John Lanchester is the author of five books including, most recently, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. In 2008 he received the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
 (December 2011)

How We Were All Misled

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brussels, July 2011
Most people with a special interest in the events of the credit crunch and the Great Recession that followed it have a private benchmark for the excesses that led up to the crash. These benchmarks are a rule of thumb, a rough measure of how far out of control things got; they are phenomena that at the time seemed normal but that in retrospect were a brightly flashing warning light. I came across mine in Iceland, talking to a waitress in a café in the summer of 2009.

Flashes of Flora

Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1966; photograph by Philippe Halsman
Nothing, but nothing, causes more posthumous difficulties for a writer’s heirs and friends than a request to burn a manuscript after death. It is a crystalline case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The interested public wants one thing, and the departed loved one has …

The Heroine of Hill Top Farm

In 1912, by which time Beatrix Potter, the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was a hugely successful forty-six-year-old writer and illustrator, she sent her publisher Harold Warne a new story, her darkest yet, called The Tale of Mr. Tod. The story is about an argument between a fox …

A Matter of English Justice

From the novelist’s point of view, reality all too often suffers from bad taste. The classic example concerns a true story that contains a perfect kernel of narrative but is fatally encrusted with the kind of events that reality, in its lax way, doesn’t mind, but which are horribly damaging …

A Will of His Own

It is hard to find an admirer of J.M. Coetzee’s work who does not think that his best book is Disgrace, one of the strongest novels of the last quarter-century and, among other things, a masterpiece of misdirection. It is easier to tell that the novel is a work of …

Where the Fun Starts

V.S. Naipaul’s books are not Fabergé eggs. They are not made out of, and not intended for, detached aesthetic contemplation; they are passionately engaged with the world. They have also proved to be, in at least two ways, prophetic. First, what at one point seemed a lonely body of work …

Hall of Mirrors

“The good ended happily and the bad unhappily,” Miss Prism informs her listeners. “That is what fiction means.” Perhaps because that used to be so true, it nowadays isn’t. The morality of most serious contemporary fiction is ambiguous, or elusive, or reliant on heavily discounting the views of an unreliable …

Looking for Trouble in China

Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, first got into trouble with the Chinese authorities in 1981, when he published A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction. He was put under surveillance, and the process began which was to end in the banning of …

Knowing and Not Knowing

Michael Frayn is, in the quietest, most intelligent and low-key way, something of a freak. Nobody since Chekhov has been as good at both plays and fiction, or as productive: Spies is his tenth novel, Copenhagen was his thirteenth play. This is such an odd dual achievement that one can …

The Dangers of Innocence

Now, at a time when the British novel is an all-singing, all-dancing thing—as likely to be written in Glaswegian as in Standard English, to take place in Zanzibar as in Hampstead, to be set during the first Afghan war as during the last general election—it is hard to remember just …

Love on a Laptop

It is no secret that British writing is on something of a science jag. The last few years have seen—to name only major works from well-known writers in mid-career—Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth (which draws freely and heavily on ideas from genetics), Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (psychiatry), Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen …

The Land of Accidents

In April 1990, Norman Tebbit, the former chairman of the British Conservative Party, made a speech on the subject of immigration. He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question: Which side do …