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Showing posts from October, 2013

Patrick White: Within a Budding Grove

Patrick White is, on most counts, the greatest writer Australia has produced, though the sense in which that country produced him needs at once to be qualified—he had his schooling in England, studied at Cambridge University, spent his twenties as a young man about town in London, and during World War II served with the British armed forces. What Australia did provide him with was fortune, in the form of an early inheritance—the White family were wealthy graziers—substantial enough for him to live an independent life.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny an…

Zadie Smith: Love in the Gardens

Boboli, Florence
When my father was old and I was still young, I came into some money. Though it was money “earned” for work done, it seemed, both to my father and me, no different than a win on the lottery. We looked at the contract more than once, checking and rechecking it, just like a lottery ticket, to ensure no mistake had been made. No mistake had been made. I was to be paid for writing a book. For a long time, neither of us could work out what to do about this new reality. My father kept on with his habit of tucking a ten- or twenty-pound note inside his letters to me. I took the rest of my family (my parents having separated long before) to a “resort” back in the “old country” (the Caribbean) where we rode around bored in golf carts, argued violently, and lined up in grim silence to receive a preposterous amount of glistening fruit, the only black folk in line for the buffet.

It took a period of reflection before I realized that the money—though it may have arrived somewhat pre…

Why All the Fuss About Proust?

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Marcel Proust's six-volume masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time." The novel is about a man compelled by a sudden surge of memory to revisit his past and, in the process, to draw meaning out of his seemingly uneventful life. Its unfolding is prompted, famously, by the narrator's dunking of a madeleine in a cup of herbal tea.

Untold universities have planned at least one reading or roundtable dedicated to Proust. Every self-respecting bookstore will hold its own Proustathon, with authors, actors and book lovers reading snippets from his epic novel. The Center for Fiction in New York has scheduled a Proust evening, and the French embassy is organizing its own Proust occasion. There are Proust T-shirts, Proust coffee mugs, Proust watches, Proust comic series, Proust tote bags, Proust fountain pens, and Proust paraphernalia of all stripes.

Still, for all the brouhaha…

Amy Lowell Anew

In the late 1990s, while writing an encyclopedia of twentieth-century American literature, I checked the competition to see how entries on authors were composed and what secondary sources were included. I knew very little of Amy Lowell (1874–1925)—not much more than her signature poem, “Patterns,” and Ezra Pound’s denunciation of her for appropriating the new, astringent poetry he called Imagism, and reformulating it as “Amygism,” a flaccid version of his effort to strip contemporary poetry of excessive rhetoric and make the image itself the poem’s organizing principle. I was also aware of T. S. Eliot’s slighting reference to Lowell as the “demon saleswoman” of modern poetry. The indictment was clear: Through her public lectures and spectacular platform performances, she had perverted the serious thrust of literary modernism, which rejected hucksterism and any diversion of high art to the precincts of popular taste and publicity. Implicit in Eliot’s dismissal is 
the suggestion that A…

Any Other Name - Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s memoir provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man who, haunted for a decade by the death sentence that hovered over his head, struggled to cobble together something resembling a quotidian existence. The event that was splashed across the pages of the national press is now recounted by the man who lived through it in bare, reflective, thought-provoking prose; Joseph Anton: A Memoir recounts the ten years Rushdie spent living under a fatwa.

The publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 enraged Muslims across the world, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who soon publicly demanded his execution. Throughout the decade of the fatwa, pronounced in 1988 and eventually lifted in 1998, Rushdie lived under an assumed identity, adopting the pseudonym Joseph Anton in a personal homage to the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. While Rushdie’s choice to adopt a pseudonym was clearly a practical one, his use of t…

The Praises and Criticisms of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Ever since its publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has served as a firestorm for controversy and debate. Critics have argued the moral issues raised by the book and the context in which it is presented. Some have argued that Salinger's tale of the human condition is fascinating and enlightening, yet incredibly depressing. The psychological battles of the novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, serve as the basis for critical argument. Caulfield's self-destruction over a period of days forces one to contemplate society's attitude toward the human condition. Salinger's portrayal of Holden, which includes incidents of depression, nervous breakdown, impulsive spending, sexual exploration, vulgarity, and other erratic behavior, have all attributed to the controversial nature of the novel. Yet the novel is not without its sharp advocates, who argue that it is a critical look at the problems facing American youth during the 1950's. When d…

The good German - Thomas Mann

In Phaedrus, which inspired Death in Venice, Plato writes that when the lover “beholds a god-like face or a physical form which truly reflects ideal beauty, he first of all shivers and experiences something of the dread which the vision itself inspired; next he gazes upon it and worships it as if it were a god, and, if he were not afraid of being thought an utter madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a divinity.” This passage, charged with powerful tensions, contrasts the vision of an ideal beauty, a godlike face and body, a divine and beloved image, worthy of worship, to the shattering effect it has on the lover who perceives it: shivers, dread, fear, madness, self-abasement and self-sacrifice.

Plato’s thought also explains a great deal about Mann’s homoerotic life. As an adolescent and adult he fell in love with several handsome boys and men, but never had sexual relations with any of them. His bisexual Sehnsucht gave him penetrating insight into human nature a…

What can WH Auden do for you?

When Auden died in 1973, forty years ago last week, it would have been hard to imagine how popular he would become in the ensuing decades. Morose and solitary, he described himself, in a poem of the early 1960s, as a “sulky 56,” who had “grown far too crotchety” and found a “change of meal-time utter hell.” In those later years, Auden seemed a shadow of his former self: his reputation had been tainted by some rather unforgiving reviews. Philip Larkin, for one, had dismissed his “rambling intellectual stew;” Randall Jarrell painted a sorry picture of a man “turned into a rhetoric mill, grinding away at the bottom of Limbo.” Jilted by his handsome younger lover, Chester Kallman, Auden took leave of all worldly pleasures, living out his last few years in a small town near Vienna. The obituaries of the enfant terrible of poetry were detailed but rarely strayed from reflecting on his much-anthologised poems of the 1930s, “As I walked out one evening” and “Lullaby.”

Auden has always seemed r…

Enameled Lady - How Katherine Anne Porter perfected herself.

New York, after the war. A young writer—more of a hustler, really—named P. B. Jones attends a publishing party full of artists and literary types. There he meets an older, established author he has long admired named Alice Lee Langman; he eventually becomes her lover for a time. Langman, says Jones, who narrates Truman Capote’s underrated, unfinished final novel, “Answered Prayers,” is “a perfected presence, an enameled lady.”
When I met Miss Langman, and I never called her anything else, she was far into her late fifties, yet she looked eerily unaltered from her long-ago Genthe portrait. The author of Wild Asparagus and Five Black Guitars had eyes the color of Anatolian waters, and her hair, a sleek silvery blue, was brushed straight back, fitting her erect head like an airy cap. . . . She said, that first night at Boaty’s: “Would you see me home? I hear thunder, and I’m afraid of it.” She was not afraid of thunder, nor of anything else—except unreturned love and commercial suc…

The Changeling - Edith Wharton

The life of Edith Wharton is not an inspiriting rags-to-riches saga, nor is it a cautionary tale of riches to rags—riches to riches, rather. Born Edith Newbold Jones, in January of 1862, into one of the leading families of New York—the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have originated with reference to her great-aunts Mary and Rebecca Jones, who shocked the rest of their staid society by building a mansion north of Fifty-seventh Street, unthinkably uptown in the nineteenth century—the author maintained multiple establishments and travelled in the highest style, with a host of servants, augmenting her several inheritances by writing best-selling fiction. In the Depression year of 1936, when two thousand dollars was a good annual income, her writing earned her a hundred and thirty thousand, much of it from plays adapted from her works. Yet her well-padded, auspiciously sponsored life was not an easy one. The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its wome…

Alice Munro: an appreciation by Margaret Atwood

Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. She's been accorded armfuls of super-superlatives by critics in both North America and Britain, she's won many awards, and she has a devoted international readership. Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones. She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said - no matter how well known she becomes - that she ought to be better known.

None of this happened overnight. Munro has been writing since the 1960s, and her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, appeared in 1968. To date - and including her latest, the rapturously received Runaway (2004) - she has published 10 collections, averaging nine or 10 stories each. Though her fiction has been a regular feature of the New Yorker since the 1970s, her recent elevation to international literary sainthood took as long as it did partly because of the form in which she writes. She is a writer of stories - "short stories", as they used t…

Demon and Craftsman: On D.H. Lawrence

On November 13, 1915, following a hearing at London’s Bow Street magistrates’ court, D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The magistrate, Sir John Dickinson, ordered that the 1,011 copies of the novel seized from the publisher be destroyed. Speaking for the prosecution, Herbert Muskett expressed “the most profound regret that it should have been necessary…to bring this disgusting, detestable and pernicious work under the notice of the Court.” The publisher was ordered to pay court costs of £10, 10s.

By the time The Rainbow was pulped, its 30-year-old author had published four novels, a play, a book of short stories and a volume of poems. Undaunted by the novel’s suppression, David Herbert Lawrence would in the next decade alone publish another play; two more books of stories; two travel books about Italy; two translations of the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga; a groundbreaking work of criticism about a national literature of which not…

A Different Kafka

What are we to make of Kafka? Not, surely, what he made of himself, or at least what he would have us believe he made of himself. In a letter to his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer he declared: “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” This was a constant theme of his mature years, and one that he expanded on in a highly significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”

Of course, Kafka is not the first writer, nor will he be the last, to figure himself as a martyr to his art—think of Flaubert, think of Joyce—but he is remarkable for the single-mindedness with which he conceived of his role. Who else could have invented the torture machine at the center of his frightful story “In the Penal Colony,” which executes miscreants by graving their sentence—le mot juste!—with a metal stylus into their very f…

A Map of Minds and Imagination: An Interview With Eudora Welty

In 1929, my grandparents Eugene and Martha Ferris moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and bought a home on Laurel Street. The Welty family lived three blocks away with their children Walter, Edward, and Eudora. My grandmother often told me about the Weltys, who were among her close friends in Jackson.

At the age of twelve, I remember seeing Eudora Welty and a group of her friends when they visited our farm to picnic and sketch the landscape. They sat on a hillside below our home, and after they left, my mother told me that one of the group was an important writer.

I first read Welty’s work at Brooks School, and in my senior year at Davidson College, I invited her to be our book-​of-​the-​year speaker. Much to the amazement of our faculty in the English department, she accepted. I borrowed a school car and met her when she arrived by train one evening at the Charlotte depot. The next morning she read “A Worn Path” before the student assembly in her soft voice, and during the afternoon we walk…