Julian Symons

Julian Symons novel Sweet Adelaide was published earlier this year. His book of essays, Critical Observations, will appear next spring.

Our Jack

Julian Symons, 22 July 1993

The year is 1920. Young Denis in Crome Yellow is asked by persistent Mary Bracegirdle which contemporary poets he likes best. The reply comes instantly: ‘Blight, Mildew and Smut’. Mary is taken aback, disbelieving, tries desperately to change what she has heard. Perhaps Denis had really said: ‘Squire, Binyon and Shanks’, ‘Childe, Blunden and Earp’, even ‘Abercrombie, Drink-water and Rabindranath Tagore’? But she knows it is not so: Blight, Mildew and Smut were for Denis the poets of the decade.


Julian Symons, 8 October 1992

A parable, an allegory, a moral fable, must convince us first on the literal level to have full effect in its symbolic message. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ and The Trial our attention is immediately engaged by the opening sentences that tell of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a gigantic insect lying on its back and unable to turn over, and by the bald information that Joseph K. ‘without having done anything wrong was arrested one fine morning’. Animal Farm, similarly, is interesting first of all as a story about animals trying to run their own society without the interference of humans. Any visionary or satirical meaning is apprehended later, and in Kafka’s case its nature is still a matter for argument. A friend once called him the last Jesuit, and it has always seemed to me that the ultimate meaning of Kafka’s fictions is that the individual must – and should – lose his fight against society or God.’

Back to the future

Julian Symons, 10 September 1992

Versions of the future (1). The year is 2021, human life is dying out. The last human being was born in 1996, and has just been killed outside Buenos Aires in a pub brawl. Infertility is world-wide, but we are not concerned with its effects in North or South America, Africa or India, or anywhere but Britain, where the apparently benevolent authority of the Council is ruled or guided by the Warden, Xan Lypiatt. Interest in sex is waning, although substitutes in the form of various massages are available on the NHS. Lady Margaret Hall is the massage centre for Oxford, and in Oxford lives the diarist-narrator Theo Faron, cousin and boyhood friend of the Warden and teacher of history (‘the least rewarding discipline for a dying species’) to the last generation born, the beautiful, hostile Omegas.

Timo of Corinth

Julian Symons, 6 August 1992

Corinth, between two seas, the eye of the world. Timoleon, called Timo, son of Timodemos, younger brother of Timophanes. Timo growing up, butt of Timophanes the violent. ‘Violence? How else did father Zeus win Olympus?’ Only winners have respect in Corinth. Timophanes is a winner. Takes power, announces the Programme, becomes the Despot. Yet in battle flinches. Timo saves his life. No thanks, no promotion. Timo’s loving friend Kallias tells of a plot against the Despot. ‘Timo. They need you. Your turn has come.’ The god Hermes whispers to Timo: ‘Dagger.’ Timo stabs and kills his brother, is exiled from Corinth, spends years in the wilderness. Time alters the past. Gods, too, change …

Poe’s Woes

Julian Symons, 23 April 1992

The prosecution case against Edgar A. Poe looks a strong one. Taken in by the Richmond tobacco broker John Allan when left orphaned at the age of two by the death of his actress mother Eliza, brought up as a member of the family and sent to the University of Virginia, he responded by running up gambling debts and drinking, so that he left after a year. Abandonment after a few months of the Army career he had chosen involved more debts to be paid by Allan, who for the three years of life remaining to him was intermittently though unsuccessfully dunned by the young man he condemned as ‘destitute of honor & principle every day of his life has only served to confirm his debased nature’.

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...

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John Bayley, 22 June 1989

There is a cartoon by Beerbohm somewhere showing a distended G.K. Chesterton banging the table with his fist and saying he’d ‘had enough of all this bloody nonsense’. It seems...

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Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 July 1982

The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the...

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