COLUMNS Give Me Difficulty

by A.V. Marraccini

The new Nero exhibition at the British Museum makes its stakes clear at the entrance: this will be a reevaluation of the mostly negative ‘myths’ surrounding the history of the much-maligned last of the Julio-Claudians. There is a paradox at heart here: British Museum blockbuster exhibitions must make money for the cash-strapped institution and also satisfy a broad range of knowledge in the viewing public. Difficulty usually isn’t in the cards. [read full column]

INTERVIEW 'Please Just Let Something Happen': An Interview with Rebecca Watson

by Elsa Court

Rebecca Watson joined the ranks of promising young talents to have been showcased in the White Review Short Story Prize when she was shortlisted for the award in 2018, and has gone on to publish a remarkable debut. Published earlier this year, little scratch is a crisp, incisive and formally original novel about a day in the life of a young woman working in a newspaper office in London. She and I shared a windy outdoor coffee in East London, where she lives. We discussed Rebecca’s early influences, her second novel in the works, and how working from home also transforms the writer’s routine. [read full interview]

The Garden as Battlefield

Ruth Scurr, Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows

reviewed by Jemima Hubberstey

At a first glance, it might seem extraordinary to think of Napoleon, the great military commander and notorious emperor of France, through his gardens. Yet gardens are never neutral or even wholly ‘natural’ spaces, in fact reflecting the ideas and ambitions of the people who designed and commissioned them. As John Dixon Hunt argued in Greater Perfections (2002), ‘the garden has always been a complex and central human activity, arguably a matrix of man’s and woman’s ambitions,... [read more]

A Different Kind of Pleasure

Richard Smyth, The Woodcock

reviewed by Stuart Walton

The story of the showman who comes to town is as old as escapism, and just as double-edged. When the circus rolls in, a world of pure distraction materialises before the downtrodden masses, rapidly constructed in the open spaces and filling their habitual vacancy with reckless acts of daring and astonishing curiosities, like Sleary’s horse troupe energising the lousy stinking lives of Coketown’s labourers in Hard Times. The travelling show was never just about entertainment, though; it... [read more]

The Idea of the Hit

Agnès Gayraud, trans. Robin Mackay, D.C. Miller & Nina Power , Dialectic of Pop

reviewed by Dan Barrow

The first book from musician and philosopher Agnès Gayraud starts from what seems like a Quixotic and unproductive project: to develop a theory of pop music as an ‘aesthetic form’ beginning from the work of the philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno. His writings on the ‘light music’ of the 1930s are notorious for their unceasing assault on what even sceptical critics took to be harmless or edifying styles like hot jazz and swing. He’s thus become the great bogeyman of academic... [read more]

Burgundy Gelatin

Juan Emar, trans. Megan McDowell, Yesterday

reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

Do you remember what you did yesterday? At first there’s a blank, a slight panic. Then you let your mind relax. All is fog, but little by little, things start to come back. Not in order. A call with S in the afternoon, a flurry of WhatsApps with R. A quick lunch of rice and broad bean salad with fresh parsley and garlic. Some scattered reading in the morning — a few pages of a book, an article posted by an acquaintance — then in the evening, wine and a Simone Signoret flick, Ship... [read more]

Tough Titty

Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms

reviewed by Becky Zhang

Growing up, Bridget Grant, the narrator of My Phantoms, couldn’t wait to leave her clan — her indifferent older sister; cruel, conceited father; and eager but essentially performative mother—so she left Liverpool as soon as she finished school. Now a fortysomething academic living in London with her partner John, she hasn’t spoken to her father in years. She even skipped his funeral. She keeps visits to her mother pegged at once per year, on her mother’s birthday, while her sister... [read more]

Crooked Houses Hide Secrets

Nicholas Royle, London Gothic: Short Stories

reviewed by Lydia Bunt

There is a moment in Nicholas Royle’s story ‘L0nd0n’ where the narrator, an editor at a small publishing house, does his job rather sloppily, allowing three different spellings for one term: ‘ghost writer, ghost-writer and, finally, the correct term, ghostwriter.’ Funnily enough, the narrator never actually meets the author of this brilliant new novel, one nondescript Ian, in person. Does he exist at all? He appears, rather, the literal embodiment of that misspelt term, its repetition... [read more]

Can We Make It Better?

Hatty Nestor, Ethical Portraits: In Search of Representational Justice

reviewed by Brett Walsh

In her first book, Ethical Portraits, Hatty Nestor examines artworks, activist projects and individuals subverting forensics, to find a morally acceptable way of representing people in the US prison system, exposing how they are dehumanised by their exclusion from representation and self-expression. She pays careful attention to the mediums of portraiture because she is acutely aware that each attempt at representation is intimately linked to a real feeling person, who deserves respect.... [read more]

‘Something you want, and something you need’

Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser (eds.), A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill

reviewed by Ben Leubner

‘Poetry,’ said Frost, ‘provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.’ No wonder, then, that a young James Merrill took to it so avidly, seeking whatever permissible ways he could find to say things that could not otherwise be said in the mid-20th century, especially if it was guaranteed to upset one’s mother. When Merrill’s mother found out that her son, then a student at Amherst College, was having a romantic affair with one of his instructors, Kimon... [read more]

Shakespeare Country

Luke Kennard, Notes on the Sonnets

reviewed by Connor Harrison

Even if it does feel like a kind of middle-class aliens-built-the-pyramids project, I find it hard not to be fascinated by the Shakespeare authorship question. What I mean is, if I were to be offered one use of a prototype time machine — to go anywhere at anytime — I’d already be wearing my neck ruff and make-up. But when it comes to the work of Shakespeare, the need for certainty is a contradiction. Imagine, for a moment, that we knew everything there was to know about William... [read more]

An Enduring Solidarity

Naomi Ishiguro, Common Ground

reviewed by Leon Craig

Naomi Ishiguro’s assured, sensitive debut novel, Common Ground follows the intertwined lives of Stan and Charlie, who meet as teenagers on the common in Newford and reunite by chance as adults in London. Thirteen-year-old Stan is bookish, small for his age, and being bullied by bigger, posher boys at school. His father has recently died and he doesn’t feel he can talk to his busy, emotionally-distant mother about his troubles. In other words, he is desperately in need of a friend. The... [read more]