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Posts Tagged ‘novelists’

You’ve Been Fictionalized!

July 28, 2014 | by

Or, Is this really what you think of me?

The shock of recognition.

Twenty-odd years ago, T. C. Boyle asked me about the artists’ colonies I’d been to—he was writing a novel. I described the lunches dropped off on the residents’ porches, the nightly readings and revels. When his book, East Is East, came out, I read a few chapters, then stopped, gut-socked and mortified. Yes, there, sprinkled in, was the material I’d given him, along with an added surprise—Wasn’t that me in those pages, and cast in a none-too-flattering light?

In real life, T. C. called me La Huneven, and here he called his heroine, Ruth Dershowitz, La Dershowitz. Ruth was a talentless writer who aspired to literary fiction while writing restaurant reviews and articles for Cosmo. Hey! I wrote restaurant reviews! And I’d once written an article for Cosmo! Was this, then, what Tom really thought of me? That I was a talentless airhead poseur trying to break into the hallowed world of literature?

This was my first experience of being fictionalized. I still recall the yellow-white flash of queasiness, the mortification: a sense of powerlessness and an utter lack of recourse. Read More »

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Keep Calm and—Stop It, Just Stop It, and Other News

June 27, 2014 | by

keep calm

Even the creators of the slogan didn’t like it.

  • Bernard-Henri Lévy remains, at sixty-five, the paragon of “noble insolence”: “Responding to a recent query from a Parisian newspaper about the secret of his perpetual youth, his advice was, ‘Don’t spend time with boring people.’ The unbuttoned white shirt—he tells interviewers that he would choke otherwise—is a form of social provocation that he doubtlessly relishes; it also constitutes a dandyish parlor trick, leading otherwise shrewd judges of character and intellectual talent to underestimate his political acumen and Puritan work habits.”
  • The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster that launched millions of profoundly vacuous parodies is seventy-five years old today—but it was only first seen in 2001. The British Treasury refrained from printing it during World War II because they thought “the phrase was ‘too commonplace to be inspiring … it may even annoy people.’” Prescient.
  • Have novelists exhausted the supply of decent titles? Last year saw two books called Life After Life; this year there’s Remember Me This Way and Remember Me Like This; and Stephen King’s Joyland came eight years after Erica Schultz’s Joyland.
  • Celebrity novels, reviewed: Chuck Norris’s The Justice Riders “wraps up with Justice sharing the gospel with Mordecai, then shooting him dead after the bad guy rejects Jesus—which is sort of Norris’s worldview in a nutshell.”
  • To catch a (phone) thief: “You’d NEVER send a message with the incorrect ‘your’—no matter how plastered you are!”

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A Thing That Ends in Dying

June 5, 2014 | by

ivy compton burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Happy birthday to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote dialogue so witty, lively, and fluent it makes Aaron Sorkin look like—uh—well, you get the idea—I’m sure one of them would be savvy enough to fill in the blank. “She was very, very clever,” Rebecca West said of Compton-Burnett in her 1981 Art of Fiction interview. “You’d have to be very tasteless not to see she had something unique to give her age.”

Here, in the way of proof positive, is the beginning of The Present and the Past, her 1953 novel, which starts with a lot of winsome talk about poultry, death, and cake.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.

His sister glanced in his direction.

“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”

“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.

“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”

Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.

“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.

“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”

Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.

Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.

“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”

Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.

“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”

The latter also seemed unaware of any break.

“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”

Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.

“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”

Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.

“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”

“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.

She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.

“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.

“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”

Read More »

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Poetry in Motion (and Digestion)

May 29, 2014 | by

Gilbert_Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton in 1909. Photo: Ernest Herbert Mills

A happy birthday to G. K. Chesterton, born today in 1874. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, opens with a gem of a standoff between two rival poets. It’s a pungent, vitriolic affair, the best poet-on-poet action this side of The Savage Detectives, and in celebration of its author I reprint it here at length.

To set the scene: say you’re a hotshot poet at a garden party in Saffron Park, a suburb of London where your versification is known to be the best around. But wait—some other, new poet shows up, all cock-of-the-walk. Who’s this asshole? The two of you get to exchanging words, only to find that your worldviews are not just incompatible but riven, sundered, wholly opposed.

On the side of the anarchic and chaotic, there’s Mr. Lucian Gregory—“His dark red hair parted in the middle … and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture.” And defending all things orderly and punctilious, there’s Mr. Gabriel Syme, “a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair.” The passage below finds them expounding, ardently and hilariously, on their respective poetics. For my money, Gregory has the more compelling argument, but Syme is the more masterful rhetorician. Read More »

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Anthony Trollope, Postman Detective

April 29, 2014 | by

Anthony_Trollope

This man could ride like the wind. A cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy, 1872.

Anthony Trollope’s novels made him a household name in Victorian England. But reliable sources have told the Daily that Trollope was more than a top-rate writer: he was also an extraordinary postal worker.

Anthony’s older brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, has the inside poop. The elder Trollope, born today in 1810, wrote a memoir called What I Remember. (It ran to three volumes, suggesting he was not an amnesiac.) The first volume finds him recounting the daring exploits of his younger brother, who, in his days as a courier, once took justice into his own hands:

He had visited the office of a certain postmaster in the southwest of Ireland … and had observed him in the course of his interview carefully lock a large desk in the office. Two days afterwards there came from headquarters an urgent inquiry about a lost letter, the contents of which were of considerable value … There was no conveyance to the place where my brother determined his first investigations should be made till the following morning. But it did not suit him to wait for that, so he hired a horse, and, riding hard, knocked up the postmaster whom he had interviewed, as related, a couple of days before, in the small hours. Possibly the demeanour of the man in some degree influenced his further proceedings. Be this as it may, he walked straight into the office, and said, “Open that desk!” The key, he was told, had been lost for some time past. Without another word he smashed the desk with one kick, and—there found the stolen letter!

Yes, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed that courier from the swift delivery of honesty and virtue. Even abroad, Trollope was such a fastidious, reliable postman that not even a sore bottom could keep him down, his brother writes:

I have heard from him so many good stories of his official experiences, that I feel myself tolerably competent to write a volume of “Memoirs of a Post Office Surveyor.” But for the present I must content myself with one other of his adventures. He had been sent to South America to arrange some difficulties about postal communication in those parts which our authorities wished to be accomplished in a shorter time than had been previously the practice. There was a certain journey that had to be done by a mounted courier, for which it was insisted that three days were necessary, while my brother was persuaded it could be done in two. He was told that he knew nothing of their roads and their horses, &c. “Well,” said he, “I will ask you to do nothing that I, who know nothing of the country, and can only have such a horse as your post can furnish me, cannot do myself. I will ride with your courier, and then I shall be able to judge." And at daybreak the next morning they started. The brute they gave him to ride was of course selected with a view of making good their case, and the saddle was simply an instrument of torture. He rode through that hot day and kept the courier to his work in a style that rather astonished that official. But at night, when they were to rest for a few hours, Anthony confessed that he was in such a state that he began to think that he should have to throw up the sponge, which would have been dreadful to him. So he ordered two bottles of brandy, poured them into a wash-hand basin, and sat in it. His description of the agonising result was graphic! But the next day, he said, he was able to sit in his saddle without pain, did the journey in the two days, and carried his point.

 

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