Showing posts from November, 2016

100 Years After Jack London's Death, Hearing His Call

Jack London, who died 100 years ago this week, occupies a space in which few writers can set foot. Although it's not especially unique for writers' lives to be marked by sickness and excess, London was prolific despite these constant threats to his productivity. Even as illness loomed, he managed to publish over 50 books and hundreds of articles in the last 16 years of his life.

At a young age, London developed a hard discipline for writing — often jotting down as many as 1,000 words a day and getting by on little sleep. "All I wanted," he said once, "was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that 'something' which we all need." For much of his career, financial strains didn't afford him the luxury of slowing down. But in time, that work ethic literally paid off, and made him the first American author to earn a million dollars in his lifetime. (It also likely contributed, however indirectly, to his untimely death…

Chekhov and the Buried Life of Katherine Mansfield

‘Tchekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him…’ Lev Shestov1 
The critic John Middleton Murry marked the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Katherine Mansfield, with a notoriously bad poem, which he published in his own magazine Adelphi in January 1924. ‘Was she not a child’, the elegy asked, ‘A child of other worlds, a perfect thing/ Vouchsafed to justify this world’s imagining?’2 In casting Mansfield, a short story writer who died young of tuberculosis, as a ‘perfect thing’, Murry recycles the terms of his own characterization of Anton Chekhov. In a review of Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s Letters published in the Athenaeum less than four years earlier, in which he called him ‘the hero of our time’, Murry hailed the publication of his Letters as ‘an opportunity for the examination of some of the chief constituents of his perfect art’. For Murry, the chief constituents of the art are the moral and spiritual perfections of the artist:
We do not cons…

Emily Dickinson's Singular Scrap Poetry

The poems of Emily Dickinson began as marks made in ink or pencil on paper, usually the standard stationery that came into her family’s household. Most were composed in Dickinson’s large, airy bedroom, with two big windows facing south and two facing west, at a small table that her niece described as “18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen.” It looked out over the family’s property on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, toward the Evergreens, her brother’s grand Italianate mansion, nestled among the pines a few hundred yards away. Dickinson had a Franklin stove fitted to a bricked-up fireplace to keep her warm, which meant that she could write by candlelight, with the door closed, for as long as she wanted. In much of the rest of the house, the winter temperature would have been around fifty degrees. Though she usually composed at night, Dickinson sometimes jotted down lines during the day, while gardening or doing chores, wearing a si…

Women On The Verge - Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I stud…

Georges Perec: essay

Georges Perec was 75 last month. It needs to be said that he died in 1982; but there are many ways in which he is still alive. Shortly after his death, a planet was named after him (a small one, admittedly).

He is still a member of a literary movement called OuLiPo: the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop for potential literature) does not see death as an obstacle to membership. His love of writing work in eccentric, apparently impossible forms continues to inspire. But can a work written by such crazy systems ever be a masterpiece?

In Life: a User’s Manual (1978), composed with a tight mathematical structure, and tricked out with puzzles, Perec proved it could be: this is a novel that manages to distil a vision of the world into a tour of an imagined building of apartments and, although the building is soon to be demolished, Perec’s own monument to it shows how his work can last longer than stone. It is surely among the world’s greatest novels.

As if to demonstrate that Perec…

A Gentler Céline

“Céline is my Proust!” Philip Roth once said. “Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books… . Céline is a great liberator.” Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born on this day in 1894. He was a French writer largely remembered for his first novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” a loosely biographical work teeming with disease, misanthropy, and dark comedy. He was decorated for bravery in the First World War, and wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to the Second, after which he was declared a national disgrace and imprisoned for collaborationist sympathies. Céline, in short, is one of the great problems in twentieth-century literature: you find yourself irresistibly drawn in by the fearless singularity of his vision, even while aware of the appalling place to which it led him. What’s striking is how absent his grievous opinions are from his gre…

Stormin’ Norman - Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the fall of 1939, just as World War II began. His famous novel about part of that war, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948, and at age 25, like Lord Byron, he awoke to find himself famous. Sixty years later, looking back on the book’s immense success—it topped the New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list for 11 consecutive weeks and remained on that list for 62 more—he commented on the experience of sudden fame: “I knew I’d be a celebrity when I came back to America [he and his wife were living in Paris] and I felt very funny towards it, totally unprepared. .  .  . I’ve always seen myself as an observer. And now I knew, realized, that I was going to be an actor on the American stage, so to speak.”

From that time until his death in 2007, Mailer’s career both as observer and actor—manifested in the 40 or so books he would write—gave us, in the words of Warner Berthoff, “a uniquely substantial record of what it had meant to be alive” in that …

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and – most of all – his wife also kept journals. Of these, the greatest diarist of them all was Sofia, the Countess Tolstoy.

She began keeping diaries at 16 but did so avidly after 1862, when she married Tolstoy. She never stopped writing in her journal until her death in 1919, as the Bolshevik revolution threatened to overwhelm Yasnaya Polyana, the 4,000-acre estate where she had lived for more than half a century. "There was a meeting to decide how best to defend Yasnaya Polyana against looting," she writes in her final entry. "Nothing has yet been decided. Carts, oxen and people are streaming down the highway to Tula." History, as it …

No Easy Answers to “The Némirovsky Question”

LITTLE MORE THAN a decade ago, in 2004, Suite Française was published in France. The book quickly became a popular and critical success. It dominated the bestseller lists in France — and, two years later, in the United States — and won the prestigious Renaudot Prize, making its author, Irène Némirovsky, a literary star. Or, better yet, remaking her a star. As readers discovered, none of this fanfare would have been new or unusual for Némirovsky, who had already established a solid literary reputation in the 1930s.

The difference was that, this time around, she had been dead for more than a half-century. Foreign-born and Jewish, Némirovsky was deported from France and murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, a victim of the very historical forces she narrates with stunning detachment in Suite Française.

Now, more then a decade after Némirovsky’s return from oblivion, Susan Rubin Suleiman, the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, offers a personal, poigna…

Suffering and Sanctity - Emma Donoghue

In 1869, the “Welsh Fasting Girl” Sarah Jacob was a national sensation. She was also an enigma: a twelve-year-old child who appeared to have survived without food for two years. Sarah was just ten when her fast began. An otherwise unremarkable child living in rural Carmarthenshire, she first began to refuse food after a short illness. Some claimed her to be a miracle, a fasting saint; visitors travelled across Britain to bring her money and gifts. But the apparent miracle provoked controversy in the national press, with pilgrims and scoffers battling over the bona fides of this small Welsh child. To settle the case, sceptical doctors placed her under strict observation by a team of nurses. Scientific curiosity was quickly satisfied; under a twenty-four hour watch, Sarah Jacob starved to death within days. Her parents ‑ who had refused to send the nurses away as the girl weakened ‑ were later convicted of manslaughter.

It was a tragic and, in many ways, an inexplicable case. But Sarah J…

Pure Literature: On Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich

I MET A MEMBER of the Russian Academy of Sciences during a diplomatic reception more than 10 years ago in Europe. At some point during our conversation, Nigeria and Russia were mentioned in the same sentence, and my interlocutor came completely undone. “What has happened to us?” he wailed. “We were once a superpower, and now we’re compared to Africa.” It would have been interesting to probe that sentiment, but I didn’t have the wherewithal. I had no idea what the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union had done to my Russian friend.

I had seen evidence of the rough transition to democracy and a market economy during my travels through Central Europe in mid-1993. Prague had mostly been restored to its prewar glory, but in Budapest currency touts accosted me as soon as I left the train station. Facades were crumbling and petty tradesmen plied their wares in the streets. In Bratislava, then the six-month-old capital of newly independent Slovakia, my brother and I restarted a rattletr…

Richard Lovelace: A Paradox

TIS true the beauteous Starre
    To which I first did bow
Burnt quicker, brighter far
    Then that which leads me now ;
        Which shines with more delight :
        For gazing on that light
        So long, neere lost my sight.

Through foule, we follow
    For had the World one face
And Earth been bright as Ayre,
    We had knowne neither place ;
Indians smell not their Neast :
        A Swisse or Finne tastes best,
        The Spices of the East.

So from the glorious Sunne,
    Who to his height hath got,
With what delight we runne
    To some black Cave, or Grot !
        And Heav'nly Sydney you
        Twice read, had rather view
        Some odde Romance, so new.

The God that constant keepes
    Unto his Dieties,
Is poore in Joyes, and sleepes
    Imprison'd in the skies :
        This knew the wisest, who
        From Juno stole, below
        To love a Beare, or Cow.

The Genius of Berlin - Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, is pretty much untranslatable. Much of it is written in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin. A translator can ignore this, of course, and use plain English, but then you lose the flavor of the original. Or he can go for an approximation, adopting a kind of Brooklynese, for example, but this would not evoke Döblin’s louche Berlin milieu so much as Damon Runyon’s New York.1 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, set in eighteenth-century London, was successfully reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill into a Weimar Berlin masterpiece, but that wasn’t a translation; it was a transformation, of place and time. 

Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Döblin’s novel, is a pimp, not a bad sort, but given to sudden helpless rages. He whipped one of his girls, Ida, to death with an eggbeater. But that is not how Döblin’s epic tale begins. It begins when Biberkopf is released from Berlin’s Tegel prison, paralyzed with fear at having to pic…