LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Bursts that Crumble

Karl Ove Knausgaard ‘has a tendency towards cliché’, Ben Lerner writes (LRB, 22 May). ‘News is always spreading like wildfire, and so on. The writing, precisely where it aspires to the literary, can be sloppy: “The warm, bright September days were summer’s last burst of energy before abruptly crumbling.” Days are bursts that crumble?’

I don’t have the English translation to hand, but I’m fairly sure that the sloppy writing is down to the translator (Don Bartlett) and not to Knausgaard himself. The Norwegian original of the passage Lerner quotes is: ‘De varme, klare septemberdagene var sommerens siste anstrengelse, for brått falt den sammen, og i dens sted kom regnet.’ A literal translation would be: ‘The warm, bright September days were the summer’s last exertion, for suddenly it was over, and in its place came the rain.’ That doesn’t sound so sloppy; in fact it sounds like an echo of Hemingway (‘in the fall when the rains came’). The translation manages both to introduce an unnecessary poetic flourish (summer’s ‘last burst of energy’ for ‘anstrengelse’, a word which means simply ‘effort’ or ‘exertion’ or ‘strain’) and to lose the structure and rhythm of the original three-part sentence.

Christopher Eva
Lurøy, Norway

Between a Rat and a Rabbit

It’s not true, as Luke Mitchell claims, that prior to Cuvier in 1796 it ‘hadn’t yet occurred to anyone that an entire species could cease to exist’ (LRB, 8 May). Robert Hooke, in a work on earthquakes posthumously published in 1705, wrote: ‘There have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find none at present; and that ’tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning.’ The significance of Hooke’s (Lucretian) point was almost certainly not lost on Adam Smith, who noted in Wealth of Nations that the Cori, ‘something between a rat and a rabbit’, was ‘almost entirely extirpated’. Indeed, in his posthumously published writings (1795), Smith writes: ‘The species of fossils, minerals, plants, animals, which are found in the Waters, and near the surface of the Earth, are still more intricately diversified; and if we regard the different manners of their production, their mutual influence in altering, destroying, supporting one another, the orders of their succession seem to admit of an almost infinite variety.’

Eric Schliesser
Ghent University

Quel Marcel!

May one correct a poem? Anne Carson writes: ‘Albertine does not call the narrator by his name anywhere in the novel. Nor does anyone else. The narrator hints that his first name might be the same first name as that of the author of the novel, i.e. Marcel’ (LRB, 5 June). But eighty pages after dropping that hint, he – and she – are more definite. The narrator receives a note from Albertine in which she calls him ‘Mon chéri et cher Marcel’, and which concludes: ‘Quelles idées vous faites-vous donc? Quel Marcel! Quel Marcel! Toute à vous, ton Albertine.’

William Flesch
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

On Selfies

Julian Stallabrass, writing about selfies, interprets the hashtag #tbt as ‘truth be told’ (LRB, 5 June). In fact it denotes ‘throwback Thursday’, attached to users’ weekly posts of old photos, though it is increasingly used on any day of the week to mean ‘throwback to’. This underscores Stallabrass’s point – about Instagram’s borrowed nostalgia for the Kodak era.

Andrew Fleming
Nassau, Bahamas

The Burning of the Reichstag

In his review of Benjamin Carter Hett’s book Burning the Reichstag, Richard J. Evans is tendentious in his criticism of our research (LRB, 8 May). We were the first to evaluate all the historical files on the Reichstag fire, which have been available only since 1991. The ‘single culprit theory’ promoted by Fritz Tobias, Hans Mommsen and others is obsolete. Sven Kellerhoff, a follower of Tobias and Mommsen, was not able to ‘take our work apart’, as Evans puts it.

The review contains several errors and false suggestions. First, Alexander Bahar was not ‘a student of the titular head of the Luxembourg Committee’. Second, Evans withholds the fact that the ‘medium’ who predicted the Reichstag fire the day before was the world-famous mentalist Hanussen. Hanussen’s prediction was not a prophecy: it was based on information that he had acquired from SA inner circles through his friend the SA leader Count von Helldorf (who was not a ‘police chief’ in February 1933, as Evans claims). Hanussen’s indiscretion was one of the reasons he was murdered by the SA less than four weeks later. Third, concerning the alleged single culprit Marinus van der Lubbe, Evans leaves out the most important facts. Fingerprints were found inside the Reichstag building, but none of them, including prints on objects he must have touched, was van der Lubbe’s. Van der Lubbe’s story ‘that he had acted alone’ was inconsistent; he wasn’t able to give a plausible explanation of how he had set the fire, and contradicted himself in his various statements. ‘His confession remains a compelling piece of evidence,’ Evans claims nevertheless. He also ignores the short time – a maximum of 13 minutes – available to van der Lubbe to set the fire. The experts consulted in 1933 by the Supreme Court in Leipzig weren’t the only ones to state that it was impossible for one person to have managed without fire accelerants: experts in fire protection and thermodynamics have in recent years reached the same conclusion.

Alexander Bahar; Wilfried Kugel
Heilbronn, Germany; Berlin

Pas de bouleversement

Ferdinand Mount suggests that over the last century British land ownership has been transferred on a large scale out of the hands of an aristocratic minority (LRB, 8 May). Kevin Cahill estimated in the 2002 edition of Who Owns Britain that 69 per cent of our country was owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. Perhaps a marginally more equitable distribution than in 1873 but some distance short of Mount’s ‘bouleversement’.

Alastair Gordon
London N6

Putin’s Counter-Revolution

Carroll Macnamara advances the proposition that Ukraine was ‘respected as an independent and neutral state’ in accordance with ‘agreements made when the USSR was dismantled’ (Letters, 22 May). Leaving aside the use of the term ‘dismantled’, this statement cannot pass unchallenged. One such agreement was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the UK and the USA. In exchange for the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukrainian territory and the continuation of the use of the port of Sevastopol by the Russian Black Sea fleet, Ukrainian state and territorial sovereignty were guaranteed. This agreement was unilaterally broken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year. Justified by historical claims of the need to protect Russian-speakers’ interests, the annexation is resulting in a steady emigration of former inhabitants, variously bullied, threatened, dispossessed of property and businesses, or quite simply not wanting to live under Russian rule. Russian speakers’ interests are being promoted over, not alongside, those of the Ukrainian population, with the Tatars once again the principal losers.

Blaine Stothard
London SW9

I see it!

Apropos T.J. Clark’s review of Matisse’s cut-outs, when I visited the show at Tate Modern before reading the review, I gazed at Snail, craning my neck from numerous angles and locations, trying to work out why the wall caption described the top left-hand shape as ‘playful’. (LRB, 5 June). Now, looking at the LRB reproduction, I can easily spot the teeny snail outlined on the edge of that shape. Thus we see an advantage of reproductions over the real thing, especially when Tate’s notes are so enigmatic.

Peter Cave
London W1

The Italian Disaster

Perry Anderson refers to Mauro Calise’s book Fuorigioco, whose title he translates as ‘Out of the Game’ (LRB, 22 May). I imagine Italians who know both English and football would render it as ‘Offside’.

Justin Horton
Huesca, Spain

How many furry animals?

Branko Weiss asserts that the word ‘Slavonic’ is ‘a term with a precise and exclusive meaning’ – that is, as an adjective for things of or pertaining to the region of Croatia known in English as Slavonia (Letters, 5 June). That is incorrect: the word is an accepted synonym (if perhaps a slightly old-fashioned one) for ‘Slavic’. If Weiss were correct, it would make little sense for Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies to boast of its ‘teaching in Russian and Ukrainian’, or for the Bodleian’s Slavonic and Modern Greek Library to have acquired a collection of books in Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Russian etc.

Daniel O’Neil

Forgetting is best

At 66, Jenny Diski admits to having described herself as old (LRB, 8 May). In the mid-1990s, I worked in the NHS with patients over the age of 65. For statistical purposes, we used the following categories: 65-75, young elderly; 75-85, elderly; and over 85, old.

June Hall
Burford, Oxfordshire

The best antidote to Jenny Diski’s ‘head-turning young women … never doubting that they are going to stay young for ever’ is given by Muriel Spark in The Girls of Slender Means: ‘Their eyes gave out an eager spirited light that resembled near-genius, but was youth merely.’

Mark Williams
Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Todmorden wins

St Lucia has two Nobel Prize winners from a population of 174,000 (2010 figures) and claims the world record, says Tim Dee (LRB, 22 May). Todmorden has two Nobel laureates from 15,000 (2001 figures). I think this makes Todmorden per capita world champion.

Peter Rawlings
Boulder Clough, West Yorkshire

Who has more sex?

Zoë Heller writes that since single people have more and better sex than their married peers, the nuclear family may be ‘the true enemy of heat’ (LRB, 5 June). Actually, a University of Chicago study (albeit twenty years old) showed that heterosexual married couples have more – up to 300 per cent more – sex than singletons. In a 2010 Indiana University survey of Americans aged 14 to 94, 61 per cent of unmarried Americans reported that they hadn’t had sex in the previous year, compared to 18 per cent of married people. Among 25-to-59-year-olds, 25 per cent of married couples reported having sex at least twice a week, compared to 5 per cent of single people.

Jennifer Kipp
Cambridge, Massachusetts


In Leland de la Durantaye’s review of Peter Handke’s Versuch über den Pilznarren, the repeated use of ‘Versuchen’ – ‘Handke’s five Versuchen’ etc – makes no sense (LRB, 22 May). ‘Versuchen’ (as a noun) can only be the dative plural. What is wanted is Versuche throughout.

K.F. Hilliard
St Peter’s College, Oxford