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Norman Mailer has died

It’s a shame he will not be around to read his obituaries, as his favorite subject was himself.

It was never a subject that particularly interested me.

Guide to Doris Lessing

Salon’s guide to Doris Lessing, by Laura Morgan Green.

Joyce Carol Oates on creating characters in fiction

Ms. Oates, rambling a bit, reveals that during “the first six weeks” of a writing project she is quite miserable. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I find beginnings exhilarating but bog down in the middles. Maybe she is working out the difficulties earlier on, and that accounts for how prolific she manages to be.

Writers’ rooms

as byatt's writing room

The Guardian has an ongoing feature displaying writers’ workrooms. The common features tend to be clutter, piles of books, and undistinguished furniture. Shown is the room of AS Byatt, who says:

The objects in the room are in a way a metaphor of my mind. They are brightly coloured, or transparent, and are about intricate patterns and structures. I collect glass paperweights. There are also stones. A piece of the chalk cliff at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, a bit of pumice from an Icelandic lava field. Rose quartz from Norway and rose quartz given to me by a Korean friend. My favourite is fantomqvartz (the Norwegian spelling) one crystal growing inside another. On the wall there is a Matisse poster of Leda and the Swan and three watercolours by John Houston – watercolour is bright and transparent too. There is a case of South American insects I found in a Conran shop, and a glass dish of snail shells. There is also a reproduction mediaeval print of Babel Tower. Snails, towers, DNA. I like spirals. It looks like clutter but it’s a kind of order.

Via NamasteNancy.

A.S. Byatt books at Powell’s Bookstore 

50 neglected classics

samuel johnson by joshua reynolds

The Guardian asked 50 writers to nominate neglected books that deserve a second chance with the public. “The majority of books fall stillborn from the press, never living up to their authors’ hopes for recognition or dreams of a large, admiring audience,” Robert McCrum, who introduces the list, writes. “So those bestseller lists and crowded festival appearances create a misleading impression of the true circumstances of literary life. For every book that tickles public taste, captures the zeitgeist and hits the jackpot, there are thousands that do not appeal to contemporary readers, fail to find a sufficient audience and almost disappear.”

The list, strong on the classics, is very different from one that U.S. authors would produce. How badly does Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas need a second chance, and what are the odds that Howard Jacobson’s nomination will be the deciding factor that will put that title over the top nearly 250 years after its initial publication? Do writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Jose Donoso, Julien Green, or Edith Wharton really cry out for renomination over more truly neglected authors?

Still, if you like lists of books as fodder for rumaging through the shelves — and what book person doesn’t — the Guardian list might inspire some new choices.

Image: Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (detail)

Edward Seidensticker, 1921-2007

edward seidensticker and donald ritchie

Edward Sedensticker, who died at 86 on Sunday in Tokyo, was one of the greatest translators of Japanese literature. He had been in a coma for months following a head injury. Among his books were The Tale of Genji, Snow Country and Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature; The Makioka Sisters and “Some Prefer Nettles” by Junichiro Tanizaki and The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima.

He first studied Japanese at the Navy’s Japanese Language School. After serving in the Pacific during WW2, he traveled to Japan. Later he taught at Sophia University in Tokyo and at Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. Recently he wrote a two-volume history of Tokyo (Edo).

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Archer Returns

ross macdonald, by thomas christensenThe entire series of Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novels is returning to print from Vintage Books. The early Archer novels are derivative of Chandler — some would say the entire series is — but as Macdonald’s career progressed he became more interested in the buried roots of violence than its turbulent theatricality. Archer would often trace the sources of crime back through generations as he explored the psychological development of relationships and situations that turned abusive. Chandler was a great innovator, but his alcohol-infused narratives are ultimately misogynistic; Archer, though in the “hard-boiled” mode of Chandler’s Marlowe, moved away from such attitudes. Macdonald created complicated plots, but his quest was ultimately ontological, as he sought to lay bare the hidden nature of reality behind its public facade.

Come in

ford madox ford, james joyce, and ezra poundA story often repeated is that Joyce’s sometime amanuensis, Samuel Beckett, inserted the words “come in” into Finnegans Wake, unaware that Joyce was answering a knock at the door. This story originates, I think, with Richard Ellman’s biography, James Joyce; at any rate it appears there. I think that Beckett himself may have promoted the anecdote, which may be more pertinent to him than to Joyce.

But where in the text does this phrase appear?

On the Road

graphic design: covers of jack kerouac's on the road

Click the image above for an extensive collection of covers of Kerouac’s On the Road. How interesting to see all the different takes on the book! The Italians generally do a pretty good job.

RELATED: Why Kerouac Matters

Above all, On the Road matters for its music: its plaintive, restless hum. In it, Kerouac perfected a melancholy optimism and a yearning for solace a thousand times richer and subtler than the mournful sap that drips down from so many contemporary American films and novels….

Weinberger on Sontag

sontag: at the same timeSusan Sontag has positive associations for me for a personal and I suppose fairly trivial reason — she sent a generous letter to me when I was director of Mercury House saying she admired our publishing program. You might be surprised how rare that kind of gesture is.

Eliot Weinberger appears to put personal considerations behind him in his review of Sontag’s At the Same Time, which was originally published in the New York Review of Books and has now been published online by Powell’s. It is a remarkably evenhanded review (which takes the occasion of the book’s publication to survey Sontag’s whole body of work). Weinberger sees Sontag as a flawed figure whose production never quite equalled the conception, or perception, of it.

He does not hesitate to fault Sontag for such things as a lack of humor, a disinterest in contemporary poetry, a tendency to favor male writers. At the same time, he gives credit where it is due.

In the end, there are three Sontag books to read: On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and a third, invented volume, drawn from the other books, of her selected portraits (Artaud, Benjamin, Barthes, Canetti, Cioran, Godard, Leiris, Lévi-Strauss, Pavese, Riefenstahl, Sebald, Serge, Tsypkin), for, as an idolizer, she wrote her best essays on single figures, rather than larger tropes. Three good books is a lot, more than most writers achieve, though perhaps not what she imagined of herself, or for herself. In 1967, she had written in her journal:

My image of myself since age 3 or 4 — the genius-schmuck. . . . Sartre (cf. “Les Mots”) the only other person I know of who had this “certainty” of genius.

(By “schmuck” she meant her personality flaws, and her inability, at the time, to form long-lasting relationships.) It is a Hollywood cliché that a beautiful actress needs an element of ugliness to become a great star, and one might say that a genius needs an element of stupidity, or something wrong, to become a great imaginative writer. Sartre certainly had his. But Sontag seems to have had nothing stupid about her at all. Arguably the most important American literary figure or force of the last forty years, she may ultimately belong more to literary history than to literature.

I don’t think there’s any need for me to argue particular points or to review his review. Instead, just go check it out — it’s well worth reading.

Stray Quotes

I’m trying out a new plug-in called Stray Quotes. You can see it in the left sidebar under the categories drop-down, under the head “Duly Quoted.” The plug-in can function as a widget. It displays a random quote from a user-created list (refreshing the page will likely produce a new quote). Basic html will generate links, etc. I’m using it here as the creator intended, to display a random quote. But it could also display any kind of random link, text, or even image (I’m not sure what length limitations it may have).

For now I’ve taken down the “now reading” plug-in, because I haven’t updated it in a while. Once I do that I may bring it back.

Faulkner’s sorority pledge

Turns out Faulkner wrote a sorority pledge for a friend of his stepdaughter. Unfortunately, the full six paragraphs don’t seem to be available online. But we do get passages, like this one:

I am the university of friendship, the college of sisterly love, the school for the better making of women. I am the sorority.

Robert Ludlum keeps cranking them out …

… even though he’s been dead since 2001.

Tintin and Racism

tin tin in the congo

At the Marvel of Manga blog, a discussion came up about Tintin in the Congo and its racist elements. To recap the controversy: The strip was published in 1930-1931, when the Congo was a Belgian territory (Belgium’s colonial behavior in the Congo was particularly brutal). It was republished in 1946 with some of the colonialist elements softened. In 2005 Egmont Publishing issued a new English edition with a foreword situating the book in its historical context. In 2007, human rights lawyer David Enright compained about the book appearing in the Borders chains, and the Commission for Racial Equality labelled the book racist and demanded it be pulled. As a response, Borders removed the book from its children’s section (where it was certainly inappropriate!) and put it in the adult section. In the U.S., however, the book was removed entirely. The controversy was great for the book’s sales, by the way, as it moved up more than four thousand slots to number 5 on the Amazon U.K. list. (This summary relies on — I cringe to confess — Wikipedia.)

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Rejecting Jane

For what it’s worth: David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, submitted copies of Austen’s novels to 18 publishers in the U.K., changing only names and titles. Only one of the editors to receive the submissions appeared to recognize the work as Austen’s, and none expressed interest in publication. One of the editors did allow (tongue in cheek?) that the manuscript “seems like a really original and interesting read.”


UPDATE: In a similar spirit: The Gilgamesh epic is “dated and confusing.”


Interview with Julio Cortazar

Two hours with Julio! (In Spanish.)

Dharma Bummed

memory babeGerald Nicosia asserts that Viking Penguin and the estate of Jack Kerouac are “deliberately removing my name from books on the Beat generation and Jack Kerouac.” The Kerouac estate was passed to his third wife, but Nicosia had supported a failed claim to the estate by the author’s daughter, who argued that the will in question was forged. Nicosia also criticized the estate for selling off portions of Kerouac’s archives, such as the original On the Road typewriter scroll, which was sold for $2.4 million.

Nicosia published Memory Babe, his biography of Kerouac, with Grove Press in 1977 (the book was reprinted by University of California Press in 1994). He says that Viking Penguin is deliberately suppressing references to his book. “What Viking Penguin is doing,” he adds, “violates the spirit of the Beats, who stood for openness.”

The truth of the matter appears difficult to establish, but it does appear someone is lying. According to Nicosia, John Leland, author of Why Kerouac Matters, confessed to him in a phone call that Penguin editor Paul Slovak pressured him to remove or change citations to Nicosia. But Leland says that “No one at Viking Penguin ever asked me to remove his name,” Leland said. “I told Nicosia that there were several citations to his book in Why Kerouac Matters. There is one in the text and one in the bibliographical essay. That’s all there ever was.”

The fiftieth anniversary of On the Road‘s original publication will occur September 5.

Information in this post is via an article by Heidi Benson in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Is It Serious?

muck monsterAlthough BoingBoing has already copied the entire article (under the heading “Ursula LeGuin rips into Slate Magazine”), this post “on serious literature,” which appears on the Ansible website, is marked “copyright Ursula K. Le Guin, 2007.” So I will quote just an excerpt. It pertains to the issue of whether genre fiction is serious writing, which is not merely an abstract concern. My friend Rod Clark, editor of Rosebud magazine, has lost some sources of funding because of his refusal to exclude genre fiction from his journal.

Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs? … As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? … Could it be that that Chabon, just because some mad fools gave him a Pulitzer, had forgotten the sacred value of the word mainstream? …

Read the full post.

Borges and the Maya Pyramids

borges by tom christensen

When Borges (1899-1986) was eighty he visited Mexico for a week of talks, conferences, and tributes. He decided to visit the Maya site of Uxmal, although his hosts warned him that it would be an arduous trip involving taxis, airplanes, jeeps, and who knows what. But he insisted and arrived at the site as the sun was setting. Borges — who was completely blind in his last decades — sat quietly in front of the pyramids for an hour or so. Then he rose and thanked his hosts for an unforgettable experience.

More on Uxmal at Buried Mirror
Based on a post at El Libro de Geno

Recalling Malcolm Lowry

lowry under the volcano coverFifty years and a few days ago, on June 26, 1957, after a night of heavy drinking, Malcolm Lowry died. Within a decade his books — or at least Under the Volcano — would be widely read, but at the time none of his books was in print.

Ellis, at the Sharp Side, has marked the anniversary of Lowry’s death with a good short overview.

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