Plato’s Apology of Socrates, the speech Plato put in Socrates’s mouth when he was on trial for his life in 399 BC, begins with Socrates professing ignorance (as usual) about the right way to make a defence speech (apologia means ‘defence’ in ancient Greek). He begins: ‘I don’t know what you felt, gentlemen of the […]
Congratulations, you’re alive. After a chapter or two of this microbe’s-eye-view of human history, it is tempting to wonder how our ancestors ever made it. Painful ends have been with us from the beginning, and it is a mystery how mauled, malnourished cavemen struggled on to become contagion-ridden city dwellers. Wherever there is life, Arno […]
On the cover of Out of the Night is a weeping face. Or is it a wax death mask? At its edges pink drops fall towards a shadowy pillow, above which they float as if in some exquisitely painful dream. It seems the perfect metaphor for the death-in-life state of the condemned prisoner, which in […]
Jeanette Winterson has come in for a lot of flak for being bumptious. Since she chose her own novel as her Book of the Year in a national newspaper, and announced on television that she considers herself the natural heir to Virginia Woolf, the media have enjoyed cocking a snook at her whenever possible. She […]
Not far from where I’m writing this (in Islington, North London), David Mamet, in some unspecified year, was walking along in search of a cup of tea. He found one in a café, opposite Islington library. At this point, reading his account and knowing the area, anxiety overtook me: which café? Was he well advised? […]
Coleridge likened the reviewing of books to the ‘occupation of a cormorant’. The low passivity of waiting for a book to swim past and be, possibly, annihilated with a quick downward thrust of the beak, makes one chary of accepting the reviewer’s role. Peter Levi’s book swims with an articulation of its own, chatty in […]
One of David Cronenberg’s favourite poems is The Flea by John Donne: ‘Marke but this flea, and marke in this, How little that which thou deny’st me is; It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee.’
I have a female friend whose scrupulous upbringing prevents her from telling her favourite joke. It is the one about the tramp who knocks at the window of a Rolls Royce to ask the driver for the loan of a pound. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be – Shakespeare,’ replies the driver pompously, pressing […]
This is not a novel. It is a heist, planned with the ruthless precision of a bank job. Celia Brayfield’s first blockbuster, Pearls, was a modestly conventional effort about people with loads of money and loads of class, who do quite a lot of (but never enough) screwing. Her second, The Prince, is also disappointingly […]
Perhaps there once was a time when you could happily wet the bed, play with your faeces or your sister, barge into your parents bedroom without knocking and still grow up to be a relatively pulled-together human being unburdened by the weight of repressed guilt. Perhaps. But such a golden age was certainly dead by […]
The curious story of what happened when a girl named Alice fell down a rabbit hole might never have been preserved for posterity had not one of the children who first heard it pestered the teller of the tale to write it down.
This is a very fine book and quite possibly a great one. But is it a novel? It is the story of a historical figure, Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German, and it is the product of detailed research. The events it relates occurred in geographical locations and in historical time. Its characters all inhabited the […]
We all know how hung up the Victorians were about food. Eating was confined to the dining room and had to happen at certain times of day. There were repressive dietary rules which led to frustration and unhappiness. No eating between meals. Don’t eat banana before going to bed. Spinach is good for you. Luckily […]
Rock music is like religion: it’s something you grow out of. And then later, wiser maybe, you grow back into it. Guys take it very seriously, like religion (think ‘Clapton is God’, scrawled on the walls of the London Underground). Ruth Padel grew into it late and takes it seriously. As a young woman she […]
The author of this major biography of Virginia Woolf is Professor of English at York University and a distinguished critic and broadcaster. She is also one of my best friends, so do not expect a dispassionate review, though actually I would not have written it differently even if I were unacquainted with her.
In a message to his staff when he left the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming said, ‘In all these years we have had great fun working together’. He had been a great Foreign News Manager; perhaps only Sid Mason of Reuters attracted such devotion from foreign correspondents in the field. With a sense for detail, an […]
The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to her award-winning debut The Glorious Heresies (2015), begins as it means to go on: with quarrelling. Cork drug dealer and frustrated DJ Ryan Cusack is the subject of a tug-of-war between his boss, a fearsome local tough named Dan Kane, and his long-suffering girlfriend Karine, who would very […]
Who are you? Where do we come from? These, in the world of Jostein Gaarder at any rate, are the central philosophical questions. Being in thrall to these questions, succumbing to their charm and feeling the depth of their unanswerability, is what, in Gaarder’s opinion, distinguishes the philosopher from the herd; where the herd sleep […]
When the biggest American rock star of the Nineties, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, removed the top of his head with a shotgun, his mother commented that her boy had ‘joined the stupid club’ – meaning the crowded fraternity of star-crossed young celebrities who died before their time.
Borges was sixty-two and almost unknown outside Argentina when he won the Prix Formentor in 1962. This prize, – ‘hatched’, according to James Woodall, ‘by six international publishers’ (the British one being Weidenfeld and Nicolson, predictably enough) – was intended to honour ‘an author of any nationality whose existing body of work will, in the […]