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Selected highlights from the August 2015 issue:

Ian Sansom on Vladimir Nabokov's active Americanisation
For all those keen quivering Nabokovians out there with infinitely deep pockets - are there any other kind? - or perhaps with access to a university library, these are undoubtedly the years of plenty. In 2014 alone, even the most casual short-trousered amateur Nabokovterist armed with a basic butterfly net would have been able to catch Maurice Couturier's Nabokov's Eros and the Poetics of Desire, Yuri Leving's Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov's Last Novel, Samuel Schuman's Nabokov's Shakespeare, and the paperback reissues of Gerard de Vries and D Barton Johnson's Nabokov and the Art of Painting and Vladimir E Alexandrov's Nabokov's Otherworld. Almost forty years after his death there is, it seems, much good Nabokov-hunting still to be had. In a lecture on 'The Art of Literature and Commonsense', collected in his Lectures on Literature - which remains the perfect entry point into the vast, prodigious kingdom of the Great Nabob - Nabokov remarks, 'In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth ... and wondering with an immortal Alice at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles - no matter the imminent peril - these asides of the spirit ... are the highest form of consciousness.' Read more.

Jan Morris on Michael Jacobs's enduring fascination with Las Meninas
The art historian and travel writer Michael Jacobs died last year, leaving a literary legacy at once irresistibly idiosyncratic and unobtrusively learned. In particular he wrote uniquely about the nation, culture and history of Spain, where he lived for much of his life and to which he was devoted. It is only proper that his final work should concern a supreme icon of Spanishness, Diego Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas. Read more.

John Guy on volume IV of Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years' War
Perfectly timed for the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the fourth volume of Jonathan Sumption's epic narrative of the Hundred Years' War takes the story from Richard II's death in 1399 to Henry V's in 1422. The period, as Sumption lucidly explains, is marked by two brutal political assassinations. In 1407, Louis, Duke of Orléans, effectively ruler of France while his brother King Charles VI, a paranoid schizophrenic, was 'absent' (as the common euphemism had it), was bludgeoned to death by assailants hired by the venal and unscrupulous John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. Twelve years later, John was himself scythed down on the bridge of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a fortress on a spur of rock at the confluence of the Seine and the Yonne. Although shown by Sumption to be acting with the explicit knowledge and consent of the French dauphin, Charles, John's murderers (or most of them) had once been the protégés of Orléans: they thirsted for revenge. A bloody civil war in France, triggered by the first of these murders and then intensified by the second, gave Henry IV, King Richard's supplanter, and afterwards his charismatic, energetic, imperious son Henry V their cues. As Francis I would be tartly informed when he made an unscheduled detour in 1521 to view John the Fearless's broken skull in his tomb at Dijon, 'By that hole, the English entered France.' Read more.

John Keay on the mountain nation Sikkim
Scrunched into the Himalayas between Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim is about the size of Devon but with a greater surface area because so much of it is mountainous. The 22nd (and last) edition of Murray's Handbook for Travellers to India claims, with sublime certainty, that 'there are, in Sikkim, only 518 villages and 14,777 occupied houses'. Admittedly, that was in 1975. There were also 44 monasteries, 4,000 flowering-plant species, including 660 different sorts of orchids, and 6,700 kinds of butterflies and moths. It sounds like paradise, and it was. But in that same year, time was called on Sikkim's existence as a sovereign kingdom. Indira Gandhi, desperate to deflect attention from the domestic challenges that led her to suspend India's constitution in the so-called 'Emergency', lit upon the smallest of her country's neighbours and sent in the army. Sikkim was 'merged' with India and its fairy-tale monarchy abolished, its unique biodiversity becoming just another part of India's own inexhaustible variety. Read more.

Adrian Tinniswood on England's forgotten South American colony
Here are two things you might not know about Suriname, as the lost colony of Matthew Parker's title is known today. It boasts the largest ants in the world; and in spite of a widely held belief that it lies somewhere in the South China Sea, it is in fact on the northeast coast of South America. Read more.

Michael Bywater on a nude way of life
The American edition of Naked at Lunch has the title in big upper-case letters, printed as though they were cutouts, windows onto the scene behind, showing a man on a slatted chair that appears to be on a ship. You can see the sea, and the kind of light you get at sea, which has inspired artists for... You're right. This is avoidance behaviour so I'll just say it: the guy is NAKED, okay? NUDE. Plump, middle-aged, bald, grey goatee, specs and he's in the effing nude. On his lap is a MacBook Air. It's resting on his willy. His todger, for God's sake, wang, doodle, schlong, his PENIS is TOUCHING his COMPUTER. This must be the author on the nudist cruise, with 1,865 other naked people, and I really hope the ID tag around his neck doesn't say 'Access All Areas'. Read more.


Elaine Showalter on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman
In the fifty-five years since its publication, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic, taught in schools across the country, made into a memorable film and enshrined as what Oprah Winfrey has called 'our national novel'. Until 14 July 2015, Lee had never published another book. But the release that day of the long-lost version of the original novel, Go Set a Watchman, was a literary and cultural bombshell. Atticus Finch, the revered, almost sanctified 1930s lawyer hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, is revealed in this book to have been a white supremacist. Returning from New York to her Alabama home town, Maycomb, just after the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in the United States, his daughter, 26-year-old Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch, is shocked and disgusted by her discovery of her adored father's racism, attendance at meetings of the White Citizens' Council and one-time membership of the Ku Klux Klan decades earlier. Read more.

Hannah Rosefield on Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life
When a novel begins with four college friends moving to New York to make names for themselves in the big city, you brace yourself for things to go wrong. Professional differences, romantic rivalry, too many parties with too many drugs, the lure of more glamorous companions: the list of what might strain relationships formed in the shelter of a Massachusetts dorm room is endless. Some of this does happen to the characters in A Little Life, but far more striking is how much goes right for them. By the time we're three hundred pages and fifteen years in (with another four hundred pages and thirteen years to go - this isn't a quick read), the four uncertain young men at the novel's start have become a famous artist, a famous architect, a famous film star and a famously ruthless litigator. JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude make enough money to buy lavish second and third homes and to fly to Paris for an evening to celebrate one another's birthdays. Their wider social circle is similarly fortunate. Read more.


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