Women Of The World And Kurt Vonnegut’s Wife

This post was previously published on March 8, 2013. Today is year another March 8th, International Women’s Day…

Although barely noticed in the good old US of A, March 8th is celebrated around the world as the International Women’s Day. Good old Google, bless its loopy heart, celebrates International Women’s Day with a doodle of women from around the world, have you noticed?

Millions of Russian women – as far as I remember back when I used to be one – celebrate this day as it were yet another Valentine’s Day, invented exclusively for women – mothers, wives, lovers, friends. Flowers, attention and token gifts are expected from husbands, sons, boyfriends, classmates, coworkers and, generally, all those who – for one reason or another — sometimes, without any reason whatsoever — consider themselves MEN of at least 5 years of age with no upper limit. Women’s working conditions, struggle for equal pay, and nearly everything else that this day was designated to become since early 1900’s, gets often forgotten or relinquished to the effort of activists.

All pretty flowers and Umberto Tozzi crooning something sweet with the refrain “Te Amo” – the heart-melting words of love…

vonnegut lettersNow then, what Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my favorite writers, has to do with any of it? Well, it might seem rather far-fetched, tenuous  connection at best, but at certain time of his life, Kurt Vonnegut behaved like your ordinary Russian husband on March 8th…

3 days ago, a book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, came out. In it, very early on, because it is dated January 26, 1947, there is a hilarious document… Take a look. If your sense of humor is comparable to that of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and, well, mine, then you’d get a kick out of it too. Very fittingly, I’ve got the book today, March the 8th, on the International Woman’s Day. The text below is a courtesy of the Harper’s Magazine — the excerpt from the book was published in October of last year.



v3And purely for fun, I’ll throw in another Women’s Day Russian clip, featuring Russian men in various stages of dishabille, wishing women everywhere Happy Women’s Day and hoping to impress them with tastefully (or not) decorated areas below their waists. The lyrics  of the song… is unimaginative at best. Turn off the sound if it annoys you.

Please be warned that flowers and various props notwithstanding, a few male bare bottoms with no adornment whatsoever might be observed.

Tempest In The Fandom

World-Fantasy-Award-Lovecraft-JPGThis is “Howard,” a bronze bust of H.P. Lovecraft by Gahan Wilson. Since 1975, this funny and slightly grotesque statue, equally lacking both pathos and irony was a trophy of the World Fantasy Award.

On November 8 of this year, at the World Fantasy Award ceremony, David Hartwell announced that this traditional — and controversial — award trophy will be retired and replaced by a different award trophy of yet unknown design. How come?

In 2011, that year best novel winner Nnedi Okorafor was stunned to discover that  Lovecraft  was also the author of the following  poem:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger. 

               – H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of N*ggers (1912)

okoraforDismayed, Okorafor (the author is of Nigerian descent) wrote of her confusion — “a statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honours as a writer”.

She also asked China Miéville about his response to the award, and he said that he turned the statuette around:

“I have turned it to face the wall. […] I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back.”

Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican speculative fiction writer and editor) came into the comments on the essay to give her solution:

“Like you and China, I was happy to accept the award itself. As to what I’ve done with the bust? I’ve turned Lovecraft’s face outwards. I want him to see me Breathing While Black.”

Daniel José Older has launched a petition calling for the organizers of the prize to make the late African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler the inspiration for the statue rather than Lovecraft.


Earlier this summer, the old guard of fantasy got very uncomfortable over a petition I started asking for the World Fantasy Award to remove the bust of HP Lovecraft as its statuette and replace it with Octavia Butler. Lovecraft was an uneven craftsman at best – his stories clunk along, overburdened with adjectives and stale characters. It’s his world-building and imagination that helped solidify his legacy, but even that is tainted by a failure of craft and humanity. He detailed his rabid, paranoid racism in many letters, and it permeates his mythos. Lovecraft peopled his fiction with hordes of swarthy, child-killing and abjectly stupid black and brown people, while women are almost non-existent.”

Many were delighted with the “Howard’s” dishonorable retirement. But not everyone.

S. T. (Sunand Tryambak) Joshi, an Indian American literary critic, stjoshinovelist, and a leading figure in the study of H. P. Lovecraft and other authors of weird and fantastic fiction, clearly wasn’t happy about this development.

“It has come to my attention that the World Fantasy Convention has decided to replace the bust of H. P. Lovecraft that constitutes the World Fantasy Award with some other figure. Evidently this move was meant to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a “vicious racist” like Lovecraft has no business being honoured by such an award. (Let it pass that analogous accusations could be made about Bram Stoker and John W. Campbell, Jr., who also have awards named after them. These figures do not seem to elicit the outrage of the SJWs.)

Joshi writes, “If Nnedi Okorafor and China Miéville are so offended at owning the WFA, they should simply return it and be done with the matter.”

When it came to his attention that after a prolonged discussion of the matter, WFC decided not to award Lovecraft’s bust any longer,  Joshi returned his two World Fantasy Awards to the co-chairman of the WFC board, David G. Hartwell, and written a letter to this effect, the full text of which he posted on his blog.


“I smell blood and an era of prominent madmen.” ― W.H. Auden

On this day, September 29th, in 1973,  W.H. Auden has diedWystan Hugh Auden was an Anglo-American poet and one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century, best known for The Age of Anxiety  which won him the Pulitzer Prize.

W. H. Auden

Born: February 21, 1907, York, England Died: September 28, 1973, Vienna, Austria

In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann, the daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann. It was a marriage of convenience to enable her to gain British citizenship and escape Nazi Germany – Auden was himself homosexual.

Auden’s political sympathies inspired him to go to Spain in 1937 to observe the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Auden and Isherwood emigrated to the United States. This was a controversial move, regarded by some as a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. In New York, Auden met poet Chester Kallman who would be his companion for the rest of his life. Auden taught at a number of American universities and, in 1946, took US citizenship.

The poet as a young man… WH Auden in London in January 1938, 18 months before the recently unearthed diary was started. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

The poet as a young man… WH Auden in London in January 1938, 18 months before the recently unearthed diary was started. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

He continued to publish poetry including his Pulitzer Prize winning ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1947)  He collaborated with Kallman on the libretto for Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rake’s Progress’ (1951). From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war.” (WH Auden,  September 1, 1939. An unpublished diary that sheds light on the composition of one of his most famous poems.)

The journal was one of just three kept by the British poet. It had been in private hands since Auden’s death in 1973, but was recently unearthed and sold earlier this month at Christie’s in London to the British Library.Christie’s called it “the most substantial and significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction“, and said it offered “an incomparable insight into the poet’s activities and reflections at the turning point in his life”.

War declared this morning… a page from the journal. Photograph: Christie's/PA

War declared this morning… a page from the journal. Photograph: Christie’s/PA

The journal records Auden’s thoughts on topics from women (“My hatred of women is such that if I am not afraid of them … I am cruel“) to politics. “The problem for a democracy is how to get rid of the pitiful vanities of partisan talk and voting and the corruption of party machines without silencing opposition criticism,” he muses.

That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered. Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis

That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered.
Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis

Among Auden’s highly regarded skills was the ability to think in terms of both symbols and reality at the same time, so that intellectual ideas were transformed. He rooted ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the stern and cold outline of the ideas themselves.

He nearly always used language that was interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” and “Look Stranger.”

In 1972, with his health declining, Auden left America. He moved to live in Oxford, in a cottage belonging to his old college, Christ Church. In the late 1950s, Auden had bought a house in Austria, where he spent six months of every year. He died in Austria on 29 September 1973.

The multivolume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989. Auden is now considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.
свеча“Let me see what I wrote so I know what I think”

― W.H. Auden

“I will love you forever” swears the poet. I find this easy to swear too. “I will love you at 4:15 pm next Tuesday” – Is that still as easy?”
― W.H. Auden

“All we are not stares back at what we are.”
― W.H. Auden

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
― W.H. AudenCollected Poems

“We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”
― W.H. Auden

What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.”
― W.H. AudenThe Dyer’s Hand

“Let all your thinks be thanks.”
― W.H. Auden

“There is a great deal of difference in believing something still, and believing it again.”
― W.H. Auden

Desire, even in its wildest tantrums, can neither persuade me it is love nor stop me from wishing it were.”
― W.H. Auden

“A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us. ”
― W.H. Auden

“Thank God for books as an alternative to conversation.”
― W.H. Auden

будъ свечей“Those who will not reason, perish in the act. Those who will not act, perish for that reason.”
― W.H. Auden

“Drama is based on the Mistake.”
― W.H. AudenThe Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume III, 1949-1955

“We are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.”
― W.H. Auden

“Words have no word for words that are not true.
― W.H. Auden

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time.”
― W.H. Auden

“The surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it.”
― W.H. AudenThe Dyer’s Hand

How To Write About…

kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the founding editor of Kwani, a leading African literary magazine. Wainaina won the 2002 Caine Prize for African writing, and has written for Vanity Fair, Granta and the New York Times. He directs the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, NY.

I came across Wainaina’s article published in Granta 92. Below is a large chunk of it. In my usual manner, I couldn’t resist to illustrate the re-posting with images I found appropriate. Below is what I’ve excerpted from the original, or follow the link above, it’ll will take you to the article in its entirety, without pretty pictures.

How to Write About Africaafrika

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.


In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.583590_900

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

[…] Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.Чернокожие-земледельцы

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with.

The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth.

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

image0017[…] Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).KH_UNICEF_POLIO_CHAD002 (1)

[…] Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

nzDescribe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. soroka-vorona_23They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.bra9

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by AIDS and WAR (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

Binyavanga Wainaina

“A Kenyan Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . . . suffused by a love affair with language.”—Publishers Weekly, Top Ten Books of 2011




hwæt: now, indeed; what; what!, listen!, hark!, lo!

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in
days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds
of valor…

J R R Tolkien would’ve been astonished to survey our literary landscape. It changed beyond recognition in the four decades since his passing. He is certainly gained in popularity posthumously and is more famous around the world now than his beloved Old English “fairy stories” were at the time when he taught at Oxford.

Even writings he never intended for publishing became published books. Beowulf  is one of such books.

"Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold . . . His learning and Beowulf's patterns of gloom and fragile light feel intimately related . . . his noble translation joins the ranks of the narrowly saved." - Slate

“Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold . . . His learning and Beowulf’s patterns of gloom and fragile light feel intimately related . . . his noble translation joins the ranks of the narrowly saved.” – Slate

While Tolkien’s true fans happy to welcome Beowulf — and anything that he ever wrote with or without intention of publishing — some Tolkien scholars aren’t all that happy.

Disservise to Tolkien

Why Tolkien hated his translation of Beowulf? asks Kevin Kiernan (Conversation UK.)

After all, it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an “abuse” and “hardly to my liking”. He left it behind and forgot about it. How does its unauthorised publication serve Tolkien’s reputation? It was with his own remarks in mind that I said in a recent interview for the New York Times that “publishing the translation is a disservice to him, to his memory and his achievement as an artist”. His own assessment suggests he would have destroyed it, if he imagined anyone might publish it with selections from his undergraduate lecture notes.

In his story “Leaf by Niggle”, J R R Tolkien wrote about an artist who is painting a picture of a leave caught in the wind. He deems it forever incomplete but cannot abandon his work.

LiaveThere was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations…

…Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do…

…There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots.

Some suggest that the artist and the painting in this story are keen metaphors for Tolkien and his translation of Beowulf.

Others painstakingly take the Tolkien’s prose apart and compare the merit of his translation to the poetic verses of  Seamus  Heaney’s Beowulf.

The great Irish bard, the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, Seamus Heaney died less than a year ago. Everyone who’s playing the “who has done it better” game wonder what Seamus would have said about Tolkien’s Beowulf and Tolkien’s son Christopher who made it all possible.


But never mind that. When was the last time a controversy was bad for publicity and marketing?

Besides, shouldn’t it has been for the Lord of the Ring franchise, how many people would have read Beowulf for sheer enjoyment of Old English lore?

How many people can recite a verse or two of Heaney’s Beowulf ? I certainly can’t. But my excuse is better than yours.


Writers Hate Writers


In 1971 Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal just before a recording of the Dick Cavett Show (both were invited guests), because Vidal gave a bad review to “The Prisoner of Love” published earlier in the year. The on-screen exchange is a classic of television invective.

Vidal smartly forgave Mailer in a not so many words:

“Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

Martin Amis once described Mailer as “this pampered super-brat.”

Mark Twain hated Jane Austen:

“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

But then again, Mark Twain held many greats in little regard, including the Great Bard:

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare…”

William Faulkner, on the other hand, had this to say about Twain:

“A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.

Ernest Hemingway, according to Vladimir Nabokov: 

 “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

Jan Diehm created a curious and entertaining interactive infographic for The Huffington Post, showing which ones of the famous writers had to gird their loins against the barbs and arrows of which other famous writers.

Most of the remarks are gloriously witty, truly worthy of the great talents that put hand to paper. 

Follow the link WAY HARSH. Famous Authors Who Hated Each Other’s Writing (Infographic) to a full screen interactive version.




Writers Behaving Badly: Knut Hamsun

no-nb_sml_ 195

Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952)

Norway’s greatest writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, he was the author of great novels deeply rooted in the Norwegian soil.

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However, driven by a commitment to Pan-Germanic thinking during World War Two, Knut Hamsun became an enthusiastic German collaborator and even met Adolf Hitler. From then onward, he turned into an object of hatred of the very people who once adored him.

kh7A still from the movie “Hamsund” (1996). Danish-Swedish-Norwegian-German drama directed by Jan Troell, about the later life of Knut Hamsun, played by Max von Sydow.

Hamsun’s reputation was in ruins; not only had he seen Hitler but, in a sickeningly misguided moment earlier that year, he had given Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal. His postwar fate was already under discussion.

In November, 1944, in Moscow, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, discussed Hamsun’s case with Terje Wold, the Norwegian justice minister in exile, and Trygve Lie, the foreign minister in exile. The author of “Victoria” and “Pan” was too great an artist to be treated like a common Nazi, Molotov said, and, at such an advanced age, should be allowed to die a natural death. Wold replied, in English, “You are too soft, Mr. Molotov.” (Jeffrey Frank, IN FROM THE COLD: The return of Knut Hamsun.)

 Norway was liberated in May of 1945, and the Norwegians were unforgiving toward Nazi collaborators. Knut Hamsun,  together with his wife Marie, went from being national saints to national shame. Traitors were harshly persecuted in Norway. Marie got a three-year sentence and a fine. Hamsun faced treason charges. But he was the nation’s greatest writer, and an old man of eighty-six…

He was arrested and then moved to a nursing home housed at the main psychiatric clinic in Oslo, where he remained for the next three years.

The Norwegian courts fined Hamsun four hundred and twenty-five thousand kroner (then about eighty-seven thousand dollars), and he was allowed to return home, to Nørholm, where he went into a slow, steady decline… 

On Overgrown Paths was written at a time when Hamsun was in police custody and  published in 1949, when Hamsun was ninety. The “overgrown paths” referred to the writer’s youth, and in returning to that time he did so in a first-person voice he hadn’t used for nearly forty years.

Gilles Lapouge and Charles Dubois created an excellent documentary about the Norway’s fallen saint.

Grandson of Knut Hamsun, and famous Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who had played Hamsun in a film role about the novelist during World War II, attempt to show who this uncompromising man really was.

Through paintings by Norwegian painter Edward Munch, a contemporary of Hamsun’s, archive visuals of Hamsun and excerpts from movie adaptations of his novels, we learn about an enigmatic individual who was looking too far afield to see the political reality in his homeland. (From the introduction to the documentary.)

 This link will take you to the site where Knut Hamsun documentary can be viewed.vignette1

Writers Behaving Badly: Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). (Slavoj Žižek)

Patricia Highsmith Key Facts

From an early age, she drank hard, fell in and out of love with various women (and one or two men), and rather quickly came to understand her own severe and private nature. Far more than Tom Ripley, she fits that Lawrentian description of being hard, isolate, and stoic, especially in her later years. (Michael Dirda)

Patricia Highsmith was clearly out of control for parts of her life - a life spent largely in France, in Suffolk and in Switzerland. She drank hugely; she ranted; she made wild gestures -- setting her hair on fire at a supper party.

Patricia Highsmith was clearly out of control for parts of her life – a life spent largely in France, in Suffolk and in Switzerland. She drank hugely; she ranted; she made wild gestures — setting her hair on fire at a supper party.

But she was certainly in full control of her demons when she wrote.

The sheer variety of the films based on her Ripley novels is a testament to it: the cool psychopath has been represented by actors as different as Alain Delon, Matt Damon and now John Malkovich.

The sheer variety of the films based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels is a testament to her originality: the cool psychopath has been represented by actors as different as Alain Delon, Matt Damon and John Malkovich.

Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character,  Tom Ripley, is charming, epicurean, good friend and exemplary husband. He is aesthete, too. He never kills for thrill, only out of necessity. Life is like this — it’s often an absolute necessity to bludgeon or strangle a few people now and again. Eight, to be precise. And he isn’t amused observing two others drown.

Tom Ripley cares about people, all right. Still, cruel circumstances make him orchestrate rather serviceable suicides of three of his friends. He actually cared for those three. Remorse? If it ever was any, it, too, has passed.

Isn’t it rather odd that he doesn’t keep count of his victims? After all, he was merely defending himself, his family, his home, his business…

Not people but animals — snails especially — were her preferred company. Once, she took 100 snails (give and take a few) to a party, in her handbag  –simply to have  someone to talk to. She kept them as pets, and some three hundred of them flew with her from New York to Paris, Rome, and Venice in cheese cartons. She “produced snails from her handbag and encouraged them to leave sticky trails all over her host’s tabletop.” It was a severe case of “snail envy.”


In the novel Deep Water, Vic is the the keeper of aquaria. He has over a thousand snails, most of them the progeny of Edgar and Hortense, a superbly prolific mating pair. Patricia’s favorite snail was named Hortense.

“The Quest for Blank Claveringi” features Professor Avery Claveringi. He leaves his position at California university, embarking on a quest to find a giant snail species yet undiscovered.  He finds it, all right. The creature is gigantic, indeed, at about fifteen-foot, its “silvery patches gleam and twinkle as the great thing stirred.”highsmith_1-001

Professor Claveringi runs out of luck when snails chase after him. Now what? There are but two excellent choices — to drown or to become a tasty morsel in the creature’s lunch…

Perverse and misanthropic woman, Patricia Highsmith was a singularly talented writer. Her characters could be warped,  creepy and amoral beyond measure, but she lets the reader so close to them that, face to face, we cannot help but follow them wherever they go.



100 Years Of Bestsellers

reading1In February of last year, Matthew Kahn, a creative writing student at California State University at Northridge, began to implement a singularly trying but interesting project on his blog: to read 100 years of No. 1 bestsellers, from 1913 to 2013, and post reviews.  

For this blog I plan, among other things, to read and review every novel to reach the number one spot on Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list, starting in 1913.  Beyond just a book review, I’m going to provide some information on the authors and the time at which these books were written in an attempt to figure out just what made these particular books popular at that particular time.

I decided to undertake this endeavor as a mission to read books I never would have otherwise read, discover authors who have been lost to obscurity, and to see how what’s popular has changed over the last one hundred years.  I plan to post a new review every Monday, with links, short essays, and the like between review posts. (Matthew Kahn)

‘Hyperlinked” titles in the list are those Mr. Kahn read and reviewed.  The others are still waiting to be reviewed:

* Books that appear multiple times will be condensed into one post. The review of The Robe, the only book to reach number one on two inconsecutive years (1943 and 1953) will be published under the earlier date.
** Publishers Weekly did not include the Harry Potter books in its listings.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix was the bestselling book for 2003, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the bestselling book of 2007.  I have decided to go with the official PW list.  This is not due to any bias against Harry Potter (I have fond memories of waiting in line for the midnight release of the final book).  By not counting Harry, I add The Da Vinci Code and A Thousand Splendid Suns to the list.  The Da Vinci Code already appears for 2004.  A Thousand Splendid Suns has a lot less notoriety than Harry Potter, so is more in tune with mission.

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Laura Miller, a literary critic of the Salon, interviewed Mr. Kahn. Answering her questions, Mr. Kahn shared his opinion about the books on the list he “covered” already, named his most and least favorite authors and titles and, prompted by Ms. Miller, reflected on some of the larger topics, such as his impressions  about the book business over the past 100 years and its prevailing tendencies. 

One thing about the massive shift in the 1960s is that it’s partly about a changing perspective on books. They’re more seen as a part of the entertainment industry. In the first half of this list, there are about 10 years where the bestseller was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. There were a few years where the bestseller was written by a Nobel Prize winner. With Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” in 1960, that was the last time either of those things were true. It’s the last book on the list to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The title of Laura Miller’s article is somewhat misleading: Lessons from Stephen King and “Valley of the Dolls”: Reading 100 years of bestsellers. Stephen King is barely mentioned in the article, except in the list of bestsellers and when Mathew Kahn says:

I know that around the beginning of 1960 there’s a massive shift toward genre fiction — Le Carré, Stephen King, even Tolkien one year — and away from things like coming-of-age stories. So it’s not going to all be the same…

The image Ms. Miller has chosen for her article makes up for this mishap — this is by far the most expressive picture of Stephen King I’ve seen so far. He looks as if he’d just been asked, “Mister King, what makes a book a bestseller?”

Stephen King. Credit: AP/ Francois Mori

Stephen King. Credit: AP/ Francois Mori

The tagline, however, is true to the meat of the article: What the most popular books of the past century taught one writer about America’s strange taste in fiction.  Read the article here, and follow the link to Matthew’s blog Kahn’s Corner. 



Unbeknownst Are The Ways Of The Book Gods

Anon Book SculptureEvery so often, the New York Times columnists or editors throw their hands heavenwards and lament about the publishing Garden of Eden closing its gates into the sad faces of  ever greater number of aspiring writers.

The title of this post is pretty much the idea, expressed  by James B. Stewart in his Long Odds for Authors Newly Published, written for the  Common Sense column of the New York Times Saturday Business section.

The business is publishing business. The author rekindles a somewhat stale story of the latter days great revelation: a detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith was actually written by J. K. Rowling. So now we know.

There are no great revelations in the article, per se — same oft-repeated stance about the power of the author brand recited by editors and booksellers, and the numbers, of course: the number of books sold before and after the J.K. Rowling acknowledged authorship.

More interesting were the comments,  numerous, resentful, bitter, resigned — speak of emotions! Book readers, book writers, those who read a lot and write a little and those who write a lot and read little, writers published, soon to be and/or never.

Some like J. K. Rowling and everything she wrote — Harry Potter and beyond — and  bought and read The Cuckoos’ Calling as soon as it was revealed that the book was penned by Ms. Rowling. Others call everything she ever wrote mediocre and express disdain over the state of publishing in this country.

“If the book is as good as critics are now saying it is, why didn’t it sell more copies before?”

Many of those belonging to the first category are of the opinion that the revelation was a clever marketing ploy to boost The Cuckoos’ Calling unremarkable sales and Ms. Rowling indignation over the disclosure was all fake.

“Ms Rowling was stung by the reviews and reception of “The Casual Vacancy” and needed to get her confidence back.”

“Stewart misses the instructive angle here: if Robert Galbraith had written anything memorable, substantial or insightful, we would be talking about the contents of the book rather than the identity of the author.”

Many have resigned to accept the unfairness of it all:

There really are no answers in publishing. Books get pushed all the time that go nowhere; books from nowhere suddenly hit the jackpot. Publishers know very little about what book will stand out because it’s such an inexact science.

The Rowling/Galbraith episode reveals the ugly truth about the publishing business and the struggle of writers to survive within it. Making a living in the arts in the USA is not an undertaking for the faint-hearted.

I found this somber assessment to be true:

Entertainment (which incudes books) is an endless river of books, TV shows, movies, play and etc. The volume continues to increase year by year. It is no surprise that most of the output is rarely marketed and rarely catches fire by word of mouth; and most of the output is mediocre, derivative and will quietly pass away from the gaze of most folks. It is also no surprise that relentless marketing can hype a TV show, book or movie to fleeting fame or continued attention; the efforts are just variations on the endless commercials and other ads we see on TV, on the web, on the back of book covers, in the book reviews and in the movie theatres. There is always more push than pull for demand. Sometimes quality is noticed and attracts a following, but often it is the star power of the author or actor that does the work of gaining the audience. Nothing new here. (Jack Belicic, Santa Mira).

The conclusion of Mr. Stewart’s article is rather ominous:

New authors can still make the best-seller lists, as Ms. Rowling herself did with the Potter books, or E. L. James with the erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But they are extreme exceptions. Mr. Entrekin [the president and publisher of Grove Atlantic] agreed that many good books don’t achieve the success they deserve. “There’s no formula,” he said. “A publisher can only do so much. A book’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the book gods.

And no, the New York Times does not suggest a good prayer that the Book Gods would listen, have mercy and respond with divine generosity.

Previously, I’ve written about the New York Times touching concern about the bleak future of publishing in Rejoice, Writerly Brethren!  and  again in Rejection: Projection Of Dejection on TFW blog page.

Although there isn’t much to smile about, still my long neglected Smile page is updated.

J. Jerka

Painting of Jacek Jerka