Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 34th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the June 2015 issue:
Frank Dikötter on a clear-eyed biography of Deng Xiaoping
NUMBER TWO CAPITALIST ROADSTER
Unlike Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping did not pretend to be a poet, a philosopher or a calligrapher. The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, in a mere three volumes, offer few hints about the person himself. Unlike his master, Deng was a leader of few words. Since he left almost no paper trail, there is a well-known list of personal anecdotes dutifully rehearsed by every biographer: he took to cheese and coffee during his student days in France; he thrilled the American public by donning a cowboy hat at a rodeo in Texas in 1979; he enjoyed spitting into an enamelled spittoon in front of horrified foreign guests, including Margaret Thatcher; he could be blunt, if not scatological, in conversation; he was entirely devoted to the Communist Party, which he served throughout his career; he was a crafty, obsessive bridge player and died in retirement with one title intact - namely, honorary president of the All-China Association of Bridge Players. Read more.
Frances Wilson on the vigorous, violent world of 19th-century reviewing
Book reviewing, we can all agree, has lost its serrated edge. Literary critics were once legislators who ripped the masks from charlatans and hailed our future leaders, but today's reviewers are more concerned with watching their backs than sharpening their pens. The bloodbath has become a featherbed. Read more.
Patricia Fara on the meteorological pioneers
Predicting the future is a hazardous venture. Western Union initially scorned the new-fangled invention of telephones, and the chairman of IBM once envisaged a world market for five computers. Adding to the list of misjudgements, Peter Moore reveals in this thought-provoking book the parliamentary mockery greeting an MP who promised in 1854 that reliable weather forecasts would soon be available. Not for the last time, the House of Commons got it wrong: a century and a half later, Britain's Meteorological Office has more than 1,700 employees and a budget of over £80 million. Read more.
John Gray on the diary of Llewelyn Powys
The youngest of three brothers who became highly distinctive writers in the early decades of the last century, Llewelyn Powys is today the least read. This is surprising, since in some ways he is now the most resonant. At the present time religion and atheism contend in much the same way they did nearly a century ago when Powys first began to publish on the subject, and now as then his approach to this conflict is refreshingly unorthodox. Like his brothers (there were eleven siblings in total), Llewelyn rejected the Christianity of his father, a Somerset parson whom they all loved and revered. But while John Cowper Powys ended up in a Montaigne-like scepticism and Theodore Powys settled into an earthy acceptance of mystery and mortality, Llewelyn became a passionate opponent of religion - a latter-day Lucretius who railed against otherworldly faith as an illusion that spoilt the joy of life. Unlike our more pedestrian atheists he also recognised the human value of religion, seeing it as a poetic response to the encounter with death that was his own most formative experience. Read more.
Piers Brendon on 20th-century politicians who concealed their sexual preferences
VICE & VICEROYS
William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp (1872-1938), was a cabinet minister, a Knight of the Garter and lord steward of the Royal Household. Married to Lettice Grosvenor, sister of Bendor, Duke of Westminster, he was a devoted family man, siring seven children. He was also flagrantly homosexual, having a particular fondness for footmen and grooms with shapely buttocks, over which he would run his hands during job interviews. He scarcely bothered to hide his proclivities. Visiting the public steam baths at the Elephant and Castle, Hugh Walpole saw 'Ld Beauchamp in the act with a boy'. Read more.
John Keay on the Great Game in the East
The original Great Game, those bouts of strategic shadow-boxing that preoccupied the intelligence communities of British India and tsarist Russia in the 19th century, was played out under the big skies of Central Asia and across the high passes of the western Himalayas. Camels and yaks did a lot of the heavy work; beards and turbans made for easy disguise. Bagging forbidden cities and bartering for rare bloodstock rivalled the gunrunning and the surveying. Heavy books and solid reputations resulted. Read more.
Claire Preston on the extraordinary mind of the 17th-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne
When Thomas Browne, physician and natural philosopher, went hunting in the 1650s in books, on beaches, and in hedgerows for quincunxes in nature and culture, he discovered them in the structure of pine cones, the battle formations of the Greeks, the angles of incidence of light upon the retina, and the planting patterns of orchards. It turns out the quincunx (imagine the corners of a diamond with a dot in the middle) is everywhere. Three and a half centuries later, on a psychogeographic Brownean pilgrimage between Bury and Norwich, Hugh Aldersey-Williams found in those same hedgerows quincuncial hubcaps, which in turn prompted a meditation on that most modern of molecules, the pentagonal buckminsterfullerene. Browne's apparently eccentric observational exercise amounts to a rule in nature, one he was able to identify with an indifferent set of magnifying lenses, the naked eye, and shanks's pony. The instruments were primitive, but his slender quincuncial essay The Garden of Cyrus (1658) (its first known reader called it 'no ordinary book') epitomises the imagination of this most intellectually open and adventurous of Renaissance polymaths. Read more.
Josh Cohen on J M Coetzee and the relationship between literature and psychotherapy
From the outset of his psychoanalytic project, Freud was aware of having been preceded by literature. The poets and philosophers, he would often say, had shown the unconscious at work long before he made it an object of scientific curiosity. And in many ways literature was and is more intimate with the unconscious than psychoanalysis, closer to its obscure, ambiguous modes of thinking and expression than any theoretical system could hope to be. Read more.
Roger Scruton on Milan Kundera's The Festival of Insignificance
Un Ange Passe
Milan Kundera writes in French nowadays, and the people he writes about are as French as the language used to describe them. But he has not lost the whimsical Czech sensibility of his earlier works. His characters are still uncertain as to why they exist or whether it was entirely fair of their author to invent them. Kundera is one of those modern writers - Beckett is another - whose protagonists are not really detachable from the words on the page. They flicker on the paper like shadows cast by the syntax. They live in dreams of their own, and their interest lies not in what they do but in what they might have done had their creator offered them a story. Read more.
Francesca Wade on The Turnip Princess
TAILS OF THE UNEXPECTED
Unexpected discoveries are the stuff of fairy tales: the story of The Turnip Princess's metamorphosis from dusty manuscript to Penguin Classic is almost one in itself. Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810-86) spent a number of years cataloguing tales told in the forests of eastern Bavaria, in order to preserve the area's long-standing oral storytelling tradition. From the Upper Palatinate: Customs and Legends, which was published in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, comprised a synthesis of selected highlights. In 2009, the scholar Erika Eichenseer discovered the full extent of Schönwerth's research in a municipal archive in Regensburg - the bibliophile equivalent of spinning straw into gold, suggests Maria Tatar, a Harvard folklore professor and the tales' translator, in her introduction to this new selection. Read more.