James Antoniou

The history of cinema began twice. All art forms are shaped by technological change, but the advent of the talkie in the late 1920s – only a few decades after the first silent films – did not so much develop the medium as kill it and replace it with something new. So abrupt was the change that the strange visual operas of cinema’s earliest years became imbued with a certain innocence, now almost impossible to replicate. To this day, silent film has an aura of mystery, a quality that cultural critic Peter Conrad addresses in his erudite new book.

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Few books blur the line between beauty and ugliness more than Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The novella follows the ageing writer Aschenbach, whose absurd over-refinement – born in part of repressed homosexuality – is dismantled by Tadzio, a beautiful boy he encounters on holiday in Venice. His obsession with Tadzio represents the displacement of mortality (Aschenbach will soon succumb to cholera) through a wilful surrender to decadence and decay.

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‘Experimental writing’ can sometimes seem like a wastebasket diagnosis for any text that defies categorisation. Even when used precisely, it begs certain questions. Isn’t all creative writing ‘experimental’ to some degree? Isn’t the trick to conceal the experimentation? And what relationship does it bear to the ‘avant-garde’? If avant-gardism implies a radical philosophy of art, where does ‘experimentalism’ fit today? Is it not part of the valorisation of novelty, of innovation for innovation’s sake, which has gripped the literary establishment in recent decades? (When books like Milkman [2018] and Ducks, Newburyport [2019] fall victim to the cosiest of literary prizes, where have the real radicals gone?)

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During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Germans occupied Yasnaya Polyana – the former estate of Leo Tolstoy – for just forty-five days and converted it into a field hospital. The episode features in the war reportage of Ève Curie (daughter of Marie), and sounds like tantalising, if challenging, source material for a novelist. There’s the brutal irony inherent in the home of a world-famous prophet of non-violence being occupied by, of all people, the Nazis. There’s the human loss and horror of the deadliest military operation in the deadliest war in history. And there’s audacity in invoking and responding to Tolstoy’s great epic of another – Napoleon’s – doomed invasion of Russia: War and Peace (1869).

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It is no great coincidence that many of the best nonsense writers – Edward Lear, Mervyn Peake, Stevie Smith, Dr Seuss, Edward Gorey – were also prolific painters or illustrators. Nonsense poetry often seems like the fertile meeting point of visual and verbal languages, the place where words are stretched to dizzying new limits, used as wild brushstrokes on a canvas of imagination. It is no small irony, as well, that Lear, who virtually invented the genre with poems like ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, ‘wanted above all not to be loved for his nonsense but to be taken seriously as “Mr Lear the artist”’. In Mr Lear, a formidable biography by Jenny Uglow, he has finally got his wish.

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Literature inspired by drugs tends to swing between extremes. On the one hand, drugs are the very doors of perception, gateways to Xanadu; on the other they are a source of grim addictions, lotus plants that tempt one into indefinite living sleep. In recent decades there have been the highs of William S. Burroughs, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Irvine Welsh, but rarer are those memoirists with experiences of addiction and philosophy who can reflect on the subject in the tradition of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). Well, cue Chris Fleming’s On Drugs.

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According to Angela Carter, who wrote perceptively on the subject, ‘the pleasantest, most evanescent kind of fame … is that during your own lifetime’. By the end of her life, Carter had cultivated her own celebrity: she was interviewed on television, adapted her own work for the BBC, and won several awards. Academia is often interested in celebrity when it is, ...