Al Alvarez is the author of Risky Business, a selection of essays, many of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Getting High on the Himalayas

‘The grandest of the early Himalayan expeditions, and also the least eccentric’: the camp of Luigi Amadeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, and his team below the west face of K2, 1909; photograph by Vittorio Sella, ‘one of the greatest of all mountain photographers,’ from Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s Fallen Giants
Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s authoritative history of Himalayan mountaineering, Fallen Giants, starts right at the beginning, 45 million years ago, with the collision of tectonic plates that threw up what the authors call “the greatest geophysical feature of the earth.” The Andes are the longest of the planet’s mountain …

On the Edge

Civil power is a strange choice of subject for a poet like Geoffrey Hill, who started writing in the early 1950s, the age of anxiety, a notoriously bad time for civil liberties and a good time for literature. Or more accurately, the times were good for literature because they were …

The Trouble with Happiness

When my mother was a little girl, back at the beginning of the last century, she used to hear her mother and an aunt gossiping about an uncle who was having an affair with a woman “over the water.” She thought they must mean somewhere glamorous, like Paris; all they …

S & M at the Poles

David Crane’s fine biography of Captain Robert Falcon Scott begins on St. Valentine’s Day, 1913, at the moment of his greatest glory—his funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the presence of the King, the archbishop of Canterbury, and all the grandees of the land, military and civilian, in full dress …

It Happened One Night

Ian McEwan first tackled the problem of virginity and how to lose it in “Homemade,” the first story in his brilliant first book, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. When the adolescent narrator is introduced to the “simple, inexpensive” pleasure of masturbation, he wonders “if I could not dedicate …

The Man Who Rowed Away

According to the bibliography on his Web site, the English writer Tim Parks has published thirteen novels, a collection of short stories, two collections of critical essays (most of which first appeared in The New York Review), a book on the art of translation, a brief history of the Medicis …

The Best and the Brightest

“Is poker a game of chance?” someone asks W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee. “Not the way I play it,” he replies. Fields is an old-style cardsharp and he dresses the part—top hat, white gloves, dingy frock coat. These days professional poker players prefer bomber jackets and baseball caps, but …

Life Studies

“Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” Eliphaz the Temanite told Job. In Alice Munro’s stories, it is the women who are born that way and the men, mostly, who cause it. “You flare up,” says Carla, in the title story of Munro’s new collection. “That’s what …

A Double Bind

When the late Cecil Roth retired, in 1968, after his ninth term as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, he felt he should apologize for devoting his life to such a “modest cabbage patch.” This was, of course, the polite and appropriately English thing to do, and Roth, …

Living Dangerously

In 1934, when Martha Gellhorn was twenty-five years old, she joined a team of sixteen writers hired by Harry Hopkins of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to tour the country and report to him and the President about the state of the nation during the Great Depression. The pay was …

Making It New

One of the mysteries of the Modernist movement in literature, especially during its experimental heyday in the first decades of the last century, is how few Englishmen were involved. Nearly all the dominant figures writing in English were either American or Irish—Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Marianne Moore—and even a …

A Light Black World

Anthony Hecht was born in 1923, which means he belongs to the generation of writers who served in World War II and hit their stride in the 1950s. From the perspective of the cultural anarchy that was about to break loose, the Fifties are usually dismissed as a timorous and …

Ice Capades

“When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that …

The Prodigal Prodigy

There was a time when Australian artists with something new to say packed their bags, left the country, and didn’t return until they had made their reputations in more sympathetic surroundings. During the early Sixties, for example, most of Australia’s best painters were working in London: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, …

Visions of Light

When Derek Walcott’s first book of poems was published in London in 1962, it came with the blessing of Robert Graves, one of the twentieth century’s finest and most underrated poets, and a title from Andrew Marvell—In a Green Night. The title was a muted gesture toward Modernism, since T.S.

High Rollers

In the space of a couple of crazy years, the brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme, respected writers though by no means in the big time, managed to blow more than a quarter of a million dollars in the Mississippi gambling boats. Double Down is their account of how this happened, …

Memento Mori

Jessica Mitford was working on The American Way of Death Revisited, an updated version of the book that changed a great many Americans’ attitude toward funerals, until a week before her death, two years ago. The original book had needed updating, and not just because three decades of inflation had …

High Flier

Camus once said—I think he was writing about Nietzsche—that it is possible to spend a life of wild excitement without ever leaving your desk. The life of the mind, he meant, can be as risky and challenging as any heroic enterprise. Beckett in his room, listening to his voices, following …

A Magnificent Failure

In the second half of this century, the great unknown for explorers has been space. But the exploration of space is a highly technical project and, forty years after it began, we still don’t know much about it back on earth because NASA has yet to find room on a …

New Poet in Town

When Jean Rhys was told that her novel Wide Sargasso Sea had won both of what were then Britain’s most prestigious literary awards—the W.H. Smith prize and that of the Royal Society of Literature—her bleak reaction to the good news was that it had come too late. That was in …

Learning from Las Vegas

Fifteen years ago, when I first began going regularly to Las Vegas, the town was strictly for adults. Sometimes you would see stunned waifs wandering around Glitter Gulch downtown or asleep on the carpeted sidewalk outside the Golden Nugget while their parents blew their week’s wages, but there was only …

Lonely Passion

Powered flight was the first great technological achievement of this technological century, and it developed at an astonishing pace. In 1976, just seventy-three years after the Wright Brothers’ first stuttering flights at Kitty Hawk, Concorde went into commercial service, carrying whoever could afford the fare—tycoons, grannies, babesin-arms—across great distances at …

Down & Out in Paris & London

Jean Rhys was seventy-six years old before she had a literary success. Her first five books—a collection of short stories and four novels, published between 1927 and 1939—had been praised sporadically for their style, disliked generally for their sordid subject matter, and sold hardly at all. Fame of a kind …

A Poet and Her Myths

Sylvia Plath belongs to that curious band of poets—it includes Chatterton, Keats, Rimbaud—whose fame is inextricably bound up with their lives. Rimbaud apart, they died prematurely, in the full flower of their talent, “just as he really promised something great, if not intelligible,” as Byron said of Keats. But Plath’s …

Witness

Four years ago Milan Kundera published in these columns an essay called “The Tragedy of Central Europe.”[^*] The tragedy in question was not so much war and occupation, the massacres, destruction, and humiliation at the hands of ignorant invaders; it was, instead, the loss of what Central Europe once embodied: …

Among the Freaks

In just four novels in almost twenty years Robert Stone has established a world and style and tone of voice of great originality and authority. It is a world without grace or comfort, bleak, dangerous, and continually threatening: Keochakian took hold of Walker’s lapel. “People are watching you,” he said.