Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 30th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
Contributors who are irreverent, accomplished and amusing
"In Literary Review you find something that has almost vanished from the book pages: its contributors are actually interested in Literature."
"This magazine is flush with tight, smart writing."
Selected highlights from the June 2013 issue:
Linda Porter on Elizabeth I's bedfellows
IN MY LADY'S CHAMBERS
England was not a happy place in the autumn of 1562. Its queen had been four years on the throne, would not commit to the idea of marriage despite a string of foreign suitors, and spent much of her time in the company of Robert Dudley, the swarthy favourite and childhood friend whose wife had died in mysterious circumstances two years previously. Elizabeth's unmarried and childless state was believed by many to imperil her own security and the stability of the country itself. What if she were to die? Two very different women potentially stood in line to succeed her. One was Lady Katherine Grey, the Protestant sister of the executed Lady Jane, whose claim was supported by many in parliament. But Elizabeth never liked the Greys and was infuriated to learn that Katherine had married the Earl of Hertford without royal permission and hidden her ensuing pregnancy until the last possible moment. The unfortunate young woman ended up in the Tower of London, like her sister, where she exacerbated matters by giving birth to a son. Read more.
Dominic Lawson on two biographies of Margaret Thatcher
LADY OF THE HOUSE
When people attain a certain level of fame, their notable acts have been so exhaustively described and analysed that what we crave to know about them is the banal and everyday: what they might have in common with the rest of humanity, rather than what sets them apart. This is true of the Queen, for example. Much excitement is created by disclosures about what she has on her breakfast table, and the more normal her tastes, the greater the interest. This is even truer of Margaret Thatcher, not least because we already know as much as we need to about her political battles and legacy: not only were there volumes of her memoirs, but all her senior colleagues published their own accounts. Read more.
Oliver James on the origins of violence
WHY DO WE FIGHT?
Since the publication of the map of the human genome by the Human Genome Project (HGP), genes have, at least so far, been shown to play astonishingly little role in explaining why one sibling's psychology is different from another's. This is an incontestable fact. No molecular geneticists can dispute it since the vast majority of the many hundreds of studies performed have shown that less than 1 per cent of the variance of any psychological trait - be it intelligence, mental illness of all kinds or personality - is explicable by differences in DNA. The most that almost any studies find explicable by DNA is around the 5 per cent mark. Read more.
Alexandra Harris on Paul Nash
THE BRUSH & THE SET SQUARE
The strange visual world of Paul Nash is coming to seem very familiar. Ah yes: a bright red fungus levitating over the sea (or is it sinking?); giant metal girders in a summer cornfield; an ethereal snake in the woodshed (and an extra snake in the sky). Tate Liverpool staged a big Nash show in 2003; Dulwich Picture Gallery mounted 'Paul Nash: The Elements' in 2010. If there's a canon of British painting, Nash is in it. The surreal ingredients of his art have become part of the national furniture: clouds as solid as flints, ladders leading nowhere, stone circles thinking about coming to life. Read more.
Tom Holland goes in search of the Hanging Garden of Babylon
BY THE RIVERS OF NINEVEH
In the early, heroic days of archaeology, it was invariably the ambition of those who headed out to the Levant, armed with pick and shovel, to track down wonders that they had read about in classical literature or the Bible. We tend to remember the successes. To this day the paradigm remains Heinrich Schliemann, whose faith in the historicity of the Trojan War led him to identify the walls of Troy and to gaze on what he described as the face of Agamemnon. Less well remembered are the failures. In 1898, when a German archaeologist named Robert Koldewey arrived in Babylon, he was keen to emulate Schliemann and secure further funding for his excavations by bringing to light the city's long-lost landmarks. Of these, the most famous and romantic proved the most elusive as well. Despite almost two decades of searching, Koldewey and his team never succeeded in identifying the location of any hanging garden in Babylon. Nor has anyone since. Read more.
Joanna Kavenna on Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby
MAKING IT WHOLE
Some of the most interesting contemporary authors are travelling existentialists - wanderers in thought who also physically wander, from Iain Sinclair to W G Sebald to Rebecca Solnit. In these days of publishing collapse and risk aversion, the journey or quest seems to soothe editorial anxieties about reason, plot and conveyable purpose, allowing the author to muse at will, to experiment with form and tempo, to elide fact and fiction. As Sinclair has an editor say at the beginning of Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, 'Lit-fic's a dead duck ... Carry on with the same book but pepper it with real names, actual locations ... We'll squeeze you into the travel sections.' Read more.
Patrick Wilcken on mapping the Amazon
PUTTING BRAZIL ON THE MAP
Vast and poorly charted beyond its main waterways, Amazonia remained a mysterious hinterland to metropolitan elites throughout the colonial era. Its immensity seemed to offer untold promise, and in the 18th century it became the repository for a series of grandiose colonisation schemes. In the 1760s, over twelve thousand French farmers, replete with clowns and musicians for entertainment, were resettled in French Guiana, where they had been promised abundant land and fertile soils; ten thousand died soon after arrival from malaria and yellow fever. Other schemes, such as American oceanographer Matthew Maury's suggestion of transplanting freed slaves and cotton plantations from the Deep South to the Amazon, were mercifully never realised. Read more.
Pamela Norris on The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
In Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, her protagonist Nora Eldridge is an angry woman. 'It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead,' she rages, in an opening salvo that is both a riff on her own goodness and a defiant 'fuck you' to a callous world. Read more.
Donald Rayfield on The Enchanted Wanderer & Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Nikolai Leskov, to those who have read him, is part of the pantheon of Russian prose fiction, as great a genius as his contemporaries Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. If he lacks recognition even in Russia, it is because he is ideologically elusive - enamoured of the clergy, tolerant of Jews, gypsies and foreigners, but suspicious of intellectuals and reluctant to adopt any political stance - and because his narrative technique is alarmingly discursive: his tales are often told by his heroes, in extraordinary language, inventive and well observed, mixing dialect, professional jargon, church Slavonic and standard Russian. Leskov himself was unsympathetic and provoked remarkable antagonism: he drove two wives insane, alienated his children and was difficult company, even with colleagues he worshipped (Tolstoy) or patronised (Chekhov). He managed to incur simultaneously the hostility of both radicals and the tsar. Read more.