Literature & Criticism

Ink drawing by Rolanda Polonsky.

The Last Asylums

Clair Wills

18 November 2021

I am haunted by the figure of Rolanda Polonsky, walking through the hospital corridors. If my eight-year-old self had opened the doors that frightened me I might have found her, back then, exactly as she is now in the film I watch on my laptop. And it appears to me now that that’s why I was fearful: I didn’t want to hear the message she had for me.

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‘Are we’

Jorie Graham

18 November 2021

Are weextinct yet. Who ownsthe map. May Ilook. Where is myclaim. Is my historyverifiable. Have Iincluded the memoryof the animals. The animals’memories. Are theystill here. Are wealone. Lookthe filamentsappear . . .

Two Poems

Paul Batchelor

18 November 2021

Last Poemi.m. Derek MahonWe value them, the voicesthat need us least, who speakwith honest subtletyto ironies beyond us,who slip our grasp and gowhistling down endlesscelestial colonnadesof – no . . .

Mr Mid-Victorian Doubt

Fergus McGhee

18 November 2021

In​ the summer of 1849, Arthur Hugh Clough went to dinner with the writer Jane Octavia Brookfield. ‘I tried to talk with him, but he has the most peculiar manner I almost ever saw,’ she . . .

‘A Shock’

James Meek

18 November 2021

Keith Ridgway’s​ sixth novel, A Shock, doesn’t follow a central character, or even, substantially, a set of characters. It’s peopled by loosely acquainted present-day South Londoners . . .

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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I was invisible: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Christian Lorentzen, 18 November 2021

The narrator​ of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s pair of novels, The Sympathiser (2015) and The Committed, is one of the more irresistible characters in recent American fiction. He smokes, he drinks,...

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Orificial Events: ‘The Promise’

Adam Mars-Jones, 4 November 2021

It’s characteristic of the perverse workings of the novel that Damon Galgut should insist on providing a trivial continuity immediately after he has erased a necessary one. If​ the domestic...

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Always Somewhere Else: Anuk Arudpragasam

Blake Morrison, 4 November 2021

The war is over in A Passage North but its impact is still being felt; damaged limbs can be repaired or replaced with prosthetic ones but injuries to the mind persist. His character’s sufferings...

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Story: ‘Mother of Nature’

Diane Williams, 4 November 2021

My brother’s words when I hear them these days seem not to go into my ears – but down some other deeper artery. He said, ‘It’s mother’s house and I just think of it...

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Fetch the Chopping Knife: Murder on Bankside

Charles Nicholl, 4 November 2021

The first true crime craze – the distant antecedent of our own docu-drama craze – proved to be an essentially Elizabethan phenomenon. I would place its high-water mark in the year 1599, when...

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Poem: ‘Weeds’

Maureen N. McLane, 4 November 2021

all daypersonifying plantsEvil NettleFascist Weedboing boingI do not want youmatter out of placeI rip you outI favour the desiredthe useful to me to me to me!meanwhile stars doing themselvesin the...

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Story: ‘It Will Come Back to You’

Sigrid Nunez, 4 November 2021

As someone who once never had to write down an appointment or a phone number, I take the inevitable weakening of memory that comes with ageing hard. A common response to I forget is Don’t worry,...

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I love grass: ‘Bewilderment’

Christian Lorentzen, 21 October 2021

It’s hard to think of Richard Powers’s Bewilderment as a political novel, since most of its politics will be innocuous to any imagined audience. If you aren’t in favour of killing endangered...

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On Gertrude Beasley

Elisabeth Ladenson, 21 October 2021

One​ of the last things Gertrude Beasley wrote before her disappearance in 1927 was an article called ‘I Was One of Thirteen Poor White Trash’. It came out in Hearst’s...

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Outside in the Bar: Ten Years in Sheerness

Patrick McGuinness, 21 October 2021

In Uwe Johnson’s work, perspective doesn’t come from a bird’s-eye view but from staying at eye level – from looking and never stopping. His characters are suspicious of any claim...

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Ernaux hasn’t written about her life in a neat this-then-that sort of way. Reading her is like getting to know a friend, the way they tell you about themselves over long conversations that sometimes...

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Sex with Satan

Deborah Friedell, 21 October 2021

In essays and interviews, Jonathan Franzen acknowledged that his over-full sentences and abstruse metaphors were intended to impress graduate students and his father. Money, fame, the imprimatur of Oprah’s...

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Pens and Heads: The Young Milton

Maggie Kilgour, 21 October 2021

Writing and rewriting the masque seems to have changed Milton’s idea of heaven. His early polemical works set a materialistic, selfish and appetitive clergy against the spiritual and chaste author,...

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On Cortney Lamar Charleston

Stephanie Burt, 21 October 2021

No one else of his generation can do as much as Cortney Lamar Charleston ​can with an XXL sentence or a series of puns. He revels in multiplicity, using hip-hop accelerations in one passage and gospel...

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Screwdriver in the Eye: David Keenan

Paul Mendez, 7 October 2021

It’s difficult to grasp exactly what all this means or what it’s for. The novel’s 808 pages make a mockery of straitened attention spans, and the book is provocatively underedited. David...

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Ti tum ti tum ti tum: Chic Sport Shirker

Colin Burrow, 7 October 2021

If one suspects, at times, that one’s eye is being led on a dance, it is at least always a merry one, and Christopher Ricks is a fine enough critic to worry whether he might have crossed the invisible...

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Proust hasn’t found a voice here: he is a person writing out family legends and self-analysis rather than a novelist. Still, we do have the beginning of an answer to the astute question: ‘What...

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Richard Wright wasn’t interested in the structures of support or mutual aid that enabled black people to survive as a collective. He was drawn to outcasts and desperados who had fallen through...

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