Piers Paul Read Read, Piers Paul (Vol. 4) - Essay

Read, Piers Paul (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Read, Piers Paul 1941–

Read, an English novelist, is the son of the poet and critic Sir Herbert Read. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 23-24.)

Piers Paul Read is a young English novelist with a speciality: exposing false innocents. He writes cool little horror stories about decent, well-intentioned people who suddenly find themselves up to their lily-white necks in evil. Good but tragically unaware Germans before World War II (The Junkers), for instance. Or the rich English boy (Monk Dawson) who sets out to be a saint, rather as if he were joining a club. Almost sinisterly quiet in tone, Read is a sad, skilled connoisseur of the moral blindness that occurs when self-righteousness and self-interest try to be one.

If the late J. P. Marquand had been crossed with Graham Greene, The Professor's Daughter might well have been the literary result. Here Read has zeroed in on another moral elitist, American style. Henry Rutledge is a double aristocrat—a professor at Harvard and the scion of an old Yankee family. The sort of New Deal liberal who receives $3,500,000 from his parents as a little wedding gift….

Read never quite makes things clear. Clouding his own novelist's dilemmas with heavy melodrama, he kills off Henry with a bullet from the movement. Henry dies as ambivalently as he lived. Read has not so much shaped a resolution as confessed that he dare not imagine one. He seems paralyzed by suppressed hope the way other authors get paralyzed by suppressed despair.

Melvin Maddocks, "Hope Against Hope," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 25, 1971, pp. 92-4.

Piers Paul Read is a young English novelist of much talent and intelligence—cool, wry, tough intelligence—whose subject thus far has been disillusionment in its various contemporary manifestations. In his fine 1969 novel, "Monk Dawson," it is the disillusionment of a priest who flees the church in search of a more "relevant" life only to return, routed, to the sanctuary of the cloister. In "The Professor's Daughter" it is double disillusionment: of the young with their elders, and their elders with themselves….

What Mr. Read has made … is not precisely a generation-gap novel, though there is quite enough of that in it, but an inquiry into political styles; as such it is engaging and provocative, but Mr. Read in great measure defeats himself by wrapping it in thick layers of melodrama.

Jonathan Yardley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, pp. 38-9.

At the heart of The Upstart is a fine tension between the conservatism of its themes and settings and characters and the anarchic vigour of much of the action. The latter quality erupts suddenly and splendidly at the moment Hilary quits Cambridge—the last arena in which he has tried and failed to win the snobs' game—and plunges into a life of vice and crime and abstract art in SW6. This middle section of the book, with its outrageous coincidences and outrageous crimes, is a success, the more so because it is unexpected and because Mr Read maintains throughout his air of dispassionate objectivity. The prose remains dry, almost studious…. Very chilling….

The Upstart is a welcome book, particularly after the comparative failure of The Professor's Daughter. It has those qualities of unpredictability and wit and artistic ambition that distinguished Piers Paul Read's earlier novels; and it makes me, as I used to, look forward again to his next.

Peter Prince, "Humiliations," in New Statesman, September 7, 1973, p. 321.

Piers Paul Read's first novels, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx and The Junkers, were clever, perceptive, elegantly written, but they gave some appearance of being difficult exercises he had set himself, ways of getting into training, rather than the kind of book he was best equipped to write. In Monk Dawson he seemed to have found his subject, a man's attempt in mid-twentieth century England to live according to his conscience and religious beliefs and his final decision that to remain true to his beliefs he had no alternative but to opt out of society and join a monastic order. In The Upstart the subject is similar, the conflict in one man between potential saint and actual sinner. Like the earlier books it is inventive and acutely observant, but after the first straightforward, scene-setting eighty pages the plot lurches into melodrama so lurid that the narrative strength, which is considerable, fails completely to keep disbelief suspended….

The melodrama is so blatant, there are so many coincidences and dei—or diaboli—ex machina, that one must presume it all to have been part of the author's purpose. Nevertheless, whatever the Grand Design may have been, it doesn't seem to me to have been achieved. It is as if a canvas had been started by Ford Madox Brown and finished by Hieronymus Bosch. After Monk Dawson, The Upstart is a comedown: a good read but an unsatisfactory Read.

John Mellors, in London Magazine, December, 1973–January, 1974, p. 155.

So astonishing a story [as Alive] would have been easy to sensationalise but Piers Paul Read tells it with beautiful judgement. Technically, he is superb, cutting his narrative vividly from scene to scene, never losing a moment of suspense or drama, nor sacrificing any of the forward impulse that grips the reader from start to finish….

Morally and emotionally, Mr Read is equally sure-footed….

He never pushes his moral messages, but rather lets them rise, questioningly and disturbingly, out of the reader's own reflections. He has in short, contrived a masterly piece of story-telling about a group of human beings who rose, in extremis, to heights beyond their own, or anyone else's expectations….

David Holden, "Blow-Out," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 18, 1974, p. 611.

Alive is the story of the Uruguayan rugby team who … survived a winter plane crash high in the Andes mountains—a chilling tale of cannibalism and human survival, and a story that in its flat and careful telling will involve the reader as thoroughly as the best adventure novel….

Read is sufficiently sensitive and skillful in his narration that the cannibalism becomes only one facet of how the diverse personalities of the survivors changed during their trials….

Because Read makes each character real and distinct … the story gains a novelistic sort of depth. The lives most of us lead give no hint as to what we may be capable of; the value of stories like Alive is the way they remind us of the deepest strengths of the organism. By sighting on that, Read has risen above the sensational and managed a book of real and lasting value.

Michael Rogers, in Rolling Stone (© 1974 by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1974, p. 90.