The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 
by Donald Richie, edited by Leza Lowitz.
Stone Bridge, 494 pp., £13.99, October 2005, 1 880656 97 3
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Foreign writers have been visiting Tokyo since the 1860s, but for such a vast, thrilling and important city it has proved barren as a place of literary exile. Among those who made Japan their home, as well as their subject, there are to be found only minor talents, chief among them the Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn, whose retellings of native ghost stories have made him more famous in Japanese translation than in English. The most interesting writing has been in sketches by those who have passed by and peered in without ever achieving intimacy with the culture: Angela Carter’s essays of the early 1970s collected in Nothing Sacred; Anthony Thwaite’s delicate and tentative poetry collection, Letter from Tokyo; and John Hersey’s great work of reportage, Hiroshima. When literary celebrities have alighted in Japan, the results have usually been disastrous.

At the peak of his Manhattan success, Jay McInerney came out to study karate and produced the dismal Ransom, full of sub-Hemingway machismo and lumbering Japonaiserie (‘he picked up his katana, made by the great swordsmith Yasukuni of the Soshu Branch of the Sagami School’). The best that Clive James – a regular visitor and student of Japanese – could come up with was the smirking comedy Brrm! Brrm! Only two novelists have filtered Japanese characters into English with any conviction, and neither of them has made a home in the country: Kazuo Ishiguro, British in all but name, has not lived in Nagasaki since he was a toddler; David Mitchell left Hiroshima four years ago. There is a certain amount of unjustly neglected travel writing, such as the work of the late Alan Booth. But Japan has never attracted the attention of a Chatwin or a Naipaul, let alone fostered a Kipling, a Somerset Maugham, a Hemingway or a Paul Bowles.

No one has had a greater yearning or been better qualified to fill this gap than Donald Richie. ‘Almost everything I do, everything that is known about me, is connected to this country,’ he wrote. ‘To be a person so intent upon describing a place not his own – isn’t this odd?’ Over sixty years in Japan, he has been a reporter, tour guide, cinema critic, film director, print-maker, novelist, travel writer, editor, teacher, subtitler, public speaker and actor. Apart from fiction, both short and long, and countless newspaper columns and reviews, he has published books about film, art, Zen, history, tattoos, gardens, temples, phallic symbols, food and bonsai. He has been a friend to famous and talented foreigners and to a cross-section of the most interesting Japanese of the second half of the 20th century. The index to The Japan Journals consists of a list of Richie’s acquaintances, followed by their professions. The first page alone includes Akihito (emperor), Akira (barboy), Tadashi Asami (tattooed man), John Ashbery (poet), Richard Avedon (photographer), Tamasaburo Bando (kabuki actor), Cecil Beaton (photographer/designer) and Truman Capote (author).

He arrived in Tokyo at a time when Mount Fuji could be seen from all over the city because the intervening buildings had recently been incinerated by American bombs; he is still going strong today, as the Japanese nervously brace themselves for their third period of postwar economic growth. Hardly a month passes in Tokyo without a public appearance by Donald, implausibly spry and dapper at 82, reading from his new book of criticism at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club or introducing a season of Ozu films at International House. Why then – outside Japan, at least – should he be so little known?

Most or many of his thirty or forty books (no one seems to know exactly how many there are) are out of print. Only his 1971 travelogue, The Inland Sea, and some of his film criticism, are read except by those with a specialist interest in Japan. ‘I wish I had an agent – I could just send it off to him or her,’ he writes in his journal in 1996, with another unpublished novel on his desk. ‘But I can’t. No agent has ever accepted me.’ A hundred pages, and seven years, later he is taking an ‘orphan manuscript’ of short stories to a vanity publisher. Both The Japan Journals and the earlier Donald Richie Reader (2001) transmit a resentment, on the part of the younger fans who have edited them, that he is not more famous and better regarded. In a self-defeating introduction to the Reader, Arturo Silva indignantly sets out the neglect suffered by his hero: ignored by ‘editors and bureaucrats’, unrecognised by the academic establishment, forced five times to rewrite a profile of Kurosawa for the New York Times magazine, only to have it spiked. ‘For all the work and decades spent on it, Richie’s view of Japan seems still to belong only to the “happy few”,’ he observes unhappily. ‘One difficulty of “placing” him is that Richie is neither an academic nor a popular writer . . . Indeed, Richie is doubly other: caught between two facing mirrors that no one bothers to look into.’ Wounded partisanship of this type leads one to suspect a straightforward explanation for his unsuccess: that Richie simply isn’t much of a writer. But is there more to it than this: a reflection of the times he has lived through; something inhospitable in the intellectual atmosphere of Tokyo itself?

No one has written with more concentration about the peculiar quality of exile enjoyed by the gaijin, the foreigner in Japan. Densely hierarchical, structured by invisible networks of deference, obligation and taboo, conventional Japanese society offers no formal place to the ‘outside person’. But this alienation is so absolute that it is experienced as something close to liberation, a stimulus to observation and analysis. ‘Japan has afforded him’ – the author – ‘a situation of writing,’ Roland Barthes wrote in Empire of Signs. This situation is ‘one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void.’ Japan, to put it in drastically un-French terms, puts you on your mettle. It is an observation that Richie returns to again and again. ‘In Japan,’ he recorded in 1992, ‘I interpret, assess an action, infer a meaning.’

Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. For me alone I wonder? I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb . . . it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding . . . It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better.

This is indeed the excitement of life in Japan at its best, and it provides obvious opportunities for the writer. From a journal entry in 1998:

Smilingly excluded here in Japan, politely stigmatised, I can from my angle attempt only objectivity, since my subjective self will not fit the space I am allotted . . . how fortunate I am to occupy this niche with its lateral view. In America I would be denied this place. I would live on the flat surface of a plain. In Japan, from where I am sitting, the light falls just right – I can see the peaks and valleys, the crags and crevasses.

There is another lucky side effect for many expatriates: personal alienation, the inescapable sense of being different from everyone else, is cancelled out, or at least rendered invisible, by the larger, universal alienation of being a gaijin. This is the partial explanation for something else remarked on several times by Richie: as he shyly puts it, ‘the strange prevalence of people of like preferences among foreign Japanese specialists’. To be blunter, Richie and a seemingly disproportionate number of his friends and contemporaries – the formidable generation of scholars and translators of Japanese who encountered the country as young men during the US occupation – are homosexual.

‘Travellers almost by definition screw more (or want to screw more) than other people,’ Richie writes, and nowhere are they more avid in their screwing than in Japan. In the case of expat men, I would guess, at least half of those who remain in Tokyo do so for reasons connected to sex, sometimes, and sometimes not, coupled with love. It is like one of those fairytale undersea realms where the simple fisherman follows his water nymph, only to realise after a few years of bliss that he can never return to the air. Plenty of gaijin males discover with a jolt that they have become incapable of getting laid anywhere else. Richie’s Journals make explicit what is only suggested in his other writing: that, whatever the delights of Japan’s culture and the fascinating perspectives available to the writer in exile, it is sex – or Richie’s particular version of it – that has kept him tethered here for so long.

The Japan Journals, we are told by their editor, Leza Lowitz, were originally rich in detailed accounts of Richie’s ‘promiscuous encounters’ (he writes with admiration of the ‘Black Diaries’ of Roger Casement), but on the advice of a friend he edited them out, setting them aside in a separate, unpublished volume entitled ‘Vita Sexualis’. What remains may not be technically explicit, but Richie is unabashed in discussing ‘the goût de la boue’, which for sixty years has been the complement to his intellectual and artistic pursuits. By day and in the evenings, he has moved among artists, writers and academics in the circuit of seminars, dinner parties and museum receptions. By night, in parks, on street corners, in ‘accompanied’ coffee shops, in sex theatres, porno cinemas and the ‘boy brothels of Shinjuku’, he has picked up builders, scaffolders, boxers, students, cooks and soldiers. The fascination of these journals, what makes them a literary, as well as historical, document, is the way in which – almost unconsciously and over the course of a lifetime – they reveal Richie’s intellectual and erotic compulsions to be a single consistent project. ‘Even now,’ he wrote at the age of 71, ‘I still go around looking into tidal pools and turning over rocks, trying to find someone (preferably young, unformed and handsome) who can stand for Japan.’

Richie’s taste was formed early, during his childhood in the blankly uninteresting town of Lima, Ohio. He was born in 1924, the only child of quarrelsome parents who scarcely feature in his published writing. His father is unnamed in the Journals; his mother seems to have been called Jean; neither merits a line in the index. Early on, he concluded that ‘I was too different to be theirs.’ His first and defining sexual experience came at the age of six – alone in a park at night, a man in the shadows, gentle and reassuring words, ‘the soft touch of his hard hand’. ‘The intervening years have seen many dark parks and, living my dream, many hard men,’ he records fifty years later.

Richie hitch-hiked out of Lima the day after leaving high school, and spent the war criss-crossing the world in the US Merchant Marine. On New Year’s Eve 1946, his ship docked in Japan’s southernmost island, Okinawa, which had been blitzkrieged in the last appalling battle of the war. He travelled to Tokyo and became a clerk for the US occupation, then a feature writer for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper. As the paper’s film critic, he fell in love with the cinema of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi before he could understand Japanese. He became an aficionado of the traditional dance dramas bugaku, kabuki and noh, and spent Sundays fruitlessly studying Zen under Daisetz Suzuki. ‘You are, you know, very much of this world, very much of this flesh,’ the master told him, and this seems to have been true from the moment Richie set foot in Japan. ‘In Okinawa,’ he later said, ‘I felt my testicles descend to the earth.’

The received view of Japan is of a rather prissy, buttoned-up place, but Richie found the erotic all around him: in the ‘studied expressionless faces and blank dark eyes’ of the bugaku dancers, and the drunk, sweating bearers of the portable shrine in Shinto festivals (‘two hours of naked thighs and barely masked loins, pounding buttocks, strained shoulders and faces turned skyward, chanting the rhythmic cry’). There was nakedness everywhere, from urchins in the street to ‘the fisherfolk of the further coasts of Chiba’ who ‘traditionally worked nude with only a small red ribbon tied around the member lest the goddess Benten, deity of the sea, be offended’. Much of this was a consequence of poverty and ruin, of course, but to Richie it was both erotic and romantic. ‘When you look at naked people one of two things can occur,’ he wrote. ‘You become excited, feel sexy, view the nude as desirable. Or, you see the human race, finally, as it is: innocent, vulnerable, unknowing and beautiful in that general way which discourages possessiveness. Standing on those street corners, I felt both.’ Only much later, when Japan had changed beyond recognition, did he begin to understand the political pulses which charge the relationship between the victor and the defeated.

Until the 1990s, there are frequent gaps in Richie’s diaries which have, in any case, been rewritten and edited down to half their length over the years (the original manuscripts, it turns out, were first transcribed and then destroyed by their author). Perhaps it is not surprising that Richie comes across very well in the pages that remain: earnest but witty, passionate and sometimes sentimental, but equally capable of dryness and restraint, and generous even in the face of rudeness and ignorance. Never once does he indulge in the favourite gaijin pastime: whingeing about Japan and the Japanese. ‘Why is it, I wonder, that when expatriates in Japan get together they always do this – find fault?’ he asks. ‘Do they do this in other countries? “Oh these Luxembourgians, these people!”’ Later, he is reproached by his old friend, the literary translator and scholar of Tokyo, Edward Seidensticker: ‘You will not allow yourself to be furious with these people. Yet, you know at heart you are.’ He replies that Seidensticker ‘really hated himself, not these people, and that he should acknowledge the depths of his self-loathing’. As a lover, too, Richie is loyal and responsible, and becomes a lifelong ally to several of the younger, mostly heterosexual men whom he seduces – meeting their oblivious families, helping to put them through school, attending their weddings, investing in their businesses and becoming a friend to their wives and children. But here and there are hints of a wilder, less steady and more tormented personality.

‘I had first fallen in love with him when he told me . . . that he loved gangsters, that he must kneel before them and drink of their manhood and that sometimes they threatened to kill him.’ This comes from a surprising source: A Romantic Education by Mary Richie, a 1970 novel dedicated to Donald and based on her four-year marriage to him during the early 1960s. Donald had a ‘slender heterosexual history’ (‘Strong women all, they knew what they wanted, saw it, took it,’ he wrote; ‘I’m a type who must be raped in order to get it up’). Still, it is difficult to understand how he and Mary believed that their marriage had a chance of lasting. She knew that he liked boys, but knowing it was not the same as having to live with it. He invited her to take other lovers, but when she did it made him ill. ‘I must admit he is intelligent, quick, gifted by nature,’ Mary wrote in her diary, ‘very affectionate, but ruined as a boy and so afraid of affection, easily unsure, so amused by the trivial, or is it that only the topical and prankish seem to him “interesting”.’ Richie too identifies the capacity for distraction as one of his chief flaws. ‘Just where do I think I am going?’ he asks, as his marriage is breaking down.

Here I am a novelist who writes few novels, a critic who usually can’t even criticise himself, a husband who prefers sleeping with men. Yes, somehow all those unwritten novels were supposed to appear; my criticism was to strike every target; and marriage was to save me . . . The reluctance to find oneself – the evasions. And the burden of it. No wonder I wanted someone to share it. But one does not drop one’s history any more than does the plodding turtle drop its shell.

The Inland Sea, a learned, beautifully paced elegy for one of ‘the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night’, is the only full-length work of Richie’s that will be remembered a generation from now. His various collections of newspaper articles and magazine essays are patchy and poorly organised, and I couldn’t get through the long-out-of-print early novels, Where Are the Victors? (1956) and Companions of the Holiday (1968), well-meaning and empathetic attempts at social observation which, even as period pieces, hold scant interest today. But for a writer with a limited attention span, the journal is the ideal medium. An overarching structure, pace, and the deployment of developing themes are unnecessary; all the successful diarist needs is a consistent tone of voice and the ability to be interesting about something, once a day. The distractions to which Richie succumbed may have wrecked his novels and his marriage, but they gave him all the diary material he needed. In a life of prolific underachievement, The Japan Journals are the masterpiece.

Up until the late 1980s, English-speaking foreigners who knew their way around Tokyo were few, and Richie’s status as tenured gaijin brought him a stream of visiting intellectuals requiring guidance and companionship. He escorted them, helped them to find boys and girls, then wrote acute little sketches of them, a chronicle of the naivety, arrogance and insensitivity which overcomes so many otherwise intelligent people in Japan. Dry and good humoured as ever, Richie is patronised by Sacheverell Sitwell and his wife, dines with a near-gaga Somerset Maugham and shops for pornographic woodblock prints with Stravinsky. He conducts a farcical tour of eminent writers, which reaches its climax in a mountain temple, where Stephen Spender and Angus Wilson look on as an enema is administered on the tatami to a haemorrhoidal Alberto Moravia. The indifference and obliviousness of these literary celebrities find their epitome in Truman Capote. ‘I have seen Japan,’ he announces in the coffee shop of the Imperial Hotel. ‘And I may just as well tell you that I do not like a country that has little cocks . . . Little cocks, little cocks!’ Richie’s portrait of his whining petulance is one of the best things in the book.

Among those who count as friends, rather than passing acquaintances, are Marguerite Yourcenar, Christopher Isherwood, Susan Sontag and Francis Ford Coppola (among several interesting photographs is one of Richie beside a gawky, 19-year-old Sofia Coppola, who looks thoroughly lost). He knew Ozu and Kurosawa, and wrote books about their work. Then there were the pioneers of the avant-garde of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the composer Toru Takemitsu, the kabuki actor Tamasaburo, the artist Tadanori Yokoo, and Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of butoh dance. Richie met Yukio Mishima as a young celebrity in the 1950s; the two even went to Mishima’s gymnasium together, and a famous sequence of photographs of the novelist posing in his loincloth in the snow was shot outside Donald’s bedroom window. ‘He clowns about the things closest to him,’ Richie wrote in 1958. ‘Like killing himself . . . none of us ever takes this seriously.’ But when Mishima did disembowel himself, after a failed coup, in the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defence Force, Richie found himself unsurprised and unmoved. ‘His suicide was entirely ritual,’ he writes. ‘It had few connections with and little meaning for contemporary Japan.’

These were tumultuous times, but despite Richie’s avant-garde leanings, the violent left-wing demonstrations make no appearance in the diaries. A ‘chronic non-joiner’, he actively resisted participation in anything that sniffed of politics, especially sexual politics. ‘When you do this, you invest,’ he writes. ‘You become a card-carrying Catholic, a card-carrying Communist, a card-carrying Cocksucker . . . I am not thinking of making life better for future queers.’ But the Journals trace Richie’s evolving and self-critical awareness of the politics inherent in his situation.

His mourning for lost beauties and suspicion of change were dramatised in The Inland Sea, but by the 1980s change was taking place at blinding speed. Japan was already an affluent society; very quickly, in the bubble economy of the late 1980s it became rich, then – on paper at least – astonishingly rich. Richie was disconcerted in several ways. For a start, there was the physical alteration in the look of Tokyo. The city of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, with which he first fell in love, had given way to a futuristic megalopolis, ‘larger and taller and – strangely – cleaner, or at any rate less cluttered . . . In this new postmodern capital of planned cityscapes, the lack of clutter is inhuman.’ Then there was the mounting tension and mutual contempt between Japan and the United States, caused by the huge trade imbalance. A decade of Japanese recession later, it is easy to forget how ominous all this seemed at the time, and how many people in both countries came to regard the other as an enemy. ‘Japan is an unguided missile,’ Richie writes in a rare disquisition on current affairs.

No one is in the control room. When you get the people all pointed in the same direction there is no stopping them. Where is the brake? It is not included in the model . . . The US, slipping, lost its great supporting enemy in the collapse of the USSR. It needs another one, quick. Japan, slithering out of control, all cool heads hot in this drive to greed, displays an enormous insensitivity to others . . . I don’t think anyone really believes in this animosity except the stupid. But there are so many.

The biggest and most upsetting change of all is to be found in the Japanese young. By 1988, ‘one of the reasons for spending my old age here is gone, never to return.’

This is the possibility of meeting a stranger and making a friend. Right there, right then. Forever . . . It is because we are not needed any more. No one has any use for us. They do not see trips abroad in our eyes. These trips are something they can themselves afford. And there are so many of us. We have become common . . . I am speaking of regretting imperialism, I know. I ought to rejoice that Japan is no longer subject to it, but I do not want to. It was too much fun being treated as someone quite special.

The shock of this change is the realisation, which Richie is too honest not to register, that the gaijin’s special status is unearned, a simple function of economics. In the way of these things, though, money provides its own solution to his frustrations, or at least an alternative. The bubble attracts immigrant workers – Pakistanis, Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese and Iranians – drawn to Tokyo by the mighty yen. And among them, Richie finds erotic opportunities which the natives no longer provide. ‘You seem to have deserted Japan in favour of the Third World,’ a friend tells him. ‘It was not I that deserted Japan,’ he writes, ‘but Japan that deserted the Third World . . . It was the Third World in Japan that so appealed to lubricious me, and now that Japan is more First World than even the USA, the appeal is no longer there. That makes me that figure of fun, the garden-variety colonial imperialistic predator.’ A gay foreign friend abandons Japan for the less affluent pastures of Thailand. ‘He’s too late,’ Richie observes. ‘We’ll both end up in a Dayak long house and even there it will be too late.’

I have become like those pandas that will eat only one kind of bamboo, a commodity that they have now eaten all up. Soon they will be extinct, done in by specialisation. Concerned friends counsel me to the jungle-like swamps of the sauna, or the conversation pits of the bars, or the strict and narrow confines of the public conveniences, but this is not for me. Only the street, the corner, the park is authentic to me. Only that which is fortuitously found is real.

As he enters his sixties, Richie’s old and distinguished friends begin to die off. He acquires official respectability, honoured by the emperor for his services to Japanese culture, a habitué of embassy functions. The growing self-confidence and obnoxiousness of Japan coincide with his descent into the conservatism of old age. Richie wryly recognises the irony in all this, although he is never able to forgive Japanese youths for their disinclination to be seduced by him; their fecklessness, stupidity and philistinism are a recurring and rather tiresome theme in the second half of this book. Subtlety and complexity desert him as he ventures out from his base in old-fashioned Ueno to cast his fogeyish eye over the youthful ‘hordes’ in ‘noisome’ Shibuya and Roppongi. ‘They lurch and spill on the pavement and in a group sound like a herd of elephants . . . Young people with their Walkmen and manga, their portable phones – not only do they not know one flower from another, they do not even see them . . . this generation was taught nothing . . . the latest gadget satisfies it; it goes to see Star Wars.’ Even masturbation is not what it used to be, as a fellow regular at Richie’s local porn cinema comments: instead of lending one another a hand, young Japanese onanists ‘buy a tape, or rent it, and take it back home and lock the door’.

‘These youthful herds await a deliverer, someone to organise them, and a country to give up everything for,’ he fulminates, in an especially barmy entry. ‘Someone like Mussolini or the Emperor Hirohito.’ Yet it was Richie’s generation, ‘that friendly, ragged, wily, beautiful, and hopeful crew’ of wartime Japanese with whom he fell in love, who submitted to fascism, who swarmed so murderously into China and South-East Asia, and who piloted the suicide planes. By almost any other standard, the young in Japan today are exemplary: a little glazed and indifferent from the outside, but politer, calmer and more law abiding than their contemporaries anywhere in the world. Richie may find it harder to seduce them as he circumambulates the park, but he is not going to be beaten up, robbed or murdered by them either.

‘Being at home means taking for granted going blind and deaf, eventually not even thinking,’ Richie wrote. ‘It means only comfort. I would hate to be at home.’ This is a common perception among long-term gaijin, as among adolescents: home as a place of old age, premature senility. But as he grows older Richie begins to panic about the cost of having no home, not for its human comforts, but its intellectual stimulations. At his most optimistic, he takes pride in his outsideness (‘undisturbed by vagaries, I can regard what I think of as eternal’). But he sees that New York friends ‘live in an element I do not. Theirs is the current of contemporary thought, and they swim – mostly against it – and grow sleek. I have no intellectual climate at all. I have no one with whom to speak of these concerns, no one to learn from, no one to teach. For fifty years I have lived alone in the library of my skull.’

Greater Tokyo contains thirty million people; it is far and away the largest city that has ever existed. And yet to the Westerner with intellectual aspirations it is a small pond. The Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo compared Japan to a tropical mud swamp: when living flowers are transplanted from elsewhere they grow vigorously for a while, put out lurid blooms, but eventually wither in the strange minerals of the new soil. In 150 years, foreigners in Japan have produced important works of history, political science, anthropology and journalism, but no lasting work of literature. Perhaps Donald Richie shows us why.

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Vol. 28 No. 18 · 21 September 2006

Richard Lloyd Parry says that when foreign writers arrive in Japan the results are usually disastrous, and ‘the best that Clive James could come up with was the smirking comedy Brrm! Brrm!’ (LRB, 17 August). As a gaijin who arrived in England in 1943, I have found Brrm! Brrm! a very perceptive depiction of the bafflement of any new voyager adrift on the sea of English inscrutability. James’s verse epigraph bears witness to his sympathy for the puzzled Suzuki-san, whose deeply affecting farewell scene with his poor mad hippy girlfriend is hardly ‘smirking’. Suzuki could have profited (as I have) from Kate Fox’s Watching the English:The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Hodder, 2004).

Shigeru Nagai
Weybridge, Surrey

Richard Lloyd Parry treats Donald Richie as a dilettante, only one of whose books, The Inland Sea, is likely to survive. The Films of Akira Kurosawa is an indispensable work of reference for anyone with a serious interest in that director.

Helen DeWitt

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London Review of Books
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