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Oliver’s Riffs

Charles Nicholl, 25 July 1991

Talking It Over 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 288 pp., £13.99, July 1991, 0 224 03157 0
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... Julian Barnes is a writer of rare intelligence. He catches the detail of contemporary life with an uncanny, forensic skill. His style is a model of cool and precision. He is often very funny, and if his humour tends somewhat to jokiness, then at least the jokes are good ones. At his best – in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – he uses his skills as a literary entertainer to put across complex, resonant ideas ...

Plague Fiction

Charles Nicholl, 23 July 1987

The Darker Proof 
by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White.
Faber, 250 pp., £3.95, July 1987, 0 571 15068 3
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... It sounds like it’s something to do with helping, but that is very far from its meaning. I can’t remember when we first started hearing it; no more than five or six years ago, surely. It’s an Eighties word. When they open the decade up, they’ll find it engraved on its heart. When Aids first caught our attention, it seemed comfortingly choosy in its victims ...

‘The Battle of Anghiari’

Charles Nicholl, 26 April 2012

... Leonardo da Vinci is seldom out of the news. The story of 2011 was the Salvator Mundi, a serene and ringletted image of Christ formerly considered the work of a pupil or imitator, but now – after restoration, analysis and a substantial helping of hype – attributed to the brush of the master. No sooner had this excitement died down than the long-running saga of Leonardo’s lost mural The Battle of Anghiari was back in the headlines ...

Great Instructor

Charles Nicholl, 31 August 1989

Ben Jonson: A Life 
by David Riggs.
Harvard, 399 pp., £27.95, April 1989, 0 674 06625 1
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... Ben Jonson is remembered as a master of English comedy, but you would hardly think so from his portrait. The earliest dateable likeness is the engraving by Robert Vaughan, done in the mid 1620s, when Jonson was around fifty. The face is jowly, bearded, dour, heavily lived-in. The shadowed eyes remind me of photos of Tony Hancock. Comedy, they seem to say, is no laughing matter ...

The Literature Man

Charles Nicholl, 25 June 1987

Cuts 
by Malcolm Bradbury.
Hutchinson, 106 pp., £6.95, April 1987, 0 09 168280 0
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No, Not Bloomsbury 
by Malcolm Bradbury.
Deutsch, 373 pp., £17.95, May 1987, 9780233980133
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The Last Romantics 
by Caroline Seebohm.
Weidenfeld, 322 pp., £10.95, May 1987, 0 297 79056 0
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The Magician’s Girl 
by Doris Grumbach.
Hamish Hamilton, 206 pp., £10.95, May 1987, 0 241 12114 0
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... Malcolm Bradbury has what the political image-makers call ‘high definition’. We know who he is, where he’s coming from, what he stands for. As a novelist he belongs to a recognisable literary stable: specifically the ‘university novel’, more generally the humorist-humanist vein of embattled liberalism in post-war British fiction. He is a familiar face on the TV arts circuit, a familiar voice in the literary press ...

Diary

Charles Nicholl: At the Maison Rimbaud in Harar, 16 March 2000

... Little has changed in the old city of Harar, secluded in the hills of south-eastern Ethiopia. The rusting military hardware still sits beside the road from Dire Dawa, as it did when I last passed by six years ago. The waiters still move like somnambulists through the drowsy lobby of the Ras Hotel. The spider’s web of twisting cobbled streets; the tall boys playing table football in a corner of the main square; the recumbent figures browsing on sprigs of khat; the beautiful eyes that flash suddenly out of shadowy interiors – it is all much as I remember it ...

Nolanus Nullanus

Charles Nicholl, 12 March 1992

Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair 
by John Bossy.
Yale, 294 pp., £16.95, September 1991, 0 300 04993 5
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The Elizabethan Secret Service 
by Alison Plowden.
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 158 pp., £30, September 1991, 0 7108 1152 7
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The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe 
by Victor Thoren.
Cambridge, 523 pp., £40, May 1991, 0 521 35158 8
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... The files of the Elizabethan intelligence service are a rich and oddly neglected source: rich in historical detail, in the surprising appearance of famous names, in the whole tawdry but fascinating psychology of the spying game. There is in them a curious sense of déjà vu. Under the directorship of Sir Francis Walsingham, the security services featured much the same cast of moles, buggers, double agents and dirty tricksters that has entertained us in more recent spy ‘scandals ...

Who was he?

Charles Nicholl: Joe the Ripper, 7 February 2008

The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath 
by Charles van Onselen.
Cape, 672 pp., £20, April 2007, 978 0 224 07929 7
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... the room. The bare facts are enough to convey the shock of being there, of having this glimpse, as Charles van Onselen puts it, into ‘the Angel of Death’s laboratory’. Van Onselen’s long, disturbing and magnificently dogged book, The Fox and the Flies, takes us through a grim terrain spread across three continents, a world of squalor and ...

Canterbury Tale

Charles Nicholl, 8 December 1988

Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury 
by William Urry, edited by Andrew Butcher.
Faber, 184 pp., £12.95, May 1988, 0 571 14566 3
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John Weever 
by E.A.J. Honigmann.
Manchester, 134 pp., £27.50, April 1987, 0 7190 2217 7
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Rare Sir William Davenant 
by Mary Edmond.
Manchester, 264 pp., £27.50, July 1987, 9780719022869
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... William Urry’s researches on Marlowe have been available in bits and pieces, and his ‘forthcoming book on the Marlowes in Canterbury’ was mentioned by one of Marlowe’s biographers, A.D. Wraight, as long ago as 1965. Here at last it is, seven years after Urry’s death, edited from drafts by his former colleague Andrew Butcher. The text runs to less than a hundred pages, but there are ample appendices and source-notes, and anyway these hundred pages of dense documentary detail are worth a thousand of theorising ...

Getting high

Charles Nicholl, 19 March 1987

The Global Connection: The Crisis of Drug Addiction 
by Ben Whitaker.
Cape, 384 pp., £15, March 1987, 0 224 02224 5
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... You don’t frequent crack-houses. You don’t shoot smack, drop acid, skin-pop speed or blow dope. You have nothing to do with the 1.8 billion tranquillisers prescribed in Britain every year, or with the two thousand tons of pain-killers purchased over the counter. You don’t even smoke or drink. Okay, but the chances are still pretty high that you take drugs ...

‘Faustus’ and the Politics of Magic

Charles Nicholl, 8 March 1990

Dr Faustus 
by Christopher Marlowe, edited by Roma Gill.
Black, 109 pp., £3.95, December 1989, 0 7136 3231 3
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Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare 
by John Mebane.
Nebraska, 309 pp., £26.95, July 1989, 0 8032 3133 4
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Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance 
by William Huffman.
Routledge, 252 pp., £30, November 1989, 0 415 00129 3
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Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England 
by Patrick Curry.
Polity, 238 pp., £27.50, September 1989, 0 7456 0604 0
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... Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was an Elizabethan spine-chiller. People came for thrills, and early productions pulled out all the stops to provide them. ‘Shagge-hayred devills’ ran ‘roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouthes’. Drummers thundered backstage. Stage-hands hung aloft to ‘make artificiall lightning in their heavens’. At times the play seemed to generate a power more than dramatic ...

Venus in Blue Jeans

Charles Nicholl: The Mona Lisa, 4 April 2002

Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting 
by Donald Sassoon.
HarperCollins, 350 pp., £16.99, September 2001, 0 00 710614 9
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... Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be ‘the world’s most famous painting’ but almost everything about it is obscure. We don’t know precisely when it was painted, we don’t know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her? It is that question, in all its historical and cultural ramifications, which is addressed in Donald Sassoon’s elegant and comprehensive study of the Mona Lisa phenomenon ...

Sticky Wicket

Charles Nicholl: Colonel Fawcett’s Signet Ring, 28 May 2009

The Lost City of Z 
by David Grann.
Simon and Schuster, 339 pp., £16.99, February 2009, 978 1 84737 436 3
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... It is more than eighty years since he disappeared, deep in the Mato Grosso of Brazil, but the name of Colonel Fawcett still resonates. He was the last of the old-style Amazonian explorers, on the cusp of a new age of light aircraft and two-way radio, time-saving and sometimes life-saving conveniences which he disdained. In the words of David Grann, whose compelling new book, The Lost City of Z, tries to make sense of the man and his last mission, Fawcett ‘ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose ...

Death in Florence

Charles Nicholl, 23 February 2012

... Andrea del Castagno was one of the greatest Florentine painters of the Quattrocento – masterful in technique, spare and hard-edged in style, idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness. He was a hill farmer’s son from the Mugello, born in about 1419 in the hamlet of Castagno on the western flank of the Apennines. The first record of him is as a six-year-old bocca – a ‘mouth’, or dependant – in his father’s tax return ...

Everything is ardour

Charles Nicholl: Omnificent D’Annunzio, 26 September 2013

The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War 
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
Fourth Estate, 694 pp., £12.99, September 2013, 978 0 00 721396 2
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... In 1897, in a letter to his publisher, Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote: ‘The world must be convinced I am capable of everything!’ One might think he was being ironic – the subject of the letter was his decision to stand for the Italian parliament, of which he had a very low opinion – but in a life so devoted to grandiloquent self-promotion there was little room for irony ...

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