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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Passionate Acolytes: An Interview with Benjamin Moser

August 17, 2015 | by

Photo: Paulo Gurgel Valente

I’ve gotten accustomed to talking about the “Clarice Lispector tidal wave.” For weeks on end, I’ve scarcely been able to go online without seeing Lispector, who died in 1977, raved about, serialized, reviewed, discussed, or marveled at.

The occasion for this outpouring of attention is the publication of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser. But this story goes back much further, at least to 2009, when Moser published his biography of Lispector, Why This World. Since then, we’ve seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in the author, whom many consider to be among the best Brazil ever produced, and one who is often compared to Virginia Woolf. Why This World was followed by Moser’s translation of Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star, and then new translations of four of Lispector’s major novels, each by a different translator.

With The Complete Stories upon us, I asked Moser why Lispector is worthy of all this effort, what makes the new book such a monumental publication, and what’s next for the Brazilian author.

Let’s begin with a very basic question—why Lispector?

Sometimes you meet someone in a bar and end up in bed after a few drinks. And sometimes you wake up and look over at the person snoring by your side and gasp and say, What was I thinking? But other times that person turns out to be the love of your life. With Clarice, I certainly had no idea that our relationship would be as long or as intense as it turned out to be. Writing her biography taught me about her life, introduced me to her world, her country, her friends. Translating her books brought me into her mind on the molecular level where the translator has to work. And the better I got to know her, the more my love deepened. Read More »

The Last Word

July 16, 2015 | by

The conundrum of writing about the dead.


Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation. Read More »

How She Knows

December 17, 2014 | by

Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.


From the cover of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Penelope Fitzgerald would have been ninety-eight today. We should mark the occasion by remembering that it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise.

In 2008, Julian Barnes described Fitzgerald as a jam-making grandmother, carrying a plastic, purple handbag. “Many readers’ initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel,” he wrote, is, “ ‘But how does she know that?’ ” He said that he has reread the first scene of her book The Blue Flower (2000) many times, “always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”

And most everyone knows the story of the Booker dinner in 1979, to which Fitzgerald supposedly wore a flannel housedress. When she beat out V. S. Naipaul for the prize with Offshore, Robert Robinson of Book Programme proposed that the judges had made the wrong choice.

Then there’s Michael Dibdin, who once compared Fitzgerald to Jane Austen, of whom Lord Grey of Fallodon said something like, How astonishing that, despite the dullness of her life, she should write not only one novel, but several, and they are very good, too. Didbin was also incredulous of The Blue Flower: “How on earth was this done?” Read More »


The Original Futurologists, and Other News

December 12, 2014 | by


From a set of French nineteenth-century postcards depicting what we thought we'd be doing in the year 2000.

  • Isn’t it time for the New York Times to abandon its senselessly decorous policy on obscenity? “America’s newspaper of record has a habit of relying on euphemism to shield its subscribers’ delicate sensibilities, as if Times readers are all wealthy dowagers prone to fainting spells at the merest suggestion that human beings have sex or excrete waste … We’re all adults here. Reading a dirty word in the newspaper won’t scandalize anyone.”
  • The Victorians invented the future as we know it, insofar as it was only in the nineteenth century that we began to imagine a future that could be radically different from our present. “As new attitudes towards progress, shaped by the relationship between technology and society, started coming together … people started thinking about the future as a different place, or an undiscovered country—an idea that seems so familiar to us now that we often forget how peculiar it actually is.”
  • And the Victorians invented our concept of the biography, too; it could do with some shaking up. “Biography seems remarkably consistent. There is a deep similarity between those worthy (and often fascinating) nineteenth-century volumes … and the contemporary biographies … Why hasn’t biography been as daring as the novel?”
  • Peter Funch’s stunning photographs of Mount Baker re-create decades-old postcards, illustrating how the landscape has changed: “Although imperceptible, each photograph has a narrative.”
  • An interview with Laure Prouvost: “I know I’m never going to fully grasp life in my art. It’s never as good as having the sun on your face. Even if you film someone with the sun on their face it feels as if you’ve lost something.”


Writing a Life

November 5, 2014 | by

On reimagining what a biography can look like.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright the University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.

The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »


Stalking Seán O’Casey

September 18, 2014 | by

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.


The original tape box for the reel containing the Red Valens phone call. On same reel, photographer Daniel Kramer is recorded in Smith’s loft discussing his photographs of Bob Dylan intended for Sensorium. Smith met Kramer in June 1965 when both were photographing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited studio sessions. A Long John Nebel radio show is also recorded. The handwriting is an assistant’s, not Smith’s. Images courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.

Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.

“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.

“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.

He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.

Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966. Read More »