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‘As I Lay Dying’ remains one of the most perplexing novels of the modernist canon

To hear William Faulkner tell it, to write As I Lay Dying he “took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which man can suffer – flood and fire, that’s all”. That’s all. And yet his 1930 tour de force, which he began the day after Wall Street crashed on October 24 1929, remains one of the most perplexing novels of the modernist canon.

As I Lay Dying is the third novel Faulkner set in his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, which is based on north-eastern Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. To some extent, the novel’s raw story is indeed simple. It narrates the cursed 10-day journey of the poor white Bundren family from their hill-country farm to the county seat of Jefferson to bury Addie, their wife and mother, in accordance with her wishes.

The novel is pervaded by the sweat, hunger and poverty that characterised the Depression-era South – and indeed much of the nation at this time. It also conjures the dialect, customs, characters and landscape of rural M…

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

Here is a novel that could so easily have been loud. It is set among large events: the fight for Indian independence and the second world war. It features characters from history who enter the lives of the novel’s fictional characters, often to dramatic effect – the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the singer Begum Akhtar, the dancer and critic Beryl de Zoete and the German painter and curator Walter Spies. It has at its heart a young boy whose mother leaves him to live in another country, and whose father responds to this crisis by also leaving the child for an extended period of time, and who is later imprisoned for his anti-British activism. There are many reasons to turn up the volume dial.

But readers of Anuradha Roy, whose previous novel Sleeping on Jupiter was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize, know that shoutiness or showiness is never her style. She is a writer of great subtlety and intelligence, who understands that emotional power comes from the steady accretion of detail. A…

The Tragic Sense- Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) remains the greatest English language novelist since Charles Dickens, and many of the best writers of the 20th century, including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, paid homage to his excellence or came under his influence. And as one learns from the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Conrad was a hero to William Faulkner, André Gide, and Thomas Mann. What’s more, “He has turned up in the pages of Latin American writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. He’s been cited as an influence by Robert Stone, Joan Didon, Philip Roth, and Ann Patchett; by W.G. Sebald and John le Carré.”

A Pole by birth, for 20 years a merchant seaman by profession, a late-blooming novelist for whom English was his third language (after French and his native Polish), a spinner of yarns about seafaring ordeals and romances with dusky beauties, Conrad has be…

Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom

The most original, radical and controversial of all early modern philosophers was born in Amsterdam in 1632. Bento de Spinoza was the middle son of one of the many families of Portuguese origin who, as Judaizing “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition, had settled in that tolerant Dutch city in the early decades of the century. He was raised and educated in an open (and non-ghettoized) Jewish community – quite rare in the seventeenth century – and entered the family’s importing business (dealing in dried fruit and nuts) after his father’s death in 1654. Bento (he would have been called “Baruch” in the synagogue – both names mean “blessed”) was, at this time and to all appearances, an upstanding member of the Sephardic congregation.

And yet, by the summer of 1656, something had changed. On July 27 that year, the following proclamation was issued by the parnassim (directors) sitting on the ma’amad (governing board) of Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation:

The Senhores of the ma‘amad make it …

Was Jane Eyre Written as a Secret Love letter?

In the summer of 1846 Charlotte Brontë faced two crises. Both she wished to keep secret.

First: due to cataracts, her father was going blind. Why was this so calamitous?

As a Church of England parish priest Patrick Brontë enjoyed a small but permanent income, a large rectory that was home for his children, sister-in-law, and servants, and the social status that made him a leader in his community.

His children, now all adults, had enjoyed a happy and secure childhood living in the Haworth parsonage. Crucial to all four had been the constant writing of fiction and poetry. Virtually all of it remained unpublished. When they reached maturity, it was time for the young Brontës to find work to help support the family. In this they failed. Charlotte, when she was 19, and Anne, when she was 20, got brief jobs as governesses; Emily, at 20, taught for some months in a boarding school for girls; but all soon returned home. Branwell, also at age 20, tried being a tutor in the home of a clergyman,…

'The Moonstone' Is A Hidden Gem Of A Detective Novel

I was about 12 when I first encountered The Moonstone — or a Classics Illustrated version of it — digging through an old trunk in my grandfather's house on a rainy Bengali afternoon. I loved the Classics Illustrated series (the graphic novels of my youth that simplified famous novels for children), presenting us with swashbuckling plotlines, and heroes and villains that were unmistakably, unashamedly, what they were supposed to be.

The Moonstone was all I could have hoped for. A mysterious, cursed jewel, wrested from India, only to be stolen later from a great British mansion. Enigmatic, dangerous priests who follow it across the ocean in hopes of wresting it back. A young, beautiful, rich and courageous heroine (who in my mind looked very like me). Deaths. Disappearances. Romance. Bungling policemen. A smart butler. And enough twists and turns to keep a reader on tenterhooks until a highly satisfying ending is delivered. I devoured it in a day, and thought back on it with pleasure…

Kierkegaard’s Muse

This biography would not have been written if the woman portrayed, Regine Olsen (1822–1904), had not been loved and jilted by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who went on to devote a massive body of philosophical work to her. Kierkegaard courted Regine for a year, then broke it off when he realized his aloof, melancholic disposition made him unfit to be a good husband. When she fought his decision, even going so far as to say she would be willing to live in a cupboard in his apartment—for she was a small woman, but loving, fiery, intelligent, sardonic—he acted like a rogue to try to make her hate him enough to accept their separation.

He never quite succeeded in convincing her he was a rogue. For six years Regine saw Kierkegaard on walks and at church; they would smile and sometimes nod at one another but they never spoke. In the meantime, Fritz Schlegel was courting her. One Sunday in church, Regine smiled and looked questioningly at Kierkegaard; he nodded back. W…