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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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Maurice Blanchot

On 2 February, the ICA is hosting the third symposium of Maladies of the Book, focussing specifically on the work of the post-war French writer and literary critic Maurice Blanchot:

“Starting from his late reflections on passivity in The Writing of the Disaster, we turn to the work of Maurice Blanchot to develop our ongoing exploration of writing as impossibility and madness, and extend it to a consideration of the image. Beginning with a workshop on passages from Writing the Disaster, and Blanchot’s texts ‘Reading’ and ‘The Narrative Voice’, we will explore ideas of a radical passivity, reading situated before comprehension, the neutral, and the image as cadaver.”

For more information, or to book a place, visit the Event page on the Goldsmiths, University of London website.

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Kim Rae Taylor, Peggy Guggenheim, 1898–1979. Oil on birch panel, 12 x 12″, 2015

Jade French talks to artist, educator, and feminist Kim Rae Taylor about The Modernism Project, a series of painted portraits documenting some of the leading women of twentieth-century modernism. When asked what prompted the work, Taylor responded:

“My primary area of interest is the modernist period, and about three years ago I began to take notice of just how many women lived long lives, beyond the designated period of twentieth century Modernism. I wanted to learn more about the work from their later years and this became something of a visual quest because I was just so curious to see how they looked as elderly women. Once I had a running file of images, I started making these loose pencil sketches, but then a 1967 photo of Peggy Guggenheim, by photographer Ron Galella, really grabbed my attention. I was intrigued by the confrontational way she stared into the camera’s lens, without her usual oversized sunglasses, and I loved this idea that she was reversing the gaze. It felt powerful to me in an unexpected way.”

— Medium

Former American novelist reveals what he’s been doing since giving up writing back in 2010.
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Philip Roth

In an engaging email interview conducted by Charles McGrath of The New York Times, former American novelist Philip Roth reveals what he’s been doing since giving up writing back in 2010. He is in good health, and now spends most of his time living in his Upper West Side apartment in New York, meeting with friends and attending concerts — the Connecticut home where he wrote his novels remains unoccupied until the summer months. He has spent the past few years working closely with an official biographer, Blake Bailey, and supervising the final volume of the Library of America edition of his work.

The retired writer has also been watching the major developments unfolding across American culture. Roth identifies the current political moment in America as unprecedented in its history, and doesn’t mince words when describing the current President of the United States: he calls him a “massive fraud” who is “devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac”. Roth also says that he was unsurprised by the abuses of power revealed in the wake of the MeToo movement. (more…)

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Literary Hub has published Haruki Murakami‘s account of how he became a novelist, related in his recent introduction to WIND/PINBALL: Two Novels. The piece, entitled ‘The Birth of My Kitchen Table Fiction’, is translated by Ted Goossen. The moment that inspired Murakami’s decision occurred during “[o]ne bright April afternoon in 1978, [during] a baseball game at Jingu Stadium”:

“In the bottom of the first inning, Hilton slammed Sotokoba’s first pitch into left field for a clean double. The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.

I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. Whatever the reason, it had taken place. It was like a revelation. Or maybe epiphany is the closest word. All I can say is that my life was drastically and permanently altered in that instant—when Dave Hilton belted that beautiful, ringing double at Jingu Stadium.”

— Literary Hub

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Includes Roxane Gay, Ijeoma Oluo, Zadie SmithTracy K. Smith, and Ahmed Saadawi. — Bustle

Includes Susan Fenimore Cooper, Gene Stratton-Porter, Mary Austin, Karen Blixen-Isak Dinesen, Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Ann Haymond Zwinger, Diane Ackerman, Terry Tempest Williams, Camille T. Dungy, and more. Outside Online

“Many conversations about posthumous publishing center around this question: Which is more important when considering whether to release a work, particularly an incomplete one, posthumously—authorial intent or obligation to the reader? More often than not, the latter wins the day.”

— Adin Dobkin, The Daily, The Paris Review

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Includes Susan Sontag, Hanya Yanagihara, Georges Perec, Samuel Pepys, Brian Evenson, Erica Jong, and more — Literary Hub

Originally published in French as Malone meurt in 1951 and later translated into English by the author himself, Malone Dies is the second novel of Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy. The Making of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Malone Dies’/’Malone meurt’ is a comprehensive reference guide to the history of the text. Read the Bloomsbury press release over at the Samuel Beckett Society website.

“[Norway] is one of the most enviable places in the world to be a writer or a publisher. Here’s why…” [Source: New Statesman]

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

“I always write in the morning. […] In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking while still in bed or during the walk.”

— Leo Tolstoy, qtd. in The Guardian

In an engaging piece for The Guardian, writer Kristina Olsson discusses her decision to walk across England on foot. I enjoyed her observations about the connections between writing and walking, and was struck by the simplicity of her morning routine:

“Each morning on the walk I got up, pulled on boots, devoured porridge, consulted the map. Swung on my rucksack, not thinking of cold and stiffness, a sore toe, the long hours of hard work ahead. I didn’t question it. My job was to walk. I began. I kept going.”

— Kristina Olsson, ‘Radical freedom: writing, walking – and exploring the wilderness within’, The Guardian

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Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard‘s final work, Spy of the First Person, has been published this week by Knopf. In an early review for USA TodayJocelyn McClurg describes it as “an autobiographical work of fiction” with a “fragmentary, disjointed narrative”. McClurg goes on to offer a pithy summary suggesting a debt to the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, calling Shepard’s novel “Waiting for Godot in the desert.” (more…)

After reading R.F. Christian‘s edition of Leo Tolstoy‘s letters, Alexandra of Russian Literature and Biography notes the writer’s advice to aspiring authors:

“His suggestions to authors were paradoxical: Tolstoy advised them not to write, unless they felt it was absolutely necessary, and never to write with an eye to publication. In 1887, replying to an obscure writer, Tolstoy suggested: ‘The main thing is not to be in a hurry to write, not to grudge correcting and revising the same thing 10 or 20 times, not to write a lot and not, for heaven’s sake, to make of writing a means of livelihood or of winning importance in people’s eyes.'”

— Russian Literature and Biography