Philip Hensher rss

‘Orange, Red, Yellow’, 1956, by Mark Rothko

A strain of mysticism is discernible in the floating colour fields of Mark Rothko’s glowing canvases

7 March 2015
Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel Annie Cohen-Solal

Yale, pp.282, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300182040

One of the curiosities of western art is that, until the 20th century, few visual artists were of Jewish ancestry. With odd exceptions such as the Pissarros and Simeon Solomon,… Read more

John Galliano at Paris Fashion Week 2010

Drink, drugs and dressing-up: behind the scenes of the fashion industry

7 February 2015
Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano Dana Thomas

Allen Lane, pp.432, £25, ISBN: 9781846146138

It’s a curious subject, fashion, and those who write about it rarely want to jeopardise future access to it on the altar of clear-eyed analysis. The business must pretend that… Read more

Edith Pearlman in 2012

Where have all the literary journals gone? The home of the short story in Britain has vanished

10 January 2015
Honeydew Edith Pearlman

John Murray, pp.280, £16.99, ISBN: 9781444797015

I am not sure if it’s properly understood quite what a crisis the short story is now in. Superficial signs of success and publicity — such as Alice Munro winning… Read more

Un ballo in maschera

Royal Opera's Un ballo in maschera: limp, careless and scrappy

10 January 2015
Un ballo in maschera Royal Opera

Whether by chance or bold design, the Royal Opera’s two Christmas shows were written at precisely the same moment, between 1857 and 1859, and both mark a high point of… Read more

‘Exquisitely dressed and groomed, Stefan Zweig looks simply terrified’

Stefan Zweig: the tragedy of a great bad writer

22 November 2014
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World George Prochnik

Grants, pp.300, £19.99, ISBN: 9781590516126

Stefan Zweig wasn’t, to be honest, a very good writer. This delicious fact was hugged to themselves by most of the intellectuals of the German speaking world during the decades… Read more

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


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


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