John Banville most recent novel is The Blue Guitar. (May 2016)

Surrounded by Jew-Haters

In his Journal 1935–44, Mihail Sebastian left a profound and moving record of some of the most terrible years in the history of Europe. The Journal is not only an invaluable historical document, fully as significant as the diaries of Victor Klemperer and Anne Frank, but also a beautifully shaped and subtly executed work of literary art. Never has the savagery of which human beings are capable been recorded with such insight, style, gracefulness, and, amazingly, humor. Now, in For Two Thousand Years, we have a fictional precursor of the Journal that in its way is equally fascinating, and equally shocking.

‘A Beautiful and Closely Woven Tapestry’

Tom McCarthy, New York City, 2012
In The Soul of the Marionette,1 his latest treatise on human folly and delusion, the British philosopher John Gray discusses among a wide variety of topics our unflagging fondness for conspiracy theory. To interpret history in terms of conspiracy, Gray observes, is to pay “a backhanded compliment to human …

A Quest for Clarity

Clive James and Russell Davies on the British television show Think Twice, 1970
In the introduction to his most substantial and perhaps his finest book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James explains that over the forty years of its composition, he gradually came to realize that this collection of “Notes in the Margin of My Time,” as the subtitle has it, could be true to …

Simenon’s Island of Bad Dreams

Georges Simenon, 1966

In Georges Simenon’s The Mahé Circle, translated now into English for the first time, François Mahé is suffering from a sense of general dissatisfaction. It is a quintessential Simenon crise, in which a man who has spent his life in servitude to family, work, society, suddenly lays down his burden and determines to live for the moment, and for himself.

The Dubai Gesture

A ‘pool ambassador’ serving drinks in the pool at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Dubai, 2013
The 1950s craze for science fiction, spurred by a combination of cold war paranoia, terror of the bomb, and a yearning for a bright, new, clean, and limitless world, threw up some wonderfully weird magazines. Most of the stories they contained were all too dispensable—or perhaps one was too young …


There are book prizes, and then there is the Booker Prize, known, fondly, as the Booker, or, furiously, by a close homonym. In fact, “Booker Prize” is as much a nickname as “the Booker.” Properly, it was first the Booker-McConnell Prize, after its sponsor company, an international food conglomerate with …

Learning a Lot About Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin; portrait by Derek Hill, 1975
The stoutest defenders of the status quo will inevitably be those whom it rewards most richly. In the period covered by Building: Letters 1960–1975, the third of four projected volumes of his correspondence, Isaiah Berlin achieved lavish success in his life and in his career. His letters, as ever discursive, zestful, bubbling with gossip and intrigue, sound a subtly new note. His sense of gaiety, his love of occasion, his appetite for friendship and conversation, fed into what seems at times a blinkered kind of sunny optimism, a belief that surely all this should and would be preserved against the encroaching barbarisms of the age.

A Different Kafka

Franz Kafka (right) with, from right, his secretary Julie Kaiser, his sister Ottla, their cousin Irma, and the maid Mařenka, near Zürau, Bohemia, 1917
What are we to make of Kafka? Not, surely, what he made of himself, or at least what he would have us believe he made of himself. In a letter to his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer he declared: “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” This was a constant theme of his mature years, and one that he expanded on in a highly significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”

A Prince of the Essay

Hugh Trevor-Roper, circa 1940
Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. He was also a man of prodigious learning, a classical scholar, and a remarkable historian. As a writer he took for models Francis Bacon, Donne, Hobbes, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, and, perhaps surprisingly, Flaubert, and perhaps more …

Study the Panther!

Rainer Maria Rilke with Paul Valéry in Anthy, Switzerland, September 1926. In the background is Henri Vallette’s bust of Valéry.
Above all, the Letters to a Young Poet give the lie to the idea of Rilke as hopelessly self-regarding and cut off from authentic, “ordinary” life. His tone may be elevated and his manner at times that of a dandy—he was elevated, he was a dandy—but the advice purveyed in these letters, and the observations and aperçus that they throw off, contain true wisdom, and are anything but platitudinous. Franz Kappus was a fortunate young man to have found such a correspondent, and we are fortunate in his good fortune.

Rebel, Hero, Martyr

Roger Casement, circa 1904
Roger Casement was not only one of the greatest Irishmen who ever lived but also a considerable figure on the world stage. An Anglo-Irishman who flew the nets of his class and upbringing to devote himself to the cause of Irish independence from British rule, he was also, in his …

Bizarre & Wonderful Strindberg

August Strindberg on the Swedish island of Värmdö, near Stockholm, summer 1891
There are two Strindbergs, the one the English-speaking world thinks it knows, and the one who is locked away in the treasure house of the Swedish language. To us, he is the author of a few major plays—Miss Julie, The Dance of Death, A Dream Play—while one or two other …

Beckett: Storming for Beauty

‘Samuel Beckett au cigare,’ 1970; drawing by Avigdor Arikha, who died in 2010. An exhibition of more than fifty of Arikha’s paintings, pastels, and drawings—many of which have never been shown before—will be on view at the Marlborough Gallery, New York City, March 20–April 21, 2012.
Professional success touches with its transfiguring staff even the stoutest resister. For the first fifty-odd years of his life Samuel Beckett managed to elude Fortuna’s bounteous glance. On the opening page of that knotty late text Worstward Ho he set out, succinctly and famously, his negative aesthetic: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” By that time, however, he had experienced very great success, critical and popular. It was a triumph that astonished him.

The Most Entertaining Philosopher

Henry James and his brother William, 1902
In the spring of 1870 William James was twenty-eight and at the lowest ebb of what was already a swift-flowing and emotionally tempestuous life. His early years had been spent trailing about Europe in the wake of his brilliant but improvident father Henry Sr., who was busily working his way …

Living Ghosts

Seamus Heaney, Dublin, 1996
Poetry has always been half in love with easeful death. There must have been a time, as Thomas Hardy in his great poem “Before Life and After” assures us there was, when death constituted nothing more than the end of life, a time when “if something ceased, no tongue bewailed”; …

The Still Mysterious Enchanter

Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1966
The most striking characteristic of the fictional works of Vladimir Nabokov is uncanniness. In one of his many pronouncements on the art of literature the author said that “there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered:…as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.

Against the North Wall

Don DeLillo, New York City, 1990s
Don DeLillo is the poet of entropy. The world he sets up in his fictions is a tightly wound machine gradually running down, and in it all action is a kind of lapsing drift. Even in immense works such as Libra (1988) or Underworld (1997) or Mao II (1991), with …

Emerson: ‘A Few Inches from Calamity’

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Surely mankind’s greatest invention is the sentence. Words may be matter, but the sentence is form. Ezra Pound, though perhaps not the trustiest legislator, is right when he identifies language—and language is words made into sense by sentences—as uniquely to be valued if only for the fact that our laws …

‘The Invader Wore Slippers’

Emil Hácha and Adolf Hitler at Hradcany Castle, Prague, March 16, 1939
Peter Demetz, born in Prague in 1922, was “sixteen, going on seventeen” when on March 15, 1939, German troops, with the enthusiastic support of indigenous fascist groups, invaded the Republic of Czechoslovakia and occupied the city of his birth. As he writes in Prague in Danger, an exciting, one might …

Luminous Memoir of a Lost World

The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) by Gregor von Rezzori is a masterpiece in that rare genre that might be classed as incidental autobiography.[^*] The story the book has to tell, of the formation of a soul and a sensibility, is slyly concealed within the interstices of a set of other …

The Prime of James Wood

What is fiction for? This is one of those questions—How does a compassionate God permit cruelty? What do women want? Why is there dandruff?—which are probably not susceptible of an answer but which yet continue to niggle. At the simplest, we may observe that inside every adult there lives on …

The World’s Last Novel

The question of literary borrowing is a vexed one, to the point that academe had to invent a fancier name and call it intertextuality. Walter Benjamin famously longed to write a book consisting entirely of quotations from the works of others, and almost achieved that ambition in The Arcades Project, …

A Bright Voice from a Dark Place

In his great essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson has some famously cool things to say on the warm subject of grief. In January 1842 Emerson and his wife Lidian lost their much-loved son, five-year-old Waldo, to scarlet fever. On the morning after the death Emerson wrote to various of his …

The Family Pinfold

When we think of the young Evelyn Waugh the image immediately conjured is that of a Twenties swell, brightest of the Bright Young Things, racketing about Oxford and London with the likes of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, knocking off policemen’s helmets and permanently tight on champagne. It is somewhat …

Executioner Songs

Here is Joseph de Maistre, jurist, philosopher, and grand reactionary, in exile in St. Petersburg in the first part of the nineteenth century, contemplating the figure of the Executioner, with whom so many of his fellow French aristocrats had suffered an all too intimate encounter a couple of decades previously: …

Letters from the Heights

W.H. Auden once remarked, with wicked wit, that Rilke was the finest lesbian poet since Sappho. Unfair, of course, yet even the most loyal Rilkean will find it difficult to suppress an acknowledging smile. The poet is all ardent anima; his attitude toward the world is that of a tormented …

In the Luminous Deep

W.H. Auden claimed, and surely he is right, that the poem is the only form of art one must either take or leave. One can look at a painting and wonder what to have for dinner, one can listen to a symphony and think about sex, and still have an …

Homage to Philip Larkin

T.S. Eliot observed toward the end of his life that he could not be called a great poet because he had not written an epic. This was a sly piece of false modesty on the part of Old Possum, implying as it did that had he turned his pen to …

The Furies

The problem of evil is always with us, yet for most of us it is a problem only in theory. Evil is what happens to others, and those responsible for it are somehow never the people we know. We are assured that in the right—that is, the wrong, the catastrophically …