I spent some time this morning preparing a lecture on William Gibson‘s Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories that ushered in the science-fiction aesthetic we now think of as ‘cyberpunk’. Since Prime Minister May began the process of the UK leaving the European Union, I have reinvested in these sticky postmodern narratives of chance and possibility. I have also been distracting myself with rarely-seen photographs of filmmakers and literary figures. Among today’s treasures was an image of Leo Tolstoy emerging from a lake on his estate, and a candid photograph of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation c. 2003. I read that Patti Smith has purchased the home of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, located in the “sleep French town of Roche”. And, finally, I enjoyed looking over George Monbiot‘s career advice for those seeking to pursue life as a journalist. Among his tips? Live as cheaply as possible: “This is a good discipline for any freelancer, however well you’re doing.”
Spring is here, though on this morning the morose Cardiff sky begs to differ. I have finished reading Thomas Merton‘s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, and would highly recommend it. I have now picked up Marilynne Robinson‘s 2005 novel, Gilead, a first-person narrative that takes the form of a letter from an ageing Idaho Reverend to his young son. The novel is beautifully understated and really quite moving.
I recently interviewed the academic David Lloyd about his book on Samuel Beckett and art, entitled Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press). Lloyd shares his passion for Beckett’s writing, and traces the writer’s abiding fascination with painting (while also acknowledging his abiding friendships with a number of twentieth-century European artists). Among other things, Lloyd mentions Beckett’s visual memory: “Beckett had an amateur’s (in the best sense) deep knowledge of the Old Masters, from Flemish and German painters to Italian painters of the high Renaissance. […] He had remarkable visual recall: to give just one example, there is a St Sebastian by Antonello da Messina that he saw in Dresden in 1937 that he describes with astonishing accuracy and detail in a letter to Duthuit in 1948.”
Finally, I see that my friend Scott Eric Hamilton is guest-editing a forthcoming issue of The Parish Review, a journal celebrating the work of Flann O’Brien. It’s lovely to see that he is currently accepting submissions.
What draws you to the work of Samuel Beckett?
I’ve been reading Beckett’s work since I was a teenager and writing on him since my undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 70s. I dare say part of my initial attraction to Beckett lay in the kinds of philosophical conundra his work posed, in its hilarious comedy and in its ascetic reductionism. In a letter to Georges Duthuit, in which he comments on his desire for “a theatre reduced to its own means”, he goes on: “That is Protestantism if you like, we are what we are.” It may be that there was also something about the South Dublin Protestant background that I shared with Beckett that felt like grounds for affinity: certainly there was something familiar as much in the ethos as in the local landscapes secreted in the works. But above all, it was the uncompromising aesthetic ethic, the commitment to a work determined to “reduce itself to its own means”, that corresponded to the refusal of extraneous resources like the resonances of identity or signifiers of cultural belonging. That offered a quite different set of possibilities, intellectually and aesthetically, than Irish culture at the time generally made available. (more…)
The 30 January 2017 issue of The New Yorker carries a piece where the retired American novelist Philip Roth takes issue with President Donald Trump:
“I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
Responding to comparisons between the Trump presidency and the writer’s own dystopian alternate-history, The Plot Against America (2004), Roth suggests an alternate literary model: “The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”
The Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai has been writing a novella involving Herman Melville, the American writer responsible for Moby Dick (1851) and ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853). The work is purported to focus on ‘Melville, New York, and everything in between’, and prompted Kraznahorkai to seek out places that were most significant to the author. He was accompanied by a photographer, Ornan Rotem, who recorded their expedition with a series of beautiful black-and-white images.
The Guardian has published a selection of Rotem’s photographs with accompanying commentary from Krasznahorkai. I was struck by one image in particular, notable for its simplicity and its symmetry: Herman Melville’s desk at Arrowhead. Krasznahorkai relates: “I went to visit Arrowhead in Pittsfield, the farmhouse where Melville had lived from 1850 to 1863. I walked through the house, saw its tiny rooms, the bedroom, the living room, the study and the desk where he wrote. I looked out the window and saw exactly the same view that Melville would have seen in his day: a meadow that had not changed at all over the past 160 years.”