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xii introduction

A barred room bore him, the backyard Smooth as a snake-skin, yielded nothing In the fringes of the town parsley and honey-suckle Drenched the hedges.

(‘Family Fortunes I’)

There are quiet voices there, but they are drowned out by the crash of tramcars, and the smooth surface of the yard stifles the life of the land beneath that only emerges elsewhere, an erotic drenching that does not touch the centre. Sisson’s direct experience of modern bureaucracy, as a civil servant in the Ministry of Labour, prepared also by an early reading of Kafka while in Berlin in 1934–35, sharpened his sense of humans as trapped animals estranged from their instinctual life by a system of regulatory structures. But at the same time, he had a clear idea of how the history of those structures had for better or worse shaped us into what we are. ‘A person becomes, not what he thinks he is, but what he is, or at any rate what is’, he writes in ‘Le roi soleil’. Becoming what you are consists for Sisson not in inhabiting the interstices, which might be thought to be one way of enjoying some freedom from the control of the state (or the state’s failure to limit the profit motive), but, as he spells it out in the 1939 essay ‘Order and Anarchy’ – and also thirty years later in an editorial for PN Review – to ‘understand’ government and ‘our inherited institutions’ (Avoidance, p. 555). This leads him to align himself with cultural and political order, and yet, because his version of that order, rooted in the seventeenth century, was so against the times, and the reality he saw such a counter-reality, his work is always radical and oppositional, critical and sceptical, an irritant. ‘Good writing alone may be described as independent of government’, he says in ‘Order and Anarchy’ – ‘alone’, that is, in contradistinction to bad writing – and part of what makes his writing good is its independence not just from government but from literary fashion and consensus, its unwillingness to swallow the orthodoxies of the day.

Being in or of one’s time matters little to Sisson, if by that is meant being fashionable, or courting an existing readership, or being part of a group or generation with an identifiable collective ethos. Yet ideas of continuity and community are central to his

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