Stephen Wall

Stephen Wall is the editor, with Christopher Ricks, of Essays in Criticism.

A Little Local Irritation: Dickens

Stephen Wall, 16 April 1998

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. For Dickens, though, the house had a more personal association: he’d admired it as a small boy living nearby, and had been told by his father that if he worked really hard he might one day be able to live there. Recounting this story earlier in the year in a piece written for his weekly, All the Year Round, Dickens had wisely declined to congratulate himself on the realisation of his childish ambition. The household at Gad’s Hill hardly matched the domestic idylls with which his novels so often conclude.


Stephen Wall, 26 March 1992

Henry Green’s literary career began precociously and ended prematurely. According to his son Sebastian Yorke, the future novelist was already ‘writing hard’ at eleven or twelve, under a different pseudonym from the one he later adopted. At Eton he was a founder member of a Society of Arts, and his adolescent pose as an aesthete fostered some paragraphs which are subjected to a withering critique in his remarkable self-portrait Pack my bag, written in 1938-9 under the threat of war and now reissued. He began his first novel Blindness while still at school; it came out while he was at Oxford. His account of undergraduate life there in Pack my bag is a little rushed, but it wonderfully evokes the euphoria of licensed idleness in beautiful surroundings (he was at Magdalen) while remaining beady-eyed about its snobbery and self-absorption. He went down without a degree, failing to get on both with Anglo-Saxon and with his tutor C.S. Lewis, and understandably preferring to spend every afternoon at the cinema.


Stephen Wall, 12 March 1992

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. History lies about us in our infancy, and in his case the Fenland child was the father of the pedagogic man. The hero of Out of this World (1988) was a famous photographer of wars and their aftermaths as well as the son of an armaments manufacturer, and neither by chance. As he says, ‘someone has to be a witness, someone has to see.’ Ever After, too, is driven forward by looking backward; maybe, its hero muses, it’s not posterity he’s looking for, but anteriority.’


Stephen Wall, 12 September 1991

There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she’d let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, she was being literal as well as figurative. A pen was what she wrote with. Dan Jacobson’s and Michael Frayn’s reliance on, respectively, a word processor and a tape recorder needn’t be put down to Post-Modern self-consciousness. Novels naturally like to keep up with the technology on which they rely, but an appeal – however disingenuous – to external machinery and allegedly objective documentation is thoroughly classical. In skilled hands, such honesty about the narrative’s status paradoxically enhances rather than undermines its authenticity, although we know, and it knows, that such candour is entirely specious.’


Stephen Wall, 27 June 1991

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. But although Sassoon plays a crucial role in Regeneration, he does so more as a refractory soldier and reluctant patient than as a writer; he is only one of a number of the shell-shocked who otherwise have no memorial. The real hero of the story and the main source of its considerable interest is the doctor who treated him.’


Stephen Wall, 27 September 1990

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.’

Diamond Daggers

Stephen Wall, 28 June 1990

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. There’s some disingenuousness here, since the mystery is quite elaborately contrived and its solution, or solutions, artfully withheld. All the same, the appeal of Death’s Darkest Face goes well beyond eventually finding out how the crime actually happened and who done it.

Asking too much

Stephen Wall, 22 February 1990

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. It’s true that minimalism has its own lacunal rhetoric, and leaving things out for the sake of it can be as tiresome as putting them in for the same reason, but Susan Minot has enough tact to ensure that her ellipticality doesn’t seem evasive. At their best, the attenuation of her stories persuades you that it’s the result of genuine compassion rather than a merely modish parsimony of materials, a sort of nouvelle cuisine of the conte.

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.


Stephen Wall, 16 March 1989

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.M. Forster (whose Aspects of the Novel has proved so strangely durable) and Ford Maddox Ford, may have much to offer. Ford’s chatty and opinionated The English Novel from the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad (1930) contains many sweeping and unscholarly judgments, but its fundamental conviction that ‘the art of the novel is so difficult a thing that unless a man’s whole energies are given to it he had much better otherwise occupy himself’ is a bracing rebuke to the non-authorial reader for whom the proper realisation of the form is hardly a life-and-death concern. Ford’s division of English fiction into the serious work of the great masters (among whom, I’m glad to note, he includes Trollope) and the literature of mere escape – what he calls ‘nuvvles’ – allows him to make sheep-and-goat distinctions which may seem idiosyncratic but which are certainly tonic.’


Stephen Wall, 1 September 1988

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 real point of the episode, however, is that it brings together the novel’s main characters in bizarre conjunction.

Being splendid

Stephen Wall, 3 March 1988

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’. The first was written as a schoolgirl dazzled by Aldous Huxley, the second begun at Oxford but torn up as too autobiographical. Some Tame Gazelle dates from the mid-Thirties, but wasn’t published (in revised form) until 1950. Its successor, Civil to Strangers, is the fourth novel to appear since Barbara Pym’s death in 1980. Hazel Holt, her friend and literary executor, has also added to it parts of three other novels and some short stories. When this hoard from the bottom drawer is put alongside the nine books published during Pym’s lifetime and the autobiographical material assembled by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym in A Very Private Life (1984), the picture that emerges is certainly one of a dedicated and professional writer, even though she was never able to live by her pen. The ‘ups and downs’ include the period between 1961 and 1977 when no one would take her work, and the relative celebrity of her last years. All her books are now in paperback, two critical studies and a collection of essays have recently appeared, and a biography is promised. Transatlantic scholars acknowledge grants enabling them to consult the Pym archive in the Bodleian, and Janice Rossen warns us that ‘dissertations are not far behind.’ There seems a good chance that a cult will harden into canonisation.’

Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall, 1 October 1987

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. When Miss Brookner is not at her best, the gestures that this despondent view of things demand can seem sentimental, especially when fortitude is subsidised by elegance or at least comfort and by financial independence. In A Friend from England, however, one is left in no doubt that life really is hostile to happiness, even in Wimbledon. It resembles Miss Brookner’s Look at me (1981) in that it develops a moral and emotional intensity that precludes any modification of the heroine’s terminal loneliness. The finesse with which the new novel is organised makes the prize-winning Hotel du Lac look flimsy, although its materials will be entirely familiar to addicted followers.

Rites of Passage

Anthony Quinn, 27 June 1991

Richard Rayner's new novel, his second, opens with a nervous exhibition of rhetorical trills and twitches, buttonholing the reader like a stand-up comic on his first night: ...

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Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland, 2 February 1989

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...

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