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John Lanchester: Hang on to your Swissies, 5 February 2015

... You know​ that thing where you draw a line in the sand, stand behind it and declare: ‘They shall not pass!’ That’s what the Swiss National Bank, the SNB, did in September 2011, when it surprised the currency markets by suddenly announcing that it wouldn’t allow the Swiss franc to appreciate in value below CHF 1.20 to one euro. The SNB’s problem was that the Swissie, as it is known in currency trading circles, is a safe-haven currency, one to which money and bank deposits flee in times of trouble, especially trouble in Europe ...

Short Cuts

John Lanchester: James Cameron under Water, 26 April 2012

... On 16 August 1960, a US air force captain called Joseph Kittinger stepped out of a balloon. The balloon was 102,800 feet above the Earth. It would be an exaggeration to say that Kittinger jumped out of a balloon in space, as he’s sometimes said to have done, but there’s no denying that his jump was, in layman’s terms, seriously freaking high. There is some footage of the jump, taken by cameras on Kittinger’s chair-like parachute and on the balloon, and I find that its vertigo-inducing properties are so great I have to make a conscious effort to compose myself before watching it ...

Short Cuts

John Lanchester: The Art of Financial Disaster, 15 December 2011

... No essay in English has a better title than De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. I wonder whether, if he were alive today, he might be tempted to go back to the well and write a follow-up, ‘On Financial Disaster Considered as One of the Fine Arts’? The basic material might be less immediately captivating, but there’s a lot to choose from ...

Nabokov’s Dreams

John Lanchester, 10 May 2018

... There’s​ a joke, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that the most frightening sentence in the English language is: ‘I had a very interesting dream last night.’ If Wilde did say that, it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t have liked Insomniac Dreams, because this short book is focused entirely on the dream-life of Vladimir Nabokov.* It has at its heart a record of dreams that Nabokov kept for eighty days from October 1964, while he was living at the Montreux Palace Hotel – in terms of his books, after he had finished Pale Fire and before he wrote Ada ...

Sour Plums

John Lanchester, 26 October 1989

The Letters of John Cheever 
edited by Benjamin Cheever.
Cape, 397 pp., £14.95, September 1989, 0 224 02689 5
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Mary McCarthy 
by Carol Gelderman.
Sidgwick, 430 pp., £12.95, March 1989, 0 283 99797 4
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The company she keeps 
by Mary McCarthy.
Weidenfeld, 246 pp., £4.50, October 1989, 0 297 79649 6
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... In 1964, Time published a profile of John Cheever which, in a sub-heading, described him as ‘The Monogamist’. Subsequent events have proved that not to have been the fact-checkers’ finest hour. In 1984, two years after his death, Susan Cheever published Home before Dark, a memoir which portrayed her father, whose public image was that of an impeccably upper-middle-class monogamist suburban WASP, as a promiscuously bisexual alcoholic ...

As a returning lord

John Lanchester, 7 May 1987

Einstein’s Monsters 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 127 pp., £5.95, April 1987, 0 224 02435 3
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... them. Amis’s most obvious assets as a writer are his ear (‘When you’re writing,’ he told John Haffenden, in an exchange published in Novelists in Interview, ‘you run it through your mind until your tuning-fork is still’) and his energy. In the quoted paragraph, both are as they always were; the lines are also characteristic in the completeness ...


John Lanchester, 24 May 1990

Chicago Loop 
by Paul Theroux.
Hamish Hamilton, 183 pp., £12.99, April 1990, 0 241 12949 4
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Lies of Silence 
by Brian Moore.
Bloomsbury, 194 pp., £12.99, April 1990, 0 7475 0610 8
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Amongst Women 
by John McGahern.
Faber, 184 pp., £12.99, May 1990, 0 571 14284 2
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The Condition of Ice 
by Christopher Burns.
Secker, 170 pp., £12.95, April 1990, 0 436 19989 0
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... an element of the energy which makes attractive fictional monsters as disparate as Richard III and John Self. Chicago Loop (terrific title) is another book that has a cold, clear surface and a lurking nastiness underneath. Its central character, Parker Jagoda (terrific name), is a 37-year old architect-turned-developer who, unknown to his ...


John Lanchester: Blogswarms, 2 November 2006

... The best moment of the 2004 US presidential election was the moment when John Kerry had won it. It was on the day itself, in the late evening, GMT. The first poll results data were coming through on the blogs: unedited poll data of the type which one now knows needs extensive interpretation, but never mind. Kerry was doing fabulously ...


John Lanchester: On Fatties, 20 March 1997

... and eight buddies. I suppose the world’s two most famous Scientologists, apart of course from John Travolta and the late L. Ron himself, were in town for the premières of their respective new movies. Or perhaps this was just another symptom of the reinvention of London as the hippest, most happening, furthest-molecule-forward-on-the-cutting-edge city ...


John Lanchester, 8 March 1990

The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer 
by Tom Dardis.
Abacus, 292 pp., £3.99, February 1990, 0 349 10143 4
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... of the condition by American novelists are surprisingly rare. One of the most vivid comes from John Updike’s Bech is back, the second of his books to deal with the American writer’s life through the alter ego of unprolific Jewish novelist Henry Bech, here attending a party: Like a fuzzy sock being ejected by the tumble drier there was flung towards ...

Catching up with Sammy

John Lanchester, 21 November 1991

Among the Thugs 
by Bill Buford.
Secker, 317 pp., £14.99, October 1991, 0 436 07526 1
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A Strange Kind of Glory 
by Eamon Dunphy.
Heinemann, 396 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 9780434216161
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... me that Buford’s tastes were formed at university in the USA during the late Seventies, when John Barth and long bad teachable literary books were all the rage. Buford had responded by going the other way.) Among the Thugs isn’t like that, however: it’s written in a loose, chatty, almost gossipy style that works very well during the book’s moments ...

State of the Art

John Lanchester, 1 June 1989

Manchester United: The Betrayal of a Legend 
by Michael Crick and David Smith.
Pelham, 246 pp., £14.95, May 1989, 0 7207 1783 3
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Football in its Place: An Environmental Psychology of Football Grounds 
by David Canter, Miriam Comber and David Uzzell.
Routledge, 173 pp., £10.95, May 1989, 0 415 01240 6
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... and POMO lapsed into obscurity, until a strange thing, a kind of historical rhyme, occurred. Elton John bought Watford Football Club and appointed the energetic Graham Taylor as manager. Taylor, looking for a way of fulfilling his boss’s ambition of making Watford into a First Division team, came across a statistical survey which showed that the majority of ...

How criminals think

John Lanchester, 13 September 1990

Love and Death on Long Island 
by Gilbert Adair.
Heinemann, 138 pp., £10.95, July 1990, 9780434006229
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Going wrong 
by Ruth Rendell.
Hutchinson, 250 pp., £12.99, September 1990, 0 09 174300 1
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The Burden of Proof 
by Scott Turow.
Bloomsbury, 515 pp., £13.99, August 1990, 0 7475 0673 6
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Crucible of Fools 
by M.S. Power.
Hamish Hamilton, 165 pp., £12.99, August 1990, 0 241 13006 9
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... In his now-famous article ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson gives one of the defining characteristics of Post-Modernism as being ‘the effacement of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and the so-called mass or commercial culture’. This effacement of frontiers, which has often taken parodic form (the soup cans of Andy Warhol, the deliberate kitsch of architects like Philip Venturi, author of the feisty manifesto Learning from Las Vegas) is now itself parodied in Gilbert Adair’s funny and accomplished second novel ...

Oh my oh my oh my

John Lanchester, 12 September 1991

Mao II 
by Don DeLillo.
Cape, 239 pp., £13.99, September 1991, 9780224031523
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Introducing Don DeLillo 
edited by Frank Lentricchia.
Duke, 221 pp., £28, September 1991, 0 8223 1135 6
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... In this century there has been, running alongside the motif of the writer as drunk, another motif of the writer as anchorite, as recluse, as invisible man, as absconder from celebrity. The tradition, whose great precursor and prefigurer is Rimbaud, includes such star incogniti as Baron Corvo and B. Traven, but has perhaps never flourished anywhere quite as much as it is flourishing in the United States at the moment, where the reputations of celebrity hermits such as Salinger and Brodkey swell inexorably with every book they fail to publish ...


John Lanchester, 9 May 1991

The Redundancy of Courage 
by Timothy Mo.
Chatto, 408 pp., £13.99, April 1990, 0 7011 3748 7
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... There’s a story that when Kazuo Ishiguro was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia his tutor took him to one side. Ishiguro was at the time writing stories like the one contained in Firebird 2 – a punchy little McEwanesque conte in which the narrator’s mother dies from eating a poisoned fish. The tutor, who had worked in advertising, explained to Ishiguro the concept of the Unique Selling Point, or USP: the USP being the quality about a product which the advertiser wishes to stress in order to establish the identity of the brand ...

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