John Sturrock

John Sturrock was the LRB’s consulting editor from 1993 until his death in August 2017. He had been the deputy editor of the TLS for many years before that. He translated Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Georges Perec and Proust, among others; and wrote books on Borges, structuralism, autobiography and the Pyrenees. The View from Paris, a collection of essays on postwar French intellectuals, was published in 1998. Many of those essays first appeared in the LRB, along with occasional pieces on cricket.

Short Cuts: Blair’s Convictions

John Sturrock, 24 May 2007

Had the Labour Party he led borne even a passing resemblance to the Labour Party we thought we had elected into government in 1997, we would not have had to endure the unnecessary and insulting performance that Tony Blair put on last week in the uterine comfort of his constituency in the North-East: that other Labour Party could never have followed him so slavishly wherever he chose to take...

Short Cuts: Plain Sailing

John Sturrock, 26 April 2007

Island race or not, we have not been doing at all well when putting out to sea in past weeks. First, in the benign setting of the Caribbean, the vice-captain and muscular icon of the England one-day cricket eleven, Freddie Flintoff, was sacked from the vice-captaincy, though not, for sure, from his iconicity, for having had a great deal too much to drink before driving a pedalo out into the...

Short Cuts: Don't Bother to Read

John Sturrock, 22 March 2007

A few years ago, a brilliant small book on detective fiction appeared in France called Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? It got talked about at the time for demonstrating, rather neatly it was thought (by the then sitting tenant of this space in the LRB, Thomas Jones, among others), that at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot hit on a wrong solution to the crime, that the too...

In the Sunday Times of 1 October, the home secretary was reported as having it in mind to ‘strip some terror suspects of the automatic right to be protected from torture’, should ministers rule that there were ‘overriding considerations of national security’. Knowing as we do that ‘overriding’ here means that considerations so labelled cannot on security...

How stupid people are: Flaubert

John Sturrock, 7 September 2006

Of the three books that Gustave Flaubert was able to write only after a lengthy cohabitation with his sources, Bouvard et Pécuchet is by some way the most approachable. The other two are exhibition pieces, admirable for their form but keeping their distance, full as they are of the rare knowledge he had come to by his reading. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the desert-dwelling...

A bas les chefs! Jules Vallès

John Sturrock, 9 February 2006

Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader – epigraphs, ‘author’s notes’, prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin – the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book’s dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has...

The London Bombs: in Bloomsbury

John Sturrock, 21 July 2005

“It might have been better if George Bush hadn’t been hovering behind Blair’s right shoulder. The sight of the two of them together did a lot to clear the mind of thoughts of the Olympics or even the G8 meeting itself as the motive behind the London bombs, which certainly weren’t let off to show solidarity with the African poor. Far and away the most rational motive was the one that in the immediate aftermath seemed barely able to speak its name: Iraq.”

Short Cuts: football slang

John Sturrock, 2 December 2004

It’s not every day that the soccer tifosi, those hardcore empiricists, come face to face with a well nigh theoretical observation to the effect that ‘football matches are iterative,’ which might give one to think that the teachings of the late Jacques Derrida, who had a lot to say about, and some cruel conclusions to draw from the iterability of language, had finally...

We live in an age, or if not an age a country, where seemingly novel disorders of the mind or body are given names that leave you in no doubt as to their novelty. Who would have thought, for example, that the 18th-century shooter of lines, Baron Munchausen, would one day have his place on the list of state-of-the-art ailments as the patron of something called Munchausen’s syndrome by...

Short Cuts: reading Butler

John Sturrock, 5 August 2004

Not since the belle époque of Sartrean existentialism have we had a better reason to stop and ask ourselves what it is exactly to ‘act in good faith’. For that is what the prime minister promised the House of Commons he had been acting in when marching lockstep into Iraq with his role model in Washington. Tony Blair’s assurance was given as a response to the...

Short Cuts: A Bath in the Dock

John Sturrock, 18 December 2003

It’s a strange thing when, in the course of a murder trial at the Old Bailey, a cracked plastic bath is carried into the courtroom, and a second strange thing when no one at the time thinks to ask why on earth it was needed there. The bath had been unplumbed from a house in Cambridgeshire, driven to London and, like a fair few of the arrested before it, been roughed up when in police...

Short Cuts: Blair’s wars

John Sturrock, 6 November 2003

What can best be called clear water has started showing, happily, between the Blair regime’s incommensurate ambitions in respect of new weaponry and its chances of being able to realise them. The two new aircraft-carriers that our visionary Government is hankering after in pursuance of the world role it feels obliged to play, won’t by all accounts be as big as it had hoped,...

Call Her Daisy-Ray: Accents and Attitudes

John Sturrock, 11 September 2003

In his 1957 classic of demystification, Mythologies, Roland Barthes found a new argument with which to reopen the troublesome case of Gaston Dominici. Dominici was a septuagenarian Provençal farmer who in 1954 was tried for the murder of three members of an English family who had been camping close to his land. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later...

Short Cuts: Spun and Unspun

John Sturrock, 7 August 2003

Stendhal once observed that to introduce politics into a work of fiction was like firing a pistol during a performance in the theatre, a loud and unwanted intrusion of the real on a setting all calculated artifice. The analogy was brought to mind two weeks ago by the death of David Kelly, a real event which intruded in a shocking way on the calculated artificiality of the Parliamentary...

Short Cuts: Iraq’s Invisible Weapons

John Sturrock, 19 June 2003

Given that it’s not so far been settled to everyone’s satisfaction exactly what the belligerents had in mind when they went to war in 1914, we shouldn’t perhaps get too impatient as the junta who ordered up the invasion of Iraq try to settle on a postwar reason for having done so that will make those of us who remain unretractably opposed to it seem to be sulking, or even...

In Pierrot mon ami, the last of the eight novels laid end to end in this life-enhancing volume, the footling but resilient Pierrot works on and off at a fairground, where his job description includes steering teenage girls by hand past a jet of air that wraps their skirts around their thighs. Low-tech as sideshows go no doubt, but it helps to sustain the morale of the laddish tendency at the...

Short Cuts: on Bullshit

John Sturrock, 17 April 2003

The letters we’ve published in the LRB in the past weeks trying to reclaim the strong sense of the word ‘bullshit’ were timely, now that we’re having to shield our eyes and ears from a sandstorm of official cant: the cant first of all that kept revising the motives supposedly justifying the present reprise of the Gulf War, which to no one’s surprise turned out to...

Short Cuts: Philosophical Quick Fixes

John Sturrock, 31 October 2002

In your average bookstore, the volumes stacked by the dozen and sold under the heading of Self-Help are liable to be found quartered in the same part of the building as those falling under the less obviously improving rubric of Philosophy. It’s a little hard to see why, in the present age, when Philosophy has wrapped its professionalism aloofly around it and sneaked off down the...

Rongorongo: The Rosetta Stone

John Sturrock, 19 September 2002

Run the eye along a string of hieroglyphs and it’s caught by what it takes to be conventional but recognisable representations of, to take the obvious example, different kinds of bird. Ask yourself why birds should occur as frequently as they do, however, and you may begin to wonder whether this script is all that it first seemed: can the inscriptions really be that much about birds?

Short Cuts: The Evil List

John Sturrock, 25 April 2002

Living as we do in the Land of the League Table, there’s sadly little call to be surprised by the appearance of what some will see as a prosopographical breakthrough: a book confidently entitled The Most Evil Men and Women in History (Michael O’Mara, £15.99) and with a cover where the word ‘evil’ appears in black in a type size several magnitudes greater than that...

The first novel that Robbe-Grillet wrote, Un Régicide, had a quotation at the start from Kierkegaard, an out of the way source for an agronomist turned writer who gave an impression of never having known a moment’s metaphysical unease in his life. It came from The Seducer’s Diary: ‘One might have said that this man passed through life without leaving any trace …...

Short Cuts: Editions de minuit

John Sturrock, 14 January 2002

There’s no question but that the Paris imprint which has for many years past brought out the likeliest new books, novels especially, is the Editions de Minuit. They’ve managed it by being hard to please editorially (as few publishers any longer are in an age of inexplicable hospitality to authorship), the Minuit never having looked to go beyond twenty books a year. And...

Short Cuts: at the Test Match

John Sturrock, 6 September 2001

In the piece by David Bell elsewhere in this issue, a number of lines from an 18th-century French poem are quoted fearlessly in the original. At one time, the question of whether or not to translate them would never have arisen, the editors of a paper like this assuming that a sufficiently high proportion of its readers were comfortable with French for a translation to be both patronising and...

At André Malraux’s funeral, in November 1976, two red wreaths were delivered to the cemetery: one came from the French Communist Party, an organisation to which he never belonged, the other from Lasserre, a three-rosette restaurant near the Grand Palais where he had liked to lunch – on his own should company fail. Lasserre had done the honours for a first time to this most...

Latent Prince

John Sturrock, 22 March 2001

Ten years ago, the Harvard New History of French Literature made not one mention of the remarkable Victor Segalen. How wrong that was. It’s a big book and progressive almost to a fault in what it chooses to cover; Segalen should have been in it, as a writer and theoriser about both life and literature whose concerns are more timely now than they were when he was expressing them....

Short Cuts: books and balls

John Sturrock, 8 February 2001

If the balaclava’d guerrilleros of the Animal Liberation Front run short of targets once they’ve seen off the laboratories full of victimised mice, they might consider picketing the rare but potentially newsworthy venues in which academic psychologists on the professional ascent try to make up their minds whether animals, too, have minds that can be made up. Whether, in short,...

6/4 he won’t score 20

John Sturrock, 7 September 2000

In prelapsarian times, it was only ever a short step from the batting crease to the pulpit, as generations of cricketing vicars used the game that they played heartily, if not usually very well, on Saturday afternoon for a neighbourly source of Sunday metaphors with which to earth a sermon and reassure the congregation that the rules by which a good Anglican was urged to live were really no more arduous than those framed by the MCC. The path of righteousness measured 22 yards and by repeated association with the godhead the patently sinless game of cricket was hoisted onto an existential plateau to which other, rougher games needn’t bother to aspire. The parallel was, on the other hand, open to question, since it involved seeing the testing game of life exclusively from the batsman’s point of view. Contingency did its satanic worst to get you out, and you did your Christian best to stay in. What, though, if you were some out-of-order soul who chose to look at this vital encounter from the other end of the pitch? One early cricketer who did so was the third Duke of Dorset: ‘What is human life but a game of cricket? – beauty the bat and man the ball,’ he’s quoted as saying in David Underdown’s book. The Duke, a big sponsor of the game in its years of consolidation in the second half of the 18th century, reverted on non-match days to his role of seducer of upper-class women, and no doubt felt that the life’s-a-game-of-cricket trope, as modified by him, was a sporting way of dressing up his venery as victimisation. Once into his forties, and having, let’s hope, been struck to the boundary once too often, he married and gave up cricket.’‘

Short Cuts: Starved for Words

John Sturrock, 20 July 2000

When statistics start horning in on our language, or the way we use it, the results are seldom quite what we’d be happy to hear. To be told that, day in, day out, we rely on some wretchedly skimpy proportion, a bare few thousand, of the uncommonly luxuriant word-hoard available to us anglophones, is chastening, leading us at best into sporadic efforts to stretch our working vocabularies by bringing into play delightful words we’ve always known but have somehow never got around to airing in public. This is one way of warding off that nasty feeling that we could perfectly well get by in life with a starveling lexicon, that no one would even notice the repetitions, in an age that long ago rewrung the neck of eloquence.

From The Blog
4 June 2010

Overhear that something unusually bad has happened in Whitehaven without at the same time overhearing what it might be, and the alarmist mind (mine) scoots recklessly ahead – knowing as it did nothing about Whitehaven except that it’s a town within easy fallout range of Sellafield – to invent a whole montage of pictures and reports of nuclear devastation. Had all the many newspaper and television reporters who were packed instantly off north to Cumbria to serve as intermediaries between events in Whitehaven and ourselves found in fact that they had some sort of fearsome meltdown to report on, they might also have found it simpler to measure up to than the real events they were faced with.

Give me calf’s tears

John Sturrock, 11 November 1999

The first work of fiction to which Proust returns in A la recherche du temps perdu – and also the last, one complete, 2500-page orbit later – is George Sand’s François le champi, the first ‘real’ novel the narrator remembers having read. Or rather, remembers having had read to him, by his mother on that seminal evening of anxiety when she fails to come up and give him a goodnight kiss. The emergency recital is a success, the book’s ‘crudities’ and ‘very common prose’ notwithstanding, so sedative is the effect of his mother’s voice on her jumpy son. Poor George Sand, on the other hand, a victim yet again, as she said she’d been too often in her life, finding herself condescendingly banished to the shelf where the literary tranquillisers go, taken down only to be read by bourgeois parents to their children on grounds of her ‘goodness and moral distinction’ – qualities, Proust can’t resist observing, that aren’t necessarily rewarding to read about even if held to be admirable when met with in people.’‘

Cape Y2K once safely rounded, and we shall be faced in short order by 2002, a date that stands suggestively out to the numerological eye as a palindrome. We’re allowed only one of these amphisbaenic years per century, though we lived through the last of them a bare eight-some ago, in 1991. Lived through it and failed for sure to spare it a glance. In France, it was not so. There, the members of the Oulipo took due notice of a calendrical windfall and laid plans for some suitably reversible celebrations, such as inviting President Menem of Argentina to come and address audiences in the towns of Noyon and Laval, and ‘consecrating’ Léon/Noel, Eve, Anna, Otto, Bob and Ava as ‘given names of the year’. It was in keeping with the principles of the Oulipo that these should have remained as theoretical events, conceived of without any taking of steps for their realisation, for this ever-amiable groupuscule’s founding articles lay down that it should explore potentiality irrespective of whether reality can be managed so as to give it house-room: or as the Compendium has it, ‘it has been concerned not with literary works but with procedures and structures capable of producing them.’ Indeed, one of its two founders and chief manifesto-writer, François Le Lionnais, was an extremist who thought that the potential procedures and structures which members invented were diminished rather than validated by being put into practice.‘

Agitated Neurons: Michel Houellebecq

John Sturrock, 21 January 1999

The writer in France is having a good winter, whose autumn novel is no sooner out than it is being roundly abused on all sides for its dubious attitudes, and is then passed over by the jurors of the Prix Goncourt, who would rather argument turned, as by custom it does, on the forgettability of the novel they have picked, not on any bad smell given off by its contents. Les Particules élémentaires is only the second novel that Michel Houellebecq has written, but a book as boldly out of tune with the times as this will have no trouble outliving the flush of suspect publicity that might have led to its swift eclipse. It is aggressive in thought, often enough tacky in deed, and driven by a radical intolerance of the ways and means of a society that the novelist sees as terminally degenerate. He is likely to enjoy a lonely celebrity, with few from the left, right and certainly not the peace-loving centre anxious to risk association with his broadly misanthropic views. On the evidence of this novel, and of some of the sour answers he’s reported as giving when interviewed, Houellebecq has been accused of occupying several shunnable political or intellectual positions, Fascism, nihilism, Stalinism and eugenicism among them. How seriously he occupies any one position at all is open to question, but he has clearly stirred things up to promising effect among the dozing adherents of what I’ve lately seen referred to in France as ‘la pensée unique’, which makes it sound as though that once heroically fissile community can no longer raise the intellectual energy to dispute the premisses of the liberal consensus.‘

The Great Accumulator: W.G. Grace

John Sturrock, 20 August 1998

As English cricket’s first, and permanent, icon, W.G. Grace was a pair of inseparable initials – two doors down from that other High Victorian celebrity, ‘W.E.’ – and a ruling presence on the field of play, the muscular and assertive embodiment of the game in the years of its benign colonisation of the nation’s summers. The physique that famously sustained him was in truth a luxury: Grace was stronger than there was any call for a cricketer to be, ready to go off when young to run hurdle races between innings, and still up to bowling 75 overs in the match at the age of 50 (he was captain, and didn’t think of taking himself off). To which enviable share of vitality he added a mastery of cricket’s as yet unfinished techniques such that he did the most of anyone to bring the English game out from obscurity in the Shires and into the profit and the coverage that follow from playing in the middle of town.’‘

Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

John Sturrock, 16 July 1998

Way back in the pre-theoretical Fifties, a journalist called Ivor Brown used to have elementary fun at the expense of a serial intruder on our insular peace of mind, a bacillus known as the LFF, or Latest Foreign Fraud. By this he meant any thinker from abroad (Paris, nine times out of ten) whose alembicated ideas were being taken up with more excitement than he thought they – or, I daresay, any ideas – were worth. Brown’s catchpenny campaign in defence of our mental virginity was brought fleetingly back to memory by the title of Intellectual Impostures, a similarly prophylactic exercise which has it in for the French thinkers who have come among us since the late Sixties, bearing what Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont would like to see ostracised as fatuous, if not actually nonsensical ideas.’

Lights by the Ton: Jean Echenoz

John Sturrock, 18 June 1998

The weightless characters who track about in Jean Echenoz’s novels are granted a sense now and again that that’s where they are, in someone else’s story, fulfilling burlesque routines not of their own devising. They’re not great thinkers, merely see-through functionaries of the plot. There’s a droll exchange marking one of these twinges of self-awareness in an early novel called Cherokee – named for the Forties song, not for the Native Americans as such – between the driver of a Deux-Chevaux and his captive passenger: ‘ “We could take you somewhere.” “That’s it,” said Georges, “take me somewhere.” ’ Which is what they do, and what Jean Echenoz with obvious pleasure does to us, taking us on what feels like a random tour, as guests of a narrative itself showing enough wear to count as the equivalent in print of a dented Citroën. For such are the cheerfully vagrant and pastiche plots of this by now experienced farceur, who keeps Georges – a man whose congenital blindness in respect of his future extends to falling asleep while having his fortune told – and his obliging backseat kind hurrying in this direction and that, while denying them the inner life any intrusion on the mechanics of which would not only hold things up but undermine the novels’ serene superficiality.’‘

Monsieur Apollo

John Sturrock, 13 November 1997

The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo:

Why the Tortoise Lost

John Sturrock, 18 September 1997

In the years before 1914, the open lectures that Henri Bergson gave at the Collège de France were the prototype in intellectual chic for the barnstorming Parisian ‘seminars’ of Jacques Lacan in the Sixties and Seventies, even if the topics that the fashionable came to hear were as dry as the lecturer’s podium manner: ‘The Evolution of Theories of Memory’, ‘Theories of the Will’, ‘The Nature of Mind and Its Relation to Cerebral Activity’. Women especially took to Bergson, and in such numbers that displaced students complained at being unable to get into the lecture-hall, asking that the too popular professor should move to somewhere more spacious, the Paris Opéra perhaps. When, in 1914, he was elected to the Académie Française, there was a run on the local flower-shops and the dais was fragrant with the bouquets of his admirers. Bergson was appalled: ‘I am not after all a ballerina,’ he declared, a rare disclaimer for a philosopher to have an opportunity to make.

‘I’m going to slash it!’

John Sturrock, 20 February 1997

Nathalie Sarraute had her own, esoteric way of doing well at school. When, at her Paris lycée, her class was asked whether anyone had read War and Peace, the 13-year-old Nathalie (née Natalya Tcherniak, in Russia), did not want to say that she had. She was fearful: not of advertising how grown-up her reading had already become but of what she might have to listen to should her teacher ‘dare to touch’ the book and the ineffable Tolstoy be invested by the crass discourse of a pedagogue. There was a severity about Sarraute even in her tender years: she knew by the fourth form it seems that language can mortify as easily as it can bring to life, and that the hardest of all the things we can do with words is to put the exactly right ones to our feelings.

Donald’s Duck

John Sturrock, 22 August 1996

Don Bradman did poorly by me in my youth: all I saw of him was his parting Oval duck in 1948, the most untimely nought in the history of cricket. It came on the first day of the fifth and last Test, with Australia three-nothing up, so whether our own side won or lost made small difference and we could watch the game as dilettantes instead of partisans, hoping that Brad-man would bat, as he nearly always had, lavishly, or even brutally. England batted first and barely made it through to lunchtime: they scored 52 in all, the fewest runs ever in a home Test (46 from the bat; the splendid Ray Lindwall 6 for 20). The Australian openers were past this shameful mark inside the hour. Don Brad-man wasn’t needed until after tea, when he came emotively in at his usual first wicket down. Because he had said that this would be his last Test Match here, he got three cheers from the assembled England, which was a nice extravaganee on their pan. The bowler was Eric Hollies, a down-market leg-spinner. Bradman stopped Hollies’s first ball to him and played on to the second, which was a googly, and a historic party-pooper. We had come to see the unique Bradman bat, not an ephemeral trundler like Hollies bowl. He had no business getting out in so elementary a fashion. His duck was an awful statistical lapse, because when he came in, he needed to hit only four runs, or a single boundary, to end up with a Test Match batting average of 100. This was and remains, run-scoring on a transcendent scale: just how transcendent you can see by looking at one of the tables in Charles Williams’s book, which shows Bradman, with his lifetime Test average of 99.94, almost forty runs an innings ahead of any other player, the run-rich Lara included


John Sturrock, 4 January 1996

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to his publisher of October 1862, and after two other grumbles about the typesetting on the page-proofs of his new book: ‘3º The circumflex accent on Salammbô has no profile. Nothing could be less Punic. I demand a more open one.’ To demand with Flaubert was to get: within a few days he had an accent that straddled its underlying vowel in the comprehensive way that he wanted, and gave the name of the heroine of his Carthaginian novel a suitably Punic appearance on the title-page. Or it would be truer to say that it gave her a suitably alien appearance, because to a French reader Salammbô’s terminal chapeau comes as a shock, occurring as it does in a position where no circumflex has any business being.

Horsey, Horsey

John Sturrock, 16 November 1995

Anyone who has ever felt drawn to the remote but seductive question of what form the first human language may have taken will have been stirred the other day by Gillian Shephard’s announcement that the Government is going to spend (a very little) money on coaching our young inarticulates so that they stop ‘grunting’ and start using words. This looks rather like an attempt to recapitulate on the cheap the slow linguistic evolution of the species, as Trevor McDonald and his fellow therapists educate the grunters out of the animal and into the human state. Except, of course, that the grunts complained of are not natural phenomena but already signs, an admittedly crude but still authentic element of culture. All grunts are not identical, either in the way they sound or in what they may be taken to mean. They depend for their interpretation on how grunters grunt, in response to what, and who they grunt to (or at). They are not to be so easily dismissed as prehistoric intruders in our otherwise eloquent midst.

Bit by Bit

John Sturrock, 22 December 1994

What should a man famous for having wished the Author dead wish for himself once he becomes a dead author? To leave no trace behind would seem right. But if Roland Barthes was hostile to the neighbourly image of the Author as an extra-textual being, he took pleasure in the thought of himself returning as a biographical subject (i.e. object) once he was dead. In the Preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola, he laid down the quite meetable conditions under which he would agree to pass into the hands of futurity: ‘Were I a writer, and dead, how I would like my life to be reduced, by the attentions of a friendly, carefree biographer, to a few details, a few tastes, a few inflections, let’s say “biographemes”.’ At the end of the same book, by way of illustrating the kind of casual memorial he had in mind, he included ‘lives’ of two of its three subjects, Sade and Fourier: a few numbered ‘biographemes’, strewn through space ‘like the atoms of Epicurus’. Epicurus’ atoms were hooked and Barthes’s typically sensuous fancy was that these errant particles might link up with hospitable fellow atoms in the living, so ensuring a small measure of – fragmentary – survival.’

E-less in Gaza

John Sturrock, 10 November 1994

We hear a lot about floating signifiers and how they bob anchorless around on the deep waters of meaning; we hear too little about sinking signifiers, or language items that have stopped bobbing and been sent silently to the bottom, if not for the duration then at least provisionally, while we see how well we can do without them. To scuttle a signifier in this way is to play at lipograms, an elementary language game that has been around for two and a hall millennia. This lipo has nothing to do with fat, or with the world of the liposuctionist’s hoover: it comes from a Greek verb meaning to ‘leave out’. The lipogram is a piece of writing from which one or more letters of the alphabet have been excluded, preferably common ones if the game is to be worth playing. There is in theory no reason why there shouldn’t also be spoken lipograms, or lipophones – indeed, I can imagine that, the bit once between their teeth, composers of lipograms find themselves talking lipogrammatically, either because they can’t stop or because they think it will help them to keep their eye in.’

Something Royal

John Sturrock, 8 September 1994

It is all but thirty-five years since Albert Camus was killed, when the Facel Vega sports car in which he was a passenger went off the road between Sens and Paris. Among his things was found Le Premier homme, the manuscript he had been working on for nearly a year at the time of the accident and on which there was still some way to go. Only now are we given it to read. It is extraordinary that it should have taken so long, disappointing that there should be no editorial word in the current edition to explain why. It’s not as if the book is so underweight that Camus’s reputation will shrink as a result of it, nor does it show him in any ugly new light personally or philosophically. Le Premier homme runs as a continuous text to some two hundred and sixty pages, and should do his reputation more good than harm – especially with those of us who always found L’Etranger and La Peste more stilted than persuasive in their death-defying humanism. Le Premier homme, too, has its stilted moments but they are more than offset by an uncharacteristically mundane account of Camus’s childhood in his native Algiers.’

A Passion for Pears

John Sturrock, 7 July 1994

If Balzac had had his way, the real Paris would have become a little more like the visionary Paris of his novels. He thought a spiral staircase should be built, leading down from the Luxembourg Gardens into the catacombs, whose verminous labyrinth stretched from there indiscriminately beneath the plush hôtels of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the slums of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. This forthright scheme of urban integration was pure metaphor, or else an inspired advertisement for the astounding construction of the Comédie Humaine, where all that is most arrogant and wealthy in Paris is obliged to cohabit with all that is most vile, the peers, ministers and salonardes from one side of the tracks with the jailbirds, usurers and tarts from the other.

Wasp in a Bottle

John Sturrock, 10 February 1994

All rationality as a thinker, all unreasonableness as a man: this ancient non sequitur was never more vividly realised than in C.S. Peirce, first and foremost of the American Pragmatists. Peirce was a major philosopher and prodigiously many things besides, polymathic to a degree that should have been impossible in the later 19th century: ‘Mathematician, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, cartographer, metrologist, spectroscopist, engineer, inventor; psychologist, philologist, lexicographer, historian of science, mathematical economist; lifelong student of medicine; book reviewer, dramatist, actor, short story writer; phenomenologist, semiotician, logician, rhetorician and metaphysician.’ The list was made by his most supportive modern editor, but even if Peirce wasn’t equally competent in all these roles that shouldn’t disallow the same editor’s claim that he was ‘the most original and the most versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced’.

Doing what doesn’t come naturally

John Sturrock, 16 December 1993

Second languages don’t come naturally to us, they have to be learnt, formally in large part and deliberately. The language we are born into the midst of is not learnt but ‘acquired’, by the occult, labour-saving means of Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, an innate predisposition in our neurons which, once we are attuned to the local syntax and prevailing vocabulary, ensures that we eventually ‘know’ our native tongue without having had to try, and empty of memories as to how we internalised it. If we happen to grow up in the midst of more than one language, we end up bi- or multilingual, but just as unable to be explicit about a process that has matured willy-nilly, which is studyable by others but opaque to ourselves. It’s only when we come to learn another language at a later date that we get an idea of what is involved, and of how easy it is to flounder when doing consciously what before we did so well without thinking.

May he roar with pain!

John Sturrock, 27 May 1993

At the time, George Sand was the celebrity, a retired amorist and noted cross-dresser new publishing without strain two or three novels a year of the improving, marketable kind. Flaubert, too, had had an episode of scandal, when he and Madame Bovary were taken to court in 1857 for obscenity; but he by now was labouring retentively away once again in the service of Apollo, the Olympian specially refurbished by him as ‘the god of crossings-out’. Sand’s oeuvre was enormous on its way to filling 77 volumes in the collected edition; Flaubert’s was heroically small, some six books in all by the end of his life, a costive bequest but one that was to be gloriously increased later on by the volumes in which the Apollonian toiler is released on parole, to indulge himself with Dionysiac abandon and create the most uninterruptedly enjoyable correspondence of any French writer: Flaubert’s masterpiece, as André Gide rightly thought it.

The Paris Strangler

John Sturrock, 17 December 1992

The historian of madness Michel Foucault found and published in 1974 an upbeat first-person account of his crime written by a 19th-century French murderer: Moi Pierre Rivière ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et monfrère …, a statement precious, in Foucauldian terms, as a rare public instance of the normally suppressed discourse of madness. Now, from the man who coached Foucault in philosophy, we have another bold and engrossing first-person work which could have borne the title ‘Moi Louis Althusser ayant étranglé ma femme … ’, for L’Avenir dure longtemps is the garlanded Marxist philosopher’s long essay in explanation of how he came to strangle his wife late in 1980. Pierre Rivière’s was the extrovert testimony of a rube, a deranged Norman farmboy and literary simpleton: Althusser’s is infinitely more adroit, the manipulative product of a theoretical intelligence turned lovingly in on itself, and a pre-emptive exercise in the discourse more on than of madness.

The man who wrote for the ‘Figaro’

John Sturrock, 25 June 1992

Proust wrote too many letters: he thought so and so anyone might think, as Philip Kolb’s expanding series of annual volumes edges towards the writer’s death, in 1922. Sheer numbers would not have mattered had they been stronger letters, but Proust’s correspondence is too much of it mechanical or emptily ingratiating, the one remaining exercise of the social virtues by a man who had taken to his bedroom (with occasional querulous sorties late at night to the Ritz Hotel) in order to be alone with his asthma and the prodigiously radiating manuscript of his novel. But as he declined bodily in his fetid hermitage, Proust came to worry about the hundreds of letters he had written in these years of rapt fictional creation; he was afraid, he told his housekeeper. Céleste Albaret, that once he was dead they would be published, or if not published sold at auction, and he even asked a lawyer whether he could stop that happening. He found he could not, and concluded morbidly that his letters would eventually become so many ‘arrows returned against him’. But this black thought did not slow him down, because the iller and more unvisitable he became the more letters he wrote: the later volumes in Kolb’s series are fatter by many pages than the earlier ones. In theory, Proust told Jacques Rivière (in a letter), he was un athée de l’amitié, an unbeliever in friendship, but one who yet ‘practised it with far greater fervour than so many apostles of friendship’; and the evidence of this confessedly Tartuffian fervour is in the plenty and regularity of his correspondence, as he keeps company with a whole vivarium of big fish and small, with the titled hostesses of whose hollow world he had become the pampered adept when young, with the old literary friends and young literary protégés whose work he endlessly overpraises, with his publishers, and with the admirers and reviewers of his own work once that has begun to appear in its full extent after 1918.

Above the Consulting-Room

John Sturrock, 26 March 1992

Sessions with Dr Jacques Lacan were famously short, but none I dare say as short as mine. We met professionally not as doctor and patient, but as author and editor, and over the telephone, voice to voice. Newly taken on at the TLS, I was the one appointed to give Lacan the bad news, that an article he had been commissioned to write could not be used. He had sent in an absurdly knotted French text which had been turned by a translator into a blankly unmeaning English one, and it was not thought sensible for the paper to publish something that none of its editors could understand. Lacan was incensed at knowing that he had been spiked, on what to him seemed insultingly practical grounds. He thought it was enough that his name should be on the piece for it to have to be published, I that unintelligibility was a ground for rejection, irrespective of whose unintelligibility it was. Since the disputed article was not echt-Lacan but only Lacan in translation, the argument from authorship was strong but not irresistibly so: the article did not appear.


John Sturrock, 24 May 1990

Nabokov liked to write standing up (‘Piles,’ he told a fellow-teacher at Cornell, who thought it might be some short cut to creativity), and his letters reflect that inflexible posture, being all backbone and no upholstery. But prize them we must, for bringing us this otherwise impregnably stylish man’s first, unscripted thoughts; letters at least he wrote and sent, without – that we hear of – asking for them back, to groom them for permanent annexation to his oeuvre. Writing casually, and for a readership of one, he can identify himself with his style (‘… I am almost exclusively a writer, and my style is all I have’) without having to prove himself by doing so stylishly. But when, post-Lolita, the interviewers come, with their pads and tape-machines, to test his spontaneity, the style has once again to become the man, and the record of each viva to be called in for reworking before being passed for publication (‘I am greatly distressed and disgusted by my unprepared answers … These answers are dull, flat, repetitive, vulgarly phrased and in every way shockingly different from the “card” part of the interview’). It was a mark of resigned good sense therefore, not of inspiration, when, two years before he died, the New York Times asked if it could commission what it called the ‘ultimate interview’ with him, one conducted by himself. Point six and last in Nabokov’s majestic letter licensing this event reads: ‘My soul is mine. What you are going to get is an elegant and accurate shadowgraph on the brightest of walls.’ Souls were never his thing, they could but come under the nauseous heading of Human Interest which, he writes, ‘means Uncle Tom’s cabin to me (or Galsworthy’s drivel) and makes me sick, seasick’. Even when he himself turned to the supposedly soul-searching genre of autobiography and wrote a memoir of his early life – Conclusive Evidence, later to be called Speak, Memory – he defines it to a potential publisher as a hybrid between unqualified autobiography and a novel, the truth crossed with fiction, his life having been given ‘a definite plot’. Nabokov redrafts the old autobiographical contract in favour of the writer and against the basely inquisitive reader, form having the higher claim in his philosophy to fact.’

English Words and French Authors

John Sturrock, 8 February 1990

There is a hint of Thatcherism about this New History, with its queer fondness for dates. For Number Ten it was, wearing her metahistorian’s hat, who recently ordered dates back into the curriculum, as the sine qua non of history. But surely not of literary history, which is parsimonious over dates, save where it measures out for us the life-spans of authors. Literary historians like to gather time into innocuous folds, as decades, centuries, or ‘ages’, rather than brave it in its mortal, year-on-year extension. The New History is more candidly historical: it records the passing years at the head of each page.

Doctor No

John Sturrock, 2 February 1989

In November 1931, La Gazette médicale in Paris carried a curiously vehement piece on the treatment of bleeding gums. It was signed Dr Louis F. Destouches and it took issue, in a blizzard of exclamation-marks, with the medicine of the schools, asking what good the professoriat and the textbooks were to a confused general practitioner, who wanted to do something simply therapeutic for his patients. This irascible, very literate broadside modulated in the last few lines into a puff for Sanogyl, a new remedial toothpaste, and it was the last thing that Dr Destouches published before his prodigious debut in fiction one year later, as Louis Ferdinand Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. There were foretastes of Céline in the truculent medical journalism and puffery of Destouches, but nothing to compare with the epochal vituperation with which the Voyage is filled; if he was to keep a practice the doctor required a cover. Céline was that cover, a first name borrowed from this unfamily-minded man’s one commendable relative, the grandmother who had been a fount of refreshing sarcasm for him when he was a small boy but who had died when he was ten. The Voyage raised the name Céline instantly to the heights, but he kept Destouches on too, as an alias to practise medicine under, up to, during and even after the Second World War.


John Sturrock, 31 March 1988

Bait them and the Derrideans certainly rise. When the English version of Derrida’s Glas appeared last year in the United States, I wrote a griping review of it, to regret mainly that a philosopher as brilliantly fresh and radical as Derrida should want to publish something so mannered and so hard to follow. Some of the North American faithful objected to this review, and one, a professor of philosophy in Scranton, wrote a letter warning that I had failed not just Derrida but our whole benighted community. To wit:

Champion of Words

John Sturrock, 15 October 1987

Michel Foucault, for once and for now, may stand aside: who is the Raymond Roussel about whom he wrote this, his one real essay into literature? Roussel was a writer, of sorts, of the early 20th century; a man both glamorously rich and mentally odd. His money he spent to the hilt in the furtherance of his oddness, for Roussel laboured to write the most uncommercial works and then paid to have them published. He set new standards indeed for vanity publishing, because he paid not only to get his poetry and his fiction into book-form, but also to have his plays put on in Paris. The theatre does not come cheap for those who must be their own angels, but to see his uniquely inauspicious plays performed in public was a deep need and Roussel did not stint on the satisfaction of it. By the end of his life his huge inheritance was exhausted.

Darkest Peru

John Sturrock, 19 February 1987

Mario Vargas Llosa has written a fine novel, political and unstintingly pessimistic, a dire collation of the fiasco of a single Peruvian life with the chronic mismanagement and distempers of Peru. As narrative, it may be complicatedly told, with much canny transiting between present and past, but the formal ingenuities work to the one end, of delivering a full and unhappy report on the way things have been or are in the novelist’s homeland.

Goodbye to Borges

John Sturrock, 7 August 1986

Borges died on 14 June, in Geneva – which bare fact virtually calls for an ‘English papers please copy,’ as they used to say, so complacently scant and grudging were the notices which we were given to read at the time. There was much Englishness about him, starting with his mother’s family, which was English, but obvious also in the plain way that he wrote, and in the humour with which he used to deprecate his own high literary standing. Anglo-Saxon was the strange hobby of his old age, because it was northern and pleasantly formal, and in his earlier days, before his eyesight got too weak, he had read more in English literature than in any other. Critics might say, because there were labyrinths and what seemed like anxiety in his stories, that he followed on from Kafka: Borges himself said, rather, from Kipling. But none of this saved him when he died from being a foreigner, and a writer, hardly worth the column-inches of our barbarically parochial papers.’


John Sturrock, 20 February 1986

Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin agree on so little as theorists of literature that they must count as alternatives. To read one and then the other, preferably Jakobson first and then Bakhtin, as a sort of anti-Jakobson, is a literary theoretical education. Where Jakobson is dry, Bakhtin is convivial; where Jakobson is technocratic, Bakhtin is impulsive; where Jakobson is magisterial, Bakhtin is a groundling. Jakobson’s theories are known about, because he came to the West to work on them; Bakhtin’s we are only now starting to learn about, because of the shocking obscurity in which they were kept in his lifetime.

Private Sartre

John Sturrock, 7 February 1985

Sartre had a passive, self-centred war, well-suited to his deeply civilian temper, with no heroics and a great deal of free time. He was mobilised in September 1939, served in the East of France until he was captured in the collapse of June 1940, spent nine months as a prisoner of war, then sat out the Occupation in Paris. No matter where he was, he wrote, abundantly – in the field, in the prison-camp and in occupied Paris. ‘He participated in the Resistance,’ the cover-note of these War Diaries piously reassures us, but the non-combatant Sartre’s arm was the so-called ‘intellectual resistance’, his boldest moment in it a bicycle trip round the unoccupied zone in the summer of 1941 to sound out helpers. He had neither the sense of oneness with his country’s needs nor, with only one good eye, the physique to want to do more. In these Diaries he welcomes the absolute decline of the military ideal in France by 1939. His own principles when he was called up were ones of cynical insubordination, but since he does not report having any brushes with the order-givers during his service, one has to take it that he kept his principles to himself.’

Where structuralism comes from

John Sturrock, 2 February 1984

With Chomsky seemingly off the stage – exit left, the script reads, brooding on the sins of American foreign policy – it is now or never for Ferdinand de Saussure to take his place. One theorist of language at a time is probably all the popular awareness has room for, and over the past twenty years Chomsky has been it, investing grammar with a new, deep-seated charm, and bringing us to see language as a mysterious acquisition which does our species, and our brains, much credit. But as a linguist at least Chomsky has gone quiet, and even before that so much of his work had turned into a kind of algebra it could no longer make sense to the world at large. This is a fine moment, therefore, to exchange Chomsky for a theorist who saw language whole and in terms accessible to all: for Saussure, dead these seventy years, yet still, how wrongly, under a cloud in the English-speaking world.

On the Verge of Collapse

John Sturrock, 19 August 1982

The Siren’s Song is the first chance English readers have had to experience Maurice Blanchot. If it is the case, as Gabriel Josipovici pre-emptively asserts in his introduction, that Blanchot ‘is, with Walter Benjamin, the finest literary critic of the century’, then we have been grievously remiss in leaving him for so long untranslated. For Blanchot isn’t new: he is in his mid-seventies, he has been writing criticism for forty years, he has published 15 books and he is, in France, an undoubted star. Even there, however, I suspect that few people would feel as generous towards him as Josipovici does, because Blanchot is a writer whom many French readers, trained though they be in the rigours of the higher abstraction, find too much for them. He was never exactly a simple writer and with the years he has become tiresomely opaque. His most recent book, of fragments pessimistically titled L’Ecriture du Désastre, is so cryptic as to border on the repellent. Blanchot is too hermetic a thinker to rank with those contemporary French theorists who are difficult but interestingly difficult – with Lacan or Derrida. He is awfully serious about literature, and awfully hard to enjoy.

Proust Regained

John Sturrock, 19 March 1981

In the spring of 1920 Marcel Proust was fretting because the good ‘Gaston’ (Gallimard, his post-war publisher) had been unforgivably slow in arranging for translations of his now successful novel to be started. In the past 12 months Du Côté de chez Swann had been published for a second time (the little-noticed earlier edition was in 1913) and A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs for the first time; and Proust had, strangely, won the Prix Goncourt, a corrupt award which he had wanted but which generally goes to works of uncomplicated mediocrity. There should, he thought, have been foreign editions pending of these first instalments of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and an English edition mattered most of all. English was a language which Proust knew and had read in; with help, he had translated his dear Ruskin into French. His sense of symmetry, if not of justice, called now for his own deeply Ruskinian work to be turned into English, and if nothing had so far been done the fault must be Gaston’s because the English themselves were hugely enthusiastic about it: there had, he promised Jacques Rivière, been ‘eight or nine articles in the Times alone’.


John Sturrock, 3 July 1980

We semioticians who are also family men know well how to Say It With Flowers, commissioning long-distance posies and garlands to be the messengers of our good will or our condolences. Provided the It is not too deep or idiosyncratic a message, the fond blooms can carry it. But has the hour not now sounded to swap vehicles and Say It With Vegetables? We are recessing into straitened times, and should we not therefore value the nutritious above the emptily decorative? A trug-load of shallots or broccoli spears, gift-wrapped and delivered by Intergreens, would make a more practical birthday greeting than the customary inedible spray of irises. A nosegay of piquant radishes would be a healthier restorative for a wilting diva at the final curtain than those armfuls of cellophaned roses.

Ego’s End

John Sturrock, 22 November 1979

Sherry Turkle has written a reasonable, useful and heroically neutral book on the Lacan phenomenon: the sudden celebrity in France as maître à penser of Jacques Lacan, an elderly psychoanalyst whose writings are of a unique, some would say repellent difficulty. Venerated on the one side as the foremost agent of ideological subversion, reviled on the other as an intolerable, conceited obscurantist, Lacan is a living symbol of division between opposed temperaments, parties and generations. In order to account for his boisterous if tardy emergence into public life, Ms Turkle, who is a sociologist, recalls the remarkably unimpressive history of the psychoanalytical movement in France and Lacan’s own virulently dissident role within and without it. Sociology is not always so dramatic: she has made of Lacan an exemplary as well as a fascinating protagonist, and is both precise and comprehensive in her analysis of the radical cast of mind in contemporary Paris.

From The Blog
3 July 2009

Maybe editors should only ever be gratified, never startled, to come across a photograph of someone caught actually reading what they publish. Startled somewhat we were, however, by this image. A someone in camouflage and with an assault rifle to hand: not your average phantom subscriber. It is in fact a young officer in the British army serving in Afghanistan and he’s one of the illustrations in a newly published military memoir called The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, whose author, Patrick Hennessey, has now resigned from the army to become a lawyer. He helped start the club when he was in Iraq and then took it with him to Afghanistan.

John Sturrock writes: The removal of the Aznar government, and its replacement by a government that abjured any close identification with Bush/Blair and brought the Spanish contingents back from Iraq, was, as far as I’m concerned, a beneficial effect of the atrocity in Madrid. There is nothing ‘distasteful’ in drawing attention, even in the case of terrorist acts, to the well-known...
John Sturrock writes: Two interpretations are possible of the fact that, to date, only two people have asked for their incognito to stay. One is the interpretation implied if not stated in Deborah McVea and Jeremy Treglown’s letter: that the great majority are either happy to be identified, or don’t care sufficiently to object. The other interpretation is that, like myself, weekly reader...

Sonic Boom

1 October 1998

It was good of Don Miller (Letters, 1 October) to read what I wrote about W.G. Grace as a disguised riposte to the claque whose variously abusive recriminations had earlier been launched against what I wrote about its heroes, Sokal and Bricmont, whose book I’m confident few of them have read. Since I don’t feel that the ‘W.G.’ piece quite confronted any of the arguments arising,...

The Paris Strangler

17 December 1992

As Paddy Lyons (Letters, 28 January) sees it, the strangling of Hélène Rytmann by Louis Althusser was a folie à deux: she wanted him to kill her and he in a moment of lunacy obliged. This is one ‘explanation’ of his act offered by Althusser himself in L’Avenir dure longtemps. But how, by accepting it as the right explanation, does Lyons make things any better...

Private Sartre

7 February 1985

SIR: It is careless of Mr Gardner to have left out from his letter (Letters, 7 March) the evidence on which he bases his rosy view of Sartre. I wrote that Sartre was ‘self-centred’, not ‘self-indulgent’, and so, judging by the War Diaries, he was, I would like to know what, in these fluent and cocky entries, Mr Gardner sees as the expression of Sartre’s ‘impotence’...


19 August 1982



5 June 1980

SIR: Roger Poole says exceptionally kind things about the quality and usefulness of Structuralism and Since (LRB, 5 June): as that book’s editor, part author and main shareholder, I’m grateful to him. I am only sorry that the experience of reviewing it should have brought on a fit of such global despondency. Mr Poole comes to needlessly alarmist conclusions about what structuralists and...


22 November 1979

SIR: My deplorable ‘neutrality’ in respect of Jacques Lacan can be analysed (I don’t mean psychoanalysed) into a belief that he is both good and bad. Some parts of his writings I think are brilliant and mind-opening, other parts are beyond me. I cannot either idolatrise or dismiss him in the blandly integral way which Richard Webster (Letters, 6 December) very obviously prefers. I...

The Thing: Versions of Proust

Michael Wood, 6 January 2005

What was it Proust said about paradise? That all paradises are lost paradises? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? That it isn’t paradise until it’s lost? That paradise is...

Read More

John Sturrock’s little book is the best single guide to its subject that has yet appeared. Structuralism and Since demands, though, that its title be taken literally. It traces, technically...

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