edgar Degas. Over three-quarters of his output of paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculptures consists of images of women, sometimes seen in the company of men or children, but more often alone or with other women. The nude figure is the subject of about a fifth of that total, from the copies and life studies he made as a young man in the 1850s through the early history paintings to the naturalistic studies of the 1870s and 1880s and beyond.

Saved for Jazz

David Trotter, 5 October 1995

There are some curious aspects to Frank Lentricchia’s study of four Modernist poets: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. For a start, it’s a book about poets which doesn’t seem much interested in poems. Lentricchia has written a lengthy chapter on each member of his quartet. Yet Eliot is represented by ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and The Waste Land only, Stevens primarily by ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘The World as Meditation’, Frost by a handful of short poems; while the chapter on Pound devotes almost as much attention to an early polemical essay, ‘Patria Mia’, as it does to the Cantos. Of course, these are much-discussed writers, and it would be suicidally churlish to spurn new emphases. In a previous book about Stevens, Lentricchia upbraided Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler for ‘proceeding as if they had never read the poet’s letters and journals, or as if, having read them, they had come to the conclusion that the worldly life they found portrayed therein pertained to somebody else.’ But he sometimes proceeds as though he had never read anything else, and I began to wonder, during his substantial analysis of the poet’s views on shopping and interior decoration, whether Bloom and Vendler weren’t right to stick to the supreme fictions.

Costume Codes

David Trotter, 12 January 1995

Towards the end of Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp (1924), the heroine, Joan Ogden, who has grown miserably old in a small provincial town, overhears two young women discussing her. She recognises them as women of the same ‘type’ as her: unattached, independent, sexually ambiguous. They dress like her, and wear their hair cut in a similar style. But they seem to inhabit a different world: their lamps have very definitely been lit. Unlike her, they are ‘not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair’. At once envious of and terrified by their success, Joan has to acknowledge that she belongs to another age: her place in the evolution of feminism is that of the ‘pioneer’ who ‘got left behind’. She is, as one of her tormentors puts it, ‘what they used to call a “New woman” ’.

Gesture as Language

David Trotter, 30 January 1992

According to Boswell, Johnson was so hostile to gesticulation that ‘when another gentleman thought he was giving additional force to what he uttered, by expressive movements of his hands, Johnson fairly seized them and held them down.’ But in restraining someone else’s gestures, he himself gestured; he gave additional force to his opinion by expressive movements of his hands. Gesture is unavoidable, because the body is seldom completely at rest, and almost any of its movements might assume significance in the eyes of an observer. History does not record that Johnson made any effort to restrain the limb with which he was about to refute Bishop Berkeley.

Words washed clean

David Trotter, 5 December 1991

When Wyndham Lewis described the Men of 1914 as a ‘youth racket’ invented by Ezra Pound, he presumably didn’t mean to be complimentary. Pound, however, might be said to have had the last laugh, since it is now customary to regard the whole of American literature as a gigantic youth racket. The paradigm of Modernism, of programmatic innovation and reflexivity, has been applied to earlier and earlier writing, until there is little left that doesn’t speak, somehow, of self-renewal.

Six hands at an open door

David Trotter, 21 March 1991

Dennis Brown concludes his celebration of Anglo-American Modernism with an account of Ezra Pound’s death on 30 October 1972. ‘That year I ended an obituary of Pound in a Canadian student newspaper: Pound is now dead and no poet remains of his stature. But poetry is “NEWS that stays NEWS”. READ him: Read HIM.’ The capitalisation is very much of the period, and it may he that the message is as well. For the poet’s death was shortly followed by a critical work, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1974), which placed him at the head of the ‘Men of 1914′, and chronicled in elegiac terms his lifelong struggle to reanimate a moribund literary culture. Brown shifts the emphasis from Pound Era to Group Era, but his approach is otherwise remarkably similar – remarkably, that is, when you consider how much has been written on the subject since 1974, some of it tending to a qualification of Kenner’s thesis. Criticism, after all, is news that doesn’t necessarily stay news.’


David Trotter, 14 September 1989

That E.M. Forster gave only two cheers for democracy, but three for D.H. Lawrence, on the occasion of Lawrence’s death, is well-known. Forster was upset that the lowbrows Lawrence scandalised had joined forces with the highbrows he bored to denigrate ‘the greatest imaginative novelist’ of his generation. A bored highbrow, T.S. Eliot, at once protested that he didn’t know what was meant by ‘greatest’, ‘imaginative’ or ‘novelist’. Twenty years later, F.R. Leavis was still having to contend with Eliot’s insistence that Lawrence had been severely handicapped by his lack of ‘intellectual and social training’. Lawrence probably scandalises more highbrows than lowbrows these days, but not as many as he bores.


David Trotter, 23 June 1988

In an interview given in 1979, Seamus Heaney endorsed a fellow writer’s lament that ‘you feel bloody well guilty about writing.’ To judge by this new collection of critical essays, he still feels bloody well guilty about it. Indeed, the essays make the difficult relation between art and life – ‘let us put it more melodramatically and call them Song and Suffering’ – their main theme. They observe that Nero has sometimes fiddled while Rome burned and conclude, with many reservations, that he should continue to do so. Heaney wishes to dwell on, and perhaps to exorcise, his guilt about being a writer in a place and at a time of trouble. His readers will have to decide whether he has purged the feeling or exacerbated it. For there are moments now when he seems to feel guilty about not feeling guilty.’

Transcendental Criticism

David Trotter, 3 March 1988

‘What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he decided, as a moderate man, to compound with half, the question still remained, which half? And that stumbling-block he never got over.’ What to believe, Mr Boffin’s chief difficulty in Our Mutual Friend, is also likely to be the chief difficulty facing the reader of Richard Poirier’s ambitious and eloquent plea for the ‘renewal’ of literature and criticism through a better understanding of Emerson. Believing all may involve something close to a conversion. Believing none will do scant justice to the work of one of the most perceptive of contemporary critics. Compounding with half will please nobody.


David Trotter, 4 February 1988

‘I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English Literature, which it is my business to know about, and try to examine the fundamentals, the basic tools.’ As he turns to literature, he shelves the old-buffer prejudices and begins to display instead the rationalism which spoke habitually of the ‘basic tools’ of imagination, and the sensitivity to language which enabled him to examine and test those tools. This is Empson the technocrat, the man who insisted that there is always room for a great deal of exposition, ‘in which the business of the critic is simply to show how the machine is meant to work, and therefore to show all its working parts in turn’. To know about imagination means to insist that it is a machine rather than a mystery, and to insist on demonstrating how the machine works. Such is the temperament precociously active in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and still volatile in Using biography (1984). The pieces collected here provide a fascinating context for, but do not in any way extend, the preoccupations of the major books. Their importance may rather be that they make it hard to distinguish between the two Empsons, the white-coated technocrat and the plain man costumed in tweedy prejudices. They suggest that, far from shelving his prejudices when he turned to literature, Empson used those prejudices to colour his arguments.

English Butter

David Trotter, 9 October 1986

‘It angers me to pass a grocer’s shop,’ declares the impeccably fogeyish hero of Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), ‘and see in the window a display of foreign butter. This is the kind of thing that makes one gloom over the prospects of England. The deterioration of English butter is one of the worst signs of the moral state of our people.’ Eighty years on, the prospects of England continue to be gloomed over. The evidence of deterioration mounts: not just butter now, but apples, cars, furniture. As for the moral state of the people ‘driving’ the cars and beating each other over the head with bits of the furniture … don’t even ask. Ryecroft’s hatred of a world in which an honest chap can no longer secure an ‘honest chop’ still plays its part in the politics of decline.

Kipling the Reliable

David Trotter, 6 March 1986

At the height of Empire, and of the literature of Empire, J.K. Stephen looked forward to a time

Book Reviews

David Trotter, 24 January 1980

There is a poignant moment in the recent New Left Books volume of interviews with Raymond Williams when he is congratulated on the ‘combativity’ of his writings. Poignant because the neologism, however barbarous, answers to a real scarcity: the scarcity, in our cultural repertoire, of sustained polemical address: Not that our literary pages don’t witness occasional outbreaks of revenger’s tragedy. Indeed, most literary editors seem to keep at least one professional malcontent on the payroll, in case the general air of despondent calm becomes too oppressive (or perhaps just to make sure of getting their retaliation in first). But the ‘combativity’ of such stalwarts rarely extends beyond sporadic local skirmishing, and their bloodletting often seems hugely gratuitous. For our intellectual habits include attentiveness, scruple and a kind of anorexic wit: but not polemic.

SIR: Michael Mason (LRB, 2 April) seems on one occasion to provide evidence for the argument he is opposing. Discussing the conversation between Mr Brooke and Dagley in Chapter 39 of Middlemarch, he singles out George Eliot’s remark that Dagley was ‘only the more inclined to “have his say" with a gentleman who walked away from him’ as an example of her failure to respect any...

Hauteur: ‘Paranoid Modernism’

Adam Phillips, 22 May 2003

What is now called trauma theory informs contemporary biography as much as it does the academic practice of literary history. Belief in trauma as a kind of agency, as a cultural force – in...

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Spitting, Sneezing, Smearing: Messy Business

Marjorie Garber, 10 August 2000

Once, recycling was a way of life, conducted without civic ordinances, highway beautification statutes, adopt-a-motorway programmes or special bins for paper, glass and metal. Until the mid-19th...

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Reading Cure

John Sutherland, 10 November 1988

The Wellesley Index originated in its founding editor Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957), a manual which was influential among students of the Sixties....

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Fit and Few

Donald Davie, 3 May 1984

‘Fit audience, though few,’ said Milton; and thereupon declared the terms in which the issue of reader-response would be considered by poets from his day to ours. The widely-read...

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On Aetna’s Top

Howard Erskine-Hill, 4 September 1980

So Pope wrote in 1737, since which time Cowley has passed almost entirely into the hands of academic literary historians, whose chief service to him has been the rediscovery of his unfinished...

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