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Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 34th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
Contributors who are irreverent, accomplished and amusing


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BAD SEX IN FICTION AWARD
The winner of the the 22nd Award. Read more.

Jonathan Beckman on this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award shortlist
TWITCHING FAIRY PENGUIN
The Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award - just some of the accolades won by this year's Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award nominees, arguably the most distinguished shortlist ever assembled. The prize is intended to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them. Read more.


Selected highlights from the December 2014 / January 2015 issue:

Jonathan Sumption on Chaucer's vital year
ESCAPE FROM ALDGATE
In the late Middle Ages, the English civil service was a fertile breeding ground for poetic talent. John Gower had 'worn the rayed sleeve' of a court official. Thomas Clanvowe was a knight of the royal household. Thomas Hoccleve was a clerk in the privy seal office. We know more about the life of Geoffrey Chaucer than that of any other medieval poet. But we would know almost nothing if he had not been a civil servant, by turns courtier, soldier, diplomat, customs officer and member of Parliament. He lived for much of his life in London in rooms over Aldgate, during one of the most raucous periods of the city's history. He travelled on the king's business in France, the Low Countries, Italy and Spain. He read in several foreign languages. In an age when even the great men of the world lived shuttered lives with narrow horizons, Chaucer's rich variety of experience stood out. Read more.

Jonathan Keates on Jan Morris's Ciao, Carpaccio!
RENAISSANCE INNOCENT
Everybody likes Carpaccio. I'm not talking about the dish of thinly sliced raw beef devised in 1970 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice but about the 16th-century painter whose particular shade of red gave this kitchen classic its name. Carpaccio himself, Vittore or Vettor as he was known among Venetians, was a contemporary of Bellini, Giorgione and Cima da Conegliano and the creator of some of the world's best-loved paintings. He is not, admittedly, ranked among the movers and shakers of Renaissance art. In discussions of Venetian art of this period he tends to be either treated as a charming footnote or else omitted altogether. Nothing in his work suggests a hankering after grandeur, sublimity or the formulation of timeless theological absolutes. The spirituality of a Carpaccio painting - and they are almost all religious in theme - is grounded in earthly experience rather than divine exaltation. Read more.

James Womack on the career of the Soviet Union's number one poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky
AT THE TOP OF HIS VOICE
There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a 'youth relaxation complex', which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man's name. Read more.

James Barr on the endangered religions of the Middle East
CAN'T WE ALL SHAKE HANDS?
In 2007 I took a short train ride from Baku to see one of the few remaining Zoroastrian fire temples, the Ateshgah. Inside a compound that shuts out industrial suburbs on one side and nodding donkeys in the semi-desert on the other, a stone pavilion sheltered a bobbing sacred flame. My impression of an ancient faith assailed by modernity grew stronger later when, in a room on the perimeter of the precinct, I came across a gas meter. Read more.

Rupert Christiansen on two studies of Schubert's lieder
COLD COMFORTS
A few years back when reviewing for this magazine Ian Bostridge's A Singer's Notebook - a collection of his occasional essays and passing reflections - I expressed the hope that such an intellectually distinguished classical tenor would attempt something more coherent and ambitious. Well, here it is, and it's an impressive success: a long-gestated, intensely enjoyable study of Schubert's Winterreise ('Winter Journey'), the series of twenty-four linked songs composed to texts by Wilhelm Müller in 1827, months before Schubert's early death from syphilis. Read more.

Jonathan Meades reconsiders Nairn's London
THE ARCHITECTS' ADVERSARY
Ian Nairn famously made his name with an edition of the Architectural Review entitled 'Outrage', a noisy jeremiad against the uniformity, insipidity and imaginative bereavement of the suburbs he encountered on a long, dispiriting drive from Southampton to Carlisle. Read more.

Brian Dillon on a history of decapitations
PAINS IN THE NECK
Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, was the last Catholic martyr to die at Tyburn, in 1681. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, and stray bits of his corpse were distributed among waiting friends. Three centuries later a scrap of linen that had touched part of his body was said to have cured an elderly Italian of her deadly disease, so Plunkett was canonised in 1975. As a child in Ireland in that decade, I knew all about Plunkett and his obscene end: my mother had hung a portrait of him in my bedroom, and I'd torment myself by turning it over to read an account of the execution - 'his bowels taken out and burned before his eyes'. Consequent nightmares were all the more lurid because at St Peter's Church in Drogheda - on a primary-school excursion, no less - I had looked in those very eyes, or at least their sockets, and imagined a July morning in London when the saint's guts lay on the ground. Read more.

NEW FICTION

Tim Martin on 10:04 by Ben Lerner
ABOUT AN AUTHOR
Writing this year about My Struggle, the vast autobiographical novel by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner suggested that its central question might be 'the problem of form rising from formlessness, of how to bring order to the undifferentiated mass of experience, and the relation of that problem to death'. Reading 10:04, Lerner's second novel, you can see why the idea appealed to him so much. This restive, rambling, neurotic piece of work - occasionally illuminating, very often trying - is not exactly a response to Knausgaard's exhaustive act of 'literary suicide', but it proceeds from similar agonies and concerns. What is the novel for? How much rearrangement does it take to turn memoir into fiction? Isn't it dishonest to reach for the conventional satisfactions of plot? And what is honesty anyway in a form this artificial? Read more.

Elspeth Barker on Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
A HORSE CALLED PATRICK
Edith Pearlman's astonishing stories have won numerous awards in America and prompted accolades here, comparing her to Chekhov, Munro and Updike. Such comparisons are not helpful, for her voice is unique; however, her literary status is indeed of the highest order, as this, her fifth collection, most joyfully demonstrates. Read more.


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