Not afraid of Virginia Woolf

“Please treat me with perfect frankness, like the dead”, Virginia Woolf wrote to Winifred Holtby in March 1931. Holtby, herself an established novelist, journalist and activist, was writing a study of Woolf’s fiction; it would be the first book of its kind published in English. Woolf was wary of such projects – “I must not … Read more

Stalin and Satan

Vladimir Sharov, who would have turned seventy this week, died on August 17, 2018, shortly after publishing his ninth novel, Tsarstvo Agamemnona (The Kingdom of Agamemnon). Later that year the Russian-American philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Epstein coined the term “satanodicy” in an essay arguing that Zhestovsky, the novel’s protagonist, articulates a pattern in Russian … Read more

Optical sensations

Bridget Riley at ninety looks magnificent in her survey exhibition at Yale. Courtney Martin, the director of the Yale Center for British Art, has made good use of the Louis Kahn building. She has hung the black-and-white paintings of the early 1960s in the compressed galleries of the third floor, thus adding to their power … Read more

I’m pickin’ up good vibrations

It may have a boring name, but the standard model of particle physics is one of the most successful theories ever proposed. Its predictions have been tested to phenomenal accuracy; A team led by Gerald Gabrielse announced in 2008 that their measurement of the electron’s magnetic field agreed with the theory to the astonishing level … Read more

Religion of love

Around 1180, two of the greatest Arab thinkers met in Spain. The philosopher Averroes had heard of a young man who had visions at night: Ibn ‘Arabi was probably no more than fifteen years old, but he was well educated as the son of a courtier in Murcia, so he was awed by the interest … Read more

True to the spirit

During the title scene of Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, the seventy-four-year-old Soviet leader, standing in his office at his dacha in Kuntsevo, is handed a gramophone recording, which he hastily puts on. Over the crackle of the disc, we hear the beginnings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 23 in A major, performed by … Read more

Strange worship

It has become a tradition: every seven and a half years, the MetLife stadium in New Jersey is filled not with football fans, but with a crowd of about 80,000 religious Jews, almost all male, black-hatted and Haredi. The occasion is the conclusion of the Daf Yomi (“daily page”) study cycle of the Babylonian Talmud. … Read more

‘I recall passing through pubs’

While the title of Douglas Stuart’s new novel invokes Alexander Trocchi’s masterpiece, Young Adam (1954) – thus placing it in a specific Scottish literary context – it is perhaps even more significant that the central character, Mungo, is named after Glasgow’s patron saint, a gentle but determined man, known for bringing dead birds back to … Read more

Call it kismet

My half of the story begins in Cairo in the spring of 2018; a spring of heat-slurred days and Iftar nights. My husband, Sam, had been posted to the Australian embassy, ​​and the two of us were living in a hotel while we searched for an apartment. Our room looked out to the Nile and … Read more

Behold the threaden sails

I used to own an old barn. Almost everyone who saw it assured me that its mismatched joists and rafters, its well-pegged and much-mortised props and ties, would certainly have come from ships. Everyone, that is, except for a visiting architectural historian, who pointed out that we were 20 miles from the sea, up an … Read more