Survival Tactics: A Literary Life

Peter Vansittart, Author Peter Owen Publishers $36.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-7206-1072-7
Born in 1920, Vansittart has published more than 40 fiction and nonfiction works. In this drifting, almost free-association, literary memoir, he recounts his early love of books, his childhood and his later, brief encounters with famous literary figures such as Elias Canetti and George Orwell. The pleasure in Vansittart's prose lies in its graphic images and startling bits of historical information. The challenge, however, lies in his resolute disregard for coherent narrative. On a typical page, he mentions a Soviet boy venerated for denouncing his parents' anti-state activities, spouts several lines from a Norse saga, describes the opening of a Nigerian story that he remembers from childhood, recounts two recurrent dreams that he experienced as a youth and discusses the influence of the family maids on his upbringing. This pattern of interspersing information from his personal history with material gleaned from dreams, world history and literature continues throughout the book. Perhaps the most enjoyable section comes when Vansittart describes his early reading experiences, which were wildly eclectic: from Baroness Orczy and A.E.W. Mason to more familiar figures such as Dickens, Nabokov and Kafka. He also admits to a fondness, bordering on addiction, for pocket notebooks, in which he scribbled miscellaneous ideas and events, and gives a page and a half of random bits of information gleaned from these books--perhaps an indication of where his own style originated. The result is an eccentric and intensely detached rendering of the life of a British novelist little known on these shores. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/28/2000
Release date: 03/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
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