John Banville’s latest novel is Mrs. Osmond. (October 2019)

IN THE REVIEW

A Master of Hidden Things

Elizabeth Bowen, New York City, 1955
Revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories, one realizes that there are certain literary works that, once read, make one burn with envy of those readers who have still to come to them for the first time. There is not a story in this substantial volume, from the first to the last, that is not brought off beautifully.

Of Terrorists, Tourists, and Robert Frost

Roberto Calasso; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

The Unnamable Present

by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
The title of this slim book, the ninth part of Robert Calasso’s vast, ongoing project, is taken from the first volume of the series, The Ruin of Kasch, published in Italian—as La Rovina di Kasch—in 1983. The relevant passage goes, in part: “For those of us living at this moment, …

What Made the Old Boys Turn?

Donald Maclean, 1930s

Enemies Within: Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain

by Richard Davenport-Hines

A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean

by Roland Philipps
The very mention of the “Cambridge spies” conjures a world of louche living, sexual shenanigans, and covert betrayal that had become defunct long before the end of the cold war, only surviving liminally in the gritty but entertaining fictions of the likes of John le Carré and Len Deighton. However, …

The Impossibility of Being Oscar

Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years

by Nicholas Frankel
Had he ever allowed himself to be the equal of what was required by the excess of literary talent that had been bestowed on him? Had he lived up to his own austere demands, which he set out so dogmatically, despite the lightness of expression, in the preface to Dorian Gray and “The Decay of Lying”? Certainly the plays are great, in their way—Salomé in particular shows him for the subversive artist he could have been, had he had the nerve for it—but somehow they are not quite enough, not quite the fulfilment of his genius. He had, throughout his life, talked away too much of his talent; as one observer put it, “He wasted himself in words.”

Tender Is the Fall

Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

by David S. Brown
Writers in general are not known for their modesty. To a question by a New York Times interviewer in 1972 as to what was his position in the world of letters, Vladimir Nabokov delivered the merry reply, “Jolly good view from up here,” which, while typically smug, at least had …

Ending at the Beginning

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

Kafka: The Early Years

by Reiner Stach, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
For a person as sensitive as Kafka was, or at least as he presented himself as being—it is entirely possible to view his life in a light other than the one he himself shone upon it—inner escape was the only available strategy. “If we are to believe his own personal mythology,” biographer Reiner Stach writes, “he drifted out of life and into literature,” to the point, indeed, that as an adult he would declare that he was literature, and nothing else. Stach, however, offers another and, in its way, far more interesting possibility when he asks, “What if literature was the only feasible way back for him?”

NYR DAILY

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.