Recent links of note:

“An Incandescent Inanity”
Gary Saul Morson, The New York Review of Books

Nikolai Gogol (1809–52) is likely the strangest writer in Russian literature, and as his biography shows, was a man who gave many of his most bizarre characters a run for their money. Searching for an analogue in English literature, I think of Laurence Sterne, a writer of similarly sublime absurdity and chaos who, coincidentally, shared with Gogol an inordinate obsession with the human nose. Like Sterne, Gogol was also capable of piercing insight into the human condition, satirizing the banality of everyday life while not losing sight of the pathos of those who struggle to rise above it. Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls is a hilarious read in English, but I am told by Russian friends that it comes alive even more in its native tongue, as Gogol mercilessly twists and mangles the Russian language into witty constructions with manic panache. For the curious, Gary Saul Morson, a mainstay in our pages and one of America’s most accomplished Slavists, has sketched a delightful portrait of the man for The New York Review of Books.

“A 13th-century guide to fraud and skulduggery”
Kevin Blankinship, The Spectator

Gogol’s Chichikov, the hero of Dead Souls, is a confidence man and an archetypal Russian trickster. His main swindle—buying up the ownership of hundreds of dead serfs from noblemen, then using his artificially increased social status to secure a greater line of credit—would not be out of place in The Book of Charlatans, a thirteenth-century rogue’s gallery of mountebanks and con men written by the Turkish courtier Jamal al-Din Abd al-Rahim al-Jawbari. Writing for The Spectator, Kevin Blankinship reviews a new translation of this medieval oddity, a fanciful reportage on the dangers of “False Prophets,” “Apothecaries,” “Conjurers”—and “Notaries.”

“‘Magic: A History’ Review: The Lure of Hocus-Pocus”
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Wall Street Journal

Speaking of conjurers, a new book from Chris Gosden seeks to track what Gosden sees as the history of magic’s “triple helix” intertwinement with science and religion. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at Notre Dame, has a few bones to pick with Gosden’s approach in a review for The Wall Street Journal. Both have several insights to share on the history of magic, from the possible meaning of prehistoric cave paintings to the fact that only 37 percent of modern-day Britons believe in God—while 77 percent embrace the paranormal. Perhaps the time to grab a copy of Dead Souls or The Book of Charlatans is now more than ever.

Podcasts:

“Like a rock,” by James Panero. On the four-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.

Dispatch:

“To dot or not to dot,” by Jay Nordlinger. On Händel/Handel, Schönberg/Schoenberg, etc.