Gore Vidal died today. While he may have led an unconventional life and wasn’t one to keep his usually contrarian opinions to himself, I’ve always been sympathetic to his skepticism about modern elites and American empire. I most appreciated his novel Julian. Though I don’t think the writing was top-notch in literary terms, the ideas and historical themes he explores are deeply fascinating. I like to flatter myself that Julian and The Last Stoic are kindred spirits, at least in terms of intent and underpinning. Now, I’m looking forward to getting a copy of his novel Lincoln which is even more well-regarded (despite this, I can’t find it in our local library). From what I understand, it is not just a bit of hero worship. It gets quite warty.
I just finished reading An Indecent Death by David Anderson. David was my elementary school teacher in grades 3, 5, and 6 and he was the first person to encourage me to write and to give me the idea that writing seriously was something worth pursuing. He made a real difference to me as an impressionable child. So it’s wonderful to now read his own work!
An Indecent Death is an entertaining read. It features lots of interesting characters to keep you guessing on who committed the crime, plus a quirky and endearing main character (Nicholas Drumm) tasked with solving the mystery. Drumm exposes a suprisingly seamy side to the outwardly mundane world of elementary schools and their teachers. The book is fast-paced and engaging, and well worth checking out if you are a fan of murder mysteries.
An interesting (if long) article comparing the fall of Rome to other civilizations, including our own. He quotes Marcus Aurelius, “Nature which governs the whole will soon change all things which thou seest, and out of their substance will make other things, and again other things from the substance of them, in order that the world may be ever new.”
Or, as Heraclitus put it, more succinctly, “the only constant is change.”
by Stuart Ross.
A collection of deeply weird, surreal, comic-tragic short stories.
My favourite: The Suntan. A very moving and human exchange between two unlikely characters.
by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. A great primer on the rhythms and structures of traditional, blank, and free verse.
There is a striking passage in George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens. He is writing about David Copperfield. It’s truly amazing how much attitudes have changed toward child rearing in the last 150 years. Orwell writes,
In Dicken’s youth children were still being “solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen,” and it was not so long since boys of thirteen had been hanged for petty theft. The doctrine of “breaking the child’s spirit” was in full vigour, and The Fairchild Family was a standard book for children till late into the century. This evil book is now issued in pretty-pretty expurgated editions, but it is well worth reading in the original version. It gives one some idea of the lengths to which child-discipline was sometimes carried.
Mr. Fairchild, for instance, when he catches his children quarreling, first thrashes them, reciting Doctor Watt’s “Let dogs delight to bark and bite” between blows of the cane, and then takes them to spend the afternoon beneath a gibbet where the rotting corpse of a murderer is hanging.
Orwell’s own experience at Crossgates, a public boarding school, was similar, sadly, to what Dickens describes. He was obviously greatly affected by it.
I’m looking for a copy of The Fairchild Family to read now ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_the_Fairchild_Family), (not for advice!).
By Henry Miller.
A fascinating essay called Inside The Whale by Orwell put me on to this novel. Orwell argues that the arrival of Tropic of Cancer in 1935 signalled a new ethic in literature, a call to “give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.” He puts the book in context as it comes out between the great wars, after the Nature poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge) and the modernists (Joyce, Eliot). He says,
…he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.
Intriguing. Orwell also mentions A.E. Housman and describes him as a “country” poet, “his poems are full of the charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place-names, Clunton and Clunbury, Knighton, Ludlow…” I had to check that out too, and enjoyed reading Housman’s Shropshire Lad. I can see why it is derided as simplistic, manly, and patriotic, but it’s a fun read.
At bottom it is always a writer’s tendency, his “purpose,” his “message,”, that makes him liked or disliked. The proof of this is the extreme difficulty of seeing any literary merit in a book that seriously damages your deepest beliefs. And no book is ever truly neutral.
the Collected Poetry.
by George Orwell.
At the Writer’s Fest this year I went to the Penprick of Conscience panel discussion, with writers Karen Connelly, Deborah Ellis, Steven Heighton, and Larry Scanlan. It was a great discussion on the topic of personal and political engagement in the act of writing, lots of interesting points made, and amazing stories told.
Karen Connelly described her time in Burma and how she spent time living in a house that happened to have a number of George Orwell books in its library, including his novel Burmese Days. She read and re-read the books, comparing Orwell’s experiences in Burma with her own. She also read his essay Why I Write. She quoted from that essay,
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
Connelly reminded me of how much I admire and appreciate Orwell. These words are invigorating to me because I feel like I have the same initial motivation to write - even though it is unfashionable to say so in our age, when writing that is not purely literary in its intention is looked at with suspicion, if not scorn. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone and I feel some kinship with the great man.
Now, back to my brand new copy of Orwell’s A Collection of Essays (including Why I Write)…