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Showing posts from 2016

Günter Grass: from enfant terrible to Grand Old Man

‘Light as a feather, free as a bird.’ Günter Grass starts this final volume of short prose, poetry and sketches with a late and unexpected reawakening of his creative urge. After peevish old age had brought on such despondency that ‘neither lines of ink nor strings of words flowed from his hand’, he was gripped — out of the blue, and to his evident relish — by the impulse to ‘unleash the dog with no sense of shame. Become this or that. Lose my way on a single-minded quest.’

It makes for an invigorating opening: a three-paragraph paean to the unruly and questioning spirit which drove Grass’s writing throughout his hugely productive career.

He established himself from the first as a darkly comic force, his 1959 masterpiece The Tin Drum exposing the failures of his parents’ generation with a shrewd and deft storytelling energy. While much of Germany was still licking its wounds, Grass preferred to rub salt in them — and laugh while he was at it. Readers born after the Third Reich were dra…

Beyond Expectations: Rereading Dickens

Fifty years was long enough, I suppose, to put off reading Charles Dickens again. I had read him, and loved him, in college—“Hard Times” and “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were the most admired texts in the nineteen-sixties; and then, on my own, soon after college, I read “David Copperfield” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” with its hilarious impressions of the newspaper-and-spittoon dominated America of the eighteen-forties. I knew a couple of the other novels because they had been read to me, after lunch, in seventh grade, at my New York private school. You could put your head down on the desk and go to sleep—no one would bother you. The rest of us listened. Our homeroom teacher, a woman with freckled skin and white hair named Ruth K. Landis, read first “Oliver Twist” and then “Great Expectations” in a steady dulcet voice. At the emotional climaxes, Miss Landis grew rather tearful, but no one mocked her. It was an enchanting way to launch the rest of the school day. I mention all thi…

Colm Tóibín​​: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist​, 100 years on​

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with the confidence, ease and innocence of a story told to a child and ends with a tone that is hesitant, suspicious, fragmented and estranged. Between the two comes the education of one Stephen Dedalus, as the nets of race, religion and family attempt to ensnare his tender soul and complex imagination.

Stephen is a born noticer and an attentive listener. He is also someone who can take himself and his experiences with immense seriousness and then, a few pages later, put on an ironic disposition, as though his own very thoughts and the sufferings he endured were made to be fictionalised. (The earlier version of the book was called “Stephen Hero”.) In A Portrait, there is a constant and nourishing conflict going on between the artist and the young man, the artist concerned with style and texture and the refraction of experience, the young man with registering what he saw and remembered, how he grew.

For many Irish male writers…

Émile Zola – on the run in Upper Norwood

On Christmas Day 1898, France’s most famous writer, if not the most famous writer in the world at the time, was living in a hotel in Upper Norwood, south London. Émile Zola was the author of a clutch of international bestsellers – Thérèse Raquin, Germinal, La Terre, Nana – but this Christmas he was holed up in a room he hated, unable to speak English, longing to get back to France.

How had it come to this? It was only two or three years ago that I pieced together what Zola enthusiasts have known all along: that he was on the run.

Early on the morning of 19 July 1898, Zola had stepped off the boat train from Calais, carrying nothing more than a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper and the name of the Grosvenor Hotel on a bit of paper. The writer who, for me, had been forever fixed in Paris – I imagined him to be a little like Toulouse-Lautrec but more anonymous, creeping around brothels and sewers, interviewing low-lifes and writing their answers in a black leather notebook – had actually s…

The Bookish Pleasures Of A Henry James Yearbook

In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.

The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since—one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970—it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-v…

Finding Humility In Camus’ The Plague

Shortly before Christmas Day 1946, Albert Camus delivered a book manuscript to his publisher. Unhappy with what he had written but unable to write any more, Camus consoled himself that this “complete failure will teach me modesty.”

As it turned out, his book, The Plague, became an immediate bestseller upon its publication. Seventy years later, it remains a bestseller — a work as compelling today as it was at the start of the Cold War, when the defeat of one form of totalitarianism — Nazism — gave way to the equally grim totalitarianism of Communism.

It is not clear whether the book’s success taught Camus modesty. What is clear, though, is its potential to teach modesty, political and moral, to others.

The novel’s plot is simple: Sometime in the 1940s, the plague settles upon Oran, a city in French Algeria. Fearful and feckless, Oran’s political leadership refuses to name the threat for what it is. They justify their dithering by the refusal of medical officials to affirm, with absolute…

That Sad Young Man - F. Scott Fitzgerald

l was quiet on the Riviera, and then the Fitzgeralds arrived, Scott and Zelda and Scotty. The summer season opened. There had been talk about their coming. They were coming; they were not. One day they appeared on the beach. They had played tennis the day before, and were badly burned. Everybody was concerned about their burns. They must keep their shoulders covered; they must rub on olive oil. Scott was too burned to go in the water, and much of the time, he sat aside from the rush of things, a reflective, staid paterfamilias.

That the Fitzgeralds are the best looking couple in modern literary society doesn’t do them justice, knowing what we do about beauty and brains. That they might be the handsomest pair at any collegiate houseparty, inspiring alumni to warnings about the pitfalls ahead of the young, is more to the point, although Scott really looks more as the undergraduate would like to look, than the way he generally does. It takes some years of training as the best host of the …

‘Be Silent, Recover My Strength, Start Again’: In Conversation with Elena Ferrante

I interviewed Elena Ferrante by email over the summer of 2016. This was about a month before the New York Review of Books published a long article by an Italian journalist alleging her “true” identity. She read my questions (which were written in English) and wrote her responses in Italian. Her replies were translated by Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Ferrante’s many books. I had been hesitant about conducting this interview when I was offered the opportunity, for I admire Ferrante’s reticence. Yet, debating it with myself, it seemed it would be a mistake not to ask this great writer questions, if I had the chance.

For those who are unaware, Ferrante is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the world, and rightly so. In 2011, she released the first of a series of four books (each around 350 pages in length) called The Neapolitan Quartet, which follow two female friends from the time of their childhood in Naples in the 1950s to the present day. The books thrilling…

Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture …

Depending on Distance: Mrs. Ramsay as Artist and Inspiration in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a novel of artists and within its pages appear two characters who are clearly labeled as such. One artist is Augustus Carmichael, the poet who spends his days reclining on the lawn. We are told that his work meets with success after the war: “He was growing old...he was growing famous” (Woolf, 1927/2005, p. 197). Beyond that we know little about him save the few thoughts by other characters about him. The other labeled artist is Lily Briscoe, who spends nearly the entire book either painting or thinking about her painting. Everything in her world, it seems, is anchored to her artwork. Interestingly though, Lily is not eager for others to view her work. In fact, she actively monitors her surroundings to prevent such an occurrence: “she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest some one should creep up, and suddenly she should find her picture looked at” (p. 21). It is by the thoughts and from the viewpoint of this private artist that we find the major…

AS Byatt: Beatrix Potter and the beginnings of my need to be a writer

Storytelling is part of most people’s lives, almost from the moment we can understand language at all. Family tales, fairy stories, popular history, news and gossip are integral parts of human life. When I taught literature at University College London I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in the Senior Common Room bar with the artists from the Slade School of Art. I started to think about the fact that they worked with concrete materials – clay, stone, paint, film – whereas what I work with is the language we also use to conduct our daily lives.

In Amsterdam recently I had the great pleasure of talking with Edmund de Waal about how – and how early in his life – he understood that clay was what he would work with. Why do some of us need to make works of art? How do we choose what we work with? What effect does the shift from dailiness to art have on us as writers and readers?

I remember first noticing that the written word had a form that needed to be understood and thought about. Man…

Waugh's Gift

Novelist, travel writer, essayist, and biographer Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), the 50th anniversary of whose death rolled around this year, celebrated by those survivors who had the misfortune of knowing him at all well, was as wretched and ornery a human being as anyone could be who was not actually moved to suicide or murder.

He also happened to be funny as hell when the mood struck him, or when he was writing his classic comic novels. Cruelty was an ever-flowing font of amusement. He started young and refined his methods into old age—which in his case began around 40. As a schoolboy at Lancing College he delivered a regular verbal flaying to classmates he called Dungy and Buttocks. His last year at Lancing he founded the Corpse Club, "for people who are bored stiff." Boredom would be a perennial affliction for Waugh, and a source of lethal animadversions against all who contributed to his unhappiness: "I am certainly making myself hateful," the Lancing sixth-former …

Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

In 1975, a 63-year-old Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her long-time friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, who was then 58 and just two years from his death. “I’m going to be very impertinent and aggressive,” she wrote. “Please, please don’t talk about old age so much, my dear old friend! You are giving me the creeps.” In many ways, Bishop’s admonition of Lowell is the perfect expression of a particular antagonism toward the changes and challenges brought on by aging. This discomfort isn’t simply garden-variety fear, or even denial, but an insurgency-like resistance.

You see this attitude about growing older reflected in pop culture today. A recent USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study looked at the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 and found that older characters were often discussed with ageist and “troubling” language, and that senior citizens are underrepresented in the medium. Popular music is, and has always been, dominated by the young, and TV rarely focuses on the …