Literature & Criticism

Artwork: Burning of the Town of Cap-Francais, Saint-Domingue, 1795.

Slavery and Revenge

John Kerrigan

22 October 2020

The earliest texts that look extensively at the slave trade are structured by the motifs and conventions of revenge tragedy: resentment, conspiracy, delay, the grand soliloquy and, above all, tortured bodies.

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Thom Gunn in New York

Michael Nott

22 October 2020

Thom​ Gunn spent the summer of 1958 in New York City. ‘It was wonderful, and revelatory as it always is,’ he told his friend Tony White. ‘I learn more about people and myself in . . .

Squares are best

Susannah Clapp

22 October 2020

If​ you live in London, squares are best. They have a plot. They tilt the natives away from secrecy and hoarding – from their hidden back gardens – towards a shared space. One end isn’t . . .

Marilynne Robinson’s Perfect Paradox

Anne Enright

22 October 2020

In​ the fourth novel in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead sequence, the eponymous Jack spends a long night alone with his thoughts. ‘After a while,’ he observes, ‘light will reveal . . .

Paul Mendez

Nicole Flattery

22 October 2020

Four young black women, dressed provocatively, dance and lip-synch under neon light. It could be a music video except the girls are in a cheap hotel room, wearing shoplifted dresses with the security tags . . .

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.

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Vermicular Dither

Michael Hofmann, 28 January 2010

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

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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,...

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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...

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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.

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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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Reading the novel is a bit like watching the type of movie – The Revenant or 1917 – where a man is chased by a bear only to fall off a cliff into the rapids, or a plane is shot out of the sky...

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Ah, how miserable! Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson, 8 October 2020

Misogynist tropes often involve present­ing women as interesting in precisely the ways that Aeschylus’ female characters are interesting: charming, articulate, danger­ous, deceitful, too...

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Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and the refugee crisis shift in and out of focus, but it’s in the ordinary scenes of everyday frustration that the novels seem most ‘of our time’. But...

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Amis takes an unpretentious, anxious interest in holding the reader’s attention, and from time to time he can still get out from behind the rhetorical afflatus and come at you with sheer voice. His...

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Jansson had many euphemisms for lesbianism: ‘rive gauche’, as if all Parisian women were at it; ‘borderliner’; a ‘new line’, ‘tendency’, ‘attitude’....

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In The Discomfort of Evening there’s no whisper of normality to be heard. The status quo is dysfunctional even before its theoretical disruption by grief and then bovine epidemic, which makes it...

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I Am Brian Moore

Colin Burrow, 24 September 2020

Literary fiction is and ought always to be partly spell-making, and the kind of rapt reading Brian Moore offers – not speed-reading, but reading where the sing and whistle of the plot keeps you reading...

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Childhood, for King, is a permanent condition, its obsessions inalienable, incurable. Even his adult characters embody a child’s awe and fear: they’re motherless wanderers, bewildered in the...

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How to Read Aloud

Irina Dumitrescu, 10 September 2020

It is easy to overlook how loud pre­-modern education was. Most of our evidence for more than a thousand years of teaching consists of books, and, to the modern way of thinking, books are objects used...

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The realm of writing, for Nathalie Sarraute, remained the neutral, the anonym­ous, the impersonal, expressed as the pre­-conscious and pre-­personal undercurrents of the mind, which she named...

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On Hope Mirrlees

Clair Wills, 10 September 2020

The​ Turkish language has a tense for gossip. Officially known as the reported past, it’s also the ‘hearsay’ tense, in which it’s possible to say things without its...

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The Smell of Blood: Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison, 13 August 2020

The frustration of the dozen voices composing the narrative of Summerwater is easy to under­stand: male, female, young, old, Scottish, English, they’re fed up with the weather, because it’s...

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Early Kermode

Stefan Collini, 13 August 2020

So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by D.J. Gordon, had moved to the...

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My first reading of The Vanishing Half was greedy, fast, for plot, with the sun on my back and murder in the news. On my second, I noticed different things. Brit Bennett’s sentences don’t...

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Listening to people’s stories and believing them is a benevolent impulse, Nikita Lalwani argues. But her novels are full of moments when the stories people tell about themselves and the world prove...

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Why is luck good or bad, an incentive to gambling, while chance seems weirdly neutral? And what was it like in the old days when Fortune played a larger role in ordinary consciousness, taking up quite...

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The Shrine

Alan Bennett, 30 July 2020

I said, ‘You’ve got some of the mud on your trousers.’ I said, ‘I’m still going to kneel, only I won’t wear the jacket.’ He said, ‘That’s the stuff,’...

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How many times? Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery, 16 July 2020

The struggle of Pew is one that first occurs to brooding teenagers of the community: what would you do, and who would you be, if nobody was watching? It’s a question that’s no less sad and...

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