Literature & Criticism

Photograph from the cover of 'Shuggie Bain' by Douglas Stuart.

‘Shuggie Bain’

Christian Lorentzen

19 November 2020

Amid the tearing of hair and the rending of garments, the busted teeth and the vomit, a picture of a gutted Glasgow emerges. It’s the dark side of Thatcher’s Britain, another reason for the invited comparison with Alan Hollinghurst, whose portraits of the era attend to its more glamorous precincts. But the scope of the book never really widens beyond Agnes’s drinking. The city is glimpsed, as are Shuggie’s emerging artistic sensibilities and sense of his own sexuality, but only just.

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DeLillo tunes out

Andrew O’Hagan

3 December 2020

Don​ DeLillo has been a catastrophist for so long that we only really get excited when life’s catastrophes go way beyond his predictions. That happened with 9/11, when the attack on the Twin . . .

Kristeva on Dosto

Michael Wood

3 December 2020

Julia Kristeva’s​ book on Dostoevsky appears in a series from Buchet/Chastel called ‘Les Auteurs de ma vie’. Earlier titles included works by Stefan Zweig on Tolstoy, Thomas Mann . . .

Echo is a fangirl

Ange Mlinko

3 December 2020

If you’re a poet, and also a philosopher of language who dotes on the real-world consequence of words, it comes as a shock that words have no bearing, finally, on death. ‘That you can’t . . .


Niela Orr

3 December 2020

Late​ in the evening, early this century, Washington Square West, Philadelphia. Washington Square West overlaps an area identified by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro as the Seventh Ward . . .

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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Always Smiling: ‘Real Life’

Paul Mendez, 19 November 2020

Real Life bristles with everyday micro-aggressions, all the myriad, annihilating ways blackness is weaponised. It’s a campus novel, but anyone familiar with 19th-century slave narratives will hear...

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How do you write against your audience, an audience that celebrates your work but interprets it narrowly? The title on the cover, Homie, is for this audience; for Danez Smith’s publishers; and for...

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Eat butterflies with me?

Patricia Lockwood, 5 November 2020

Nabokov and I are hardly a match made in heaven – I’m stumped by the most elementary brain­teasers, every chess game I’ve ever played has lasted at least two hours and no one has...

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‘Since this trouble with my back, I’ve read all the detective stories there ever were, I should think,’ a character says in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House....

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Staying Alive: ‘The New Wilderness’

Rosa Lyster, 5 November 2020

Most climate dystopias are set in this temporal and spatial landscape: well into the obliterated future. The terrible thing has happened, and the details of how we got there are unimport­ant, as are...

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Slavery and Revenge

John Kerrigan, 22 October 2020

The earliest texts that look extensively at the slave trade are structured by the motifs and conventions of revenge tragedy: resentment, conspiracy, delay, the grand soliloquy and, above all, tortured...

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Each of us is a snowball: Squares are best

Susannah Clapp, 22 October 2020

Ideal for snoopers, snip­ers, novelists, cartoonists and daydreamers, squares offer the chance of peering out in several directions without someone across from you peering back. They mix urbanity and...

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Jack is a love story; it contains miracles. It is also the most theological of Robinson’s novels, bound by religious paradox and poetic impossibility. Robinson is interested in love, not as desire...

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Thom Gunn in New York

Michael Nott, 22 October 2020

Of all the ‘different varieties of New Jerusalem ... I’d only return to one,’ Gunn wrote, ‘For the sexual New Jerusalem was by far the greatest fun.’ ‘He was very interested...

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Strut like Mutya: Paul Mendez

Nicole Flattery, 22 October 2020

Rainbow Milk is a candid, sometimes un­even novel. But at moments it’s electrifying – an algorithmic pop ballad that suddenly transcends itself and sounds different, more affecting, like...

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Reading the novel is a bit like watching the type of movie – The Revenant or 1917 – where a man is chased by a bear only to fall off a cliff into the rapids, or a plane is shot out of the sky...

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Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and the refugee crisis shift in and out of focus, but it’s in the ordinary scenes of everyday frustration that the novels seem most ‘of our time’. But...

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Amis takes an unpretentious, anxious interest in holding the reader’s attention, and from time to time he can still get out from behind the rhetorical afflatus and come at you with sheer voice. His...

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Ah, how miserable! Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson, 8 October 2020

Misogynist tropes often involve present­ing women as interesting in precisely the ways that Aeschylus’ female characters are interesting: charming, articulate, danger­ous, deceitful, too...

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In The Discomfort of Evening there’s no whisper of normality to be heard. The status quo is dysfunctional even before its theoretical disruption by grief and then bovine epidemic, which makes it...

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I Am Brian Moore

Colin Burrow, 24 September 2020

Literary fiction is and ought always to be partly spell-making, and the kind of rapt reading Brian Moore offers – not speed-reading, but reading where the sing and whistle of the plot keeps you reading...

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Jansson had many euphemisms for lesbianism: ‘rive gauche’, as if all Parisian women were at it; ‘borderliner’; a ‘new line’, ‘tendency’, ‘attitude’....

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Childhood, for King, is a permanent condition, its obsessions inalienable, incurable. Even his adult characters embody a child’s awe and fear: they’re motherless wanderers, bewildered in the...

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