Recent links of note:

“Brief encounters and romps in the park”
D. J. Taylor, The Critic

What’s in a muse? It probably depends on who’s writing. In the case of George Orwell, who had plenty of peculiarities, the question is a difficult one. In an essay for The Critic, D. J. Taylor informs us of the time Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, “once went out for the night leaving her husband’s shepherd’s pie cooking in the oven and a dish of jellied eels for the cat and came back to find that Orwell had eaten the jellied eels as the pie lay quietly incinerating.” If not through his stomach, though, there were other ways to get to his heart. The evidence points, for instance, toward Winston and Julia’s steamy woodland rendezvous in Nineteen Eighty-four having been at least partly autobiographical. Or, as Taylor puts it, “If Orwell proposed a bird-nesting jaunt, you tied a mousetrap to your garters.” The contrast illustrated by the examples above—Orwell aloof and absentminded at one turn, caught in the throes of passion the next—is reflected in the warp and woof of his novels, which (apart from Animal Farm) are so often a “projection of the inner world of the man who wrote them, a bleak little palisaded universe whose central character is being eavesdropped on and spied upon.” Such vignettes from his love life as Taylor provides here, however brief, reward us doubly: they entertain in their own right, and they illuminate the tension between intimacy and isolation that runs through so much of Orwell’s work.

“The Great Saracen”
Thomas F. Madden, First Things

As with many of the fascinating figures from medieval history, our understanding of the Muslim leader Saladin, who captured Jerusalem in 1187, is as much a product of the intervening centuries as it is of his actual life. Reviewing Jonathan Phillips’s new book on Saladin for First Things, Thomas F. Madden recounts how, despite the leader’s singular commitment to jihad and revenge, he acquired a glowing reputation among Europeans for his honor, piety, and mercy. It did not take long for Saladin to be recast as sort of chivalric knight himself, a worthy opponent to King Richard the Lionheart; some stories had him converting to Christianity on his deathbed, and by the fourteenth century, many Westerners were even naming their sons after him. Although he was hardly forgotten by Muslim historians, they certainly didn’t accord him the central importance that Europeans did—that is, until the aftermath of World War I, when his name became a rallying cry for Islamist sovereigntists seeking to unify the Middle East under one ruler. Saddam Hussein reportedly felt a deep kinship with Saladin, but we learn that his fanciful conception of the man was heavily influenced by a 1963 film, Saladin the Victorious, which drew freely from Walter Scott’s imaginative novels of a century and a half prior. A tangled history indeed, which makes Phillips’s undertaking all the more ambitious.

“Close encounters: Van Eyck in Ghent, reviewed”
Susie Nash, Apollo

As museums shutter to combat the spread of the coronavirus, some in the art world are encouraging would-be visitors to “experience” paintings (or, rather, digital reproductions thereof) in the vast archives that many institutions are making available online. In such a moment, reading Susie Nash’s review of “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution,” which was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, is bittersweet. The exhibition is closed, so it is painful to be reminded that “there is nothing to compare with the experience of his works, face to face, in all their material complexity.” And yet having eyes on the ground helps us to see Van Eyck’s paintings, many of which have been given new life by recent conservation, in a way that would be impossible on a blue-lit screen. I suspect the best solution now is to settle for both options, online viewing with a textual guide like this one—an unfortunately necessary compromise.

By the Editors:

“‘Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition’ Review”
James Panero, The Wall Street Journal

Dispatch:

“Stephen Sondheim’s felicitous flop”
Tim Rice on the successful failure of the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along.