Literature & Criticism

On Paul Celan

Michael Wood

29 July 2021

German language, Celan often said, was his mother’s tongue and the tongue of her murderers (‘Muttersprache und Mördersprache’). Writing poetry in German was for him both an act of remembrance and a rescue mission, as if a language could and could not be saved from its historical contamination.

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What if she’s a witch?

Clare Bucknell

29 July 2021

To Hans Kepler, the Imperial Mathematician, trying to defend his mother by taking an analytical view of the situation, Leonberg is like a depressing morality play; its population a typical collection of . . .

Spinsters and Clerics

Alison Light

29 July 2021

In the summer​ of 1934, after finishing her English degree at Oxford, Barbara Pym drafted a comic novel. Sending up her closest friends, she cast the arrogant fellow graduate she was in love with . . .

John Wieners Wanders

Andrea Brady

29 July 2021

John Wieners​ once told his nephew he had met the Virgin Mary. ‘Did she say anything to you?’ Walter asked. ‘No,’ John said, ‘she doesn’t know how to speak.’ . . .


Colin Burrow

15 July 2021

In​ Jill Paton Walsh’s novel Goldengrove (1972), set shortly after the Second World War, the adolescent heroine, Madge, goes on holiday to Cornwall. She falls a little in love with a professor . . .

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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Pure, Fucking Profit: ‘Assembly’

Joanna Biggs, 15 July 2021

Assembly takes a character who seems to have the best our society has to offer young women in the early 21st century – no surprise: it’s still money, status and love – and shows us why...

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Is there a moral here about the futility of self-willed ‘identity’? Or is it a cautionary tale about the religion of achievement? Was Rich afraid that her deepest identity, that of a poet,...

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Seven Centuries Too Late: Popes in Hell

Barbara Newman, 15 July 2021

It would be a pusillanimous reader who could not respond to the appeal of a cosmos so complete in every detail, arrayed in such minute and magnificent order, and peopled with such wondrous creatures, from...

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On the Interface: M. John Harrison

Nick Richardson, 15 July 2021

Whether he’s writing about holographic sex shows, or drywall and oven gloves, M. John Harrison is a psychological novelist whose fascination with trauma, repression and memory remains constant throughout...

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There’s always an audience if you’re someone with a smartphone, a social media influencer or just paranoid. But the lack of connection is not only a problem of address, but of artifice. Is...

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Jhumpa Lahiri seems most assured in tight spaces. But although she often speaks of her desire for control, she acknowledges its unattainability. There’s a certain thrill in losing control, or in...

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Christina Rossetti’s poems dwell on those who are unable to play. Lives are ‘void and brief/And tedious in the barren dusk’ or have been misspent and regretted. Souls are unreachable...

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What you get from David Storey’s memoir is a sense of the difficulty of the journey. He wanted to write about his own people and to place himself among them, and to go from there, and take them with...

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I am struck by her loneliness. She wanted to merge with the masses, to be anonymous and unobtrusive – a worker, a farmhand, a trade unionist, a soldier – one among many, working and fighting...

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A Parlour in Purley: Life as a Wife

Tessa Hadley, 17 June 2021

George Meredith couldn’t leave Mary Ellen’s story alone – in novel after novel he returned to portraits of women dissatisfied with their lumbering males, who are always one step behind...

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Readers of Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual can get precise and unfussy answers to any number of questions. Who is responsible for Mike’s version of power dressing? Val, the friend of British...

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On Fiona Benson

Colin Burrow, 17 June 2021

Atypical poem​ in Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright Travellers (2014), begins with a description of a hare:              There’s a leveret in...

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Communication, Jon McGregor suggests, is less about putting the right words in the right order than about context, tone and active interpretation. It’s an idea I’ve come to accept. I’m...

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Bitchy Little Spinster: Queens of Amherst

Joanne O’Leary, 3 June 2021

The first woman to receive a doctorate in geography from Harvard, Millicent Bingham sacrificed her academic career to finish the editorial work her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, began. Readers may not agree...

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Men fall constantly and embarrassingly in love with her (her seductively brazen author photos, in which she looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman, suggest a reason). At one point, she goes to the cinema for...

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I was trying to find the edge: Cusk-alike

J. Robert Lennon, 3 June 2021

Rachel Cusk’s characters are often displaced, alone with the wrong people, blind to (or excessively wedded to) customs and conventions, and lacking in self-knowledge. Second Place seems to me Cusk’s...

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Long before ecocriticism or the notion of the ‘anthropocene’ or the ‘posthuman’, African indigenous cosmologies offered ways of seeing and interpreting that emphasise the continuity...

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Exemplary craftsman, incorrigible satyr, subversive joker, avid grievance collector, liberal humanist, good son, bad husband, bountiful benefactor, Philip Roth in his prickly contrarieties aroused an ambivalence...

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