A.D. Nuttall

A.D. Nuttall’s many books include Dead From the Waist Down, a study of the idea of the scholar in relation to sexuality. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford.

This book opens with a resounding question: ‘Who are we?’ The many pages that follow, highly entertaining and richly informed as they are, never directly answer this question. Instead, they answer another question: ‘Who or what do we think we are?’ Perhaps the choice of the plural form – ‘Who are we?’ rather than ‘Who am I?’ –...

‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ William Blake wrote these words near the end of the 18th century and set going the idea that Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic justifying the ways of God to men, had a twofold force: an...

In the Teeth of the Gale

A.D. Nuttall, 16 November 1995

‘Traduttore traditore,’ the translator is a betrayer. In other words, every translation is an act of treachery against the loved original, a stab in the back. If this Italian proverb is right, the translation I have just offered of the proverb itself must be just one more betrayal. Indeed, the case against me is strong. The Italian phrase gets much of its force from the jingling assonance of the two words, but one finds swiftly that it is no good trying to reproduce this with the weaker assonances available in English: ‘translator traitor’ and the like. Yet by a bald rendering something is achieved: the point or burden of the proverb really can be set out in another language. One is tempted to draw a conclusion of premature simplicity: matter is translatable, manner not. Therefore, jokes, puns (apart from lucky accidents), allusive titles and, above all, poetry will translate less well than, say, motorists’ manuals, left luggage information and realistic novels. It has been said that the natural unit of the ‘transparent’ novel is the event, set in a sequence of other events, while the natural unit of the poem is the word, in association with other words. That is why Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are read all over the world while Pushkin, despite the efforts of John Fennell, Antony Wood. DM. Thomas and Vladimir Nabokov, remains primarily a writer for readers of Russian. The myriad imperfections of rendering in any translation of a novel do not seriously impede what looks like genuine literary enjoyment: we weep for Anna Karenina and tremble at Raskolnikov. Don Quixote found readers everywhere: centuries later Lorca remained trapped in the brilliant liberty of his native Spanish.

Art of Embarrassment

A.D. Nuttall, 18 August 1994

Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly ‘mellow’ piece first published in 1953 – a period when even undergraduates wrote as if they were middle-aged – to the magnificent ‘Wrying a Little’, on Cymbeline, Jacobean marriage law and female desire, are nourishing to the spirit. Livy, Machiavelli, Ford, Dekker, Heywood and Jonson all figure in the book, but the main recurring subject is Shakespeare. It is, moreover, good to see the publication of this book marked by an accompanying Festschrift – a volume of essays on comedy by friends and colleagues of Professor Barton, ranging from American luminaries like Jonas Barish and Stephen Orgel to newcomers like Richard Rowland (who contributes a thumpingly good piece on Heywood). Shakespeare is still the most challenging object in the literary canon, the most generous with meaning and, at the same time, the most apt to find out folly in those who would interpret him. Anne Barton is, so to speak, a good listener to Shakespeare. She is the beneficiary of his generosity and survives the challenges better than most of us. She survives – but not quite unscathed, perhaps.’

A Kind of Scandal

A.D. Nuttall, 19 August 1993

Ovid was Shakespeare’s favourite poet. The fact is central to his genius, crucial to the understanding of his work. Shakespeare himself remains visible to posterity; Ovid is now, through the decay of Classical learning, almost invisible. The Shakespeare industry roars on, but the number of people for whom Actaeon, Adonis, Arachne, Echo, Narcissus, Philomel and Tereus are mere un-meaning names grows greater with each successive year. For Shakespeare (and Keats and Eliot) such names are like windows opening on another world, which is like and unlike ours. Each name involves a story and story begets story in a living system of extraordinary richness. To forget all this is to experience absolute loss.

The Game of Death

A.D. Nuttall, 11 June 1992

Why do we enjoy tragedy? It may be thought that our best hope of answering this question lies in the psychology of Freud, who disclosed the dark side of the psyche. Behind this darkening of the mind, however, there lies another darkening, of our picture of the ancient sources European literature. Antiquity, formerly given over to the Ego, becomes the province of the Id. Roughly speaking, a sunlit, rational, enlightened world – peopled as it were by marble figures in a state of tranquil felicity (think of Winckelmann) – was replaced, retrospectively, by an opposite world: blood guilt and sacrifice, dream and vision, orgiastic music, unreason. One way of expressing this change is to say that the pretence of Augustianism was dropped: instead of assuming that antiquity was somehow full of 18th-century rationalists having either no religion or a religion etiolated and simplified to the point of minimal Deism, it was at last noticed that the ancient world pullulates with spirits and deities, is crammed with unreasonable, alarming powers. This, by the way, is simply true.

Return of the real

A.D. Nuttall, 23 April 1992

The idea has got around – among ‘advanced’ thinkers of various political persuasions – that realist epistemologies are a thing of the past, that truth values in criticism have now been discredited (or shown up as just a figment of bourgeois ideology); that history and politics are textual ( = fictive) phenomena on a par with poems, novels, or whatever other ‘kinds of writing’ you care to name; and that henceforth the only ‘discourse’ that counts is one that cheerfully acknowledges all this, along with such assumed faits accomplis as the ‘deconstruction’ of the humanist subject as a locus of ethical choices, conflicts and responsibilities.’

Point of Wonder

A.D. Nuttall, 5 December 1991

‘Greece, having been subjected, subjected her wild conqueror and introduced culture into boorish Rome.’ The poet Horace, himself a Roman, can take a stylish pleasure in describing the Roman conquest of Greece, even though – or rather because – it piquantly entails the intellectual and artistic near-humiliation of the conqueror. Rome is notorious for its brutality, but it was not so brutal that it could not see that, when confronted by the poetry and sculpture of Greece, it must fall to its knees. The paradox of a conquest of iron mirrored and almost eclipsed by a converse conquest of discourse is deliciously Greenblattian. But in Marvellous Possessions Stephen Greenblatt is dealing with the Spanish conquest of the New World. This time the conqueror’s assurance of superiority is brutally uniform: a superiority of arms, together with a superiority of spirit, consisting in the possession of the True faith, produce an inertly predictable result.’

True Words

A.D. Nuttall, 25 April 1991

‘The French call it pain, the Germans call it Brot and we call it bread; and we are right, because it is bread.’ So wrote (I have been told though I have not been able to verify the reference) an English theorist of language in the 17th century. The thought is at once robust and lunatic. The writer believes that there are true words and false. His is an extreme case of what Anne Barton calls cratylism.

Joke Book?

A.D. Nuttall, 23 November 1989

In the Cathedral at Christ Church in Oxford, between the recumbent knight with the false nose and the tomb of Saint Frideswide, who eluded her too amorous suitor by hiding among pigs, stands the funerary monument of Robert Burton. Already, it will be noticed, I am giving more information than is strictly necessary. My excuse must be that it is a habit I have caught from Burton himself. A schoolboy, asked to produce a review, is said to have written: ‘This book tells me more than I wish to know about this subject.’ The story is usually told as if it counted against the schoolboy; it can, however, without too much straining, be turned against The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Cave’s Plato

A.D. Nuttall, 7 July 1988

Since Plato, the major European philosophers, consistent upon almost nothing else, have been united in a sustained denunciation of rhetoric. Brian Vickers’s In Defence of Rhetoric is an attempt, copious, complex, armed at all points with telling examples, to meet and turn back this onslaught, which seems so confidently sure of its own rightness.

Really fantastic

A.D. Nuttall, 18 November 1982

If Christine Brooke-Rose had stayed in Oxford, instead of migrating to France, she might have been rather like Helen Gardner. Her new book is written with a crispness and a briskness which at once evokes a certain atmosphere: a highly intelligent unresponsiveness to theory, a fear of subjectivity (she even recalls, with obvious relish, her Oxford tutor’s phrase for mere criticism, ‘personal effusions’). But this manner is overlaid by a thick stratum of French theory and French taste. Professor Brooke-Rose knows all about and uses the writings of Barthes, Todorov, Genette and Hamon, and takes pleasure in applying chill taxonomies to racy American Science Fiction (Vonnegut, McElroy). The resulting mixture is heady stuff, but not very satisfying.


The Game of Death

11 June 1992

In reply to Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 25 June): 1. I did not say – and do not think – that the myths which provided the plots of Greek tragedy had lost all religious force. 2. I do indeed reject the view that the tragedies we possess were ritual re-enactments of the death of Dionysus. As E.R. Dodds used to say, the essence of ritual is repeatability. The Mass, variously performed in various...

Did Socrates say it?

5 December 1991

In my review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvellous Possessions (LRB, 5 December 1991) I asked (with a general air of ‘surely not’) whether Socrates ever said that philosophy began in wonder. Professor Greenblatt has since courteously explained to me that Socrates did say exactly this. The reference is Theaetetus, 156D.

A. D. Nuttall is probably the most philosophically-minded of modern literary critics, and he has the additional merit of assuming that at some level philosophical (or theological) problems are of...

Read More

Getting Even

Adam Phillips, 19 September 1996

We wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted. Tragedy in life, and as art, exposes by violation our mostly...

Read More

Making a start

Frank Kermode, 11 June 1992

A.D. Nuttall is among the most erudite contemporary academic literary critics, at ease with the Classics, much given to philosophy. He is also disconcertingly bold and curious, and his latest...

Read More

Talk about doing

Frank Kermode, 26 October 1989

Anyone presuming to review works of modern literary theory must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose. The great ones began it, and aspiring theorists...

Read More

Talking about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode, 28 September 1989

Barbara Everett’s book consists of her four Northcliffe Lectures, given at University College London in 1988, on Hamlet and the other ‘major’ tragedies, together with a number...

Read More


Barbara Everett, 17 October 1985

Even Swift, who liked to think he was half author of the Dunciad, had trouble with its allusions and wrote grumblingly to warn Pope that twenty miles from London ‘nobody understands hints,...

Read More

Transparent Criticism

Anne Barton, 21 June 1984

Erich Auerbach’s celebrated study of the representation of reality in Western literature, Mimesis, was published in German in 1946. Grounded on the analysis (mainly syntactic) of passages...

Read More

Dear God

Claude Rawson, 4 December 1980

‘Imagine – if you can – God reading this poem.’ So begins this brief, stylish book, citing Herbert’s ‘Dialogue’ (‘Sweetest Saviour, of my soul...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences