My new book: Scattered Limbs

Scattered Limbs is a collection of anecdotes, observations and opinions, which restores a mythological dimension to the most obvious and yet enigmatic of subjects, the human body. In contrast to the utopian fuzziness offered by the WHO’s definition of health— “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the…

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…