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A Day at a Time - Christa Wolf’s life under surveillance.

There are many mechanisms of expression more private than a diary. Thinking is invisible, and talking is impermanent. A diary, however, has public aspirations: All writing is to some degree expectant of an audience. The preface to One Day a Year, the meticulous yearly record that the East German writer Christa Wolf maintained from 1960 until 2011, concedes this point. At first, Wolf claims that her notes represent “pure, authentic” life with “no artistic intentions.” But only a few lines later, she admits that “the need to be known, including one’s problematic characteristics, one’s mistakes and flaws, is the basis of all literature and is also one of the motives behind this book.” We amass days, Wolf suggests, in the secret hope that someone else will witness and redeem them. The price we pay for our exhibitionism is a life conducted under observation.

One Day a Year was inspired by “One Day in the World,” a project devised by the socialist-realist writer Maxim Gorky. At the First Con…

Zadie Smith’s Varieties of Individuality

“If I have any gift at all,” Zadie Smith admits in one of the essays in Feel Free, “it’s for dialogue—that trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences.” Smith does voices. Sometimes literally: an audio recording of her reading her story “Escape from New York,” includes the treat that is impressions of its three characters, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor. Her fiction, of course, is full of voices, but the rendering of this familiar trio and their escape occupies that fertile gray area somewhere between entirely real and entirely fabricated. It isn’t mimicry, which leads nowhere, but a curious sort of imaginary impersonation, which leads everywhere.

Imaginary impersonation sounds like a purely fictional mode, yet it’s the way she approaches all writing, which brings together “three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self.” It is these three, she tells us in her introduction, that constitute writing “(for me)”.…

The Heart of Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s heroes were often alone, and close to hostility and danger. Sometimes, when Conrad’s imagination was at its most fertile and his command of English at its most precise, the danger came darkly from within the self. At other times, however, it came from what could not be named. Conrad sought then to evoke rather than delineate, using something close to the language of prayer. While his imagination was content at times with the tiny, vivid, perfectly observed detail, it was also nourished by the need to suggest and symbolize. Like a poet, he often left the space in between strangely, alluringly vacant.

His own vague terms—words like “ineffable,” “infinite,” “mysterious,” “unknowable”—were as close as he could come to a sense of our fate in the world or the essence of the universe, a sense that reached beyond the time he described and beyond his characters’ circumstances. This idea of “beyond” satisfied something in his imagination. He worked as though between the intricate…

Stronger than fiction - Charlotte Brontë

On May 30, 1851, the London publisher George Smith, arriving home from work, stumbled on a strange scene in his drawing room. Charlotte Brontë, all of 4 feet 10 inches tall, was upbraiding William Thackeray, who towered over the diminutive novelist by at least a foot. Miss Brontë was furious at the way the author of Vanity Fair had recently introduced her to his mother, in the hearing of strangers, as “Jane Eyre”. How would Mr Thackeray like it, the fierce little woman wanted to know, if she referred to him by the name of one of his characters? She was enraged by Thackeray’s thoughtless unmasking of her in public as the author of the recent hit novel Jane Eyre. Against growing evidence to the contrary, she still clung fondly to the belief that her “Currer Bell” pseudonym was generally secure. But on top of that she was outraged – “white with anger”, said a chuckling Smith – at having her own identity elided so completely with that of her heroine.

You might have expected more of Thacker…

Martin Amis, Style Supremacist

Martin Amis has in his life generally toed what he calls “the Flaubertian line”—the belief that writers generate their boldest imaginative success by keeping things stable and routine at home. His novels contain little coziness and much mass murder, their daring perhaps leveraged by his own domestic regularity. Amis’s more serious tabloid brushes—over a change of literary agents, in the nineties, and a change in residence, from London to Brooklyn, in 2010—have been widely spaced and personally resented. He fights an inclination toward grudges (“acrimony pageants”) and, now and then, with weariness or exasperation, has had to cudgel back against charges of misogyny and, more lately, Islamophobia. (“What I am is an Islamismophobe.”) He remains needlessly concerned about “left-handedness”—the slackening that can happen “when writers of fiction turn to discursive prose.” His nonfiction books now number half as many as his novels, and the connection between both stretches of the shelf is o…

Unripe fruit - Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt must have met Reinhard von Haeften at the very end of 1793 or early the following year. In April, Haeften came to stay in Bad Steben and, about a month later, Humboldt let slip, in a letter to Carl Freiesleben, that in Bayreuth “everybody knows that I live under one roof with Lieutenant Haeften, who is always around”.

In November, another letter reached Freiesleben. Might he like to accompany Humboldt on a journey to Switzerland? They would be joined by a third party:
This person is a Herr von Haeften, Lieutenant with the local Grevenitz regiment . . . . This Reinhard von Haeften has for a year now been my only, and hourly company. I live together with him; he comes to visit me in the mountains [Bad Steben]. I have, to enjoy him the better, completely broken away from all other society.A geological trip on which, as Freiesleben must have concluded, Humboldt’s attention would mostly be devoted to an unknown lieutenant, can’t have been an entirely attractive propo…

Milton's Morality

In 2016, during the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Bard was feted by dozens of books, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, performances of his plays, lectures, and a Shakespeare Day gala attended by Prince Charles himself. The London Tube map replaced the names of its stops with titles of Shakespeare’s plays. Google, of course, did a doodle.

In 2017, it was all Jane Austen—the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s death. Like Shakespeare the year before, she was everywhere, not least in the pages of the New York Times, which ran some 20 articles on her, musing about everything from what she might tell us about Brexit to why the alt-right loves her so much. The Atlantic stated unambiguously that “Jane Austen Is Everything,” and it sure did feel that way. Her face now graces the U.K.’s new £10 note.

Pity poor John Milton. Last year also marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in English and one of the greatest w…