Tales of Derring-Do

Posted on by David Gelber

John Barrow has been called the father of Arctic exploration. ‘In fact,’ says Fergus Fleming firmly in his jolly new book, ‘he was the father of global exploration.’ Barrow was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty in 1804, and except for a brief hiatus between 1806 and 1807, he remained at his post until 1845. […]

America’s Delusion

Posted on by David Gelber

In his superb American Pastoral, Philip Roth displayed signs of wanting to examine his kind of people in greater philosophic depth: Swede Lermontov, a Newark Jew who has moved to the mink-and-manure belt, finds that his attempts to become an American, freed from his immigrant antecedents and his religion, are tragically foiled. The agent of […]

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Lost Her Strangeness

Posted on by David Gelber

All animals are now effectively domesticated. Thanks to mass illustration, Disney, and half a century of TV zoologists, it is virtually impossible to be stunned or awed by beast or bird: intrigued, surprised, amused, occasionally shit-scared; impressed by their organisation, tickled by their tricks; but not stunned or awed. Perhaps this emotional absence explains the […]

An Unknown Author Who Put God in His Place

Posted on by David Gelber

‘The patience of Job’ is a popular nineteenth-century concept. I know of no serious or studious reader of Job since, and including, the poet Shelley who ever thought of Job as a patient man. Professor Scheindlin attacks the concept without need. That apart, he has given us a beautiful new translation and a profound commentary […]

A Pleasant Collection of Bits and Pieces

Posted on by David Gelber

The Oxford Book of English Prose, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, appeared in November 1925, exactly twenty-five years after The Oxford Book of English Verse. The immense success of the latter, although it was far from being the first or the best of verse anthologies, explains why the editor was already Sir Arthur. Deservedly, no doubt. […]

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Burma Discovered through a Shapely Basket

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1988 Rory MacLean got on the wrong plane in Hong Kong and went to Burma by accident. The year after that, the dictators put down a popular uprising by killing more than five thousand people, and the State Law and Order Restoration Council switched the country’s official English name to Myanmar in an attempt […]

Monster of Superhuman Energy and Moral Vigour

Posted on by David Gelber

Before settling on the idea of writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy nurtured a project of writing an historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great. For several years he conducted extensive research in archives and published works, and eventually became proficient in understanding both the political events and the men and manners […]

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In the End, She Preferred Sartre

Posted on by David Gelber

It started with ardour and ended in bitterness, this affair which Simone de Beauvoir described as ‘the only truly passionate love in my life’. Documented in more than three hundred letters, her affair with the American writer Nelson Algren introduced her to the physical pleasure she had never found with Jean-Paul Sartre – and threatened […]

Initiation into Despair

Posted on by David Gelber

There is a recurrent grumble that ‘colonial’ writers are unfairly over-represented on every short-list of every literary prize. It arises from the belief that novels from overseas (and particularly from India) are overrated. Novels like this one, however, suggest that any over-representation is perfectly justified. The quality of the writing in The God of Small […]

The Press in Poland

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has effectively been attempting to silence dissent and muzzle the media. According to a damning report by independent watchdog Freedom House, ‘Pluralism Under Attack: The Assault on Press Freedom in Poland’, PiS’s decision to replace the heads of the public broadcaster in […]

Coming in from the Cold

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

There are certain fictional characters who are simply too large – too vivid, outsized and wholly realised – not to take on a life of their own. Some such figures, meant initially as secondary players (Fosco in The Woman in White, Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time), overwhelm the stories in which […]

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Battle of Nerves

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

On Friday 30 September 1938, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, arrived back in Britain after a two-day conference in Munich with Hitler, Mussolini and the French prime minister, Edouard Daladier. Brinkmanship is a word that has been bandied about a lot recently with the sparring between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, but back in the […]

Grand Remonstrance

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Few writers of serious literary fiction achieve as strong a popular following as Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex and The Marriage Plot. After a huge advertisement for his last novel appeared in Times Square featuring a photo of him striding purposefully towards the camera, the waistcoat he was wearing had, for a […]

Devil’s Day

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Yorkshire may be God’s Own County but Lancashire, at least for Andrew Michael Hurley, is firmly in the possession of the Devil. Hurley’s first novel, The Loney (2014), follows a dysfunctional Catholic family on a pilgrimage to a holy well situated on a ‘wild and useless length of English coastline’ near Morecambe Bay, where they […]

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Walls of Silence

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, is billed by her publisher as a story about three generations of an Irish immigrant family living in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century. It is certainly set in Brooklyn and does feature mostly first- and second-generation Irish immigrant characters, but their Catholicism and their […]

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Sister Act

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The practice of commissioning new ‘cover versions’ of venerable, canonical texts is odder than it might at first seem. It’s hard not to see it as a back-handed compliment, even a bit of a telling-off. Good old Aeschylus may have meant well, but here’s a few things he didn’t understand. In the case of the […]

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Second Sitting

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Will she or won’t she? The intentions of Isabel Archer, heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, are famously left vague at the close of the novel. All we know is that after the funeral, in England, of her cousin Ralph Touchett, the only man who has ever properly appreciated her, she plans […]

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Diving In

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Anna Kerrigan, the heroine of Manhattan Beach, is captivated as soon as she sees a diving suit. It looks ‘primally familiar … as if from a dream or a myth’. She’s good with her hands, able to tie and untie knots and use tools with her eyes closed, but the lieutenant in charge of the […]

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Sins of the Father

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. Or, he’s a […]

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