Saturday, October 25, 2014

My Hero / Lydia Davis, The Man Booker International

Lydia Davis, short-story writer
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker International prize. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

My hero: Lydia Davis by Ali Smith

As mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert, as epoch-making as Proust – Davis's short stories are a celebration of the fertile mind
    • The Guardian

Big rejoicing: Lydia Davis has won the Man Booker International prize. Never did a book award deliver such a true match-winning punch, rather like one of Davis's ingenious, playful, formally inventive and unexpectedly powerful (for their size) short stories might. Best of all, a new audience will read her now and find her wit, her vigour and rigour, her funniness, her thoughtfulness, and the precision of form, which, even among short-story practitioners known for these qualities, mark Davis out as unique.
In the UK at least, until the 2010 publication of her Collected Stories (Penguin), it was quite hard to track down copies of her four collections:Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007), though a couple of these and a lone novel, The End of the Story (1995), were published in the 90s by Serpent's Tail. She was hard to find, but held in such regard among those who read her that from the beginning she had the reputation of being a writer's writer.
But she's such a reader's writer, this daring, excitingly intelligent and often wildly comic writer who reminds you, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. It's all about how you read and about the reflorescence of what and how things mean with Davis, who works in an understated, concentrated way and in a form that usually slips under the mainstream radar. So look again, because this is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert and as epoch-making, in her own way, as Proust. As a translator, she has recently produced magnificent English versions of classics by the latter two, but it's the short-story form that she's made her own, and even changed the potential of, over three decades of honing a style whose discipline is a perfect means of release of hilarity, myth, merciless sharpness, and, most of all, of a celebration of the thinking, vital, fertile mind.
A two-liner from Davis, or a seemingly throwaway paragraph, will haunt.
What looks like a game will open to deep seriousness; what looks like philosophy will reveal playfulness, tragicomedy, ordinariness; what looks like ordinariness will ask you to look again at Davis's writing. In its acuteness, it always asks attentiveness, and it repays this by opening up to its reader like possibility, or like a bush covered in flowerheads.
She's a joy. There's no writer quite like her.

Friday, October 24, 2014

My hero / Salman Rushdie, winner of the 2014 PEN Pinter prize

My hero: Salman Rushdie, winner of the 2014 PEN Pinter prize, by Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser remembers when Salman Rushdie and her late husband, Harold Pinter, played crick
by Antonia Fraser
The Guardian, Friday 20 June 2014
Salmon Rushdie
From left … Salman Rushdie, West Indian fast bowler Ossie Gooding and Harold Pinter at lunch before playing cricket
Harold Pinter, my late husband, admired Salman Rushdie's work enormously, long before he met him. He thought Midnight's Children was a wonderful book (although his favourite was The Satanic Verses, which he read, incidentally, long before the troubles). We first met Salman in February 1982, at a protest outside the Polish embassy mounted by PEN in favour of Solidarity. Afterwards, we all went to the pub and a real friendship grew, which was very important to Harold.
Shortly after the fatwa was issued in 1989, Harold was honoured when Salman asked him to deliver a lecture on his behalf at the ICA, because, of course, Salman couldn't do it. It was an extremely tense occasion with masses of police, television and so on. When Harold had finished, a member of staff at the ICA drew Harold aside and took him to a call box where an undisclosed number was dialled and he spoke to Salman. He was characteristically jolly under the circumstances and said: "I know Harold, next time you write the lecture and I'll deliver it." Which Harold thought was terrifically cool.
Every summer, Harold would bring his cricket team, the Gaeities, for a match against the Guardian at Gunnersbury. We used to have a buffet lunch in our garden beforehand to encourage the team (see my photograph). Salman asked if he could come. And of course he brought two members of Special Branch with him. Later, the Guardian was short of a player, and Salman fielded for them. The ball, in its devilish way, sought him out, and every time he rose up to catch it, I saw the Special Branch duo rise to their feet as though he were under threat. Loyally, I remember Harold's team won, but I may be wrong.
This award would have meant a great deal to Harold because he respected Salman twice over: first for his work, and then for his great personal courage.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

My hero / Albert Camus

My hero: Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer

I was first drawn to Albert Camus because he looked so cool in his trenchcoat, because the Cure wrote a song inspired by one of his books and because he was an existentialist
The Guardian, Friday 1 November 2013
I was drawn to Albert Camus because he looked so cool in his trenchcoat, because the Cure wrote a song inspired by one of his books (The Outsider), because he and his pug-ugly friend sartre were existentialists (which seemed related, somehow, to the trenchcoat). Their falling-out could hardly have been more acrimonious but, as can happen, the rupture contained a measure of agreement: both accepted that Camus had never really been an existentialist. For him this was a matter less of intellect than of temperament, of the defining facts of his early life: being born (100 years ago this week) into a world of sunlight and poverty in Algiers. It was the discovery of the essays celebrating his childhood and youth that altered my perception of him, from a thinker to a writer whose intellectual lucidity was a product of the wealth – the sensual immediacy and clarity – that had been heaped on his senses. The trenchcoat, in other words, came later. As did his participation in the resistance during the second world war (a subject that finds allegorical expression in The Plague) and the heretical willingness to take a stand against Stalinism and the Communist party (while Sartre enthusiastically toed the line). The Algerian war trapped him in an impossibly vexed position. Unable to support a liberation movement whose tactics could "strike blindly" against his mother, he was reduced, in Tony Judt's words to "impotent silence". The journey Camus made was enormous – a telegram explaining that he had won the Nobel prize had to be read to his illiterate mum by a neighbour – but it brought him back, in The First Man, the novel he was working on at the time of his death in 1960, aged 46, to the land and history that had formed him. The narrator of The Plague concludes, simply, that "there is more in men to admire than to despise". Camus was equally convinced of a more private truth, that he carried within him "an unconquerable summer". It still warms us today.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd

My hero: Oscar Wilde

By Michael Holroyd
The Guardian, Saturday 5 September 2009

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer, in holidays
Hand-coloured photograph of Wilde circa 1890. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images
I first came to Oscar Wilde through reading his Life by Hesketh Pearson. This enthralling biography was first published in 1946, and I read it a few years later when I was in my early teens. It was less the tragedy of Wilde's last years that gripped me than the wit and humanity of the man, his generosity of spirit and radical ideas.
I lived most of my early years with my grandparents. The atmosphere was one of eccentric conventionality. Wilde's startling paradoxes ("Work is the curse of the drinking classes") turned upside down the unthinking clichés I used to hear. The man who claimed that "a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at" changed my view of the world. Wilde made me laugh, made me think and revealed to me the seriousness of imaginative humour.
What I came to value was the charming way he arrived at deeply unpopular opinions. He upset much of what I had been encouraged to take for granted. I found myself warming to his revolutionary assault on the dictatorship of a political democracy which depended on that "monstrous and ignorant thing called Public Opinion". He was an extraordinarily brave writer. "One is absolutely sickened," he wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, "not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." I think of that whenever I hear the phrase "brought to justice" glibly used in the media.
Wilde's epigrams and ideas float through all his work – his plays, fictionand essays. "Every great man has his disciples and it is always Judas who writes the biography," he said. And perhaps that was no bad thing while a Damocles sword of respectability hung, as Carlyle complained, over the poor English life-writer. Perhaps, too, Wilde had a more lasting influence on me than I realised. "To arrive at what one really believes," he wrote in The Critic as Artist, "one must speak through lips different from one's own." This is no less true for a biographer than for a playwright.

Oscar Wilde / A Mask

Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Oscar Wilde / De Profundis

De Profundis

by Oscar Wilde

. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. Of seed-time or harvest, of the reapers bending over the corn, or the grape gatherers threading through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with broken blossoms or strewn with fallen fruit: of these we know nothing and can know nothing.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Oscar Wilde / The Remarkable Rocket



by Oscar Wilde

Illustrated by Charles Robinson

The King’s son was going to be married, so there were general rejoicings. He had waited a whole year for his bride, and at last she had arrived. She was a Russian Princess, and had driven all the way from Finland in a sledge drawn by six reindeer. The sledge was shaped like a great golden swan, and between the swan’s wings lay the little Princess herself. Her long ermine cloak reached right down to her feet, on her head was a tiny cap of silver tissue, and she was as pale as the Snow Palace in which she had always lived. So pale was she that as she drove through the streets all the people wondered. “She is like a white rose!” they cried, and they threw down flowers on her from the balconies.
At the gate of the Castle the Prince was waiting to receive her. He had dreamy violet eyes, and his hair was like fine gold. When he saw her he sank upon one knee, and kissed her hand.
“Your picture was beautiful,” he murmured, “but you are more beautiful than your picture;” and the little Princess blushed.
“She was like a white rose before,” said a young page to his neighbour, “but she is like a red rose now;” and the whole Court was delighted.
see caption
The Russian Princess
For the next three days everybody went about saying, “White rose, Red rose, Red rose, White rose;” and the King gave orders that the Page’s salary was to be doubled. As he received no salary at all this was not of much use to him, but it was considered a great honour, and was duly published in the Court Gazette.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Oscar Wilde / The Devoted Friend



by Oscar Wilde

Illustrated by Charles Robinson
One morning the old Water-rat put his head out of his hole. He had bright beady eyes and stiff grey whiskers and his tail was like a long bit of black india-rubber. The little ducks were swimming about in the pond, looking just like a lot of yellow canaries, and their mother, who was pure white with real red legs, was trying to teach them how to stand on their heads in the water.
“You will never be in the best society unless you can stand on your heads,” she kept saying to them; and every now and then she showed them how it was done. But the little ducks paid no attention to her. They were so young that they did not know what an advantage it is to be in society at all.