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Reading Emily Dickinson

Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

There are reasons to believe that the effort to present Dickinson’s poetry in its original handwritten intimacy is misguided, starting with the belief (mine, admittedly) that she would h…

Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

At 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.

This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.

In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as…

Sages and Holy Fools - Milan Kundera

WHAT JASON M. WIRTH likes about Milan Kundera is that the Czech writer prefers fog to absolutes. His “universe of the novel” is concerned less with ideal theories and abstractions than with the complex suchness of things. Like all great writers, Kundera celebrates the ambiguity of human existence — the epiphanies of the everyday. The book takes its title from a passage in one of Kundera’s early novelsThe Joke, where the central character, Ludvik, says at one point: We lived, I and Lucie, in a devastated world: and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well. Ludvik eventually reaches an awakening to a humble solidarity with human beings in their ineluctable folly and contradiction. He realizes that messy lived experience does not conform to preset ideas. And this preference for existential contingency over metaphysical necessity is what Wirth identifies with the true art of the novel, the comic…

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – another American story of men escaping women

In 1960, a 28-year-old writer named John Updike published his second novel, Rabbit, Run. The New York Times called it a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion”. It singled out his stylistic achievement in particular, praising him for having created a “perfectly pitched voice for the subject”. This early review set the tone for what would follow, and for many years Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were hailed as a kind of unquestioned trinity of the best modern American novelists. When he died in 2009, 23 novels, countless stories, essays, and a few volumes of poetry later, the New Yorker pronounced him “one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing.” Even bearing in mind that the New Yorker had been, in essence, Updike’s house magazine for 50 years, this remains praise of an order few …

What Price Zelda? The extraordinary afterlife of an ordinary writer

Sixty-nine years after her death and 85 years after the publication of her only completed novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald is still making news. Z: The Beginning of Everything, a soap-opera-ish 10-installment Amazon TV series in which Christina Ricci plays the ill-fated wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, began airing earlier this year. It was based on Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling 2013 novel about the Fitzgeralds, the latest of a long string of fictionalized portrayals of the best-remembered married couple of the Roaring Twenties. Most of them, Z included, proceed from the premise that Zelda, who spent the second half of her life shuttling in and out of mental institutions, was a major artist in the making whose gifts were crushed by an uncaring husband who refused to admit that she was his creative peer. No one seems to have thought any such thing in Zelda’s lifetime, and for long afterward. Ring Lardner, who knew both Fitzgeralds well, summed up the case for the prosecut…

The function of criticism - T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) is a work of angry intelligence: it reads as if it were written under duress. Apparently Eliot would prefer to be writing about anything else, or to be silent. He accepts that criticism includes, unfortunately, every form of discursive writing from the most leisurely book-review to a supreme work of criticism such as Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal. In “Religion and Literature,” (1935) he says—in poor taste, admittedly—that we should not leave criticism “to the fellows who write reviews in the papers.” It is difficult to designate a function for a plethora. Given such a field of literary criticism, Eliot would like to see most of its wandering inhabitants ejected. In happier conditions, literary criticism would be rarely needed:
I have had some experience of Extension lecturing, and I have found only two ways of leading any pupils to like anything with the right liking: to present them with a selection of the simpler kind of facts about…

Margaret Atwood, The Prophet Of Dystopia

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said recently. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood said. “So take your pick.”

Atwood made the artist’s pick: she chose the story. She once wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who wa…