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Posts Tagged ‘novelists’

How She Knows

December 17, 2014 | by

Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.

penelopefitzgerald

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 »

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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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Still Weird on Top

December 1, 2014 | by

Barry Gifford’s novels find a new generation of readers.

wild at heart

From the poster for David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), which was adapted from Gifford’s novel.

Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart turns twenty-five this year. It tells the story of Sailor and Lula, two young lovers on the lam, driving their ’75 Bonneville convertible toward a better life but finding the violent reality of America instead. David Lynch saw something intoxicating in their pure, honest love. “I wanted to go on that trip,” he wrote. “It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad.” He asked Gifford to cowrite the screenplay. The film, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and launched Gifford’s novel onto the best-seller list. Earlier this month, a sold-out audience crowded into a theater at the Anthology Film Archives to see an X-rated cut of Wild at Heart. (It was the European edition, which features some ten extra seconds of sex deemed too explicit for the U.S. audiences of 1990.) Before the screening, Gifford read from his next novel, The Up-Down, a continuation of the Sailor and Lula saga in which the couple’s son, Pace, embarks on a spiritual quest for the mysterious fifth direction, the “up-down.”

Gifford has lived a life in miles instead of years. He’s never in one place too long, but during moments of cultural upheaval, he has found himself, with an almost Forrest Gump–like serendipity, in the right place at the right time. An autodidact, he’s published poetry, fiction, memoirs, biographies, plays, and screenplays. He turned sixty-eight this year; The Up-Down will be his twentieth novel and his fifty-seventh book. Next year, a new play of his will premiere in New York and a film he wrote will begin shooting in Brazil, with Willem Dafoe as the lead.

At Sarabeth’s in Tribeca, I sat down with Gifford for breakfast the morning after the screening. He joked about the youthful audience, many of whom were younger than the book. “Millennials are discovering Wild at Heart for the first time,” he said. “I’m not quite sure they knew what they were in for.” The Up-Down is, Gifford claimed, the final chapter in the Sailor and Lula story, a story Gifford has told over the course of a quarter century. The collected Sailor and Lula saga runs nearly eight hundred pages and comprises Gifford’s magnum opus, full of recurring characters and settings that center around the titular couple. Read More »

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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!”

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