Literary Notes

The first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett has been published, and it was no small accomplishment. As Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian notes, “the breadth of allusion, and the allusive and elusive wordplay you might have expected between intimate and highly educated correspondents (“‘nastorquemada nyles’ has not been identified with certainty,” say the editors, and I can’t say I blame them)” made transforming the corpus of correspondence into something readable a daunting task. Apparently he even had terrible handwriting, which he called his “foul fist.” But since the writer’s famous privacy didn’t stop him from writing a staggering number of letters, the idea of “the authentic early Beckettian tang, straight from the source, unmediated by artifice,” is a wonderfully attractive prospect. Kevin Jackson at the Sunday Times observes that his “immature voice,” is still, “highly entertaining…[that] these letters are crammed with unexpected treasures, including displays of his dazzling erudition as an amateur art historian and his charmingly impractical ideas for the alternative careers he might pursue.” And while Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, notes that “Beckett was no Byron,” and that “nobody could maintain that the letters brim with a zest that exceeds the range of the printed works,” Lane still can’t turn away: “The correspondent’s phrasing has a natural, gusty soar to it, but the novel takes it higher.” Yet “if you want to trace the tributaries of that book’s mournful wit to their source,” he writes, “the letters are invaluable…”

Until around mid-20th century, Jennifer Schuessler notes that Jane Austen was regarded as an author for men and boys. Benjamin Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times, and Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman read Mansfield Park every year. The historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay read Austen obsessively and, as a colonial administrator in India, wrote letters home comparing various colleagues to characters in Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Kipling’s 1923 story “The Janeites” was about a platoon of British soldiers who use Austen talk to distract themselves from the horror of the trenches.

As Matthew Pearl (writing in Slate), discovered while doing research for his historical novel about Charles Dickens, when the world famous author toured the United States, he found himself the victim of a phenomenon he had difficulty making sense of: the celebrity stalker. “How queer it is,” Dickens lamented “that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe.” Pearl claims that “authors like Byron, who promoted his personality along with his poems, tempted readers into feeling themselves engaged in a personal relationship with the author beyond the pages of a book,” but that it was “in crafting the biggest brand name in literature by writing for all classes, and making himself publicly visible through his unprecedented reading tours, [that] Dickens set the stage for a whole new perception of intimacy with his readers. He also set the stage for the modern disjunction that comes from the realization that the celebrity who seems to be part of our lives is in fact another stranger.”

Thomas Mallon writes, in The Atlantic, that while the thirty year correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell “have already been published, separately and in part…the letters’ new joint arrangement, a volume called Words in Air, allows readers at last to experience the full responsiveness of one poet to the other, as it occurred, letter by letter.”

Peter Ackroyd has just finished a prose translation (his publishers call it a “retelling”) of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which Bryan Appleyard notes seems appropriate: Chesterton declared that Chaucer was English before there was an England, and Ackroyd has just finished the first volume of a six-volume history of England, which he anticipates will take him another 12 years. In an interview printed in the London Times, Ackroyd told Appleyard that ranslating Chaucer into modern English verse was out of the question. “for a start, it would be —-ing difficult to do poetry. And this is not an age of poetry. It would be difficult to reconstruct the vivacity and the melody of Chaucerian verse in terms of 21st-century English…Modern prose is a much more vigorous and resourceful instrument.” And as Appleyard notes, “translating Chaucer [into prose] is an aspect of Ackroyd’s wider belief that literature is not set in stone; rather, it partakes of the fluidity of language: ‘Retelling is a way of trying to convey the fact that redaction, translation, reinterpretation, reordering is just as important as any fresh act of so-called individual creation. It is an antiromantic idea in every possible respect, because it is nothing to do with self-expression…My main model was Chaucer himself, who didn’t give a s— what the actual words were. He was true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the stories he used, and I try to do the same.”

For a taste, here’s an excerpt from the Wife of Bath’s prologue:

“I don’t care what anyone says. Experience of the world is the best thing. It may not be the main authority but, in relationships, it is a good teacher. I know all about unhappiness in marriage. Goodness me. Oh yes. I was 12 years old when I first got a husband. I’ve had five altogether, thanks be to God. Five of them trooping up to the church door. That is a lot of men. By and large they were gentlemen, or so I was led to believe…”

Helon Habila, a prizewinning Nigerian novelist, notes in Next that the Commonwealth Writers Prize shortlist for the Africa region was absolutely dominated by South African writers, nabbing eleven of the twelve nominees for best book and best first book. Though Uwem Akpan, the lone non-south African writer would nab the prize for his short story collection Say You’re One of Them, Habila is concerned by the broader trend this represents in African writing: “Are South African writers better than other African writers? Not necessarily so. Is their publishing industry better? Yes.”

In the wake of the tragic suicide of Nicholas Hughes, Syvia Plath’s son, a New York Times panel of Joyce Carol Oates, Peter D. Kramer, Erica Jong, Andrew Solomon and Elaine Showalter consider “why, of all the stories of creative, brilliant people who have suffered from fatal depressions, does Plath’s tragic legacy resonate so widely.”

Finally, Prague’s “Franz Kafka International” is named the world’s most alienating airport.