Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Literary Novels

Do you want to write a Literary Novel but don’t know how to start? Fear not!

Follow these 11 easy steps and you too can write a masterpiece of fiction. Soon, you will enjoy critical praise, fawning audiences, fancy cocktail parties, cushy academic appointments, prestigious fellowships, and modest sales. Does that sound good? Then let’s get it going!

Step 1 – Make your Literary Novel Serious

It’s the rare comic novel that joins the pantheon of literature. Comedy works in your favor if you excel at tragedy too (Shakespeare), if it is suffused with deep undercurrents of sadness (Chekhov), or if it comes with dazzling social insights (Austen). Otherwise, you are condemned to lightweight status no matter how blinding your brilliance.

Step 2 – Make your Literary Novel Sad

A corollary to Step 1. No one who is happy is a serious person. Happiness indicates you are entirely lacking in the basic insight necessary to be sad or that you have been hoodwinked by capitalism, the church, the NFL, Cosmo magazine, the makers of antidepressant medication, or the Republican party.

Step 3 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introverts

Extroverts don’t sit in rooms by themselves reading about other people’s lives. They are out in the world living their own lives. Always make your Literary Novel about your audience. Your audience is introverts.

Step 4 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introspective

A corollary to Step 3. Being an introvert doesn’t do you much good unless you are living your interior life more deeply, more consciously, and more fiercely than everyone else is living theirs. Passionate introspection and self-conscious brooding are to introverts what sky-diving and tech start-ups are to extroverts: high-status ways of demonstrating you are more successful than your peers.

Step 5 – Make your Literary Novel characters Hyper-articulate

A corollary to Steps 3 and 4. It doesn’t do you much good to live a passionate interior life if you can’t get the damn thing out of your head and into the world prancing around impressing people. So make your characters impossibly articulate especially in circumstances that should render them speechless, such as tumbling inside a fatal avalanche or porking the hottie of their dreams.

Step 6 – Make your Literary Novel Big

This is especially important if you are a male writer. Size definitely DOES matter to the male literary novelist and the bigger the better. You don’t want to be dangling some elegant slender volume praised for its jewel-like perfections when you are standing next to Jonathan Franzen, do you?

If you are a woman, you have it easier. You can say exactly what you want to say, in exactly the number of words you need to say it – and no more – and trust the intelligence and good taste of your readers to recognize your qualities. You should also trust you will hear a lot of sniffing about lady writers.

Step 7 – Make your Literary Novel Boring

Never make the mistake of entertaining the reader. You might accidentally become a popular success and popular success is for hacks. (Just ask Shakespeare or Twain or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or … well you get the point.)

The easiest way to make your Literary Novel boring is to assume that every passing thought you have is a rare gift to the world that must be shared. If you’ve ever used social media, this should be simple enough. Another easy way to bore the reader is to avoid plot. Be sure to let people know your book is deliberately boring by giving interviews in which you talk about subverting reader expectations or offering a stinging critique of the zombie-producing distractions of a debased all-for-profit culture.

Step 8 – Use Big Words in your Literary Novel

Hey, we coughed up forty bucks for the hardcover version of your frickin’ doorstop. We want our money’s worth. That means big words and lots of them. Even if they don’t quite work in the sentence.

Step 9 – Use Obscure References in your Literary Novel

A corollary to Step 8. One of the most important reasons people read Literary Novels is to look and feel smarter than people who don’t. Obscure references are essential to this process. So make sure you put in plenty. I mean, you do want to be the next Sirin right? (Did you get my reference? You did? Welcome to the club! You didn’t? Ha ha!)

Step 10 – Criticize Society in your Literary Novel

You should always criticize society in your Literary Novel as long as you are criticizing its insidious lack of liberal progress. Never criticize society for being too progressive. That is not literature!

Express outrage no one has fixed the problems you identify. Imply every problem would magically disappear if it weren’t for the malignant, soul-deadening, tyrannical machinations of the power elite. Do not make the mistake of offering solutions to the problems you see. Literary Novels are not in the solutions business.

Step 11 – Make your Literary Novel Difficult

This is the most important step of all. Your Literary Novel must be difficult to read. Remember, a truly original work of art is indistinguishable from a hot mess to its first audience. Further, no one is going to spend the time carefully reading an interminable and terminally boring new Literary Novel to figure out if it is a hot mess. They are going to play it safe and praise the book instead. This works great for you unless you really are a genius in which case, honey I’m sorry to tell you, you’re screwed.

That’s it! I look forward to your Literary Novel appearing in The New Yorker ten years from now. I did mention these bastards take a long time to write, and cause you unbearable suffering while you write them, didn’t I?


Read Full Post »


Portraits of “Shakespeare” from Wikipedia

The greatest and most amusing — and most tedious – literary conspiracy theory bouncing around is the assertion that “Shakespeare” the genius dramatist was not actually the historical William Shakespeare but some other far more deserving (and often far more aristocratic) person.

The various theories against Shakespeare’s authorship are amusing because conspiracy fans insistent on them so stubbornly while arguing for versions of the “truth” that often require a greater suspension of disbelief than the generally accepted “Shakespeare” story. These theories are tedious because they entirely miss what is important about Will.

But to the entertainment first. There are a couple reasons why Shakespeare conspiracy theories are so persistent. The one good reason is that there are relatively few documented facts about the historical William Shakespeare’s life, and within these few strong facts that link him to the authorship of the plays. This lack of conclusive documentation offers a fertile opportunity for the paranoid at loose ends for an object on which to fix their obsessions; or academics in need of their next publishing topic; or the occasional aesthete who is offended by the idea that the brightest star in English literature was also a grubby businessman.

This fertile opportunity is supplemented by two dubious assumptions that the conspiracy fans like to promote as self-evident facts. The first is that it is impossible for a person to become an artist of any quality unless he or she has received a highly privileged education. The second is that it is impossible for an artist to write persuasively about persons or topics unless he or she has had direct experience with those persons and topics; which in Shakespeare’s particular case means kings, queens, and nobles for the persons and the dynamics and psychology of power within a monarchy for the topics.

The first assumption of the conspiracy fans is dubious because it is contradicted by life. We can find many examples of people with intelligence, talent, energy, and determination who thrived without an elite education or special privileges. Robert Zimmerman, a college dropout from Hibbing Minnesota whose family possessed no special distinction moves to New York City and within a few years explodes into the culture as Bob Dylan. By the logic of the conspiracy fans, such an artistic life should not be possible and Dylan’s works should actually be the secret production of Pete Seeger, son of a Harvard-trained musicologist and a concert violinist who enjoyed all sorts of advantages and opportunities. (I’m not trying to bust on Pete here, just saying.)

The direct experience assumption is even more problematic. First, it assumes that the characters of the nobility and the dynamics are monarchical power are fundamentally different from those of – for example – ordinary people competing for position in a theater company. And yet we often find Shakespeare’s nobles sympathetic and their problems familiar. If these nobles are a different breed than us, why would we understand or care about them? If they aren’t a different breed – and that is my assertion – then Shakespeare would not need to have been at court to write about them and we would not need to be nobles to care.

Even worse, the direct experience assumption denies that artists possess any real creativity. If artists can only depict what they know or have experienced personally, that makes them, at best, recording clerks in whom the power of imagination is largely irrelevant.

Also, if we apply this logic consistently, then we’d have to delegitimize enormous numbers of artistic works. What are we going to do with all those paintings of the crucifixion? Clearly, no painters were present at the death of Jesus. Did the real author of Macbeth – Shakespeare or otherwise – personally know a murderous king? Because if he or she didn’t, by the conspiracy fan’s logic, the play couldn’t have been written and shouldn’t exist. Unless Melville survived a whale attack, he couldn’t have composed Moby Dick. And so on. There are convenient ways to get around this problem, of course. The most convenient is to assert that direct experience is necessary for acts of artistic creation. Except when it’s not.

These two assumptions cause additional mischief. Since they are used to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays attributed to him, they also push the conspiracy fans to identify university-educated playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or various aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. This produces some of the most fun to be had with the conspiracies, because the explanations are considerably more fantastic and more unlikely than Shakespeare’s own dullish biography.

In the case of Christopher Marlowe, as an example, the problem is that Marlowe was killed in 1593 while Shakespeare continued to write plays for a good twenty years afterwards. How does that work? Did Marlowe leave a trunk-full of unfinished plays? That’s quite an incredible explosion of unexploited creativity. Why didn’t Marlowe publish the plays himself or make arrangements to do so? How did Shakespeare get a hold of them? Were they written in secret? If so, why? How come nobody else except Shakespeare knew about them? Or if other people did know, why did they not care Shakespeare was presenting the plays as his own?

Or take this possibility. Marlowe faked his own death (perhaps to avoid a heresy investigation), succeeded at faking his death, was never found out, continued to write plays, used Shakespeare as a front to present these play, was never discovered or exposed as the real author, and presumably died in anonymous peace sometime around the time Shakespeare retired without Marlowe reappearing at the last moment to claim credit before he joined the bleeding choir invisible.

Really? As a potential movie starring Tom Hiddleston, stuff like this sounds superb. As history, considering we are talking about private citizens and matters that do not touch the vital interests of a state, it’s pretty ridiculous. The problems with the conspiracies generally fall under the categories of motive and means: why would another writer pretend to be Shakespeare and how did he pull it off? By contrast, all we need to believe about Will was that he was a slightly unlikely, extraordinarily talented autodidact.

When it comes to Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare conspiracies, I fall back on that old stand-by: Occam’s Razor. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation for an occurrence should be preferred. In this case, the simplest explanation is that “Shakespeare” really was Shakespeare and he really did write Hamlet and As You Like It and all the other plays. And until such time as new reliable evidence appears, which demonstrates that what sounds pretty ridiculous is gosh-darn-it the truth, that is where I will settle.

These who enjoy canvassing the question may continue to do so with all liberty, of course. But after a little time I find the whole debate boring. And depressing. Because what really matters about “Shakespeare” is our experience of his work, which is so wonderful, so deep, so multi-various, so entertaining and consoling. Who Shakespeare was doesn’t really matter. It’s what Shakespeare created that matters. Listening to the people who don’t understand that is amusing, for a minute or two. Then it becomes tedious.

Read Full Post »

Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

Read Full Post »

clive james dante's infernoThere are two fundamental questions for contemporary readers of Dante’s Inferno translated into English. The first is “What should we make of the story?” assuming we don’t want to pull on our scholar’s togs and get all 1300 CE. The second is “How should we judge our experience of the language?” considering Dante is famously difficult to translate.

I’ll address both questions within the context of Clive James’ new translation of Inferno published as part of The Divine Comedy earlier this year.

What the Hell is Up with Hell?

As you doubtless know if you bothered to click through to this post, the Inferno follows Dante Alighieri, a Florentine Italian born in the 13th century who has lost his way in middle age as he travels through hell accompanied by the poet Virgil in search of (ultimately) God’s love or, as it may be, the hottest platonic one-night stand in all of literary history with his dead and now angelic crush-for-eternity, Beatrice.

Dante’s excellent adventure will take him through Purgatory and finally to Heaven, but first he has to get past hell; and hell is a horrible place to live, although it is unbeatable as a destination if you are tourist, which is essentially what Dante is.

As a fictitious world – and since I am a liberal Christian, I am going to posit hell does not exist – Dante’s Inferno is an unparalleled feat of imagination. Hogwarts may be more fey and witty, Middle Earth may be more thoroughly worked out (though maybe not since Dante drags all of Italy and much of 1300 Europe into his poem). But for sheer originality and ummph-um-pa-pa, nothing comes close to Dante’s hell.

Nothing comes close to the Inferno in the category of high-class torture porn, either. And torture porn is something this monument of world literature doubtlessly is. Dante the poet, rather than Dante the character in the poem, revels in the sufferings he has dreamed up and canto after canto delivers stand-out horrifying and/or disgusting examples of the concept of “poetic justice”.

Hell is supposed to be the expression of divine retribution. Why then does it often feel closer to bloody-minded titillation? This question is probably familiar to anyone who has seen the frescos in medieval Italian churches or Albrecht Dürer‘s gorgeous engravings of the Inferno, but it is worth repeating.

Then there is the issue of just what kind of sins get you into hell and how much shit these sins get you into once you are there.

Dante’s hell starts off sensibly enough. We begin with the virtuous pagans: you were good guys, but you didn’t know Christ so sorry, you’re screwed. Then sins of appetite or emotion that follow along with many of the seven deadly ones: lust, gluttony, and wrath for example. Then heresy. We know medieval Christians were particular about people disagreeing with them, even on the small stuff, so okay fine, we’ll give Dante a pass on heresy. Then violence in the seventh circle – we’re right with you D, we definitely don’t like violence.

But then we get to the eighth circle of hell, where the fraudulent are punished, and here the head scratching of modern humanist readers begins.

Because the eighth circle is filled with panderers, flatterers, astrologists, simoniacs, corrupt politicians, thieves, counterfeiters – while Attila the Hun is rumored to be floating around a whole circle above.

How is it exactly that a guy who raped and killed his way across the Eastern and Western Roman Empires for twenty years is considered a little less bad than someone who made a living out of telling a dull king he was brilliant or proclaiming that since the moon was in the seventh house, now is a propitious moment to make the moves on your lady friend?

And speaking of rape, where are the rapists? Mixed in with the violent I guess, but they don’t merit a mention to all appearances. Where are those that hate? In the eighth circle, the only ones that truly deserve to be there by modern lights are the Sowers of Discord. Traitors are in the ninth and last circle, with Satan in the center of it all.

Dante Loves Him Some Dante

Another particular feature of the Inferno is just how highly Dante thinks of himself. It starts with the foundational premise of the whole Divine Comedy, namely that Beatrice in heaven has persuaded God to give Dante some special help.

Now I know God is all-knowing and all-powerful and his love has no bounds, etcetera; but there are plenty of people in heaven who have friends on earth, and God seems to have issued exactly one golden ticket for exactly one special tour of his magical damnation plus salvation factory, and that ticket went to you, Dante. And you didn’t even need to buy a Wonka Bar to get it.

Then there is the remarkable early canto where poets like Homer, Horace, and Ovid welcome Dante as a colleague and equal. Now I’m not saying they are wrong. Dante is their equal. But – dude – you write yourself into a scene where great dead poets of antiquity say you’re the bomb, and then you get all choked up and grateful about it? I ain’t buying.

It almost seems petty to note, beside these examples, that Dante the character also makes a habit in hell of telling various suffering souls he can make or break their reputations back on earth if they don’t play nice and answer his questions. Apparently, being God’s special project and an immortal poet ain’t enough for D. He has to make sure people know he’s the world’s best PR flak, too.

There’s also the whole Dante-Virgil bromance, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a major man-crush Dante has on Virgil; and also the Dante getting to decide who goes to hell thing; but I will let these slide because other commentators have noted them and because I believe I might now be trying your patience with this line of criticism. If not my flipness.

The Clive James’ Translation of Dante’s Inferno

I should say before I go forward, offering small praise for great achievements, that Dante consistently writes scenes that are convincingly felt; that many of these scenes are compelling without understanding the background of the characters involved (but not always); and that the Inferno has incredible momentum – it reads fast and short, even with the volume of detail and people it contains.

This is especially remarkable considering that James’ translation of the Inferno is substantially longer than the original because he has woven into his work many explanations about characters and stories which Dante’s readers would not have required and which other translators typically place in footnotes.

I find this an odd choice because it is for just such information that God first invented footnotes and more recently, the tablet computer. I can’t blame James for ignoring this second invention, since he says he began work long before the iPad and Kindle Fire were invented; but these devices render the need for extensive notes obsolete. Honestly, most folks who are going to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy likely own mobile computers and can sit comfortably in bed with both James’ book and their tablet. I did. Worked beautifully.

As for James’ translation, I think it is as good as you can expect from the impossible task of translating Dante into English.

It’s not simply Dante’s famous ABA BCB terza rima that makes him difficult. English translators with any sense at all avoid it, and James uses an ABAB scheme and iambic pentameter with an AA rhyme at the end of each canto instead.

It’s also that Dante is justly celebrated for the vividness, precision, compactness, and music of his poetry. The little time I spent with a side by side translation of Dante makes me admire anyone brave enough to try it.

James is brave enough and often succeeds beautifully. You’ll find many sequences of lines where you’ll forget you are reading a translation or rhyming poetry at all.

But then, inevitably, you’ll also find lines where syntax or word choice (and so sense) are distorted to fit the poem’s scheme as well as filler words, stuck in to keep the pentameter or jury-rig a rhyme. This pops up during moments when, for example, Dante might ask a question and Virgil says before answering it, “You ask me so I’ll tell you.”

But I’ll apologize to James because these feel like quibbles, and offer what I hope is a compliment instead: your Inferno was so good it made me eager to read Purgatorio. I’ll let you all know how it went when I’m done.

Sorta Related Posts about Literature from Massey

8 “Bad” Books by Famous Writers | Reviews of Literature

7 Rules for Writing Sex Scenes in Novels | Massey on Writing

Read Full Post »

the screwtape letters cs lewisC.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – which consists of epistolary advice from the senior demon Screwtape to a junior demon Wormwood on the damnation of  a human soul – is frequently described as a satire. But I don’t see any satire at all in The Screwtape Letters.

What I do see is a brilliant and generous exploration of human nature, a miniature portrait of Britain as the Phoney War comes to an end, and some of the most perfect prose you are going to find in English.

Satire uses exaggeration and intensification to criticize a person, idea, institution, or social convention that has power by making it look ridiculous. Satirizing demons is difficult because if you don’t believe in them as metaphysical beings (ie, you don’t believe they exist), then there is nothing to criticize.

If you do believe in devils, then you are likely to regard Lewis’ Screwtape as utterly convincing rather than ridiculous. Metaphysical evil is self-exaggerating and self-intensifying after all. And Screwtape’s bureaucracy and banality, twenty years before Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, offers readers who reached the age reason before the close of the twentieth century, a highly plausible picture of hell.

But The Screwtape Letters offers much more than an original demonic voice, satirized or not. Its greatest achievement – and I think, real purpose – is its comprehensive depiction of the human character in all aspects.

Screwtape is, of course, interested in exploiting human vice, vanity, and pettiness to achieve his goals, so these get full treatment. But he is also interested in neutralizing human virtues because these are weapons that counter the work of demons.

The emphasis is on religion and the work of religious devotion throughout, but Lewis’ insights are so universal they are likely to please readers of any religion or no religion at all – except for those diehards who are dissatisfied with any book that does not exactly confirm their particular convictions; and for such folks I recommend reading very few books or none at all. At best, you’ll be wasting ninety-five percent of your time. Why bother?

Screwtape considers the sources of domestic harmony and disharmony; sexuality, love, and married life; the foibles of social interactions in all its forms; the hybrid animal and spiritual nature of humans (under the theory of “undulation”); the character of Christianity and other trends of thought; the temptations of the world; and more.

Perhaps my favorite letter is on the nature of human laughter and joy because many good things in life, many pleasures, are gifts Lewis believes God wants us to embrace. In a few pages, Lewis explores, “Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy” with an economy and incisiveness that should provoke jealousy in any writer except that admiration overwhelms envy.

Lewis’ Screwtape associates Joy with Music and says “something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience” which he as a demon detests. Joy and laughter are “a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell” according to Screwtape.

Toward the end of the book, World War II, which has always been hovering at the edges of The Screwtape Letters, comes to the forefront as the German bombing campaign of Britain begins and the unnamed young man who is the focus of Wormwood’s intentions joins the war effort. Here it was impossible for me to think Lewis’ wasn’t speaking from his own experiences fighting in the First World War, and he does a masterful job making us feel the quality of that time in England.

Finally, there is Lewis’ writing. I could praise it, but I will simply give you an example of Screwtape at his most caustic, and let you decide. Screwtape discovers that Wormwood has allowed his young man to fall in love with a Christian girl, and this is Screwtape’s reaction:

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian – a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened. We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. Not that she’d do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet has a satirical wit. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!

Read Full Post »

Which are Nabokov’s best books? And which should you consider reading? Any ranking is subjective but the reasons behind a “best of” rank can help you decide.  So here is my personal list of the eight “best” Nabokov books, which include six novels, one memoir, and one collection of interviews. Also see the Nabokov resources below these reviews.

Lolita (1955)

Lolita - The Best Nabokov novelLolita is Nabokov’s best novel because it is the book that best synthesizes all his major characteristics as a writer:

(1) A love of language

(2) Delight in word play, patterns, puzzles, and games

(3) A highly intelligent, narcissistic-sociopath narrator

(4) A resilient victim who is  the center of Nabokov’s sympathy

(5) A preoccupation with perception, consciousness, time, and memory

(6) A belief in fate and the existence of a great design behind what seem to be the random and irrelevant facts of ordinary life

(7) The conviction that art is a refuge from the assault of death

In addition, Lolita is the disturbing story of a successful child rapist. It features brilliant miniature portraits of postwar America – almost Vermeer-like in their lucidity – as well as a phantasmagorical climax that takes place in a fairytale nightmare land. Lolita is funny, harrowing, heartbreaking, and transcendent. It caused a scandal, was a critical and then a popular success, and made Nabokov a mint of money. As art and cultural phenomenon, Lolita excels. The Lolita article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

Speak, Memory (1966)

Speak Memory Nabokov - a best Nabokov bookNot a novel, but a memoir of Nabokov’s life from childhood to the moment he escapes France weeks before the 1940 German invasion – Speak, Memory is a classic of autobiography that leaves most of Nabokov’s story untold.

Instead, it focuses on Nabokov’s most cherished memories of his family and friends; his youth in Russia and his young adulthood in Western European exile; on the natural world and butterfly hunting; on a recital of the Nabokov family’s august history and their liberal politics; on stories of Vladimir’s education and tutors and governesses, including the famous “Mademoiselle O”; on poetry; and more.

Through it all permeates the great Nabokovian pre-occupation and conviction that there is more than darkness before the beginning and after the end of life; that our living persists and this persistence is wonderful; and that the people we love won’t disappear into nothingness after death. You find this theme frequently in Nabokov, but its purest distillation is here in this great book.

Pnin (1957)

Pnin a Best Nabokov novelProfessor Timofey Pnin is Nabokov’s most deeply comic and deeply human character, and his response to the incessant comic cruelty Cervantes inflicts on Don Quixote. The structure of the novel is slight and episodic (Pnin began life as serial pieces published in The New Yorker) and lacks the dazzling pyrotechnics of books like Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. What Pnin offers instead is hilarity, enormous tenderness for the agonies of an ordinary life, and the danger of laughing at rather than laughing with Timofey; which is complicated by the fact that the arrogant narrator of this novel is not a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote, but Vladimir Nabokov himself.

Pale Fire (1962)

In terms of structure, technique, and pure virtuosity – and as a landmark of post-modern fiction – Pale Fire is Nabokov’s masterpiece. But it is a cold masterpiece.

The novel is constructed from a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets composed by one of the book’s characters (the Robert-Frost-like John Shade), with a forward, commentary, and index written by another (the extravagantly delusional Charles Kinbote).

The major conceit of Pale Fire is that Kinbote’s commentary has nothing to do with Shade’s poem, which creates a WTF experience for the unwarned first-time reader rivaled in English-language novels of the 20th century only by the “Benny” section of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.

Nabokov’s prose in Pale Fire is brilliant; there is no better example of “the novel as chess problem” in his work; and Charles Kinbote is the craziest if not the most dangerous of Nabokov’s narrators (although it is difficult to tell what is “real” and what is imagination in his novels).

However, the human tenderness in Pale Fire – frequently buried in Nabokov’s major works – is particularly difficult to find here. It exists in Shade’s poem, which tells the story of his unhappy daughter’s suicide, and the long grief of Shade and his wife over their loss. But this is overwhelmed by Kinbote’s monumental self-absorption and the intricate innovation of Nabokov’s design. Nabokov’s supreme novel for the mind. The Pale Fire article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

The Gift (1937)

The Gift - a best Nabokov novelThe last and best of the novels Nabokov wrote in Russian, The Gift is a portrait of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, finding his way as an artist and falling in love with the woman who would become his wife.

Nabokov transforms this commonplace premise into a novel which is dense with detail, filled with examples of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s writing, and convinced that fate is working secretly to assure the young writer’s happiness.

Nabokov’s powers of observation and description come to the forefront in The Gift, particularly since the novel, like many lives, is short on plot. This will please fans of modernism but there are metafictional touches as well.

The novel features a 90-page chapter entirely devoted to a book by Fyodor called The Life of Chernyshevski as well as a generous sample of hostile reviews of it. Most especially, at the end, you see Fyodor coming up with the idea to write a book that will become The Gift itself.

Ada (1969)

Ada is Nabokov’s Finnegan’s Wake. Meaning that  you can see Ada as either the summation of Nabokov’s artistic vision which pushes to their limits his genius as an author, the form of the novel, and the abilities of the audience. Or you can see Ada as a deeply self-indulgent, over-intricate and deliberately obscure, reader-hostile mess.

I’m inclined to the former view, although I think Ada is a good example of the axiom that more is not always better, and even Nabokov fans will need to endure a fair amount of confusion, re-read the novel several times, or rely on expert help (such as Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Ada or the chapters in his biography of Vladimir).

Ada is occupied with the 80+ year love affair between Van and Ada Veen who are, as it turns out, brother and sister and which takes place on a parallel / alternative Earth sometimes called Anti Terra and sometimes Demonia. All seven of the Nabokov qualities are in evidence, plus a fair amount of literary parody as well as a few science fiction touches and other assorted material that will keep readers so inclined to puzzle out Ada happily at work. Matthew Hodgart’s 1969 review of “Ada” gets it right and is a hoot to read too.

Bend Sinister (1947)

Nabokov always insisted he was indifferent to politics, but Bend Sinister suggests he wasn’t indifferent to the cruelty governments inflict on individuals.

The novel takes place in the nightmare city of Padukgrad, run by the dictator Paduk and his “Party of the Average Man”.  Paduk wants Adam Krug, a renowned philosopher, to give a speech in support of his government. When Krug refuses, Paduk threatens his son, and the bungling brutality of Paduk’s thugs leads to tragedy.

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov focuses on Adam Krug’s love for his son and his cheerful contempt for the dictator Paduk, a childhood acquaintance. Although the novel takes place in a fictitious country, and feels like other Nabokovian worlds, Bend Sinister is an accurate portrait of the dynamics of the total state. What is fantasy, and what gives the novel its final punch, is when Nabokov reaches into the novel and mercifully saves a character from the suffering that state inflicts. (For a longer discussion of Nabokov and totalitarianism, see my post Tyrants Destroyed: Politics in the Novels of Vladimir Nabokov.)

Strong Opinions (1973)

Readers of this collection of interviews, edited to the last comma by Nabokov himself, could be forgiven for concluding Vladimir was even more arrogant and imperious than his reputation.

Nabokov does spank the hell out of just about everyone in Strong Opinions: Freud; a long list of “second rate” writers including Balzac, Dostoevski, Lawrence, Camus, Sartre, and Faulkner; consumers of “poshlost” or cheap, vulgar sometimes popular and sometimes exalted culture; Westerners duped by Soviet propaganda; members of any literary, social, or political group; fans of “general ideas” and “everyday reality” and “social interest” and “moral messages” in novels; Edmund Wilson and his grasp of Russian. The spanking goes on.

Nabokov does condemn cruelty and brutality in all its forms. He expresses a great sunny and personal happiness. And he provides useful facts, such as the pronunciation of his last name (see my note below). As complete a portrait of the public Nabokov as Speak Memory is a portrait of the private.

Additional Resources on Vladimir Nabokov

Bibliography: Nabokov wrote novels, poems, short stories, plays, and works of literary criticism in English and Russian. You can find a comprehensive bibliography of Nabokov’s work on Wikipedia.

Short Biography: Encyclopaedia Britannica online has a good brief biography of Nabokov’s life.

Long Biography: I recommend Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Boyd does an excellent job of telling the story of Nabokov’s life and assessing the literary qualities of his major works. Boyd is well regarded as a Nabokov scholar and published his own ranking of Nabokov’s books in Publishers Weekly.

Wife and Son: Nabokov’s wife Véra was his inspiration, first reader, business manager, and much more. All his novels were dedicated to her. Nabokov’s and Véra’s only child, Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov, helped translate many of his father’s books and oversaw his literary estate after his mother died in 1991. Dmitri had a career as a professional opera singer. For a few years in the 1960s, he raced cars professionally as well.

LepidopterologyNabokov was also famous for both his love of butterflies and his scientific study of them. Since Nabokov was a self-taught zoologist, most of the scientific community considered him a dilettante. As it turns out, one of Nabokov’s biggest theories about butterflies was correct.

Russian Author or American Author: This question is a perennial source of disagreement. Those who wish to go spelunking in Plato’s cave and come up with elaborate theories, aesthetic or otherwise, about the essence of the words “Russian” and “American” are free to do so.  And doubtless you will too. For my part, I think the right way to answer the question is to ask Nabokov. And his answer goes like this. Nabokov is an American author because Nabokov chose to become an American citizen.

Nabokov was born in Russia, fled the revolution in 1917, and never returned. He went to university in England but did not become an English citizen. He lived in Germany but fled to France when Hitler rose to power. (Véra was a Jewish.) He fled France ahead of the German invasion in 1940. Nabokov lived in America for twenty years and became a citizen. In the early 1960s, he and Véra moved to Switzerland to be near Dmitri. Yet Nabokov always maintained his US citizenship, paying a great deal of American taxes for the privilege as he liked to point out. The Paris Review asked Nabokov in 1967 “Do you consider yourself an American?” This is how he answered:

Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona…. I feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics, I am strongly anti-segregationist. In foreign affairs, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.

I might also say there is something quintessentially American about Pnin and Lolita and Ada and Van Veen, but saying that I realize I’ve fallen back into Plato’s cave.

Those inclined toward reasoned compromise might gently suggest Nabokov is a “Russian-American” author but neither reason nor compromise exists these days so y’all gonna have to pick a tribe.

Pronunciation of Name: How to pronounce Nabokov’s name is another source of perennial disagreement. This is what Nabokov himself said in a 1965 interview with TV-13 in New York and even he doesn’t firmly answer the question:

As to pronunciation, Frenchmen of course say Nabokoff, with the accent on the last syllable. Englishmen say Nabokov, accent on the first, and Italians say Nabokov, accent in the middle, as Russians also do. Na-bo-kov. A heavy open “o” as in “Knickerbocker”. My New England ear is not offended by the long elegant middle “o” of Nabokov as delivered in American academies. The awful “Na-bah-kov” is a despicable gutterism. Well, you can make your choice now. Incidentally, the first name is pronounced Vladeemer — rhyming with “redeemer.”

Movies: The most famous Nabokov movies are the two Lolita films: the 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick (Nabokov wrote the screenplay) and the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne. Lyne’s film is not a success aside from the opening credit sequence, featuring music by Ennio Morricone, which achieves a beauty and heartbreak the rest of the film conspicuously lacks.

Neither Kubrick nor Lyne deal with the key fact Humbert Humbert is a serial rapist who monstrously abuses Lolita. (The beauty of the story is all on Humbert’s side. The real heartbreak belongs to Lolita alone even if you believe Humbert’s remorse over his treatment of Lolita is genuine.)

You could argue that Nabokov also fails to deal with Humbert as a serial rapist and monstrous abuser and to the extent that Lolita’s experience is all but obliterated from the novel, you are right. I can only say that the novel emphasizes those qualities which made it possible for Humbert to succeed as a rapist. His good looks and good manners and good education. His charm and most of all his dazzling narcissism and his titanic self-absorption. That Humbert abused Lolita because he failed to see her, and failed to see her because he could only see himself, is precisely the point in my reading.

Now, Nabokov himself is having none of this and Lionel Trilling is having much worse. At least in the filmed interview below.

Interview Videos: Here are the two parts of an interview with Nabokov about Lolita.


Read Full Post »

Marcella Pattyn, Last of the Beguine

Marcella Pattyn, in a photo published in the April 27 issue of “The Economist”.

Can 800 years of Western History — can the history of all human experience — find a home in a single life?

If so, then that life belonged to Marcella Pattyn, last of the Beguine, who died on April 14 and for whom an obituary was published in The Economist.

The Beguines were trying to be modern women long before there were modern women.

Their communities appeared in the Low Countries during the early 1200s. The Beguines were expected to commit themselves to chastity, faith, and charitable service, although they were not nuns and took no vows. They were also expected to read, study, support themselves through profitable labor, and choose the rules they would follow in their communities.

The church and the men of the time didn’t like women outside their understanding or control, and sought to bring them under thumb, using tools that included prosecution for heresy and the stake.

So the Beguines were an early example of the great program of human freedom, agency, and independence which has been the work of the West, fitfully and all too imperfectly, for centuries as well as the inspiration for a typical opposition to that freedom.

As a young woman, Marcella Pattyn wanted to devote herself to the service of her Christian god, but no order of nuns would take her because she was nearly blind and the first Beguine community she tried sent her home after a week. The Economist reports Marcella still wept over these rejections in her old age. Some wounds are so deep we carry them for life.

But Marcella did find a Beguine community that accepted her, and there she showed an irresistible determination to pray, to be useful, to comfort the sick (which she often did by playing the banjo and accordion), and to live with an exuberance that did not consult the tastes or expectations or opinions of the world.

It seems to me Marcella’s wounds and her exuberance were paired; that her pain and joy were equal blessings, and that they must be praised and embraced equally or not at all.

At the end of her life, she was alone — a condition both emblematic and universal — although she was celebrated by the town in which she lived for being the last of her kind. Now she’s gone and Marcella lives only in memory. When those memories die, too, what will become of Marcella then?

Read Full Post »

Cover of Colette's "My Mother's House"In My Mother’s House, the French author Colette has pulled off one of the most difficult tricks in literature: she’s written a compelling memoir without having a compelling story to tell.

Colette offers readers no major events in My Mother’s House – no plot, no drama, and very little conflict. Instead, she presents a kaleidoscope of memories about her family, pets, neighbors, and the French village in which they lived.

Occasionally, she will relate an important family story. For example, Colette tells how her older sister abandons their family after her marriage and leaves their mother to stand in helpless agony outside of the house in which her estranged daughter has gone into labor with her first child.

But for the most part, Colette fills the book with incidental events and small details, such as how her father offered to teach a neighborhood woman the meaning of love for “six pence and a packet of tobacco” and how her mother intentionally distracted the local priest during his sermon “by swing[ing] her watch ostentatiously at the end of its chain”.

What makes the book more than a collection of brilliantly realized sketches, however, is its organization around the themes of love and death. My Mother’s House is infused with the knowledge that everything Colette loved from her childhood – her mother, her father, her brother, the beauty of her mother’s garden – have passed away.

In the chapter titled “Laughter,” Colette’s mother warns her husband not to try to die before her. Instead, Colette writes…

He did try, and succeeded at the first attempt. He died in his seventy-fourth year, holding the hands of his beloved, and fixing on her weeping eyes a gaze that gradually lost its colour, turned milky blue, and faded like a sky veiled in mist.

Colette’s mother follows her husband into death and Colette experiences other losses as well. She tells how the beauty of nature has ceased to move her the way it moved her as a child, and Colette describes how her own daughter, at the age of nine, will soon lose her sense of childhood wonder.

My Mother’s House gains much of its power from the force, clarity, and simplicity of Colette’s writing, which reads like the work of a master of English prose even though its translated from the French. Colette’s book also gains power from the passion that lies beneath her descriptions. Literature can be a furious bulwark against death, in which the writer refuses to accept that all she loves best in life – her mother, her family, the richness of her consciousness – will disappear.

In My Mother’s House, Colette has ensured they won’t. They remain vibrantly alive in its pages, which is perhaps the greatest accomplishment any writer can hope to achieve.

Notes on the Author. Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, one of France’s most respected writers, was born in Burgundy in 1873 and died in Paris in 1954. She wrote dozens of books, including the novels Cheri and Gigi; was elected to the Academie Goncourt; and was the second woman to become a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor.

Read Full Post »

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Go ahead. Cut my lines. I dare you.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays are baggy loose monsters — but Hamlet may be the baggiest and loosest of them all.

It’s hard to stage the full text in less than four hours unless you take it at a dead run; and considering there are scenes and even characters which could seemingly be cut and make the play better, why wouldn’t you?

But here’s the thing. Hamlet can look a mess on stage. But it has a near perfect harmony among its thematic elements. And once you seem them, it is difficult to consider (well, at least for me) anything but judicious line edits.

Here are my arguments against making the most common cuts:


When directors are looking to save time, Fortinbras is usually the first to go. The problem is that Fortinbras is the play’s essential frame.

It is clear that Shakespeare intended Fortinbras to play this role. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the son of a king who shares his father’s name and who is seeking to avenge his father’s death and recover his kingdom from a usurper.

Fortinbras is also uniquely tied to Hamlet. As we learn from the gravedigger in Act V, Hamlet was born on the day his father slew Fortinbras’ father. Fortinbras achieves his revenge barely five minutes after Hamlet’s death. The correspondences between the two characters are so exact they must be deliberate.

Fortinbras offers two important contrasts to Hamlet. The first is that Hamlet is only interested in personal revenge. He acts with indifference to his responsibilities as a powerful prince and there is not much evidence that Hamlet actually cares he isn’t king.

Fortinbras also wants his revenge, in his case by attacking Denmark, but he won’t do it in defiance of his Uncle Norway.  Despite his personal motivations, Fortinbras acts like a politic prince.

The second contrast is that Fortinbras is patient, resolute, calculating, bold, and opportunistic.  Fortinbras manages events in his life while accepting they are often beyond his control and keeping his eyes on his goal.

By comparison, Hamlet cycles between paralysis and recklessness.  He tends to either over-manage or under-manage events, and his Act V fatalism leads him to walk into a contest that both he and Horatio sense is a trap.

The result? Hamlet is complicit in the destruction of the entire Danish royal family. Fortinbras seizes the crown of Denmark without striking a blow.

Ophelia & Laertes

This sister and brother are too central to the plot of Hamlet to disappear, but they often get trimmed.  And these cuts reduce Ophelia and Laertes’ role as a double for Hamlet.

Like Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes also have a murdered father, and between them they reflect Hamlet’s reactions to his murdered father – except Ophelia and Laertes follow their reactions through to conclusion.

Hamlet is believed to have gone mad either because of grief for his father’s death or despair over Ophelia’s rejection of his love. He also contemplates suicide.  Ophelia actually goes mad with grief from her father’s death and actually does commit suicide.

I also believe she feels despair over Hamlet’s rejected love, sharpened by his murder of her father. There is a great deal of evidence that Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship was serious (Hamlet’s behavior in the graveyard makes little sense if it wasn’t) and more than enough circumstantial evidence to convince me it was sexual.

Both Laertes and Polonius worry about Ophelia losing her virginity to Hamlet. Hamlet taunts Polonius and Ophelia in explicitly sexual terms after Ophelia obeys her father and rejects him. Ophelia’s madness is full of talk of sex and unfaithful lovers. None of this makes much sense if Hamlet and Ophelia shared a mere chaste flirtation.

Laertes is, of course, the wronged son who actually does “with wings as swift as mediation … sweep to [his] revenge”.  He acts with the kind of blinkered recklessness with which Hamlet believes he should also act.

Like Hamlet, Laertes is focused only on his personal revenge, not the political implications of conspiring with the king to murder the heir to the throne. And he dies the same death as Hamlet, from the same weapon and same poison.

One detail of Laertes story also reveals the politics that are largely invisible in the play. Even though he is not a member of the royal family, Laertes shows up in Denmark and instantly becomes the leader of a rabble ready to make him king.

Why couldn’t Hamlet have organized the same men to depose Claudius? He was, by Claudius’ report “loved of the distracted multitude”. Fortinbras would have seized the opportunity in one red hot minute. Hamlet, apparently, never saw his chance or gave it a thought.

The Player King & Queen

I get why a director would cut these speeches. The dumb show that proceeds the Player King and Queen does everything needed to advance the plot. Other scenes and speeches emphasize the point that practically every character in Hamlet is playing a role (you could go as far to say that Hamlet’s tragedy was he was forced to play roles to which he was not suited). The Player King’s speech is hard to follow. And the topic of the scene is not particularly relevant to the major themes of the play.

But I will say this. It is interesting that the most honest and authentic conversation in the whole play (excepting those between Hamlet and Horatio) occurs between two actors playing actors in a play within a play.

I also think it is interesting that Hamlet chose this text for the actors to play. The scene suggests how Hamlet might have viewed his parents’ relationship, regardless of the actual and unknown truth of the matter.

Polonius & Reynaldo

Honestly, you could whack this entire scene and not do Hamlet any harm at all. Other than hinting that Polonius might not have been a complete idiot for his entire life, and providing some additional comedy – if you want that – I don’t see the point. I’m always surprised when this scene appears in a production.

Let’s Whack “the morn, in russet mantle clad” Etc.

All of which is not to say (Reynaldo withstanding) that with a sharp pencil, and a little work, a director couldn’t easily save her audience 30 or 40 minutes of sitting. There’s not too much pure purple junk in the play, although those lines of Horatio’s at the end of Act I qualify.

I find almost every word Hamlet says entertaining, but I’m also aware other people might reasonably conclude that the man never shuts up; and if these people trim some of his words, particularly if they are making a Hamlet movie, I may not like it, but I don’t blame them.

Polonius also talks on and on, which is the point and also the joke, but generally the point is gotten and the joke exhausted well before Polonius finishes up. You can excise lesser lines of lesser characters and some of the duller clowning of the gravediggers. That would all be fine.

But please leave Fortinbras alone. We really need him!


Read Full Post »

"James Joyce" by Edna O'Brien | Review  BiographyHypothesis: A genius is a person whose books we want to read and whose ass we want to kick.

That certain describes the James Joyce presented in Edna O’Brien’s brief, readable biography of the great Irish writer. O’Brien’s tone in James Joyce is more novelist than academic and that combined with the occasional Joycean flourish, the lack of footnotes, and the appalling bad behavior made me wonder, “Is this all true?”

In O’Brien’s biography, we see Joyce treating his family with contempt and his friends as servants and ATMs. Joyce’s marriage to Nora Barnacle seems to have been based primarily on erotic passion (their sex letters are monuments to skeezy) although they remained together for life and O’Brien does not tell of infidelities by either James or Nora.

O’Brien reports no evidence of Joyce having a relationship with his son Giorgio. Joyce is distraught over his daughter Lucia’s madness, although his insistence that her behavior was a sign of genius rather than insanity smacks of self-aggrandizement as much as denial. Joyce is devastated by the death of the father he ignored while the man was living. As far as we can tell from O’Brien, Joyce cared for no one else.

Through it all, Joyce carousels. And works himself to exhaustion and blindness creating the most significant works of English literature written in the 20th century. The books are worth the price of all this misery. But I’m glad I didn’t have to pay it.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »