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David (John) Hughes Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Alton, Hampshire, 1930. Education: Eggar's Grammar School, Alton; King's College School, Wimbledon; Christ Church, Oxford (editor, Isis), B.A. in English 1953, M.A. 1965. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force, 1949-50. Career: Assistant editor, London Magazine, 1953-54; editor, Town magazine, London, 1960-61; documentary and feature film writer in Sweden, 1961-68; lived in France, 1970-74; editor, New Fiction Society, 1975-77, 1981-82; film critic, Sunday Times, London, 1982-83. Since 1982 film critic, Mail on Sunday, London. Assistant visiting professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1978-79 and 1987, and University of Alabama, University, 1979; visiting associate professor, University of Houston, 1986. Awards: W.H. Smith Literary award, 1985; Welsh Arts Council prize, 1985. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1986. Agent: Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Feeling in the Air. London, Deutsch, 1957; as Man Off Beat, NewYork, Reynal, 1957.

Sealed with a Loving Kiss. London, Hart Davis, 1959.

The Horsehair Sofa. London, Hart Davis, 1961.

The Major. London, Blond, 1964; New York, Coward McCann, 1965.

The Man Who Invented Tomorrow. London, Constable, 1968.

Memories of Dying. London, Constable, 1976.

A Genoese Fancy. London, Constable, 1979.

The Imperial German Dinner Service. London, Constable, 1983.

The Pork Butcher. London, Constable, 1984; New York, Schocken, 1985.

But for Bunter. London, Heinemann, 1985; as The Joke of the Century, New York, Taplinger, 1986.

The Little Book. London, Hutchinson, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Coloured Cliffs," in Transatlantic Review (London), Spring1961.

"Rough Magic," in Shakespeare Stories, edited by Giles Gordon. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982.

Plays

Flickorna (screenplay). Stockholm, PAN/Norstedt, 1968.

Screenplays (with Mai Zetterling):

Loving Couples, 1964; Night Games, 1966; Dr. Glas, 1967; The Girls, 1968.

Television Plays:

The Stuff of Madness, with Mai Zetterling, from story by Patricia Highsmith, 1990.

Other

J.B. Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work. London, Hart Davis, 1958; Freeport, New York, Books for Libraries, 1970.

The Road to Stockholm and Lapland. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964.

The Cat's Tale (for children), with Mai Zetterling. London, Cape, 1965.

The Seven Ages of England. Stockholm, Swedish Radio, 1966.

The Rosewater Revolution: Notes on a Change of Attitude. London, Constable, 1971.

Himself and Other Animals: A Portrait of Gerald Durrell. London, Hutchinson, 1997.

Editor, Memoirs of the Comte de Gramont, translated by HoraceWalpole. London, Folio Society, 1965.

Editor, Sound of Protest, Sound of Love: Protest-Songs from America and England. Stockholm, Swedish Radio, 1968.

Editor, Evergreens. Stockholm, Swedish Radio, 1977.

Editor, Winter's Tales 1 (new series). London, Constable, and NewYork, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Editor, The Stories of Ernest Hemingway. London, Folio Society, 1986.

Editor, with Giles Gordon, Best Short Stories 1986 [ 1988 ]. London, Heinemann, 3 vols., 1986-88.

Editor, with Giles Gordon, Best Short Stories 1989 [ 1991 ]. London, Heinemann, 3 vols., 1989-91; as The Best English Short Stories 1989 [ 1991 ]. New York, Norton, 3 vols., 1989-91.

Editor, with Giles Gordon, The Minerva Book of Short Stories 1-6. London, Minerva, 6 vols., 1990-94.

* * *

David Hughes takes war for his subject, but he is certainly not concerned to make stirring adventures out of the sordid tragedies, mass killings, and crowd emotions of armed conflict, nor to contrive intellectual puzzles out of the intrigues of international enmity. His business is with individuals and the way that their lives have been shaped (and frequently grossly distorted) by the wars of this century.

His skillful control of his subject matter, his ingenuity as a story teller, and his subtle and powerful delineation of character enable him to create unforgettable novels out of his chosen material. He seldom makes overt judgments. His characters may condemn themselves out of their obsessions and stored guilt, but their creator insists that, whatever they may have done to other people, they are themselves frail and vulnerable, and therefore, in some respects at least, lovable. However much the readers are kept at a distance by the way Hughes structures his novels, they are never allowed to forget that he is dealing with people not ciphers.

The history of the war-torn first half of this century is epitomized in Memories of Dying in which Flaxman, a prosperous business man on the brink of a nervous breakdown is suddenly caught up into the consciousness of his old history teacher, Hunter. As Flaxman flies to the south of France, in a vain attempt to escape from the pressures of work and family, he finds his mind invaded by thoughts of his home town and the aged lonely man who once taught him, now engaged in the impossible task of writing a history of the world that will present the facts honestly to future generations of schoolchildren. It is an act of penitence, for in the first world war Hunter through accident and panic shot one of his fellow officers. For years thereafter he carried the man's wallet around with him, vowing that he would marry the widow whose photograph it contained. He achieved his aim. He located the woman, who had turned into a lonely alcoholic, married her, and had one son. At the outbreak of World War II he insisted that she should leave their home for a more remote cottage. In that place, of his choosing, she was killed by a random air raid. History had not finished with Hunter. Sometime in the years of unsteady peace, his son was found dead of drugs and alcohol in an Oxford college.

Like Hunter, the narrator of The Imperial German Dinner Service tries to make some reparative and creative response to the war-torn century into which he has been born. In his case, his task takes the symbolic form of collecting the scattered pieces of a dinner service made in Edwardian England as a gift for the Kaiser. Many threads are drawn into his search, for Hughes is determined to show, yet again, how individual needs are woven into public events. As his obsessed narrator journeys to meet his unlikely contacts in the countries of western Europe and Scandinavia, and ultimately reaches the precarious geology of Iceland in his search for the fragile pieces of china, he is reconstructing his own life as well as searching for the innocence of an impossible golden age. Each bit of the dinner service is adorned with an English scene, which he has visited at some time with his estranged wife. So, as Europe is torn, so is he, both by the torments of his marriage to an ambitious Sunday columnist (who discovered the first plate of the dinner service and so set him off on his quest) and the futility of his own work as a freelance journalist.

Ernst Kestner, the protagonist of The Pork Butcher, Hughes's most important and serious novel so far, is also on a quest. A widower from Thomas Mann's town of Lubeck, he is dying of lung cancer and determined that his final act shall be a confrontation with the guilt of his wartime past. So he goes to Paris to take his coldly neurotic, self-obsessed daughter (who has married a Frenchman) on a weekend trip to the village where he had been stationed in the 1940s. In that village, Kestner had met Jannie and become so infatuated with her that he wrote home to his German fiancée breaking off the engagement. The letter never arrived, for the day he posted it, the order came that the village was to be "punished," the inhabitants were to be lured to the central square and shot, and the whole place was to be abandoned. In the numbed brutality of that act, Kestner killed the girl he loved. Now, like Hunter, he is determined to make some amends, even if all he can do is to give himself up to the mayor of the restored village. Beating the usual intransigence of local bureaucracy, he manages to talk to the mayor and gradually realizes that the man is Jannie's brother. When the mayor also recognizes to whom he is talking, he drives the car in which he is conveying Kestner with such wild fury that it is involved in a fatal accident. The mayor is killed; and Kestner, now badly injured, has to end his life with a double guilt on his shoulders. This irony underlines the impossibility of making amends either internationally or personally for the obscenities of war.

But for Bunter takes up the same theme in a strangely lighthearted vein. Hughes imagines that Billy Bunter (the fat boy of Greyfriars, who entertained generations of schoolboys) has survived into the 1980s, and is now ready to confess his own responsibility for the horrors of the century he has lived through. Once again Hughes makes his point: none of us, not even the most unlikely, can shelve responsibility for the times we live in.

—Shirley Toulson

Lise (E.) Hull (1954-) Biography - Personal, Writings, Sidelights - Career, Member, Work in Progress [next]

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