Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel, The Illuminations, has just been published. (June 2015)

Macbeth Without Evil

The weird sisters in Macbeth are never delicate in their cooking. Only in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of 1971 do they take pains over the hell-broth, though the lingering shots might have something to do with their nakedness (the film was produced by Hugh Hefner) as opposed to their …

He Changed the Game and Dared to Know

James Boswell, 1765; portrait by George Willison
The Boswell family tomb lies beneath an old building in the Scottish town of Auchinleck. When you go down the steps into the black vault, you are immediately enclosed in a coldness that troubles your own bones. The air is damp—a struck match goes out, then a second—and the experience …

The Dark Dreams of William Burroughs

William S. Burroughs in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier, 1961; from Patricia Allmer and John Sears’s Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, published by Prestel
Some writers have a style that readers must absorb and adopt, and for fans of William Burroughs, the compulsion can be a little hallucinogenic, particularly for vengeful teenagers with a plan to shock their parents. The irony is that Burroughs is probably the most adult American writer of his generation.

Maggie

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launching the Conservative manifesto on the Isle of Wight, May 1983
Politicians have always been disliked and always blamed, but Margaret Thatcher appeared to many people in Britain to have no feeling for the people whose lives were hurt by her policies. No feeling and no understanding. Her stridency appeared to excite boys who remembered their nannies, but to other men and women, the poorer sort, she was the incarnation of blind authority. She knew there were real families out there in Britain’s hinterlands or northern lands, yet, like a crazed statistician or a bad novelist, she couldn’t really imagine what their lives must be like.

Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, photographed by Allen Ginsberg in his East Village living room, 1953; from ‘Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,’ an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art and on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery until April 6, 2013. The catalog includes an essay by Sarah Greenough and is published by the National Gallery and DelMonico Books/Prestel.
On the Road, as a movie, might have worked brilliantly in 1957 if Brando had accepted Kerouac’s challenge. It might have tapped into the same energy the book did—the same sources that fueled Brando’s The Wild One (1953), the James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with Sidney Poitier. But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was the lives of those involved in the Beat Generation that had cultural reality. The movies found that the best subject wasn’t really the books at all but the people who wrote them. That might seem normal nowadays: the personalization of everything is now total. But the Beats, oddly, were probably part of the process by which fictionality became entwined with everyday selfhood.

Styron’s Choice

William Styron with his daughter Alexandra, Roxbury, Connecticut, January 1972
Once upon a time in New York, a girl and her friends were away from boarding school for the weekend. The talented, youngest child of a famous American novelist, the girl decided that they should all go to see the movie Sophie’s Choice. This wasn’t the first time she had …

E.M. Forster: The Story of Affection

The behavior of the English in their gardens, at their dining tables, in their train compartments, and in their bedrooms was to obsess E.M. Forster from the start of his vocation, at King’s College, Cambridge, when he was amazed to discover he had the “special and unusual apparatus” to be …

The Powers of Dr. Johnson

The 'Blinking Sam' portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, 1775; on view in the exhibition 'Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century,' at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, through September 21, 2009
Britain is a very changed country; it has changed morally. It might be said that its people’s sense of what life is all about has altered more in the last fifty years than it did in the previous 250, beginning in 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield. Yet one of the things that hasn’t changed is the popularity of the nation’s most popular word: “nice.”

The Weather Makers

John le Carré at the Palestinian martyrs’ cemetery, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin
If you feel that good novels are the lie that reveals the truth, then it will always be thrilling, in any given period, to come across works that manage to be much more revealing than the evening news. John le Carré made that kind of thrill into a genre, capturing …

What is Scotland?

More than any other writer, Shakespeare seems devoted to evoking the spells that human beings and nations may cast over one another. Macbeth is a play about a false king under the spell of his falsifying wife. One can see that mockery is very much the Macbeths’ style, but it …

Racing Against Reality

Let us take an ordinary man from that terrible day. His name is Kevin Michael Cosgrove. If you put his name into Google it takes exactly 0.12 seconds to discover that he was born on January 6, 1955. It takes no longer than it is taking you to read this …

King Tony

Very good monarchs must surely dislike innovation, if only to acknowledge the fact that innovation must surely dislike them. It may be said that Queen Elizabeth II has been especially skilled in this respect, having fought every day since her coronation on June 2, 1953, to oppose any sort of …

Word Wizard

If you keep an eye on them, you might notice that dictionary-makers are marginally bitchier than catwalk models. A few summers ago, the revised editions of the Chambers Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English were published into an avid marketplace. Out came the lipstick, out came the knives, as …

The Pritchett Sound

The man of action is never the hero of English letters. Byron will always be understood to have been an orchid, or some Italianate exotic, who required sun and wine and ancient marbles to keep him writing, a circumstance which prevents him from ever entirely being loved by the English.

‘Back in the US of A’

There is something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe, and the England that existed immediately after the Second World War appears to have carried that manner rather well, as if looking over its shoulder to notice that lightning had just struck a teacup. Reading the work of …

Imitation of Life

In government, honored spouses used to busy themselves opening garden fetes and visiting homes for the needy, but nowadays, especially in America, they are apt to assume immodest and thankless tasks, such as cleansing the entire culture of obscenity. Before their husbands took office, the last two vice-presidential wives, Tipper …

The Wonder of Irishness

It is funny the way countries excessively proud of their national character often have literatures mired in questions of falsehood. Fabulation, in this way, may be considered both the curse and the glory of Irish writing. “They have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood,” wrote Jonathan …

Unlikely Hero

The daily grind of the average literary wife—pouring drinks, looking nice at parties, managing multiple selves, and talking the loved one down off ledges—has opened up a whole new seam in the publishing industry. If Lady Macbeth were around today she’d surely be ready to launch Is This a Life …

Double Lives

Certain kinds of inquiry are born and bred for the Internet: the creepy, the supernatural, the unidentified flying, the bizarrely sexual, the CIA-involved. The kinds of people who seek information on these things, or who seek to share the fine print of their expertise, are people who used to subscribe …

Nobody’s Perfect

The world is full of rooms where young men bow before the masters of their profession. The rooms have changed, and so have some of the professions, but can there be anything new in the way unfledged ambition will dance attendance upon geriatric pride? In 1777, James Boswell interviewed David …