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Whenever I read the work of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, I get distracted here and there by a preoccupation with the fact that he worked for most of his life as an academic. Probably this is because I’ve spent many of my years in a similar environment, and I often wonder about the formative pressures this has exerted, over time, on my own writing and thinking. His relationship with the academy was not that of the standard contemporary writer, who is typically housed within the disciplinary annex of “creative writing” and who does not concern himself with the business of academia per se. Sebald, although he did also teach creative writing, was a full-blown scholar, a company man of long standing who lectured in the department of German literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001. In ways that are both subtle and pronounced, this shows through in his writing—in his essays and novels (which he preferred to call his “prose narratives”).

Books like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, for instance, are, in much of their content if not their form, works of deep research. The Sebaldian narrator—let’s just go ahead and call him Sebald—is a meandering presence, of course, picking his way across the secluded routes between landscape and subject; but there is always the sense of him emerging into the world after a long tenure in the artificial light of libraries and lecture halls, breathing the fine dust of scholarship. It’s always tempting to compare Sebald to Borges—among other narrative oddities, The Rings of Saturncontains a detailed synopsis of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—but where Borges’ fiction tended to use the apparatus and affectations of scholarship in service of a kind of structural irony, Sebald’s art is scholarly in a much more fundamental way. As Adam Phillips has put it, he was “more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist.”

Read the rest at Slate.

Illustration by Isabel Greenberg.

For evidence of our species’ tendency toward complacent self-regard, you don’t have to look very much further than the name we’ve given ourselves. (My Latin is a little rough, but Homo sapiens basically translates as “clever man.”) We see ourselves largely in terms of our knowing; our place in the natural order of things is at the top, as the ones who have it figured out. And it’s pretty obvious, too, that it was a biologist who got to do this naming because the name reflects our conception of ourselves as knowers and understanders of the world—as scientists by nature. There’s another way of thinking about what defines us, though, that is just as reflective of our essential qualities: We are creatures of narrative, makers and consumers of stories. And the things we don’t understand about the world and our place in it—the areas that remain dark to our scientific sapience—have always provided fertile territory for that narrative inventiveness. We understand the world by making it up. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion famously put it; we’re a species of Scheherazades, narrating for our lives.

Read the rest at Slate

In her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.

Read the rest at Slate

Be advised: In order to derive the maximum level of pleasure from reading Marisha Pessl’s new detective-occult-noir-mystery extravaganza Night Film, you will be required to make a pact with the devil. The devil will appear in a cloud of ambiguously-scented vapor—sulfurous, yes, but with an unexpectedly pleasant citrus note—and with one plump and soft hand, nails buffed to a dazzling sheen, he will extend toward you some desirable readerly consumables: an intriguing setup, a propulsive plot, a mysterious villain, and a selection of entertaining set pieces. But his other hand will be a gnarled, twisted claw, and its yellowed talons will clutch a quill and parchment with which you will be obliged to sign over to him certain fundamental literary priorities: narrative credibility and psychological realism, for instance, and the adherence to basic standards of best practice in literary prose.

Read the rest at Slate

Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.

Read the rest at The New Yorker

 

 

62813-review.jpg_full_600If you didn’t know much about Tim Parks, and you just briefly picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo as you happened to be passing by the Travel Writing display table at your local bookseller, you might be inclined to think of it as exactly the kind of book it isn’t. The cozy-sounding title and the jacket design — with its fetching pasturescapes, its hazily panoramic Florence skylines — might lead you to think of it as one of those harmlessly middlebrow lifestyle memoirs that tend to get written about places like Tuscany and Provence. But that, as I say, is exactly the kind of book Italian Ways isn’t. It is a book about traveling by train in Italy, but it’s not that kind of book about traveling by train in Italy.

Read the rest at The Millions

When Richard Dawkins was named the world’s “Top Thinker” in a poll recently published by Prospect magazine, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the world—or at least that part of it that votes in such polls—must have an impoverished sense of what constitutes a vital or transformative intellectual figure. Any list of “thinkers” that doesn’t feature one woman in its top 10 (Arundhati Roy opened the scoring for the gals at No. 15) probably shouldn’t be taken completely seriously anyway, but the fact that it was the result of public voting does offer an insight into the kinds of ideas contemporary Anglo-American culture values most highly.

Read the rest at Slate 

It’s probably about time we agreed to give Colum McCann his own eponymous adjective. It would make sense, at any rate, to refer to a particular kind of audacious fictional gesture as “McCannian”. In his last book, the hugely successful Let the Great World Spin, a cluster of fictions were tied together by the sublime spectacle of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre.TransAtlantic opens in similarly McCannian fashion, with another airborne overture of grand historical significance. The recklessly affirmative act with which this book begins is the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Galway, by the British pilots Alcock and Brown in 1919. It’s the sort of expertly constructed set-piece McCann is particularly good at, and his imagistically lucid prose nicely captures the craziness and excitement of the moment.

Read the rest at The Guardian

I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky JimIt’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.

Read the rest at The Millions

In 2003, English writer James Lasdun taught a fiction workshop at a college in New York City. The star of the workshop was a woman in her 30s he calls “Nasreen”, who was working on a novel based on her family’s experiences in pre-revolutionary Iran. “There are seldom more than a couple of students in any workshop who seem natural writers, and they aren’t hard to spot,” Lasdun writes in the early pages of his memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. “It was evident to me, after a few paragraphs, that Nasreen was one of them. Her language was clear and vigorous with a distinct fiery expressiveness in the more dramatic passages that made it a positive pleasure to read.”

Read the rest at The Observer

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