Piers Paul Read Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Read, Piers Paul 1941–

Read is an English author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is perhaps best known for Alive, his restrained account of what has been called the most arresting peacetime survival story yet told, the 1972 Andes air crash. He was the choice of the survivors to write their official story. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The severity of [The Upstart] is not immediately apparent. The opening chapters record the childhood and youth of a Yorkshire clergyman's son in a sharp but amusing way, so that the author might be congratulated on the "malicious" wit with which the boy's "agonies" of social embarrassment are presented. But, quite suddenly, words like "malice" and "agony" need to be used less lightly and loosely. The boy, Hilary Fletcher, might seem not unlike L. P. Hartley's Eustace as he diffidently tries to place his social position between the knowing children of the local aristocracy and the rough farmboys. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the boy has grown up monstrous. The calm, graceful prose which seemed so appropriate for a traditional social comedy about class is equally effective for describing young Fletcher's progress in joyless depravity. Finally he becomes a Roman Catholic, recognizes himself as evil, and repents. So it is, after all, rather like one of Hartley's novels—My Fellow-Devils, with its persuasive emphasis on Catholicism and evil….

[There is a] melodramatic sequence of events [that] takes up most of the book. It is so lurid that it could have been ludricrous, but there is a grim, simple intensity in the writing which makes the story acceptable as a serious representation of evil. The narrator persuades through the apparent objectivity of his presentation of himself: it is like the cold, factual-sounding account that the agnostic Winterman gave of the sins and penitence of the hero of Mr Read's Monk Dawson.

"Prodigal's Progress," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1973, p. 1017.

Nick Totten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Novels like Polonaise usually die at the outline stage. In skeletal form they impress everyone, not least the author; but as the appalling difficulty of actually writing them gradually emerges, there is a tendency to turn to other projects. Also, they fall uncomfortably between two stools: more than just another novel, but distinctly less than the masterpiece one will write some day. But there is a lingering attachment to the material—always a feeling that it could somehow be pushed and prodded into that vital inevitability which was promised in the original conception. So sometimes the writer buckles down to it.

Piers Paul Read has buckled down to it, and produced a novel not without...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stefan,… [the] unheroic hero [of Polonaise], is a writer thwarted by 'the unreliability of his characters'. He persuades himself that he is a Marxist, but when he tries to write about 'positive heroes', his carefully constructed puppets run amok and shock even him, their creator. He concludes that his 'muse', his creativity, 'is irony, undiluted irony'. He rejects communism because communists still believe in the perfectibility of the soul; the Soviet Union 'is Holy Russia under another name'.

Stefan is a typical Read character, introspective, intelligent, determined to use self-knowledge in order to cultivate his true individuality….

Polonaise is a rich and...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

James Brockway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The sub-title of [Polonaise] should read: 'Or the Wreck of the Titanic'. Like the Titanic, the greater part of this book is a magnificent piece of engineering, a product of intelligence, great technical skill and hard work. Also like the Titanic, when the journey has almost been completed, in fact as late as page 343, Read's finely constructed artefact, of which its creator has every reason to feel proud, hits an iceberg of such shattering banality that the reader is left at the end like the survivors of the Titanic after she had plunged from sight for ever: surrounded by nothing else but flotsam and jetsam, a very cold feeling at the bottom of the stomach and the unanswerable question: Why did it have to...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Peter Vansittart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Admirers of the spare, intelligent Monk Dawson may be disappointed by Polonaise, an unexciting academic chronicle-novel…. A leading theme is the slow evaporization of oh young men oh young comrades into disillusion, self-interest, patriotism, common sense. There is the familiar amiable, soft-fibred intellectual whose ineffective good intentions and minor talents compete with a feeble sadism and a mordant temptation to see Hitler as the uninhibited artist in action. The Poles tend to cherish self-absurdity and national deprecation. The writing is clear yet makes somewhat plodding recapitulations. 'Capitalism is a necessary state in the development of Man's productive capacities …'…. Read fills in...

(The entire section is 157 words.)