COLUMNS The Biographer as Detective

by Nina Ellis

I’m not the first person to think of the biographer as a sort of detective. Google turns up four articles with the same title as this column. In one, Walter Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel writes that ‘what had begun as an exercise in exposition became a detective story with the subject both my client and my quarry.’ In another, Henri Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling addresses the French lack of interest in biography: they ‘see it as grubby and Anglo-Saxon’, she says, like ‘being a private detective or a nosy parker.’ [read full column]

COLUMNS A Private Conspiracy

by Mersiha Bruncevic

The Surrealists claimed that automatic writing can unjam the jammed mind. If done correctly, it should release creativity from the constraints of reason and reveal how random coincidences are actually linked in a metaphysical way. The practice can serve as a cosmic connector of dots, it seems. This particular method is also part of a larger scheme, one that Breton calls the ‘private conspiracy’. The idea is that the artist is a prisoner and logic is the prison. According to Breton, an artist must always conspire to get out of that mental jail. Automatism is one way of breaking free. [read full column]

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]

COLUMNS Maimes at Groin

by Jack Solloway

Most authors enjoy wordplay, and the worse the better it seems. Writing mischief into French, English and every other language under the inevitable sun, Samuel Beckett (LES MEAT BUCKET) knew a thing or two about name games. His play Not I features — not an eye — but a mouth, suspended 8ft off the stage in total darkness. In Krapp’s Last Tape, as Beckett himself explained in a 1960 letter to Alan Schneider, he pits white against an anagram of ‘darke’ in ‘Bianca in Kedar Street’ and there’s plenty more of this interplay between light and shade strewn throughout (‘darke’ means dusky or dark-skinned in Hebrew). [read full column]

COLUMNS Tender Maps

by Mersiha Bruncevic

Anna Kavan was a pale, frail Englishwoman whose greatest pleasure in life was race car driving along the French Riviera, while high on heroin. She famously referred to her syringes as bazookas. After a failed marriage in Burma and a name-change, she took up with a group of race car drivers in the south of France in the 1930s. They treated the sport more like Russian roulette than a competitive sport. It was around this time that she picked up her lifelong drug habit. When Kavan was found dead at her house in Notting Hill, the police said that they found enough heroin there to ‘kill the whole street’. [read full column]

COLUMNS The Art of Everyday Life

by Nina Ellis

Everyday life is my new escapist fantasy. I recently started reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books, day-to-day epics which now feel like portals to delicious normality. They centre on tasks like cleaning up after a party or packing the car to go visit your sister: ‘He was back again, standing in the bedroom doorway, waiting with exaggerated patience for her to shut her suitcase,’ Howard writes of someone’s annoying husband. Her characters are immersed in the mundane actions that make up their lives — and after a year of not being allowed to throw proper parties or visit my sister, I’m loving being immersed in them too. [read full column]

COLUMNS Dusting My Bookshelves

by Jessica Sequeira

Dust has a dry sense of humour. It can clog up machines to stop them from working, blind oxen in a storm, muffle sounds. Or recall them for future use — scientists now say dust can store sounds as memory. Perhaps forever, perhaps as glow. Cosmic dust is what makes the beautiful light you see in pictures of the universe. Dust does has no prejudices. It just settles, moving toward inertia, getting into the gears of progress until events are finished, done and dusted, the dust settled. Even the gunpowder. [read full column]

COLUMNS The Other City

by John Phipps

If you have another city I can say this much about it: you’ve been there before, not as a tourist but as something closer to a visiting resident. When you went, you found its squares flooded with optimism, its people sunny and welcoming, its streets laid out in the form of a passionate promise. It’s somewhere you remember being irrecoverably happy, and where you are very slightly nervous to go again, in case while you were away it turned back into being just any other city. [read full column]

COLUMNS My Dead Soviet Boyfriend

by Ka Bradley

Chistyakov writes poetry and sketches the landscape. He gets ever so lyrical about the spring, but you would, wouldn’t you, if winter was so cold you’d watched prisoners playing poker using the frostbitten fingers they’d hacked off as gambling chips. He misses the cinema. The sound of a violin tears his heart to shreds. He’s abject with a melancholy that slides off into depression or bitterness on a daily basis. I cry when I see videos of scared animals; imagine what effect this diary had on me. [read full column]

COLUMNS Outside of Time

by Lamorna Ash

I hadn’t heard of Megan Boyle until one afternoon pulled out from amongst the mass of dragging days at the end of 2020, when I was sent the trailer for her book. And I, who had pre-emptively judged all book trailers to be the very worst sort of literary marketing tools, fell for it. It was a simple premise: a rapid-fire slideshow of the 2,257 photos Boyle took on her iPhone the year she was making Liveblog, with some oneiric, half-mournful, half-euphoric pop song playing over the top. It was so seductive to me, to glimpse a person’s life in this way, every pulsing instant they had considered worthy of documentation. I loved her instantly. I wanted to make a room for myself inside her head. [read full column]