The week’s best arts and culture reads – including an awestruck review of Leopardi’s notebooks and a potted history of France’s biggest literary prize.

The mystery of the Munich Nazi art trove
Spiegel Online | 11 November 2013
The story of those 1,400 “degenerate” masterpieces found in an apartment. It’s complicated. Hildebrand Gurlitt, who put the collection together, was purged from his job as a museum director in Hamburg in 1933 because he had a Jewish grandmother; a decade later he was buying paintings for Hitler. His son, Cornelius, in whose flat the paintings were found, has disappeared; he may well be the legal owner of most of them.

Arthur Danto: Miracle and commonplace
Morgan Meis | n+1 | 11 November 2013
Arthur Danto, the art critic for the Nation who died last month in New York, was a man with a big idea. “Art, he believed, had ended.” Not that there would be no more art, but that art had lost its narrative. There would be no more Art, only works of art. His epiphany came in 1964 when he saw Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: “If the Brillo Boxes can look just like Brillo boxes and still be art, then anything can be art. Art isn’t special anymore”.

The least known masterpiece of European literature
Adam Kirsch | New Republic | 8 November 2013
Another awestruck review of Zibaldone, Giacomo Leopardi’s 2,000-page notebook of ideas and reflections, finally available in a full English translation almost two centuries after it was written. Leopardi has long been recognised as a great poet; Zibaldone assures him a high place also in the history of ideas. His preoccupation is with linguistics and etymology but his interests extend into music, history, psychology, and everything else.

Big pots need big kilns
Brian Eno & Grayson Perry | New Statesman | 7 November 2013
Conversation between musician and potter. Interesting throughout. Eno on music: “People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art.” Perry on fine art: “The art world has no equivalent of the popular. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings [next to London’s Hyde Park] in Bayswater”.

Going, going, Goncourt
Adrian Tahourdin | Times Literary Supplement | 7 November 2013
Enjoyable potted history of France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, which is worth only €10 in cash, but ensures hundreds of thousands of sales. Women have won only eight times in 110 years; history has not always been kind to the judges’ taste. In 1913 they snubbed Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; and might well have done the same to Marcel Proust, had he troubled to submit Du Côté de chez Swann for consideration.

An interview with Nicholson Baker
Mark O'Connell | The Millions | 6 November 2013
Magical. Topics include writing, Quakerism, music, politics. “I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?”

The lush life of William T Vollmann
Alexander Nazaryan | Newsweek | 6 November 2013
Profile of brilliant, prolific, wilfully wayward author. His writing can be “obscure” to the point of “unreadable”, with “grotesque” sexual elements. But: “He is good, scary good, possibly the greatest living American writer, and I mean this with no hyperbole”. Nobel prize committee, please take note. Plenty to go at: his work includes ten volumes of fiction, 15 of non-fiction (some of them huge), and more in preparation.

Facing death with Tolstoy
Mary Beard | New Yorker | 5 November 2013
Remarkable new translations of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, by Peter Carson, illuminate Leo Tolstoy’s obsession with death. Tolstoy saw the slaughter of the Crimean War; five of his 13 children died before the age of 10. “In his writing he went beyond the horrors of death to reflect on the big questions that the inevitability of death poses for our understanding of life itself: if we must die, what is the point of living?”

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