Writing

One of the great sentences: No. 2

Monday, 19 May, 2014 0 Comments

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Why is this great? The audacity of it all, for starters. The idea that the trees which once stood on the site of Gatsby’s house were so magnificent that they could have played a role in the “last and greatest of all human dreams” is outlandish, but the author is in full flight here and intoxicated with his imagination. There are passages of expression in Gatsby that rightfully have been compared to music, and there are others in the novel that have been likened to magic and this is one that contains a little of both. Fitzgerald’s ability to display those vanished trees is one of his greatest conjuring tricks.

One of the great sentences: No. 1


One of the great sentences: No. 1

Monday, 12 May, 2014 0 Comments

“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Why is this great? Well, the rhythm, for one. Capote also uses the momentum of the great American transport arteries to propel the sentence to its end, while hinting at the drama to come.


Writing and reading Europe

Thursday, 8 May, 2014 0 Comments

Can writers help establish a European identity? Or do authors reinforce borders? Is it possible to have a common European literature without a common language? More than 30 writers from 25 countries will debate these questions today and tomorrow in Berlin at a conference titled Is the European Dream Still Alive? Before they ponder these weighty issues, they might give some thought to what Julio Cortázar, the Argentine novelist and short-story writer, had to say about European writing:

“All European writers are ‘slaves of their baptism,’ if I may paraphrase Rimbaud; like it or not, their writing carries baggage from an immense and almost frightening tradition; they accept that tradition or they fight against it, it inhabits them, it is their familiar and their succubus. Why write, if everything has, in a way, already been said? Gide observed sardonically that since nobody listened, everything has to be said again, yet a suspicion of guilt and superfluity leads the European intellectual to the most extreme refinements of his trade and tools, the only way to avoid paths too much traveled. Thus the enthusiasm that greets novelties, the uproar when a writer has succeeded in giving substance to a new slice of the invisible; merely recall symbolism, surrealism, the ‘nouveau roman’: finally something truly new that neither Ronsard, nor Stendahl , nor Proust imagined. For a moment we can put aside our guilt; even the epigones begin too believe they are doing something new. Afterwards, slowly, they begin to feel European again and each writer still has his albatross around his neck.”


An afternoon with Borges in Buenos Aires

Wednesday, 30 April, 2014 0 Comments

In 1976, Patrick Richardson was an impoverished, 25-year-old writer, living in a garret in Amsterdam. To escape the oncoming Dutch winter, he set off to Latin America. You won’t believe what happened next. Well, you can, actually, because this is not an Upworthy story. In Buenos Aires, he met his literary hero, Jorge Luis Borges. Snippet:

“Have you read my stories?”

“All of them!”

“I have done my best, although I must apologise for their poor quality.” Borges was renowned for his humility, authentic or otherwise.

“No, really, you’re too modest.”

A playful expression flitted across his countenance. “Perhaps you are familiar with the story of what occurred when Goethe visited a brothel in Hanover?”

“No, but I’d love to hear it.”

The long, convoluted story, which I have forgotten, lasted for five minutes, until he questioned me about my journey in South America and my life in Amsterdam as a writer. At last, after what seemed a lifetime, a man in a stone-coloured suit came down the gangway, mounted the steps on to the stage, and leant over him. “It’s time to go, Señor Borges,” he said in a hushed voice. “You have an appointment at three.”

An afternoon with Jorge Luis Borges is published in today’s Independent.


Thermonuclear review

Wednesday, 16 April, 2014 1 Comment

In the annals of acidic reviewing, nothing beats Truman Capote’s flip dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Still, the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs magazine does not do too badly when it comes to Thermonuclear Monarchy by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard. Snip:

“This curious book addresses what Scarry describes as the incompatibility of nuclear weapons and democracy. But her knowledge of nuclear matters is superficial, and she says very little about the weapons, other than to draw attention to their awfulness and to the fragile, illegitimate, and dangerous structures that govern their possession and potential use.”

By the way, here’s now Gore Vidal dissed Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”


The Goldfinch

Monday, 14 April, 2014 0 Comments

Alex O’Connell in the Times said it was “a heavyweight masterpiece”, but in the Observer Julie Myerson wrote that she was bored by it, calling it “a Harry Potter tribute novel”. On one hand, Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian called it an “astonishing” achievement, but on the other, the Sunday Times‘ Peter Kemp wrote: “No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.”

So is latest Donna Tartt worth reading? Well, those who are lonely, or who are outsiders, or who love the paintings of the Dutch Masters, will find much in the 771 pages to comfort them. But above all, for boys who love their mothers, living or dead, there’s a lot to ponder. Snippet:

“How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake, I tried to recall all my best memories of her — to freeze her in my mind so that I wouldn’t forget here — but instead of birthdays and happy times I kept remembering things like how a few days before she was killed she stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off my school jacket. For some reason, it was one of the clearest memories I had of her: her knitted eyebrows, the precise gesture of her reaching out to me, everything. Several times too — drifting uneasily between dreaming and sleep — I sat up suddenly in bed at the sound of her voice speaking clearly in my head, remarks she might conceivably have made at some point but that I didn’t actually remember, things like Throw me an apple, would you? and I wonder if this buttons up the front or the back? and This sofa is in a terrible state of disreputableness.”

The Goldfinch


Journalist of the day: Robert Bruce Lockhart

Friday, 11 April, 2014 0 Comments

When the Russian Revolution broke out in early 1917, Robert Bruce Lockhart was the Acting British Consul-General in Moscow. Working for the Secret Intelligence Service, he set about creating a network of undercover agents, but he and fellow British spy Sidney Reilly were soon arrested. Robert Bruce Lockhart Instead of getting the expected 9mm of lead in the back of their necks, however, they were exchanged for the Russian diplomat Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov. Lockhart wrote about his experiences in Memoirs of a British Agent — a bestseller that was made into the film British Agent in 1934.

11 April 1929: “Priceless story of Lenin and the death of his mother-in-law (Krupskaya’s mother). Krupskaya tired of watching at the death-bed asked Lenin to sit by her mother while she slept. He was to call her if her mother wanted anything. Lenin took a book and began to read. Two hours later Krupskaya came back. Her mother was dead. Lenin was still reading. Krupskaya blamed him: “Why did you not let me know?’ Lenin replied: ‘But your mother never called me!’ Still, Lenin was not inhuman.” Robert Bruce Lockhart (1887 — 1970)

And thus ends our week of journal entries. It’s good for mind and soul to keep a journal says Oliver Burkeman: “Write about your most profound fears, your feelings of loneliness, of regret and grief. Then hide it somewhere where nobody will ever find it, don’t tell a soul…”


Journalist of the day: Kenneth Williams

Thursday, 10 April, 2014 0 Comments

The English actor and comedian Kenneth Williams was one of the main characters in the popular Carry On films. He lived alone and had few friends apart from his mother, and no significant romantic relationships, but his journals contain references to homosexual liaisons, which he describes as “traditional matters.” His last words in his diary were “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” The cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates.

10 April 1966: “Michael C. [Codron] told me this story about Lady Dorothy Macmillan saying to Mme. de Gaulle at the Elysée Palace. ‘Now that your husband has achieved so much, is there any particular wish, any desire you have for the future?’ and Madame replied, ‘Yes — a penis.’ Whereupon Gen. de Gaulle leaned over and said, ‘No, my dear, in English it is pronounced Happiness.'” Kenneth Williams (1926 — 1988)

Tomorrow, here, we end our week of journal entries with one that documents what happened when Lenin spent a night beside his mother-in-law’s death bed.


Journalist of the day: Vera Brittain

Wednesday, 9 April, 2014 0 Comments

To understand the pacifism of Vera Brittain it is imperative to know that her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton, and her two dearest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, were all killed during World War I. Thirty years later, she was vilified for speaking out against the saturation bombing of German cities during World War II, Vera Brittain but her position was seen in a different light when, in 1945, the Nazis’ Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List G.B) of 2,820 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.

9 April 1942: “At tea-time went to Mayfair Hotel to see demonstration of ‘Liberty cut’ sponsored by the Ministry of Health as an anti-typhus measure. New line of country for me; place crowded with hairdressers; representatives of the Press (mostly hard-working women plainly dressed), and fashionable ladies in mink coats looking as if they’d never heard of the war. Several leading hairdressers talked on the importance of shorter hair for women in present crisis. Demonstrations of ‘Liberty cut’ on different girls followed, including a showing of the ‘cut’ itself. The number of men present interested me; it showed how much money there is to be made out of women’s hair.” Vera Brittain (1893 — 1970)

Tomorrow, here, Mme. de Gaulle mispronounces “happiness” and Kenneth Williams gleefully pounces upon the double entendre.


Journalist of the day: Liane de Pougy

Monday, 7 April, 2014 0 Comments

“We’re drawn to making our mark, leaving a record to show we were here, and a journal is a great place to do it.” So wroteKeri Smith in The Guardian last month, and this week Rainy Day will be devoting its posts to those who have left a record with their journals. We’re beginning with Liane de Pougy, a Folies Bergère dancer who became one of Paris’s most beautiful and desired prostitutes in the glory days of the fin de siècle.

7 April 1922: “Lord Carnarvon, the archaeologist, is dead. Liane de Pougy He was my lover when I was eighteen. It was here at Nice, at the Restaurant Français, that I first saw him. He was twenty five, I thought he was so fine, so distinguished, so thoroughbred, so chic that I adored him. Just to watch him and admire him was enough for my enthusiasm. He was introduced to me that same year at the clay-pigeon shooting at Monte Carlo. Tremendous heart fluttering, I could have died at his feet. He left the next day. What a dear little silly I was. A few months later I saw him again in London, at Covent Garden. Lady Dudley had the measles and the key of her box was for sale according to custom and I had bought it. Carnarvon walked in absent-mindedly during the interval: flutters, smiles, excuses, compliments, confessions. He was vicious, an invert so they said. He loved me all the same… and was a delicious, agonizing lover, full of charm and cruel grace. So I became the rival of Lady de Grey — Gladys. I had the upper hand. He didn’t make me very happy; he was fugitive, a traveller, always off to India, the Baltic, Scotland. I have kept a pearl in his memory, the most beautiful of all my pearls, the one valued today at a hundred thousand francs.” (Liane de Pougy, 1869 — 1950)

Tomorrow, here, Queen Victoria confides some dreadful news to her diary.


A one-woman revolution

Sunday, 6 April, 2014 0 Comments

“A year ago this coming Tuesday, I was travelling to London on a train, correcting the proofs of my biography of Margaret Thatcher. As we reached Charing Cross, I signed off the last page of the book (which concerns victory in the Falklands war). When I got off the train, I discovered she had died.” […]

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