Literature & Criticism

William Gaddis

Adam Mars-Jones

23 September 2021

Gaddis shows an intimate knowledge of fine art, in terms of both aesthetics and techniques, obviously an asset in a novel that deals with the forging of paintings. His blind spot, unfortunately, is literary prose. He has no feeling for his medium. His novels are long not because they are structurally ambitious – they’re not – but because he has no idea how to construct, or to cut.  

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Reproduction Anxiety

Madeleine Schwartz

23 September 2021

It’​s hard not to read the title of Mieko Kawakami’s first novel, Breasts and Eggs, as some kind of provocation. I keep seeing them in front of me – a perverted breakfast, breasts . . .

What Sally did next

Christian Lorentzen

23 September 2021

Sally​ Rooney’s emergence in recent years as the avatar of literary success and its online scapegoat is not unrelated to the content of her novels. Normal People begins with its protagonists . . .

Black Marseille

Kevin Okoth

23 September 2021

When​ Claude McKay first visited Marseille he was immediately taken with the vagabond social life of the Vieux Port. In his early twenties he had moved from Jamaica to the US, where he spent a few . . .


Anthony Grafton

23 September 2021

Indexes are​ trouble. If you index your own work, you have to chew your cabbage twice, and then again, and again. You must reread the text that seemed so cogent when you sent it to the publisher . . .

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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Short Cuts: Beckett in a Field

Anne Enright, 23 September 2021

What would Beckett sound like in a language he could not speak, but which might be intuited in his use of English? It would be like bringing the work back to a time before it was started. It might make...

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With a Da bin ich! Properly Lawrentian

Seamus Perry, 9 September 2021

‘Mind’ is never a good word in D.H. Lawrence: the whole problem of modern life was that there was far too much mind in it, operating ‘as a director or controller of the spontaneous centres’...

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Is this what life is like? ‘My Phantoms’

Nicole Flattery, 9 September 2021

Gwendoline Riley’s landscape is the North of England: bars, motorways, housing estates. In her novels, there is often a monstrous father, and an awful mother too – though the latter is more...

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Motherly Protuberances: Simon Okotie

Blake Morrison, 9 September 2021

As a detective you have to watch your step, in order that your operations remain clandestine, and no detectives in literature have ever watched their steps as literally as Okotie’s two detectives....

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No Shortage of Cousins: Bowenology

David Trotter, 12 August 2021

The pleasures as much as the perils of adaptation led Elizabeth Bowen to suppose that the fundamental condition of human experience is a feeling of ‘amorphousness’ which prompts the ‘obsessive...

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The Book of Disquiet is almost about philosophy; its tone is often casual and then deliberate. Pessoa loves aphorism, and enjoys long, loose ruminations. He writes beautifully about weather; it seems constantly...

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Utterly Oyster: Fergie-alike

Andrew O’Hagan, 12 August 2021

To write a book for money is a forgivable exercise – Fergie, from a certain viewpoint, has never done anything in her life that wasn’t for money – but the chief horror of her book is...

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Claire-Louise Bennett doesn’t specify the kinds of stories that women might be desperate to cast off, but she doesn’t need to. Relationships, career, children, ‘creativity’. Whether...

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Pull off my head: What a Bear Wants

Patricia Lockwood, 12 August 2021

Here is what it is: no force on earth will keep a writer’s preoccupations out of their fiction. You are not necessarily looking for them, but you find them every time. There you are in your octagon,...

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And where is Katharina? At her trial, the prosecution argues that there are evils and evils: complicated, faraway evils, such as war, which no municipal ruling can fix, and local, finite evils, such as...

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Barbara Pym’s comedies are disenchanted romances. Her spinsters often marry but do so with their eyes open. Men, they realise, are best treated as children – helpless and often peevish. Eligible...

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Writing from ‘an artificial paradise it is Hell to get into’, John Wieners channelled Baudelaire and aimed to ‘be the new Rimbaud, and not die at 37 but set the record straight’....

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This happens every day: On Paul Celan

Michael Wood, 29 July 2021

German language, Celan often said, was his mother’s tongue and the tongue of her murderers (‘Muttersprache und Mördersprache’). Writing poetry in German was for him both an act of...

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Pure, Fucking Profit: ‘Assembly’

Joanna Biggs, 15 July 2021

Assembly takes a character who seems to have the best our society has to offer young women in the early 21st century – no surprise: it’s still money, status and love – and shows us why...

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The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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On the Interface: M. John Harrison

Nick Richardson, 15 July 2021

Whether he’s writing about holographic sex shows, or drywall and oven gloves, M. John Harrison is a psychological novelist whose fascination with trauma, repression and memory remains constant throughout...

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Is there a moral here about the futility of self-willed ‘identity’? Or is it a cautionary tale about the religion of achievement? Was Rich afraid that her deepest identity, that of a poet,...

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There’s always an audience if you’re someone with a smartphone, a social media influencer or just paranoid. But the lack of connection is not only a problem of address, but of artifice. Is...

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