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Philip Hensher rss

Outside Downing Street in June 1943. Ten years earlier, no one would have thought it remotely likely that Winston Churchill would be regarded as his country’s saviour

Does Boris Johnson really expect us to think he's Churchill?

25 October 2014
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History Boris Johnson

Hodder, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9781444783025

As you would expect, it’s impossible to read this book without drawing fairly direct comparisons between its author and its subject. In promotional exchanges, with the well-worn practice of self-deprecation,… Read more

Vladimir and Véra: in love for life

Nabokov’s love letters are some of the most rapturous ever written

27 September 2014
Letters to Véra Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd

Penguin Classics, pp.864, £30, ISBN: 9780141192239

After the publication of The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s last and most disappointing novel in a very sketchy draft, you might have been forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much left… Read more

A romanticised portrait of Goethe by J.H.W. Tischbein

Germans see the best of their soul in Weimar. Everyone else, on the other hand...

30 August 2014
Weimar Michael H. Kater

Yale, pp.463, £25, ISBN: 978030070566

Thuringia, a region of former East Germany, occupies a special place in the thoughts of Germans, who like to regard it as the origin of all their best virtues. It’s… Read more

Who’s in, who’s out: George Bernard O’Neill’s ‘Public Opinion’ depicts a private view of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy

The age of the starving artist

26 July 2014
A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain James Hamilton

Atlantic Books, pp.400, £25, ISBN: 9781848879249

What remains of art is art, of course; and what chiefly interests us is the creative talents of a painter or a sculptor. What we forget is that the work… Read more

Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, with his pet monkey, attributed to Jacob Huysmans

Thug, rapist, poetic visionary: the contradictory Earl of Rochester

28 June 2014
Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester Alexander Larman

Head of Zeus, pp.352, £25, ISBN: 9781781851098

Despite being an earl, Rochester is very nearly a major poet. His poems and letters were torn up by a zealous mother after his death, bent on destroying anything obscene… Read more

Constant Lambert at the piano

The wit, wisdom and womanising of Constant Lambert

24 May 2014
Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande Stephen Lloyd

The Boydell Press, pp.584, £45, ISBN: 9781843838982

We owe Constant Lambert (1905–1951) a huge amount, and the flashes of brilliance that survive from his short life only suggest the energy with which he established the possibilities for… Read more

No worries: John Updike in his late fifties, on the beach at Swampscott, Mass

Up close and personal

26 April 2014
Updike Adam Begley

Harper, pp.576, £25, ISBN: 9780061896453

What should a writer write about? The question, so conducive to writer’s block, is made more acute when the writer is evidently well-balanced, free of trauma and historically secure. It… Read more

Kim Philby at the press conference he called in 1955 to deny being the ‘Third Man’

Kim Philby got away with it because he was posh

8 March 2014
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Ben Macintyre

Bloomsbury, pp.368, £20, ISBN: 9781408851722

The story of Kim Philby is, of course, like so many English stories, really one of social class. He was one of the most scandalous traitors in history, and from… Read more

A WWI memorial in New York (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty)

When intellectuals are clueless about the first world war

1 February 2014
First World War: Still No End in Sight Frank Furedi

Bloomsbury, pp.272, £18.99, ISBN: 9781441125101

No one alive now has any adult experience of the first world war, but still it shows no sign of respectable ossification; no armistice of opposing historians seems in prospect.… Read more

Craig-Raine

If only Craig Raine subjected his own work to the same critical scrutiny he applies to others' 

7 December 2013
More Dynamite: Essays 1990-2012 Craig Raine

Atlantic Books, pp.560, £35, ISBN: 9781848872875

It’s important not to be too immediately dismissive of poor Craig Raine. Book reviewers and editors like him, who invent rigid literary principles and then dismiss anything that fails to… Read more

Portrait of Modest Musorgsky by Ilya Yefimovich Repin

Why do we pounce on Wagner's anti-Semitism, and ignore that of the Russian composers?

9 November 2013
Musorgsky and His Circle Stephen Walsh

Faber, pp.469, £30, ISBN: 9780571245628

Before ‘nationalism’ became a dirty word, it was the inspiration for all sorts of idealistic and reform-minded people. This was never more true than in the history of music. Clearly,… Read more

‘The Goldfinch’ by Carl Fabritius, the theft of which is central to Donna Tartt’s new novel

Donna Tartt can do the thrills but not the trauma

12 October 2013
The Goldfinch Donna Tartt

Little, Brown, pp.771, £20, ISBN: 9781408704943

Donna Tartt is an expert practitioner of what David Hare has called ‘the higher hokum’. She publishes a long novel every decade or so. Her first book, The Secret History… Read more

J.D. Salinger in 1952, reading from The Catcher in the Rye

Salinger, by David Shields - review

7 September 2013
Salinger David Shields and Shane Salerno

Simon & Schuster, pp.698, £25, ISBN: 9781471130373

This biography has somewhat more news value than most literary biographies. Its subject worked hard to ensure that. After 1965, J.D. Salinger, having published one novel, a volume of short… Read more

Philip Hensher reviews the Man Booker prize longlist

24 August 2013

The Man Booker prize has strong years and weak years. There have been ones when the judges have succeeded in identifying what is most interesting in English-language fiction and others… Read more

‘Imperial Federation showing the map of the world, British Empire’, by Captain J.C. Colombo, c.1886 (Royal Geographical Society, London)

Churchill and Empire, by Lawrence James - a review

20 July 2013
Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist Lawrence James

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp.464, £25, ISBN: 9780297869146

A fraught subject, this, and one which makes it difficult to sustain undiluted admiration for Churchill. Lawrence James is the doyen of empire historians, and has traced the great man’s… Read more

Liverpool, Merseyside, 1951

How do you define a 'northerner'?

8 June 2013
The North (And Almost Everything In It) Paul Morley

Bloomsbury, pp.582, £20, ISBN: 9780747578161

Obviously, now that every high street in England looks identical, and everyone under 30 uses exactly the same Australian rising inflection in speech, books of this sort are based on… Read more

Cavafy

Complete Poems, by C.P. Cavafy - review

18 May 2013
C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems Daniel Mendelsohn (translation, commentary)

Harper Press, pp.547, £35, ebook, £17.99, ISBN: 9780375400964

Constantine Cavafy was a poet who fascinated English novelists, and remained a presence in English fiction long after his death in 1933. When E.M. Forster lived in Alexandria during the… Read more

'Best of Young British Novelists 4', by John Freeman (ed)

20 April 2013
Best of Young British Novelists 4 John Freeman (ed)

Granta, pp.256, £12.99, ISBN: 9781905881673

The literary magazine Granta had the bright idea, in 1983, of promoting 20 British novelists under 40 by announcing that they were the ‘best’ around. The first list was a… Read more

Rebecca West

West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rececca West, by Lorna Gibb — review

30 March 2013
West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rececca West Lorna Gibb

Macmillan, pp.320, £25, ISBN: 9781220714625

Lorna Gibb ends her book on Rebecca West by saying: ‘That she would be remembered because her work would go on being read was her greatest legacy.’ A more measured… Read more

Be careful what you wish for

23 February 2013
The Silence of the Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths John Gray

Allen Lane, pp.224, £18.99, ISBN: 9781846144509

Are things getting better? In some ways, undeniably. Progress is not altogether a fiction, or ‘modern myth’ in John Gray’s terminology, if we focus on such ultimately important ideas as… Read more

The British Army enters the Bolan Pass from Dadur during the First Anglo-Afghan War. From J.Atkinson’s Sketches in Afghanistan

An almost perfect catastrophe

12 January 2013
The Return of a King William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury, pp.608, £25, ISBN: 9781408818305

Lots of people have subsequently discovered this important imperial maxim: ‘Don’t invade Afghanistan.’ But the first western power to demonstrate the point of it was the British, in the late… Read more

At the Opera’ by Thomas-Francis Dicksee;

Boxed and stalled

8 December 2012
Great Operas: A Guide to 25 of the World’s Finest Musical Experiences Michael Steen

Icon, pp.488, £25, ISBN: 9781848314573

What does fashion look like? When intellectual or artistic vogues change, how do we know when they have happened? The most popular men’s trousers in the UK at the moment… Read more

Belvoir Castle in 1816, by Turner

A family at war

3 November 2012
The Secret Rooms Catherine Bailey

Viking, pp.466, £20, ISBN: 9780670917556

The Quest for Corvo started something rather peculiar in biography. A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 classic — described as ‘an experiment’ — set out the biographer’s search for his subject, and not… Read more

JK Rowling

Smackhead cows in the backyard

29 September 2012
The Casual Vacancy J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown, pp.480, £20, ISBN: 9781408704202

Krystal had never shot up before … but she knew how to heat the spoon, and about the tiny little ball of cotton wool you used to soak up the… Read more

Theatre of the absurd

1 September 2012
Telegraph Avenue Michael Chabon

4th Estate, pp.480, £18.99, ISBN: 9780007288755

Some novels gaze and report and argue: others just sing. There are some writers who love and respect the visual arts, and want to bring them into prose — Henry… Read more