Literature & Criticism

Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis in 1980.

We need to talk about Martin

Christopher Tayler

8 October 2020

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 heart goes out, he says, to the editors and reviewers who will have to read the book without skipping or pausing. Measured views are probably the least of his concerns.

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Ali Smith calls it a year

Clair Wills

8 October 2020

Mothers​ have a hard time in Ali Smith’s novels. I mean that Smith gives them a hard time, as well as acknowledging the hard time they’ve had already, just getting this far, in one piece . . .

‘The Adventures of Caleb Williams’

Tom Crewe

8 October 2020

‘Watching a good plot,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in the LRB (21 February 1980),is like watching something alive, or if it is adroit and sinuous enough, something struggling for life. Between . . .

Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson

8 October 2020

These dense plays are concerned with a transition from a world of mystery to a world of history, from war to peace, from myth to reality, from aristocratic households to the democratic society of contemporary . . .

Letters from Tove

Emma Hogan

24 September 2020

Towards​ the end of her life, Tove Jansson wrote a novel about two women in love. In Fair Play, Mari and Jonna, two artists, live together but apart. They have separate studios, connected by a corridor . . .

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett, 16 July 2020

She said, ‘Only living in close proximity together bestows a kind of protective coating on members of the family, so that in normal circumstances they don’t fall for each other, and somehow...

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The more one thinks about it, the odder it seems that one of the figureheads for this particular strain of national mythology is Elizabeth I, a multilingual queen whose letters and speeches display far...

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obligatorynoteofhope.com: Jenny Offill

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 July 2020

Is it possible to find an adequate tone or combination of tones, an adequate form or combination of forms, for the purpose of contemplating extinction? If the whole of culture is an attempt to deny the...

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In 1801, Wordsworth congratulated a reader of Lyrical Ballads for identifying the pathos of the poems as ‘the pathos of humanity’ and not ‘jacobinal pathos’; only ‘bad poets...

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Jean Stafford’s writing has a strange, foreign flavour. It’s bitter and strong, dark, some­ times poisonous. Reading her work, three­ quarters of a century on, I feel all the angsty...

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