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Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the August 2014 issue:
Jeremy Noel-Tod on a new life of Larkin
VERSE AND WORSE
Like the Thatcherite Tories he supported in his later years, Philip Larkin, who died in 1985, has now undergone two decades of detoxification. The contamination was quick and calamitous. Anthony Thwaite's volume of Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion's biography in 1993 both provided ready evidence that Britain's favourite postwar poet had been - as well as a charming and witty personal intimate - a pornography-hoarding philanderer and casual racist. As he signed off in prophetic mockery to one correspondent: 'Ooh, Larkin, I'm sorry to find you holding these views.' Read more.
Patricia Fara on Aristotle as naturalist
COLLECTING CUTTLEFISH ON LESBOS
Aristotle and Plato - their names conjure up thoughts of stone busts showing serene elderly men with long curly beards. Perhaps these revered Greek philosophers really did look like that at some stage in their lives, but according to the evolutionary biologist Armand Marie Leroi, Plato was so irascible that he once threw his favourite dog down a well and his student Aristotle was an overdressed dandy who compensated for his small eyes and thin legs by sporting plenty of jewellery and an elaborate hairstyle. Leroi also sets out to challenge traditional impressions of their intellectual activities. He makes little mention of the usual philosophical sound bites - shadows on the walls of a cave or syllogistic puzzles about the mortality of men. Instead, in Leroi's revisionist version of the Academy in Athens, Plato emerges as an anti-scientific mythmaker mindlessly obsessed with numbers, while Aristotle is cast as the world's first scientist and the founding father of biology. Read more.
Jonathan Keates on Venice, past and future
SINK OR SWIM
On 19 October 1866, following a series of diplomatic manoeuvres resulting from Austria's defeat in its recent war with Prussia, the city of Venice, jewel in the Habsburg crown, officially became part of the kingdom of Italy. Three weeks later King Victor Emmanuel arrived in the city amid jubilant crowds, including figures from the abortive revolution of 1848 and that diminutive mascot of international liberalism Lord John Russell, sporting an immense buttonhole rosette in Italian red, white and green. The four-day royal visit took in a gala at Teatro La Fenice, a regatta on the Grand Canal (where a floating orchestra dispensed patriotic choruses and anthems) and a tour of the Arsenale during which the king extolled its glorious past and, most hazardously, guaranteed a prosperous future. Read more.
Allan Massie enjoys some colourful Czech tales
Europe has no centre. If you had to choose one, it might as well be Prague as anywhere else. Geographically, it is central. Historically, it was there that the terrible Thirty Years War began, there that the Nazi invasion six months after the Munich Agreement made the Second World War all but inevitable, there too that the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 set in motion the slow crumbling of the Soviet Empire, as faith in Communism seeped away. Read more.
Richard Overy on Hitler and Stalin's alliance
THEIR ENEMY'S ENEMY
'Together with the Germans', Stalin is alleged to have remarked, 'we would have been invincible.' For just under two brief years between August 1939 and June 1941 they were together, bound by an uncanny alliance forged on the eve of the Second World War. The British and French were not surprised. Their prejudice against the Soviet Union coloured their belief that the two dictators were as bad as each other, and not such strange bedfellows after all. Read more.
Andrew Lycett on Ian Fleming's Goldeneye
LICENCE TO CHILL
Where does one look for James Bond's origins? Are they to be found in Room 39 in the Admiralty, where his creator, Ian Fleming, served as personal assistant to the director of naval intelligence during the Second World War? That was where Fleming soaked up colour about secret service operations, and where he told a colleague that he intended to write 'the spy novel to end all spy novels'. Or should one look further back into the 1930s, when the German-speaking Fleming came to understand the complexities of European politics while touring the Continent as a rich playboy? Read more.
Michael Bywater on the absurdity of public safety
FRONT ROW AT THE SECURITY THEATRE
Our current safety culture, growing like kudzu weed, is based on two misunderstandings: that 100 per cent safety is achievable and that if something goes wrong it's always someone's fault. The first is easy. We live at the bottom of a deep gravity well on a small piece of rock whirling round a colossal fusion reactor, and we pass our time by building a civilisation that relies upon billions of people doing dangerous things involving oceans, explosions, knives, fire, poison, pathogens and hurtling lumps of barely stable metal. This is not ever going to be 100 per cent safe. The second - that it's always someone's fault, and if we can track them down and (a) punish them and (b) make sure nobody else does it, it won't happen again - is a bit trickier. Read more.
Jerome Boyd Maunsell on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
There has always been a strong - you might even say defining - tension in the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's fictional world between Murakami the pop surrealist, revelling in off-the-wall fantasies and reality shifts (as in A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84), and Murakami the melancholic, tender, lyrical realist (most famously in Norwegian Wood). Yet the seemingly unreal often coexists with the more plausible, and Murakami's books frequently blend both between one set of covers. The delicacy of the balance between the outlandish and the everyday tends to determine the power, or otherwise, of his novels. The down-to-earth narratives are off-centred by a wry otherworldliness; the fantastic elements countered by an audaciously banal account of daily life. Read more.
Richard Canning on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
As the prize season approaches, publishers' marketing departments go into overdrive. Yet, arguably, Virago may be correct in speculating that The Paying Guests is 'the most anticipated book of 2014', given Waters's legions of hardcore fans and her consistent critical track record. Each of her five previous historical novels has either been shortlisted for or secured a major literary prize - starting with her debut, Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won a Betty Trask award. Waters is in the rare position of seeing her last three novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize: Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009). One cannot blame Virago, perhaps, for hoping that - unlike Angela Carter, a writer she much admires - Waters will finally be able to relinquish the bridesmaid's role. Read more.