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Literary review publishing essay-length book reviews and topical articles on politics, literature, history, philosophy, science and the arts by leading writers and thinkers

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John Lanchester: How bad can it be?

Ihad​ the following reverie before the final: what if Southgate and Mancini agreed they wouldn’t let penalties decide the game? That if it came to penalties they’d just say, no thanks Uefa, we’re not going to do it – we’ll share the title. Dreams … idle dreams …Let’s gloss over what happened in the last game itself. It is a truth universally acknowledged...

Clare Bucknell: The Heart of a Prickle Bush

In​ Rivka Galchen’s new novel, a man who might be a pedlar tells a story of a land where people have everything they could possibly want to eat, ‘brandy, bread, dumplings, cream, honey, almonds, chicken, radishes’, but no salt. ‘When mealtime came,’ the maybe-pedlar explains, ‘the parents would abuse one another, or sometimes hit the children, until...

August Kleinzahler: A History of Western Music: Chapter 99

Like the faint sound of thunder, rumbling in the distance, then gathering in volumeuntil, with a great roar, it all comes crashing down, an avalanche of Europe’s concert halls,like the 7.4 cubic kilometre chunk of the Jakobshavn glacier, calving into the sea below:the red and Alaska yellow cedar stages and smoked birch parquet floors, a reverberating...

Sheila Fitzpatrick: Frisson of Electric Sparkle

‘Quelle est cette odeur agréable/Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?’ In the old French carol, the shepherds to whom the angel announces the birth of Christ are first struck by a ravishing scent they can’t identify, then by a great light, and finally by heavenly sounds. This introduction of a smell to the Annunciation story has no biblical justification,...

Colin Burrow: The Terrifying Vrooom

In​ Jill Paton Walsh’s novel Goldengrove (1972), set shortly after the Second World War, the adolescent heroine, Madge, goes on holiday to Cornwall. She falls a little in love with a professor of English literature who has been blinded in action, and reads aloud to him. One of the passages he has her recite is an analysis of Donne’s ‘A Valediction:...

Barbara Newman: Seven Centuries Too Late

In​ one of the most poignant moments of Dante’s Commedia, the exiled poet anticipates his triumphant return to Florence:Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,to which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand …should overcome the cruelty that locks me outof the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb …then …shall I return a poet and, at the...

Tom Stevenson: The Most Corrupt Idea of Modern Times

The invasion​ of Iraq was a generational disaster, but its effects will endure far longer. American and British armies descended in 2003, initiating the kind of cataclysm that registers in the fossil record. The war left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, most of them civilians. There is still no authoritative count, only estimates with confidence...

Denise Riley: Four Poems

‘Please supply a biographical note’A natal error.Steadied by pamphletsand brilliance of the babies.In leaping joy alone.Why do some will themselves to stone.Now is it time for night to fall.And home lamenting bore itHose down the bloody lamb.Shear its woolly skin to the bone.Penitential rain, cleanse my remembering.Mop me in blue scrubs.Mother of mercy,...

Toril Moi: I came with a sword

We don’t admire​ Simone Weil because we agree with her, Susan Sontag argued in 1963: ‘I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas.’ What we admire, Sontag thought, is her extreme seriousness, her absolute effort to become ‘excruciatingly...

Ian Penman: Four Moptop Yobbos

The rubble had been cleared away, but strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war-demolished houses had been.Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from KensingtonOn​ the opening page of Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, Brian Epstein and his personal assistant, Alistair Taylor, behold the Beatles for the very first time. It is November 1961, in a ‘dank...

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