Shhhh—It’s the Desert, and Other News


On the Shelf

Photo: Simon Prisner.

  • From afar, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature seems like a real laugh riot, at least to those of us whose main ambition in life is to gain the adulation of the Swedes. But a new volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters suggests that taking home the Nobel is not such a bed of roses: “The Beckett of the years covered by this fourth and final volume of letters is lionized even before he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Although, in his case, the word ‘award’ is wholly inappropriate: he considered the prize a threat to his creativity (‘I hope the work will forgive me and let me near it again’). He was on holiday in Tunisia with his wife, Suzanne, when his publisher sent a telegram: ‘In spite of everything they have given you the Nobel Prize.’ Writing to his lover Barbara Bray a week later, Beckett’s response to his laureateship couldn’t be less effusive: ‘Here things are pretty awful and little hope of improvement.’ ”
  • Want some peace and quiet? I don’t mean your garden-variety hushes or lulls. I mean some real fucking silence. Well: go on a hot-air balloon ride in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. You won’t hear a peep. Ian Thomson did it, and I gather it went pretty well: “In some parts of this shadowless immensity it has not rained for four hundred years … From the air, the Atacama resembled an African savanna, with thorny gorse, inland beaches of white dunes, and the occasional llama skeleton picked clean by condors. I thought: this must be one of the most magnificent views in all the world. We could clearly see horses grazing in a ranch; and away there, beyond a row of solitary carob trees, meadows of alfalfa dwindling in size to resemble toy-railway lichen … In the silence of the Atacama evening, the moon hung bright and radiant; the silence was as deep and complete as if never disturbed. In Santiago the next day it really felt as if we had returned from the moon.” 

  • In 2015, Kim Kardashian published Selfish, her book of selfies. Now that a whole year has gone by, it’s time, logically, for a new, expanded edition. Naomi Fry spent some quality time with it: “It’s easy to assign a negative value to the baroquely egocentric moreness that is part and parcel of Selfish in particular, and the Kim Kardashian West phenomenon in general … But painting her constant self-documentation, fabulous riches and all, as a type of irrational exuberance, a wild, careless jag sure to end in disaster—whether fiscal or moral—misses one of the more interesting things about her, and about Selfish. What characterizes the book—and Ms. Kardashian West’s persona more broadly—is a reliable, bland steadiness, pleasurable because of (and not despite) its lulling dependability, its ability to turn any emotional summit or vale into something of a plain.”
  • James Lasdun eschews the notion that good fiction must come stocked with laudable, morally upright protagonists: “To me, sympathy for a character has little to do with how morally upstanding or wicked they are. All that really matters for me is how human and interesting they are. I happen to be drawn to characters who operate under intense internal pressure … The question of ‘rooting’ for a character, or setting out to write a character for whom other people will root, has never had anything to do with why I read or write fiction. As long as the writing and story remain alive, intense, invigorating, provoking, the characters can be as demonic or saintly as the author wants.”
  • Some of us go our whole lives without once witnessing an intersection between book publishing and maritime law. But we’re among the lucky ones: as I write this, the bankruptcy of the Hanjin Shipping Company is forcing U.S. publishers to grapple with the edicts of the high seas. “At least two publishers … told [Publishers Weekly] that they have had books stranded at sea, or delayed, because of the bankruptcy dispute. Jacq Cohen, publicity director at Fantagraphics, said the house had the complete print runs of two of its books … on a Hanjin ship that had its cargo seized earlier this month at the Panama Canal … She added: ‘We are currently in talks with a maritime lawyer and are making plans to reprint the books as soon as possible.’ ”