Piers Paul Read Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1941; son of the writer Herbert Read. Education: Gilling Castle, York, 1949-52; Ampleforth College, York, 1953-57; St. John's College, Cambridge, 1959-62, B.A. in history 1962, M.A. 1966. Career: sub-editor, Times Literary Supplement, London, 1964-65. Artist-in-residence, Ford Foundation, Berlin, 1963-64; adjunct professor of writing, Columbia University, New York, 1980; governor, Cardinal Manning Boys School; chair, Catholic Writers' Guild, 1993-97. Awards: Commonwealth Fund Harkness fellowship, 1967; Faber Memorial award, 1968; Hawthornden prize, 1969; Maugham award, 1970; Thomas More Association medal, 1974; Enid McLeod award, 1988; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1972. Agent: Aitken and Stone Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 0TG.
Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1966.
The Junkers. London, Secker and Warburg, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969.
Monk Dawson. London, Secker and Warburg, 1969; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1970.
The Professor's Daughter. London, Secker and Warburg-AlisonPress, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1971.
The Upstart. London, Alison Press, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1973.
Polonaise. London, Alison Press, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1976.
A Married Man. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1980.
The Villa Golitsyn. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981; New York, Harper, 1982.
The Free Frenchman. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986; NewYork, Random House, 1987.
A Season in the West. London, Secker and Warburg, 1988; New York, Random House, 1989.
On the Third Day. London, Secker and Warburg, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.
The Patriot. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995; New York, Random House, 1996.
Knights of the Cross. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
Uncollected Short Story
"Son and Heir," in Winter's Tales 2 (new series), edited by RobinBaird-Smith. London, Constable, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
The Class War, in Colloquialisms (produced London, 1964).
The Family Firm, 1970; The House on Highbury Hill, music by Julian Slade, 1971.
Coincidence, 1968; The Childhood Friend, 1974; Margaret Clitheroe (Here I Stand series), 1977.
Alive! The Story of the Andes Survivors. London, Secker and Warburg, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1974.
The Train Robbers. London, Allen and Unwin-Alison Press, andPhiladelphia, Lippincott, 1978.
Ablaze: The Story of Chernobyl. London, Secher and Warburg, andNew York, Random House, 1993.
Article by Philip Flynn, in British Novelists Since 1960, edited by Jay L. Halio, Detroit, Gale, 1983; "The Novels of Piers Paul Read" by C.J. Taylor, in Spectator, 23 February 1990.
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Piers Paul Read once observed that he was much influenced by the novels of Graham Greene, and indeed, moral and political issues, ambiguity, belief, and skepticism are given considerable focus in his work. In A Season in the West, for example, the political decadence of Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia is contrasted with the moral decadence of the capitalist west. Even in the Communist east the right family and party connections can protect a dissident, while in England the defecting dissident discovers that the right family and class connections are also more significant than political idealism.
Like Greene, Read sets his novels in various locales besides England: Germany, France, the United States, and the Eastern bloc. Each country evinces a pronounced ambiguity to political aspirations and activism. The most altruistic theories and motives, while seemingly presenting utopian solutions, are marred by inherent human corruption and deficiencies. On the extreme is Nazism, examined by Read in The Junkers. Not only is there the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust itself, but there are the petty horrors as well: in Read's depiction, the snobbery and obsession with class differences so frequently associated with the English are in their own form characteristic of the Germans as well.
Even when the political cause is noble, as in The Free Frenchman, the pure goal of working for freedom from oppression is often thwarted and obfuscated by family differences, love entanglements, and human betrayals. Comrades working together in the Resistance movement cannot avoid disagreements and hostilities. In Read's fiction manifestations of Manichean conflict must always rage in every individual and situation. Read's world is one where integrity is often compromised, love and sex are ambivalent if not treacherous, and hedonism, honor, and cruelty co-exist. Quoting Pierre d'Har-court, Read observes that "the real enemy is within." The struggle between the sinner and the saint promises endless conflict. Even though one phase is in the ascendant, the other aspect makes progress on the imaginative plane so that this mixture and conflict will produce constant turmoil, and the yearning for betterment will continue to torment. In the fiction of Read we are reminded that all too often "the devil is prince of the world … He has powers too."
Read reiterates this theme in numerous forms. As soon as humans involve themselves with other members of society, evil will intensify. Edward Dawson, the protagonist of one of Read's best novels, Monk Dawson, is a well-meaning, civilized man; but a decadent, sex-obsessed, and excessively materialistic society soon contaminates him with its folly. His ultimate decision to enter a monastery, while a symbol of personal salvation, is a scathing commentary on the hopelessness of attempting to find moral decency and stability in contemporary society. Basic kindness, integrity, and fair-minded behavior are regarded as anachronistic and naive. Read's world is a Greeneland, sometimes more flashy and dazzling than the atmosphere used by Greene, but nevertheless filled with treachery, hostility, disbelief, and despair.
Professor Henry Rutledge in The Professor's Daughter is trapped in a typical Read dilemma. He champions liberal and progressive ideas, yet ironically his death results from militant revolutionary activity carried out by some of his own graduate students. While politically Rutledge may be on the side of the angels, his own family is torn apart by alcoholism, prostitution, and attempted suicide. The mutual devotion between his favorite daughter and himself cannot withstand the chaos of 1960s activism. Read constantly stresses that twentieth-century life has shattered family values and cohesiveness and maintains that until some stability can be returned to the family unit, the pervasiveness of evil will increase uncontrollably.
There is hope in genuine repentance and atonement as Hilary Fletcher demonstrates in The Upstart, but repentance is a rare occurrence in today's world, and is not even considered a workable option by most of Read's characters.
Read is a born storyteller with a cold, dispassionate style that often yields ironic overtones. He invents plots which of themselves are intriguing. In On the Third Day, Israelis on an archeological dig in Jerusalem, used as camouflage to spy on Arab rebels, discover the 2000-year-old skeleton of a crucified man which has a nail through its feet, thorn marks on the skull, and evidence of a spear having pierced the rib cage. Is this possibly the remains of Christ?
Read has more than once been accused of contriving melodramatic plots based on sensational events; yet melodrama can be powerful and effective, and the nature of the characters, situation, and settings can justify some melodramatic aspects and treatment. At times he has turned from lofty considerations to pure entertainment, as in The Patriot. The plot is that of a purely traditional Cold War spy thriller, with the only alteration being the fact that this one is set at the end of the Cold War, in the Berlin of the early 1990s. The book was less than successful critically, however, suggesting that Read's talents are best applied for serious narratives. In his greatest novels, such as Monk Dawson, The Junkers, and The Villa Golitsyn, he handles vital themes with evident talent that establishes him as an important figure in contemporary fiction.
Paul A. Doyle,
updated by Judson Knight
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