Sebastian Smee

The Man of Feeling

Can a writer be guilty of an excess of sympathy for his characters? Sympathy, we are forever being reminded (Tolstoy and Chekhov being the great exemplars), is the hallmark of great fiction. But unless it is combined with a touch of icy objectivity, it can come to cloy, honeying the sensibility rather than truly taxing

His cup runneth over

Nick, the central character in Alan Hollinghurst’s wonderful new novel, is a young, alert middle-class boy with precociously refined aesthetic sensibilities and a gift for endearing himself to others. ‘He liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity.’ He has come out as gay shortly before the novel’s opening, but

Both deep and dazzling

Rivalled only by the Rabbit novels, John Updike’s early stories — the 100 or so pieces of short fiction he wrote for magazines such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine and Playboy between 1954 and 1975 — now seem very close to being the best things he has written, surely placing them

A great painter’s likeness perfectly caught

Robert Hughes has suffered no shortage of appalling things over the past five years. He has experienced deep depression and a second divorce; he suffered atrocious injuries in a car crash which came within inches of killing him, and has had to undergo 12 operations to piece his body back together again; a feeble attempt

Giving something back

In the past, great benefactors to the visual arts have generally doubled as tastemakers. Their success, as the US critic Jed Perl recently noted, is often best judged by the extent to which their avidities become what the culture takes for granted. But how does taste, which is private, become public in this way? It’s

Stopping short of omniscience

Although Janet Malcolm has written in depth about an extraordinary range of subjects, from psychoanalysis and photography through to literary criticism, the art world, journalism, biography and the law, in thematic terms she has actually been one of the most consistent non-fiction writers of our time. Certainly, she is one of the most brilliant. I

Naughty but nice

The first story in this very fine collection takes the most risks, not unlike its protagonist. Ariel, a sophisticated, self-aware, American wife pays for two high-class prostitutes to entertain her wealthy Italian husband: ‘It’s a birthday present,’ she explains over the phone, trying hard to picture the girl on the other end of the line

Putting it all in

Not for nothing has Jeffrey Eugenides, on the strength of just one novel published seven years ago, been cropping up again and again in magazine lists of the top 10 or 25 young novelists in America. He has spent all these years in seclusion in Berlin cooking up a very cunning solution to the notorious