Gabriele Annan is a book and film critic living in London. (March 2006)

After the Fall

Irène Némirovsky was born in 1903 into a rich Jewish banking family in Kiev. They fled to Paris during the revolution, and she was educated in French schools and at the Sorbonne. By the start of World War II, she had been to a great many parties and particularly balls …

Suddenly, Last Summer

John Banville is a former literary editor of The Irish Times, and the author of several distinguished works of fiction. His latest, The Sea, has a lot in common with a novel he published five years ago and called Eclipse. Both have a first-person narrator who returns to a seaside …

When the Russians Came

In a recent review in these pages of two posthumous works by W.G. Sebald, perhaps the greatest of contemporary German writers, Charles Simic mentioned Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction, in which the subject was “the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange …

Sonata for Three Hands

Beethoven was the first to employ the title Kreutzer Sonata (Kreutzer was the name of a violinist he admired: he hoped he would play the sonata, but that didn’t happen); after that, Tolstoy used it for his novella, and Leos Janácek as a nickname for his first quartet. It was …

A Very Un-English Childhood

A germ, according to the British Medical Association’s Complete Family Health Encyclopedia, is the popular term for any microorganism that causes disease. Examples include viruses and bacteria. In medicine, the word germ is used to describe simple, undifferentiated cells that are capable of developing into specialized tissues, such as the …

Love in Upper Bohemia

The Rare and the Beautiful is a multiple biography whose title is a quote from the reply that one of the Garman sisters—Kathleen—made to a young man who wanted to write her biography. By this time she was Lady Epstein, widow of the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose huge symbolic …

Lichtenberg in Love

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl was first published in 1994—a year after its author, the German novelist Gert Hofmann, died. The translation is by his son, the poet Michael Hofmann, who lives in England and the US and writes in English. You could call it another work of filial …

Vile Bodies

Edward St. Aubyn’s three short novels are hilarious and harrowing by turns, sophisticated, reflective, and brooding. They were first published separately in the UK—the first and second in 1992, the third in 1994. Each is not much over one hundred pages long, and perhaps that was the reason for uniting …

Tales of Two Cities

Bliss tells the story of two thirty-five-year-old Israeli women called Sarah and Ofra, who live in Tel Aviv and have been best friends since they were eleven. Any fears that the book may be a familiar celebration of women’s friendships are overcome by the depth and unexpectedness of its insights …

Cold Comfort

More than any other current fiction writer I can think of, Steven Millhauser seems to really enjoy writing. He wallows in it, but in a dignified manner—if such combination can exist; and if it never has, then it does now and he invented it. You sense a thrill of triumph …

Portrait of a Princess

Gini Alhadeff’s first book (this is her second) was a memoir called The Sun at Midday. If you have read it, then Diary of a Djinn will read more like a fantasia on some of the author’s experiences than like a novel, especially since there is no plot or continuous …

Brief Encounter

Milan Kundera’s latest novel is set in Prague shortly after 1989. A widow in her early forties and a widower ten to fifteen years older revisit their native Bohemia. In The Art of the Novel (1986) Kundera explained that he never calls his native country Czechoslovakia, because “the word is …

Surviving

Trains of Thought and In Lands Not My Own—both titles have a melancholy sound. Both are memoirs of East European Jews in flight from Hitler at the outbreak of World War II; and both the authors end up as members of the Allied forces, Victor Brombert in the American Army …

Who Killed Bogomil Trumilcik?

James Lasdun’s short thriller is dark and dense with exotic ingredients. It is threatening, surreal, and barefacedly Kafkaesque, centering on the performance of a play adapted from Kafka’s short story “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor”—the one in which the eponymous hero is pursued by two mysterious ping-pong balls with lives of …

The Woman Who Rode Away

“Lurid and melodramatic” is how D.H. Lawrence described Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. “Lurid and melodramatic” is the perfect description for Beasts too; but the real reason the quote is irresistible is that Joyce Carol Oates’s new novella itself is so thickly studded with quotes from D.H.

Ghost Story

On the cover photograph a little boy stands alone on a bleak heath. He wears the white satin costume of an eighteenth-century page and in his hand he holds a white satin tricorne with an ostrich feather. His pale blond hair blows in the wind. He is not an attractive …

Escape!

The Peppered Moth is part fact, part fiction—“the later parts of the story are entirely fictitious.” It is the story of four generations of women. Margaret Drabble’s grandmother belongs to the first, her mother to the second, she herself to the third, and her daughter to the fourth. The chief …

Shock Treatment

Pat Barker is a professional historian, but her last five novels have concentrated on psychiatry, with the psychiatrist not only on the couch alongside his patients, but also in the narrator’s chair: it is through his eyes that we observe the tale unfolding, even though the narrative is in the …

Act Two

A little girl lies in bed listening for the sound of her mother’s lover leaving the house. “I waited to hear the front door shut. You can always hear it because it needs an extra pull.” Fiction is full of vigils like this one (only think of Proust); but Julian …

Breakdown

The story of Eclipse follows a bare outline. Its first-person narrator is a world-famous Irish actor. One day—he is in his fifties—he finds himself unable to say his lines on stage and just manages to stagger off. He has felt a nervous collapse brewing for some time. The actor, Alexander …

Turncoats

Too Far Afield was published in Germany five years ago, and stirred up a huge literary rumpus. Reviewers for and against the novel tore into it and each other with a savagery rarely experienced in English-language criticism, and enough indignant articles and letters were produced to fill at least two …

Twin Peaks

What are you like? Well, you are: Pretentious abrupt contrived show-off way out, sometimes to the point of aggression occasionally incomprehensible occasionally irritating and given to column lists like this one. But you are also: vivid energetic good at …

Close to the Edge

In 1892 the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith published The Diary of a Nobody, covering fifteen months in the life of Charles Pooter and his wife, Carrie. Hilaire Belloc called it an “immortal achievement,” and it is still much read. John Lanchester’s Mr. Phillips is Mr. Pooter, a hundred-and-ten-odd years …

On Borrowed Time

In October 1999 the London Guardian published an article by a columnist called Joan Smith. It was entitled “Death and the Maidens,” and its theme was that “we live in a culture that fetishizes dead women.” In the article Smith points to Marilyn Monroe’s suicide as the start of this …

Family Secrets

Claire Messud’s second novel centers on the year its heroine turns fifteen. Her name is Sagesse LaBasse and she lives on the Côte d’Azur, where her grandfather, a pied noir from Algeria, owns a hotel and runs it with the help of her father. Sagesse has a younger brother called …

Letting Go

Elementals is a collection of A.S. Byatt’s short stories. It was published in Britain last year, and so was The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, introduced by A.S. Byatt. An introduction of that kind can hardly help being at least a little pronunciamental (and in her photograph on the …

Ghosts

Starting on a novel by Pat Barker is like boarding a ship. Her urge to say what she has to say throbs like an engine through the narrative, which is peopled by instantly visible characters: bizarre, appealing, pathetic, sometimes menacing. She is unexperimental and unpretentious, a born storyteller, but serious: …

Wages of Sin

Ian McEwan is a prize winner. His novels and stories have won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Whitbread Prize, and have been shortlisted for Britain’s most hyped trophy, the Booker Prize. This year he won it with Amsterdam. When the award was made in October, there were murmurs that …

Pricks and Kicks

The novels by Louis Begley and Tim Parks, one American, the other English, present a violent contrast in tempo, temperament, and tone, and yet they have a lot in common. The half-hidden theme in both is free will: or rather its absence, which both heroes come to recognize and furiously …