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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

Me and My Monkey

May 19, 2016 | by

Frank Buckland wanted to save—and eat—as many animals as possible.

Buckland with his pet monkeys.

This is the first entry in Edward White’s The Lives of Others, a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history. He has previously written for the Daily on Carl Van Vechten and rugby.

Every now and then, even Charles Darwin was dumbfounded by the mysteries of the natural world. On those occasions, he reached out for enlightenment to a repertory cast of scientific correspondents, one of whom was Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a raffish, tousle-haired star of the natural-history craze that befell Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The two made for unlikely pen pals: if Darwin was the dour, sincere prophet who transformed humanity’s appreciation of its place in the universe, Buckland was a professional eccentric, as much showman as scientist. Although he did groundbreaking work in pisciculture (the breeding of fish), Buckland was perhaps best known as a lecturer, beguiling huge audiences with his left-field takes on botany, zoology, and human anatomy. As a general rule, the weirder the subject, the more likely Buckland was to have something to say about it: the fighting behavior of newts, the cannibalistic propensities of rats, the best method for killing a boa constrictor, gigantism, walking fish, flea circuses, conjoined twins (he was a good friend of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins), the uses of human hair as manure, and pagan burial rites. Tellingly, it was Buckland to whom Darwin turned to verify a claim that a dog and a lion had successfully bred in rural Russia. Read More »

Tennis with Mr. Nice

April 13, 2016 | by

My week with the late Howard Marks, drug smuggler and author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In June 1995, on a magazine assignment that never came to fruition, I flew to Palma, Majorca, to spend a week with Howard Marks. He was just out of prison then, having served seven of a twenty-five year sentence on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Howard’s backstory was well known in the UK, but less so in the U.S., despite a Frontline documentary on his worldwide marijuana smuggling. As a young working-class Welsh philosophy student at Oxford, Howard had started out as a small-time dealer and, in his smart, amiable way, worked his way up the ladder to become a bona-fide drug kingpin, a Robin Hood to stoners across the British Isles. “Mr. Nice,” as one of his aliases had it, dealt only in soft drugs; today he might be an upstanding citizen of Washington or Colorado. To the everlasting chagrin of the British police, he beat the rap once at the Old Bailey—he’d been caught moving fifteen tons of dope from a fishing trawler off the Irish coast onto dry land—by offering the unimpeachable defense that he’d been working for MI6 at the time. He was not a drug smuggler, he said, but a narc. Read More »

Calvino Late to the Movies, and Other News

September 8, 2015 | by

Italo Calvino, no doubt pondering a film to which he has arrived in a less than timely fashion.

  • Today in strange testing procedures involving nonsense words: Oxford applicants in classics and oriental studies, among other fields, are asked to translate phrases from invented languages with names such as Dobla and Kalaamfaadi—and the sample texts are full of charmingly, aggravatingly old-world stock phrases. “The scullery-maid loves the footman.” (Pante sirar tomut.) “Does the dowager rebuke the earl?” (Clarut tikehar mage.) For their seeming silliness, though, the tests are a strong indicator of your aptitude with languages. “It’s entirely possible that the kind of intellectual agility such languages call for is a hidden strength in many students who don’t know they have it. The thing that looks most intimidating might be the thing that should inspire confidence.”
  • Fifty years after they were first published on seven-inch vinyl, rare and excellent readings from James Baldwin, John Updike, William Styron, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and James Jones have been rediscovered and reissued by Calliope Author Readings. They date to a time when (a) recording technology was still gloriously analog and (b) giving readings was still a novelty, rather than self-promotional essential: “Calliope began in the 1960s as a pioneering venture in the early days of literary recordings. With little more at their disposal than a passion for books, optimism and sheer nerve, three young entrepreneurs in Boston persuaded some of the most original twentieth century American authors to read from their works.”
  • Toward the end of his life, Francis Bacon had ascended into art-world renown; he spent most of his time drinking and seething. A new memoir from Michael Peppiatt, who became the artist’s “scribe, drinking partner, estate agent, confidante, gatekeeper and admirer, and the recipient of lavish dinners, drinks, flats, paintings and acquaintances,” captures Bacon in decline: “Dazzled by the endless procession of big-name wines in similar bars, Peppiatt seems not to notice that Bacon repeats the same maxims again and again, almost word for word—stock phrases on painting about ‘immediacy’ and the ‘nervous system’ and a rehearsed bit on the nothingness that stretches before and after life—as if prepping his initiate to write about him. Impressive once, cumulatively they are undermining, especially when heard sober.”
  • Italo Calvino loved to go to the movies. And he put forth a convincing case for arriving late, too—an argument I plan to use the next time I’m dragging my friends to a movie fifteen minutes after it started. “Italian spectators barbarously made entering after the film already started a widespread habit, and it still applies today. We can say that back then we already anticipated the most sophisticated of modern narrative techniques, interrupting the temporal thread of the story and transforming it into a puzzle to put back together piece by piece or to accept in the form of a fragmentary body. To console us further, I’ll say that attending the beginning of the film after knowing the ending provided additional satisfaction: discovering not the unraveling of mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and a vague sense of foresight with respect to the characters.”
  • Like many of us, Dennis Cooper loves GIFs; unlike many of us, he’s written a novel in GIFs called Zac’s Haunted House, and has finished another. “Cooper finds the GIF work ‘weirdly very emotional.’ And with GIFs, he contends, ‘fictional emotional displays and “real” displays are made indistinguishable … There is also, for Cooper—and, it would, seem, much of the Internet-using public—something inherently comic about GIFs. The comedy, he says, is of a particularly physical kind. He has noted before that GIFs in which real-life people fall off bunk beds or have other accidents are often edited so that we don’t see the painful consequences. And yet, as the action is repeated indefinitely, with a ‘kind of heartlessness,’ the implications of the violence seep out nonetheless.”

Urgent Questions for Librarians, and Other News

June 2, 2015 | by

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A question to an NYPL librarian from October 1976. Photo: NYPL, via the Guardian

  • “My idea of hell on earth,” Philip Larkin wrote once, “is a literary party.” He had in mind the Oxford parties of his era, which, much like the Oxford parties of this era, comprised “a lot of sherry drill with important people.” But what if those parties were in fact really entertaining, as at least one guest avows they were? “God, they were fun. Ever since Mrs. Dylan Thomas, at a literary party, stuck her elbow into the bowl of ice cream that T. S. Eliot was eating from, before presenting it to the great poet with the instruction to ‘Lick it off,’ these things have been democratic, argumentative and often memorable.”
  • “Please give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” “What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance?” “Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it?” Questions for librarians at the New York Public Library before there was the Internet.
  • Saul Bellow’s portraitist remembers their encounter: “Bellow talked all the while, about life in New York when he was younger, his cohorts and various writers. What a duplistic moment for me: I had to ask him to be quiet so I could take some close-ups. He was fidgety even while cooperating. He picked up a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and began reading, first quietly, and then aloud. I listened for a few minutes, and cringing apologetically, shushed him again.”
  • If Louise Erdrich could go back in time, she’d go to prison, as long as the company was good: “I am stranded for a few days in a comfortable jail cell with Walt Whitman and Henry James. I take one side of the room, share a bunk with Emily Dickinson. We listen in on their awkward conversations, exchange sharp glances of amusement.”
  • Max Mathews, who died in April, wasn’t the first person to make sounds with a computer—but his experiments with an IBM 704 mainframe in 1957 were the first to use “a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear.” He was the first computer musician: “He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition … to foundational research in real-time performance … Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton.”

John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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