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Posts Tagged ‘birthdays’

The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by

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Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (detail), ca. 1914.

Philip K. Dick was born on this day in 1928. His story “The Eyes Have It” originally appeared in Science Fiction Stories 1953, but since the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s lapsed into the public domain. “A little whimsy, now and then, makes for good balance,” the magazine’s editors wrote then. “Theoretically, you could find this type of humor anywhere. But only a topflight science-fictionist, we thought, could have written this story, in just this way … ”

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read: Read More »

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Flaubert’s Past Lives

December 12, 2014 | by

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A detail from an 1869 caricature of Flaubert.

From a letter Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand in October 1866:

I don’t experience, as you do, this feeling of a life which is beginning, the stupefaction of a newly commenced existence. It seems to me, on the contrary, that I have always lived! And I possess memories which go back to the Pharaohs. I see myself very clearly at different ages of history, practicing different professions and in many sorts of fortune. My present personality is the result of my lost personalities. I have been a boatman on the Nile, a leno in Rome at the time of the Punic wars, then a Greek rhetorician in Subura where I was devoured by insects. I died during the Crusade from having eaten too many grapes on the Syrian shores, I have been a pirate, monk, mountebank and coachman. Perhaps also even emperor of the East?

Many things would be explained if we could know our real genealogy. For, since the elements which make a man are limited, should not the same combinations reproduce themselves? Thus heredity is a just principle which has been badly applied …

Oh! You think that because I pass my life trying to make harmonious phrases, in avoiding assonances, that I too have not my little judgments on the things of this world? Alas! Yes! and moreover I shall burst, enraged at not expressing them.

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It Changes Nothing

December 10, 2014 | by

If you’ve never seen it, watch Clarice Lispector’s first and only TV interview, from February 1977, when she appeared on TV Cultura in São Paulo. She’d arrived intending to appear in a program about film, apparently, when the station’s director summoned his nerve and asked for an interview. She died later that year.

Lispector is restless, and charmingly curt, throughout the interview—it seems as if she really, really doesn’t want to be there. Even under duress, though, she gives stronger, more meaningful answers than many writers give at their most accessible. “I write without the hope that what I write can change anything at all. It changes nothing … Because at the end of the day we’re not trying to change things. We’re trying to open up somehow.”

At one point, the interlocutor asks, “What, in your opinion, is the role of the Brazilian writer today?”

“To speak as little as possible,” she says, her head tilted, her thumb half-massaging her temple, a cigarette between her fingers.

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In the Details

December 9, 2014 | by

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Milton’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

Some books are made to be read aloud—or, at least, they take on different dimensions when they’re heard or performed. The texts that make for great audiobooks are sometimes the ones you’d expect: Ulysses or Moby-Dick or just about anything by Wodehouse. Books whose poetry and humor are thrown into relief by a gifted voice actor.

Other times, a title will take you by surprise. My brother has always been a great book-listener, and over the years I’ve given him any number of audiobooks. I won’t say which were disappointing, but it was fun to hear how well Herzog took to the treatment, or The Savage Detectives. Leo McKern reads Rumpole far better than your head ever will. (And listening is, in my opinion, the only way to approach The Fountainhead.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Paradise Lost. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun—but it’s riveting, and I’m not just saying that because today is Milton’s birthday. (He doesn’t care. Depending upon your system of belief he’s either dead or has better things to think about.) Like a lot of people, I’d read Paradise Lost in college—or maybe studied is the better word—and I’d recognized its importance as a literary and philosophical work and a cultural artifact. But it wasn’t until listening to the nine-hour Nadia May version that I really appreciated the poem. Read More »

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Marvels and Mysteries

December 3, 2014 | by

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A caricature of Conrad by David Low, 1928.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define fantastic, then?

BORGES

I wonder if you can define it. I think it’s rather an intention in a writer. I remember a very deep remark of Joseph Conrad—he is one of my favorite authors—I think it is in the foreword to something like The Dark Line, but it’s not that …

INTERVIEWER

The Shadow Line?

BORGES

The Shadow Line. In that foreword he said that some people have thought that the story was a fantastic story because of the captain’s ghost stopping the ship. He wrote—and that struck me because I write fantastic stories myself—that to deliberately write a fantastic story was not to feel that the whole universe is fantastic and mysterious; nor that it meant a lack of sensibility for a person to sit down and write something deliberately fantastic. Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

You share this belief?

BORGES

Yes. I found that he was right. I talked to Bioy Casares, who also writes fantastic stories—very, very fine stories—and he said, “I think Conrad is right. Really, nobody knows whether the world is realistic or fantastic, that is to say, whether the world is a natural process or whether it is a kind of dream, a dream that we may or may not share with others.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Art of Fiction No. 39, 1967

Since it’s Joseph Conrad’s birthday, I went in search of his foreword to The Shadow Line—it was an author’s note, actually, appended to the novel’s second edition in 1920. And Borges’s memories of it are largely accurate: Conrad uses it to mount a defense of “the world of the living,” which “contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is … I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural.”

The Shadow Line, which is now in the public domain, was first published in 1916, when it appeared over the course of two months in Metropolitan Magazine. It tells the story of a young man who assumes the captaincy of a ship in “the Orient.” The ghost of the ship’s previous captain, Mr. Burns, lurks: “His face in the full light of day appeared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Somehow I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him; his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on my face. They were greenish and had an expectant expression.”

Here’s the author’s note Borges mentions: Read More »

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Tools of the Trade

November 17, 2014 | by

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Foote‘s nib of choice. Photo: Elizabeth, via Flickr

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.

FOOTE

My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.

INTERVIEWER

What precisely is a blotter?

FOOTE

This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?

FOOTE

There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, 1999

Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, and died in 2005, six years after this interview was published. Though he was a prolific novelist, he remains best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War.

His is one of my favorite Writers at Work interviews, and not coincidentally it’s probably one of the longest—Foote’s three (!) interlocutors find him in a loquacious and expansive mood, such that almost whenever he opens his mouth he seems to speak in wry, eloquent, discursive paragraphs. He declaims on everything from pajamas to the Ku Klux Klan, and he appears to have known more or less every writer of relevance; his anecdotes include the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Hara, Kubrick, and Walker Percy, among others.

He also relishes the role of gentle, aging eccentric, as evidenced in the passage above. I’ve just spent an embarrassingly long while trying to find the name of the defunct stationery shop he references—no luck. I can report, though, that the Esterbrook Probate 313 is readily available for all your dipping needs, even as blotter paper seems now entirely relegated to the realm of LSD paraphernalia.

The Esterbrook Pen Manufacturing Company, founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, was once the oldest and largest manufacturer of steel pens in the United States. A midcentury brochure (“INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ESTERBROOK STEEL PENS”) notes that the company once turned out more than two hundred million pens a year, “used in every civilized country in the world.” The factory went under in 1972.

“You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,

the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.  

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