Marina Warner

Marina Warner's ‘unreliable memoir’ about her parents in Cairo in the years after World War Two, Inventory of a Life Mislaid, is out now.

I ain’t afeared: In Her Classroom

Marina Warner, 9 September 2021

In​ 1945, 21-year-old Beryl Answick graduated with a first class diploma from the teacher training college in Georgetown, capital of what was then British Guiana. Guyanese education at the time was rigid and the (tamarind) rod much in evidence: ‘Children … were expected to know certain facts, the relevance of which did not always matter,’ she remembered. Chafing at these...

Men are just boys: Boys’ Play

Marina Warner, 6 May 2021

Afewyears ago, while looking at some early examples of children’s books, I came across a richly coloured catechism listing dos and don’ts: good little children don’t pull the wings off butterflies, or tease their tabby cat, and – this was an expensive, finely printed volume from the early 19th century – a good boy doesn’t throw his footman out of the...

Name the days: Holy Spirits

Marina Warner, 4 February 2021

In​ the insistent and repetitive rhythm of lockdown, one month melts into another, but the monotony is shot through with dread that comes and goes with terrible intensity. The combination of plague-stricken suspension – the new Covidian temporality – and uncertainty about what’s still in store has made me wonder about old forms of timekeeping. Did they serve to make the...

Imps and Ogres

Marina Warner, 6 June 2019

In​ 1956, Lorenza Mazzetti, then a student at the Slade, made a film called Together, with her fellow artists Michael Andrews and Eduardo Paolozzi playing the main parts. She shot it in the bombed-out East End, which gaggles of children had made their territory; her camera catches the wild scrambling, dash and hurtle of scores of boys and girls playing together in the puddles and the...

In​ the early 1960s, David Hockney made a series of etchings inspired by the poems of Constantine Cavafy; he went to Egypt to discover the places Cavafy had drunk coffee and picked up lovers, but in the images it’s mainly Hockney’s own life and friends who figure. The etchings touch on rapture, and the frankness of their erotic pleasure at the sight and memory of boys in bed...

Flightiness: Airborne Females

Marina Warner, 30 August 2018

At​ the furthest edges of the known world, medieval travellers encountered creatures who held a single giant foot over their head as a makeshift parasol and fearsome hybrids with eyes peering out from their chests or set in the middle of their foreheads: they were classed as wonders, close kin to the monsters and dragons of classical genealogies. When Thomas Browne was considering the...

At Tate Liverpool: Surrealism in Egypt

Marina Warner, 8 March 2018

Art et Liberté​ was a movement that came into being in 1938 in Cairo. It was affiliated to Surrealism through contact with André Breton in Paris, and shared Surrealism’s spirit of rebellion and provocation, its desire for dream knowledge and penchant for manifestos. ‘Long live degenerate art’ was the title of its opening blast, printed in Arabic and French...

Diary: Literary Diplomacy

Marina Warner, 16 November 2017

Last December​, in Russia for the first time, I saw a small panel painting in the Hermitage showing The Vision of St Augustine: the saint, in full episcopal fig, is sitting on a riverbank near a child who is scooping up water with a spoon and pouring it into a hole in the sand. According to the story, which is usually set on a beach, the saint is asking the little boy what he thinks...

The dead are hard to think about – and, in many ways, to read about. Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity, but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible.

Anglo-Egyptian Attitudes

Marina Warner, 5 January 2017

The balconied​ rooftop apartment in Zamalek on the island of Gezira which my father rented when we arrived in Cairo in 1947 looked over the Nile to the east and Gezira Sporting Club to the west. I learned to count to ten by timing the sunset each night, the sand in the air making the sun a scumbled, smouldering ball, dropping fast and heavily, as if overcome by its own heat. My father had...

Those Brogues

Marina Warner, 6 October 2016

When​ my father, Esmond Warner, known as ‘Plum’ after his father the cricketer, came back at long last from the war, my mother was already in London. She had arrived a few months before from Bari, her home town in southern Italy, flying in on one of the first passenger flights to land in the newly demilitarised airport at Heathrow, and making her own way with her small...

Diary: Medea

Marina Warner, 3 December 2015

Collectors​ of dinosaur bones and ammonites, nautilus shells, sawfish teeth, narwhal tusks and other such wonders used to display them in elaborate tableaux or augment them with fancy settings of jewels and gilt; they imagined fabulous stories for them, too. Then, in the more empirical mood of Victorian archaeology, adornment was stripped away and bones were displayed as bones, fossils as...

At the V&A: Alexander McQueen

Marina Warner, 4 June 2015

At​ La Mécanique des dessous (‘The Mechanics of Undergarments: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette’), an unexpected exhibition about underwear in Paris two years ago (Jenny Diski wrote about it in the LRB of 10 October 2013), there was a room where you could try on bustles and lobster tails and panniers and waist cinchers and other cunning elements of the...

Learning My Lesson

Marina Warner, 19 March 2015

A university is a place where ideas are meant to be freely explored, where independence of thought and the Western ideals of democratic liberty are enshrined. Yet at the same time as we congratulate ourselves on our freedom of expression, we have a situation in which a lecturer cannot speak her mind, universities bring in the police to deal with campus protests, and graduate students cannot write publicly about what is happening. Gagging orders may not even be necessary.

When​ Marie-Antoinette couldn’t sleep, she would ring for a lady-in-waiting to come and read to her; a rota of lectrices was on call at Versailles at any time of day or night; before radio or talking books, this was one of the luxuries of the Ancien Régime. The queen could have lit her bedside candle and read to herself, but it wasn’t just a rich woman’s indolence...

Diary: Why I Quit

Marina Warner, 11 September 2014

What is happening at Essex reflects on the one hand the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business – one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars – and on the other reveals a particular, local interpretation of the national policy. The Senate and councils of a university like Essex, and most of the academics who are elected by colleagues to govern, have been caught unawares by their new masters, their methods and their assertion of power. Perhaps they/we are culpable of doziness.

One​ of Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en prose, ‘Le Joujou du pauvre’ (‘The poor child’s plaything’), opens with the remark that very few amusements are free of guilt, but he knows of an ‘innocent entertainment’: a flâneur out for a stroll can fill his pockets with fairings – a rider on a horse with a whistle for a tail, or a...

Story-Bearers: Abdelfattah Kilito

Marina Warner, 17 April 2014

‘I speak​ all languages but in Yiddish,’ Kafka remarks in his Diaries; and when it came to writing, he might have chosen any one of them, besides German. We now read him in all languages, receiving glimpses, like faraway signals at sea, of the original German, and beyond the German of the other languages that made up Kafka’s mindscape, with Yiddish beating out a bass...

Short Cuts: The Flood

Marina Warner, 6 March 2014

In the most ancient stories of the Flood the gods are annoyed by humans making a racket and keeping them up at all hours: these gods are unreconstructed adults who don’t hold with negotiating but relish inflicting punishment, while humans are lawless, partying teenagers. The poem Atrahasis, written down at some point between 1702 and 1682 BCE by ‘Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe’ (we know his name!) tells how Enlil starts his regime of terror against humanity by plugging the springs and bolting the earth and the air and the sea.

Wrong Kind of Noise: Silence is Best

Marina Warner, 19 December 2013

By a bizarre twist, G.K. Chesterton may be en route to sanctity: it was reported in August that the Bishop of Northampton has begun a suit for his canonisation. Diarmaid MacCulloch doesn’t invoke Chesterton’s miracle-working powers, but he opens this expanded version of his 2012 Gifford Lectures with a Father Brown story, ‘The Oracle of the Dog’: by howling at a...

At Camden Arts Centre: Kara Walker

Marina Warner, 5 December 2013

Silhouettes are polite, a parlour art, practised in gemütlich Vienna and Berlin among families who also formed quartets and played the piano; they were often made by the same accomplished daughter who would perform at home for a soirée. The art’s antecedents are Asian: an Egyptian shadow puppet, dating back millennia, featured recently in the British Museum exhibition about...

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 in a substantial house in Greenwich, the middle daughter of her speculator father’s second marriage. She was red-haired and liked sweets; her pet name at home was Weet Weet. At the age of 19 she won a scholarship to Royal Holloway, where she could read for the Oxford degree in English. But during her second year her father died and, in a Dickensian twist, he left the family skint; Davison’s mother took her children north and opened a shop. Davison became a governess and worked on her books at night.

At the V&A: ‘Hollywood Costume’

Marina Warner, 20 December 2012

Dressmakers’ dummies are favourites with photographers of haunting; Eugène Atget, who rarely shows the inhabitants of a Parisian street or room, dwells on the smiling mannequins in shop windows, wearing aprons and housemaids’ caps, or on an effigy of madame in a string of pearls and a tilted trilby. Fixed expressions and rigid bodies give the images an uncanny aura –...

Everybody’s Joan

Marina Warner, 6 December 2012

In 1954, I was a pupil at Les Dames de Marie, a French-speaking convent school in an expansive and pastoral suburb of Brussels. Every morning, as we crocodile-filed into our classrooms, we sang patriotic hymns. One of these, the ‘Marche Lorraine’, has a rousing chorus; in rapid ascending arpeggios as in a trumpet voluntary, we blasted out a paean to ‘the young shepherdess in...

As a child, I searched out lives of great women. Some of my heroines appeared on the back page of the comic I read then, called Girl: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie mingled with Albert Schweitzer and Davy Crockett; their stirring words were blazoned in balloons, against backdrops of crenellated castles, jungles, battlefields. In the pages of the...

In Hell: Wat Phai Rong Wua

Marina Warner, 13 September 2012

In 1975 Benedict Anderson first visited the extensive monastery of Wat Phai Rong Wua, one of dozens in central Thailand; he returned in the 1990s and again a few years ago. Any wat is an imagined community, and this one, a Buddhist Disneyland, presents a special case for Anderson, whose curious book, The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand, enlivened with startlingly...

Once a Catholic…: Damien Hirst

Marina Warner, 5 July 2012

In 1991 the art critic Louisa Buck rang me up – she was my sister-in-law and in those days we didn’t text – and said I really should go along to Bond Street and see the butterflies hatching in some disused premises that the artist Damien Hirst had rented. ‘It’s a truly beautiful installation,’ she enthused. She described it: the dishes of melting nectar, the chrysalises stuck to the walls, and the startling epiphanies as the creatures unfurled, fluttered – tropical, iridescent, huge, ineffable. I didn’t get there in the end, but not because I didn’t want to.

The Labile Self: Dressing Up

Marina Warner, 5 January 2012

A 17th-century comic print known as The Cure of Folly shows a surgery-cum-alchemical cabinet in which a doctor is treating patients: one is being administered mind-altering drugs; another is being fired and recast in a furnace. This one, a ‘gallant’ in a most elegant get-up, with little pointy moustaches, a lace ruff with multiple layers, soft boots with spurs, and a silk tunic...

At the Hayward: Tracey Emin

Marina Warner, 25 August 2011

Quilts used to be made from baskets of scraps; old clothes were cut up, the worn and stained bits discarded, the best parts kept for reuse. Every household where a woman lived had such a container – a midden of memories – and when the scraps had become a patchwork quilt, spotting this old dress or that old pair of curtains or that old cushion was part of the pleasure of the bed, a...

In the Time of Not Yet: Going East

Marina Warner, 16 December 2010

Edward Said first met Daniel Barenboim by chance, at the reception desk of the Hyde Park Hotel in June 1993; Said mentioned he had tickets for a concert Barenboim was playing that week. They began to talk. Six years later, in Weimar, they dreamed up the idea of a summer school in which young musicians from the Arab world and from Israel could play together. They hoped, Said remembered in Parallels and Paradoxes, that it ‘might be an alternative way of making peace’.

Did she go willingly? Helen of Troy

Marina Warner, 7 October 2010

The way the Greek myths have been told has disguised the joins and touched up the weirdness. Writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne in Tanglewood Tales and Charles Kingsley in The Heroes, who enthralled me when I was a child devouring the stories under the bedclothes by torchlight, patched and pieced the myths into the coherent plots that we are familiar with. Writers continue to work a ragbag of scraps into whole cloth, disentangling the threads and recomposing the patterns. Very few readers today go back to the sources, to handbooks like Apollodorus’ The Library, or to the work of Quintus of Smyrna, who in the fourth century wrote a sequel to the Iliad in 14 books.

A View of a View: Melchior Lorck

Marina Warner, 27 May 2010

Melchior Lorck went to Turkey in 1555 at the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s power, when the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to the west, Mecca to the south, Baghdad to the east and the River Don to the north, adjoining – and often aggressing – the Habsburgs’ own colossal empire. Suleiman had besieged Vienna twice and, though he had retreated, the threat...

Witchiness: Baba Yaga

Marina Warner, 27 August 2009

Baba Yaga is the true Witch of the North, the supreme scare figure of the Russian nursery, a monstrous old hag who haunts children and eats them. She doesn't exactly appear in character here, but she hovers off stage, and directs the action. Old women are Ugrešić’s heroines and old womanhood her theme.

Ventriloquism: Dear Old Khayyám

Marina Warner, 9 April 2009

A glass-fronted Regency bookcase in a corner of the London Library opposite the lift holds a collection of rare and beautiful editions of Edward FitzGerald’s poem, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Since its first publication in 1859, it has appeared in every size and shape, giant and toy, on vellum and silk, in fabulous bindings stamped with peacocks’ tails and nightingales’ eyes.

Travelling Text: ‘The Arabian Nights’

Marina Warner, 18 December 2008

Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers’ imaginations as soon as translations first appeared – in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through salons and coffee-houses, the offices of broadsheet publishers and theatrical impresarios; the book fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, Oriental tales,...

Doubly Damned: literary riddles

Marina Warner, 8 February 2007

Oedipus the riddle-breaker finds himself caught in a riddle; the coils of the enigma ‘What am I?’ tighten around him until he comes to the horrific knowledge that he is himself insoluble: husband of his mother, brother of his daughters. The question of his true identity is related to the Sphinx’s original riddle – ‘What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet...

Pick the small ones: Girls Are Rubbish

Marina Warner, 17 February 2005

Dryden and D’Avenant’s debonair travesty of The Tempest pairs the innocent heroine, Dorinda, with Hippolito, a male juvenile lead of equal springtime guilelessness. While Miranda knows only Prospero and Caliban, and barely remembers her mother, neither Dorinda nor Hippolito has ever seen any other member of the opposite sex. Hippolito finds that Prospero left behind a single book,...

Into Thin Air: Science at the Séances

Marina Warner, 3 October 2002

The medium in trance, herself ghosting the presence of another, is haunted by the oracles of ancient Greece, and by the shamans and behiques of Africa and the Caribbean, whose magical powers over souls had been noted in the earliest ethnography to come out of these regions.

The heavy in shirtsleeves on the door of the disused Strand tube station was working the phone to a reluctant client who had rented the premises for a rave that didn’t happen and now didn’t want to pay. The man’s job title was something like Manager of Decommissioned Underground Material and I had gone to see him with Michael Morris, one of the directors of Artangel, a company that puts on art events in different media in unusual places. He was trying to get permission to use the runnels and platforms for The Vertical Line, a performance piece devised by John Berger.

From The Blog
5 August 2019

The Bocas Literary Festival in Port of Spain draws its distinctive character from the way poetry, storytelling, satire, performance, recitation and masquerade are bound up together in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and in the lives of the vast diaspora of Caribbean people. The festival is inclusive: even descendants of former colonials, like me, are invited (my grandfather, the cricketer Plum Warner, was born in Trinidad, and I still have cousins there, called Cadiz).

From The Blog
5 February 2019

Working with porcelain, the artist Rachel Kneebone makes whiteness reverberate to the depths. Shining, delicate and visceral, transcendent and perturbing, her work looks back to origins and forward to ends. 

From The Blog
16 January 2017

‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.

From The Blog
30 August 2013

The Museum of Islamic art is closed on Tuesdays, the taxi driver tells us. En route to the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Jacqueline Rose and I, soon to be joined by Andrew O’Hagan, have stopped for the night in Doha for this collection, to see the medieval lamps, the carpets, the emeralds, the Kaaba curtains, the manuscripts of the Quran, the maps of the world – maybe the map of Qatar when it was a pearl fishing port and an infamous haven for pirates. After all my browsing on the museum’s site, how could I have missed the opening times? We resolve to find a way: personnel must be on duty even during closing hours. Guards present. Temperature controls purring. Lighting on to protect against stealthy intruders. We email and text anyone who might have an entrée. I am a little embarrassed.

From The Blog
26 June 2013

The Wilding Festival, organised by mostly young artists, teachers and activists, took place earlier this month in St George’s Bloombury, the Hawksmoor church which is crowned by a ziggurat and backs on to Little Russell Street, opposite the offices of the LRB. Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral took place there a hundred years ago, the magazine was collaborating with the festival, and I was asked to give a talk about female heroism.

Anatomical cabinets, displaying bodies bottled whole or in segments, are gripping artists’ and writers’ imaginations: the Enlightenment’s relish for physical data banks excites awe, fascination and horror in inverse relation to the disembodiment and intangibility of knowledge in the contemporary computerised classroom. A pigmy woman, who died in childbirth in London, where she had been brought to be exhibited, is preserved, in a complete half-section, in the Hunterian Museum. She inspired one of the last, unfinished works of the artist Helen Chadwick, who wanted to restore the unnamed pigmy to history, memory and human status as a person – to personhood, in short. University museums and hospital teaching departments are richly stocked with such specimens: a whole black man in a glass box in Chicago; quintuplet foetuses floating upwards, open-mouthed, like Donatello choristers, on a shelf in the Hunterian. Zarina Bhimji, another artist who, like Chadwick, expresses her challenge to common, unexamined responses through photography, has made a highly enigmatic, disturbing image of a black woman’s breast, disfigured by a hideous slash. This exhibit comes from the forensic archive of a London hospital, where it is used to illustrate the effects of stabbing for the benefit of medical students: but the injury is itself framed by the jagged partition where the breast was severed from the anonymous victim – the scalpel repeating the pincers that appear, for example, in paintings of St Agatha’s martyrdom.’

A young priest called Walchelin, returning home one clear night in Normandy around a thousand years ago, heard a great clash and din of an army approaching; he assumed it was the soldiers who followed a local warlord, and hid himself in fear behind some medlar trees. But what he saw, instead, was a ghostly troop: first the lay folk, on foot, weighed down by terrible burdens; then the clergy, bishops as well as monks, all black-cowled and weeping; another black-robed, fiery army of knights then rode by, on black chargers. All these numbers of the dead were suffering horrible tortures, the women especially, for they were riding saddles of burning nails, and were being lifted in the air by invisible forces and dropped down again onto the points. Walchelin recognised the procession: it was the familia Herlequini, or Hellequin’s rabble, the grim and unquiet crowd mustered by the lord of the dead, about which he had heard many stories.

‘Snatched,’ said the Sun’s headline about the baby stolen three hours after her birth. This is the old word for what the feared raiders of the nursery, the child stealers, the cradle-snatchers, get up to. The Egyptians devised a special god of the lying-in room, the grotesque Bes, to protect women and babies. Bes was squat and ugly and poked out his tongue and his penis to repel intruders: he was a true scarecrow, and he saw off women who were childless, his myth implies, and filled with envy of the fortune that a new life brings. Lilith is the exemplary cradle-snatcher in Judaic legends; she was spurned by Adam when she refused to lie down underneath him to make love and was supplanted by the fertile Eve. Barren and spiteful, Lilith preyed on children; amulets, posies, charms and lullabies warded off her malign spells. The coral branch often worn by the child Jesus in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child is a survival of this pre-Christian Middle Eastern apotropaic magic. The mother in the judgment of Solomon, who steals another’s baby and claims it as her own, presented a threat whose recurrence in history has been neglected.‘

Its Own Dark Styx

Marina Warner, 20 March 1997

‘Memory says: Want to do right? Don’t count on me.’ So writes Adrienne Rich in a poem from An Atlas of a Difficult World, opening an unpunctuated sequence of horrors: lynchings, pogroms, Auschwitz, Berlin, Palestine, Israel:

Noonday Devils

Marina Warner, 6 June 1996

The French historian Arlette Farge has described coming across a letter, written on linen in a fine strong hand, in which a prisoner, long incarcerated in the Bastille, writes to his wife, affectionately, imploringly; he adds a message, to the laundry woman who will find it among his washing, asking her to embroider a blue cross on one of his socks to tell him she has managed to pass it on. But the document’s continued melancholy presence in the Bastille archive attests to the failure of his ruse.

You must not ask

Marina Warner, 4 January 1996

Bachelor uncles can be popinjays who wear moustache trainers in bed in order to cut a dash the next day, as in Fellini’s Amarcord; or they might take the children aside at Christmas and show them how to trumpet a tune in farts, as in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In stories like that of Freud’s ‘Katharina’, they interfere with little girls, though for many reasons Freud substituted Katharina’s uncle for her father. Perhaps an uncle seemed a more plausible or even acceptable perpetrator. But the kind of bachelor uncle formed in England over the decades by the university ruling that dons should not be married offers a study in psychological and national identity that has no counterpart abroad. He lingered on – still does – though the rambling houses of North Oxford built to accommodate the new families of married fellows stand as monuments to the social changes that inaugurated his decline. His love objects were not usually girls, though John Betjeman, sighing over thighs, caught the authentic tone of enraptured and impotent yearning.’

Harmoniously Arranged Livers

Marina Warner, 8 June 1995

When a djinn appears in one of A.S. Byatt’s fairy tales and grants the fifty-ish academic heroine any wish her heart desires, she asks for her body ‘as it was the last time she really liked it’. And lo, she finds herself once more housed in the ‘serviceable and agreeable’ form she possessed some fifteen years earlier, bearing some marks of experience (an appendix scar), but otherwise compact, neat, strong. She feels wonderful. ‘I can go in the streets, she said to herself, and still be recognisably who I am … only I shall feel better, I shall like myself more.’ She proceeds to great adventures of an earthly variety with the djinn himself.…

Diary: Gone Bananas

Marina Warner, 25 May 1995

The frond of the banana has straight seams, as a good pair of nylons used to have, so it’s easy to tear along them and make squares of bright luminous green, nature’s own shot silk. Which is what Adam and Eve probably did when they made shift with ‘aprons’ to hide their shame from God in the garden. In some countries where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken – which means parts of the Caribbean as well as Latin America – the word for fig is used of the banana, so this may be another example of those inspired clerical slips which result in widespread conventions. That the figleaf is hard to fix to the body every child confronted with a Renaissance statue has noticed. Banana leaves, on the other hand, can be draped and threaded – like cloth.’


Marina Warner, 6 April 1995

This small book contains multitudes. It fits to the hand like one of those knobbed hoops that do concise duty for the rosary, each knob giving the mind pause to open up to vistas of meditation on mysteries and passions; in the compass of a scant 135 pages it provokes, inspires and illuminates more profoundly than many a bulky volume, and confronts the great subjects – death, illness, reason and unreason, family strife and family bonds, friendship and betrayal, today’s political abdication and philosophical cowardice, the limits of feminism, of happiness – and it delivers what its title promises, a new allegory about love.’

Magic Zones

Marina Warner, 8 December 1994

When Pasolini, disgusted with the fatted values of post-war capitalism in Italy, was dreaming up an alternative in his late Trilogy, he found the imagery he needed in old collections of stories, and made The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron and The Arabian Nights. By turning from the uncanny, contemporary metaphysics of a film like Theorem, he was making common cause with the vulgar imagination and placing his hope in its vigour, in what he perceived to be its unabashed appetites and its laughter. The Arabian Nights, which sadly seems to have survived in this country only in a mutilated and dubbed print, is a period piece of Seventies hedonism. It opens with a jostling crowd in a souk in the Yemen and the auction of a slave girl; there follows much nudity, much touching and grinning in various combinations of partners, and under the aching desert moon, much passionate flesh. Some of the film is set in the jalousied interiors of Moorish bedrooms, or in desert cities such as Sana’a, with its towers of baked mud decorated with white scrolls and borders like piped icing. But on the whole, the freedoms of the flesh Pasolini dreams up take place in the open air, free of clothes or inhibitions – free of stone.’

What the children saw

Marina Warner, 7 April 1994

The Ave Maria society, based in London, recently issued a book the size of a telephone directory called Supernatural Visions of the Madonna 1981-91. The desktop publication was heralded by large ads in various papers featuring the visionary. Sister Marie or Sofia Marie Gabriel: her revelations and secrets could save mankind. In the book, the author includes a poem, called ‘Child Mystic Child of Destiny’:

The Virtue of Incest

Marina Warner, 7 October 1993

The romance of Apollonius of Tyre opens with the classic fairy-tale couple: the king and his daughter. Antiochus is powerful, she is beautiful, and of marriageable age – there is no mother. The difference is that, in this variation, she will not leave home to marry a prince, for her father Antiochus ‘began to love her in a way unsuitable for a father … Since he could not endure the wound in his breast, one day … he rushed into his daughter’s room and ordered the servants to withdraw … Spurred on by the frenzy of his lust, he took his daughter’s virginity by force, in spite of her lengthy resistance.’’…

Watch your tongue

Marina Warner, 20 August 1992

If SS Jerome or Ambrose or Augustine or any of the grim Fathers had been watching television in spring this year, they wouldn’t have had much trouble seeing Marlene Dietrich for what she was. Those lids, those lips, that pillowy mink, those sidelong glances, those shimmering legs and – above all – that voice, would have rendered her lightly accented modern English as plain as the Latin of the Mass to the patriarchs and their friends and forerunners in the penitential Thebaid. The world, the flesh and the devil embodied in a woman, and speaking in a woman’s voice: the siren incarnate against whom you have to plug your ears or else, like Adam, you will feel the plunge as you fall. It is odd how wholeheartedly women have given themselves to playing this part – to believing it, too. Or perhaps it’s not all that odd: the femme fatale offers more opportunities than several of the other sacrificial parts in the repertoire. But it is remarkable how the constituent elements of the contemporary fatal woman, the stories that underpin her charms, as well as the ornaments she assumes, match the fulminations of two thousand years ago against the counterfeit of women’s fascination and the seductions of their tongues.’

That which is spoken

Marina Warner, 8 November 1990

The poor man’s wife flourishes, the Sultana gets thinner and scrappier by the minute. So the Sultan sends for the poor man and demands the secret of his wife’s happiness. ‘Very simple,’ he replies. ‘I feed her meat of the tongue.’ The Sultan buys ox tongues and larks’ tongues; still his wife withers away. He makes her change places with the poor man’s wife and she immediately starts thriving, while her replacement soon becomes as lean and miserable as the former queen. For the tongue meats that the poor man feeds his wives aren’t material, of course. They’re stories, jokes, songs; in this fable from Kenya, this is what makes women thrive.

Baby Power

Marina Warner, 6 July 1989

In 1894, the same year that the Children’s Charter extended new legal protection to the young, the English painter Thomas Gotch portrayed his young daughter in majesty like a Madonna by Duccio, with a huge nimbus around her head, and called the image The Child Enthroned. Concurrently, the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler celebrated the birth of his son with an equally awed work, The Chosen One, in which the newborn and naked baby lies on the ground like a Christ Child in a Nativity painting, with a watch of winged spirits hovering a foot off the ground around him. In both images, mothers are altogether absent, and fathers are present only by implication, as votaries before the icon they are creating. The child is isolated in glory, a being in human form but quasi-divine, not quite contiguous with the adult world. As Robert Rosenblum observes in his stimulating and characteristically original essay, The Romantic Child, Hodler’s celebration – like Gotch’s – lacks some of the raw and peculiar passion of the early Romantics. The children are still represented as preternaturally different, still cast as creatures possessed with a virtuality that their progenitors can never match, but sentimentality has blurred the unsettling adoration of the primitive found in the art of the German visionaries Philip Otto Runge and Karl Friedrich Schinkel.’

Villa Lampedusa

Marina Warner, 5 January 1989

In The Leopard, the prince embraces Angelica at the moment of her engagement to his nephew Tancredi, ‘and he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now … had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.’ Though the prince’s personal powers are never in question in the novel, his creator is mindful, at the moment of that embrace, of his hero as the representative of family and its ancient rights of possession. Lampedusa was not stirred by people as much as by things, by what Sicilian peasants in the stories of his compatriots, Verga and Pirandello, called la roba, a word encompassing everything a man was worth, from the land itself to the least stick and stone on it. For Lampedusa, the monkeys on a painted wall, the sachet of sweet-smelling bran releasing its fragrance into the bath, a set of English razors, or ‘the stony hills and fields of mown corn, yellow as the manes of lions’ were indeed good. From such material detail, rather than any incidents of moment, from the conflict between dispossession and prestige, rather than new loves or old, the character of The Leopard’s originator emerges in David Gilmour’s entertaining and astute biography. There is at times, but only at times, an excess of reserve – caught from his subject’s own fastidiousness?’


The Elegant Dr Pozzi

23 February 2020

Luc Sante wonders if the red coat that the elegant Dr Pozzi is modelling in Sargent’s painting is perhaps a dressing-gown rather than a coat (LRB, 5 March). I’d like to suggest instead that the painting may be reprising the magnificent robe worn by Cardinal Richelieu in the portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, which still hangs in the Louvre. The draped curtain behind the cardinal, the...

Imps and Ogres

6 June 2019

Lawrence Dunn writes about the distinctions between Pygmies, San and Khoi (Letters, 20 June). I first came across the terms ‘San’ and ‘Khoi’ in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, where some of these peoples’ art, the most ancient art in the world, is displayed (as resin casts, since the images are mostly drawn or carved on rock). My interest was especially caught...
Tim Marr rightly fine-tunes my account of the massacre of the Ephraimites in the Bible, emphasising that differences in pronunciation of the word for ‘river’ (shibboleth) were used to separate Them from Us (Letters, 22 November). He also refers to the more recent episode when Haitians in Dominica in 1937 were ordered to say ‘parsley’, perejil, and those who couldn’t roll...
Instances of ‘medicinal cannibalism’, described by John Shipley, would seem a survival of a religious cult (Letters, 5 October). There is even a word, ‘myrrhoblyte’, for a saint whose body exudes oil long after burial (I owe this piece of information to the late Dom Sylvester Houédard, aka dsh, concrete poet, lexicographer and ecumenical campaigner, whose knowledge of...
Peter Fernandes is right to remind us of Hergé’s Belgian colonialist attitudes (Letters, 2 February). However Tintin is a reporter not an empire official – though I admit I was probably over-wishful in distinguishing the press from the governing powers. He wears a kind of golfing outfit – plus fours and light colours, jersey, and maybe brogues – and together with his...

No Broguing

6 October 2016

The shoes in question may lack defining holes, but I’m a bit punctured by Baer Pettit’s good-natured relabelling of my mother’s pair (Letters, 20 October). And yet ‘broguing’, as a term for the pricked patterns in leather, appears in Wikipedia but isn’t known (as far as I can see) in the OED or any other dictionary; it sounds like a neologistic back formation, picking...
Amia Srinivasan writes about the Rhodes Must Fall campaigns in Cape Town and Oxford (LRB, 31 March). The artist William Kentridge has thought a lot about South Africa’s past and the people who made it, and has evolved methods of drawing – smudging and overscribbling and erasing – which retain the memory of what went before while at the same time rubbing it out, literally. Transmuting...

Our Joan

6 December 2012

Andrew McCullough, in his response to my piece about Joan of Arc, ends by saying, ‘If the right want her they can surely have her’; R.W. Johnson seems to be tarring her with the same brush, recalling a dim heroine of colonial propaganda from the French war in Indochina (Letters, 20 December 2012 and Letters, 3 January). Both show startling complacency about mythical and political symbols...

In Hell

13 September 2012

I never imagined I’d be swapping observations of genitalia with Benedict Anderson, but I am puzzled when he writes that the privates of the praeds are ‘the only body parts which are never mutilated or disfigured’ (Letters, 27 September). On p. 72 of The Fate of Rural Hell, an 18th-century painting showing a torture victim, with his elephantiasis-afflicted penis loaded over his shoulder,...
John Gale rightly points out that the word temenos, a word frequently used for a shrine or sacred precinct, depends on an underlying metaphor of cutting and demarcating, from the Greek verb temno, used literally for slicing and hewing and wounding, and metaphorically for a ship cutting the waves or a plough furrowing a field (Letters, 2 August). The difficulty that imagining or describing time presents...

There after all

25 August 2011

For many years I attended the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, in the same building where Tracey Emin had the operation she describes in her film How It Feels. It was a brand-new extension when my consultant first moved there, and the small building was a bubble of 1960s utopian style, strikingly pop in its bright lime-green plastic and curved perspex. One of the reasons I mentioned its disappearance...
Martin Harris (Letters, 22 February) scolds me for praising Eleanor Cook’s commentary on James Merrill’s riddle-poem ‘b o d y’ without realising that Laura Quinney had discussed it in similar terms in an earlier issue (LRB, 8 February). It’s not unlikely that I read Quinney’s review of James Merrill’s Collected Poems: Merrill used an Ouija board – and...


6 April 1995

I regret that in my review of Love’s Work (LRB, 6 April) I gave the wrong surname for Gillian Rose’s sister Diana; I should have written Diana Stone.

Down with incest

7 October 1993

When I wrote that incest occurs ‘often tragically’, I was using my words carefully, contrary to Michael Cotsell’s opinion (Letters, 4 November). There have been survivors of child abuse, and for the sake of the victims themselves, it seems to me important to remember that it is possible to survive, to keep in mind that their story isn’t ineluctably destined to end in tragedy....

There can be no new reader, and therefore perhaps no wholly new reading of the collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights. Not because they have been exhausted by retelling and...

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A memorable image in Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities likens the impact of a certain character to that of a powdery avalanche. The effect of reading Marina Warner’s magisterial...

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Some Evil Thing

James Davidson, 18 February 1999

Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock is an impossible book. It circles around monsters and the frightening of children, but it also has chapters on the...

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Once upon a Real Time

Wendy Doniger, 23 March 1995

If women are the ones who tell fairy tales, why do fairy tales paint such ugly pictures of women? Or, as Marina Warner puts it, ‘If and when women are narrating, why are the female...

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Fear of Rabid Dogs

Margaret Anne Doody, 18 August 1994

In his last days, the exiled and ageing Aristotle wrote to a friend: ‘The lonelier and the more isolated I am, the more I have come to love myths.’ We may puzzle over what Aristotle...

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Sea Changes

Patrick Parrinder, 27 February 1992

The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock,...

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Making and Breaking

Rosalind Mitchison, 21 December 1989

Nobody could call Frank Honigsbaum’s book ‘user friendly’. Some reasons for its indigestibility are inherent in the topic: the moves, some effective, most frustrated, by civil...

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Let’s get the hell out of here

Patrick Parrinder, 29 September 1988

Here, in these three novels, are three representations of the state of the art. In The Satanic Verses the narrator, who may or may not be the Devil, confides that ‘what follows is tragedy....

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The nude strikes back

John Bayley, 7 November 1985

The psychologist John Layard – ‘Loony Layard’, as he is affectionately termed in one of Auden’s early poems – is said to have told a submarine officer that he had...

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John Sutherland, 6 May 1982

A new novel by Günter Grass invites comparisons of a national kind. If a British writer of fiction wished to engage with the big stories of the day – the kind of thing Brian Walden...

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Joan and Jill

V.G. Kiernan, 15 October 1981

In 1870, Daumier drew a cartoon of soldiers filing past a monument of the fatherland, with the caption: ‘Ceux qui vont mourir te saluent.’ Wandering about quiet French churches, one...

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