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Literature & Criticism

Louis Guéymard as Robert le Diable, by Gustave Courbet, 1857

What Didn’t Happen

Michael Wood

30 July 2020

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 a bit of the space now occupied by choice and responsibility?

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‘You People’

Clare Bucknell

30 July 2020

At  Pizzeria  Vesuvio, somewhere in South London in 2003, the difference between being a chef and being a waitress isn’t just professional. Nia and Ava, who work front of house . . .

The Shrine

Alan Bennett

30 July 2020

A middle-aged woman, Lorna, sits at a kitchen table. She talks to the camera. Very flat.The policeman said​, ‘Did I want to see where it happened?’I said, ‘What good would that . . .

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

3 July 2020

Later on I went over to see Louisa. She still smokes so we adjourned to the end of the garden, and I said how nice Michael was being. She said, ‘They are at that age. Just before they take off. Ricky’s . . .

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

16 July 2020

Catherine Lacey’s​ last book, Certain American States (2018), a short story collection, began with an epigraph from Annie Baker’s play Circle Mirror Transformation:LAUREN: Hey. Um. This . . .

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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The Social Text Hoax: 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

I want to explore the relation between the kind of poetic authority which W.H. Auden sought and achieved and what might be described as his poetic music. By ‘poetic authority’ I mean...

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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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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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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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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 Pessimism

Tessa Hadley, 18 June 2020

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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Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen, 4 June 2020

Shelagh Delaney resented being pigeonholed: ‘I could go on writing plays if I never saw Salford, Manchester or any Northern working-class district again.’ Unfortunately, by this point, the...

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A Maigret novel came on Simenon like an illness: he would feel the pressure of an idea building to a point where he had no choice but to write it. At that stage he would go to his doctor for a check-up,...

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Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler, 4 June 2020

The tone darkens a bit, not surprisingly, in The Death of Jesus, and there’s a concomitant rise in the teasing of meaning-hungry readers. But it’s still tempting to see the Jesus stuff as a...

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The Last Whale

Colin Burrow, 4 June 2020

Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for...

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Bilingualism

Michael Hofmann, 21 May 2020

The author is obviously in love with his subject, taking it everywhere with him, seeing it wherever he goes. ‘Most of the people I know are bilingual’ is his delightful shrug.

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Characteristically Spenderish

Seamus Perry, 21 May 2020

‘But do you really think I am any good?’ a breathless Spender asked. ‘Of course’ was Auden’s reply, and when pressed a little further: ‘Because you are so infinitely...

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Instapoetry

Clare Bucknell, 21 May 2020

Each poem is as unmemorable and reusable as a coffee keep-cup, deployable several times over the course of a few weeks while still seeming new. The format suits a readership hunting for relatable content,...

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The Bournemouth Set

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 May 2020

‘Remember the pallid brute that lived in Skerryvore like a weevil in a biscuit,’ Stevenson wrote. Yet his three years there, the only period he spent in England, were the best years of his...

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He’s Humbert, I’m Dolores

Emily Witt, 21 May 2020

My Dark Vanessa is a pedagogical novel in more than one sense, a work of fiction that also wants to be a work of reference: here is how an abusive relationship develops between an insecure teenager...

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Lizzie, Cal and Caroline

Colm Tóibín, 7 May 2020

‘The matter of your work is yours entirely and I don’t think you have it in your power to “hurt” me,’ Elizabeth Hardwick told Robert Lowell. ‘I mean that I cannot see...

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Pointing the Finger: ‘The Plague’

Jacqueline Rose, 7 May 2020

One of the things Camus’s novel conveys is that, at the very moment we appear to be taking the grimmest reality on board, we might also be deluding ourselves. Counting is at once a scientific...

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Gary Lutz

Ange Mlinko, 7 May 2020

After​ reading five hundred pages of Gary Lutz, I opened Google Maps and took a long, hard look at the state where he was born: Pennsylvania, the ‘Keystone State’, although...

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Beryl Bainbridge’s Beats

Tom Crewe, 7 May 2020

Some of us​ are trapped all our lives. This is the lesson of Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Injury Time, first published in 1977. It is a sort of dinner party farce, except better. The aptly...

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‘This Mournable Body’

Blake Morrison, 7 May 2020

Early on​ in This Mournable Body, a skimpily dressed woman in ‘sky-high heels’ falls backwards onto muddy ground while trying to climb into a crowded Harare minibus. Nobody comes to...

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