Literature & Criticism

Photo of Zola

Two Years with Zola

Brandon Taylor

4 April 2024

For Zola, the greatest moral act is to bear witness. Sometimes when I read novels set in the past, a contemporary smugness sets in. But when the past comes uncomfortably close to the events you’re living through you realise how new so many of our institutions and customs are, and how fragile.

Read more about Is it even good? Two Years with Zola

Halldór Laxness does both

Michael Hofmann

4 April 2024

If geography​ isn’t destiny, it comes close. Consider Iceland, at the apex of the North Atlantic. From there, one leg of a pair of dividers drops south to the Scandinavian ports and Scotland, and then . . .

‘Chaucer Here and Now’

Philip Knox

4 April 2024

One​ of the frustrating things about Chaucer is that the literary archive only begins at the time of his death in 1400. No earlier manuscripts containing his writings survive. This means that we don’t . . .

On Justin Torres

Emily Witt

4 April 2024

Jan Gay​ was born Helen Reitman in Leipzig in 1902. She came out as a lesbian in young adulthood, studied under the German sexologist Magnus Hirshfield, started a nudist colony with her partner, Zhenya . . .

‘American Fiction’

Michael Wood

21 March 2024

Percival Everett’s​ brilliant novel The Trees (2021) offers a heady mixture of comedy and horror. The depiction of race, crime and policing in the American South is too parodic to be true, and too . . .

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.

Read more about Malfunctioning Sex Robot: Updike Redux

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.

Read more about Get a Real Degree

Vermicular Dither

Michael Hofmann, 28 January 2010

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

Read more about Vermicular Dither

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,...

Read more about Le pauvre Sokal: the Social Text Hoax

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...

Read more about The Fatness of Falstaff

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...

Read more about Paul de Man’s Abyss

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.

Read more about Diary: On the Booker

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.

Read more about Sounding Auden

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.

Read more about Fairy Flight in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Escape the bear trap: ‘Family Meal’

Josie Mitchell, 21 March 2024

In Bryan Washington's Family Meal, jokes and gestures stand in for confessional outpourings, occasionally revealing an unacknowledged depth of feeling. But elsewhere the laconic dialogue leaves the reader...

Read more about Escape the bear trap: ‘Family Meal’

Unblenched: Homage to Brigid Brophy

Lucie Elven, 21 March 2024

Brophy’s writing is propelled by the excitement of the intellect, while the emotion is held within the structure. She found a form for her work that accommodated her need for artifice, for self-creation...

Read more about Unblenched: Homage to Brigid Brophy

Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

Ange Mlinko, 21 March 2024

Jo Ann Beard is a cunning craftswoman who draws circles and parallels across time, embedding patterns that unite seemingly disparate tales.

Read more about Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

The notion of existential lack, of a hole that yearns to be filled, of the human need to be made whole through connection with another, is a fundamental and recurrent preoccupation in Coetzee’s fiction. 

Read more about Mothers and Others: Coetzee’s Multistorey Consciousness

Buchi Emecheta said that all her books were about survival, but survival doesn’t always mean gritting your teeth. Sometimes it means acting the tourist for a day, skipping the royal press conference...

Read more about Lady This and Princess That: On Buchi Emecheta

I am his leavings: On Anne Enright

Clare Bucknell, 7 March 2024

One thing Enright’s The Wren, The Wren is sure of is that there is no such thing as completion, or a fresh start. Many of its images are variations on the theme of traces, leftovers, the aspects of self...

Read more about I am his leavings: On Anne Enright

Henry and Hamlet

Barbara Everett, 22 February 2024

A work of art is what it is, even more than what it says. The only real way of seeing how Hamlet differs from Henry is to perceive the great difference in the plays that hold them, a mature tragedy and...

Read more about Henry and Hamlet

Can I not be both? On A.K. Blakemore

Lola Seaton, 22 February 2024

The Manningtree Witches and The Glutton are both driven by an appetite for the ‘juiciest’ words – for ‘how they feel when you say them, or look at them’. But if a writer seems more invested in...

Read more about Can I not be both? On A.K. Blakemore

To write about gay men in Britain in the 19th century should be to write about them as sons, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, grandparents, members of a social class, employees, employers,...

Read more about Balzac didn’t dare: Origins of the Gay Novel

Space Aria: On Samantha Harvey

Adam Mars-Jones, 8 February 2024

There’s no boredom in Samantha Harvey’s Orbital and no pulse of adrenaline either. To be in orbit, after all, is to be held in a balance of forces. Any acceleration would nudge things out of kilter.

Read more about Space Aria: On Samantha Harvey

This is how you smile: On Jamaica Kincaid

Ogazielum Mba, 8 February 2024

In Kincaid’s fictional world, to be someone’s daughter is to carry a great burden. To become yourself, you must reject, kill, refuse the mother, leave home, write books and essays against her, marry...

Read more about This is how you smile: On Jamaica Kincaid

Wreckage of Ellipses: On Enheduana

Anna Della Subin, 8 February 2024

The Sumerian priestess Enheduana managed the complex affairs of the temple and wrote poems, among them a collection of temple hymns that sought to accomplish in verse what her father, Sargon of Akkad,...

Read more about Wreckage of Ellipses: On Enheduana

Toxic Sausages: ‘Life Is Everywhere’

Chris Power, 25 January 2024

Are we being told that to seek truth in books is dangerous? Perhaps. But Lucy Ives also seems to be saying that books are things we pour meaning into as much as they dispense it. ‘A novel is a medicine...

Read more about Toxic Sausages: ‘Life Is Everywhere’

The Secret Life: On the poet Molly Brodak

Patricia Lockwood, 25 January 2024

You do walk through the world with some people. You don’t know anything about them, but you walk through the world; if they die, you do not get used to it.

Read more about The Secret Life: On the poet Molly Brodak

Hooted from the Stage: Living with Keats

Susan Eilenberg, 25 January 2024

Keats was deeply interested in suffering. He came by it naturally and also medically; sometimes it appeared as an impulse towards poetic tragedy. He wants what he has always wanted, to soothe pain. If...

Read more about Hooted from the Stage: Living with Keats

Emvowelled: Muddy Texts

Thomas Keymer, 25 January 2024

For early audiences, the thrill of the chase was part of the fun, and it was better to travel down the byways of interpretation, individually or through social consultation, than to arrive at a fixed conclusion....

Read more about Emvowelled: Muddy Texts

First-person narration is a rich medium in which difference can simply be suspended, without the need to announce the fact. For readers of a novel, the question ‘What is the gender affiliation of this...

Read more about Camden Town Toreros: ‘Corey Fah Does Social Mobility’

How to Hate Oil: On Upton Sinclair

Edmund Gordon, 4 January 2024

The modernity of Upton Sinclair’s California is at odds with his style. He had no time for recent developments in literary technique and his primary models were Zola (from whom he learned the importance...

Read more about How to Hate Oil: On Upton Sinclair

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences