The Last Man: Gauguin in the Marquesas

Victor Segalen, author of the enigmatic novel René Leys, is now celebrated as a writer who wrote primarily about China, but he also played a significant part in the posthumous rise to fame of the artist Paul Gauguin, whose Tahitian works (including his underrated sculptures and prints) are currently on show in the exhibition Gauguin…

Overwhelmed by Aura

Atget’s Paris   Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was a pioneer of documentary photography, and is now famous for his street scenes of Paris, which provide an invaluable sense of the city in the years following the destruction of the Commune and what came to be known in retrospect as “la Belle Époque”. His work was discovered…

Getting the Eye in

  Kathleen Jamie’s Nature Writing     I used to be on very good terms with Kathleen Jamie around the time I was studying medicine at Glasgow and she was emerging as a talented poet: I still have a copy of her first volume Black Spiders (1982), published when she was barely twenty, with its…

My Old Dressing Gown

or A Warning to Those with more Taste than Money   This, one of Diderot’s most light-hearted pieces, was written as a note of thanks to Madame Geoffrin, a wealthy patron who had sent him a new dressing gown along with some pictures and ornate furniture in return for his help in the matter of…

The Dancer and the Body

More than a hundred years after its first publication in German, NYRB Editions has released the collection “Bright Magic: Stories”—edited and translated by Damien Searls and with an introduction by Günter Grass—which allows us to read Alfred Döblin’s early expressionistic work along with some later fables and “incomprehensible stories”. One of its entries “The Ballerina…

Praise for the Siesta

I’m no fan of the term “downtime” which reinterprets leisure as a kind of absenteeism from productivity (by analogy with outages in industrial systems and power networks), and only grudgingly concedes that “human capital” needs to “resource” itself. Many cultures across the world, not least those around the Mediterranean, long ago adapted to the human…

When doctors die

When Paul Kalanithi’s short (unfinished) memoir When Breath Becomes Air was released in early 2016, it went on to become, with some assiduous marketing, a non-fiction bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. The story it tells is a poignant one, of final acceptance of a fatal illness and marital reconciliation, while offering a very…

Music and metabolism

This tongue-in-cheek homage to the Indonesian composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur was written after I visited him in April 2009 in his home city of Surabaya, where he very kindly put me up for the night in his modest kampong house and showed me around the city. Born in 1935, Slamet owed his interest in music…

Safeguards and salvage

Updated version Adam Kirsch (born 1976) is an American poet and literary critic whose work is distinguished by its scope and ambition, its continuing appraisal of the modernist movement and its growing interest in religious writings (as opposed to literary ones): Kirsch’s intriguing daily readings of the Talmud can be found on the Tablet website….

Irony lady

Living under Mrs Thatcher Phyllida Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady won Meryl Streep the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Twenty-five years after she has was ousted as prime minister, Thatcher’s impact on British life continues to polarise opinion. She was leader of the Conservative Party but her policies were…

The White Cities

by Joseph Roth   I became a journalist one day out of despair when I realised none of the other professions could satisfy me. Not one of them. The generation that marked the beginning and end of puberty by scribbling verses wasn’t mine, and I didn’t belong either to the very latest, the generation that…

Bile with Style

In 2015, Suhrkamp Verlag published Werke in 22 Bänden, the definition edition of plays, novels and stories by the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, to commemorate his death twenty-five years previously. This review considers his life and work from the vantage of his novel Auslöchung, (1986), published in English translation as Extinction (1995). “How do…

Mad on Metrics

As the Indo-European languages tell us, medicine and religion have much in common, not least in offering a measure of salvation to the sinful. In her ambitious novel Corpus Delicti (English title: The Method), the socially committed German novelist Julie Zeh considers how much personal liberty we would be prepared to forego in a future…

Madder and indigofera

A professional visit to St Lucia, 2009 Our unexceptionally torpid meeting at the Ministry of Health on the Castries waterfront was enlivened by one of the beautiful local crested hummingbirds hovering in a blur of blue for a few moments outside the plate glass of our office on the fourth floor.               It brought to…

Being Nice to Nietzsche

In his vagabondage around western Europe in the decade of white-hot creativity that was granted him after he resigned his chair in philology at the University of Basle, three other cities were of particular importance to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: Nice, Genoa and Turin—all cities with an Alpine background. The last of them impressed…

Picking Olives in Apulia

Over the past two years the olive plantations in the province of Lecce and other parts of Apulia have been attacked by a proteobacterium never previously seen in Europe known as Xylella fastidiosa. Up to a million trees are thought to be affected, with withering of the growth shoots rapidly leading to tree collapse. The…

Where grass is greener

Nature Writing in 2014 1 Philip Hoare’s previous book Leviathan, or The Whale—which won the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction—was dominated by one big idea, as advertised in its title; The Sea Inside starts off as an exploration of the big idea’s medium, the vast connected body of salty water on our planet that…

Peristalsis and Epiphany

The artist “is like a pump”, Gustave Flaubert told Louise Colet in 1853, “sucking up what lies undisclosed in the deepest layers and squirting it out “in great jets to the sunlight.” If Nature is the supreme artist, no need to get involved in the effort and mechanics of deep topography: simply push Flaubert’s conceit…

A Doctor’s Dictionary

A copy of A Doctor’s Dictionary can be pre-ordered directly from my publisher Carcanet Press, or through Amazon. In this pithy abecedarium, doctor and poet Iain Bamforth takes a close look at the conflict of values embodied in what we call medicine – never entirely a science and no longer quite the art it used to be….

Pressed Pushkin

Review, The Queen of Spades and Selected Works Pushkin Press was founded in London in 1997, and has found a niche in a difficult market, publishing pocket-sized, beautifully produced Monotype editions of classic and contemporary literature, much of it in translation; only now does its list include a volume by the author it honours eponymously….

From Haruspicy to Detox: Lecture Puts Liver in Spotlight

Interview with Jody Becker – The Liver Meeting Today Sunday, November 9, 2014, p. 16 Science journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ recent book Anatomies (2013), supposedly an “eye-opening tour” through the secrets of the body, doesn’t even have a chapter-heading for the liver. For Iain Bamforth, MBChB, DLitt, this omission is notable, if not perplexing. He will address…

Empurpled

If every poet’s work has its chromatic wavelength, one that could be played on Rimbaud’s mystical organ for synaesthetic vowels, then Georg Trakl monopolizes the far end of the spectrum, lilac shading into violet into intense near-blackness…

Radical Kleist

A New Biography of Heinrich von Kleist Two hundred years ago, on a mild November day on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee near Potsdam, Heinrich von Kleist shot Henrietta Vogel, terminally ill (according to her doctor) with what was probably endometrial cancer, then himself. She was 31; he was 34. The local church book…