Literature & Criticism

Illustration by Peter Campbell

Lauren Groff’s ‘The Vaster Wilds’

Jordan Kisner

26 June 2024

Groff is not telling a new story – in fact, it’s a very old one – but it’s inflected by the anxieties and politics of the present moment. Would it have been better if humans just … vanished? At what point was it too late to stop the machinery of the Anthropocene that now seems certain to destroy the world? 

Read more about Bears in Awe: Lauren Groff’s ‘The Vaster Wilds’

On V.R. Lang

Mark Ford

26 June 2024

‘First/Bunny died, then John Latouche,/then Jackson Pollock,’ Frank O’Hara reflects during a post-prandial stroll around midtown Manhattan in ‘A Step away from Them’, written in August 1956 . . .

Translating Raymond Queneau

Dennis Duncan

20 June 2024

‘Si tu t’imagines,’ Juliette Gréco sang. ‘If you imagine.’ It was her first time singing in public, on 22 June 1949, at the Boeuf sur le Toit cabaret, the beginning of her seven-decade reign . . .

Faked Editions

Gill Partington

20 June 2024

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s​ Sonnets, a pamphlet of just 48 pages, was once the holy grail of book collectors. Copies that came to light were, to quote one biographer, ‘literally worth … more . . .

My Dame Antonia

Patricia Lockwood

20 June 2024

An eldest sister​ was born in the North, daughter of a judge who never lied and a scholar who always did. That was A.S. Byatt. Christened Susan, what on earth, she was later known as Dame Antonia. Byatt . . .

Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux

Patricia Lockwood, 10 October 2019

When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present at the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women.

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Get a Real Degree

Elif Batuman, 23 September 2010

I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.

Read more about Get a Real Degree

Vermicular Dither

Michael Hofmann, 28 January 2010

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.

Read more about Vermicular Dither

Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

John Sturrock, 16 July 1998

Way back in the pre-theoretical Fifties, a journalist called Ivor Brown used to have elementary fun at the expense of a serial intruder on our insular peace of mind, a bacillus known as the LFF,...

Read more about Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

The Fatness of Falstaff

Barbara Everett, 16 August 1990

One day early in the 1590s a clown came onto a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string was a dog. The dog, possibly the first on the Elizabethan stage, I want to...

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Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

Read more about Paul de Man’s Abyss

Diary: On the Booker

Julian Barnes, 12 November 1987

The only sensible attitude to the Booker is to treat it as posh bingo. It is El Gordo, the Fat One, the sudden jackpot that enriches some plodding Andalusian muleteer.

Read more about Diary: On the Booker

Sounding Auden

Seamus Heaney, 4 June 1987

Hard-bitten, aggressively up-to-date in the way it took cognisance of the fallen contemporary landscape, yet susceptible also to the pristine scenery of an imaginary Anglo-Saxon England, Auden’s original voice could not have been predicted and was utterly timely.

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Fairy Flight in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

William Empson, 25 October 1979

So the working fairy does at least half a mile a second, probably two-thirds, and the cruising royalties can in effect go as fast as her, if they need to. Puck claims to go at five miles a second, perhaps seven times what the working fairy does. This seems a working social arrangement.

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On Getting the Life You Want

Adam Phillips, 20 June 2024

Pragmatism wants us to ask, what is the life we want – or think we want? Whereas psychoanalysis wants us to ask, why do we not want to know what we want?

Read more about On Getting the Life You Want

Is Rachel Cusk’s ​new book a novel, a series of essays or a philosophical inquiry? Parade sends the coin spinning on its edge every time you flip it. It’s the most musical work she has written,...

Read more about Knitted Cathedral: Rachel Cusk's 'Parade'

So much in Long Island goes unsaid. It’s a world in which people speak knowledgeably (and sometimes bitchily) about others but reveal little of themselves. As well as secrets, there are problems of...

Read more about Havering and Wavering: Colm Tóibín’s ‘Long Island’

On Donna Stonecipher

Maureen N. McLane, 23 May 2024

These days prose poetry often appears, in anglophone poetry at least, as one option among many: free verse, formal verse, prose poetry, erasure poetry, whatever – it’s all good! (It’s not all good.)...

Read more about On Donna Stonecipher

In Mark Twain’s novels, slaves are freed out of Christian charity – someone remembers them in a will. Percival Everett’s plots are more likely to hinge on the use of firearms.

Read more about Put on your clown suit: Percival Everett’s ‘James’

Like a Club Sandwich: Aztec Anachronisms

Adam Mars-Jones, 23 May 2024

After the moment in You Dreamed of Empires that brings together Moctezuma and Marc Bolan, Álvaro Enrigue has nowhere to go but into reverse. You can’t reinflate a popped balloon, but you can reinstate...

Read more about Like a Club Sandwich: Aztec Anachronisms

J.G. Ballard was consistent in saying that his imagery came from deep within himself – until it crossed a certain threshold of weirdness, at which point he began to argue (at least some of the time)...

Read more about His Galactic Centrifuge: Ballard’s Enthusiasms

With what he called his ‘anthropological eye’, Wilson set out to dramatise the ‘dazed and dazzling … rapport with life’ which allowed African Americans to navigate a white world not of their...

Read more about Where’s the barbed wire? August Wilson's Transformation

Her childhood in rural Warwickshire gave Comyns the material for her first book, Sisters by a River. It was essential to much of what followed in both life and work, though she was lucky to get out of...

Read more about See stars, Mummy: Barbara Comyns’s Childhood

Brontë was interested in consequence. She couldn’t care less about why people do the things they do. The fact is that they do them.

Read more about Heathcliff Redounding: Emily Brontë’s Scenes

Like good theatre, Patrick deWitt's fiction is full of dialogue, quick, eventful, nimble. Then there is the life-altering incident, which is always a monologue delivered centre-stage and projected to the...

Read more about Impotent Revenge: Patrick deWitt’s Dioramas

So many of Hisham Matar’s themes – trauma and vulnerability, the question of how to oppose authoritarianism, the experience of exile – seem very contemporary. Yet there is something profoundly conservative...

Read more about Eaten Alive by a Vicious Cat: On Hisham Matar

Where does culture come from?

Terry Eagleton, 25 April 2024

Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work.

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Wobbly, I am: Famous Seamus

John Kerrigan, 25 April 2024

As Seamus Heaney’s fame grew, and ‘the N-word’ (Nobel) added lustre, he attracted intrusive commentary. There were ‘feminist uppercuts’ and ‘Marxist flesh wounds’ from the academics. The...

Read more about Wobbly, I am: Famous Seamus

Johnson insisted that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ and that he would therefore write about anyone or anything if the price were right – a hard-nosed attitude to his craft...

Read more about Own your ignorance: Samuel Johnson’s Criticism

In the shifting, centuries-long history of his reception, Chaucer has been read as both irreverent and pious, experimental and traditional, cosmopolitan and quintessentially English.

Read more about At the Bodleian: ‘Chaucer Here and Now’

Like the inhabitants of other small and remote countries, the Icelander has the choice to go or stay. Halldór Laxness did both. He was a cosmopolitan and a homebody. He yo-yoed. He stayed in Iceland and...

Read more about Double-Time Seabird: Halldór Laxness does both

Rambo v. Rimbaud: On Justin Torres

Emily Witt, 4 April 2024

Justin Torres’s Blackouts isn’t biography, or historical fiction, but a kind of compilation of miscellanea that provides some primary texts, adds fictional embellishments, and then shrugs.

Read more about Rambo v. Rimbaud: On Justin Torres

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