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The Virtue of Incest

Marina Warner, 7 October 1993

Elizabeth’s Glass 
by Marc Shell.
Nebraska, 365 pp., £30.95, July 1993, 0 8032 4216 6
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... The romance of Apollonius of Tyre opens with the classic fairy-tale couple: the king and his daughter. Antiochus is powerful, she is beautiful, and of marriageable age – there is no mother. The difference is that, in this variation, she will not leave home to marry a prince, for her father Antiochus ‘began to love her in a way unsuitable for a father ...

Noonday Devils

Marina Warner, 6 June 1996

Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies 
by Elaine Breslaw.
New York, 237 pp., $24.95, February 1996, 0 8147 1227 4
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... The French historian Arlette Farge has described coming across a letter, written on linen in a fine strong hand, in which a prisoner, long incarcerated in the Bastille, writes to his wife, affectionately, imploringly; he adds a message, to the laundry woman who will find it among his washing, asking her to embroider a blue cross on one of his socks to tell him she has managed to pass it on ...

You must not ask

Marina Warner, 4 January 1996

Lewis Carroll: A Biography 
by Morton Cohen.
Macmillan, 592 pp., £25, November 1995, 0 333 62926 4
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The Literary Products of the Lewis Carroll-George MacDonald Friendship 
by John Docherty.
Edwin Mellen, 420 pp., £69.95, July 1995, 0 7734 9038 8
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... Bachelor uncles can be popinjays who wear moustache trainers in bed in order to cut a dash the next day, as in Fellini’s Amarcord; or they might take the children aside at Christmas and show them how to trumpet a tune in farts, as in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In stories like that of Freud’s ‘Katharina’, they interfere with little girls, though for many reasons Freud substituted Katharina’s uncle for her father ...

Wrong Kind of Noise

Marina Warner: Silence is Best, 19 December 2013

Silence: A Christian History 
by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Allen Lane, 337 pp., £20, April 2013, 978 1 84614 426 4
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... By a bizarre twist, G.K. Chesterton may be en route to sanctity: it was reported in August that the Bishop of Northampton has begun a suit for his canonisation. Diarmaid MacCulloch doesn’t invoke Chesterton’s miracle-working powers, but he opens this expanded version of his 2012 Gifford Lectures with a Father Brown story, ‘The Oracle of the Dog’: by howling at a certain time, the animal gives the priestly sleuth the clue to the murder weapon ...

Travelling Text

Marina Warner: ‘The Arabian Nights’, 18 December 2008

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights 
translated by Malcolm Lyons, with Ursula Lyons.
Penguin, 2715 pp., £125, November 2008, 978 0 14 091166 4
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‘The Arabian Nights’ in Historical Context: Between East and West 
edited by Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum.
Oxford, 337 pp., £55, November 2008, 978 0 19 955415 7
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... Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers’ imaginations as soon as translations first appeared – in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through salons and coffee-houses, the offices of broadsheet publishers and theatrical impresarios; the book fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, Oriental tales, extravaganzas ...

Witchiness

Marina Warner: Baba Yaga, 27 August 2009

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 
by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Ellen Elias Bursác, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson.
Canongate, 327 pp., £14.99, May 2009, 978 1 84767 066 3
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... Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is the latest, most inventive and most substantial volume in Canongate’s series of revisioned myths. The first was Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, a harsh retelling in Penelope’s voice of the concluding scenes of the Odyssey. With her own special bite, Atwood singles out for dramatic treatment the girls who worked in the palace and fraternised with Penelope’s suitors; she reminds us how pitilessly Odysseus orders them to be hanged, every one ...

At the V&A

Marina Warner: Alexander McQueen, 4 June 2015

... At​  La Mécanique des dessous (‘The Mechanics of Undergarments: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette’), an unexpected exhibition about underwear in Paris two years ago (Jenny Diski wrote about it in the LRB of 10 October 2013), there was a room where you could try on bustles and lobster tails and panniers and waist cinchers and other cunning elements of the dressmaker’s art made to press the body into different shapes ...

Story-Bearers

Marina Warner: Abdelfattah Kilito, 17 April 2014

Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe 
by Abdelfattah Kilito.
Actes Sud, 144 pp., €19, March 2013, 978 2 330 01634 0
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... I speak​ all languages but in Yiddish,’ Kafka remarks in his Diaries; and when it came to writing, he might have chosen any one of them, besides German. We now read him in all languages, receiving glimpses, like faraway signals at sea, of the original German, and beyond the German of the other languages that made up Kafka’s mindscape, with Yiddish beating out a bass line, familiar ground ...

Once a Catholic…

Marina Warner: Damien Hirst, 5 July 2012

Damien Hirst 
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... In 1991 the art critic Louisa Buck rang me up – she was my sister-in-law and in those days we didn’t text – and said I really should go along to Bond Street and see the butterflies hatching in some disused premises that the artist Damien Hirst had rented. ‘It’s a truly beautiful installation,’ she enthused. She described it: the dishes of melting nectar, the chrysalises stuck to the walls, and the startling epiphanies as the creatures unfurled, fluttered – tropical, iridescent, huge, ineffable ...

Did she go willingly?

Marina Warner: Helen of Troy, 7 October 2010

Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood 
by Laurie Maguire.
Wiley-Blackwell, 280 pp., £55, April 2009, 978 1 4051 2634 2
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... The way the Greek myths have been told has disguised the joins and touched up the weirdness. Writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne in Tanglewood Tales and Charles Kingsley in The Heroes, who enthralled me when I was a child devouring the stories under the bedclothes by torchlight, patched and pieced the myths into the coherent plots that we are familiar with ...

Forty Thousand Kilocupids

Marina Warner: The Femfatalatron, 31 July 2014

The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish 
by Marquard Smith.
Yale, 376 pp., £35, January 2014, 978 0 300 15202 9
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... One​ of Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en prose, ‘Le Joujou du pauvre’ (‘The poor child’s plaything’), opens with the remark that very few amusements are free of guilt, but he knows of an ‘innocent entertainment’: a flâneur out for a stroll can fill his pockets with fairings – a rider on a horse with a whistle for a tail, or a clown on a string – and then, when he comes across one of those ‘unknown and poor’ street waifs of 19th-century Paris, give him a toy and watch his eyes widen ...

Flightiness

Marina Warner: Airborne Females, 30 August 2018

Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics and Other Airborne Females 
by Serinity Young.
Oxford, 432 pp., £19.99, May 2018, 978 0 19 530788 7
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... At​ the furthest edges of the known world, medieval travellers encountered creatures who held a single giant foot over their head as a makeshift parasol and fearsome hybrids with eyes peering out from their chests or set in the middle of their foreheads: they were classed as wonders, close kin to the monsters and dragons of classical genealogies. When Thomas Browne was considering the dietary prohibitions in the Bible, he was puzzled that griffins were listed, commenting that griffins were ‘Poetical Animals, and things of no existence ...

Ventriloquism

Marina Warner: Dear Old Khayyám, 9 April 2009

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 
by Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Daniel Karlin.
Oxford, 167 pp., £9.99, January 2009, 978 0 19 954297 0
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... A glass-fronted Regency bookcase in a corner of the London Library opposite the lift holds a collection of rare and beautiful editions of Edward FitzGerald’s poem, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Since its first publication in 1859, it has appeared in every size and shape, giant and toy, on vellum and silk, in fabulous bindings stamped with peacocks’ tails and nightingales’ eyes; it has been printed by masters for tiny private presses, handwritten and illustrated by artists – beginning with the trio of William Morris, Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, who helped launch the work after some friends came across it in a remainders box outside Quaritch’s ...

Name the days

Marina Warner: Holy Spirits, 4 February 2021

Angels & Saints 
by Eliot Weinberger.
Norton, 159 pp., £21.99, September 2020, 978 0 8112 2986 9
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... In​ the insistent and repetitive rhythm of lockdown, one month melts into another, but the monotony is shot through with dread that comes and goes with terrible intensity. The combination of plague-stricken suspension – the new Covidian temporality – and uncertainty about what’s still in store has made me wonder about old forms of timekeeping ...

Those Brogues

Marina Warner, 6 October 2016

... When​ my father, Esmond Warner, known as ‘Plum’ after his father the cricketer, came back at long last from the war, my mother was already in London. She had arrived a few months before from Bari, her home town in southern Italy, flying in on one of the first passenger flights to land in the newly demilitarised airport at Heathrow, and making her own way with her small belongings to her in-laws’ flat in South Kensington, on the first floor of a mansion block between several bomb sites ...

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