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Writing Worth Reading

A Blagger’s Guide To Stained Glass

If you know anything about English church stained glass, you can probably risk skipping this piece, which is very much a brief introduction. If not, it’s a lively and informative read. There’s “no such thing as bad medieval glass”, because so little of it survives that every piece is intrinsically exciting. The great revival came at the close of the 19th century, when “more glass was made in England than any time since the Middle Ages” (1,700 words)

I’m Only 66

Conversation with Ian McEwan, on the eve of his latest novel, The Children Act. He is ageing well, and pulling ahead of his contemporaries. “McEwan’s prose keeps its cutting edge and his books are the ones the reading public still crave. The surge in his popularity possibly places him nearer Graham Greene than James Joyce on the Richter scale of literary vibration, but McEwan’s back-list is a staple of the school syllabus” (3,100 words)

My Midlife Crisis Novel

David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, “features a set of interlocking stories in multiple genres”, connected by a war between two sets of immortals, good and bad. The bad secure their immortality by murdering psychic children. “The novel also touches on themes such as Alzheimer’s, the Iraq war and occupation, global warming and the collapse of technological civilisation”. And it ends twice (2,570 words)

Emperor Augustus Makes For Thrilling Fiction

John Williams’s novel, Augustus, gives us “the emperor’s life as he wished others to see it”. Augustus is neither hero nor villain, but a man trying to make the best of a difficult situation. “Resolute action does not require the hope that human society can be improved permanently. A semblance of civilised order is worth striving for, even though sooner or later it will be succeeded by chaos and barbarism” (1,970 words)

Too Much Information

New novels from Martin Amis and Ian McEwan — Zone Of Interest and The Children Act respectively — share a common weakness: The fiction is overloaded with more fact than the stories can bear. Amis wants to show us how much he knows about death camps; McEwan wants to show us how much he knows about lawyering. McEwan’s book is competent but joyless; Amis’s book is “alienating when it isn’t repellent” (2,020 words)

Gilbert & George On Religion, Art And Politics

Brief but entertaining interview with George Passmore and Gilbert Proesch, once the enfants terribles of British art, now relatively stately septuagenarians, and admirers of Margaret Thatcher: “Deregulation is good for art. You couldn’t just be a free artist in the UK before her. You had to teach your whole life, and work within a rigid system. We think artists take her deregulation and opening-up of the museum system for granted” (875 words)

Did Tony Die At The End Of The Sopranos?

David Chase is tired of being asked the question. So he has decided, finally, to answer it. The answer is … On reflection, I won’t spoil it for you; and the revelation forms a very brief part of a long and excellent interview-based profile of Chase, his art, his influences, and his invention of “auteur television”. Luis Bunuel features prominently among the influences; as do Carlos Castaneda, Orson Welles, and Edgar Allen Poe (5,021 words)

Who Is Elena Ferrante?

Three writers rally to praise Ferrante, the pseudonymous but presumed Italian author whose semi-autobiographical Neapolitan trilogy is compared here favourably with the work of Knausgaard. As the headline suggests, Ferrante’s concealment of his or her identity becomes, perversely, the most conspicuous feature of the books. You read them to enjoy the story, but also to speculate on who might have written them (2,330 words)

Healthy Words

Science fiction gives young Chinese writers a means to make veiled critiques of the government, much as analogies drawn from history were used by older generations of writers. Environmental crises and social engineering are popular themes. Much of this new work is not published officially within China, especially when censors recognise the allusions, but persistent readers can find it freely online (682 words)

Martin Amis’s Holocaust

Conversation with Amis about the disenchantments of living in America — “It’s the penal system, the guns, the capital punishment” — and his new novel, The Zone Of Interest, which Appleyard calls “a technical and aesthetic tour de force that takes us inside the minds of the Germans who managed Auschwitz.” Next up for Amis, “an explicitly autobiographical novel”; and then, perhaps, “his big American novel” (1,970 words)

Sophia Tolstoy Has Her Say

A century ago Leo Tolstoy wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, “a frenzied monologue delivered by a narrator who, in a fit of jealousy and disgust, murdered his wife”. Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, was less than thrilled. She wrote two novellas of her own rebutting her husband’s depiction of marriage; they disappeared into the archives of the Tolstoy Museum; now they have been translated and published (Metered paywall) (1,180 words)

Thinking About Things

James Kelman is a “funny, sour, expansive writer, whose strange, new sentences are brilliant adventures in thought”. As a general rule nothing much happens in his stories; the action is all in the often-brutal language. “Like Knausgaard, he simply proceeds as if the subject matter were interesting”. His latest collection, If It Is Your Life, “continues Kelman’s struggle against official notions of the well-made story” (3,520 words)

Attending James Joyce’s Birthday Party

Another gem from the archives of the New Republic. “It is tea time at the Joyces’. Mrs. Joyce gives us the best tea and the nicest cakes that are to be had in any house in Paris”. James Joyce is re-reading Madame Bovary, and going often to the opera. He considers modern Irish writing over-rated: “If we lift up the back-skirts of English literature we will find there everything we have been trying to do” (2,800 words)

Rescuing Brecht

Stephen Parker’s Bertold Brecht is “not only the biography of a genius, but itself a biography of genius”, perhaps even enough to redeem Brecht’s reputation in Britain and America, which are, “if not quite Brecht-free zones, nevertheless territories where he has persistently been misunderstood, unappreciated, unloved and under suspicion”. If Brecht’s life was wayward, so was Picasso’s; and Brecht’s talent was every bit as great (4,400 words)


Sketch of Isadora Duncan at 50, nine months before her death, dancing in Nice with Jean Cocteau accompanying. “She stands almost immobile or in slow splendid steps with slow splendid arms moves to music. Posing through the works of Wagner, through tales of Dante, Isadora is still great. As if the movements of dancing had become too redundant for her spirit, she has saved from dancing only its shape” (1,970 words)

Why We Love To Hate Martin Amis

Fair-minded discussion of Martin Amis, his life and work, on the eve of publication of his latest novel, The Zone of Interest, described as “an office comedy set in Auschwitz”. He is “the possessor of a staggering – by which I mean both impressive and lopsided – talent”. His prose is superb and distinctive; his sensibility can be a problem. We still approach his books in the hope that he will “light up the sky” (3,400 words)

Tolstoy Translated

Tolstoy’s reputation as a novelist in the English-speaking world owed much to Constance Garnett, whose translation of Anna Karenina appeared in 1901, and of War And Peace in 1904. Earlier translations had made little impression; Tolstoy’s language was often intractable, the quantity of his writing overwhelming. Turgenev was much easier to render; until Garnett, Turgenev was considered the superior writer (1,940 words)

Immortal Beloved

Concert pianist reviews Jan Swafford’s new biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. “Swafford repeatedly points out the way Beethoven cunningly derived pieces from a single, simple idea. This is not news — but it’s worth meditating on. Beethoven preferred musical ideas of almost unusable simplicity, things that seem pre-­musical, or ur-musical, like chords, or scales; not music, but the stuff music is made of” (Metered) (1,200 words)

Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

Review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2: 1923–1925. “Hemingway wrote the first letter in this collection when he was twenty-three, the last when he was twenty-six. Living mostly in Paris, he fathered his first child, grew disenchanted with his first wife and took up with his second, quit his first job as a reporter, published his first three collections of stories and poems, wrote his first two novels [and] saw his first bullfight” (3,400 words)

A Brahms Revelation Happened Last Night

Review of orchestral concert which succeeds thrillingly in bringing the music to life: “Vogt slammed the keyboard like a man possessed, capturing the nearly demonic element of Brahms’s inner world — a Lisztian wildness without the cackle. Passages of powerful abandon never lost their rocking rhythmic snap, and lyrical passages maintained a firm intellectual command of Brahms’s compositional filigree” (1,250 words)

Liberals Are Killing Art

Nice people like you and me are the modern audience for highbrow art — and we are killing it by requiring it to serve socially useful, or at least, socially explicable, purposes. We have no appetite for art’s “irreducible mystery and magic”. We want “to bring art’s unruly power into line with some more general system of social, political, and moral values”. This is reasonable; but art is not reasonable; a tragic contradiction (4,700 words)

Art Of The Theatre: Tom Stoppard

Classic interview. Every bit as brilliant as you might hope. “In the theater there is often a tension, almost a contradiction, between the way real people would think and behave, and a kind of imposed dramaticness. I like dialogue that is slightly more brittle than life. I have always admired those 1940s filmscripts where every line is written with a sharpness and economy that is frankly artificial” (6,720 words)

War And Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives

Lev Tolstoy began his novel intending to write a Russian family story in the manner of Anthony Trollope, set in 1856 and called All’s Well That Ends Well. But he found he couldn’t tell that story without reaching back to the Decembrist rebellion of 1825; which in turn meant reaching back to Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow; which is where he ended up, writing one of the greatest novels of any place or time (2,070 words)

Interview: Werner Herzog

Retrospective discussion pegged to release of boxed DVD set of Herzog’s 16 greatest films. On his use of hypnotised actors: “Under hypnosis, you’re like in a tunnel — basically aware of the world. I was suspected of doing it to get better control of actors. I don’t need that. I control even a wild beast like Klaus Kinski, a borderline mad, wild, paranoid madman — and I can control him and do good stuff with him” (4,000 words)

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