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Selected highlights from the March 2015 issue:
Tim Whitmarsh on the life of Seneca
NERO TO ZERO
'The well-born man must live well or die well,' says Ajax in Sophocles's play named after that character. Humiliated by his failed attack on his own leaders, the mythical Greek warrior and scourge of the Trojans decides to end his life at the point of his own sword. The tradition of heroically virtuous suicide spread from the theatre into real life, but never lost its histrionic edge. When Plato wrote up Socrates's execution by hemlock in 399 BC he recast it as, in effect, a suicide, since the great philosopher had passed up the opportunities both to propose an alternative punishment at his trial and to escape from prison afterwards. Socrates too (according to Plato in Crito) said that he preferred death to living in a less than moral way. For the Greeks, suicide was an art form. Read more.
Paul Johnson on the seven lives of John Maynard Keynes
LUST FOR LIFE
Next to Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes was the most remarkable and influential Englishman of the 20th century. A year before the anniversary of his death, he is now commemorated in Richard Davenport-Hines's first-class book, which I cannot praise highly enough. Read more.
Victoria Glendinning on the curious friendship of Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler
The subtitle is seductive. But she was not really much of a bluestocking, and he was rather insecure as a Bright Young Thing. They met in 1925, when Rex Whistler was a nineteen-year-old art student and Edith Olivier was the unmarried 52-year-old daughter of a vicar. She was clever, opinionated and a passionate reader. In her youth she won a scholarship to Oxford but left after four terms because of her asthma. She would have remained a 'county' spinster, devoted to religion, local affairs and good works, had she not met Whistler, who became the emotional focus of the rest of her life. Read more.
Stephen Cave on John Gray's inquiry into human freedom
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
Early in this book, John Gray tells the story of Heinrich von Kleist, who tells the story of a Herr C, who tells the story of how he once fenced with a bear. Herr C was a fine swordsman, able easily to defeat most human opponents; 'but the animal,' the gentleman recounts, 'seemingly without any effort, avoided any harm', parrying all thrusts with a swipe of its paw. Herr C soon began to sweat as he thrusted and feinted, only for the bear to see through all these ploys: 'looking me in the eye, as though he could read my soul in it, he stood with his paw lifted in readiness and when my thrusts were not seriously intended he did not move.' Read more.
Tom Holland on the Arab Conquests
SEIZING THE FERTILE CRESCENT
For as long as there has been urban civilisation in the Fertile Crescent, there have been bandits eager to plunder its riches. In AD 610, for instance, a raid was launched by a war band of Arabs on Syria. 'They pillaged and laid waste many lands, committed many massacres of men and burned without compassion or pity.' Much the same might have been recorded by chroniclers writing in the Bronze Age or by journalists today covering the depredations of ISIS. Nevertheless, over the course of history, raiders from the sands beyond Syria or Iraq have rarely managed to establish enduring empires. The reason for this is obvious: the immense preponderance of wealth and manpower that settled communities always tend to enjoy over nomads. Violent tides may race in from the desert, but invariably they also ebb. Read more.
Lesley Downer on the mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore
THINGS THAT CHANGE SHAPE IN THE NIGHT
There were many traps for the unwary in old Japan. You could be out walking at twilight at the edge of town and meet a beautiful woman. But before you proposed marriage, it would be as well to check whether she had a bushy tail protruding from her skirts. Otherwise you might wake up and discover that you'd slept with a fox. Read more.
Philip Roscoe on bitcoin and the global economic order
Bitcoin is a strange thing: a virtual coinage, but real enough, each 'coin' tethered to a place. If you store bitcoins on your computer and spill coffee on the hard drive, that's that; when you spend coins online, they travel from your wallet, just as cash physically leaves your pocket. When Mt Gox, a high-profile coin exchange, went out of business in 2014, bitcoins worth half a billion dollars simply disappeared. The bitcoin community hopes the coins will become established as a currency but speculators treat them like a commodity. The US tax authorities, meanwhile, have decided that they are property. In just six years bitcoin has gone from techno-fantasy, through Wild West, to something quite respectable; in Cryptocurrency, their fascinating book on the topic, Wall Street Journal columnists Paul Vigna and Michael Casey set out to convince readers that bitcoin is not only going straight, but has the potential to change the world. Read more.
Joanna Kavenna on Peter Stamm's All Days Are Night
STILL SMALL VOICES
'There are no battles, and no murders and no defeats and no victories,' wrote Virginia Woolf in 1932. This is, in one sense, completely untrue. Yet, Woolf was arguing against calculated drama in writing - 'fields strewn with bones ... solitary victors riding off on white horses wrapped in black cloaks to meet their death at the turn of the road'; pistol shots, vampires, paedophiles - I may have slightly amplified her examples. Against this sound and fury, we discern a quiet counter-tradition: Giorgio Morandi, painting bottles; Cézanne, creating luminescent portraits of fruit; Gabriel Orozco, with his superficially insignificant arrangements of realia; Bruno Schulz, contemplating the small details of his childhood. Proust, Hamsun, Céline. Woolf herself. Read more.
Toby Lichtig on Karl Ove Knausgaard's Dancing in the Dark
And so we come to volume four of Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic, exhaustive, entrancing, artfully artless non-fiction novel (reviewers, poor souls, have long since run out of epithets to describe the My Struggle series). And for those who have somehow missed the fuss, here - briefly - is what it's all about: between 2009 and 2011, in an effort to write himself dry, the Norwegian author produced 3,600 pages of autobiographical prose, forensically raking over his past, reordering and repackaging his memories, while refusing to differentiate between the banal (a favourite breakfast cereal) and the momentous (artistic transcendence, patricidal rage). The results have rightly garnered more attention than most writers can hope for in a lifetime and, thanks to the tireless efforts of Don Bartlett, Anglophone readers now only have two volumes left. Read more.
Simon Hammond on Tom McCarthy's Satin Island
ESTABLISHING A REPORT
Tom McCarthy's reputation as an intrepid explorer of the novel's frontiers owes a lot to Zadie Smith and an essay she wrote in 2008 for the New York Review of Books called 'Two Paths for the Novel'. Smith offered a stark choice between mainstream complacency and avant-garde insurrection, a schism that she claimed was epitomised by the difference between two recent novels - Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and McCarthy's debut, Remainder. The two paths were in actual fact more like different lanes on the same old motorway: for all its deadpan minimalism, Remainder wasn't actually any more radical than O'Neill's rapturous bestseller. But the appraisal caught on anyway. Acclaim for McCarthy grew louder and vaguer. He was our leading experimental novelist all right; it was just that nobody could quite say why that was. C, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010, didn't exactly clarify the matter. A stylised historical novel set in the well-rehearsed first act of the 20th century, it was not easy to characterise as revolutionary. Read more.