Now imagine a white hole – a black hole’s time-reversed twin…

There are many ways to measure the course of human history and each will give an insight into one or more of the various qualities that have made us the most successful great ape. Every major advance, whether in war or art or literature, requires imagination, that most amazing of human capacities, and the ability to ask ‘What if?’ – to take the world from a different perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of science. While there is an inherent provincialism in revolutions in art and literature, progress in science is universal, and moves, like Dante’s Hell, in concentric circles of ever deeper understanding. It is

A ghoulish afterlife: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka, reviewed

Ten years ago Shehan Karunatilaka’s first novel, Chinaman, was published and I raved about it, as did many others. Set in the 1980s, it intertwined the stories of a vanished, forgotten cricketer who was able to bowl unplayable deliveries and the particularly brutal war that was ravaging Sri Lanka. My review ended with the words: ‘Karunatilaka is, I gather, writing another novel, but how it can be as good as this I can hardly imagine.’ We now have that novel, and I was right: it isn’t as good. Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, there are parts of its design and telling that are very good indeed.

When did postmodernism begin?

There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s 1990s revenge comedy The Information in which a book reviewer, who’s crushed by his failures and rendered literally impotent by his best friend’s success, is sitting in a low-lit suburban room beside a girl (not his wife) named Belladonna: ‘She was definitely younger than him. He was a modernist. She was the thing that came next.’ Stuart Jeffries argues in his new book that the thing that came next was in fact a thing that started a couple of decades before Amis wrote The Information. In Jeffries’s telling, postmodernity can be dated to 13 August 1971, when Richard Nixon held a closed-door meeting that

Richly layered and intricate: Royal Ballet’s The Dante Project reviewed

Where does the artist end and their work begin? Like 2015’s Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor’s new ballet swirls creator and creation to meditate on a journey of self-realisation. The subject this time is Dante, the Italian poet who redirected the course of western art and literature with The Divine Comedy. Over three acts, each based on a realm of the afterlife, an Everyman navigates sin, penance and salvation. There’s a lot to unpack — as ever, McGregor crafts a rich, layered choreographic language, and Thomas Adès’s accompanying score is just as intricate — but density is The Dante Project’s forte, elevating it to cosmic heights. The stellar Edward Watson —

My fight to stop the Chinese censors sanitising Dante

My book on Dante Alighieri was due to come out in Chinese translation later this year, but first I had to consent to sizeable cuts. Even by the standards of other authoritarian states the Beijing censors struck me as overzealous. It seems odd that the medieval Italian poet could cause such unease among modern-day totalitarians. A sanitised Chinese communist version of my book did not sit well with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321, and in the end I withheld permission. The cuts were the work of Beijing’s blandly named Institute for World Religions. The institute undertakes ‘book cleansing’ operations on behalf of the state. No book can

A podcast about the literary canon that actually deepens your knowledge (sort of)

While most of life’s pleasures can be shared, reading is lonely. It’s more than possible for six friends to enjoy an exquisite meal, a bottle of wine and then settle down for a four- or five-hour orgy. Food, drink, sex: these things are better shared. But if, as dawn approached, someone cracked open Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’ and intimated that it was time to really get down to brass tacks, it could only spoil the mood. Reading is lonely because so much of the reading that matters is hard. The books that change the world and shake the culture are rarely pure pleasure. The heaven sections of Paradise Lost. The

Letters | 26 May 2016

Leave’s grumpy grassroots Sir: James Delingpole should join us at a Remain street stall. He would soon be disabused of his idea that Remainers are ‘shrill, prickly and bitter’ and Leavers are ‘sunny, relaxed and optimistic’ (‘What’s making Remain campaigners so tetchy?’, 21 May). We can often spot a likely Leaver by their angry expression. As we offer a leaflet with facts about the EU to counter the lies and distortions our acquaintance has imbibed from the Leave campaign, we are lucky to escape with anything less offensive than ‘Piss off’. If a leaflet is taken, we often see it torn up. At the grassroots, Leave is certainly grumpy. David

Throned on her hundred isles

Approximately 500 new books on Venice are published every year and this is not the first literary anthology devoted to the city. But Marie-Jose Gransard lectures in Venice about Venice to Venetians, and conducts her students on guided tours of the city. Her selection draws on sources going back over 800 years and across six languages. So the text, based on very wide reading, is crowded with unfamiliar observations and includes the impressions of artists, musicians and diplomats as well as writers. This is not a guide book for the first-time visitor, but for anyone who knows Venice, and cannot keep away, it provides a delightful change. We are given

A mirror to the world

[audioplayer src=”http://feeds.soundcloud.com/stream/260046943-the-spectator-podcast-obamas-eu-intervention-the-pms.mp3″ title=”Lloyd Evans and Dr Daniel Swift discuss how Shakespeare died” startat=1008] Listen [/audioplayer]Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence:


When Tom Birkin, hero of J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, wakes from sleeping in the sun, it is to a vision: the vicar’s wife Alice Keach in a wide-brimmed straw hat, a rose tucked into the ribbon. ‘Her neck was uncovered to the bosom and, immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli — not his Venus — the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I’d seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me.’ So universally recognised are Sandro Botticelli’s two most famous paintings, we

Double thinking, double lives

This hefty volume is misleadingly titled. It is not an escapist sort of travel book, ushering the visitor around the homelands and houses of the Italian literati. It is a selection of the author’s previous literary articles, mostly book reviews for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and believe me it is hardly a sunshine ramble or a splash in the pool. On the contrary, it is an immensely learned, elegantly written rehearsal of the significance of 23 Italian writers, from Dante in the 13th century to Antonio Tabucchi in our own, and as such it amounts I think to an assessment of the

More Marx than Dante

At the start of Canto XXI of the ‘Inferno’, Dante and Virgil look down on the pit of Malebolge, the Eighth Circle of Hell, in which sinners guilty of simony, hypocrisy and graft are punished. The last of those spend eternity immersed in a river of bubbling pitch. This sinister black liquid, the poet noted, looks much like the tar that Venetians boil up in their arsenal to smear over the hulls of their ships. Those lines came to mind more than once as I walked around the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, not least because a large section is installed in the ancient buildings of that very Arsenale.

Justin Cartwright on redheads, anti-Semitism and the betrayal of Christ

Peter Stanford is a writer on religious and ethical matters. He was for four years editor of the Catholic Herald. Writing Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle must have been a difficult task because there are no facts. Judas may quite possibly never have existed at all, and if he did, the Judas kiss may not have happened. Also, he may not have hanged himself. This is a fascinating story of febrile myth-making over two millennia, with very little historical fact. Stanford starts his pursuit of Judas with a visit to gloomy Hakeldama in Jerusalem, the place where Judas is traditionally said to have hanged himself — if he

In praise of Den-zel

His Christian name is only two syllables, with the stress (following the African-American pronunciation) on the second. Two syllables that are a byword for urbane cool. A mellifluous shibboleth – the quintessence of all that is decent and upstanding. You see, I’ve grown up on Denzel’s films. From boyhood to manhood, from teenage recalcitrance to adult responsibility, he has accompanied me on my life’s journey like a Virgil to my wayfaring Dante. As father figure, older brother, man of probity and moral rectitude, Don Juan and all round Mister Nice Guy, he has been my consummate companion. Many men of a certain age will have derived much of their moral compass from Denzel’s protagonists.

A divine guide to Dante

Reading Dante is an experience of a lifetime. You never come to the end of it. But,  like Dante himself, at large in the frightening wood, you need a companion for the journey, and it is difficult to imagine one more enlightening than Prue Shaw. The Emeritus Reader in Italian at the University of London, she has been lighting up the genius of Dante for us all her professional life, especially his politics. But this book is just as accessible to a general reader as it would be a source of wonder and envy to scholars. It is mainly concerned with the Comedy, but it expounds much of Dante’s other

Looking for the meaning of life? Come to Constantine Phipps’ poetic theme park

A favourite game of mine is to imagine Virgil and Homer today, plying their trade among the supermarkets and office blocks. What would they sing? Can modern life aspire to the epic, and can such a form still be understandable, even useful? C.S. Lewis, though he did translate the Aeneid beautifully, didn’t quite manage a similar feat with his bizarre modern epic, Dymer. It’s not a field many wish to enter. And yet Constantine Phipps, in his third book, What You Want, has made not only an epic, but a didactic epic, accessible, relevant and involving. In precise, lucidly flowing iambic pentameters, the poem is a meditation on the nature

Michael Craig-Martin pokes a giant yellow pitchfork at the ordinary

Visitors to Chatsworth House this spring might wonder if they have stumbled through the looking-glass. The estate’s rolling parkland has been invaded by an army of vibrantly coloured, outsized garden tools, whose outlines seem to hover, mirage-like, over the landscape. These painted-steel 2D ‘sculptures of drawings’ are the brainchildren of the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. Craig-Martin finds poetry in the everyday and here he has taken 12 commonplace objects — a wheelbarrow; a spade; a lightbulb — and transformed them into something extraordinary. He also believes that context is everything when it comes to art and the works have been carefully positioned. While ‘High Heel’ (above) speaks to the decadence

Radio that makes you feel the wind on your cheek

After a walk in Richmond Park beset by rush-hour traffic, the Heathrow flight path and a strange swarm of flying ants (strange because so early in the year), it was unsettling to come back in and switch on and listen to Kirsty Gunn’s spring walk for this week’s The Essay on Radio 3 (which I heard as a preview but you can now catch on iPlayer). Gunn lives in Sutherland in the far north of Scotland close to the River Brora, and has a view from her back windows that stretches for 500 square miles with no other house or sign of human life in sight. ‘There’s nothing out there,’

Which Ulysses is the most heroic?

From ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson                                     Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic

Inferno, by Dan Brown – review

The other day, while shopping in Tesco, I was surprised to find copies of the Inferno for sale by the checkout. ‘Oh dear’, I declared, ‘who would have thought of finding Dante here?’ It was not Dante of course, but Dan ‘Dante’ Brown, whose latest extravaganza, Inferno, tips a nod to the Florentine poet’s medieval epic of fire and brimstone. Inferno, a bibliographic thriller in the Umberto Eco mould, is the fastest-selling novel of the moment. But let us be clear. Where Dante’s Inferno was ‘awful’ in that archaic sense of the word (still valid in Italian) of inspiring awe, Brown’s is merely awful. Correction: very awful. ‘A powerfully built