In a 30-minute documentary produced in collaboration with the Arvo Pärt Centre, the composer discusses the significance of his personal diaries to the formation and development of his music.
Ignatius Loyola: A Saint Reads the Saints
31 July marks the feast day of Saint Ignatius Loyola (b.1491), the founder of the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits). In a breviary, I was interested to read a passage from the Acts of Saint Ignatius taken down by Luis Gonzalez, which describes the reading habits of the young saint:(more…)
The Letters of Thomas Merton
I recently finished re-reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, one of my favourite books. Now, I am dipping into the multi-volume edition of his letters. All of the books are secondhand copies, and I am sure that some of them have their own stories to tell. My copy of the first volume once sat on the shelves of a branch of The New York Public Library at 455 Fifth Avenue in Mid-Manhattan.
The letters are collected according to theme. There’s a volume of correspondence covering Merton‘s close friendships; there’s one devoted to poetry, literature, and the vocation of writing; and yet another two that deal with religious experience. The fifth and final volume collects together his letters on “Times of Crisis”. I think I might start with that one.
“In these dark times…”
In these dark times
we look for the light.
Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros
How does one introduce a book of introductions by an author who needs no introduction? This month heralds the paperback release of Michael Chabon’s Bookends, an enjoyable collection of his introductions (as well as outros and liner notes) to an eclectic range of texts. Combining literary and cultural critique with revealing autobiographical reflection, Chabon shares his enthusiasm for everything from literature and popular fiction to comic books, Norse myth, movies, food, music, and baseball. He glories in the rhythms of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debunking a few myths along the way, and takes time to recommend West Oakland’s soul food restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. There are also personal observations about his own fiction, including a short extract from his unpublished work, Fountain City. The collection even has its own (meta) introduction. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will seize on this book to better understand the texts and experiences that shaped Chabon as an artist. More broadly, Bookends is a wander along the lost avenues and borderlands of the twentieth-century popular imagination.
Whether discussing the cultural significance of Superman’s cape, or the pastel, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, the pieces that form Bookends return time and again to the role that art plays in shaping who we are. Chabon remembers picking up paperbacks of The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus before embarking on his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He talks about his immersion into the magical-realist settings of Greek and Norse myth as a third grader. He discusses the way Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket Man’ changed his life forever when he was just ten-years-old: “I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.” Bookends celebrates the skill of artists and writers to conjure imaginary worlds, navigating the fantasy landscapes of Michael Moorcock and getting lost in the graphic dystopian cities of Howard Chaykin. Chabon has a critic’s awareness of poststructuralist and postmodern approaches to art and representation, with nods here and there to writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. But, ultimately, the success of Bookends lies in the way it demonstrates a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art, and the texts that speak to us at important moments in our lives. It traces the strange spark that arises at “the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.”
This extract is from my review of Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 January 2019.
San Francisco Chronicle’s Year in Review: The Best Books of 2018
Delighted to see that my review of Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is included among the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Year in Review: The Best Books of 2018.
Samuel Beckett’s Political Imagination
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research interests?
My research revolves around modernism and post-1945 literature, and the essays and books that I have published on Beckett’s work explore its relation to politics, its historical dimensions, and its Irish and European influences. I have been working in the Department of English at the University of York for over ten years.
How did you first encounter Samuel Beckett’s writing?
I must have been about fifteen, I think, when I first heard about Beckett. A friend of mine told me about a play that she had seen in which two actors were trapped in rubbish bins, and I was intrigued! Soon after I came across copies of the early absurdist plays, in the lovely Editions de Minuit versions. I was particularly struck by Oh les beaux jours, with its memorable cover featuring Madeleine Renaud stoically holding her umbrella.
It seemed to me remarkable that a whole play could be made to unfold from that situation, from that image. The author was of no concern to me then, but from that first reading I recall being convinced that the work dealt with colonialism and with colonial wars, and I remember seeing a very literal political dimension within it. The French texts have a peculiar texture; they refract much of what is unsaid about colonial history, and much of what is culturally unsayable about historical injustice, and I was sensitive to that. These were powerful impressions, which stayed with me thereafter. When I began to study Beckett’s work properly, many years later, I did so in light of its Irish literary and historical contexts, and my first monograph was a reappraisal of Beckett’s relation to Ireland. For me, the work is never abstract: it is inseparable from war memory and from the long colonial histories that it invokes. In a sense, this new book was a return to my first impressions: when I started researching, I worked on what is now the final chapter on Beckett and the Algerian War of Independence. (more…)
Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard
Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is the first full-length biography of the acclaimed French thinker. Girard’s “mimetic theory” saw imitation at the heart of individual desire and motivation, accounting for the competition and violence that galvanize cultures and societies. “Girard claimed that mimetic desire is not only the way we love, it’s the reason we fight. Two hands that reach towards the same object will ultimately clench into fists.”
Often a controversial figure, Girard trespassed into many different fields — he was, by turns, a literary critic, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian and much else besides. Haven’s biography is the first book to contextualize Girard’s work within its proper historical, cultural and philosophical context. The book presumes no prior knowledge, and includes several useful primers of the texts that established his reputation: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and his study of Shakespeare, A Theater of Envy (1991). But it is the author’s closeness to the man once described as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” that brings this fascinating biography to life.
Haven was a friend of Girard’s until his death in 2015, and met with family members, friends and colleagues closest to him to prepare for the book. She recalls a calm and patient man who was generous with his time. “I came to his work through his kindness, generosity, and his personal friendship, not the other way around.”
He lived with his wife, Martha, on the Stanford University campus, and followed a strict working routine: “Certainly his schedule would have made him at home in one of the more austere orders of monks. His working hours were systematic and adamantly maintained.” He began his day at his desk at roughly 3:30 in the morning, broke for a walk and relaxation sometime around noon, and spent his afternoons either continuing what he had begun that day or meeting his responsibilities to students.
One of the abiding questions that drives the book is how a man who appeared to lead such a quiet and ordered life was animated by some of the most troubling themes in human history.
Adopting the lively and accessible style of an investigative reporter, Haven looks to Girard’s formative experiences for an answer. The reader is along for the ride as she drives a rented Citroën through southern France, or pores over archival images and family photographs. Her research is rich in important and surprising details, and there are entertaining tidbits of juicy academic gossip along the way.
This extract is from my review of Cynthia L. Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2018.