- Congratulations to Akhil Sharma, whose novel Family Life has won the Folio Prize. Writing the book, Sharma said, was “like chewing stones”: “I’m glad the book exists, I just wish I hadn’t been the guy who wrote it.”
- “The traditional complaint about teenagers—that they treat the place like a hotel—has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.” Rachel Cusk on raising teenagers.
- The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 to lukewarm reviews and sluggish sales—how did it become a classic? Salute (or blame) the GIs: “As a part of a revolutionary scheme of donating more than 22 million books to World War II troops abroad, a publisher threw in a random book from its backlist: The Great Gatsby … Gatsby and others entered the consciousness of millions of men who returned from war with an appreciation for paperback books and reading.”
- A group of Catholics have proposed G. K. Chesterton for sainthood. “Chesterton, in his jolly way, was a militant. A blaster of the superstitions of modernity, a toppler of the idols of materialism. He inveighed ceaselessly, at great length, and without ever once repeating himself, against ‘the thought-destroying forces of our time’: pessimism and determinism and pragmatism and impressionism.”
- A brief history of gayness on television: “By the fall of 1974, three years after the first gay cameo on popular American television (the vehicle was the liberal lodestar All in the Family), there were a handful of gay characters on prime time … ‘All were rapists, child molesters, or murderers.’ Activists lobbied networks to stop depicting gays as criminals and, within a few years, moved on to more subtle forms of otherness.”
A happy birthday to G. K. Chesterton, born today in 1874. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, opens with a gem of a standoff between two rival poets. It’s a pungent, vitriolic affair, the best poet-on-poet action this side of The Savage Detectives, and in celebration of its author I reprint it here at length.
To set the scene: say you’re a hotshot poet at a garden party in Saffron Park, a suburb of London where your versification is known to be the best around. But wait—some other, new poet shows up, all cock-of-the-walk. Who’s this asshole? The two of you get to exchanging words, only to find that your worldviews are not just incompatible but riven, sundered, wholly opposed.
On the side of the anarchic and chaotic, there’s Mr. Lucian Gregory—“His dark red hair parted in the middle … and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture.” And defending all things orderly and punctilious, there’s Mr. Gabriel Syme, “a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair.” The passage below finds them expounding, ardently and hilariously, on their respective poetics. For my money, Gregory has the more compelling argument, but Syme is the more masterful rhetorician. Read More
In 1927, Richard de la Mare had an idea for some Christmas cards. Because he was a production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, his cards were festive poetry pamphlets that could be sent to clients and sold to customers for one shilling a piece. Because two years earlier Geoffrey Faber had lured a banker from Lloyd’s Bank to work as an editor at his publishing house, Faber & Gwyer had T. S. Eliot to contribute to the series.
Named for Shakespeare’s sprite, the Ariel poems each addressed the Christmas holiday or a seasonal theme. G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and W. B. Yeats all contributed. The Ariel series followed a strict formula: identical cardboard bindings; title, illustrator, author, and occasionally an illustration on the cover; and two interior sheets folded to make four pages. The first page repeated the title information; the following three featured the poem and an original illustration.
T. S. Eliot wrote six poems for the series: “The Journey of the Magi” (1927), “A Song for Simeon” (1928), “Animula” (1929), “Marina” (1930), “Triumphal March” (1931), and, later when the series was revived, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954). Only thirty-four lines long, that final poem is like a whisper in the whirlwind of dramatic plays and long poems that characterize most of Eliot’s later work. “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” came decades after “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), years after Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Four Quartets (1943).
I think of Eliot’s Christmas trees every year around this time: when firs, pines, and spruces appear in living rooms, storefronts, and town squares around the country. Eliot wrote the poem when he was sixty-six years old. His voice is wizened, yet wistful as he reaches through all the years of his life to recover “the spirit of wonder” from his earliest Christmases. Though formal and serious, the poem seems almost saccharine when compared to his earlier work. It will surprise many that the poet of fragments and ruins eventually turned his attention to the pretty packages and bright lights of Christmas. Read More
Some years ago, when I was trying to learn Spanish, I bought Borges’s lectures on English literature. As it turned out, these were largely concerned with Old English, so actual Spanish was required to read them and I had to throw in the towel. Now, New Directions has translated the talks as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. Recorded in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, this introductory class oozes charm. Quoting from memory, because he’d already lost his sight, and relying on his own translations, Borges ranges from Caedmon’s Hymn to the Victorians. It’s been a long time since I went back to the poems of Rossetti—and longer since I had any urge to reread Beowulf—but Borges is no ordinary teacher, and his old-fashioned taste, for Germanic heroes and doomed love and G. K. Chesterton, is sincere, untroubled, and contagious. —Lorin Stein
It suddenly feels like winter here in New York: we saw the first snowflakes of the season on Tuesday morning. I don’t have a fireplace, but it’s hard to resist the urge to curl up by the heating pipe with a fat, favorite classic. Enter the new Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Vanity Fair, beautifully rendered in pale blue, and scattered with stylized gems in honor of the ambitious Becky Thatcher. I am generally fairly indifferent to what my books look like, but I love this series, which manages to feel both modern and heirloom. As to the novel, it’s just the best; you don’t need to hear that from me. From the opening lines of Thackeray’s preface, “Before the Curtain,” you know you’re in for a treat, whether reading it for the first time or the twentieth. The author subtitled Vanity Fair “A Novel without a Hero,” but though it’s peopled with some of literature’s most memorable characters, it’s true that the real star is a sweeping story that manages to be both tragic and fun. —Sadie O. Stein
On Saturday afternoon, I took the Southeast line from Grand Central Station to Mount Kisco and read a fitting book: the 116-page Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A mélange of sharp realism and muted surrealism, this novella was first published in the 2002 summer issue of The Paris Review; it was released in book form to great acclaim in 2011. Johnson takes us from the turn of the twentieth century through the late 1960s; Robert Grainer is the stoic loner who guides us through both the Idaho Panhandle and industrialization. “Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by.” —Caitlin Youngquist
Among the many wondrous artifacts left by the late poet John Hollander is Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, a 2001 volume of slim dimension and great poetic wisdom that has traveled with me for the past few days. I have been thinking about poetry’s relation to music, and early on Hollander writes, “It should be remembered that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted … poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from, or residue of, musical form, from which it became divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance.” The book does not linger in sermon though, hastily moving into witty explorations of wide-ranging forms, schemes, and meters. —Adam Winters
The eighteenth-century French court’s rococo hairstyles—if such a word can even be applied to the elaborate confections—are the stuff of legend. Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck in that regard: thirty-pound wigs, mouse-infested coiffures, and the occasional miniature naval battle all make appearances. But it is also a scholarly history not merely of the vagaries and politics of Versailles court fashion, but the rise and fall of Léonard Autié, a man of modest background who rose to become hairdresser to the queen, and whose fortunes were inexplicably tied to that of the doomed monarchy. —S.O.S.
I saw Ravi Shankar at Carnegie Hall in 1966 or 1967. Because of the Beatles, of course. And I learned so much about music from that one concert. Not that the lesson stayed with me; it wasn’t like that. But it set me up for hearing music in a different way than I was used to (that is, as pop songs on the radio, as 45s on my record player, as the songs we sang at camp about the cat coming back or your heart going where the wild goose goes, or, worse, much worse, as the moth-eaten songs from musicals on Broadway).
The first half of the concert was endless and dull, nothing but a couple of notes played over and over, like a foreign cuckoo clock gone mad. And then, an hour in, it all changed. And time stopped. The notes began to form a pattern, and the pattern grew more and more beautiful, like a house materializing from thin air, rising out of nothing into the most glorious vista, a home and a garden and hope and love and time, spread out before me. Read More