The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘novels’

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.


I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »

A Century of Censorship, and Other News

November 18, 2015 | by

Audrey Munson, in a still from Inspiration.

  • Our new anthology, The Unprofessionals, is out now. What does it mean to be unprofessional, you ask? In many cases, it’s as easy as spitting in someone’s food or showing up to work in bondage gear. But if you’re a writer, escaping the rising tide of professionalism proves more difficult. Fortunately, our editor, Lorin Stein, has some advice: “The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say ‘I.’ Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience … There’s a kind of realism—not just in stories, but in poems and essays—that assumes we live in dishonesty, that we lie to others and ourselves as a matter of survival, but that part of us knows the truth when we see it. That’s what interests me: the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.” 
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard hears this voice, too: “The novel is an oddly intimate genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose first encounter occurs when the writer writes—for in writing, the very act of it, there is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way, for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia.”
  • A century ago today, on November 18, 1915, cinema saw its first nude woman, and people have been in a tizzy over sex and censorship on-screen ever since: “The bare breasts and buttocks of Audrey Munson, the actress in Inspiration, seemed to enter the public consciousness only obliquely. One contemporary critic wrote that the film was ‘both inspiring and intellectual,’ with Munson giving a performance of ‘innocence, modesty, and simplicity’; others noted that it was ‘daring’ and a ‘triumph of Film Art.’ One, the Daily Capital Journal, scoffed at the idea of anyone being offended by it. After all, it pointed out, this is a work of ‘extreme artistic and educational value,’ not a titillating striptease.”
  • Today in nests and nesting: in Zvenigorod, forty miles west of Moscow, there stands a cathedral with a wealth of rare printed matter hidden inside: letters, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, banknotes, some as old as the early nineteenth century. For this horn of archival plenty, we can thank the birds: “flocks of swifts and jackdaws had built nests in the attic out of various bits of papers, dirt, branches, and trash that over the centuries came to form a considerably thick layer of preserved history … Other documents record the town’s civic, religious, and educational affairs; among the lot: bus tickets, delivery contracts, a county court slip, students’ notebooks and diplomas, parish registers, and even church confessional statements.”
  • The photographer Andrew Moore’s new book, Dirt Meridian, features ten years of his pictures of homestead sites, taken along the hundredth meridian line that runs through Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where once pioneers were attracted by the Homestead Act. What’s there now? “Almost World Famous Dixie’s Café,” crumbling houses, Simon’s Schoolhouse Museum, and a lot of property that looks more or less the same.

All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba

November 3, 2015 | by

Andrés Barba. Photo © Andrés Barba

Andrés Barba’s August, October, now translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, should bring him the wide Anglophone readership he’s long deserved. The novel follows the fourteen-year-old Tomás as he travels to the coast with his affluent family on their summer vacation. He’s at a point in his life when everything feels distant and strange: friendships, sex, the alluringly lawless behavior of the lower-class kids he meets. Tomás ends up becoming complicit in the sexual assault of a local girl, the central event from which the narrative unspools, and back in Madrid, assailed by guilt, he tries to plot a path toward atonement—one that shines at times with an uneasy air of self-interest. The reader becomes trapped in a story of immaturity and transgression that leaves no room for the usual reassuring tropes of coming-of-age novels. The prose moves on constant commas, swaying between arousal and revulsion, and in its subject matter August, October brings to mind the early work that earned Ian McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre”: First Love, Last Rites; The Cement Garden.

Barba is the author of twelve books in Spanish. Besides literary fiction he has written essays, poems, books of photography, books for children, and translations of De Quincey and Melville. We discussed his obsession with aloneness, the difficulties of capturing Moby-Dick in Spanish, and why certain “pompous utterances” in literature are “only useful insomuch as Justin Bieber can get them tattooed across his ass.” Barba is fluent in English, but felt more natural discussing his craft in Spanish. Cecilia Ross kindly translated his answers. Read More »

Great Waves of Vigilance

October 30, 2015 | by

Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems are at war with barbarism.

Abdellatif Laâbi.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, here.

In Le livre imprévu, his 2010 collection of autobiographical essays, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi suggested that there were “two branches of the human tree” with which he’d been in touch over the course of his turbulent life:

I think I know well miseries and luminosities, pettinesses and grandeurs, barbarism and refinement. Provisionally, I’ve fixed myself in the space between the two, the better to estimate the fault line that separates them and the state of the roots in which they meet far under the earth.

Laâbi has returned to the word barbarism throughout his career. “I am happy,” he wrote his wife in one of the many revelatory letters he sent her during his eight-year jail sentence under King Hassan II for “infringing on the internal security of the State.” He continued: “What a paradox for the barbarians, the enemies of the sun.” Early in L’arbre de fer fleurit, the first of several long poems he published from prison, one verse’s speaker encourages an unnamed friend to hold on when it comes time to take “your first steps in the barbarous night.” And the five poems collected in Laâbi’s first book, The Reign of Barbarism, were written in Rabat years before his arrest in 1972, but first published in 1976 by the publishing imprint of his friend Ghislain Ripault’s literary magazine BarbareRead More »

Sympathy for the Devil

October 29, 2015 | by

Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.

From the Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth.

I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.

Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.

This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More »

The Lights in the Kitchen Were On

October 23, 2015 | by

At the table with James Salter.

Salter in 1989. Photo: Sally Gall

“To revisit the past was like constantly crossing some Bergschrund,” James Salter writes in the introduction to his 1997 memoir, “a deep chasm between what my life had been before I changed it completely and what it was afterwards.” As it did through his life, an ineludible divide runs through Salter’s work. The same man who gave us great novels and stories of sport, of war and deprivation, produced some of the twentieth century’s most sumptuous meditations on domestic life, on the rituals at the heart of bonding. To read him in both modes is to pace the fullness of Salter’s emotional life—it is akin to entering a room full of people after completing some feat of endurance, a vow of silence or a rigorous fast, and trying to hear every word. What unites Salter’s oeuvre—more than his triumphs of style, the peculiar manipulations of perspective, and the verbless descriptive clauses—is his preoccupation with meals and all that they represent, all they can give and all they can take away.

In 1957, with his first book already published, Salter left the Air Force to become the novelist that he knew he was. As his identity was transformed—from fighter pilot to fiction writer, from that of struggle within the military complex to the isolation he encountered outside of it—so were his novels and stories. Food’s role in them increasingly became a metric for the emotional lives of his characters, who were either driven by the rejection of home or by some elaborate performance that kept the idea of home intact. The dinner table, Salter understood, was the perfect stage for the frailty of our relationships—how we present ourselves to others, how crucial to our sense of self are the recollections of the friends who saw us become the people we were. A much-cited quotation from Light Years perhaps most perfectly encapsulates his feelings about life in the air as a pilot and on the ground as a family man: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” Read More »