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Eliot Weinberger, literary renegade

On an overcast evening last November, I met the American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger at a gentrified West Village coffee shop. Having got there early, I was looking out the window to see him approach: an impressively balding man dressed in austere literary attire—faded navy jacket, plain t-shirt, lit European cigarette—placidly weaving his way through a crowd of suited professionals and hip yuppies.

It was an apt image, in its gentle anachronisms. The village, once a cheap artistic refuge, has today turned into a playground for supermodels and hedge funders. Most of its (and America’s) writers have in turn gentrified themselves, leaving society for this or that university. But through these dismal decades of late-capitalism, Weinberger has remained heroically independent: a lonely polymath upholding American modernism from his apartment.

This principled independence is one reason that he’s developed a cult following home and abroad, even if his books have been largely ignored by the American press. I first came across him when a renegade Chinese professor handed me a roughed-up copy of his 1987 pamphlet on translation, ‘19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei’, with the following words: “Weinberger is the only Westerner who understands Tang poetry.” A new version of that book, along with his latest collection of essays, The Ghost of Birds, were recently published in the U.S. They were my pretext for meeting him, though of course I hardly needed one….

From a profile by Ratik Asokan of my friend Eliot Weinberger in The Hindu. Please continue reading there.

Beyond Shakespeare at The Critical Flame

"Beyond Shakespeare" at <em>The Critical Flame</em>

“Beyond Shakespeare” at The Critical Flame.

Thanks to Daniel Pritchard and the Critical Flame for publishing my short opinion piece on Shakespeare and globalism. I wrote the piece in conjunction with my participation in the 1616 Symposium held at Rhodes College in April.

The Critical Flame is a great online magazine devoted to encouraging “intelligent public discussion about literature and culture through long-form literary and critical essays covering a wide range of topics.”


The pot in the garden

early 17th c. pipe

early 17th c. pipe

Shakespeare’s garden, that is (click image for link to BBC video).



Coming soon to an HR department near you?

Partial IBM-Watson Results for Tom's Garden Post

IBM has developed a program called the “The IBM Watson Personality Insights Service” that “uses linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more.”

I don’t know how this thing works, but let’s try it out on some samples of literature. It requires a minimum of 100 words of text. I chose the first page (or a substantial chunk therefrom) of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I also included one of Emily Dickinson’s longer poems, “I cannot live with You.”

What is water?

Cool video made from David Foster Wallace commencement address.

Tom Kristensen

tom kristensen, haervaerk (havoc)

Maybonne returned recently from a trip to Europe, which included a swing through northern Germany and Denmark. While there she took a few pictures of Christensen-related books and signage, including this shelf featuring the best-known title of Tom Kristensen (1893-1974).

I’ve long had some interest in Kristensen, and not just because of the similarity of our names. I first encountered him in Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce. (Apparently Ellman got some of his facts wrong about Joyce and Kristensen, who did a review of the bio.) Kristensen’s book Haervaerk (“Havoc,” shown in the photo) was influenced by Joyce and introduced some of his literary strategies to Denmark. The two men met, and Joyce was interested in Kristensen’s work, which centered around the city of Copenhagen much as Joyce’s centered around Dublin. Haervaerk, which was published in 1930 traces a journalist’s intentional journey of self-ruination.  The book was translated into English by Carl Malmberg as Havoc and published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

There is a good brief appreciation of Haervaerk by Marie (who has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature and Theatre Studies, and is employed as a dramaturge at a chamber opera house in Copenhagen) at the blog “At the Lighthouse.”



Happy birthday, Jorge Luis Borges

Feliz cien duodécimo, estimado señor autor!

jorge luis borges on imaginary books

The Naipaul Test

V. S. Naipaul continues to provoke and offend. In a talk at the Royal Geographic Society he said:

I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me….[A] woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too…My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.

Nothing needs to be said. The statement speaks for itself.

The Guardian did a follow-up, posting short passages from various writings. Now you can test your mettle against Mr. Naipaul. I scored 7 out of 10 correct. The Guardian‘s quiz informs me “Not bad, but you’re no Sir Vidia.” That’s probably a good thing.

Take the test.


Image via The Telegraph

Randomized Editing

I have a month to polish up the book I’m currently working on, and I’m experimenting with a randomized editing process.

Most writers spend a lot of time on the beginnings of their books, and rightly so since they set the tone and either welcome or drive away potential readers. Endings get some attention as well, but authors and readers alike bog down in the problematic middle, especially around three-fifths of the way through.

In revising, you can start from the beginning and just go as far as you can, or all the way to the end, repeatedly, but this will likely result in a mid-book slump. You can also just identify the most important parts, or the parts that need the most work, and concentrate on them, sanding down the rough patches one after another.

If you’re working in short bursts — in breaks in your day job, for example — you might want to test the water by just dipping in here and there. But, if you’re like me, your dipping is not likely to be very random, so you’re not really doing a good test.

There’s a site called, where you can generate a random sequence of numbers within a certain interval. According to the site, “The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs.”

A random sequence, as opposed to a random set where numbers can be repeated, is like pulling numbers from a hat, where once a number is used it can’t be used again. So I’ve generated a random sequence of numbers between 1 and 384, and I’m reviewing pages in the that order. I’ll do this a few times with a few different random sequences.

Is this a good idea? I’m not sure, but I think it might be a helpful corrective, or at least complement, to the kind of directed attention that you’re going to give your manuscript anyway.


image from kevindooley’s photostream


New new Shakespeare portraits

More fun with computer morphing. What did Shakespeare look like? It’s possible one of these computer morphs might provide a clue. The image on the left morphs the Sanders and Chandos portraits. The image on the right morphs in three equal parts the Sanders, Cobb, and Chandos portraits.

For a full discussion of what’s going on here, see this previous summary of Shakespeare portraits, with a morph of the Chandos and Cobb images. I have made these new morphs in response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait.

For reference, here are all three morphs, with the original Chandos/Cobb on the right:

all three new Shakespeare portraits

A new portrait of William Shakespeare

What did Shakespeare look like? I will come to how I created the above image in a moment. First we need to review the existing portraits that are claimed to be of Shakespeare.

All of the three or four likeliest images of him are problematic in one way or another. The three likeliest portraits are the Cobbe portrait, which portrays the forty-something Shakespeare as a gallant young courtier; the Chandos portrait, which presents him as a comfortably well-off bohemian; and the Droeshout portrait — the familiar one from the first folio — which is so inempt and cartoonish that it gives little sense of any real person. (A Scientific American article once put forth the bizarre theory that it actually depicts Queen Elizabeth). Brice Stratford has helpfully assembled the three portraits, along with some supporting text, on this page. As you can see from the details below, all of the portraits share points of similarity, notably the high forehead, deep-set eyes, and long nose.

3 portraits of shakespeare

The problem with the Droeshout portrait (right) is that its young and inexperienced artist never met Shakespeare. He may have worked from the Chandos portrait, although this is speculation. Still, Ben Jonson and others who knew Shakespeare seem to have approved the image.

The problem with the Chandos portrait (middle) is that its ultimate provenance is unknown, and the sitter is not identified as Shakespeare. Still, the National Portrait Gallery in London, which has researched the issue, believes that this is probably Shakespeare, though there is no proof of that. I like this candidate because it is from the right period — the first decade of the seventeenth century; the black robes suggest affluence, and we know Shakespeare was doing pretty well by this time; and the rakish earring suggests a bohemian or artistic lifestyle. Moreover, this image simply has more presence than the others.

The Cobbe portrait (left) only came to light recently. It had been in the possession of the Cobbe family for 300 years. They had thought it a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh but it is now believed that it may be a portrait of Shakespeare. It too dates from the right period, and there is at least a tenuous provenance for it, as the Cobbe descent can be traced back to a patron of Shakespeare. Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, vouches for the authenticity of this one. The problem that I have with it is that it does not appear to depict a man in at least his mid-forties as Shakespeare would have been at the time the painting was made. In addition, the Cobbe family had good reason to think it a portrait of Raleigh, since it depicts its subject as a nobleman rather than a working playwright. (Although by the time this painting was made the status of playwrights had risen, and Shakespeare had even obtained a court of arms.) Nor does the hairline conform to the other images. But it’s conceivable that the artist simply went overboard in the direction of flattering the sitter.

A fourth image is a bust in Stratford-upon-Avon. This one was made by Gheerart Janssen, an artist who lived near the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was presumably approved by people who knew the playwright well. The problem with it is that the painted features had been removed and then reapplied in the eighteenth century, long after anyone who remembered him was alive. In addition, it is likely that the conservative Stratford community wished to make their native son look more like a respectable burgher than something as doubtful as a frequenter of London’s rowdy theater scene. The bust looks like this:

I reject the Droeshout image because it is more of a cartoon than a portrait, and the Statford bust because the loss of the original paint compromises the image too grossly. Despite serious doubts, I am inclined at least for now to entertain the idea that the portraits claimed as images of Shakespeare on the authority of the National Portrait Gallery and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust convey something of his appearance (these, if you have been paying attention, are the Chandos and Cobbe portraits).

For my Shakespeare, therefore, I computer morphed those two portraits into a new image of Shakespeare — splitting the difference if you will; the midpoint morph makes him a little less rough than the Chandos Shakespeare and a little less prettified than the Cobbe Shakespeare. If both of those portraits are indeed Shakespeare, then this intermediary version should probably be a fairly reasonable likeness. On the other hand, if the Cobbe portrait actually represents someone else — Sir Thomas Overbury has been suggested — well then we have something like an Overbury-Shakespeare morph. In any case, I think the result is an interesting image. Do you agree?


UPDATE: In response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait (in the comments below), I have made new Shakespeare morphs incorporating the Sanders portrait.


World book news: 13 rules for writers

10 rules for writers

Today I initiate what I am hoping will become a more or less weekly feature here at — a report on book news from newspapers and journals around the world. (I say “more or less weekly” because I am currently working on a big project that is taking most of my time, and this has reduced my blogging, which had been steadily daily up for years until a few months ago; more on that project in time.)

I think I will eventually move this feature to Thursdays. My plan is to spotlight one interesting story selected from a variety of sources of world book news, include a screen shot linking to the original, and briefly recap or comment on the story. Please let me know if this would be of interest, and I would love to hear suggestions regarding international sources I should include when looking for stories (in my languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian).

Today’s story may be a little different from most because it’s more of an entertaining feature than news about book publishing or authors and books. It’s a fun story from the Guardian (London), which surveys a number of writers — Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy — and asks them to list 10 tips for writers.

J. D. Salinger

Now that he’s passed away everybody who has ever read a book is writing about him. Enough! I call time out!

On the loss of vitality in writing

When the ancients wrote books they were trying to get at reality and transmit spirit. But all they could convey was a general idea, in order to help lead people to the truth. Much of their spirit, their energy, their words and laughter and actions, could not be captured.

When modern generations write books they ape the form of the ancients. To show how clever they are they add false analyses and additions. And so they get farther and father from the truth.

–Wang Yangming, 1471-1529

Mailbag: Bellemeade Books and Jonathan Williams

Mark Bromberg of Bellemeade Books writes on the subject of Jonathan Williams, author and publisher of the Jargon Society (we published his The Magpie’s Bagpipe at North Point Press) and generously includes the above scan of a Jargon Society publication, which I take the liberty of sharing.

… I have been a long-time reader and admirer of the late Jonathan Williams and his Jargon Society Press, the website here now run by his friend and collaborator, Thomas Meyer (A selection of 1960s correspondence between Davenport and Williams about publishing, art, and life can be found here).

I thought you might enjoy this cover image of “Elite/Elate Poems” (Jargon, 1975) — with authentic-era coffee stains! — and a BellemeadeBooks post about Mr. Williams from the archives. You will be able to access the entire blog with more timely posts once you are there.

Thanks, Mark!

I touch your mouth . . .

I touch your mouth, I touch the edge of your mouth with my finger, I am drawing it as if it were something my hand was sketching, as if for the first time your mouth opened a little, and all I have to do is close my eyes to erase it and start all over again, every time I can make the mouth I want appear, the mouth which my hand chooses and sketches on your face, and which by some chance that I do not seek to understand coincides exactly with your mouth which smiles beneath the one my hand is sketching on you….

This is Julio Cortazar, enormisimo supercronopio, reading chapter 7 of his novel Rayuela.

The Constipation Party

I am reading and enjoying Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It is my misfortune, I realize, to be so sensitized to colonialist attitudes as to imagine I detect in the book a faint taint of colonialist condescension.

But I am not here today to rant about colonialism but rather to share the following amusing passage from the book. The detective, Mma Ramotswe, muses about her feelings about hospitals and doctors. After reflecting that she is not ashamed of her weight or her corns she continues:

Now constipation was quite a different matter. It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature. She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party — with a chance of government perhaps — but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.

Here in California the Constipation Party — with its two warring wings — is already in power. Will it also dominate our national politics, currently focused on the struggle to pass health insurance legislation?


Image from the blog of the LA Times


What do these books have in common?

  • Maurice Bendrix, The Ambitious Host
  • D. B. Caulfield, The Secret Goldfish
  • Vivian Darkbloom, My Cue
  • Nicholas de Selby, Country AlbumGwendolen Erme, Deep Down, Overmastered
  • Andrew Hibbard, The Chasm of the Mind
  • Robin Penrose, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females: Woman as Sign and Commodity in Victorian Fiction
  • Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin, Days and Nights
  • Harriet Vane, Murder By Degrees

Answer after the break . . .

The dangerous world of butterflies

Here’s Peter Laufer, three or four of whose books I published at Mercury House, on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.


Major new Cortazar book appearing this week

Cortazar’s unpublished works have been collected and will be released at the Feria Internacional del Libro en Buenos Aires within a few days.

This should be a big book. If no one in the U.S. has snatched it up yet, some enterprising publisher should get in touch with Carmen Balcells right away.


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