By Their Epithets Shall Ye Know Them
In response to Paul Claudel’s dictum—‘fear of the adjective is the beginning of style’—a defence of adjectival extravagance, mobilizing Nabokov and Mann, Joseph Roth and Herta Müller, to showcase the literary power of the epithet, and its ability to alchemize the noun.
Mathematics and Modern Literature
If modernist literature has been fascinated by the possibilities of mathematical formalism, mathematicians have repaid the compliment in their use of that paramount avant-garde form: the manifesto. Here we publish extracts from Alice Bamford’s bravura treatment of experimentation at Bourbaki and Oulipo.
The Roads to Rome
Twenty years after ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, Franco Moretti reassesses the research methodologies of close and distant reading in literary studies. Interpretation and measurement, history and textuality, struggle and discovery—how practicable a synthesis of their approaches?
The Bond of Shame
Is shame for one’s country, not love of it, the truer mark of belonging? Lineaments of a political emotion, at the intersection of biology and history, from Nestor’s invocation on the battlefield of Troy to Primo Levi’s remembrance of the Red Army. How might we imagine the boundaries of a shame-based community?
The Ends of Criticism
In response to the recent debate between Francis Mulhern and Joseph North on the means and purposes of literary criticism, Lola Seaton examines the play of method and personal experience in Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City and its contemporary rebound in the ‘hauntology’ of K-Punk’s Mark Fisher.
Art and Revolution
Commissioned by Eric Hobsbawm for Einaudi’s Storia del marxismo, a synoptic survey of avant-garde movements in the era of 20th-century revolutions. Disputing the received view of a series of chaotic, short-lived experiments, John Willett traces the emergence of an internally coherent cultural renaissance, stretching from Moscow and Vitebsk to Mexico City.
One of China’s greatest modern writers, Eileen Chang reframed its traditional fictional forms to grapple with post-1919 realities: decline of the Qing aristocracy, price of female emancipation, devastation of the Sino-Japanese war. Jiwei Xiao asks how publication of her long-suppressed last novel alters understandings of Chang’s work.
In response to a bold reconstruction of Anglophone literary studies challenging the political self-understanding of the reigning historicism and looking to a new, interventionist departure on the left, some critical considerations on disciplinary history, the place of ‘knowledge’ in the fictional order, as well as the discourses that address it, and the precedent of Leavis and his followers.
Worlds and Letters
Peter Morgan on Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature. Local literatures and their bonding into greater unities; the cosmopolitan residues of great empires; vernaculars and national literatures. A framework for comparison from Sumeria to the globalized present.
Antonio Candido 1918–2017
Pioneer analyst of a Brazilian literary space, Candido surveyed Western cultural centres and their contending theories, not simply to measure up local experience, but to test them against it. Portrait of a gifted teacher and literary critic, subtle master of his country’s complex ex-colonial condition.
Against the Universal Library
A librarian reflects on her profession’s destructive and preservative urges, from microfilming of newspaper archives in the 1940s, via stress-testing experiments and de-acidification gassings to digitization and the coming of the ebook, as the library becomes a hollowed-out portal onto the private sector.
Fears of mass culture generating visions of rule not by fear, but by the narcotics of conformity and abolition of privacy, in the fiction of Huxley and Eggers—‘total sociability’ resistable only by figures of the doomed individual. The fading even of high culture as notional refuge in the passage beyond the Brave New World.
A Tory Tribune?
Francis Mulhern on Ferdinand Mount, English Voices: Lives, Landscapes, Laments. The literary and political sensibility of Britain’s most independent-minded Conservative thinker, aide to Margaret Thatcher, admirer of Virginia Woolf, and devotee of William Gladstone.
Mapping London’s Emotions
What light can be shed by quantitative analysis and digital text-mining on fictional cartographies of happiness and fear? Semantics of space and class in the nineteenth-century novel, polarized between normative landmarks of West End wealth and power, and the East End’s nameless warrens, a literary geography of the unknown.
By the Fireside
The solitary reader devours the novel, and the lives of its protagonists, as fire consumes the logs in a hearth; big business casts its shadow over a fading world: a life’s meaning is grasped by reflection on its end. In a hitherto untranslated 1933 review of Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, Benjamin reflects on the nature of storytelling and the novel.
On Re-reading Life and Fate
Against conventional comparisons with War and Peace, Fredric Jameson offers a path-breaking formal reading of Vassily Grossman’s great fiction of the Battle of Stalingrad. The war against Hitler as crucible for a new collectivity, in which freedom finds itself, or as grounds of social—and thus narrative—totality.
The Novel as Cryptogram
Prose of the world, or literary genre of an age of guilt? Claudio Magris reflects on the novel’s course, and its Mitteleuropa exceptions. Why did the Austrian Empire produce no significant examples in the nineteenth century, and masterpieces of the most advanced kind in the twentieth?
A Party of Latecomers
Over the past decade the American political-intellectual scene has undergone a significant change with the emergence of a lively nexus of journals, ideas and activities, constituting a new kind of cultural left. Francis Mulhern etches the portrait of the Brooklyn-based n+1, which has been both forerunner and intellectual flagship of this effervescence.
What can quantitative linguistic analysis reveal about global institutions? From Bretton Woods to the present, the language of World Bank reports has undergone telling modulations. Moretti and Pestre track the decline of concrete referents and active verbs, the triumph of acronyms over nation-states—and irresistible rise of ‘governance’.
Lukács’s Theory of the Novel
Centenary reflections on one of the landmarks of twentieth-century thought about literature. Lukács in tension between Novalis and Weber during the Great War, and the implications for literary enquiry today of a conjugation that could never historically be repeated.
How and when did ambition cease to be a moral fault in the European mind and acquire the trappings of ambiguous virtue it possesses in modern times? The ardent hero of Stendhal’s novel of Restoration France as cynosure of the change, and its implications for the social order.
Can ‘digital humanities’ recover from Thomas Kuhn’s before-the-fact critique—that no new ‘laws of nature’ will be discovered just by inspecting the numbers? Testing the limits of the approach, Moretti investigates whether data-crunching can falsify Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
China’s Multiple Revolutions
Beneath the dramatic social, political and military turmoil of China’s last two centuries, Mark Elvin suggests, lay a series of existential crises amid the collapse of established pillars of authority, whose most vivid expression can be found in two largely forgotten novels of the 1920s and 1970s.
Concepts of Nature
Landscapes of Ausonius, mountain retreats of Xie Tiao, mediaeval paradise-gardens: can underlying similarities of deep structure and social function be traced in the work of classical European and Chinese writers? A panoramic cross-cultural comparison of approaches to the natural world.
Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face
The interweaving of literary affinities and cross-cultural influences, occluded by postcolonialist discourse, that characterized a vanished cosmopolitan modernism. Amit Chaudhuri explores paradoxes of belonging and defamiliarization in Bloomsbury and Bombay.
World Literature Without a Hyphen
Literary studies with global ambitions are on the rise. But do they truly embrace the literatures of the world? Alexander Beecroft offers a typology of historically distinct kinds of writing that reaches further into the past and wider across human languages than any hitherto.
A screenplay from 1935, previously unpublished in English, by arguably the greatest Soviet writer. Amid far-reaching social transformation, notions of love, family and desire are also recast—with serious consequences for the simultaneously innocent and world-weary protagonists.
The Novel: History and Theory
Moretti’s 5-volume Il romanzo recast the field of the novel—historically deeper, geographically wider, morphologically broader. What are the implications for its theory? Prose, adventure and xiaoshuo as explanatory vectors; and prevalence of older power relations in the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic literary form.
1940 Survey of French Literature
Benjamin’s last, unpublished report on the literary situation in France. Critical reflections on the fiction, philosophy, memoirs and art criticism of the time—and on Paris, Surrealism and the logic of Hitlerism—moving constantly from the realm of letters to a world at war.
Roberto Schwarz discusses the cultural-political import of rival interpretations of Machado de Assis, within the critical space of world literature. Local versus international, specific versus universal, entangled within the ironies and dizzying narrative disjunctures of a Brazilian master.
Leaving the Garden
Cao Xueqin’s monumental 18th-century novel Honglou Meng—Dream of the Red Chamber—is an undisputed masterwork of world literature. Andrew Plaks on the resonant imagery and dense interweaving of literary and philosophical motifs in a paradoxical Bildungsroman of decline.
Against Historical Realism
Within the epic sweep of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hayden White argues, three genres are braided together: historical, novelistic and philosophical. If the former two—and the battles, loves and deaths they recount—continue the line of European realism, in the third Tolstoy presents history as a force beyond human control, in a bid to dismantle ideologies of progress.
Do increasingly dark ecological portents indicate a deeper transformation of nature itself? Sven Lütticken elaborates a historicized conception of nature, seeking precedents and contrasts in 19th- and 20th-century philosophies and fictions. Dinosaurs and overmen, Geist and entropic decline in Verne, Nietzsche, Schelling and Smithson.
East as a Career
Oriental orientalism? Amit Chaudhuri unravels assumptions in the charge, levelled at India’s anglophone writers, of exoticizing the Subcontinent for Western markets—and explores alternative strategies of estrangement that would disrupt conventional national narratives.
Conrad’s Inconceivable History
The fascination of Joseph Conrad’s novels with the transformative pressures of capitalist modernity threatens a revelation so intolerable, Mulhern suggests, that it can only be contained within dense narrative strategies of deferral and disavowal.
An Arabian Master
The remarkable life and literary career of Abd al-Rahman Munif, author of the Cities of Salt quintet. Sabry Hafez charts the emergence of Munif’s searing fictions. Evocations of desert traditions, foreign interference, the deformities of despotism and lessons of resistance.
A Brazilian Breakthrough
What made the greatest Brazilian novel of the nineteenth century, Machado de Assis’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a masterpiece of world literature? The strange fate of realism in an ex-colonial society, in which liberalism was a ruling ideology, modernity a universal ideal, and slavery still an everyday fact of life.
Evolution and Literary History
A landmark engagement with Franco Moretti’s triptych of essays, Graphs, Maps, Trees. What forms of logic underpin the use of evolutionary models to lay bare the survival strategies of the detective story, or trace the mutations of a border-hopping stylistic technique? And what political implications follow from basing an account of literary history on the outcome of the market?
Literature as a World
A manifesto for the accurate conjugation of the aesthetic and political, from the author of The World Republic of Letters. What is the nature of the global literary space in which writers must produce their work? The limits of analogies based on Braudel or Wallerstein, and fields as employed by Bourdieu. Hierarchy, inequality and strategies of reversal in ‘the long and merciless war of literature’.
Politics as Such?
In a wide-ranging debate, discussion of Francis Mulhern’s Metaculture has so far focused principally on its view of the substitutions of culture for politics in the tradition of Kulturkritik. David Simpson considers the other side of Mulhern’s argument, its critical assessment of Cultural Studies. Does a too Anglophone reading of its origins risk reproducing a resistance to the foreign in the discipline itself?
Political education in the dungeons of Barcelona, and the converging tracks of Filipino and Cuban revolutionaries as the 400-year-old Spanish empire enters its final throes. Benedict Anderson concludes his exploration of the late 19th-century world setting of José Rizal’s explosive anti-colonial novels.
In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel
After the literary revelations of ‘Nitroglycerine in the Pomegranate’ (NLR 27), a new political reading of José Rizal’s astonishing last novel. Imperial power, anarchist bombings and anti-colonial insurrection in the gifted young Filipino’s vision of a 19th-century global landscape.
On Variousness; and On Persuasion
The resources culture may appropriately furnish for a critique of society, not always unpolitical, defended against Francis Mulhern’s case in Metaculture and its sequels. Does criticism persuade by attraction of example, or by force of proposition?
Graphs, Maps, Trees - 2
After ‘Graphs’ (see NLR 24), maps: geography, or social geometry? Literary spaces plotted as competing fields for industrialization, peasant rebellion, state formation. The second of Moretti’s three essays conceptualizing patterns of genre and history, form and force.
Graphs, Maps, Trees - 1
The first of three essays setting out to demonstrate the power of abstract models to revolutionize our understanding of literary history. What do the quantitative curves of novel production tell us about the interplay of markets, politics, sexes, generations, in the life and death of literary forms?
What is Cultural Criticism?
Meanings of culture, the place of politics and role of intellectuals in the practice of criticism, as conceived since Arnold. Replying to Stefan Collini in NLR 18, Francis Mulhern asks how far the arts of a conversible portraiture bear on a critical agenda.
Replying to critics of his ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ (NLR 1), Franco Moretti considers the objections to a world-systems theory of the relations between centre and periphery in the sphere of the novel or poetry, and proposes some new hypotheses about the morphology of forms and the politics of comparative literary studies.
Teddy and Tommy: The Masks of Doctor Faustus
The one-sided love story of Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann and its comedy of errors, as the philosopher wooed, counselled and was misused or rebuffed by the novelist. What was Adorno’s exact role in the genesis of Doctor Faustus, while the two shared an Angeleno exile? Why did they never meet again after the war? Who was the real original of Adrian Leverkühn?