November 20, 2015 | by H. S. Cross
Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.
I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.
This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.
Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »
November 17, 2015 | by Max Nelson
Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.
It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”
Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »
November 16, 2015 | by Thomas Mallon
John O’Hara’s Pal Joey remains an exemplar of a rare form: the epistolary novella.
Ever see the movie? Well, do yourself a favor and don’t. You should pardon me for bringing this up right off the bat, but it’s so beyond being a mere stinkeroo that I get ahead of myself and must apologize. But you can trust me; I shall get back to it later.
It’s hard not to start sounding like Joey Evans after listening to him come up off the pages of John O’Hara’s novella. In fact, even if you’re holding paper and ink, Pal Joey is always an “audio book” in some other, fundamental sense of the term. The osmotic nature of Joey’s voice affects even the other characters. Vera—the rich older woman whom O’Hara added to the theatrical adaptation—says, in a moment of amazed exasperation: “Good God, I’m getting to talk like you.”
Joey’s is an American voice from the second act of the American century, a time when the country’s wisecracks and slang, thanks to movies and even to books, wrapped themselves around the thoughts and vocal cords of half the world. O’Hara had the upwardly mobile luck to be in possession of the best ear anybody had for catching and transmitting the national lingo.
Frank MacShane, one of the author’s biographers, explains that the first Pal Joey story, published in The New Yorker on October 22, 1938, got written after O’Hara went off on “a two‐day bender” instead of the stretch of work he’d pledged to his wife: Read More »
November 9, 2015 | by Lena Dunham
Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club turns twenty.
The first time I met Mary Karr I was, quite frankly, stunned. She was not what I had expected, not that I knew what to expect. I had read all her books, was familiar with the basics of her biography—including any gossip I could find, which is scant in the literary world, even when it comes to best-selling and notoriously dynamic authors—and had even seen her author photo, so I am not sure what came as such a shock to me except for something I might nebulously refer to as her “essence.”
I was standing in the middle of a party, lost, anxious, and sweaty in a slew of people who would all qualify as name-drops among certain bookish weirdos, when I received a firm tap on the shoulder. I spun around to find a petite brunette smiling about six inches too close to my face, if you’re following traditional social protocols. “I’m Mary Karr and I love you, honey.” Read More »
October 30, 2015 | by Max Nelson
Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems are at war with barbarism.
In Le livre imprévu, his 2010 collection of autobiographical essays, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi suggested that there were “two branches of the human tree” with which he’d been in touch over the course of his turbulent life:
I think I know well miseries and luminosities, pettinesses and grandeurs, barbarism and refinement. Provisionally, I’ve fixed myself in the space between the two, the better to estimate the fault line that separates them and the state of the roots in which they meet far under the earth.
Laâbi has returned to the word barbarism throughout his career. “I am happy,” he wrote his wife in one of the many revelatory letters he sent her during his eight-year jail sentence under King Hassan II for “infringing on the internal security of the State.” He continued: “What a paradox for the barbarians, the enemies of the sun.” Early in L’arbre de fer fleurit, the first of several long poems he published from prison, one verse’s speaker encourages an unnamed friend to hold on when it comes time to take “your first steps in the barbarous night.” And the five poems collected in Laâbi’s first book, The Reign of Barbarism, were written in Rabat years before his arrest in 1972, but first published in 1976 by the publishing imprint of his friend Ghislain Ripault’s literary magazine Barbare. Read More »
October 28, 2015 | by Emily Gould
Barbara Comyns’s daring depiction of childbirth.
Some books need no introduction because they’re better if you don’t know what to expect, and it occurs to me that Our Spoons Came from Woolworths might be one of those books. Certainly I wasn’t prepared for it the first time I read it, and I don’t think I noticed the first time its tone abruptly shifted from lighthearted and twee to something more like horror. But then it happened again, and I started to pay closer attention. The book revealed itself to be darker and more complex than its premise—young artists secretly marry and begin to feather a bohemian nest in 1930s London, with pet newts and layaway-plan furniture and inexpensive cutlery—seems to promise. A clue to its nature is in a note on the copyright page: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.” Read More »