patti-smithOpen Culture has shared a list of American writer, musician, and photographer Patti Smith‘s favourite books. Included among the 2008 list are titles by Mikhail BulgakovHermann HesseJoseph ConradCharlotte Brontë, Nikolai Gogol, André Breton, Albert Camus and Virginia Woolf. Smith also lists a number of titles associated with the Beat Generation and other post-war American literature, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack KerouacWilliam S. Burroughs, and J. D. Salinger. Mike Springer reproduces the complete list, with brief commentary, over at the Open Culture website.

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[Chinua] Achebe’s essay helped explain what I had found repellent in Conrad’s work and why I’d stopped reading him. In the novels set in the outer reaches of European empire the native characters always seemed to merge with their environment, reminiscent of the Hegelian image of Africa as a land of childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night. I accepted everything Achebe said about Conrad’s biases.

And yet, I could not wholly embrace Achebe’s overwhelmingly negative view of ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Conrad in general. Somehow, the essay failed to explain what had once attracted me: Conrad’s ability to capture the hypocrisy of the “civilizing mission” and the material interests that drove capitalist empires, crushing the human spirit. [In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff] does not forgive Conrad his blindness, but she does try to present his perspective on the changing, troubled world he traveled, a perspective that still has strong resonance today.”

— Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The New York Times

“Today, more than ever, Conrad demands our attention for his insight into the moral challenges of a globalised world. In an age of Islamist terrorism, it is striking to note that the same author who condemned imperialism in Heart of Darkness (1899) also wrote The Secret Agent (1907), which centres around a conspiracy of foreign terrorists in London. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it is uncanny to read Conrad in Nostromo (1904) portraying multinational capitalism as a maker and breaker of states. As the digital revolution gathers momentum, one finds Conrad writing movingly, in Lord Jim (1900) and many other works set at sea, about the consequences of technological disruption. As debates about immigration unsettle Europe and the US, one can only marvel afresh at how Conrad produced any of these books in English – his third language, which he learned only as an adult.

[…]

Across his writing, Conrad grappled with the ethical ramifications of living in a globalised world: the effects of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multiethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technological change. He understood acutely the way that individuals move within systems larger than themselves, that even the freest will can be constrained by what he would have called fate. Conrad’s moral universe revolved around a critique of the European notion of civilisation, which for Conrad generally spelled selfishness and greed in place of honour and a sense of the greater good. He mocks its bourgeois pieties in The Secret Agent; in Heart of Darkness, he tears off its hypocritical mask. In Lord Jim, he offers a compelling portrait of a flawed person stumbling to chart an honourable course when the world’s moral compass has lost its poles.”

Maya Jasanoff, The Guardian

Catching up on my reading. What follows are a few of the articles and interviews that have caught my eye over the last few weeks – and some that I have been inspired to revisit.

Joseph Conrad on Henry James and what makes a great writerMarilynne Robinson on William Faulkner and what literature owes to the Bible • Sonny Rollins on how fifty years of practicing yoga made him a better musician • Alex Ross on the consolations of Arvo Pärt‘s music • Peter Bouteneff in conversation about Arvo Pärt • On the lasting emotional impact of Louis Kahn‘s architecture

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Joseph Conrad

“It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that the late S.S. Titanic had a ‘good press.’ It is perhaps because I have no great practice of daily newspapers (I have never seen so many of them together lying about my room) that the white spaces and the big lettering of the headlines have an incongruously festive air to my eyes, a disagreeable effect of a feverish exploitation of a sensational God-send. And if ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God, this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.”

More at Berfrois.

Mark Lawson (The Guardian) reviews a new BBC period drama and traces its contemporary relevance
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Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

As they watch a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his chest walk through a London that feels on the brink of political collapse, some viewers may suspect that the new TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, has been tweaked to maximise contemporary relevance.

Those elements, though, are in the original, making the BBC1 three-parter – with Toby Jones as Verloc, an anarchist who becomes involved in a plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory – the latest example of Conrad’s story becoming a prism through which modern political insecurities are viewed. It is a tactic that goes back to 1936, when Alfred Hitchcock filmed the story, under the title Sabotage, as a reflection of the developing political pressures in Europe.

Ever since, the years that sees an adaptation of The Secret Agent is unlikely to have been a good one for democracy. The BBC put the book on the screen twice in quick succession, in 1967 and 1975, straddling an era of international instability, marked by the rise of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, student riots in France and assassinations in the US. There had even been, in the early 70s, a period of actual anarchist terrorism in England, with bombings carried out by the Angry Brigade. (more…)

The British writer shares his daily work routine with The Guardian. (Source)

From Matthew Feldman (Fair Observer)
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Joseph Conrad

The modernist author Joseph Conrad “can be read,” British philosopher John Gray provocatively argued, “as the first great political novelist of the twenty-first century.”

The case set out for this agonistic view in his 2002 “Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary” departs from Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, which is based upon an “actual terrorist attempt on the Royal Observatory in 1894, when a French anarchist accidentally blew himself up in Greenwich Park before reaching his target.” This is given a “darkly ironic vision” by Conrad, “whereby the symbols of trade and new technology have come under terrorist attack.” (more…)

Flavorwire have compiled a list of the ’30 harshest author-on-author insults in history’. Here are just a few…

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From an interview conducted by George Prochnik (The Telegraph)
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Wes Anderson

George Prochnik: I thought your film [The Grand Budapest Hotel] did a beautiful job of transposing Stefan Zweig’s actual life into the dream life of his stories, and the stories into the fabric of his actual life. You showed how his own experiences had a fairy-tale dimension, confectionary and black by turns. I wondered if you could say anything about these qualities and how Zweig became an inspiration for you.

Wes Anderson: I had never heard of Zweig — or, if I had, only in the vaguest ways — until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that, when I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity. I loved this first book, and immediately there were dozens more in front of me that hadn’t been there before. They were all suddenly back in print. I also read the The Post Office Girl, which had been only published for the first time recently. The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself — our “Author” character, played by Tom Wilkinson, and the theoretically fictionalised version of himself, played by Jude Law. But, in fact, M. Gustave, the main character who is played by Ralph Fiennes, is modelled significantly on Zweig as well. (more…)

In a 2010 interview to promote his novel, Nemesis, Philip Roth shares what he’s reading with Scott Raab, alongside his memories of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania
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Philip Roth. Photograph: Steve Pyke.

Roth’s talking about his reading these days, revisiting a revered Russian master of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev.

Fathers and Sons is a great book — there’s a new translation of it. I think it’s called Fathers and Children now, and the translation is wonderful. And there are several long short stories that are pearls. One is called ‘The Torrents of Spring’ or ‘Spring Torrents,’ which is a masterpiece, and the other — which is beyond masterpiece — is called ‘First Love.’ Read those two things.”

Roth chortles with something like delight. He stopped teaching twenty or so years ago but still seems as if he’d fit in on any campus in any decade. It’s not only his outfit — tan slacks, blue-and-white-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled loosely up his skinny forearms, brown walking shoes — but also his easy passion for those writers who’ve nourished his soul. (more…)

Alberto Comparini (LARB) reviews a new study of the novel-essay and its place in modernity
“Hybrid genres,” and the questionable orthodoxy of traditional genres, are subjects that continue to vex literary theory. Consider Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: What do these novels share? What kind of novels are they? Are these books truly novels, or are they another form altogether?

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Rendering Russia’s literary masterpieces into English

Orlando Figes

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990, they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator’s) in these works—to the verbal “polyphony” which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

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Why read a ‘difficult’ book?
Emily Temple (Flavorwire) has compiled a list of ’50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers’. Their toughness varies from the sheer bulk of the volume (eg. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Stein’s The Making of Americans), to their stylistic virtuosity (Finnegans Wake, anyone?). But despite their daunting reputations, there can be something special about reading a ‘difficult’ book.

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