Posts Tagged ‘Saul Bellow’
February 8, 2016 | by Tony Tulathimutte
How to name your fictional characters.
To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.
The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »
July 16, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Have you seen F. W. Murnau’s skull? From the neck up, the Nosferatu director has gone missing from his grave, which sits about twelve miles out of Berlin. No reward has been set, and no word given on whether his lovely throat remains intact.
- I do my best to ensure that this is a Go Set a Watchman–free space. But who can resist the chance to quote a bunch of parents who named their sons after Atticus Finch, only to find that Watchman depicts him as a racist, segregationist clod? “When we first heard about the book, my wife said, ‘Oh no, I hope Atticus didn’t turn bad or something,’ ” one father told the New York Times. “Maybe our son will grow up and be the more famous and distinguished Atticus, and maybe he’ll get all the recognition.” The name was the 370th most common in the country last year, and Watchman’s first printing comprises two million copies. Young Atticus has his work cut out for him.
- Ethics professors spend their entire careers immersed in rigorous analysis of what’s right and good. If you’ve never met one, you could be forgiven for ranking them just under clergymen in their unswerving dedication to the moral life. But ethicists are not, in fact, any more ethical than you or I. A researcher examined their approaches to “voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.” The result will stop the presses: “For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort—logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.” (They do donate to charities more regularly and eat less meat, though.)
- When the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon published his first novel, he had a terrifying encounter with a reader of sorts: “He smiled and shook my hand and even said he was sorry to bother me at home. But he walked in without being asked, and immediately, as he sat down on one of the sofas, took out a big black gun and placed it loudly on the living room table … He said that Hitler was one of his heroes. He said that Hitler was one of the greatest of men. He said that he admired how Hitler always knew exactly how to dispose of his enemies. He said that we should all learn from Hitler. He then asked me if I understood and I managed to stutter that I did and he grabbed his gun from the table, got up, and walked silently out of my house.”
- The trials and triumphs of editing Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein: “As he homed in on something that was bothering him, you’d hear first a deep rasping, the audible intakes of breath growing sharper. Then he’d look up. ‘This isn’t working,’ he’d say. More breathing. Then, ‘Let’s try this.’ At this point, I would start writing, taking down his words. Word by word a new paragraph would emerge and take the place of the older one, stronger, sharper than what was there before. Even as I read it out to him, I’d see how he’d changed it for the better. Whatever had jarred in the earlier version had gone. Writer’s alchemy—changing what was pretty good to begin with into something even better.”
June 2, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “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.”
May 20, 2015 | by Norman Rush
“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Norman Rush reflects on Saul Bellow, who read from Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King on October 10, 1988.
92Y will celebrate Bellow’s centenary tomorrow evening. Martin Amis, Janis Bellow, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, Zachary Leader, and Ian McEwan will read from The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, “Something to Remember Me By,” Humboldt’s Gift, and The Dean’s December.
Read More »
May 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- At UC Berkeley, scholars have discovered a cache of stories by Mark Twain, written when he was a twenty-nine-year-old newspaperman in San Francisco. “His topics range from San Francisco police—who at one point attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue Twain for comparing their chief to a dog chasing its tail to impress its mistress—to mining accidents.”
- Filmmakers have always struggled in depicting the act of writing. Authors in movies tend to act, all too realistically, like total bores—sitting there, typing, thinking, gazing out windows, et cetera. But it is possible to make good films about writing. One of them is Joachim Trier’s Reprise, which “recognizes that much of the stuff of writing and literary circles is, well, talk. And unlike many other such films, it can talk that talk.”
- Bellow had a way with similes: “When Professor Ravelstein laughs, he throws his head back ‘like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica’ … Eddie Walish has a woodwind laugh ‘closer to oboe than to clarinet, and he releases his laugh from the wide end of his nose as well as from his carved pumpkin mouth’ … A man with a wooden leg walks ‘bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier.’ ”
- In the late sixties, the progenitors of land art were “literal groundbreakers”—a new documentary, Troublemakers, tries to rediscover their works, many of which have “succumbed to natural forces.”
- Plenty of horror video games borrow from Dracula—but they take only the “shallowest trappings” from Stoker, preferring instead to lean on Lovecraft. A new game, Bloodborne, “offers a backward lens into a particularly strange point in horror history in which the anxieties of a changing world found its way into the monsters and terrors of the genre.”
April 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Historically, U.S. novelists have made their subject “the American dream,” starry-eyed and ambiguous as it may be—but “has the American dream run out of road? Perhaps an exhaustion with national myths explains the recent advent of post-apocalyptic literature … When the dream has been blown to bits for more than a century, all that’s left is to tell bleak stories of human survival set in the wreckage of a junkyard.”
- Today in blunt, clear-eyed statistics: one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, a new report from The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society said, “though 98 percent saying their work had been published or used in other ways. 11.5 percent of authors now earn a living solely from their writing—down from 40 percent a decade ago.”
- Norway has announced that it will cease FM radio broadcasts in 2017, and others are expected to follow suit—meaning the age of analog may be drawing to a close.
- Critics, Saul Bellow felt, “ought to provide useful encouragement and then get the hell out of the way. This … helps to explain the lifelong tension between Bellow and Lionel Trilling, the leading critic of his time … Bellow greet[ed] Trilling at a party: ‘Still peddling the same old horseshit, Lionel?’ ”
- “I feel about so-called intellectuals, especially academics—English professors in particular—almost the same way I once felt about my rural townsfolk: that I can’t get far enough away. At least, I have come to learn, there was among my fellow country dwellers an engaging suspicion of pomposity, a strange verbal lyricism, a physical vigor, and the deep lonesomeness of Celtic immigrants who sense ‘I shouldn’t really be here.’ ”