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Posts Tagged ‘John Cheever’

Document: The Symbolism Survey

December 5, 2011 | by

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?

McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.

His project involved substantial labor—this before the Internet, before e-mail—but was not impossible: many authors and their representatives were listed in the Twentieth-Century American Literature series found in the local library. More impressive is that seventy-five writers replied—most of them, in earnest. Sixty-five of those responses survive (McAllister lost ten to “a kleptomaniacal friend”). Answers ranged from the secretarial blow off to a thick packet of single-spaced typescript in reply.

The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.

Even if he approached them en masse, with a form letter.

And failed to follow up with a thank-you note.

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William Kennedy on ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’

November 29, 2011 | by

Revolutionary times fuel William Kennedy’s newest book, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which follows the career of journalist Daniel Quinn. The novel’s first half takes place in 1957 Cuba, where Quinn gets writing advice from Ernest Hemingway (“Shun adverbs, strenuously”), falls in love with a gunrunner named Renata, and hikes through the jungle for the ultimate journalist’s prize—an interview with Fidel Castro. The second half finds Quinn, eleven years later, witnessing another kind of revolution, this one in his hometown of Albany after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, as the city hovers on the verge of race riots. The eighth novel in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle—which includes the Pulitzer Prize–winning IronweedChango’s Beads has a cast of characters that will feel familiar to readers of the earlier books, characters united by jazz, corruption, heroics, journalism, politics, and the perpetual revolution of history. I talked with the eighty-three-year-old Kennedy at his home in Albany—a townhouse where Jack Diamond, gangster, bootlegger, and the subject of Kennedy’s second novel, Legs, was shot to death. Read More »

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Anne Enright on ‘The Forgotten Waltz’

October 25, 2011 | by

The writer Anne Enright, a native of Ireland, is perhaps best known for her 2007 Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, a darkly beautiful novel about a family gathering in the wake of a suicide. In The Forgotten Waltz, her fifth novel and her first since winning the Booker, she takes up a seemingly more mundane plot: that of adulterous love. Gina, married to Conor, narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and father to a troubled daughter, Evie—which comes to a head as Ireland’s economy collapses.

It’s an affair whose outcome is known from almost the very first pages, and  Enright is not interested in judging Gina or Séan—Gina believes, ultimately, that there is nothing to forgive and, if Enright does not agree with her outright, she makes Gina a sympathetic enough character that it is possible for the reader to do so. The considerable narrative pleasures of this novel lie in Enright’s luminous language, as she sketches Gina’s attempts to figure out what happened and how and why. The author, who has a quick wit and a hearty laugh, as well as a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude, spoke to me recently from the West Coast, where she was on book tour. Read More »

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Philip Hensher on ‘King of the Badgers’

September 27, 2011 | by

Philip Hensher.

King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher’s seventh novel, comes on the heels of his ambitious, fictional survey of seventies Britain, The Northern Clemency. King of the Badgers focuses on the staged kidnapping of China O’Connor, in circumstances that inevitably recall the disappearance of Shannon Matthews. Shannon disappeared from her hometown of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 2008 and, after huge national media attention, was discovered a month later in the home of her step-uncle, who was eventually convicted and jailed along with Shannons mother. It delves into the private lives of the community in the fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. I met Philip in a trendily minimal Fitzrovia café, where Philip spoke of his imagined world as alive and elusively present.

Let’s begin with Hanmouth, the setting for King of the Badgers. What kind of place is it?

Well, it’s one of those places with a betwixt and between status. It’s a town: it’s not a village and it’s not a city. Pressures in England are pushing most places in one direction or the other. Surprising places are suddenly being declared cities. Chesterfield is a city now. Brighton is a city now. If it’s not big enough to have a claim to being a city then it’s pushed down toward being a village.

I like those betwixt and between places, ones with about forty thousand people. They are small enough that people know each other, or recognize each other. Small enough that faces recur, but big enough for the chain of connections to stretch to a breaking point, so that people can still be strangers. Hanmouth is also an old town of the sort that are all over England. There’s history in them that people want to identify with, but at the same time modernity keeps cropping up. Read More »

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Staff Picks: ‘DOC,’ ‘Luminous Airplanes’

September 23, 2011 | by

H. L. “Doc” Humes in Greenwich Village, ca. 1961. Photo: Courtesy of the Humes family.

A gregarious talker, novelist, activist, hippie, druggie, filmmaker, and original hipster, Harold L. “Doc” Humes was the kind of man who inspired followings. (Even Wikipedia can’t help but gush, describing him as “a contemporary Don Quixote.”) He was also, of course, a founding editor of The Paris Review. His daughter’s documentary about his rollicking life, DOC, is screening at the Anthology Film Archives on October 1st and 2nd. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

Paul LaFarge’s strange, experimental, oddly moving Luminous Airplanes is worth reading for its own considerable merits. But for the full, interactive experience, you have to immerse yourself in the Web site, too. And that’s all I’ll say. —Sadie Stein

I have been rereading John Cheever’s stories and am happy and surprised to discover they are all fairy tales—not just the openly magical ones like “The Swimmer” or the European stories, with their nobles and castles, but even a country-club story like “Just Tell Me Who It Was,” in which a jealous husband goes looking for a tell-tale golden slipper. How had I never noticed this before? —Lorin Stein

I recently found a copy of the Huntington Library’s facsimile edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, issued together with extended commentary. I’m a sucker for facsimile editions, and this a gorgeous, visionary book—Blake’s diaphanous, pliant figures; wilting, overgrown plant life; organic page designs; and stained coloration. Every Blake fan should have this in his or her library. —Nicole Rudick

Rob Delaney writes in Vice this week about why we need to save St. Mark’s Books. —Natalie Jacoby

Woody Allen would be baffled. But who doesn’t like a tribute to Manhattan? In any case, it got me to rewatch the opening sequence—and I defy any New Yorker not to get goosebumps when the fireworks go off over the river. (Philadelphians, even!) —S. S.

And while we’re talking Woody Allen? This is when Twitter justifies its existence. —S. S.

Riot Grrrl revival! —N.R.

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Staff Picks: From Calcutta to Cairo

February 4, 2011 | by

Teddy Weatherford, right. Photograph courtesy of The Atavist.

Read this fascinating story on The Atavist about Teddy Weatherford—the Count Basie of the East—who would perform on both sides of the Pacific in a white sharkskin suit. He died not long before the end of World War II, and at his funeral, forty thousand Calcuttans mourned his death. These days, he’s often not much more than a footnote in most jazz histories. —Thessaly La Force

Jason Epstein has always been the most forward-looking of publishers. He invented the trade paperback, cofounded The New York Review of Books and the Library of America, and hit on the Amazon model—alas, before there was a Web. At eighty-three, he still explains the business better than anyone. If you want to know how publishing works—and why, increasingly, it doesn’t—read his latest in the Review. —Lorin Stein

Straining to inject some topicality into my reading, I ferreted out a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s beguiling blend of travelogue, memoir, and anthropological study, In an Antique Land. Calcutta-born Ghosh moves to the Egyptian village of Lataifa where he researches the correspondence of a twelfth-century Jewish Tunisian merchant, while observing the daily lives of his contemporary Muslim neighbors. Although he recognizes the incongruity of his own presence, Ghosh crafts an elegant meditation on the wayward tracks left by history that emphasizes the long, whispered conversation between cultures over those noisier moments of confrontation. Next on the list: Border Passage by Leila Ahmed. —Jonathan Gharraie

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