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…)

Carson McCullers at her writing desk.
Carson McCullers at her writing desk.

Spent a few days in London with Jennifer. It’s now become customary for us to walk everywhere we go, tiring us out just in time for pizza on the South Bank.

Read John Williams‘ short but sweet tribute to the American writer Carson McCullers in The New York Times: ‘Feb. 19 was the centenary of the birth of Carson McCullers, one of the most distinctive and ill-fated writers in American history. McCullers died when she was 50, in 1967. She suffered a series of strokes before she was 30, and spent much of her life in pain.’

Looking forward to reading three essay collections by the American writer Marilynne RobinsonThe Givenness of ThingsWhen I Was a Child I Read Books, and Absence of Mind. I taught Robinson’s Housekeeping a year or two ago, and have become increasingly fascinated by her work ever since.

The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).
The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).

When in doubt, pick up Jules Renard. His journal is unrivalled. A few choice picks from today’s reading (translated from the French by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget):

  • On the ridiculous: ‘Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it’ (February 1890).
  • On André Gide: ‘He is clean-shaven, has a cold in the nose and throat, an exaggerated jaw, eyes between two welts. He is in love with Oscar Wilde, whose photograph I perceive on the mantel: a fleshy gentleman, very refined, also clean-shaven, who has recently been discovered’ (December 1891).
  • On Oscar Wilde: ‘Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He gives you a cigarette, but he selects it himself’ (April 1892).
  • On criticising others: ‘All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities that we believe ourselves to have’ (July 1895).
  • On observing nature: ‘I want my ear to be a shell that keeps in itself all the sounds of nature’ (September 1895).
  • On modesty: ‘Be modest! It is the kind of pride least likely to offend’ (September 1895).

Rain, wind, moments of bright sunshine. Continuing to enjoy Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain: having completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia, he is now studying William Blake‘s poetry at postgraduate level.

Lecture slide from Utopia: Suffrage to Cyberpunk.
Lecture slide from Utopia: Suffrage to Cyberpunk.

I’m currently teaching a literature module at Cardiff University entitled Utopia: Suffrage to Cyberpunk, which traces the development of utopian/dystopian writing in the twentieth-century. Yesterday’s lecture included something of a surprise, when Margaret Atwood  took time to share a few words the group via Twitter. We spent a few minutes at the end of the lecture following her sage advice, collectively acquainting ourselves with the wonders of Thug Notes.

Early handwritten manuscript for William Faulkner 'A Rose for Emily'
Early handwritten manuscript for William Faulkner ‘A Rose for Emily’

Rain. I walk to work every day, so adverse weather conditions require no small degree of ingenuity. Angling my umbrella towards the wind, I found a dry route through the city’s main shopping centre. As I neared the main building, I happened to chat briefly with several former students, and my former boss.

I see that the University of Virginia is hosting an exhibition celebrating the life and work of American writer William Faulkner. The website offers a wonderful glimpse of the materials on display, including photographs, garments, and an early handwritten manuscript of ‘A Rose for Emily’. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to explore ‘Digital Yoknapatawpha’, an interactive virtual tour of Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county. The exhibition runs until 7 July.

Reading Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain. Having left Cambridge University under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Merton is now studying literature at Columbia in the US. His grandfather, ‘Pop’, has died suddenly. Merton writes: ‘In the last year or two we had drawn rather close together. He often got me to come to lunch with him downtown and there he would tell me all his troubles, and talk over the prospects of my future’.

 

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.

I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St AugustineHenri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.

In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.

12403-franz-kafka-max-brodOvercast, but bright. The marine layer has moved in over the city. Watching political commentators reflect on the unfolding of the Trump administration—particularly impressed by the insights of MSNBC reporters Rachel MaddowKatie Tur, Joy ReidChris Hayes, Kasie Hunt and Chuck Todd.

Robert Cohen has written Franz Kafka‘s ‘Budget Guide to Florence’, filed under The Paris Review‘s ‘Department of Tomfoolery’. It includes a vital piece of Kafkaesque advice: ‘In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.’

Meeting friends for coffee, and hoping to find some time to read Thomas Merton.

Beautiful light today. Went running along the water’s edge.

fa704-karlmarxjennyKarl Marx‘s life has always fascinated me. When I hear his name, I imagine him restlessly working in the reading rooms of the British Museum, juggling his money problems and worrying about his family. While Marx is acknowledged as a titan of philosophical thought, it’s the relatable, everyday details that transfix me. Aware of this interest, my good friend Anindya Raychaudhuri has sent me an article by Benjamin Kunkel for The Nation.

Kunkel points out a fundamental problem for Marx biographers: “Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism […] warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes.” In an essay that comprises biography, commentary, and analysis, Kunkel traces a history of Marx biographies through the decades. I won’t be giving up my romantic, and perhaps sentimental, image of Marx anytime soon, but Kunkel’s piece is an important reminder of the political and ideological roles that biographical writing can play.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton
Bright morning. Watching American news broadcasts. Currently reading Thomas Merton‘s journals, and was reminded that he entered the monastic order during the Second World War (c. 1941).

Attended a fascinating talk by Professor Chris Weedon yesterday evening at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. The talk was entitled ‘The Cultural Politics of Memory: the Case of GDR’, and explored what often gets forgotten in accounts of the German Democratic Republic.

In an insightful piece for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino revisits Ivanka Trump‘s 2009 self-help book The Trump Card. Tolentino observes: ‘Ivanka’s aesthetic differences from her father are often parsed as political differences, and she has made the most of such misperceptions.’

Michiko Kakutani has listed George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a must-read for 2017.

I have decided to turn over a new leaf. In addition to publishing interviews and reviews, I am going to start keeping an online journal. Entries will include links to articles I am reading and brief reflections on literature, philosophy, and current events. My hope is that the flexibility of the journal form will allow me to write more freely, while creating an informal space to share ideas and commentary.

Just finished Oliver Sacks’ final collection of essays, Gratitude. Written in the last five years of his life, these short pieces form a fitting epilogue to his recent memoir, On the Move. Gratitude documents Sacks’ shifting attitudes towards his diagnosis of terminal cancer, alongside broader reflections on life, work, and relationships.