Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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.

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David Lloyd talks about Beckett’s friendships with twentieth-century painters and his enduring interest in the visual arts
David Lloyd, Beckett's Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
David Lloyd, Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

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…)

Herman Melville's desk at Arrowhead. Photograph: Ornan Rotem.
Herman Melville’s desk at Arrowhead. Photograph: Ornan Rotem.

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.”

Rachele Dini discusses how the work of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, and Samuel Beckett engages with one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)

What motivated you to write Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction?

Well, I’ve been attracted to remnants of different kinds since I was very little, and was obsessed with cutting up magazines as a teenager—but intellectually, the turning point for me was during my MA at King’s College London. I noticed almost immediately that the texts on the modules I was taking were unusually concerned with fragments and fragmentation. Dickens, Zola, Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Ballard, Calvino, and of course Walter Benjamin and Adorno: physical and metaphorical waste proliferates in all of these authors’ work. In hindsight, this was to be expected since the course focused on the seismic effects of capitalist modernity, and waste is certainly one of these. But that focus on residual matter reproaching you for throwing it away, or on things not working and stuff falling apart, especially compelled me at the time, since it was the opposite in every way from the focus of my day job in market research. Market research is an industry essentially devoted to promoting the very things that leftist theory denounces: its modus operandi is to find ways of selling more. So the first spark for the PhD project that ultimately turned into this book was the conflict between the rhetoric of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ (to quote Daft Punk) I was accustomed to in my working life, and all of the countercultural—or simply denunciatory—writing I discovered through my studies, which called that rhetoric into question. (more…)

Celebrating the women’s civil rights movement

Today marks International Women’s Day, which has commemorated the struggle for women’s civil rights throughout the twentieth century. The day was originally known as International Working Women’s Day, and for most of its history has been connected with socialist movements and communist states such as China and Soviet Russia. In the mid-1970s, during the height of Second Wave Feminism, the UN recognised International Women’s Day and invited its member states to do the same.

Since the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year, there has been an increased level of vigilance on issues surrounding women’s civil rights in the United States. Many basic political, economic, and cultural entitlements have fallen under threat, and thousands of grassroots campaigns have mobilised all over the country to respond. To mark this year’s IWD, the Women’s March on Washington has called for A Day Without A Woman, a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity for ‘equity, justice and the human rights of women and all gender-oppressed people’.

Reads for IWD 2017

Masthead Photograph: Artist Louise Bourgeois in her home studio