Piers Paul Read Read, Piers Paul (Vol. 25) - Essay

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piers Paul Read 1941–

English novelist and nonfiction writer.

Perhaps best known in America for Alive, a restrained account of the survivors of a 1972 Andes airplane crash, Read has also written several novels, including his recent A Married Man and The Villa Golitsyn. In these novels Read explores his moral and political concerns by focusing on the social and domestic life of the British upper-middle class.

Critics point to Read's plots as contrived and melodramatic because of the sensational events that often introduce or resolve his narratives. Read's style, even in his fiction, is characterized by its unimpassioned expression—an almost journalistic chronicling of events.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 21; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

David Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piers Paul Read's experimental novel [Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx] is an infuriating mixture of the trenchant and the perverse…. The novel spirals backwards—via satirical setpiece, heavenly interludes, jokes, straight fiction—to trace how revolutionary impetus was able to start up in the unpromisingly easy-osy conditions of Western Europe today. The devious irony at times cuts deep…. But pointful passages are out-weighed by ones whose only aim seems to be to annoy the conventional reader. The revolt against exploitation becomes the impulse pour épater le bourgeois…. [All] Read can do is stand the conventional novel on its head. He cannot put his finger on any actual seed or source of revolution—of radical change—in the world he belongs to. For all the 'advanced' cachet sought by the title and the trappings, the book remains the furious shadow-boxing of someone trying to run a r-r-r-revolutionary one-man-band in a situation where the only practicable line for the Left is cooperation and patience.

David Craig, "R-R-Revolutionary," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 71, No. 1838, June 3, 1966, p. 817.∗

Vernon Scannell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piers Paul Read's The Junkers is written in the first person, the narrator is roughly the same age as the author and the book is set in Germany where Read has lived, but you don't for a moment feel that he is dishing up a chunk of personal experience with himself at the centre of a group of his acquaintances dressed in false names and noses. The main character is a young British diplomat posted in the 1960s to Berlin where he falls romantically and credibly in love with a German girl, Suzi…. [Research into her] family's history provides a vivid account of the rise of the Nazis before the Second World War, some scenes of SS bestiality described with a careful restraint that intensifies the horror, and a penetrating and sympathetic study of the type of brave and patriotic German soldier who was also a devout Christian, agonised by his growing realisation that his Fuehrer was not merely fallible but the incarnation of total evil. The flashbacks mesh smoothly with the development of the narrator's affair with Suzi and the novel is organised with unobtrusive but masterly skill. (p. 808)

Vernon Scannell, "Enjoying the Ride," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 75, No. 1944, June 14, 1968, pp. 808-09.∗

David Rees

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Junkers is an ambitious novel and inevitably leaves a] confused, fragmented impression as one realises towards the end of the book that the author has failed, honourably, in his task: that of attempting to give an artistic explanation of some of the Dionysian forces in the German collective psyche during the last forty years. Sensibly, Mr. Read has adopted as the framework for his novel the story of a single Pomeranian family, the Von Rummelsbergs…. (p. 75)

[Mr. Read tells] the tale through the eyes of a young British diplomat, a second secretary to the political adviser in West Berlin, who first falls in love with the city and then, perhaps romantically, with Suzi von Rummelsberg, so providing a means of exploring a story whose undertones are all the more effectively caught for the restraint and the insight with which it is treated. Yet the episodes created around the story of the death camps remind us this is no ordinary family chronicle.

If the denouement of The Junkers with its droll unmasking of interlocking mysteries, its curious understanding of Germany with which the narrator is completely involved, is unsatisfactory, that is to be expected, considering the complexity of the theme. (p. 76)

David Rees, "Heroes of Our Time," in Encounter (© 1968 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, October, 1968, pp. 74-6.∗

Richard Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Technically, The Junkers is a fine achievement. Its agile handling of time-breaks gives it brisk coverage of half a century of intricate personal relationships, political complications and moral entanglements. The phrasing is bright, energetic; the craftsmanship, expert. Yet the overall effect is somehow diminished by the very characterization of the narrator. He simply isn't a storyteller who inspires confidence.

Richard Sullivan, "Persons of Principle," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1969 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), May 18, 1969, p. 11.

Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A year spent by [Piers Paul Read] in America seems to have tempted him into writing [The Professor's Daughter, a] low-keyed, unexciting account of the generation gap and revolution in American society. The approach—dutiful, lucid, schematic—simply does not match the theme, and the final liberal humanist retreat into a reactionary family-stability solution ('a family will always be the basic unit of society') hands us an old stone where new bread was never more needed. The Professor's Daughter begins well but soon becomes predictable.

Edwin Morgan, "Dicey" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of Edwin Morgan), in The Listener, Vol. 86, No. 2218, September 30, 1971, p. 453.∗

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[So] good is The Professor's Daughter, so intellectually engaging and compelling, that one must ask why this is not a novel of major importance instead of merely first-rate entertainment.

It can be argued that its ending is contrived—contrived, moreover, to give aid and comfort to middle-class, anti-revolutionary values. And there is justification for such a view: The domestic settlements that end it do seem trivial in the light of the questions it has raised; thus the ending does seem forced.

The trouble, however, does not lie in the ending itself, but in the fact that Mr. Read has staged his drama of social issues in a hermetic setting, as if he believed that issues that were once fought over in street warfare behind barricades could be solved in the drawing rooms of Brattle Street and the crash pads of Berkeley….

But what does tend to trivialize this novel is its psychological literalness….

[If] Mr. Read means us to take literally his story's assertion that the professor's incestuous yearnings, and his daughter's consequent nymphomania, are the results of the "rottenness" of mid-century American liberalism, then one begs to understand the precise psychological connection between liberalism and incest. But Mr. Read fails to explain. Which leaves gaping holes in his story, and some doubts about the truth of its conclusion.

But never mind that The Professor's Daughter falls short of mastery. At the rate Mr. Read's novels keep improving, one expects him to be equal to such problems in the not too distant future. In the meantime, he has given us some solid entertainment.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Bedrooms on the Barricades," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1971, p. 45.

Carl Senna

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Professor's Daughter is a good fictional portrait of our American malaise. Here a father and his daughter find that their search for a meaningful cause is an oppressive condition. Their dilemma is that material wealth has deprived them of any social need. And this cunning, cynical tale suggests that our motivation for changing the status quo is frustrated by the freedom from want. (pp. 164-65)

The narrative smoothly alternates between events in the lives of father and daughter, interweaving and unifying them with a superb dramatic rhythm. On the basis of his two previous novels, Monk Dawson and The Junkers, Read has been compared to his compatriot, Graham Greene. At least from a technical view the comparison seems justified. Read has a fine sense of timing. The scenes in The Professor's Daughter are never boring; and at moments the action is almost sensational. But the Greene influence is definitely there; the professor and his daughter reflect an unmistakable concern for the moral fate of our affluent culture…. Read's message seems to be that life is not meaningful unless it is rational; and necessity, not possibility, makes it so. (p. 165)

Carl Senna, "'The Professor's Daughter'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1971 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCV, No. 7, November 12, 1971, pp. 164-65.

Clancy Sigal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Great Train Robbery co-ordinated the actions of 15 highly idiosyncratic thugs. It was supported by scores, if not hundreds, of underworld 'supply troops'…. Therefore, one way of looking at this 1963 'crime of the century' is as an expression of London working-class culture….

This is one of the fascinating sidelights of Read's account [The Train Robbers], which he collected from the eager testimonies of the robbers who are out of prison…. Alas, like so much else of possible interest, it remains a sidelight to the main but conventional drama, a brisk re-run (yet again) of How It Was Done.

I don't know how much of the narrative to believe…. [According to the robbers interviewed, the train robbery] was financed by £80,000 from the Nazi adventurer, Otto Skorzeny…. One reason why [The Train Robbers] is more mystifying than necessary is that Read, at first taken in by the Skorzeny lie; presents it to us in the body of his story as factually true, and only in the last chapter exposes it as a collective fantasy dreamed up to make the whole proposition more commercially appealing. In other words, Read gives the facts as he was told them. He has made little apparent effort to do an independent investigation other than to nail the Skorzeny fable.

I was both mildly absorbed and disappointed by this account of how 15 squabbling, violent men robbed the Glasgow-to-London overnight mail of two-and-a-half million pounds. Chiefly what emerges is the general amateurishness of the thieves….

The trouble is that Read, though an accomplished novelist, almost completely fails to characterise any of the robbers…. I had to keep turning back to the photographs rather than the text to follow who was whom. It is as if only the journalistic half of the writer's mind was at work.

However, he does retell the story of the robbery with brisk competence….

One's attitude to this book may depend on one's personal experience…. I have never been badly robbed. But once, in hospital, I watched a bank guard, a rather nice old man, slowly die of head injuries caused by a coshing. It makes a difference.

Clancy Sigal, "Money Talks" (© British Broad-casting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Clancy Sigal), in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2559, May 11, 1978, p. 616.

Peter Prince

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr Read's non-fiction approach, as we know from Alive, is to surround large and shocking events with understated prose. It seemed to work well for such a lurid subject as cannabalism. It works rather well [in The Train Robbers] too: this is a clean, steady, authoritative narrative. But given the familiarity of the material, at times one finds oneself wishing for a cruder, heavier brush and stronger colours; for some English Mailer who, for all the risks of buffoonery and bad taste, might give one a keener sense of the robbers' spectacular achievement, of the kind of glory that they won.

Peter Prince, "The Biggs Boys," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3972, May 19, 1978, p. 557.

Paul Ableman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In A Married Man] John Strickland finds the naked body of his wife, Clare, in the living-room of their country cottage and the corpse of her hitherto unsuspected lover in the bedroom upstairs [and] it gives him a nasty turn, especially as both have been demolished by shotgun blast. But he has set his heart on becoming a labour M.P. and is soon back at the hustings although warning his agent: 'I may be a little off form.'

His form declines still further when he discovers that the super-rich mistress, who is about to become his second wife, was responsible for Clare's messy end. He glumly breaks off the engagement but shows little other sign of being deeply affected. This uncanny poise is...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Read has outdone himself [in "A Married Man"], blending for the first time with absolute success his preoccupations with domestic, social and political upheavals, and creating as a result a story full of suspense and subtleties.

[Some] readers will argue that there's not much suspense involved here. Because Mr. Read is composing a domestic drama he introduces a very limited number of characters. Therefore, it's immediately apparent who the killer must be. (p. 30)

But, I submit, the suspense is not really supposed to involve who the killer may be, but rather what effect the revelation will have on Strickland. And this bit of suspense Mr. Read orchestrates to maximum effect….

Few readers, on the other hand, will deny the subtlety with which Mr. Read has plied his craft. The skill with which he works into his plot England's 1973–74 political crisis, when the labor unions were literally causing the country's lights to dim; the way he dramatizes the fantasy of infidelity and then contrasts the dream with the sordid reality; the deftness with which the novel's many ideas are made to grow out of its characters—all attest to Mr. Read's growth from a two-dimensional storyteller into a novelist of depth.

I suppose the meaning of "A Married Man" is finally didactic, for it pushes a traditional Roman Catholic view that condemns marital infidelity and takes a dim view of radical politics. But if that is the message, it scarcely bangs us over the head with its righteousness. If the novel dramatizes a contest for John Strickland's soul between God and the Devil, then we learn a good deal more of the Devil's charms than we do of God's. But then where would fiction be if the Devil didn't get his due? (p. 31)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'A Married Man'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 1, 1980, pp. 30-1).

Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piers Paul Read tells a latter-day version of [Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych"] in "A Married Man."…

The male menopause is a familiar enough modern story, yet this is not static feudal Russia but late bourgeois Britain in an age of decadent inconsistencies: it continues the practice of marriage while devaluing conventions and domesticity; it institutionalizes self-interest while thriving on middle-class guilt…. [Protagonist Strickland's] pursuit of freedom simply complicates his hypocrisy. He remains married, but half wishes for the death of his wife and marriage to the mistress who would assist his new ambitions. So his quest leads to new falsehoods, fresh failures of understanding, new illusions about the nature of his emotional ties—and finally to dreadful tragedy, very coolly enacted, very coolly told….

Like Tolstoy, Mr. Read is a realist, a densely social novelist who knows that public and private worlds intersect at every point. His portrait of late bourgeois Britain in one of its crucial moments, when the boom in property and affluence continues while the social spaces widen, is compelling: a world on the verge of collapse, where personal amusements mask disconnection and disappointment.

But, like Tolstoy, Mr. Read uses realism for irony. The social world, which demands attention, is also a delusion, a source of inexhaustible hypocrisies. The world that Strickland takes as real is not quite real—not simply because he is a hypocrite, but because that society ignores larger and more lasting questions of life and death. Commitment to reform and freedom is also a form of self-interest, containing a deep desire to violate and abuse. It is this desire, deep in the culture, that explodes on Strickland in the book's dark, disturbing ending—which seems melodramatic compared to what has gone before, but brings the hypocrisy and emptiness full circle, as the illusions that he has pierced now begin to destroy him.

Mr. Read's irony, not unlike Tolstoy's, is cool and thorough. "A Married Man" is a sharp chronicle of England in an uneasy time. But it is also a chilling story about the modern age of affluent selfhood and self-interest. It confirms that Piers Paul Read, with seven novels now behind him, is one of Britain's most intelligent and disturbing writers.

Malcolm Bradbury, "A Case of Ilychitis," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1979, p. 3.

Thomas M. Disch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The formula [for A Married Man] is familiar: a man of ordinary social dimensions is drawn inchmeal towards a pit of moral quicksand and then neatly pushed in. Usually the first step downward on this well-intentioned path is adultery, and so it is for Read's hero, John Strickland….

This might seem to militate against a suspenseful narrative, but in fact A Married Man, after a slow start, becomes a proper page-turner. In part this may be due to the fascination inherent in watching a prophecy fulfilled, à la Macbeth, but surely most of the book's hold on our interest derives from its hypnotic believability. All of Read's considerable (though self-effacing) artistry is directed...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Read does not make much of a case for Catholicism, or for religion at all, in [his early novel, The Junkers]. He writes with apparent approval of those ex-Nazis who have repented and are now (the mid-1960s) working for a unified Europe even if the unity can only be achieved by the spread of Communist principles and power….

How far have Read's views changed since he wrote The Junkers? Neither author nor main character in Read's latest novel [A Married Man] seem to have any sympathies with Communism. John Strickland, family man, moderately successful barrister, takes up again at the age of 40 the Socialism in which he had first come to believe when he was an Oxford undergraduate....

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William H. Pritchard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is typical of Piers Paul Read that he should preface [A Married Man] with an Author's Note informing American readers about the difference in the English legal system between a solicitor and a barrister. Typical in that it recalls the generally sober, just-the-facts-please tone Read has assumed in previous novels like Monk Dawson and The Professor's Daughter, especially in the extended flatness of Polonaise. Read depends on the clarity and intelligence with which he states, rather than explores, his fictional materials…. Read contrives a shocker of a plot which convinced me of little more than that it was a shocker of a plot. For all the dispassionately careful observation in his...

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Sally Emerson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Villa Golitsyn two old schoolfellows are invited to Willy Ludley's villa in Nice. Willy's wife Priscilla needs their help because Willy appears to be drinking himself to death….

Before [Simon Milson] goes to Nice he is asked by his Foreign Office boss to discover from Ludley whether or not he was responsible for [an] act of treason back in 1963. The other suspect, Baldwin, is up for an important job and his name needs to be cleared before he gets it. Simon, who has little integrity, willingly agrees to spy on his old friend.

On the way to Nice Simon encounters a runaway English schoolgirl who joins the curious group of friends gathered around Willy at the Villa...

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Angela Huth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Villa Golitsyn Mr. Read] skilfully infiltrates an air of menace, of intense unease, over the daily events that quicken towards the tragedy at the end. He juggles his characters with almost Murdochian dexterity: there's gambolling both hetero and homosexual; there's mystery, fear, banging shutters.

But, except for Willy, it is hard to feel very much sympathy for any of the characters: often they seem to be mouthpieces rather than flesh and blood. This is not Piers Paul Read at his strongest—as in A Married Man—but he never fails to be an elegant craftsman.

Angela Huth, "Thrills and Bills" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1981; reprinted...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Piers Paul Read's [The Villa Golitsyn] explores the implications of Forster's celebrated remark in a narrative of engrossing complexity….

In summary, the plot sounds like a Famous Five adventure peopled by drunks and sexual frustrates…. But Piers Paul Read tries to dignify the extravagant element in his novel by drawing a number of parallels between its various worlds. As Milson tries to understand the secret of Ludley's past, issues raised by remote historical events are reflected in contemporary personal crises. The original question—how could Ludley behave so...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breaches of etiquette come thick and fast in Piers Paul Read's The Villa Golitsyn, from insulting one's guests at dinner to talking about money—'it's too middle-class'—from drunkenness to incest and the seduction of a minor. Read has so many talents as a novelist that one is always expecting him to write a really first-class book and always feeling surprised as well as disappointed when he fails to live up to his promise. He is an entertaining storyteller. He is as interested in ideas as in people. He can explore other countries and cultures and seem quite at home in them. He plays well so many instruments; it is a pity that he falls down on the orchestration. Also, he is far too easily tempted into...

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