Thursday, March 31, 2016

Obituaries / Imre Kertész

Imre Kestész

Kertész obituary

Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel prize for literature

George Gomori
Thursday 31 March 2016 13.25 BST

To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote the German critic Theodor Adorno soon after the second world war. He later modified his statement by saying: “The main question is: can we go on living after Auschwitz?” This was the problem with which the Nobel prize-winning Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész, a survivor of the Holocaust, grappled throughout his life and literary work, until his death at the age of 86.
Kertész’s first and most influential novel, Sorstalanság (Fatelessness, 1975), is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Gyuri Köves, who survives deportation to Auschwitz and captivity in Buchenwald, and, on his return to Hungary, finds it impossible to relate his experiences to his surviving family. The book was at first hardly noticed by Hungarian critics and only became a success many years later once it had been translated into German and then, in 2005, made into a film by the Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai. While lacking the biting irony of Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, Sorstalanság differs from most accounts of Nazi concentration camps in its relentless objectivity, and as such is a unique achievement of its kind.

Top 10 novels about unfaithful wives

Top 10 novels about unfaithful wives

From the class-crossing Constance Chatterley to Tolstoy’s enchanting Anna Karenina, here are 10 wives caught in flagrante delicto by their creators

Piers Paul Read
Wednesday 2 December 201513.00 GMT

Some years ago, at a performance of Puccini’s opera Tosca, I remembered a book I had read on the opera by a US historian that established just how inaccurate and partisan was its portrayal of the political realities of the time. The young revolutionaries Angelotti and Caravadossi, collaborators with the invading French, are shown as romantic heroes, while the loyal chief of police, Baron Scarpia, is evil incarnate – the sadistic agent of reaction who tortures Caravadossi and barters ruthlessly with Tosca: the surrender of her body for her lover’s life.
Can one perpetrate an injustice on a historical character? Could I, a British novelist, undo the calumny of an Italian composer? Little is known of Vitellio Scarpia. He appears in the histories of the time as a courageous soldier who took part in the popular uprising that drove the French out of Naples. It is said that, as a Sicilian, he was in an ambiguous social position in Rome. Did he have a wife or perhaps a lover? This was the age of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade; and, though the city was ruled by the pope, adultery was an accepted feature of life. The church might condemn it from the pulpit, but it was tolerated as an inevitable consequence of the frailty of human nature.
After the defeat of Napoleon, sexual permissiveness came to be associated with atheism and sedition, and society became less tolerant of unfaithful wives. Their transgressions, no longer peccadillos, inspired some of the finest novels in western literature – almost all of them, it has to be said, written by men.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tolstoy / Anna Karenina / The devil in the details

Anna Karenina – the devil in the details

Do we need another translation of Anna Karenina? Rosamund Bartlett explores the challenges of Tolstoy's vivid colloquial language

Rosamund Bartlett
Friday 5 September 2014 18.00 BST

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven's Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It's all about the detail.

Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages

Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages

Five writers give their personal takes on the appeal that makes Anna Karenina a literary masterpiece

Jilly Cooper
Sunday 2 September 2012 00.05 BST

Francine Prose, author of Blue Angel and My New American Life

Anna Karenina is probably my favourite novel. More than any other book, it persuades me that there is such a thing as human nature, and that some part of that nature remains fundamentally unaffected by history and culture. I try to re-read it every few years. Each time, perhaps because I'm older and have experienced more, I find things I never noticed before. Not only is it a great source of pleasure, but I inevitably feel as if I'm getting a sort of pep talk from Tolstoy: Go deeper. Try harder. Aim higher. Pay closer attention to the world. It's orchestral, symphonic, full of distinctive melodies, parallels and variations that keep reappearing, some of which we notice, none of which we need to notice in order for them to operate on our subconscious. There are so many virtuosic set pieces (the skating party, the ball, the mushroom-picking expedition, and, my God, the race during which Vronsky breaks his horse's neck) but also small, powerful, resonant moments: I've always loved the scene in which Anna, having met the charming Vronksy, returns home to her husband and is struck by how unattractive his ears are. How could something like that not stand up to, and transcend, the so-called test of time?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

There's more to Tolstoy than War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

There's more to Tolstoy than War and Peace

Although his huge stature derives almost entirely from two mighty novels, there are a lot of other books to recommend

Jay Parini
Wednesday 6 January 2010 10.22 GMT
This is the anniversary year for Tolstoy's death – a century ago he fled his ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, and went on the road with a friend (his private doctor) to become a kind of wandering monk. He died only a couple of weeks later, in a remote railway station called Astapovo. He was estranged from his wife of nearly five decades, cut off from all of his children except one daughter, who had become a devoted "Tolstoyan". It was a strange end, and the story itself was (to me) so compelling that I wrote a novel about it, The Last Station, in 1990. It has now been made into a film, with Helen Mirren as the Countess and Christopher Plummer as the great man himself.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Is Tolstoy the greatest writer of all time?

Is Tolstoy the greatest writer of all time?

What do today's novelists think of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy?

The Guardian
Wednesday 6 January 2010 00.17 GMT
Philip Hensher

Geraint Lewis, novelist
 Geraint Lewis / Rex Features

I do think he is the greatest novelist who ever lived. I didn't used to, but I have grown into him with age. When I was a boy I used to groan at the farming bits in Anna Karenina – now I could read about farming all day. Thee is so much in his work that you don't understand, but you feel that one day you might.
What is great about him is that he lets his characters grow up – they change, act totally out of character, and yet they are recognisably the same people. In War and Peace, Natasha starts out as a girl bouncing around quite happily, and at the end she is this grumpy matron who doesn't want to see anyone – yet somehow you believe it's the same person. I don't know how he does that. He does such rounded people.
War and Peace is the book that stays with you, but I also love his very late fables. There are two unforgettable ones: How Much Land Does a Man Need?, about the greed for land, and What Men Live By, a fable or fairy story where an angel comes down to earth. He attained this perfect simplicity of expression towards the end, and he grew out of the novel. I don't think anyone else has ever done that. You can learn more from Tolstoy than any other writer – but as a technician, not as a moralist.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tolstoy / War and Peace / The 10 things you need to know (if you haven't actually read it)

War and Peace: the 10 things you need to know (if you haven't actually read it)

Who is the hero? Can you skip the boring bits? How long will it take to read? A guide to a book that is not just great, it is the best novel ever written

Philip Hensher

Friday 22 January 2016 13.00 GMT

1 People change. The characters in War and Peace endure extreme experiences, and emerge at the end as quite different people. The miracle of the book is that the Natasha who falls in love with anyone and everyone in the ballrooms of the opening is recognisably the same woman who withdraws from society at the end.
2 There is no hero and no heroine. This is the story of a group of people living within a society. Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero, and Natasha is not a romantic heroine. It forgives ideas of heroism, most beautifully in the last words any character speaks in the book, as Andrei’s son thinks of his father at the end of the First Epilogue. It understands and sympathises with those ideas but it excuses itself from repeating them. The book will try to understand why people behave as they do, and it may make the best case possible for some strange actions, but it won’t make apologies for anyone and won’t pass a final judgment. Don’t expect to be able to predict what happens. Even the characters won’t be able to explain why they do what they do, perhaps until weeks or months later. The subject of the book is the wildness of possibility, and how the world can be changed by one woman saying, for no particular reason that she can explain, “I have had so little happiness in my life.”

Friday, March 25, 2016

Paul Auster's Top Ten List

Paul Auster

Paul Auster's Top Ten List

HideReader Bio
Paul Auster (born 1947) is an American author and translator whose writing blends absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction and the search for identity. He has published 18 novels, including The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989),The Book of Illusions (2002) and Sunset Park (2010); three books of poems, including Collected Poems (2007); five screenplays; and eight works of essays and memoir including his first book, The Invention of Solitude (1982), Hand to Mouth (1997) and Report from the Interior (2013). He married the writer Siri Hustvedt on Bloom’s Day in 1982.
1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream-driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb-spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). Mark Twain supposedly said of this masterpiece, “Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race.” Everything else is included in this epic novel that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society, but it is his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre —who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live —that makes this book beloved.

Top 10 literary biographies

Top 10 literary biographies

From Shakespeare to Shelley, Edith Wharton to VS Naipaul … literature’s greats have biographies to match

Jay Parini
Wednesday 16 September 2015

15.40 BST

The idea of writing about authors is, for me, irresistible, and I’ve just published my seventh. It was about Gore Vidal and I have often recalled Vidal’s wise suggestion (made 30 years ago) that I should write about major figures, as important lives make for Important Lives.

Needless to say, anyone involved in this business becomes a student of Great Lives, and I’ve spent decades reading and rereading my favourite examples in the genre. The beginning of literary biography for anyone is probably Boswell’s classic life of Samuel Johnson (1791), an entertaining portrait of the inimitable sage, or such Victorian treasures as Elizabeth Gaskell’s astute life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) or John Forster’s intimate biography of Charles Dickens (1874), his close friend. The 20th century saw many fine literary biographies emerging on both sides of the Atlantic, but it also produced numerous heavy and boring tomes: on the American side Mark Schorer’s staggeringly detailed life of Sinclair Lewis from 1961 or Joseph Blotner’s anaesthetising life of William Faulkner from 1974; on the British, Norman Sherry’s tedious three-volume life of Graham Greene, finished in 1991.
It is such a huge field that I have narrowed my 10 favourites down to the era after the second world war.
1. Henry James by Leon Edel (Five volumes: 1953 to 1972)I’ve read these at least five times, slowly. Savouring each morsel. Although there are famously reductive (pseudo-Freudian) elements, the scholarship is impressive, the alertness to James’s shifting sensibility superb. It’s beautifully written, too. No later biographer of James can ignore this monument to the art of biography.
2. James Joyce by Richard Ellmann (1959) 
One of the best modern examples of literary biography, with its artfully chosen detail and narrative arc combining with a close reading of major texts.
3. Edith Wharton: A Biography by RWB Lewis (1975) 
Full of scholarship and astute readings, with a fine general sense of the times as well. It’s a good place to begin, but Hermione Lee’s brilliantly written biography in 2007 was a necessary compliment, challenging the somewhat stodgy view that Lewis put forward, revealing her complex sexuality and originality as a writer.
4. The Life of Langston Hughes by Arnold Rampersad (two volumes: 1986, 1988) 
Rampersad summons the rich world of the Harlem Renaissance and reveals the depth of African-American literary consciousness in this remarkable biography.
5. Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes (1974) 
A startling, elegantly written, example of artistic biography. Holmes utterly revised our sense of this key Romantic poet, taking us into his political thoughts and activities, exploring his poetry in fresh ways. 
6. Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990) 
This is among my favorite books. I’ve read it again and again, as Ackroyd is himself a writer of Dickensian vitality – the biographer and subject are so well matched here.
7. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (2004). 
A vast shelf of biographies of the Bard exists, but this is the book I would take with me to a desert island along with Shakespeare’s plays. It has energy and a great deal of unassertive yet far-reaching scholarship.
8. Tolstoy by A N Wilson (1989) 
Wilson writes so well, and he brings a blazing critical intelligence to bear as well as novelistic skills in assembling a great life of a great writer. I love this book.
9. The Imperfect Life of T S Eliot by Lyndall Gordon (1998) 
This brings together Eliot’s Early Years – a truly groundbreaking book – and Eliot’s New Life. We see Eliot in all of his alienated grandeur here, a deeply strange man, prejudiced, terrified of women, and yet massively gifted as a poet and critic. The very recent biography of young Eliot by Robert Crawford deepens our vision of Eliot and should be read beside Gordon’s work. 
10. The World Is What It Is by Patrick French (2009)
This biography of V S Naipaul, is wildly entertaining as well as informative. There is a kind of unwavering clarity and honest here. The complex genius if Naipaul is fully exposed. It’s a model of its kind.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme / Serious frivolity

Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme – serious frivolity

To give somebody these genre-bending short stories is to bestow on them a new sense of fiction’s possibilities

I first came across Barthelme at university, as I am sure is the case with many others. Like most people, I didn’t actually read him. His name was something to drop into conversation – a signifier of postmodern cool, a wink to the stalls. His fiction wasn’t actually discussed in seminars either: it was merely alluded to. But having now taken the plunge and read both of the most popular collections of his work, I cannot sing the author’s praises highly enough. I urge others to get stuck in, too.

Donald Barthelme / Everthing This Strange Is Real

Donald Barthelme



FORTY STORIES By Donald Barthelme. Illustrated. 256 pp. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $17.95.
In one of the best, most typical Donald Barthelme stories, a show is staged in an abandoned palazzo. Among descriptions of performing grave robbers, tax evaders and trapeze artists, one sentence jumps out like a crucial clue to this volume of ''Forty Stories.'' ''Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all,'' worries the narrator of ''The Flight of Pigeons From the Palace.'' Versions of that fear may haunt the reader of this selection from nearly 20 years as well: How will Mr. Barthelme's iconoclastic stories hold up after he has shattered the icons of character and plot? Will reading these now-familiar, fantastic tales resemble an adult's visit to the circus, where the magician's tricks are far less wondrous than they once seemed?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Gogol / A brief survey of the short story

Nicolai Gogol
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 20

 Nikolai Gogol 

One of the most profound, and influential, writers Russia has ever produced, he is also probably the funniest

Chris Power
Wednesday 19 August 2009 08.00 BST

In the 1820s, when Gogol was a solitary, rather unpopular Gymnasium student in his native Ukraine, a schoolmate read some of his prose. "You'll never make a fiction writer, that's obvious right now," said the boy, who most likely went on to a glittering reviewing career. Gogol's reaction – he immediately burnt the offending work – would recur throughout his career.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ray Bradbury / A brief survey of the short story

Ray Bradbury by Mayerik

A brief survey of the short story part 19

 Ray Bradbruy 

A prodigiously inventive writer, the sprawling breadth of his output is a true marvel

Chris Power
Wednesday 15 July 2009 08.00 BST

The publication earlier this year of Ray Bradbury's latest short story collection, We'll Always Have Paris, marked a remarkable 71 years of production by one of the more inventive literary imaginations of the past century.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 8 / Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)

The 100 best nonfiction books

No 8 

Orientalism by Edward Said 


This polemical masterpiece challenging western attitudes to the east is as topical today as it was on publication

Robert McCrum
Monday 21 March 2016 05.44 GMT

ext to the suicide bombings, the air strikes, and the beheadings, a closely argued 300-page monograph devoted to a radical post-colonial thesis might seem to suggest a modest literary intervention. Yet in the ongoing, brutal clash of Islam and the west, Edward Said’s analysis remains the book to which no combatant can be indifferent.

Orientalism is a profoundly influential and controversial study of the way in which, for at least 2,000 years, ever since the wars between the ancient Greeks and the Persians, the west has fought with, and largely dominated, the east through a persuasive colonial version of its culture and politics. Said’s masterpiece has been topical ever since its publication shortly before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Today, in an even more unstable world, it must be ranked high on any list of key texts related to the contemporary sociopolitical crises of the 21st century.
Edward Said

Said, a highly sophisticated and brilliant public intellectual, drew on his experience as an Arab-Palestinian living in the west to examine the way in which, from cu lture to religion, the west imperialised the ancient and complex societies of north Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He would argue that the Gulf wars, and the catastrophe of Iraq, are a direct consequence of a fateful and crude ideology rooted deeply in the western mind.
Any summary of Said’s immensely subtle analysis of western attitudes and conduct towards the east risks becoming a travesty. However, in simplified terms, Orientalism examines the history of how the west, especially the empires of Britain and France, created a thought process to deal with the “otherness” of eastern society, customs and beliefs. As Said himself puts it, “I study orientalism as a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires (British, French, American), in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced.”
The authors in question include Homer and the Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus who first characterised the Persians of “the east” in their dramas as exotic and inscrutable, stereotypes that Said shows subsequently to permeate the works of writers such as Flaubert, the young Disraeli, and Kipling, whose accounts of “the east” fed the west’s fascination with the orient. Said further sharpened the political edge of this narrative by showing how such ideas could be seen as a direct reflection of European racism and imperialism.
After the publication of Orientalism set off a firestorm of criticism from every angle of the east-west divide, Said declared, in a retrospective essay, that “the orient-versus-occident opposition was both misleading and highly undesirable; the less it was given credit for actually describing anything more than a fascinating history of interpretations and contesting interests, the better”.
These were vain hopes. In the nearly 40 years since Orientalism first appeared, the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam have continued to fuel enormous change, struggle, controversy and, most recently, warfare. Said, a pugnacious advocate for an independent state of Palestine became drawn into some visceral arguments in a way that helped politicise a book whose scholarly first intent had been to use, in Said’s words, a “humanistic critique to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of thought-stopping fury that so imprison us”.
Said always longed for elegance and sophistication in argument. “I have called what I try to do ‘humanism’,” he wrote, a word that might surprise those who found him consistently combative and unforgiving in argument. But he was unrepentant. “By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake’s mind-forged manacles so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure. Moreover, humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist.” Perhaps it was Said’s tragedy that he should practise his craft as a great literary critic in an age which has had no patience with the subtleties of language, and no serious appetite for the nuances of a complicated idea. During Said’s professional life, almost every aspect of his study became reduced to slogans and violent posturing.
Indeed, just before Said died in 2003, he noted with dismay the continuing impact of “orientalist” ideology on the west: “Bookstores in the US,” he wrote, “are filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, Islam exposed, the Arab threat and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists pretending to knowledge imparted by experts who have supposedly penetrated to the heart of these strange oriental people...”
As the US and the western powers continue to grapple with the crisis of Islam in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, while desperately appeasing the oil-rich princes of Arabia, Orientalism will remain the text to which the Foreign Office and the State Department will have to return to replenish their search for mutual understanding in the conflict between east and west.
Said was always a vociferous enemy of theories about the “clash of civilisations”. With great elegance and clarity, he argued for intellectual progress. “One of the great advances,” he wrote as the Orientalism controversy raged around him, “is the realisation that cultures are hybrid and heterogeneous, and that cultures and civilisations are so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any simply delineated description of their individuality.” How, he went on, “can one speak of ‘western civilisation’ except as an ideological fiction that gave the western nations their present mixed identities? This is especially true of the United States, which today can only be described as an enormous palimpsest of different races and cultures sharing a problematic history of conquests, exterminations, and of course major cultural and political achievements.”
In words that might provide an epigraph to this series, Italo Calvino once said that a classic is a book that has “never finished what it wants to say”. Orientalism is such a book.

A Signature Sentence

“No former ‘oriental’ will be comforted by the thought that having been an oriental himself he is likely – too likely – to study new ‘orientals’ – or ‘occidentals’ of his own making. If the knowledge of orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at anytime.”

Three to Compare

Albert Hourani: A History of the Arab Peoples (1991)
Ammiel Alcalay: After Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture (1993)
Edward Said: Out of Place – A Memoir (1999)
 Orientalism by Edward Said (Penguin, £10.99). 

Stefan Zweig / A brief survey of the short story

Stefan Zweig
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 18

 Stefan Zweig 

For Stefan Zweig, the first and second world wars destroyed an entire way of life, one kept alive in his subtle, striking, page-turning stories

Chris Power
Thursday 11 June 2009 11.18 BST

Despite being one of the most famous writers in the world during the 1920s and 30s, Stefan Zweig's reputation faded considerably – and almost totally in English-speaking countries – following the second world war. Over the past few years, however, his star has once more been in the ascendant. That many of his stories are in print again is thanks, in this country at least, to Pushkin Press, whose stewardship of European literature in translation is one of the more praiseworthy publishing endeavours of the past decade. The primary reasons why Zweig's stories are so worthy of reclamation from obscurity are straightforward and compelling: the stories are imbued with tremendous psychological acuity; they are as page-turning as they are subtle; and the profound moral sense which underpins them never tips over into moralising.