Until Monday

It’s been sunny the past few days, and the fragrant but deadly mint I yanked out of the backyard last summer is re-sprouting, so I guess it really is spring. Or another manifestation of global warming.

Either way, it’s drinking-outdoors weather, and I’m off to enjoy it.

Have a good weekend.

End-of-week miscellany

Writers’ mail at the Rosenbach

Curtis Sittenfeld extols the many virtues of Philadelphia’s amazing Rosenbach Museum and Library.

Under normal circumstances, reading other people’s mail is pretty enjoyable, but when the correspondents are professional writers, it’s downright thrilling…. [T]he modern writer kvetching about a deadline has nothing on Conrad: “The other day in a moment of mental aberration I allowed myself to be pinned down to a date by a wild (but amiable) American publisher. He’s gone back, whooping, to his native wilderness of skyscrapers with the signed contract at his belt — and I wish it had been my scalp rather.”

Mr. Maud and I visited once with a friend who lived in Philly. Probably the best $8 I spent that year.

Sarvas on Heti’s Ticknor

Mark Sarvas reviews Sheila Heti’s Ticknor for the “Secrets” issue of Boldtype.

When George Ticknor’s Life of William Hickling Prescott was published in 1864, it received rapturous notices, and reviewers were quick to point out that the long-standing friendship between Prescott and Ticknor made the latter an ideal Boswell. Sheila Heti, whose debut short story collection, The Middle Stories, was published in this country by McSweeney’s, has pulled this obscure leaf from the literary archives and fashioned a mordantly funny anti-history; a pungent and hilarious study of bitterness and promise unfulfilled.

For more on Ticknor, go here.

Crispin on Foer v. Krauss

“It seems unfair to pit husband against wife for a literary award, even if the prize is a chicken,” says Jessa Crispin, whose judgment — she decides between Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Krauss’ The History of Love — kicks off the second round of the Tournament of Books.

In the end, she says, “It’s not so much which book I liked more as which book I hated less.”

The stakes for first fiction

Rosemary Goring doesn’t have much hope for the Scottish literary novel now that “supermarketisation” has hit.

Turn the clock back to Alasdair Gray’s first novel, or Ali Smith’s debut short story collection, and, in today’s climate, the number of copies they sold would not get their second book as far as Waterstone’s unloading bay, let alone its shelves.

See also “‘Clone town UK‘ feared as book chains are cleared for merger.”

Highsmith exhibit in Switzerland

Maybe the new Swiss exhibit on the secret life of Patricia Highsmith will travel to the States eventually.

For now, though, I’m consoling myself by watching the associated video about, among other things, Highsmith’s affection for snails. She kept them as pets, took walks with them, and once “opened a huge handbag at a cocktail party to show a horde of the creatures getting their strength up on a lettuce.” (Via.

Update: Katharine Weber writes in to add: “According to the superb Highsmith biogaphy, she traveled with those snails in her bra.” And Hissy Cat praises Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

R.I.P. John McGahern

Irish novelist John McGahern, 71, died today in Dublin after a long struggle with cancer. As the Guardian obituary says, his “semi- autobiographical portraits of rural life in Ireland won him great praise in his home country and beyond.” (Thanks for alerting me to the sad news, Laurie.)

In 2002, Robert McCrum asked McGahern about a passage in his novel Amongst Women.

McCrum: “He felt this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech. Happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped. It should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed if it ever comes at all.” Is that your view?

McGahern: That’s exactly it. I think that complete happiness isn’t possible in life and when it happens it’s not noticed….

The Boston Globe profiled McGahern earlier this month. (Last link via TEV.)

David Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel

Claire Messud contrasts the “comparatively small scale and straightforward narrative” of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green with his Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas.

[Cloud Atlas] is made up of six interwoven narratives spanning centuries and continents, from the mid-1800s to a distant post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii. Each vibrant voice and story is radically different, and at first apparently unrelated; their connections only unfold over the course of hundreds of pages. Now reading Black Swan Green, a closely observed first-person account of adolescence in provincial England in the early 1980s, you have the impression of encountering a minutely rendered watercolor landscape by Jackson Pollock: the amazement of recognizing that the author’s considerable talents can extend to this, also.

Political round-up

  • TMFTML schools the Boston Herald on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s hand gesture: “We don’t want to be all woppier than thou, but the literal translation of Va fa en culo is ‘Go put it in your ass.'” Sopranos cast members also weigh in.
  • Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was freed in Iraq this morning after 82 days in captivity. “Finally,” says Laila Lalami, “some good news from that God-forsaken mess known as the ‘liberation’ of Iraq.”
  • Right-wing blogger Ben Domenech — who called Coretta Scott King a communist and criticized Bush for attending her funeral while “phon[ing] in a message to the March for Life” — was hired to write a “Red State” blog for the Washington Post last week but resigned when bloggers uncovered myriad instances of plagiarism in his past writings. Today Wonkette reveals that Domenech was previously fired by Regnery Publishing.
  • FBI agents took down the license plate numbers of anti-war protesters who met in a Denver bookstore parking lot to carpool to a rally in Colorado Springs. (Via Bookslut.)
  • In the current American Prospect, Jim Sleeper looks at “the conservative-movement pundits hot in pursuit of liberal-faculty subversion on the nation’s campuses.”

Inside literary judges’ chambers

The Oxford Literary Festival is underway, and the Times is offering live reports.

Following up on the festival’s TLS event at his own blog, Peter Stothard gives the background on his admission that he’d engaged in “some past ‘literary loutishness’ in promoting my candidate for a literary prize.” The prize was the 1997 Whitbread. The candidate — and winner — was Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid.

Stothard prepared his arguments, went into the debate, and

a good deal of shouting began. And continued.

I wasn’t the only shouter.

I wasn’t the only one to make more use of ‘obiter dicta’ than ‘a priori’ when the subject turned to my Latin favourite.

But my own shouting — and abandonment of reasoned argument — seemed shamefully effective.

Naipaul emerges, insults writers, presumably re-commences retirement

V.S. Naipaul, who simultaneously announced the death of the novel and his own retirement in 2004, has reemerged to declare the utter worthlessness of most fiction written in English. A rundown of his recent assessments:

  • Henry James is “the worst writer in the world.”
  • Thomas Hardy is “an unbearable writer” who “doesn’t know how to compose a paragraph.”
  • Dickens is repetitive.
  • Jane Austen was a “terrible vapid woman.”
  • Hemingway was “so busy being an American” that he “didn’t know where he was.”

    Several years ago, Naipaul alleged that E.M. Forster wrote “rubbish” and spent time in India so he could seduce “a few garden boys.” He called James Joyce’s writing “incomprehensible.” And he criticized Wole Soyinka and R.K. Narayan, and expressed particular lack of interest in reading Salman Rushdie’s work.

    Naipaul isn’t crazy about most Indian writers; in 2002 he participated in a “literary festival’s discussion on whether Indian authors should write in English” and said, while “shaking with rage,” “this thing about colonialism, this thing about gender oppression, the very word oppression wearies me…. I think it is because banality irritates me.”

    Former Naipaul protégé Paul Theroux has characterized Naipaul’s tirades as “a ‘familiar’ publicity stunt.”

    “We who know Naipaul understand that gratuitous outbursts such as this nearly always precedes the appearance of a Naipaul work.”

    “In spirit, it is like a boxer’s frenzy of boasting and threats before an important match: in part a species of self-promotion in the form of chest- thumping and shouted abuse, in part a suggestion of tactics,” he says, comparing the “rant” to “explosive abuse you get from someone whose Valium has worn off.”

    (First link via A&L Daily.)

    Library confessional

    In 1962, the playwright Joe Orton spent six months in prison for defacing library books.

    Two years later, his scandalous and brilliant Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which I recently saw with a friend, hit big in London. And three years after that, he was bludgeoned to death by his lover and partner-in-library-book-defacement, Kenneth Halliwell.

    All of this is just to say: in honor of the British Library’s new missing list, George Murray is offering forgiveness for your library book sins. He admits to ripping a “map from the back of a Tolkein hardcover housed in the school library.” I’ve already told my story — the early demise of my library’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8 — but I trotted it out again in the Bookninja comments.

    Because, you know, why risk death by hammer when total exoneration is available? (Now where does one confess library crimes that aren’t book-related?)

    Ames, from Carver to Chandler

    I’ve only read the first few pages of Greg Ames’ hardboiled mystery, so I don’t know if it’ll hold up through the end, but so far it’s like his Raymond Carver homage/parody: hilarious and overblown, but somehow still touching. Or maybe I’m just a sap. Here’s an excerpt:

    Late Tuesday night. I was in my office on Grant Street, slurping cold whiskey smashes and wagging my cranium to a very tasty Coltrane solo. My nostrils had finally stopped bleeding. The mousetraps were empty. Things were looking up for me, and I was back on the yum-yum juice again. I set fire to a Winston and swung my bare feet up on the desk. “Here’s to moderation,” I said.

    I woke up on the floor. I was under my desk. Somebody had pulled a fast one. It was Wednesday afternoon.

    Before I could even locate my cocktail shaker, a dark-haired woman in a yellow cotton sundress burst into my office. “I’m looking for Kurt Fitzroy,” she said. The door banged shut behind her. I took in the entire tableau in one bleary-eyed but professional glance. She was showing a lot of arm — I liked that. I’d always been an arm man.

    Ames’ “Physical Discipline,” a much darker tale, is one of my favorite stories (scroll down) ever. I can’t believe no one has put out a collection of his short fiction.