Literature & Criticism

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 so it can be thought’. Clifton’s reason for ‘the making of poems’ – ‘though I fail and fail/in the giving of true names’ – is that ‘I am adam and his mother/ and these failures are my job.’ This failure is categorically different from the misnaming that’s symptomatic of racism.

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Shadows over Eurasia

James Meek

22 April 2021

When​ his company commander vanished from the front line at the end of 2015, the Ukrainian conscript and novelist Artem Chekh was told he’d deserted and gone over to the enemy. Through the . . .

Eels on Cocaine

Emily Witt

22 April 2021

This morning​ I watched a video of some ducks eating lettuce from an enamel bowl. The text of the newspaper lining their cage indicated the birds were in Japan. They devoured the lettuce ferociously . . .

‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

Edmund Gordon

22 April 2021

‘Didn’t I tell you,’ a character asks halfway through C. Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, ‘that you should always ask why a person is telling you . . .

Many Anons

Irina Dumitrescu

22 April 2021

In​ the mid-seventh century, a busy and well-connected abbess in Northumbria took a promising new poet under her wing. This unassuming elderly man, who worked as a cowherd, had never managed to learn . . .

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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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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‘He took stories apart and put them back together like toys,’ Gianni Rodari’s wife remembered in a rare interview. Often it seems the reassembly is an attempt to construct the kind of...

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It may be inherently impossible to write a novel that openly poses such questions as whether robots can be said to have souls, or to be conscious, or capable of feeling love, or of inspiring and reciprocating...

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Why do it, Sarah? ‘The Glass Kingdom’

Blake Morrison, 18 March 2021

Lawrence Osborne’s novels include all the props associated with thrillers: guns, heists, bribes, spiked drinks, assumed identities, ghostly visitations and suitcases stuffed with banknotes. But the...

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Stainless Steel Banana Slicer

David Trotter, 18 March 2021

Gimmickry is the séance during which some commodities, at least, have begun to dance as if of their own free will. Marx’s term for ‘of its own free will’ is ‘aus freien Stücken’...

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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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Gotcha, Pat! Highsmith in My Head

Terry Castle, 4 March 2021

Patricia High­smith was able to dramatise the loss of con­trol so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it...

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It’s a familiar paradox: in order to save herself, the writer needs to get away from her family; and yet when she sits down to write, the lost world of family is her best material – all those...

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One​ of the inhabitants of Middle England, the title and the setting of Jonathan Coe’s last novel, part of a location that is also called ‘merrie’, ‘deep’ and...

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The Aeneid is not all about male virtues and egos. The overall plot depends on the wrath of the goddess Juno, and room is also made for the quieter voices of aged fathers, local rustic deities and Italian...

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Human Origami: Four-Dimensional Hinton

Adam Mars-Jones, 4 March 2021

In Hinton the non-appearance of a transcendent perspective does the book the great service of going against teleology, the sense of moving towards a predestined end that makes most historical novels so...

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Stone’s dozen days in Saigon were all passed in the shadow of the war. Everybody was in it, somehow, and talked about it non-stop, but the talk never went anywhere. It ran into the war and came to...

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Lila and Lenù. She and I. These friendships – these first, these formative friendships – are in part about adapting ourselves to our place in adult society. There is always one child...

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