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A Hee-Haw to Apuleius

Colin Burrow: John Crowley's Impure Fantasy, 1 November 2007

The Solitudes 
by John Crowley.
Overlook, 429 pp., £7.90, September 2007, 978 1 58567 986 7
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Endless Things 
by John Crowley.
Small Beer, 341 pp., $24, May 2007, 978 1 931520 22 5
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... John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards ...

Catch 28

John Lanchester, 3 March 1988

The Swimming-Pool Library 
by Alan Hollinghurst.
Chatto, 288 pp., £11.95, February 1988, 0 7011 3282 5
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The Beautiful Room is Empty 
by Edmund White.
Picador, 184 pp., £9.95, January 1988, 0 330 30394 5
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... with a clear idea of what they want to be like. (This has something in common with the poetry of John Ashbery, who praised White’s first novel, in words that could easily be used to evoke his own work, as the ‘account of an almost terminally sophisticated society’.) The beautiful room is empty has several characters who come to life in the ...


Richard Rudgley: Plant obsessions, 15 July 1999

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession 
by Susan Orlean.
Heinemann, 348 pp., £12.99, April 1999, 0 434 00783 8
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The Tulip 
by Anna Pavord.
Bloomsbury, 438 pp., £30, January 1999, 0 7475 4296 1
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Plants of Life, Plants of Death 
by Frederick Simoons.
Wisconsin, 568 pp., £27.95, September 1998, 0 299 15904 3
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... turns. At first it seems as if it is going to be a biographical account of the trickster figure of John Laroche, one of the thieves in question. Laroche is an obsessive collector, having been through passionate affairs with turtles, fossils and tropical fish before committing himself to orchids – at least for some of the time Orlean knew him. It is at a ...

Everything is over before it begins

A.D. Nuttall: Milton criticism, 21 June 2001

How Milton Works 
by Stanley Fish.
Harvard, 616 pp., £23.95, June 2001, 0 674 00465 5
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... are only the steam which obscures the Mirror of Truth.’ Such is Fish’s description of John Milton, the most obstinately argumentative of all English poets, the most heroically strenuous in matters of the mind, the indefatigable compiler of arguments and corroborative materials, whose watchword, all his life, was ‘freedom’. In an age when the ...

Praise Yah

Eliot Weinberger: The Psalms, 24 January 2008

The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary 
by Robert Alter.
Norton, 518 pp., £22, October 2007, 978 0 393 06226 7
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... the Jedi Master we’re in. That sinking feeling hits bottom as early as Psalm 23: The LORD is my shepherd,             I shall not want. In grass meadows He makes me lie down (And, almost needless to say, for ‘He restoreth my soul,’ Alter has ‘My life He brings back.’) The incessant inversion, combined with the predilection for ...

Whipping the wicked

Peter Clarke, 17 April 1980

The Optimists: Themes and Personalities in Victorian Liberalism 
by Ian Bradley.
Faber, 301 pp., £12.50, January 1980, 0 571 11495 4
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... Most of the great positive evils of the world,’ John Stuart Mill asserted in 1863, ‘are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced to within narrow limits.’ This sort of confidence in the reality and efficacy of progress now seems to set the 19th century distinctively apart from our own ...

Where’s Esther?

Robert Alter: The Dead Sea Scrolls, 12 September 2013

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography 
by John Collins.
Princeton, 272 pp., £16.95, October 2012, 978 0 691 14367 5
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The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea 
by Joan Taylor.
Oxford, 418 pp., £30, November 2012, 978 0 19 955448 5
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... in the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. The initial discovery, accidentally made by a Bedouin shepherd, was of three documents: a complete text of the Book of Isaiah, a sectarian manual of discipline and a commentary on the prophet Habakkuk. During the next few years, excavations were conducted in adjacent caves. In the end, some nine hundred manuscripts ...

You Have A Mother Don’t You?

Andrew O’Hagan: Cowboy Simplicities, 11 September 2003

Searching for John Ford: A Life 
by Joseph McBride.
Faber, 838 pp., £25, May 2003, 0 571 20075 3
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... that Bush’s delivery is really an impersonation of Ronald Reagan impersonating James Stewart and John Wayne, but I think that elevates him too much: his mentality is clouded with lesser subtleties, occluded with hungers of a more brutal, mercenary, low-budget kind. He has the effective salesman’s knowledge of how to play with people’s sense of what is ...

Burke and Smith

Karl Miller, 16 October 1980

Sydney Smith 
by Alan Bell.
Oxford, 250 pp., £9.95, October 1980, 0 19 812050 8
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Burke and Hare 
by Owen Dudley Edwards.
Polygon, 300 pp., £7.95, August 1980, 0 904919 27 7
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... atrocity to atrocity, in one of their series of imaginary conversations, the Noctes Ambrosianae. John Wilson (‘Christopher North’) appears to have been responsible for the horribly inflammatory discussion of the subject there, and to have scripted the contributions assigned to the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. One ...

In the Shady Wood

Michael Neill: Staging the Forest, 22 March 2018

The Shakespearean Forest 
by Anne Barton.
Cambridge, 185 pp., £75, August 2017, 978 0 521 57344 3
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... in the topic had first been excited by her reading of Ben Jonson’s Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd, for her monograph on Shakespeare’s great rival. Given this history, it may seem surprising that The Shakespearean Forest is not a longer book, but Barton became almost blind as a result of macular degeneration and was forced to abandon her work. When ...

Dykes, Drongs, Sarns, Snickets

David Craig: Walking England, 20 December 2012

The English Lakes: A History 
by Ian Thompson.
Bloomsbury, 343 pp., £16.99, March 2012, 978 1 4088 0958 7
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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot 
by Robert Macfarlane.
Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp., £20, June 2012, 978 0 241 14381 0
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... glowing in the vee of the col beneath the cloud-wrack. It is not. Instead we are given bits of John McGahern and John Nash, Neil Gunn and Nan Shepherd and Edward Thomas and Adam Nicolson, and the place itself is disappeared: ‘To my mind the Pools [of Dee] possess a near supernatural ...

Toss the monkey wrench

August Kleinzahler: Lee Harwood’s risky poems, 19 May 2005

Collected Poems 
by Lee Harwood.
Shearsman, 522 pp., £17.95, May 2004, 9780907562405
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... publishers in the 1960s. The one anomaly in Harwood’s bibliography is his inclusion, along with John Ashbery and Tom Raworth, in Volume 19 of the Penguin Modern Poets series, published in 1971. The groupings that Penguin came up with in this admirable series tended to be hit or miss. But the combination of Ashbery, Harwood and Raworth is an interesting ...

Ecclefechan and the Stars

Robert Crawford, 21 January 1988

The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect 
by George Davie.
Polygon, 283 pp., £17.95, September 1986, 0 948275 18 9
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... William Small was teaching Rhetoric and Belles Lettres to Jefferson at William and Mary. By 1768 John Witherspoon from the Laigh Kirk, Paisley, was basing his Princeton lectures on Blair’s Rhetoric. In 1781 Wither spoon coined the pejorative term ‘Americanism’, by analogy with ‘Scotticism’. Strong connections between Scottish and American cultures ...


Alan Bennett: Fresh Revelations, 20 October 1994

... condescendingly, because he was none of these things. 21 April. A lunch party at the Connaught for John Gielgud’s 90th birthday given by Alec Guinness. John G. in an olive-green corduroy suit, elbows pressed firmly into his sides, hands clasped over his tummy, smiling and giggling and bubbling over with things to say and ...


John Sutherland, 15 September 1988

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins 
by William Clarke.
Allison and Busby, 239 pp., £14.95, August 1988, 0 85031 960 9
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Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety 
by Philip O’Neill.
Macmillan, 238 pp., £27.50, September 1988, 9780333421994
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... in the early 1860s, his eye wandered to a younger woman, Martha Rudd, the daughter of a Norfolk shepherd. Martha was Caroline’s opposite: slow-witted, docile, virginal and a peasant. After the success of The Woman in White Wilkie was a £5000-a-title author, and could afford expensive vices. He persuaded his innocent Norfolk girl to come to London where ...

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