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was in a bookshop a couple of months ago, browsing the nonfiction section, when the idle rightward flick of my gaze was brought to a halt by the hardback spine of a new Geoff Dyer book. It was called The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China. My initial pleasure at discovering that Dyer had a new book out was quickly undercut by a creeping sense of doubt about the title and the topic, both of which seemed fundamentally un-Dyeresque. I then immediately dismissed this doubt, because Dyer is exactly the kind of writer—perhaps the writer—for whom no topic or title could be said to be out of sync with its predecessors, precisely for the reason that each of his books is out of sync with every other. Being fundamentally un-Dyeresque is, to put it maybe a little too Dyeresquely, the most fundamentally Dyeresque thing a Dyer book could possibly be.

Read the rest at Slate


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

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