Literature & Criticism

Life as a Wife

Tessa Hadley

17 June 2021

We could hardly expect George Meredith to be thankful for his humiliation at the hands of his too-lively first wife, who was insufficiently devoted to his greatness. But it’s possible now to see that Mary Ellen’s betrayal was the necessary irritant, the grit, that brought out his best work. He couldn’t leave her story alone – in novel after novel he returned to portraits of women dissatisfied with their lumbering males, who are always one step behind and too much in love with themselves to see anyone else clearly.

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‘Light Perpetual’

Adam Mars-Jones

17 June 2021

Light​ Perpetual starts with a description of a V2 about to explode on a Saturday in 1944. The tone is one of uneasy technological rapture: ‘a thread-wide front of change propagating outward . . .

‘Lean Fall Stand’

Edmund Gordon

17 June 2021

In​ The Man Who Lost His Language (2002), a memoir about her husband’s aphasia, Sheila Hale explains that ‘unless complicated by other neurological disorders, aphasia does not usually . . .

On Fiona Benson

Colin Burrow

17 June 2021

Atypical poem​ in Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright Travellers (2014), begins with a description of a hare:              There’s a leveret in . . .


J. Robert Lennon

3 June 2021

At the beginning​ of Second Place, the narrator recalls a time in her life when imagined fears blinded her to real dangers. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘do we live so painfully in our fictions? . . .

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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Bitchy Little Spinster: Queens of Amherst

Joanne O’Leary, 3 June 2021

The first woman to receive a doctorate in geography from Harvard, Millicent Bingham sacrificed her academic career to finish the editorial work her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, began. Readers may not agree...

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Men fall constantly and embarrassingly in love with her (her seductively brazen author photos, in which she looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman, suggest a reason). At one point, she goes to the cinema for...

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His One Eye Glittering: Creeley’s Chatter

August Kleinzahler, 20 May 2021

Logorrhoea:​ Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley were all afflicted with it. I only ever witnessed Duncan’s performances – free-form, extended, mostly improvised...

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Long before ecocriticism or the notion of the ‘anthropocene’ or the ‘posthuman’, African indigenous cosmologies offered ways of seeing and interpreting that emphasise the continuity...

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Exemplary craftsman, incorrigible satyr, subversive joker, avid grievance collector, liberal humanist, good son, bad husband, bountiful benefactor, Philip Roth in his prickly contrarieties aroused an ambivalence...

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Torrey Peters’s treatment of her two central themes – the detransition and the baby – injects realism into some of the most frenzied debates around trans issues. Detransition is not only...

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The social identities behind the vintage references in Artem Chekh and Zakhar Prilepin’s works are the fundamental oppositions of the 21st century: on one side the liberals, the bourgeois, the cosmopolitans,...

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The Flower and the Bee: Many Anons

Irina Dumitrescu, 22 April 2021

Writing is not now considered a collective exercise. The Romantic myth of the lone genius persists. He is no longer always a white man – only most of the time. The black and white author photo is...

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Lost Names: Lucille Clifton

Andrea Brady, 22 April 2021

Poetry can be a radical act of naming and misnaming, of bringing to light the awkward correlations between objects and words. Audre Lorde described it as ‘the way we help give name to the nameless...

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It’s brave of C. Pam Zhang to come at her themes from an angle – if the setting isn’t actual 19th-century America, then there’s a risk that her revisionism might lose its relevance...

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Eels on Cocaine

Emily Witt, 22 April 2021

Patricia Lockwood is a generous writer. She seems incapable of resentment and has a Rabelaisian appreciation for the bawdy. She can describe America’s corporate restaurant chains and their blooming...

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Yeah, that was cool: ‘Rave’

Harry Strawson, 1 April 2021

Rainald Goetz isn’t much interested in telling tales of hedonistic excess. He’s not above name­dropping, showing off about the DJs he was friends with and the cool clubs he went to, but...

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On Charles Wright

Matthew Bevis, 1 April 2021

Finishing Oblivion Banjo, I was left in a Wright-like quandary: ‘I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what.’ The book offers itself as ‘the perfect distillation’...

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Kafka wrote that, were it not for the final act, Michael Kohlhaas would be ‘a thing of perfection’, which is a diplomatic way of saying that Kleist absolutely butchers it. In fact, one of the...

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Fed up with Ibiza: Sybille Bedford

Jenny Turner, 1 April 2021

You might start reading her for the food and the celebrity gossip, but you reread for the thrilling materiality, ‘concrete and fastidious’, as she herself once suggested, of her prose:...

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Bon-hommy: Émigré Words

Michael Wood, 1 April 2021

French is fancy and fashionable, but we aren’t going to fall for that. We have solid, stocky Saxon words to hand, verbal guarantees of a closeness to reality. Who needs ennui when we have old-fashioned...

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Words, too, can mean opposite things. This is a minority interest among those who want language to communicate plainly, but it’s of consummate interest to poets. In the procedural poems, you see...

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A remarkable number of scenes take place in the lavatory or on the way to it. We get milk stinking of mice, clothes reeking of paraffin and horse’s sweat, the musty odour of armpits and the ‘heavy...

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