Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man
Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man

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.’”

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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.”

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Back in February, Van Magazine, an independent publication that celebrates classical music, published an interview with the writer Teju Cole. (more…)

Autobiography is always negotiating two or more voices, speaking from separate and distinct moments in time. We can see this in what is perhaps the earliest example of modern autobiography, St Augustine‘s Confessions, where a present-day narrator attempts to reconstruct a previous life. In this way, autobiographical writing attempts to collapse the distance between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, and past and present.  (more…)

Joyce Carol Oates, A Book of American Martyrs
Joyce Carol Oates, A Book of American Martyrs

Just read an interesting piece in The New York Review of Books by Ruth Franklin, author of the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. (I was drawn to the sensationalist headline: ‘A Deep American Horror Exposed‘.) The piece is a review of Joyce Carol Oates‘ new work,  A Book of American Martyrs, a novel that explores the troubled inner life of an anti-abortion activist is driven to murder in the name of his cause.

This is not the first time that Oates’ writing has ventured into pressing contemporary issues. As Franklin remarks, “Oates’s fiction has confronted some of the most morally troubling episodes in the recent American past,” and cites Black Water (1992) and the recent Carthage (2014) as prominent examples. What is significant about A Book of American Martyrs, for Franklin, is its ability to frame social issues with an attention not just to their complexity, but to politically and economically disenfranchised groups: “Like much of Oates’s other recent work, it is clearly an attempt to speak for ‘those unable to speak for themselves’—the uneducated white working class.” (more…)