Literature & Criticism

Black and white photograph of Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, c.1960.

Letters from Tove

Emma Hogan

24 September 2020

Jansson had many euphemisms for lesbianism: ‘rive gauche’, as if all Parisian women were at it; ‘borderliner’; a ‘new line’, ‘tendency’, ‘attitude’. She had become more discreet since her affair with Vivica Bandler. Some of this reticence was due to her parents’ reaction. Her father tried to ask her if the rumours were true, but couldn’t say the word ‘homosexual’ because it made him so angry.

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‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Adam Mars-Jones

24 September 2020

The​ title of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s first novel, a bestseller in their native Holland and the winner of this year’s International Booker Prize, makes it seem like an Italian metaphysical . . .

I Am Brian Moore

Colin Burrow

24 September 2020

In a review​ of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, the novelist Brian Moore remarked: ‘For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary . . .

Stephen King’s Latest

J. Robert Lennon

10 September 2020

When​ I was 13, one of the things I liked best about Stephen King – my hero and bête noire, godfather of my literary children, internet mensch, unstoppable retirement-proof zombie of . . .

How to Read Aloud

Irina Dumitrescu

10 September 2020

Between​ 2002 and 2018, the number of GCSE foreign language exams taken in England, Northern Ireland and Wales fell by 45 per cent. The main reason for this was that in 2002 the government announced . . .

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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On Hope Mirrlees

Clair Wills, 10 September 2020

The​ Turkish language has a tense for gossip. Officially known as the reported past, it’s also the ‘hearsay’ tense, in which it’s possible to say things without its...

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The realm of writing, for Nathalie Sarraute, remained the neutral, the anonym­ous, the impersonal, expressed as the pre­-conscious and pre-­personal undercurrents of the mind, which she named...

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Early Kermode

Stefan Collini, 13 August 2020

So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by D.J. Gordon, had moved to the...

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My first reading of The Vanishing Half was greedy, fast, for plot, with the sun on my back and murder in the news. On my second, I noticed different things. Brit Bennett’s sentences don’t...

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The Smell of Blood: Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison, 13 August 2020

The frustration of the dozen voices composing the narrative of Summerwater is easy to under­stand: male, female, young, old, Scottish, English, they’re fed up with the weather, because it’s...

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The Shrine

Alan Bennett, 30 July 2020

I said, ‘You’ve got some of the mud on your trousers.’ I said, ‘I’m still going to kneel, only I won’t wear the jacket.’ He said, ‘That’s the stuff,’...

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Listening to people’s stories and believing them is a benevolent impulse, Nikita Lalwani argues. But her novels are full of moments when the stories people tell about themselves and the world prove...

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Why is luck good or bad, an incentive to gambling, while chance seems weirdly neutral? And what was it like in the old days when Fortune played a larger role in ordinary consciousness, taking up quite...

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How many times? Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery, 16 July 2020

The struggle of Pew is one that first occurs to brooding teenagers of the community: what would you do, and who would you be, if nobody was watching? It’s a question that’s no less sad and...

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An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett, 16 July 2020

She said, ‘Only living in close proximity together bestows a kind of protective coating on members of the family, so that in normal circumstances they don’t fall for each other, and somehow...

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obligatorynoteofhope.com: Jenny Offill

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 July 2020

Is it possible to find an adequate tone or combination of tones, an adequate form or combination of forms, for the purpose of contemplating extinction? If the whole of culture is an attempt to deny the...

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The more one thinks about it, the odder it seems that one of the figureheads for this particular strain of national mythology is Elizabeth I, a multilingual queen whose letters and speeches display far...

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In 1801, Wordsworth congratulated a reader of Lyrical Ballads for identifying the pathos of the poems as ‘the pathos of humanity’ and not ‘jacobinal pathos’; only ‘bad poets...

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Jean Stafford’s writing has a strange, foreign flavour. It’s bitter and strong, dark, some­ times poisonous. Reading her work, three­ quarters of a century on, I feel all the angsty...

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The Last Whale

Colin Burrow, 4 June 2020

Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for...

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Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen, 4 June 2020

Shelagh Delaney resented being pigeonholed: ‘I could go on writing plays if I never saw Salford, Manchester or any Northern working-class district again.’ Unfortunately, by this point, the...

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A Maigret novel came on Simenon like an illness: he would feel the pressure of an idea building to a point where he had no choice but to write it. At that stage he would go to his doctor for a check-up,...

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Before I Began: Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler, 4 June 2020

The tone darkens a bit, not surprisingly, in The Death of Jesus, and there’s a concomitant rise in the teasing of meaning-hungry readers. But it’s still tempting to see the Jesus stuff as a...

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