Literary Links

In the Guardian, Martin Amis remembers J.G. Ballard, musing on how so orderly a life could produce work so unpredictable, savage, and sinister. In the New Statesman, John Gray writes that these two sides of the author were not unrelated, that “after experiencing the sudden disappearance of conventional existence he was never able to take the pretensions of civilised humanity terribly seriously,” but that his work’s exultant lyricism and macabre comedy represented “the transmutation of senseless dross into visions of beauty.” Ballard passed away April 19th, best known for his fictional autobiographies, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women.

A new anthology of Graham Greene’s letters has been published, including a trove of family correspondance that had hitherto not been available, but, as the editor put it, “The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again.” He’s always been that, though; in Michael Orange’s words, from his review in The Nation, Greene was a “devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing.”

If you’ve read just one Portuguese novelist, it’s probably Nobel winner José Saramago. But in Portugal, Saramago has a rival in António Lobo Antunes, as Peter Conrad writes in the New Yorker (ostensibly reviewing a new volume of essays and short stories called The Fat Man and Infinity); “the two writers, like rival political parties or sports teams, have noisy partisans, and those who cheer for Lobo Antunes claim that the wrong man won the Nobel. Lobo Antunes himself apparently agrees: when the Times called for a comment on Saramago’s victory he grumbled that the phone was out of order and abruptly hung up.” In any case, we’re lucky to have both; as hep puts it, “Saramago is a benign magus whose fictions smilingly suspend reality; Lobo Antunes is more like an exorcist, frantically battling to cast out evil and to heal the body politic.”

There’s something fascinating about the idea of Franz Kafka working a desk job (specifically, the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance). Even if the new-ish translation of The Office Writings doesn’t make for riveting reading, as Michael Wood writes in a LRB review, “we can certainly agree that anything we learn about his job will strengthen ‘our sense of the conditions under which Kafka accomplished’…the writing he did, that is, when he got home from the office.” But in an interesting piece in The New Republic, Louis Begley argues that Kafka’s office job was hardly any more a source of inspiration for the writer than anything else: “It is simplistic, to put it mildly, to reduce his literary astonishments to his work as an insurance lawyer.”