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Philip Roth

Yesterday night, I was sad to hear that the American novelist Philip Roth had died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. As one of the most important literary chroniclers of post-war America, his voice carries across the decades to cover some of the most bracing and stupendous events of the last sixty years.

I can still remember being introduced to his work as a college student, and sitting up on winter nights to read The Ghost Writer and the other Zuckerman novels. It was what I did in lieu of starting my essay assignments. I found Nathan Zuckerman, a complex or not-so-complex stand-in for Roth, a fascinating example of modern American identity, with all its inconsistencies, strange neuroses, and grand ambitions. For a long time, Zuckerman was the character who came to mind when I imagined the figure of the modern writer hunching over a typewriter: the bold American novelist who sought to capture the world on the page as it seemed intent on collapsing all around him.

I read Portnoy’s Complaint, of course, and then graduated to the stately, mature works on which so much of his reputation is based: Sabbath’s Theater (did I say stately and mature?), American Pastoral (perhaps my favourite Roth title), The Human Stain, The Plot Against America (which I anxiously carried through customs on a trip to California). But, for me, many of the favourites come right at the end: those short, intense novels (or are they novellas?) which tackle the great questions of life and death in the dwindling hours of the American century: Everyman, Nemesis, The Humbling, Exit Ghost.

There was a certain romance that surrounded Roth’s later years. His solitary life in deepest green Connecticut. His athletic writing routine spent standing at the window of his study, before retiring in the quiet evenings to read Turgenev by lamplight. A number of journalists and television interviewers were dispatched to marvel at the writer’s almost monastic self-discipline, and he improvised answers to their incredulous questions with a down-to-earth humility and street-smart dry humour.

When he finally announced his retirement from writing he began to focus on questions of life and legacy, welcoming an authorised biographer into his home, and working with the Library of America to produce a multi-volume edition of his works—a rare honour for any living man or woman of American letters. But while Roth helped others find their way around his earlier years, he remained an acute observer of contemporary culture and politics, a commentator whose words conveyed the wisdom of experience and a rare, often mischievous, humour. He will be missed.

What follows are a few of the interviews and articles that I have featured on the site in recent years:

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John le Carré

I am always fascinating to hear about the daily rituals of writers and creative people. Readers of this site might be familiar with previous posts on walking and improvisation, thinking, or Kierkegaard’s fondness for daily walks. And so, whenever I hear about writers who are also keen walkers, I’m always curious to know more.

This morning I read that the British spy novelist John le Carré, author of The Night Manager (1993) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is one such writer. He talks of the pleasure he takes in perambulations around London, of finding inspiration in trains and cafés, and his preference for ‘drawing the words’ over using typewriters and word processors: (more…)

Taiye Selasi talks to writer, photographer, and essayist Teju Cole for The Guardian
Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Taiye Selasi: When you were last in Berlin we had a conversation, with Binyavanga Wainaina, about how a writer arrives at a given piece of text. I’d just read one of your Instagram captions, which, like much of your prose, seemed to have flowed perfectly formed from top of mind to tip of finger. “It so clearly comes so easily,” I marvelled, not without some envy. You smiled, and asked, “How do you know?” How do we know that the casually composed photograph, the hastily written paragraph, is the fruit of instantaneous revelation and not of assiduous labour? Is perhaps part of the genius of all great artists their ability to hide their sweat?

Teju Cole: Trick question there. I’m not going to say anything about what a genius does, because how would I know? I do find it very helpful to remain aware of contingency, in my own work and in that of others. Nothing about the making should be taken for granted. If I think of a writer whose work I admire for its fluency, I want to resist the temptation to assume it’s easier for her to get there than it would be for me. I’ve learned to suppose “this much excellence” is accompanied by “this much labour”. Sprezzatura, no? Though the temptation to think it comes easily to some people never goes away. [Read More]

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An extract from One-Way Street (1928)

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Walter Benjamin

The German critical theorist and essayist shares ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’: (more…)

“My silly old body is here alone with the snow and the crows and the exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark.”

– Samuel Beckett to Ethna MacCarthy, 10 January 1959.

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

Boccaccio’s personal account of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, quoted in Paget Jackson Toynbee’s Dante Alighieri: His life and works

Our poet […] was of middle height, and after he had reached mature years he walked with somewhat of a stoop; his gait was grave and sedate; and he was ever clothed in most seemly garments, his dress being suited to the ripeness of his years. His face was long, his nose aquiline, his eyes rather large than small, his jaws heavy, with the under lip projecting beyond the upper. His complexion was dark, and his hair and beard thick, black, and crisp; and his countenance always sad and thoughtful. Whence it happened one day in Verona (the fame of his writings having by that time been spread abroad everywhere, and especially of that part of his Commedia to which he gave the title of Hell, and he himself being known by sight to many men and women), that as he passed before a doorway where several women were sitting, one of them said to the others in a low voice, but not so low but that she was plainly heard by him and by those with him, ‘Do you see the man who goes down to Hell, and returns at his pleasure, and brings back news of those who are below?’ To which one of the others answered in all simplicity: ‘Indeed, what you say must be true; don’t you see how his beard is crisped and his colour darkened by the heat and smoke down below?’ Dante, hearing these words behind him, and perceiving that they were spoken by the women in perfect good faith, was not ill pleased that they should have such an opinion of him, and smiling a little passed on his way. (more…)

On the writer’s love of his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter

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Will Self talks to ShortList Magazine: ‘People are deceived into believing that writing on a computer is faster, but it’s not. Using a typewriter is more disciplined; you don’t have the distraction of thinking, ‘I’ll go online and look up what oven gloves made of fur look like.’ Also, the technology is more durable. But what really drove me to the typewriter was the aesthetics. I don’t like what computers look like now. I’m obviously just old and crusty.’ [Read More]

In a 1993 interview, Elissa Schappell talks to Toni Morrison for The Paris Review (with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour)
Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison

Interviewer: You have said that you begin to write before dawn. Did this habit begin for practical reasons, or was the early morning an especially fruitful time for you?

Toni Morrison: Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits . . . I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy. (more…)

Mason Currey (Slate), author of the excellent Daily Rituals, shares details of artists’ lives

6d531-early-morning-window-sunlightA friend of Frank Lloyd Wright’s once observed that for as long as she had known him, the architect seemed to spend the day doing everything but actually working on his building designs. He held meetings, took phone calls, answered letters, supervised students—but was rarely seen at the drafting table. The friend wanted to know: When did Wright conceive the ideas and make the sketches for his buildings? “Between 4 and 7 o’clock in the morning,” Wright told her. “I go to sleep promptly when I go to bed. Then I wake up around 4 and can’t sleep. But my mind’s clear, so I get up and work for three or four hours. Then I go to bed for another nap.” Wright was hardly unusual in this habit. In researching Daily Rituals, I came across story after story of creative artists who did their most important work—and sometimes their only work—just as the sun was rising. (Of the 161 figures in the book, about a third got up at 7 a.m. or earlier.) If I were going to extrapolate one lesson from the book, it would be this: Get up early and go straight to work, making a cup of coffee if you like but not doing much else before sitting down, and take advantage of that time before the myriad demands of daily life have a chance to take hold. (more…)

Olivia Laing (The Guardian) offers a brief history
Jane Bowles
Jane Bowles

If you write a book about alcohol and male writers, as I did, the one question you’ll be asked more than any other is: what about the women? Are there any alcoholic female writers? And are their stories the same, or different? The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, of course there are, among them such brilliant, restless figures as Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Anne Sexton, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson. Alcoholism is more prevalent in men than women (in 2013, the NHS calculated that 9% of men and 4% of women were alcohol-dependent). Still, there is no shortage of female drinkers; no lack of falling-down afternoons and binges that stretch sweatily into days. Female writers haven’t been immune to the lure of the bottle, nor to getting into the kinds of trouble – the fights and arrests, the humiliating escapades, the slow poisoning of friendships and familial relations – that have dogged their male colleagues. Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy 20th century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer? [Read More]