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Post-Mortem

Michael Burns, 18 November 1993

Death and the After-Life in Modern France 
by Thomas Kselman.
Princeton, 413 pp., £40, March 1993, 0 691 00889 2
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... Nineteenth-century demographers tried to take the measure of death. Years before Emile Durkheim, they counted suicide rates as barometers of social dissolution, and their rage for mathematical precision extended into all corners of ‘mortal knowledge’. Reflecting contemporary anxieties over urban growth, urban squalor, industrial accidents, the persistence of cholera, and, later in the century, the declining birthrate and the spread of tuberculosis, the new ranks of social scientists calculated the consequences of a rapidly changing French society ...

The [ ] walked down the street

Michael Silverstein: Saussure, 8 November 2012

Saussure 
by John Joseph.
Oxford, 780 pp., £30, March 2012, 978 0 19 969565 2
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... Ferdinand de Saussure, who died in 1913 at the age of 55, sowed the seeds of structuralist thought that first took root in linguistics, then effloresced throughout the 20th century in fields as seemingly distinct as literary criticism, architecture, social anthropology and psychoanalysis. Yet, as John Joseph’s biography shows, Saussure struggled for his entire career to systematise as general theory what he had implicitly understood and put to stunningly successful use at the age of 19: that human language is the prime abstract ‘semiological’ (we now say semiotic) structure on which the possibility of interpersonal communication depends ...

From a Summer to an Autumn

Michael Wood: Julian Barnes, 9 May 2013

Levels of Life 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 118 pp., £10.99, April 2013, 978 0 224 09815 1
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... Julian Barnes invites us to visit what he calls a ‘tropic of grief’ that is wilder and bleaker than anything in the pages of Lévi-Strauss’s great memoir. But Barnes does not refuse the word ‘sad’, because, he suggests, one of the first things we should understand about grief is its banality, its need of ordinary old words that may seem flat but will not seem evasive ...

England and Other Women

Edna Longley, 5 May 1988

Under Storm’s Wing 
by Helen Thomas and Myfanwy Thomas.
Carcanet, 318 pp., £14.95, February 1988, 0 85635 733 2
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... start, so criticism has been slow to gather momentum. Even the recent spate of studies – by Michael Kirkham, Stan Smith, and the contributors to Jonathan Barker’s Art of Edward Thomas – seems more fortuitous than co-ordinated. Thomas, as Robert Frost reminded him, ‘knew the worth of [his] bays’. However, it is unwise to die in war when a ...

Tact

Jonathan Coe, 20 March 1997

The Emigrants 
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse.
Harvill, 237 pp., £14.99, June 1996, 1 86046 127 1
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... an impression of Sebald’s habitual tone – measured, reflective and beautifully served by Michael Hulse’s translation – but they illustrate his tact in a wider sense. It is only at this point in the book that we have finally been challenged by an explicit reference to the Holocaust, an event adumbrated by the other narratives, casting its noisome ...

Homo Narrator

Inga Clendinnen, 16 March 2000

Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography 
by Susanna Egan.
North Carolina, 275 pp., £39.95, September 1999, 0 8078 4782 8
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... performative utterance indeed, and clearly intended to repel all invaders. (It didn’t. See what Michael Wood does with it in The Magician’s Doubts, a book, astoundingly, worthy of its subject.) Hidden motives and additional adverbs were optional, but the autobiographer’s central assertion used to be: ‘here I uniquely, truthfully stand, and no one can ...

Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime

Michael Wood, 20 April 2017

... As far​ as we know, Fritz Lang’s life of crime was confined to his films, although there was some gossip about the circumstances of his first wife’s convenient death. The familiar phrase has many uses and meanings, of course, and we might say the more the better. The lives we imagine for crime may help us to see in it and around it, and thinking about crime may help us to think about other matters ...

Joseph Jobson

Patrick Wormald, 18 April 1985

Saladin in his Time 
by P.H. Newby.
Faber, 210 pp., £10.95, November 1983, 0 571 13044 5
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Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War 
by Ronald Finucane.
Dent, 247 pp., £12.50, November 1983, 0 460 12040 9
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... Christian attitudes to Islam, though heavily indebted to Sir Richard Southern and Professor Michael Wallace-Hadrill, gives the Crusades an ideological context which, in general histories of the movement, they largely lack. But the attempt to give a balanced treatment of Christian and Moslem experiences is not really followed through: we hear ...

Dishonoured

Michael Wood, 5 May 1983

The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformation 
by Ian Donaldson.
Oxford, 203 pp., £15, October 1982, 0 19 812638 7
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The Rape of Clarissa 
by Terry Eagleton.
Blackwell, 109 pp., £10, September 1982, 0 631 13031 4
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Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters 
by Carol Houlihan Flynn.
Princeton, 342 pp., £17.70, May 1982, 0 691 06506 3
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... All the unhurried day,’ Philip Larkin wrote, addressing a long-dead girl who had been drugged and raped in London, ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’ All that day, and many days more, no doubt. But then presumably, since the girl later talked calmly enough to Mayhew, the drawer gradually closed, the glint of the knives softened, and life continued ...

Let’s Cut to the Wail

Michael Wood: The Oresteia according to Anne Carson, 11 June 2009

An Oresteia 
translated by Anne Carson.
Faber, 255 pp., $27, March 2009, 978 0 86547 902 9
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... Some time ago the scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant reminded us that Greek gods are not persons but forces; and in Anne Carson’s Oresteia, her sharp, sceptical, often laconic version of three plays about the legacy of Atreus, one each by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as in her translations of four other plays by Euripides,* I kept hearing an invitation to extend and refine the thought ...

Don’t worry about the pronouns

Michael Wood: Iris Murdoch’s First Novel, 3 January 2019

Under the Net 
by Iris Murdoch.
Vintage, 432 pp., £9.99, July 2019, 978 1 78487 518 3
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... Jake Donaghue​ , the endlessly discomposed hero of Under the Net, is a careful composer when it comes to his narrative, as distinct from the life he has notionally been living. He refers to ‘earlier events related in this story’, restricts himself to what is ‘of any interest from the point of view of the present story’, and describes his feelings as they were ‘at the point which our story had now reached ...

Icicles by Cynthia

Michael Wood: Ghosts, 2 January 2020

Romantic Shades and Shadows 
by Susan J. Wolfson.
Johns Hopkins, 272 pp., £50, August 2018, 978 1 4214 2554 2
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... What is​ a ghost?’ Stephen Dedalus asks in Ulysses, and promptly answers his own question. ‘One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.’ Not a figure who is entirely unreal, just one who has become a little faint, lacking in physical immediacy. Perhaps someone who lives in the memory only, not an inconsiderable form of life after all ...

How Jeans Got Their Fade

Peter Campbell: Mauve and indigo, 14 December 2000

Indigo 
by Jenny Balfour-Paul.
British Museum, 264 pp., £19.99, October 2000, 0 7141 2550 4
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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World 
by Simon Garfield.
Faber, 222 pp., £9.99, September 2000, 0 571 20197 0
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... in 1845, the result of a private subscription set up by Sir James Clark (the Queen’s physician), Michael Faraday and the Prince Consort. Its first director, recruited from Germany, was August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Perkin became a student there in 1853. Hofmann was already investigating coal-tar derivatives, aniline in particular. He had also speculated that ...

Lacanian Jesuit

David Wootton: Michel de Certeau, 4 October 2001

The Possession at Loudun 
by Michel de Certeau, translated by Michael Smith.
Chicago, 251 pp., £27, August 2000, 0 226 10034 0
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The Certeau Reader 
edited by Graham Ward.
Blackwell, 320 pp., £60, November 1999, 0 631 21278 7
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Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist 
by Ian Buchanan.
Sage, 143 pp., £50, July 2000, 0 7619 5897 5
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... In 1632 Loudun was a frontier town, with Catholicism to the north, south and east, and Protestantism to the west. Internally divided, it was in the process of being recaptured by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation (the Jesuits arrived in 1606, the Capuchins in 1616, the Ursulines in 1626); while at the same time Richelieu was planning to destroy the town’s castle, thus turning its citizens into subjects of the absolutist state ...

Pillors of Fier

Frank Kermode: Anthony Burgess, 11 July 2002

Nothing like the Sun: reissue 
by Anthony Burgess.
Allison and Busby, 234 pp., £7.99, January 2002, 0 7490 0512 2
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... Pembroke. The Rival Poet of Sonnet 86 remains George Chapman, not, as some think, Samuel Daniel or Michael Drayton or Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson or, since his was assuredly an ‘alien pen’ (Sonnet 78), Torquato Tasso. Candidates for the doubtful honour of being the Dark Lady are discussed (so far as the list went in 1970) and a slight preference is ...

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