Literature & Criticism

‘Harlem Shuffle’

Paul Mendez

16 December 2021

Because in 1960s Harlem the odds were stacked so heavily against Black people, even if you weren’t a criminal yourself you risked being found guilty by association, or dragged down by those around you. These are working-class people, and the great-great grandchildren of the enslaved. Colson Whitehead, as ever, is attentive to the subtle intersections Black men and women have to negotiate in their everyday working lives.

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In Stoppardian Fashion

Susannah Clapp

16 December 2021

Tom Stoppard wrote​ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. He would like to have written Michael . . .


Michael Wood

16 December 2021

‘Abeginning​ is a very delicate time,’ we are told in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965), and again in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation. None of that ‘a long time ago’ . . .

Borges is Coming

Robert Crawford

16 December 2021

Jorge​ Luis Borges’s visit to the Home of Golf in 1971 is still remembered. Edwin Williamson devotes a page of his 2004 biography to the event, calling attention to Borges’s wish to recite . . .

Rose Macaulay’s Pleasures

Rosemary Hill

16 December 2021

‘Abroad … is it worth the trouble of getting there?’ So begins Rose Macaulay’s alphabetical journey through the mixed pleasures of existence. First published in 1935, this reissue . . .

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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Poem: ‘All of the People’

Leontia Flynn, 16 December 2021

Dense clouds of starlings ripple on our skylines.Wildebeest thunder collectively over the plain.Fireflies blink. Bamboo-forests blossom at once.Round the innocent cell, bacteria follow the...

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A Whack of Pies: Dear to Mew

Matthew Bevis, 16 December 2021

‘The moonlight​ drips on the parlour floor;/I shall go mad if no one wipes it up.’ So began E.V. Knox’s parody in the August 1921 issue of Punch.And the moon dripped upon the...

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Reading books like this, I feel like a Philip K. Dick character in the grip of wild-eyed madness. I want to run around telling the authors to snap out of it, to stop wasting their time and their Sontag...

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Alexandra Kleeman’s​ second novel, Something New under the Sun, begins as a classic writer-goes-to-Hollywood story. The writer is Patrick Hamlin, a forty-something with two novels and an...

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My father told me to return to my birthplace,the cave of Amnisos, and wait for a woman,that she would need me. I knew what that meant –he’d impregnated another mortal whore.I returned...

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No Bananas Today: Mario Vargas Llosa

Rachel Nolan, 2 December 2021

The CIA equipped and paid Central American rebels, and hired US mercenaries to fly bombers over Guatemala City, dropping first leaflets then bombs, while the US navy blockaded the coast. The coup could...

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Song of Snogs: Catullus Bound

Colin Burrow, 2 December 2021

Quite apart from the fact that the text of Catullus is a conjectural amender’s paradise, with lacunae and all kinds of textual S&M to be performed on it for the pleasure, or possibly the pain,...

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It seems, in the end, that an obsession with words, their proper order and their etymologies, is nothing less than a search for proof that time existed. 

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I was invisible: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Christian Lorentzen, 18 November 2021

The narrator​ of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s pair of novels, The Sympathiser (2015) and The Committed, is one of the more irresistible characters in recent American fiction. He smokes, he drinks,...

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In​ the summer of 1849, Arthur Hugh Clough went to dinner with the writer Jane Octavia Brookfield. ‘I tried to talk with him, but he has the most peculiar manner I almost ever saw,’...

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Never been to Hamburg: ‘A Shock’

James Meek, 18 November 2021

The Londoners of Keith Ridgway’s A Shock, who live in a part of the city roughly bounded by Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham, suffer from a condition familiar to inhabitants of mighty, superficially...

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Two Poems

Paul Batchelor, 18 November 2021

Last Poemi.m. Derek MahonWe value them, the voicesthat need us least, who speakwith honest subtletyto ironies beyond us,who slip our grasp and gowhistling down endlesscelestial colonnadesof...

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Poem: ‘Are we’

Jorie Graham, 18 November 2021

Are weextinct yet. Who ownsthe map. May Ilook. Where is myclaim. Is my historyverifiable. Have Iincluded the memoryof the animals. The animals’memories. Are theystill here. Are wealone....

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Life Pushed Aside: The Last Asylums

Clair Wills, 18 November 2021

I am haunted by the figure of Rolanda Polonsky, walking through the hospital corridors. If my eight-year-old self had opened the doors that frightened me I might have found her, back then, exactly as she...

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Story: ‘Mother of Nature’

Diane Williams, 4 November 2021

My brother’s words when I hear them these days seem not to go into my ears – but down some other deeper artery. He said, ‘It’s mother’s house and I just think of it...

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Fetch the Chopping Knife: Murder on Bankside

Charles Nicholl, 4 November 2021

The first true crime craze – the distant antecedent of our own docu-drama craze – proved to be an essentially Elizabethan phenomenon. I would place its high-water mark in the year 1599, when...

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Poem: ‘Weeds’

Maureen N. McLane, 4 November 2021

all daypersonifying plantsEvil NettleFascist Weedboing boingI do not want youmatter out of placeI rip you outI favour the desiredthe useful to me to me to me!meanwhile stars doing themselvesin the...

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Story: ‘It Will Come Back to You’

Sigrid Nunez, 4 November 2021

As someone who once never had to write down an appointment or a phone number, I take the inevitable weakening of memory that comes with ageing hard. A common response to I forget is Don’t worry,...

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