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Posts Tagged ‘the art of fiction’

To Be Enjoyed

July 15, 2014 | by

Happy birthday to Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-five today. “A readable novel is a gift to humanity,” she said in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:

It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment. 

That interview with Murdoch was conducted by James Atlas as part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review—it was recorded live at 92Y on February 22, 1990, and you can listen to an audio recording of it above.

As Atlas later remembered their encounter,

She was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over seventy at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound without sounding that way, or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theater is, why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.”

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Nadine Gordimer, 1923–2014

July 14, 2014 | by

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Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:

Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.

As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”

The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:

Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.

Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:

An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.

“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”

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Maya Angelou, 1928–2014

May 28, 2014 | by

Maya Angelou

Angelou in 2013. Photo: York College of Pennsylvania

There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There’s no mystique. None. And if I’m right in my work, that’s what my work says.

—Maya Angelou, the Art of Fiction No. 119

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“The Swimmer” and The Swimmer

May 27, 2014 | by

It’s John Cheever’s birthday, and courtesy of 92Y, you can listen to a recording of the author reading his most famous story, “The Swimmer,” in December 1977. It’s easy to shrug off such a canonical piece of fiction, especially when its hero is named Neddy. But if you, like me, haven’t glanced at it since it appeared on one syllabus or another, “The Swimmer” is worth rereading; though its more surreal elements feel contrived to me, the prose still glitters and the dark humor survives:

It would storm. The stand of cumulus cloud—that city—had risen and darkened, and while he sat there he heard the percussiveness of thunder again. The de Haviland trainer was still circling overhead and it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon; but when there was another peal of thunder he took off for home. A train whistle blew and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five? He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local.

I hadn’t known, though Google suggests it’s common knowledge, that “The Swimmer” was adapted into a feature-length film, released in 1968, starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy. According to a thorough assessment at Turner Classic Movies, The Swimmer succeeds in adapting the unadaptable:

It succeeds brilliantly as a fascinating, enigmatic drama that ponders middle-age disillusionment and failure. It’s one of those lucky accidents that occurred in the sixties when Hollywood was still open to experimentation because most studio executives were completely insecure in predicting commercial hits. After all, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had blindsided the industry with their unexpected box-office grosses. So maybe audiences were ready for more challenging films like The Swimmer? Unfortunately, the film was a box-office flop, but part of its commercial failure was due to poor marketing by Columbia. 

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Party Like Bilbo

May 26, 2014 | by

Alan Hollinghurst is sixty today.

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Photo: Larry D. Moore

HOLLINGHURST

I was rather a goody-goody as a child. I hated the idea of being in the wrong and dreaded being punished. Everyone at my prep school was being beaten by the headmaster with the back of a hairbrush round the clock, and I was keen to avoid that. It was only later on I discovered that you could be naughty and get away with it.

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading at that age?

HOLLINGHURST

There was a bizarre library at the school that had a lot of old-fashioned children’s adventure books by G. A. Henty and R. M. Ballantyne. I got very ­involved with Rider Haggard—I still have the tie-in paperback for the film of She with a picture of Ursula Andress on the front, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I also became an avid collector of a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal. I still have these as well, and the gruesome covers take me back—the whole atmosphere of the school suddenly closes in on me when I look at them.

In my school reports, one of the masters was worried about this “­macabre reading,” but by the following year, I had discovered Tolkien, with whom I became totally obsessed. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I made charts of the kings of Rohan and so on. I used to write letters to my friends in dwarfish runes. The English master took a dim view of this and made me read Barchester Towers as an antidote, when all I wanted to do was to get back to Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party for the seventh time. I’ve never been able to read Trollope since.

—Alan Hollinghurst, the Art of Fiction No. 214

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Gabriel García Márquez, 1927–2014

April 17, 2014 | by

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García Márquez in high school, as seen in our Summer 2003 issue.

We’re saddened to report that Gabriel García Márquez has died, at eighty-seven. The Paris Review interviewed him in 1981:

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think fame is so destructive for a writer?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Primarily because it invades your private life. It takes away from the time that you spend with friends, and the time that you can work. It tends to isolate you from the real world. A famous writer who wants to continue writing has to be constantly defending himself against fame. I don’t really like to say this because it never sounds sincere, but I would really have liked for my books to have been published after my death, so I wouldn’t have to go through all this business of fame and being a great writer. In my case, the only advantage in fame is that I have been able to give it a political use. Otherwise, it is quite uncomfortable. The problem is that you’re famous for twenty-four hours a day and you can’t say, “Okay, I won’t be famous until tomorrow,” or press a button and say, “I won’t be famous here or now.”

In the summer of 2003, we published an oral biography of García Márquez, lovingly compiled by Silvana Paternostro. Here are a few excerpts from it.

María Luisa Elio: Have you been out on the streets with him? The girls throw themselves at him. It must be annoying … García Márquez’s phenomenon is very special. He has great charisma.

Alberto Fuguet: To read García Márquez at a certain age can be very harmful, and I would forbid it. It can spoil you forever. García Márquez is a software that you install and then can’t get rid of.

Santiago Mutis: The entire world understands [One Hundred Years of Solitude] because it is an epic, a bible. It tells the story of life itself from beginning to end—a human version, with a very Colombian truth. It is life as it is lived here. Colombia is a magical country; the people believe in that. When you go to a market fair in Villa de Leyva, the people spray the truck with holy water so that it won’t fall off the road. I think this is what happened with Gabo: the nation had an oral tradition, and that oral tradition started to get closed in a bit; the cities began taking on an important role. When the pop culture threatened—to stop being oral—Gabo was there to pick it up. It starts to pass into literature; he senses it, starts to refine it—it’s his parents, his family, his land, his friends, it’s everything. Pop culture is the mother and father of art—that is Gabo.

Ramon Illán Bacca: Well, everyone cooks with parsley, but there’s always one cook who takes it to an artistic level. Right? His genius lies in that.

Juancho Jinete: I will never forget when Gabito came and stayed at Álavo’s house, and Juan Gossaín—who is the big cheese in Colombian journalism today—was also at the house. Gabo hugged me and said, “These are my childhood friends.” Then Juan Gossaín told Gabito, “Maestro, let me interview you.” Gabito said to him, “What kind of a journalist are you? What more do you want? You have the story right in your hands. Get it!” It was true—you didn’t have to ask any questions … Gabito told him, “What more do you want? This is my friend here since we were children. There’s your story.”

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