Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980

Hangchow Retrouvé

Emma Rothschild writes about the high culture of food

4746 words

The city of Hangchow, in the 13th century, was transfixed by food. Its restaurants went in and out of fashion, and were commemorated in elaborate and scholarly guidebooks. There were restaurants specialising in regional food, fish restaurants, fast-food bars, restaurants which served iced food or vegetarian dishes. Its markets were ‘innumerable’, according to Marco Polo, selling game, varieties of apricot, early aubergines, live baby fish carried inland in baskets. The capital of Southern Sung China was the largest city in the world and ‘without doubt the finest and most splendid’.1

The most exalted intellectuals were entranced with the culture of food. Philosophers described the principles of cooking and diet. Eminent officials toured the surrounding countryside looking for ‘natural’ cooking, for dishes which preserved ‘the food’s basic nature’. The past was interpreted through food, in the memoirs of poets and historians; as a modern scholar of Sung writes, ‘time and, thus, memory were suffused with impressions of food.’2

The civilisation of Hangchow was doomed. In 1276, the city fell to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The Chinese empire of cuisine had existed long before the Sung, and it persists still. It transcended more or less effortlessly the sour milk and dried mutton of the Mongol dynasty. Marco Polo, who worked for Kublai Khan, saw the pavilions and lakes where the prosperous people of Hangchow held banquets served by professional caterers. But the Sung emperors’ groves and gardens were in ruins. The popular food culture of Hangchow was never again as intense as in the years before the conquest.

The spirit of An-Chou Alley is not, however, lost. For in late 20th-century Paris, Hangchow has been reborn. Once again, an immense city is under the spell of food. French cuisine has become a spectacle of mass consumption: guidebooks and gastronomic magazines, restaurateurs and critics, a galaxy of crowns and stars and toques; on television, ‘la cuisine légère’ and how to cook a rabbit tart; in Le Monde, how to conceive a boy by eating smoked ham and Vichy water but no crabs or waffles. Food sells: reviews of archaeology (prehistoric food), science magazines (man and his food), journals consecrated to the transdisciplinary study of sociology, anthropology and semiology (‘towards a biocultural anthropology of food’). There are the entrepreneurs of popular high food, Gault and Millau, who tell how to throw a banquet for 500 in the Bois de Boulogne, how to win a gastronomic cruise by guessing the combined weight of G. and M., how to evaluate 26 kinds of snack crackers (Rico Tico, made in Costa Rica, ‘inattendu et joli, mais assez coeurant …’).

In Paris, as in Hangchow, food is serious. The most elevated pursuits are mediated through eating. France is, for example, the home of the scholarly study of food. The analogies of Lévi-Strauss, from the dyadic structure of English and French meals to honey, ashes and cannibalism. One hundred and forty-two pages on the history of food in Fernand Braudel’s magnificent new Les Structures du Quotidien.3 ‘Food is a sort of grill,’ wrote the late Roland Barthes, ‘through which all the sciences which we now call social and human may successfully be exercised.’4 Eating was one of Barthes’s own best topics: bleeding steak, sugar, photographs of food in Elle, the psychosociology of crispy food, Fourier’s fruit compotes.

Un Festin en Paroles is a product of this profoundly Chinese atmosphere.5 Jean-François Revel, avenging fury in pursuit of international communism, author of books on liberalism and philosophy, reveals himself to be an amateur of arcane cookbooks. His history of ‘gastronomic sensibility’, as recounted in books of recipes and apothegms, proceeds from Archestratus (floruit 350 BC) to the newest heroes of a three-star return to nature. Revel distinguishes popular cuisine – the food of the people and of the countryside – from la cuisine savante. It is with the latter that he concerns himself, and with its location in ‘the rich classes of all epochs’.

Revel’s theme is the progress of gastronomy towards perfection, in the form of a philosophical, a thought-out cuisine. The food of the rich is ever more intellectual, more refined, more conscious. The cook becomes a ‘cuisinier pensant’ and the chef a ‘maître à penser’. There are early successes. A cook book of the Enlightenment expresses ideas ‘d’une étonnante profondeur’. Revel looks back to a golden age of eating in the 1780s. But the history of cuisine is illuminated by a vision of the Paris of the future, of the perfection that lies ahead in the new and nuanced French cuisine of the 1970s. A pâté of trout with truffles in the 1730s is ‘evocative’ of late 20th-century cuisine. The use of spices in the Middle Ages is to be transcended in the ‘modern conception’ of using natural products to flavour each other (‘the idea of using a purée of dried fungi to impregnate a chicken wing …’).

Such culinary evolutionism has a distinguished history. Its locus classicus is Auguste Escoffier’s preface to the Larousse Gastronomique: ‘To show the changes in the order and serving of meals from century to century, to describe and comment on the progress of the French cuisine, is to paint a picture of the many stages through which a nation has evolved since the distant times when, as a weak tribe, man lived in dark caves, eating wild roots, raw fish and the still pulsating flesh of animals killed with the spear.’6 We pass over the details of such a schema: the passion in Paris now for raw scallops and uncooked salmon; the fact that Gault and Millau praise a many-toqued restaurant for its slices of raw beef, no doubt pulsating still. These stages of growth are the spirit of Revel’s teleology, of his trajectory towards grilled, poached and marinated thoughts.

The scholarly successes of Paris-Hangchow are paraded in dizzying sequence. Haute cuisine, according to Revel, uses art, but also ‘biology and ethnology’. The history of cooking, as revealed in books of recipes, resembles the history of mathematics or medicine: there is a pre-scientific cuisine and, by implication, changes in the paradigms of kitchen science, the structure of culinary revolutions. The theory is interspersed with recitation of recipes, and with hymns, which rival multikilo Gault-Millau, to the ‘sombre red of the puréed tomatoes’ in turbot à la parisienne.

The culinary culture aspires to a sort of do-it-yourself structural history. Thus Revel alludes to Lucien Febvre (the founder, with Marc Bloch, of the historical journal Annales ESC), and to Braudel’s ‘longue durée’. But the gourmet history of cuisine is far from the methods of the Annales historians themselves (Le Roy Ladurie, for example, on famine, amenorrhea and wet nurses); and furthest of all from Lucien Febvre, who inspired a whole school of studies not of sumptuary cuisine but of popular consumption, of the distinct culinary, linguistic and vegetable regions of France. Revel is curiously confident of the lavishness of popular cuisine in the 16th century, at a time of rapid decline in the food consumption of the poor; his 19th century is that of Carême and Rossini, not of the people who lived on fourth-hand resold tournedos and putrefying fish.

The thinking cuisine is, of course, French. The eels of Archestratus and the oyster sausages of Apicius, Catherine de Medici’s pastry cooks and Margaret of York’s stuffed whale: all are the imperfect precursors of the Parisian cuisine of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a grande cuisine internationale according to Revel, and it is French: not because French cooking has invaded the world, but rather because it has ‘rethought’ or ‘rewritten’ the food of all regions and all countries. French chefs, in their eternal quest for a return to nature, can draw upon the zoological, botanical and folkloric resources of the entire world (prickly pears and the presumed Japanese taste for raw lobster). They can also fly round the world, establishing local temples of culture and instructing their far-flung ‘disciples’: Concorde cuisine, or a kiwi in every pot.

This development is not new. Such a sacred grove of gastronomy as the Museum of Culinary Art, maintained by the Auguste Escoffier Foundation in the master’s birthplace outside Nice, is a repository of Wagons-Lits cuisine: Escoffier’s own mementoes from his years of toil in London, ceremonial photographs of a colleague who was chef de cuisine at the Courts of Siam and Russia, a collection of the dried skins of sole, the menu of a lunch at the Kaiser’s Schloss Bellevue in Berlin in 1916, an illuminated manuscript from the associated cuisiniers of Poznan and greetings from the technical hotel school of Osaka – the Foundation’s object is ‘the diffusion of French culinary art throughout the entire world’.7

The zenith of international cooking may in fact have been achieved in the 1920s. This was the view of the Futurist poet Marinetti, whose La Cucina Futurista is devoted to political food, as well as to the principles of lightness in cooking. Marinetti composed banquets for Mussolini, recipes for flambé’d fish with apples, and dishes using only the produce of the Italian empire of 1932. He explained, fairly plausibly, that the international conferences of the 1920s failed because they took place in a succession of Grand Hotels, where diplomats were fatally demoralised by their unremitting diet of grande cuisine internationale8

The international chefs are at least as solemn as are their literary exegetes. Michel Guérard – one of Revel’s ‘maîtres à penser’ a ‘semi-legendary personage’ – is a perfectionist of the dyadic. His La Grande Cuisine Minceur proceeds from Two Great Laws to, for example, a taxonomy of spices: earth or sea, fire of freshness, ‘messengers from within or messengers from elsewhere’. Salt is the ‘condiment-symbol par excellence’, and vanilla (daughter of the Isles) ‘sensual and troubling’. The ‘primordial mechanical action of the whisk (empirical method)’ is distinguished from ‘its modern transposition, le mixer’.

Cuisine Minceur is for overweight gourmets, and it came to Guérard more or less in a dream, when ‘my poor body’ seemed overcome by too many years of voluptuous sauces. It is classic of la cuisine pensée in that it rewrites fat into thin food, and Japan into ‘salade geisha’. Guérard, although the proprietor of a pricey spa, is an adept of modern food technology, non-stick frying-pans spun off from the American space programme, and frozen peasant food for the masses. But he is resolutely faithful to the eternal principles of Escoffier. What, after all, is a salad of lambs’ brains without mayonnaise, even if the mayonnaise requires paraffin oil, fat-free white cheese and carrot mousse? The English adaptation of Guérard’s book has been lightly bowdlerised for English sensibilities of vulgar English empiricism. Thus Guérard’s fruitier apothegms remain in French in the text. The symbol-spices are left out, as is the primordial whisk. A ‘sauce perfumed with earth and humus’ becomes ‘truffle sauce’. The English are also spared the rigours of paraffin oil.9

This is structuralist cuisine, the terminus of Revel’s journey. The international cuisine. Revel concludes, seizes the ‘idée génératrice’ of some local recipe, and makes ‘conscious’ that which was previously ‘unconscious’. There follows a hallucinating passage on the deep structure of the conscious, its ‘two fundamental traits’, the ‘meaning’ of its different kinds of mutton, the dangers of popularising it without understanding and ‘transposing its principles’. Revel’s own theories are equally vertiginous. Thus his final passages establish a perfectly symmetrical culinary dualism, a sort of generative grammar of greediness in which two phases beget two tendencies, two accents and two values, the whole lineage to be traced through ‘successive generations of gastronomic guides’.

All this portentousness is silly. The study of high cuisine – of the false consciousness of chefs – is a tenuous foundation on which to build a superstructure of philosophy and social history. But it does suggest a different, related inquiry (and one which is close to Revel’s idea of ‘gastronomic sensibility’). This is the question of why societies become obsessed by food. Why, and where, does a cuisine-centred culture flourish, in which people write and build theories about food?

Such an inquiry leads swiftly back to old Hangchow. For France and China are the two civilisations which are acknowledged, by common acclaim, to have produced a cuisine. They are also the two civilisations which have produced a food culture. The Chinese pre-occupation with food – of which the first and most vivid flowering was in Southern Sung – has survived in various forms since antiquity. The French culinary culture flourished with only trivial interruptions throughout the 19th century. It is the mass phase of this culture which is sweeping Paris today.

A food culture of this sort is necessary for the development of a cuisine, in the sense of an explicit and complex collection of laws of cooking. Effort and sumptuousness alone are not enough. The Emperor Elagabalus, according to Gibbon, was revived by the ‘confused multitude of women, of wine and dishes, and the studied variety of attitudes and sauces’. The creation of a new sauce was rewarded: ‘but if it was not relished the inventor was confined to eat of nothing else till he had discovered another more agreeable to the Imperial palate.’10 Yet such refinements did not constitute a late imperial haute cuisine. Nor are the banquets of medieval Europe to be included in what Braudel calls ‘cuisine recherchée’. These feasts were certainly thought out. But their fantasies had more to do with display and form than with taste: a wren baked within a swallow within a thrush within a partridge within a peahen within a goose; or the medieval custom, recounted by an earlier French historian of luxury, of baking cakes in the representation of ‘those parts of the body over which modesty obliges us to draw a veil’.11

What is required, for a cuisine and the culture in which it flourishes, is not consciousness (Elagabalus put-upon saucier in the solitude of the imperial villa) but collective consciousness: the culinary city. Hangchow before 1276 and Paris in the 19th and 20th centuries are different in almost every economic and political respect. But they are two among very few examples of food-centred cities. As such, the two capitals could suggest some outline of the conditions in which a culinary civilisation exists.

A first such condition has to do with class structure. It seems that a culinary culture requires a large middle class; if possible, a middle class which has recently survived some more or less traumatic upheaval. Thus the sentimental attachment of French gourmets to the last years of the Ancien Régime is misleading. The çi-devants were certainly fond of food. They seem to have spent much of the 1770s and 1780s eating. Anyone who was anyone – from the Prince de Condé to the Prince de Conti – had his or her cuisinier pensant. But the true food culture of Paris, and thus the true cuisine, was post-Revolutionary.

Only with the triumph of the bourgeoisie, and in the tumult of 1796-7, did the civilisation of food come to power. This is the hypothesis of the historian Jean-Paul Aron, in a remarkable book called Le Mangeur du XIXe siècle.12 When the princes of the Ancien Régime set off into exile, they left behind them armies of chefs, sauciers and pâtissiers. These unemployed masters founded the Parisian restaurants which flourished during the Terror, the Empire and the Restoration, and which have dominated French culinary life ever since. Gastronomy became the characteristic luxury of the middle classes, the display in which they joined most effortlessly – ‘une folie bourgeoise: la nourriture’.

With the establishment of restaurants, wrote Brillat-Savarin, good food was no longer the privilege of the rich and powerful. Brillat – who returned to Paris from a brief American exile in 1796 and of whom Balzac wrote, ‘it is a sad good fortune to have known these old men who bestride the two centuries’ – was only intermittently sentimental about the sweetness of food before the Revolution.13 His ‘heroes of gourmandise’, by 1825, were the financiers of Paris, with doctors, clerics and men of letters as subsidiary luminaries. This was the first golden age of guidebooks to Paris restaurants, when the chefs of great families were remembered not for their solitary accomplishments but for their contribution to the ‘collective gastronomy’of essays, journals and reviews.14

Such social dislocation was equally characteristic of Hangchow. The imperial capital was an Eldorado of the middle classes. Marco Polo describes merchants, doctors, astrologers and restaurant-keepers, as well as tax-collectors, census officials, customs officers, and other greater and lesser officials. The social hierarchy of the Chinese bureaucracy was increasingly ‘ambiguous’. The structure of Chinese society had changed in the 12th and 13th centuries: ‘Between the ruling élite and the mass of the people a very diversified but very active class appeared and began to occupy a more and more important position: the merchants.’ The class relationships of Hangchow were increasingly complicated; ‘they altered the very nature of the scholar-official.’15

Sung China had suffered a cultural and political trauma: the conquest in 1132 of the ‘Northern Sung’ capital, Kaifeng, and the removal of the imperial court to Hangchow. This disturbance was accompanied by a flowering of restaurants: ‘Like many of the great bureaucratic families, the restaurateurs had made their way to Hangchow from the old capital after its fall …’ As in Paris, haute restaurant food triumphed over the private banquets of all but the most elevated families: ‘Sung food centred in the world of restaurants’, with its modes and guides and literary lights.16 Sung restaurateurs also prided themselves on serving refined and rethought versions of regional dishes. They distinguished sharply between acceptable and unacceptable (un-Chinese, un-French) exotica. Much hilarity. Frogs seem to have been a source of endless entertainment in Hangchow: which provincials ate big frogs, small frogs, the thighs of frogs …

A second condition for the existence of a food culture has to do with the relationship between city and countryside. High cuisine is urban. It requires a concentration of prosperous and not notably overworked people, many of them in such characteristically citified occupations as finance, journalism and trade. The vicissitudes of fashion which make possible a collective, continuing gastronomy are unavoidably metropolitan. Balzac’s ‘New Theory of Lunch’ (1830) recounts the decline of lunch among deputies and literary men. Food itself was going out of fashion among the ambitious (who eat little) and the scholars (who are sober) and the romantics (who have a horror of obesity): it was a new challenge for French cuisine, to disguise food, and put a maximum of substance in a minimal form.17 Such modes persist today, in the latterday metropolis of cuisine minceur.

At the same time, however, the culinary city is materially and spiritually dependent upon its surrounding countryside. Its chefs and restaurateurs congratulate themselves on the sublimity and freshness of their agricultural produce. Ch’ing cooks, like three-star chefs today, practised a ‘cuisine of the marketplace’ where 60 per cent of the credit for a banquet was due to the chef, and 40 per cent to the person who bought the ingredients. One of the purest gastronomic idylls is of the city as terminus for the fruits of a smiling arrière-pays. Thus descriptions of Hangchow are full of its peaches and giant pears, its stags and quails and capons; of the prodigious effort of provisioning the city; of the concentric circles of horticulture and agriculture whose destination was the marketplaces of the capital.

This vision is equally French. Its most vivid expression is in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris, which begins with the hero entering Paris, concealed in a waggon carrying carrots and turnips towards the ‘enormity of Les Halles’, its spinach and cheeses and mussels and cauliflowers ‘like enormous roses’. In Zola’s notes, the ‘general idea is … the belly of humanity … the bourgeoisie digesting, ruminating, peacefully chewing its joys’,18 Paris was ‘la ville gourmande’. But it was also a waggon’s haul away from the market gardens of Nanterre, within a railway journey of the geese of Alençon, the oysters of Cancale, the butter of Normandy, the plums of Metz, the prunes of Agen, the apricots of Clermond.19

This ambiguity, of a city set within a rich countryside, is related to the social conditions of the food-centred city. One of the dominant emotions of gastronomy is nostalgia: above all, for a country past as remembered in the taste of fruits and cakes. Chinese officials celebrated the mulberry trees and fields and natural tastes of simple villages.20 The remembrance of a more orderly class structure (of rulers and ruled, without the intermediate ‘estates’ of the city) is also characteristically French. Proust, notably, evokes Paris in restaurants and pretentious dinners (even served on nasturtium Chinese plates), and childhood in the sweetness of the last gooseberries and the first cherries. His characters are constantly leaving Paris for villages of pear trees and market towns beyond the city limits: the opposite journey to Florent’s entry among the turnips into the overeating city.

Like the Chinese, the French idealised the life of the land. Their city cuisine depended upon a diversified and meticulous agriculture: what Roupnel calls the ‘intimate’ farming of gardens and pastures, as distinguished from the ‘oceanic’ plains of overseas grain production.21 But the sentiment of the city concealed the most oppressive class and economic relationships. In medieval China, the historian Balazs writes: ‘the peasant was supposed to be the key to the vault of the universe.’22 At the same time, in the complicated social structure of the cities, there existed an ‘entente’ between the scholar-bureaucrats and the merchants, to the detriment of the peasantry – dying within the circles of Hangchow’s empire of cuisine.

A third circumstance of the culinary city – a third kind of ambiguity – concerns its economic conditions. The economy must support a busy and labour-intensive agriculture, capable of producing early aubergines and perfect plums. But it must also be rich, with a metropolitan society and a highly elaborate system of commerce. It must be able to distribute perishable commodities from orchards to provincial markets and into a huge city. Such a system, with its insignia of inspectors, communications, quality controls, requires prodigies of administrative and technological organisation.

The food-centred society flourishes, it seems, in the environment of an early industrial economic boom. The economic life of Sung China was intensely active, with rapid advances in river and maritime commerce, and refrigerated barges plying its waters. Its highway system was also increasing (although its regional highways, like the Roman roads, seem to have served the interests of political control as much as of large-scale trade). The system of communications was as busy in early 19th-century France as in the ‘immobile’ Chinese despotism: bridges and boulevards and arterial railways – the eternal French predilection, noted by Marx, for the inspection of ‘ponts et chaussées’.23

The societies which become preoccupied with high cuisine are thus an anomaly in any simple schema of economic growth as proceeding from agriculture to industry and finance. Their ‘infrastructure’ should be industrial, or at least technologically advanced. But the requirements of large-scale industrial production – an industrial workforce, to be fed on grain and other low-cost calories – may be inimical to the juxtaposition of rural and bourgeois life which produces a cuisine. The other civilisations that could claim a high food culture are similarly complicated, with vast cities set in an industrially undeveloped countryside: Florence in the 15th century; Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphs in the eighth and ninth centuries, a bureaucratic and intellectual capital, and the centre of a complex system of food commerce – the exemplary city of Arab cuisine.

A fourth and final condition is political. Here again, circumstances are open to conflicting interpretations. For the state, in the food-centred city, should be at the same time immensely strong and insecure. It must see itself as exerting influence over the entire world: ‘an empire that looked upon itself as the universe, the t’ien-hsia, conceived as composed of concentric circles becoming more and more barbarous the further they lay from the Chinese core’.24 But this dominion is exercised through culture, systems of thought, the inflection of material life, as well as through military force. The characteristic consuls of imperial influence are not only soldiers but also inspectors, teachers, architects, philosophers, chefs.

The Southern Sung empire was vast and rich and dazzling to Venetian travellers. Its maritime commerce reached to Africa, and provided Hangchow with delicacies and with its basic rice supplies. Yet the Sung rulers were surrounded by threatening military powers: the Jurchen invaders to whom the old capital Kaifeng fell; upstart kings in Indochina; the Khans who eventually conquered Hangchow. Only their intellectual authority was unquestioned. (The last Sung emperor, according to Marco Polo, was a fairly etiolated character whose pastimes were wandering among the fruit trees, watching his concubines swimming, and eating in wooded groves; a latterday Elagabalus, perhaps, or an early version of King Charles VI of France, employer of the famous 14th-century chef Taillevent and another monarch in whose life the themes of women and groves recur.)

The dominion of ideas is also characteristically French. Nineteenth-century Paris was the core of the universe not because of its military sway but through the empire of taste and thought. It filled the world not with commodities but with the conception of commodities: the ‘patterns’ or ‘models’ which are the essence of Frenchness in Michelet’s Le Peuple. This form of influence was not novel: there were imitations of Versailles all across western and eastern Europe. But it was most vivid and most self-conscious in post-revolutionary France: Paris, capital of the 19th century. In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, Paris was the centre of fashion, of luxury industries, whose Universal Exhibitions were places of pilgrimage for all Europe: the marketplace of spiritual values.25

The influence of fashion was expressed through cuisine. Benjamin’s epigraph is an Eclogue-like poem of 1832: sheep will wander already roasted in the plains, and ‘canards aux navets’ will fall from the skies. The visionaries of the Third Republic, with hopes more grandiose than their colonial expeditions to Morocco and Indochina, later imagined a culinary conquest of the world. Aron describes the dream of the master chef Philéas Gilbert, in 1884, of a ‘universal gastronomic synthesis’, a school of chefs to be founded in Paris which would teach ‘a course of universal geography’ and which would use the specialities not only of every department of France (cauliflowers like roses, the oysters of Cancale, the plums of Metz and so forth) but also of all continents: ‘As long ago to Rome, the food riches of the entire world would flow to the School, which in its turn would send them back again, marked with that stamp of genius which our culinary eminences impress upon all which leaves their hands, for the highest happiness of our modern gastronomes.26 These are the concentric circles of a French ‘universe’, from Metz to Escoffier’s cuisiniers of Poznan, the hotel school of Osaka, and Michel Guérard’s rethought salade geisha.

There is merit to the evolutionist view of cuisine. The culinary civilisations are strange and anomalous, empires unto themselves. At the same time, their citizens have realised the old hedonistic idyll of making even the most essential routines playful and thoughtful. Escoffier’s view, as always, was optimistic (in 1902): ‘If cuisine is becoming simpler, externally, it is not – on the contrary – losing its value. As tastes become ever more refined, cuisine itself is perpetually more refined to satisfy them. In order to combat the disastrous effects of modern hyperactivity on the nervous system, it will become even more scientific and more precise.’27 This position is not ridiculous. It is hard, in any case, to judge from the un-French and un-Chinese periphery (frogs and toads again, as in Gault and Millau venturing across the Channel to the land of ‘Crapaud-dans-le-trou’ or ‘steak en pâte’).

The fate of the culinary city itself is less sure. Chinese cities were obsessed with food for at least six centuries after the fall of Hangchow. In Paris, high cuisine is for the first time a more or less genuine mass mania. The Mongols may well be at the gates. But there is a different immortality to come: French, like Chinese restaurateurs, eternally wandering the world – the ultimate mass cuisine, and in every city not only a ‘Golden Lotus’, but a ‘Veau d’Or’ take-away restaurant as well.

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