Lead book review

Guardians of an ideal

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s bold new book is built on the assumption that ‘it is possible to make meaningful generalisations about the shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French’. France, as General de Gaulle pointed out, has such a fetish for singularity that it produces 246 varieties of cheese. Can France

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Salvation through music

Ours is the era of everybody’s autobiography. Bookshops groan with misery-lit memoirs — Never Let Me Go, Dysfunction Without Tears — which dilate on anorexia, alcoholism, cruel bereavement. When is a life worth telling? B.S. Johnson, the London-born novelist (and tireless chronicler of himself), put the most revealing sexual details into his autobiographical novels of

Awfully arrayed

John Keegan, perhaps the greatest British military historian of recent years, felt that the most important book (because of its vast scope) that remained unwritten was a history of the Austrian army. Richard Bassett has now successfully filled the gap, and few could be better qualified to do so. During many years as the Times’s

The new rules of dating

An American stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari, who usually performs in Los Angeles and New York, has found time to conduct an international investigation of the mating habits of the young in the digital age. Like most other stand-up comedians, male and female, Ansari evidently bases his act on nationalistic, ethnic and sexual misanthropy, expressed with

One vast, blaring cultural circus

In the late 1980s Peter Ackroyd invited me to meet Iain Sinclair, whose first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, I had greatly admired. Ackroyd initially knew Sinclair as a poet, author of Lud Heat, an influence on his own wonderful novel Hawksmoor. Passionately interested in London, the three of us began to meet regularly. Sinclair

Style over substance

We begin in Paris with an introduction to five insignificant friends. One (Ramon) is walking past the new Chagall exhibition, but decides against visiting — not for the first time, nor the last — because of the queues. Another (D’Ardelo) is returning from the doctor’s, where he has learned that he does not have cancer

Curious shades of Browne

On the evening of 10 March 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge settled at a desk in an effort to articulate what he found so appealing about the 17th-century English polymath Sir Thomas Browne, the man he numbered among his ‘first favourites’ of English prose. He mentions Browne’s formal qualities, of course: he is ‘great and magnificent

Swords of honour

Earlier this century I was a guest at a fine dinner, held in a citadel of aristocratic Catholicism, for youngish members of German student duelling societies. My hosts were splendidly courteous, some of them held deadly straight rapiers or lethal curved blades, there were brightly coloured and golden braided costumes that made King Rudolf of


Athens The air-raid siren howls Over the quiet, the un-rioting city. It’s just a drill. But the unearthly vowels Ululate the air, a thrill While for a moment everybody stops What they were about to do On the broken street, or in the slow shops, Or looks up for an answer Into the contrailled palimpsest

Broken dreams

As Masha Gessen herself admits — and as friends and journalist colleagues repeatedly told her — it was a strange choice to write this book. But you only have to get a few pages in to realise that Gessen, the author of a bestselling analysis of Putin, is ideally placed to take on the story