Clair Wills is the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. (August 2020)


Stepping Out

Sonia Delaunay: Danseuse, deuxieme version, 1916
I hold hands with strangers. I do it quite often, and for long minutes at a time. I wrap my arms around them to bring them close in an embrace. I search their faces. I fit my body to their dips and hollows. Recently a man said to me, “I can feel your hot belly.” He happened to be French, and something about the deliberate way he said it, carefully pronouncing the English words, meant that I could suddenly feel my hot belly too. It was as though I were inside him, and the heat pushing out through my skin was really pushing in. The membrane between us was suddenly so thin we could have peeled it off, or pressed right through it. Where did I end and where did he begin?

A Woman’s Performance

The Trinity College Ball, Dublin, 2003


by Anne Enright

No Authority: Writings from the Laureateship

by Anne Enright
Fifty years from now, future historians attempting to understand the Me Too movement will pore over the legal documents from the Weinstein case; call up video of Christine Blasey Ford’s statements at the Kavanaugh hearing; ponder pictures of women in pussy hats and of tennis balls stuck to the feet …

Ghost Story

Hilary Mantel; drawing by Karl Stevens

The Mirror and the Light

by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel has made her name writing a kind of historical fiction that explores not only what historical characters did, but the interior drama of their lives—what it felt like to be them. How did people think in Henry VIII’s reign? How did England look in the 1530s, what did it smell like, how did it taste? The Mirror and the Light is the third volume in Mantel’s life of Thomas Cromwell: a self-made man, a lawyer and reformer, and in the period covered by this novel, 1536–1540, the most powerful man in England bar King Henry himself.

Love in Plague Time

‘Joy’; from the Lombardy edition of the Taqwim as-Sihha, an eleventh-century medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad, circa 1390

To Calais, in Ordinary Time

by James Meek

The Corner That Held Them

by Sylvia Townsend Warner
It is 1348. Berna has stolen a book from her father’s library, and now she is getting the gardener to cut her a rose from the grounds of their manor house in Gloucestershire. These crimes, she explains to her cousin Pogge, are nothing compared to the one she had been planning, which was to take her own life by throwing herself into the moat. “Your moat’s not profound enough for drownage,” her cousin points out drily.

The Truth Alone

Coventry: Essays

by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk is fascinated by silence. About five years ago she announced that she had given up on fiction. A prolific writer, she had by then published seven much-praised novels and three memoirs but, she explained, she was done with both genres. The immediate cause of her writing malaise—what she …

The Unnameable

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1965; photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths


by Anna Burns

Little Constructions

by Anna Burns
Early on in Milkman, the Man Booker Prize–winning novel by Anna Burns, the narrator (called only “middle sister”) recalls watching Rear Window for the first time. Most of the novel sticks to events that occurred when middle sister was eighteen, as she takes us back to sometime in the late …

Prodigal Fathers

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

by Colm Tóibín
In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, Colm Tóibín sketches the lives of three men who talked their memories into their sons’ memories, and so helped father twentieth-century Irish literature.

Family Secrets

Giovanni Bellini: Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child, early 1460s
My baby’s headstone stands taller than everyone else’s. I mean this literally—it is a great, solid slab of Hornton stone that dwarfs the surrounding memorials in the graveyard in an almost embarrassing way, given his tiny dates: June 19th–20th, 1996. There is a practical reason for this mismatch. When my …