Knox, Oliver 1923-2002
KNOX, Oliver 1923-2002
PERSONAL: Born December 24, 1923; died July 17, 2002 ; married; wife's name, Patty; children: Charlotte, three sons. Education: Attended King's College, Cambridge.
CAREER: Advertising executive, novelist, and author of nonfiction. Centre for Policy Studies, London, England, policy analyst, late 1980s-early 1990s.
An Italian Delusion, Collins (London, England), 1975.
A Family Failing, Collins (London, England), 1976.
Asylum, Collins (London, England), 1977.
Croft: A Journey of Confidence, Collins (London, England), 1978.
Brothers at War, Collins (London, England), 1979.
From Rome to San Marino: A Walk in the Steps of Garibaldi, Collins (London, England), 1982.
(Editor, with Richard Haas) Policies of Thatcherism: Thoughts from a London Thinktank, Lanham (London, England), 1991.
Rebels and Informers: Stirrings of Irish Independence, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: In his London Times obituary, Oliver Knox was recalled as a "cheerful, chuckling kind of man with many friends in London, especially in the literary world." His relatives included a number of well-known writers, including Monsignor Ronald Knox and Penelope Fitzgerald, but Oliver himself came late to novel writing, after a detour through advertising. Of course, he was not alone in this. His own advertising agency employed Salman Rushdie and Len Deighton at various times.
Having retired from the writing of slogans, he produced his first novel, An Italian Delusion, in 1975. The protagonist, Peter, has been abruptly forced out of his family business by a mysterious tycoon, known only as J. D., and finds himself rather at loose ends in Italy, with his beloved pet rabbit, Lops. The events of the novel are rather uneventful: a broken tooth, Peter's seduction of a friend's wife, a very small earthquake, "all most meticulously observed and most meticulously unexplained," according to Times Literary Supplement reviewer Richard Usborne. "There is a sense of distance also about Peter's self-conscious observations. … But there may be a suggestion also that such objectivity precludes morality," noted Encounter contributor C. Jordan. Indeed, Peter emerges as an adulterer and a would-be blackmailer. At any rate, "Knox has rare gifts for understatement and quiet humor, both of which are immediately impressive," concluded New Statesman reviewer Jonathan Keates.
In his next novel, A Family Failing, Knox presents three generations of the Fulstrong family, starting with old General Fulstrong, who "has adopted a resolution to be amused when confronted by the perversities of human behavior." His resolution is tested as he contemplates his daughter-in-law Celia's murder of his son Alistair, a ruthless soldier who committed an unnamed atrocity against German POWs during World War II, and the career of his degenerate grandson Osbert, suspected of murdering a prostitute's maid. The general himself is no innocent, having engineered his own nephew's discharge from the army in revenge for being cuckolded by his brother. Only his grand-daughter Emma, who narrates much of the story, seems to have escaped the family curse of cruelty. "In such a world heredity is not quite enough to explain everything, and despite the wit and the implicit disclaimers, it is tempting to read Mr. Knox as wishing to point to a decline in standards generally," wrote Jane Miller in the Times Literary Supplement. For Listener reviewer Tony Asplar, A Family Failing is "an oddly unsatisfying novel: the plot emerges at second hand from the characters peripheral to the main action, and this detracts from the vitality of the story." Others were more impressed with this somewhat opaque storytelling. Citing Osbert's evasions of "the vulgar question, what happened next," New Statesman contributor Valentine Cunningham called this, "The politest of refusals, nicely characteristic of the novel's well-bred but nonetheless steely skirmishing with le roman de refus."
In his third novel, "not as ambitious as A Family Failing but more assured than An Italian Delusion," according to Gavin Ewart in the Times Literary Supplement, Knox again introduces a ditherer like Peter, his first protagonist. In Asylym this character is Michael, a young, introspective advertising executive, who finds himself caught up in the life of Darya, a political refugee whose father has been murdered by revolutionaries in her home country, who believes herself in the same kind of peril and is considering asking for political asylum in England. Although Michael wants to, he can't quite believe that Darya is in real danger, and ultimately she rejects him and his country of "escapists." For Listener reviewer John Mellors, "Asylum is not completely convincing. … But Knox's smooth, urbane style, together with his inside knowledge of 'the agency game,' produce some extremely funny glimpses."
In Brothers at War, his fourth, and as it turned out, final novel, Knox tells the story of Patrick, a man consumed by jealousy and hatred of his handsome, successful older brother, Edward. Patrick is rather detached, capable of seeing the self-destructiveness of his pointless feud, but unable to stop obsessing about his insecurities and the need to humiliate Edward. "Knox writes elegantly, as one would expect, but to build a whole novel around Patrick … was perhaps unwise," wrote a Spectator reviewer, who found Patrick's cramped viewpoint somewhat limiting. For British Book News contributor S. M. Mowbray, the major problem is that the climax comes too soon, but "there is an elegance of description and cadence and an exactness of motive that proclaim the author as the accomplished and intelligent writer we know him to be."
In From Rome to San Marino: A Walk in the Steps of Garibaldi, Knox turned his considerable writing talents to historical narrative. A longtime resident of Italy, in 1980 Knox conceived the idea of retracing the route of Italian revolutionary Garibaldi's epic retreat in 1849, from Rome to the Adriatic Coast. Relying heavily on the memoirs of the Swiss Major Hoffstetter, Knox and his son retraced Garibaldi's steps through ravines and marshy byways off the usual tourist itinerary. "Knox, accompanied by his son, tells the story of his own travels as counterpoint to that of his hero. It makes an engaging little book, relaxed, good-humoured and instructive," wrote historian Paul Johnson in Listener. For another historian, Jasper Ridley in the Times Literary Supplement, "Mr. Knox's well-written, interesting and pleasant book suffers from one drawback. This journey 'in the steps of Garibaldi' was undertaken by a pilgrim who seems to have more sympathy for Pope Pius IX than for the revolutionary partisan who preceded him on his route." For British Book News reviewer Geoffrey Trease, the book suffered somewhat from "never indicating which of the two [Knox or his son] … is speaking. … On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable travel book, if not a major footnote to history."
After coediting a series of political essays, Policies of Thatcherism: Thoughts from a London Thinktank, Knox turned once again to history in his final book. Rebels and Informers: Stirrings of Irish Independence tells the story of the romantics and schemers who led the 1798 Rebellion, Ireland's first revolutionary republican movement. "The main actors, rebels, informers, politicians, heroes and villains come alive in Oliver Knox's elegantly written book," concluded Contemporary Review contributor John McGurk. The magnificent failed revolutionaries, like Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, and Wolfe Tone, stride across Knox's pages, as do villains such as double-agent Leonard McNally and spymaster John Pollock. According to Ian McBride in the Times Literary Supplement, "the aim of this highly readable book is to entertain as much as to instruct. Knox's real interest lies in the eccentricities of his characters, their quarrels, loose talk and their obsession with flags, and military uniforms." It is "a riveting and illuminating account of the birth of the modern struggle for Irish independence," concluded Booklist reviewer Margaret Flanagan.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 15, 1997, Margaret Flanagan, review of Rebels and Informers, p. 681.
British Book News, January, 1980, S. M. Mowbray, review of Brothers at War, p. 58; January, 1983, Geoffrey Trease, review of From Rome to San Marino, p. 61.
Contemporary Review, May, 1998, John McGurk, review of Rebels and Informers, p. 272.
Encounter, September, 1975, C. Jordan, review of An Italian Delusion, p. 75.
Listener, July 1, 1976, Tony Aspler, review of A Family Failing, p. 854; July 14, 1977, John Mellors, review of Asylum, pp. 62-63; July 29, 1982, Paul Johnson, review of From Rome to San Marino, p. 26.
New Statesman, July 18, 1975, Jonathan Keates, review of An Italian Delusion, p. 88; June 25, 1976, Valentien Cunningham, review of A Family Failing, p. 88.
Spectator, October 6, 1979, review of Brothers at War, p. 30.
Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 1975, Richard Usborne, "Faint Tremors," p. 713; July 2, 1976, Jane Miller, "The Degeneration Gap," p. 815; June 17, 1977, Gavin Ewart, "It All Adds Up," p. 721; July 30, 1982, Jasper Ridley, "The Republican Trail," p. 831; December 5, 1997, Ian McBride, "Huzza, Citoyen Wolfe Tone," pp. 16-21.
Times (London, England), July 20, 2002.*