Roving thoughts and provocations

Houellebecq in the Flesh

James Lasdun

Nicolas Guerin/Getty Images

At fifty-seven, Michel Houellebecq has the miraculous look of someone almost double his age. Etched, haggard, battered, half-collapsed, his face seems destined to become one of the great ruins of our literary era; something to measure up to Beckett or Auden—for druidic ancientness if not quite nobility. His mouth in particular is alarmingly caved-in, as though his mother had followed through on her notorious threat to smash his teeth in with her walking stick if he ever wrote about her again.

Ukraine: Divided and Bitter

Tim Judah

Tim Judah

In eastern Ukraine, civilians are suffering, as they do in all wars, but in this one, older people are suffering the most. Even when peace returns to Pervomaysk, it will have to contend with a fresh layer of bitterness. As in war-ravaged parts of the Balkans, buildings can be rebuilt, but if there is no work and no reason to return, then places like this will dwindle and die.

Israel: The Stark Truth

David Shulman

Dan Bar Dov/Demotix/Corbis

The Israeli electorate has given a clear mandate. There will be more antidemocratic legislation, more attempts to undermine the courts, more rampant racism, more thugs in high office, more acts of cruelty inflicted on innocents, more paranoid indoctrination in the schools, more hate propaganda, more wanton destruction of Bedouin villages, more war-mongering, and quite possibly more needless war.

What Happened in Homs

Jonathan Littell

AFP/Getty Images

When the photographer Mani and I arrived in Homs, in mid-January 2012, the Syrian revolution was reaching the end of its first year. In the city and the surrounding towns, the people were gathering daily to demonstrate. They still believed that song, dance, slogans, and prayer were stronger than fear and bullets. They were wrong, of course.

Laura’s World

April Bernard

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

The knowledge that I was only one of a crowd of children devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of American pioneer life could not have altered the intensity of my personal attachment to the brave, and often surprisingly lonely, heroine, the girl Laura whose travels with her family take her from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Indian Territory (Kansas); then to Minnesota and, finally, Dakota Territory, in the years from 1869 to 1883. By fifteen, I was already nostalgic for Laura’s world and for my eight-year-old self who had first discovered it.

A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?

Amy Knight

When Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder.

Stifled by Success

Tim Parks

Max Beerbohm

We can admire a writer’s determination not to surf a wave of public acclaim, but all the same no one is isolated from the consequences of success. The work is clearly influenced by the attention it achieves. And since many admire a writer all the more for his intransigent refusal to cozy up to the reader, this hostile reaction actually feeds the public’s interest and esteem.

Bot or Not?

James Gleick

Philip Gendreau/Bettmann/Corbis
It’s understood now that, beside what we call the “real world,” we inhabit a variety of virtual worlds. Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots. “Bot” is of course short for robot. And bots are very, very tiny, skeletal, incapable robots—usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

Dante’s Dogs

Alberto Manguel

Tate, London

Of all the insults and derogatory comparisons Dante uses in the Commedia on both lost souls and evil demons, one recurs throughout: they are like dogs. The wasteful in the seventh circle are pursued by “famished and fast black bitches”; the burning usurers running under the rain of fire behave “like dogs who in the summer fight off fleas and flies”; a demon who pursues a barrater is like “a mastiff let loose.”

Iran: The Senate Strikes Back

Elizabeth Drew

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

A vote by Congress to reject an Iran deal could lead to an end of diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a possible Israeli military attack on Iran. The president could veto a negative resolution, but even if he weren’t overridden, the fact that there’d been a vote against it would seriously hobble his ability to implement the agreement without congressional interference.