South African writer Zakes Mda remains concerned with how people remember the past, says Laila Lalami, who lays his latest, Cion, against his prior novels.
On December 2nd, 1980, Romain Gary lay down in his Paris apartment, a synagogue-size menorah at the foot of the bed, and put a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson in his mouth. Seconds later, the life of one of France’s most celebrated and prolific novelists — a decorated war hero, globe-trotting diplomat, and notorious lothario — was over. But this was more than suicide: It was the final act of mythmaking from a man preoccupied, above all, with manipulating the people and events in his life almost as deftly as those in his books.
“Immortal,” remarks Jeannot, the dictionary-obsessed narrator of King Solomon (1979) and one of Gary’s final alter egos. “There’s a word that always gives me pleasure.” The same sentiment is expressed more darkly in the autobiographical Promise at Dawn (1960): “The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul.”
Faustian collaboration being unavailable, Gary did the next best thing: He orchestrated the end of his life and its aftermath, leaving behind a note and instructions for the publication of The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, a confession of authorial subterfuge that revealed that the fêted young author Émile Ajar, recipient of the 1975 Prix Goncourt, was in fact Romain Gary, an out-of-vogue writer who had won the same illustrious prize 19 years earlier. With one bullet, French literature had lost two greats.
Just in time for Halloween, the Baltimore-Philly Poe war goes national.
True story: while the reporter was taping Helen McKenna-Uff and me at the Poe House last week we walked out the back door of the house and a black cat came slinking through Poe’s yard. Had an axe-wielding maniac followed on its heels, we would not have been surprised (hey, it is Philly).
This story is creepier if you’ve seen the false chimney (scroll down) in the cellar of that house.
Other seasonal links:
- Last year James Hynes offered his top ten Halloween recommendations. This year Kelly Link and Gavin Grant have five each at About Last Night. You might also try overdosing on Doré or reading Hynes’ Publish and Perish.
- Stephany Aulenback, who’s been gearing up for Halloween at Crooked House, sent me the old “Telltale Heart” illlustration (above) and some other great Poe art that she found among the Dover Books Samplers.
- Marla Carew writes: “Theresa Duncan, the Michigan born artist/blogger who committed suicide earlier in the year apparently set an automatic blog post to appear today (the Basil Rathbone dog story).”
* Finally, it wouldn’t be All Hallow’s Eve at MaudNewton.com if I didn’t post links to some Hallelujah Party snaps. (If you’re unfamiliar with this particular fundie Christian substitute for actual fun, go to the article that provided the title of this post.)
Rachel Aviv considers the legacy of Freud’s theories of dreams in the age of modern neuroscience.
“A big problem with the biographical evaluation of Ellison … is that he was so much smarter and a better writer than most of the people around him.”
A mid-November deadline looms, and between work and writing, I don’t have much steam left for books, email, or blogging. In fact, I’m at about 65% on the brain-deadness scale. Which translates into a whole lot of YouTube.
So while my mother-in-law, Jane, recently enjoyed all 3500 pages of In Search of Lost Time, then read a new biography of Proust’s mother, and now is halfway through Swann’s Way for the second time, the closest I’ve gotten to a masterwork lately is watching the All England Summarize Proust Competition. (Via the Rockslinga.)
You can read an excerpt from Madame Proust: A Biography here.
When in 1977 in Istanbul I first read Faulkner in the Paris Review, I felt as elated as if I had stumbled on a sacred text. I was 25 years old, living with my mother in an apartment overlooking the Bosphorus, sitting in a back room, surrounded by books, chain-smoking, and struggling to finish my first novel. To write one’s first novel is not just to learn how to tell one’s own story as if it were someone else’s. It is at the same time to become a person who can imagine a novel from start to finish in a balanced way, who can express this dream in words and sentences. To become a novelist, I had dropped out of architectural school and shut myself up in a house. What sort of person should I now become?
“To read them again after so many years,” he says, “is to recall the hopes and anxieties of my early writing days.”
As promised, I’m giving away one copy of each volume. The random number generator
will decide the winner from all the entries I receive between now and tonight (Tuesday, the 30th), 9 p.m., EST. Send email with Ã¢â‚¬Å“Paris Review giveawayÃ¢â‚¬Â in the subject line to maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com, and include your mailing address. No previous winners, please awards the books to Demian Farnworth of Fairview Heights, IL.
The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication, with the date in the subject line.
I look at the week this week and I think: blah, so I am dedicating this week’s edition instead to genteel misbehavior… The Surrealist in me wants one of these… “One sent a funeral wreath when she told him she didn’t love him.” That’s clever.… Let’s all “dwell in our own enchantment,” to paraphrase Ben Okri, and have another go next Monday… In the meantime, I’m instituting the first Smart Set poll: do you agree with Cocteau that “poetry is a machine for the manufacture of love”? (Via.)
According to a bio that follows Dorothy Allison’s gravy recollections, she’s working on a new novel, She Who. (Thanks, Dana.)
James Lasdun says Carver’s unedited fiction is characterized by the “thrashing around writers do when they want to force meanings on their stories.”
Portland, Maine has a good number of bookstores, considering its small size. Along with the late (and missed) Casco Bay Books, you have Yes Books, with its amazing selection of used and rare books. (Leave your wallet at home and take a predetermined amount of cash. Trust me.) Books, Etc. has been in the Old Port for years; despite being smack in the middle of this tourist-heavy part of town, they largely avoid stocking piles upon piles of books about lobsters and ornery-yet-handsome old fishermen.
There are others, all deserving of praise in their own way, but standing above them all is Longfellow Books. Since I am already on record describing it as “dynamite,” I now face the task of proving its dynamiteness.
Named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born and raised here, and attended Bowdoin College, the store is a short distance down Congress St. from the Longfellow Square statue. The space itself has a sort of aura of calm once you enter — other bookstores, there’s just a different atmosphere. At Longfellow, one gets a sense of having entered a retreat, a sanctuary. Somehow, the store seems to sense customers who aren’t serious about their books and burps them right back out onto the sidewalk. There’s usually unassuming music playing, just loud enough to pick up on and trigger curiosity, if you’re interested. There’s occasionally a dog sleeping inside. The dog is, without fail, calm.
The selection is eclectic — yes, there are a few books aimed at the heavy tourist trade, but the store is often more focused on books by local, just-getting-started authors of fiction and poetry. Longfellow does the most to support local writers, from holding readings to drumming up support in its e-mail newsletter, and seems to draw the bigger names more readily as well. An enormous crowd turned up for the recent Achak Deng/Eggers reading. That’s one of my favorite things about Longfellow — one gets a sense there, more than anywhere, of not being the only person in Maine with an interest in good writing.
If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot] com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.
Doris Lessing is one of many writers once barred from entering the U.S. by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
As far as I can tell, some twenty-odd years after the events of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and not long after the novel appeared, my great-grandfather was hired to manage the plantation Welty fictionalized in it.
The book is set in September 1923, at Shellmound, just north of Greenwood, Mississippi.
Very little happens in Delta Wedding, and apparently that was intentional. “The Delta enclave was, [the author] told Charles Bunting, ‘all such a fragile, temporary thing…. At least I hope it was. That’s why I searched so hard to find the year in which that could be most evident.’”
The book is probably my least favorite of Welty’s, but its insights into the pretensions of cotton gentility are considerable. The wedding of the title is of the plantation owner’s daughter to the young man who manages the plantation. Her family is not exactly over the moon about the match.
“Mama, I think it’s so tacky the way Troy comes in from the side door,” said Shelley [another daughter] all at once. “It’s like somebody just walks in the house from the fields and marries Dabney.”….
“Well, one thing,” said Tempe [an aunt] in a low voice to Shelley, … with a sigh of finality, “when people marry beneath them, it’s the woman that determines what comes. It’s the woman that coarsens the man. The man doesn’t really do much to the woman, I’ve observed.”
This week’s photos are of my great aunt and grandmother. I believe they’re in the fields at Shellmound.
Alison Bechdel flinched with rueful recognition on reading that Charles Schulz’s wife had this on her mental to-do list: 9-9:15, Comfort Sparky.
Mark Sarvas’ praise for the depiction of fathers and sons in Sándor Márai’s novel The Rebels led me back to Kafka’s Letter to Father (a gift a friend brought me from Prague several years ago). It’s an illuminating document — complex, sad, highly self-serving — but not a work of art. Writing about the feelings a father inspires is difficult.
Eric Weinberger, who taught expository writing at Harvard for eight years, collects nonfiction writings by sons about their dead fathers. Below he traces his interest in the genre and admires Fathers and Sons, which follows four generations of Waugh men responding to their dads.