Michael Wood is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton. He is the author of, among other books, Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much and America in the Movies. (March 2016)

Discovering Orson Welles

Orson Welles, 1967
In a famous sequence in the 1941 knockabout film Hellzapoppin’ the comedians Olsen and Johnson walk through a series of different movie sets, magically changing costumes as they go. As they leave the last set (an igloo on an icefield, fish displayed beside it), Johnson bumps into a small sled …

The Question of Shakespeare’s Prejudices

‘Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud’; miniature, thought by some to show William Shakespeare, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588
Toward the end of his recent book The Tainted Muse, Robert Brustein quotes the opening of a famous poem about Shakespeare: Others abide our question. Thou art free. We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still, Out-topping knowledge. The bard had managed, Matthew Arnold continued, to “walk …

The Victorious Servant

‘Carolina parakeet,’ 1811; illustration by John James Audubon from Audubon: Early Drawings, published by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
“I admit that I saw in America more than America,” Tocqueville wrote: “J’avoue que dans l’Amérique j’ai vu plus que l’Amérique.” He saw less than America too, in certain ways. He saw the image of a survivable democracy and a lesson for the rumbling, leveling future of Europe. But he …

The Fat Man’s Vengeance

“He had it coming,” we read on the second page of Ian McEwan’s new novel. This is the character’s line of thought, a self-accusation, not an authorial verdict, and he returns to it eagerly a little later. “Yes, yes, he had been a lying womanizer, he had had it coming.” This is the least of what he has been, and at the end of the novel he still has it coming, it’s almost upon him, in the shape of two women about to tear him apart, a dangerous melanoma on his wrist, and what promises to be a series of lawsuits that will last his lifetime.

A Passage to England

Zadie Smith, New York City, 2009
Changing My Mind is a very good title for a collection of essays, a genre in which one is supposed to be trying things out or trying things on. But the intimation is not as simple as it seems. “I’ve changed my mind” is a phrase that often implies stasis, …

What Happened at Gordita Beach?

‘Eternal Summer: A “Retired” Caddy Hearse Greets Daybreak at a Beach Surf Shop’; illustration by Darshan Zenith, from the cover of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice doesn’t look like a historical novel. It looks like a shaggy detective story parodied by Thomas Pynchon, or perhaps like a moderately baggy Thomas Pynchon novel parodied by a devotee of the detective story. But it recreates a particular piece of the American past in considerable if often …

The Not-So-Good Cop

Does crime have a national identity, lonely and predatory in America, part of the family or the community in Scotland? The chief character in Irvine Welsh’s new novel thinks so, or at least thinks he can recognize migrations of style. He is ready to suppose that “real American crimes” are …

The Passionate Egoist

The biographer Douglas Day recounts an episode in the later life of Malcolm Lowry. The novelist visits a neighbor on the western coast of Canada, a carpenter. The man has several children, one of whom is severely retarded. Lowry stares at the child for a while and finally says to …

The Power of the Prickly Pear

Last summer, in a series of articles in the Mexican newspaper Reforma, Carlos Fuentes compared the situation of the president-elect of his country, Felipe Calderón, to that of the hero of an old English film: Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Isolated both from the power bloc …

The Far Side of Fiction

Fictions are everywhere, although we often call them something else: politeness or metaphor or simplification, perhaps. It’s a fiction to say you had a lovely evening if the evening was just so-so, and it’s certainly a fiction to say you are in the heart of the country when you are …

Parables of a Violent World

Vollmann, born in 1959, has published eight novels (four of which are part of his Seven Dreams series, a historicofictional account of the settlement of North America), three collections of stories (including The Atlas), a memoir about his experiences in Afghanistan, and an extraordinary seven-volume, two-thousand-plus-page meditation on violence …

Don’t Cry for Me, Guatemala

“Guatemala…doesn’t exist. I know, I lived there.” —Georges Arnaud,The Wages of Fear The meaning of the word “bilocation” seems obvious: being in two places at the same time, like a god or a car rental company. But its usual application, and its central definition in Francisco Goldman’s capacious new …

Taking Reality by Surprise

The titles alone of these works set up an air of avoidance and elegy. We can guess that whatever Bertolucci’s dreamers are doing they are not attending to present and practical matters. And although Gilbert Adair’s dreamers were called The Holy Innocents when his novel was first published in 1988, …

Experience’s Ghosts

Mark Strand, born in 1934, has written on painting and photography as well as on literature; written three children’s books as well as nine books of poetry. He was Poet Laureate in 1990, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent collection of poems, Blizzard of One (1998). Strand’s …

Master Among the Ruins

The works of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis are full of melancholy wisdom, or what looks like melancholy wisdom: slightly weary, slightly bit-ter, highly amused. Jokes, fables, epigrams, and analogies flourish so profusely in these pages that they certainly add up to a signature. But do they add up to …

Girls with Green Hair

When we read of a “colossal grandmother” and a little girl with green hair, we probably think we know where we are. When we further encounter the abundant flora of southern Chile, an orphan, a rambling mansion, a handful of wise Indian women, and an irresistible tropical passion, we can …

Dog Days

At the end of The Trial, Kafka’s Joseph K says to himself that he is dying “like a dog,” that is, disgracefully. “It was as if the shame would outlive him.” In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s protagonist dedicates himself to “the service of dead dogs” and “the honor of corpses.” He …

Nabokov on the Wing

“It is amusing,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1942, “to think that I managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer.” Nabokov was forty-three at the time, and was referring to his position as research fellow at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which he …

Eyes Wide Open

Italo Calvino has become such a canonical writer in Italy that he can be attacked as a mere classic—or at least the view of literature he represents can be attacked as a dead or empty classicism, out of touch with the sprawling and provocative impurities of life. This is the …

Keeping the Reader Alive

The boy, leaning slightly forward, looks eagerly out of the frame, as if waiting for the next move in a game he likes, or for the next hypnotic gesture of his favorite magician. The eyes gleam; the smile is full of excitement. The photograph is in one sense quite conventional, …

Tight Little Island

Rural England, even the real thing, often looks like a parody of itself. You visit someone in the village, and before you have downed your first gin and tonic they’re talking about bell-ringing and cricket and who got a blue for what at Cambridge. You go for a walk, and …

The Art of Losing

Scarcely anyone now turns to novels, as so many once did, for direct information about the world. We are more likely to consult memoirs, biographies, histories, interviews, surveys—assuming we go to books at all, and are not already amply briefed by newspapers and radio and film and television, overwhelmed by …

On the Love Boat

Milan Kundera’s new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann’s love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, …

Revisiting Lolita

People reading Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time are often baffled by their own reactions. Those who haven’t read it for a while approach it again nervously, as if afraid of what they will learn about their old attitudes or their old selves. It’s not just that the book, the …

Looking Good

“You looked good,” Humphrey Bogart says to Lauren Bacall toward the end of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). “Awful good.” He’s right, of course. She looks great throughout the film, even if her clothes and manner do turn suggestiveness into a form of overstatement. But that is not what …

Perseverance to the Point of Madness

Charles Chaplin died in Switzerland in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1977. Just over two months later, the coffin containing his corpse was stolen from a cemetery in Vevey. The goal of the body snatchers, it turned out, was to make money rather than provide a metaphor for Chaplin’s …

Hollywood: Money That Dreams Can’t Buy

“Another hour passed,” we read in Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon. “Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed—to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded.” Hollywood, long thought of as the dream factory, has probably more often been the cemetery of dreams, the place where …

The Lying Game

“It is wonderful how the conception of honour alters in the atmosphere of defeat,” Graham Greene wrote, thinking of German officers he had known in Lisbon in the later years of the Second World War, when a German defeat seemed more and more likely. These men “spent much of their …