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Life & letters

Chesterton refuses to go away. You may think he should have done so. Orwell tried to show him the door: Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. In the last 20 years of his life … every

The Ingmar Bergman Archives

Like the crusader knight in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), we all eventually lose our chess game with Death. And that includes Bergman himself, who passed away only last year, leaving an immense cinematic void as he did so. He bequeathed us 62 films, a good proportion of which are among the greatest and

A world too wide

Every new biographer of Shakespeare walks splat into the same old problem. What to say? Since he can’t tell us anything we don’t know, he must either tell us things we do know or things we don’t need to know. Jonathan Bate’s ingot-heavy volume announces, in its lackadaisical title, an intention to take all possible

Life among the dead

‘There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.’ The Graveyard Book has one of the most arresting opening sentences one could imagine. Fortunately, Neil Gaiman then leaves melodrama for something much more interesting and thoughtful. By chance, as a toddler, Bod, the central character of the story escapes the assassin who

The quarrels of brothers

Masters and Commanders, by Andrew Roberts; Behind Closed Doors, by Laurence Rees Andrew Roberts is one of the liveliest as well as the most considerable of contemporary historians. He is hard-working and exceptionally well-informed, lucid, highly intelligent, pugnacious, occasionally perverse (though much less often than he used to be), combining an impressive grasp of the

The coven reconvenes

The Widows of Eastwick, by John Updike The Witches of Eastwick was published in 1984; it was a retrospective cele- bration of the new sexual liberties and powers available to women in the 1960s. The book aroused interest both by its unexpected boldness of design and by its frankness and it became a successful movie.

A master of drab grotesques

Craven House, by Patrick Hamilton Patrick Hamilton (d. 1962) was a supremely odd fish, a kind of case-study in psychological extremism who drank himself to death at the early age of 58. His later novels, written when the drink was cracking him up, offer the curious spectacle of a mind that has travelled too far

Hope and Glory

Home, by Marilynne Robinson Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent previous novel, Gilead, was structured as a letter by the elderly, ailing Reverend John Ames to his young son. A persistent theme was the fear that Jack Boughton, the black sheep son of his dearest friend, would exercise a malign influence on his wife and boy after his

They do things differently there

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden Out of Africa always something new in armchair solutions, with the eternal certainty that none will work. Colonialism? Bad. Decolonisation? Disastrous. Neo-colonialism? Wicked. Bob Geldof? Er, no. So, leave the place alone and its bonjour Mugabe, or worse. For well-wishers from the north it has been a

A question of judgment

A Whispered Name, by William Brodrick This is the third of William Brodrick’s sensitively wrought novels featuring his contemplative monk, Anselm, an attractive and credible Every- man who has occasionally to leave his monastery to investigate ambiguous problems of evil, forgiveness and, in this case, sacrifice. Brodrick’s hero is aptly named since Saint Anselm, an

Wit and brio

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, by John Lucas Damn awful thing, what! [The Ring] — Barbarian load of Nazi thugs, aren’t they? ‘No one can honestly maintain that the lives of musicians make exciting reading’, claimed Beecham in his autobiography, A Mingled Chime. If you were to have a wager, you would put it

Live and let die

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 5, 1922-1923, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott; Death & the Author: How D.H. Lawrence Died and Was Remembered, by David Ellis The story of a life is also the story of a death, and one of the values of biography is that it enables us to

This is America

Homicide, by David Simon; Death Dyed Blonde, by Stanley Reynolds David Simon was a Baltimore Sun reporter who, having spent a Christmas Eve observing the city’s homicide squad, somehow got the department’s permission to spend an entire year with them as a ‘police intern’. The result, in 1991, was this stunning book, now published for

A dark and desolate world

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, by Rowan Williams While the Anglican communion has been disintegrating, its symbolical head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been writing an analysis of Dostoevsky’s novels. This in itself presents a need for explanation: Dostoevsky has generally been assessed as an habitué of the territory between agnosticism and atheism, but Rowan

In the footsteps of Herodotus

The Man who Invented History, by Justin Marozzi When Kristin Scott Thomas told a saucy tale out of Herodotus in the film of The English Patient, sales of The Histories shot up 450 per cent, according to Justin Marozzi, who has taken the seemingly inevitable step of travelling around the Herodotean world in the footsteps