“It was odd to be alone and without prayer, with no one to talk to at night. What was perhaps most terrifying about losing her god was that, without the promise of a never-ending paradise, the imperfect and the limited were all she had.”
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“Out of sheer rage” is rarely the imagined provenance of a book, since books, as the collective fantasy goes, emerge from daily, contented contact with the muses, who deliver lighting strikes of insight and the buoyant tapping of the happily working writer. Yet any writer—of even emails—knows better; it is grueling stuff, stringing words together. British author Geoff Dyer borrowed his title from D. H. Lawrence’s description of his own inspiration—“Out of sheer rage,” he wrote to a friend in 1914, “I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy”—and Dyer’s book is a sustained pursuit of, if nothing else, Lawrence’s candor about the process of writing.
There within: the languid, silent pace
of their paws lulls, almost bewilders you,
then one of the cats quickly turns its face
and captures your gaze and its straying view
violently in its magnificent eye,
and as if seized in a maelstrom’s clasp,
it swims for a while, but by and by
abandons itself, slips from its own grasp,
as this eye with its apparent stillness
suddenly opens, then shuts with a roar . . .
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Rose Window”
(Photo credit: Arthur Barhorst)
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, during Napoleon’s attempt to reestablish his presence in Germany, a bid he lost some months later at the walls of that city. A man of Napoleonic ambition, Wagner believed that the age of feudalism was over, and that the future belonged to democratically ruled nation-states: he actively participated in the May Uprising of 1849, when revolutionaries unsuccessfully demanded that the King of Saxony sign a constitution. Forced to flee, Wagner settled in Zürich, where he developed his most ambitious and controversial ideas as a composer and essayist. He imagined music as a democratic and anticapitalist force, a response to the needs of the people. Yet Wagner also believed that Germans—and Christians—were “the people” above all others, and he argued that Jews lacked a connection to the German spirit and thus were incapable of producing true art.
Two hundred years later we continue to grapple with Wagner’s legacy. His outspoken anti-Semitism makes him an odious figure, yet his project to create “a total work of art” has had a lasting impact on our culture, whether or not we listen to his operas. Twentieth-century writers, from Rilke to Joyce to Proust, were all heavily influenced by Wagner. We particularly recommend Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel, Doctor Faustus, which takes up the complex relationship between art and politics in Germany after Wagner.
It would be our first class since lockdown ended. Nothing official, but rumors connected this lockdown to the death of an inmate who had hanged himself. I glanced at my syllabus and noted the irony in my planned discussion of George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging.” For over a week my English 101 students had been confined to their cells, and I anticipated that they’d feel uneasily free—eager, agitated—in returning to class.
For many of them the college program at San Quentin was a relief from daily drudgery; they regretted missing class whenever disruptions prevented them from attending. Our basement classroom, with mildewed walls, peeling paint, and windows covered with steel mesh, faced an open row of lidless toilets. It seemed an unlikely location for the study of literature, but the connection offered by reading transcends place and condition. That’s why I was there.
When the bell for class rang, only four students had made it to English 101. Tai, thirty-five and Vietnamese; Alex, twenty-eight and white; Latiff and Demetrius, thirty-eight and thirty-one, both black. I asked them to pull their desks forward, and we assembled like kayakers tying together for lunch. Tai broke the ice. “So, how was everyone’s spring break?”
Latiff joked about his spring trip to Mexico. Demetrius claimed he attended a meditation retreat. Alex was silent.
I asked how long the lockdown lasted.
Demetrius said, “Ten days.”
“No biggie,” said Tai. “Last time was a month.”
“Always a lockdown after a hanging,” said Latiff. He drummed a slow beat on his desk with a pencil . . .
“My advice is to take advice with a grain of salt. When it comes to advice, whether it concerns money, travel, marriage, or the arts, generally people are wrong.”
The delightful Stephen Fry narrates Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which is available for free at fryreadsonegin.com.
IN A CULTURAL moment much focused on the decline of reading, the literary public can afford to elegize the book—hardbound, with creamy stock, dignified font, a book to occupy an entire weekend—as an endangered species, precious in its demise. Writers, however, cannot. It is books, for now at least, that they sell: agents contract books, editors buy books, and books, stacked up, constitute a career. This is the bricks-and-mortar truth of the literary marketplace, in effect since the rise of the commercial printing press, which marked the unofficial end of the millennium-old tradition of literary patronage practiced first by the church and later by noble families. A medieval troubadour had to ensure his duke was pleased, but he didn’t have to win over millions of readers, and certainly not the New York Times; in fact, any self-respecting duke would have frowned on mass popularity. (Such noble airs persist in certain literary circles.)
As miraculous a vessel as it is, the book may be blamed for causing writers to have to answer as merchants. Here capitalism is again at odds with our better instincts: envy alone won’t explain the contempt aimed at the writer whose work seems guided by commercial rather than literary instincts, nor condescending terms ranging from genre writer to hack. Nevertheless, the writer who cannot sell his words is the writer who cannot eat, and even the most successful of literary writers are up against the fact that their craft carries with it an enormous latency . . .
(Photograph: James Salter at his desk by Andrew Southam)
Narrative recommends “The Delinquents” :
Among other achievements, this story explores the line between caution and paranoia. There is something unnerving about Atlas’s Naples. The way the young men touch each other’s chests “menacingly, with the edge of their open palm”; a friend’s nervous warning to get off the streets at the sound of approaching scooters; and later, the swirl of blood in the shower drain. The story unfolds against a backdrop of muted tension and always the possibility of violence.
Yet fear does not change the trajectories of the characters’ lives, so much as sickness, love, or other forces do. Indeed, violence seems to occur at a distance: “You don’t feel anything when they cut you, not at first. You just feel the dampness of the blood.” A disconnect exists between the perception of violence and the sensation of pain. The cruelty of the world is seen as if behind glass. And there is the narrator’s delusional mother, for whom fear and reality have been permanently severed from each other. Although the delinquent youth of Naples constitute a danger that is much more immediate than, say, the conspiring government at work in the mother’s mind, Atlas has found a commonality that spans all types of human fear: that distancing, isolating property that makes fear a most unusual state of being.