The Daily


Where the Hills Are Fog and the Rivers Are Mist

October 26, 2015 | by

Ray Bradbury’s The October Country turns sixty.


“The Dubliners of American Gothic”—that’s how Stephen King referred to Ray Bradbury’s first book, the little-known 1947 short-story collection, Dark Carnival. There’s good reason few readers, even those well versed in Bradbury’s work, are unfamiliar with Dark Carnival: Arkham House, a small press out of Sauk City, Wisconsin, published the book in a modest run of 3,112 copies; the book went out of print just a few years later. Besides a pricey limited-edition reprint in 2001, Dark Carnival exists as a literary apparition.

And yet many people have read some of Dark Carnival without knowing it. Read More »

Suffering Is One Very Long Moment

October 13, 2015 | by

How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, ca. 1893.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.

The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”

By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Read More »

Gamelife: The Game

October 12, 2015 | by

Michael Clune’s Gamelife is an excellent new memoir about computer games. We could tell you all about it, but there are better means of description: as Clune writes, “computer games taught me how to imagine something so it lasts, so it feels real.”

With that in mind, we’ve gotten together with Farrar, Straus and Giroux to present Gamelife, the world’s first computer game about a memoir about computer games. No floppy disk required—simply click below to begin.

Click to play.

If you’d rather hear more about the book the old-fashioned way, I’ll be talking to Clune tomorrow night, Tuesday, October 13, at McNally Jackson. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.

Bringing Voices from Chernobyl to America

October 9, 2015 | by

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich, the latest Nobel laureate in literature, has said that “after twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.” But art is precisely what she has made: a “novel of voices,” as she has described her work, built from fact and feeling. Voices from Chernobyl, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2005, is Alexievich’s fourth book but only her second to be translated into English. None of her other works have, to date, been published in English.

I asked Chad Post, who was then Dalkey’s associate director—he’s now the publisher of Open Letter Books—about what led him to publish Voices from Chernobyl in America and about his first impressions of Alexievich’s work, a blend of narrative and reportage that doesn’t offer conclusions. “Why can’t we say, I don’t want to be a slave anymore?” she said in a 2013 interview. “Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate? … I don’t have an answer, but I want my books to motivate readers to think about the question for themselves.”

What struck you about Alexievich’s writing when you first read her?

That it’s very political of course. She’s writing about the way the government ruined people’s lives. People died, they knew it, and they covered it up. They didn’t care. But at the same time, her writing is made up of all these voices—there are hundreds of people are in the book, but each one is fairly distinct, and even when their stories overlap, they retain their own voices, their own particular tales. That made it feel very human. It’s miserable to read, but it’s made very human and very powerful because of the way she allows their voices to tell truths that are hard to take. When those truths in the context of a narrative, of someone telling a story, it’s much stronger than if the experiences had been reported. Instead of “Then, on April 24, this thing happened, these people died in this way,” she let someone say, “My husband brought home his firefighter’s hat, and gave it to our son, who later got brain cancer and died.” Read More »

Sick Souls

October 2, 2015 | by

On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.

Eldridge Cleaver in the pants he developed.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the first entry, on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, here.

In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”

Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »

The Nonessential: On Marianne Fritz

October 1, 2015 | by

Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. From the volume Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. Image from Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

In an interview published three months before his death, W. G. Sebald referred to his aversion to the systematic and to his faith in the haphazard: “If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.” Though my own aversion to structure is less an outgrowth of any faith in serendipity than a temperament both indolent and indecisive, rooting around has at times for me, too, yielded benefits that a single-minded approach to literature wouldn’t have afforded. And it is particularly fitting, in light of the quotation above, that I should have hit upon Marianne Fritz—whose novel The Weight of Things I have just translated—by following up on a footnote from Sebald’s posthumously published Across the Land and the Water, a selection of poems translated by Iain Galbraith.

In the late poem “In Alfermée,” named for a Swiss commune where Sebald twice visited the scholar Heinz Schafroth and where the ashes of the poet Günter Eich are scattered, the following two stanzas appear:

Threading sleep
letter by letter
comes a language
you do not understand

The exhausted eyes
of the writer the fingers
of one hand on the
keys of her machine

Read More »