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What the critics liked

Magritte by Alex Danchev

René Magritte was a nightmare child, says Jo Livingstone in The New Republic. The Belgian artist, famous for his surreal paintings of men in bowler hats, was born in a quiet town called Lessines in 1898. His mother drowned herself when he was 13, so he and his two brothers were raised by their father – a serial philanderer who inspected margarine factories and sold pornography on the side. The Magritte boys were notoriously badly behaved. They showed all the local children porn, frequently yelled “Fire!” in crowded places and were rumoured to have killed their pet donkey. This image of a hellraising child stuck with me as I read the rest of Alex Danchev’s new biography, Magritte: A Life (Profile Books £30). “For all the grown-upness of Magritte’s artworks, with their highbrow symbols and bowler-hat formality, they have a naughtiness about them, and Magritte had a naughtiness about himself.”

A cursory glance at his adult life would make you think Magritte was dull, says Peter Hensher in The Spectator. He lived in a middle-class flat in Brussels, married his childhood sweetheart, Georgette, and wore a bowler hat every day. He loved incredibly boring food, describing his dream meal in a letter to Georgette: four hard-boiled eggs, two or three lettuce leaves, “200 grams of prawns peeled by you”. But he rebelled by painting. While Magritte’s style was tidy and precise, there was always something mad within his art – missing heads, floating apples, enormous eyes. That strange sense of imagination could be dangerous for others. When the poet Paul Eluard asked Magritte to paint his beautiful girlfriend, Alice Apfel, the artist instantly agreed. He loathed Eluard and decided to use the portrait as revenge. He depicted Apfel perfectly until you reached her head, which was completely bald – replaced with a polished skull.

Danchev died in 2016, before he could write his final chapter, says Dominic Green in The Wall Street Journal. Years later, Elizabeth Whitfield stepped in and finished it. It means this “fascinating biography” is both by Danchev and not by Danchev. Magritte, who spent his life refusing to fit into tidy categories, would have liked that.

Alice Sebold’s “sort of” apology

In 2002 I reviewed Alice Sebold’s debut novel, The Lovely Bones, calling it “a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy” that would become a huge bestseller, says Philip Hensher in UnHerd. I was “bang on”. Yet I wish I’d known what effects “that unfeeling quality might have had in real life on an innocent man”. In 1982, the 18-year-old Sebold wrongly identified Anthony Broadwater as the man who had raped her a year earlier. He served 16 years in prison and 23 years as a registered sex offender in the US. The 61-year-old was finally exonerated last week.

I still “wouldn’t believe a word she writes”. Sebold’s literary faults in her “sort of” apology this week are telling. She can’t decide whether to address Broadwater as “him” or “you”, writing that his life “was unjustly robbed from you”. That passive voice also dilutes her agency. Truth is for the courts, but a decent literary critic can see manipulation, deceit and a self-preservation on the page “that doesn’t care what it destroys in the hungry pursuit of fame”.

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