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Looking for a Crucifixion

Robert Alter, 9 September 1993

The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered 
by Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise.
Element, 286 pp., £14.95, November 1992, 0 85230 368 8
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... Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, which is largely a popularisation of Robert Eisenman’s theories. Unsurprisingly, Baigent and Leigh contribute an effusive blurb to this book. Eisenman for his part has been putting himself forward as the embattled champion of a campaign (crowned with success a year ago) to liberate the Scrolls ...

Paying for the paper

Robert Alter, 6 August 1992

Life with a Star 
by Jiri Weil, translated by Rita Klimova and Roslyn Schloss.
Flamingo, 247 pp., £4.99, February 1991, 0 00 654329 4
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Mendelssohn is on the Roof 
by Jiri Weil, translated by Marie Winn.
HarperCollins, 228 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 00 223863 2
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... at the Prague Jewish cemetery: “ ‘What’s left for us?” I asked. “Only time,” said Robert. “But there’s not much of it.” ’ Indiscriminate murder of civilian populations is, alas, at least as old as recorded history. What differentiates the modern German version, as has often been observed, is its implementation through industrial ...

Outside the Academy

Robert Alter, 13 February 1992

Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990 
by Patrick Parrinder.
Macmillan, 392 pp., £40, August 1991, 0 333 43294 0
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A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950. Vol. VII: German, Russian and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950 
by René Wellek.
Yale, 458 pp., £26, October 1991, 0 300 05039 9
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... with original critics of real intellectual power like Erich Auerbach, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ernst Robert Curtius, Georg Lukacs, Viktor Shklovsky and Leo Spitzer, he offers trenchant and detailed critiques of their key concepts and methods, while also conveying a sense of their achievement. Auerbach’s Mimesis is a masterwork of 20th-century criticism, but it ...

Naming the flowers

Robert Alter, 24 February 1994

A History of the Hebrew Language 
by Angel Sáenz-Badillos, translated by John Elwolde.
Cambridge, 371 pp., £24.95, December 1993, 0 521 43157 3
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Language in Time of Revolution 
by Benjamin Harshav.
California, 234 pp., £19.95, September 1993, 0 520 07958 2
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... One of the most intriguing and in some ways bewildering aspects of the Hebrew language is that it has managed to stay in continuous literary use for over three thousand years; roughly the same length of time as Chinese and Sanskrit, the two other major ancient literary languages that are still in written use. The most dramatic changes that have occurred over the centuries have been the emergence of rabbinic Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew towards the end of the pre-Christian era; the complex encounter of Hebrew with Arabic poetry and philosophy beginning in the tenth century; and the early 20th-century revival of Hebrew as a vernacular in the new Zionist settlements, itself preceded – and made possible – by the revival in Enlightenment Europe of Hebrew as a secular literary language ...

Uncleanness

Robert Alter: Reading Leviticus anthropologically, 3 March 2005

Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation 
by Mary Douglas.
Oxford, 211 pp., £45, November 2004, 0 19 926523 2
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... Ever since Mary Douglas’s anthropological foray into the laws of impurity in Leviticus in Purity and Danger (1966), her work on the Bible has been constantly stimulating and, at its best, deeply instructive. Over the past fifteen years she has devoted most of her still formidable energies to biblical topics, even acquiring a degree of competence in biblical Hebrew ...

Who will punish the lord?

Robert Alter: Saramago’s Cain, 6 October 2011

Cain 
by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Harvill Secker, 150 pp., £12.99, July 2011, 978 1 84655 446 9
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... José Saramago’s last work of fiction, published in Portugal in 2009, the year before he died, created something of a furore there. It is less likely to ruffle feathers in the English-speaking world, where scathing critiques of the Bible, in fiction and even in biblical scholarship, have been commonplace since the 18th century. Cain is obviously a companion piece to Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (1994), which proposed a revisionist view of the New Testament; this book turns its attention to the Old ...

Wrong Side of the River

Robert Alter: River Jordan, 21 June 2012

River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line 
by Rachel Havrelock.
Chicago, 320 pp., £26, December 2011, 978 0 226 31957 5
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... Rachel Havrelock’s River Jordan is broad in scope, subtle in interpretive detail and written in lucid prose, with an assured mastery of the relevant scholarship – all the more remarkable because it is her first book. What she has done in effect is to invent a new kind of historical analysis, which I would call cultural cartography, with culture comprising ideology and politics as well as national identity ...

How to Hiss and Huff

Robert Alter: Mann’s Moses, 2 December 2010

The Tables of the Law 
by Thomas Mann, translated by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann.
Haus, 113 pp., £10, October 2010, 978 1 906598 84 6
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... Thomas Mann wrote this engaging novella in a few weeks in 1943. (The new translation by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, which is brisk and direct, is a welcome replacement of the fussier and less accurate English version done by Helen Lowe-Porter for the original publication.) The novella was written after Mann helped pitch a film on the Ten Commandments to MGM ...

Where’s Esther?

Robert Alter: The Dead Sea Scrolls, 12 September 2013

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography 
by John Collins.
Princeton, 272 pp., £16.95, October 2012, 978 0 691 14367 5
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The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea 
by Joan Taylor.
Oxford, 418 pp., £30, November 2012, 978 0 19 955448 5
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... The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the formation of post-biblical Judaism; and, beyond these substantive matters, which scholars have the right to study and publish them ...

Darkness and a slippery place

Robert Alter, 25 April 1991

The Confessions of Saint Augustine 
translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick.
Oxford, 311 pp., £17.50, February 1991, 0 19 281779 5
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... Augustine’s Confessions, though frequently set at the beginning of a line of literary history that leads to Rousseau and Henry Adams, is a narrative of the writer’s life only in a highly intermittent and drastically selective way. Its aim, as has often been noted, is more spiritual exhortation then self-revelation, or, more precisely, it is an exposition of the divine scheme with reference to a particular life-experience ...

Committee Speak

Robert Alter: Bible Writers, 19 July 2007

Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible 
by Karel van der Toorn.
Harvard, 401 pp., £22.95, March 2007, 978 0 674 02437 3
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... This scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time is in most respects finely instructive. Some of what Toorn has to say involves concepts long familiar to Bible scholars, though even in this regard he provides many fresh insights. Nearly all the book’s argument, moreover, offers a strong corrective to popular misconceptions about the Bible ...

Vendetta

Gerald Hammond: The story of David, 7 September 2000

The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel 
by Robert Alter.
Norton, 410 pp., £19.95, October 1999, 0 393 04803 9
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... Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and commentary on the most literary of all the Bible’s narratives, the story of David. The translation is conservative, fully in line with the Authorised Version (and all the better for that ...

Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

The Literary Guide to the Bible 
edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode.
Collins, 678 pp., £20, December 1987, 0 00 217439 1
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... Frye celebrated the literary rediscovery of Scripture in The Great Code, and now Frank Kermode and Robert Alter, two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the ‘Bible as literature’ movement, have brought together a constellation of literary and Biblical specialists, from both sides of the Atlantic, to explain the Bible from a literary ...

Englishing Ourselves

F.W.J. Hemmings, 18 December 1980

Stendhal 
by Robert Alter.
Allen and Unwin, 285 pp., £8.95, May 1980, 0 04 928042 2
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... only six years ago; and ‘thick and fast they come at last,’ like Lewis Carroll’s oysters.) Robert Alter has not followed her example, but instead takes time to discuss the major works from the point of view of content, style, technique etc, when he reaches that point in Stendhal’s life at which they were written. This means that the ...

Praise Yah

Eliot Weinberger: The Psalms, 24 January 2008

The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary 
by Robert Alter.
Norton, 518 pp., £22, October 2007, 978 0 393 06226 7
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... and academics. The latest is a handsome edition, complete with the requisite red ribbon, by Robert Alter, and it has arrived accompanied by a joyful noise, widely acclaimed in the press as the Psalms for Our Time. New translations of a classic text are either done as a criticism of the old translations (correcting mistakes, finding an equivalent ...

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