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Fairytales Punish the Curious - Angela Carter

In the spring of 1977, Angela Carter met the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart in London at the launch of Bananas, a new literary magazine. A prolific writer at the age of 37, Carter was already the author of eight novels, two collections of poetry, and one collection of short stories—“profane pieces,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed. Her story in the issue, titled “The Company of Wolves,” was a feminist retelling of “Red Riding Hood,” in which the adolescent girl, unafraid of her foe, ends up sleeping sweetly “between the paws of the tender wolf.” Smart’s 1945 novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the story of a disconsolate, abandoned woman, was about to be reissued by Virago press, where Carter was on the editorial board.

Carter admired Smart’s “exquisite prose,” but she was scornful of the book’s wrenching, self-punishing descriptions of erotic love. (A representative line: “But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to…

Jane Austen, on the money

“Anyone”, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, though of course she didn’t mean “anyone” but “me”, “who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Times have certainly changed: chaste aunts these days are about as rare as a Bob’s your uncle and the twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who might resent you are now millions worldwide who will happily abuse you on Twitter. We’re all Janeites now: and if you’re not, look out. In a world – to use a phrase that might usefully serve as the introductory voice-over to the trailer for any recent Austen adaptation/biopic/retelling – in which the mute are always inglorious and fame is the only guarantee of val…

The Mysterious Music of Georg Trakl

Stanley Cavell liked to talk about the two myths of reading subscribed to by Western philosophers. “According to one myth the philosopher must have read virtually everything, at least the whole of Western philosophy, broadly conceived,” he wrote in his memoir, Little Did I Know (2010). The other myth specified that philosophers, pure thinkers that they are, should read virtually nothing. “Heidegger is an obvious exemplar of the former myth,” Cavell observed, “Wittgenstein of the latter.”

And yet, both philosophers, the voracious reader and the seemingly reluctant one, found themselves, at pivotal moments in their careers, turning to the arresting work of the early twentieth-century Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914). Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein and Heidegger responded to Trakl’s striking and still mysterious poems in sharply divergent—one might almost say opposite—ways. James Reidel’s recently completed three-volume translation of Trakl’s major work, timed to coincide with the ce…

Robinson Crusoe - Essay by Virginia Woolf

There are many ways of approaching this classical volume; but which shall we choose? Shall we begin by saying that, since Sidney died at Zutphen leaving the Arcadia unfinished, great changes had come over English life, and the novel had chosen, or had been forced to choose, its direction? A middle class had come into existence, able to read and anxious to read not only about the loves of princes and princesses, but about themselves and the details of their humdrum lives. Stretched upon a thousand pens, prose had accommodated itself to the demand; it had fitted itself to express the facts of life rather than the poetry. That is certainly one way of approaching Robinson Crusoe–through the development of the novel; but another immediately suggests itself–through the life of the author. Here too, in the heavenly pastures of biography, we may spend many more hours than are needed to read the book itself from cover to cover. The date of Defoe’s birth, to begin with, is doubtful–was it 1660 …

Jane Austen Is Everything

On the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen is still everywhere, often where one least expects to find her. Most of her devotees will have their own story; mine occurred in a Manhattan courthouse, with its stale-coffee smell and atmosphere of anxious boredom, in the midst of jury selection for a criminal trial involving a double homicide. Upon learning that I taught British literature, the defendant’s attorney—a woman who spoke with intimidating speed and streetwise bluntness—skipped the usual questions (how much did I trust police testimony, had I ever been a victim of a violent crime) and asked instead whether I taught Jane Austen. Puzzled by her indirection, I answered yes. A theatrical flash of disgust crossed her face: I was, evidently, one of those people. At which point the presiding judge interrupted to say: “Careful, counsel. Some of us here like Jane Austen.”

The hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap is not just an iconic figure but a symbol of Literature itself. As Austen’s own Em…

A Possible Keats

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to…

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

"Jerusalem is the holy city," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, "yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry . . . the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone." Jew, Christian and Muslim alike feel compelled to rewrite its history to sustain their own myths. "A hundred patients a year," Montefiore notes, "are committed to the city's asylum suffering from the Jerusalem syndrome, a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion." The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well, and although not his purpose, one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices. 

Montefiore takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation – Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar,…