Readers’ Corner: Cervantes Found

cervantes1It looks as though the grave of the Western world’s first true novelist might have been found at a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid. According to NewsHour:

Cervantes died the same week as William Shakespeare in 1616. He had requested to be buried at the convent where he was found. Luis Avial, the georadar expert on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Cervantes’ remains will be reburied at the same convent, after a tomb has been built…

Cervantes didn’t just create the modern novel with the satirical mock-epic (and bestseller) Don Quixote—Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is normally credited with penning the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century—he also lived a life that most novelists could only dream of.

One of the more notable episodes came when the larger-than-life writer’s years of incarceration by Moorish pirates was put to an end in part by a ransom paid by the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the order of nuns whose convent ultimately became his resting place.

In Books: Richard Price’s ‘The Whites’

The Whites-coverEven though The Whites was technically published under Richard Price’s genre pen name Harry Brandt, the publisher didn’t even bother leaving his real name off the thing. It might be a crime novel instead of straight realist fiction and a couple hundred pages shorter than his usual. But the style is unmistakably that of the writer who brought such lived-in detail to novels like The Wanderers and Lush Life and his scripts for The Wire. This time, it’s just a little tighter, more razored. So in short: great stuff.

My review of The Whites is at PopMatters:

Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side…

You can read the full first chapter here.

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

Writer’s Desk: Orwell’s Reasons

George Orwell at the BBC (1940)

According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.

In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:

  1. Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
  3. Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.

 

Reader’s Corner: Eisenhower and Book-burning

Nobody associates Dwight Eisenhower with much of anything literary or particularly high-minded. After all, his presidency was typified by pragmatism and political small-ball more than grand oratory and lofty goals.

But, then there was the graduation speech he gave at Dartmouth in June 1953, six months after taking office. According to Jim Dwyer, it started off in the usual way: platitudes and bromides. Pleasantly dull as a summer’s afternoon. But other matters were afoot. It was the age of Joe McCarthy, after all. Just a few days earlier, it had been reported that books by politically suspect authors like Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre had been purged from libraries run by the United States Information Service in Europe.

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

With that in the background, the president made a sharp detour: “Don’t join the book burners!” He exhorted those in attendance:

Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency … We have got to fight [Communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.

With sentiments like that, what’s not to like about Ike?

Writer’s Desk: Annie Dillard

One of the books that should be on most writers’ shelves—somewhere between their dictionary, thesaurus, and a compendium of trivia (you know, for when you get bored)—is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Timber Creek. Spare and scrupulously honest, it’s one of those book-length essays that is so painstakingly constructed, it feels more like architecture than a book.

And that’s a compliment.

infact1So when Dillard gives writing advice, it’s best to listen. Here’s a few choice lines from her introduction to the compilation In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction:

Don’t describe feelings.

Capturing the typical isn’t a virtue. Only making something new and interesting is … Why would any reader pick up a book to read a detailed description of all that is most annoying in his daily life?

Don’t use any extra words. A sentence is a machine; it has a job to do.

The more you read, the more you will write.

These are clearly directed at writing students, but we can all take heed. Learning never ends.

Reader’s Corner: Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The legend of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) is an intoxicating one. He started writing young, and by the time he was done at 21 years of age, had quite possibly changed Western literature forever. Poems like The Drunken Boat ripped something open in the era’s creative mindset:

If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May…

Rimbaud also led the poetic lifestyle that many adolescents would dream to emulate. He debauched, he innovated, he caroused, he blazed forth briefly and brilliantly, he defined libertine.

He also may have changed history.

rimbaud1

Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia (self-portrait, c. 1883)

After a dustup with his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which Verlaine ended up shooting him, Rimbaud left France. In 1880, he washed up in, all of all places, the ancient trading city of Harar in Ethiopia. There, Rimbaud changed from dangerously licentious artiste to jack-of-all-goods trader. He even became an arms dealer, at one point agreeing to secure weapons for Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who apparently swindled Rimbaud out of the money he was promised.

According to Rachel Doyle:

Frustration aside, Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation…

It’s not every poet who is still remembered over a century after their death. And it’s certainly not every poet who might have changed the course of world history.