Sunday, October 22, 2017
Empathetic and Fierce: An Evening with George Saunders
By ETHAN B. REICHSMAN
Laughter filled the First Parish Church on Friday night as George Saunders dispensed wit and wisdom about writing and the role of art in today’s world. His visit to Cambridge was part of a several-week tour promoting his new book, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The Harvard Book Store hosted the event, which included a dramatic reading of the book by Saunders and a cast of five others.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is Saunders’ first novel, but he is no newcomer to the literary world. His essays and short stories have earned him much critical acclaim, as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He seems to have adapted well to longer-form work, as his novel has already received tremendous praise. The book focuses on one night in which President Lincoln visits the grave of his son, Willy.
Saunders tells the story from the perspectives of the ghosts who reside in the graveyard, but includes many informational quotes from historical texts and accounts of the time interspersed in the fictional narrative. In the excerpt that Saunders read at the event, the two main characters possess Lincoln, giving them access to his thoughts. Interspersed with reflections on the death of his son are quotes from his diaries and letters written about the bloody Battle of Fort Donelson, a key battle in the Civil War. The passage was moving and emotional, but also very funny at times.
This combination of humor and pathos carried over into the question and answer session, in which Saunders offered much more than writing tips. One audience member asked how to feel engaged in art, given the current political situation. “This moment is taking a lot of stuff from a lot of different people,” Saunders replied. “Don’t let it take [your art] away from you too.” The author made no attempts to hide his political leanings or his feelings towards President Trump and said that the duty of liberals in this moment is to be “empathetic and fierce.”
Saunders also gave out more general lessons for the artists in the room. He recalled telling the father of one his childhood friends that he wanted to be a writer when he grew up told him he should, and asked Saunders, “[O]r else you know who you’re going to blame?” Saunders replied, “Yeah, myself.” But the father corrected him. “You’ll blame your wife and kids,” the father said, and that advice stuck with Saunders.
Many of the audience members were already longtime fans of the author, having gotten to know his short-form work. He moved some attendees, like Katherine J. Frick, a fan of Saunders, primarily through his political message. “It was inspiring,” she said. “I think at this moment, hearing someone speak positively about what we can do, and where we are, is really rare.”
Tony Discepolo, another audience member, described Saunders as “very down-to-earth.” He continued, “I think he is expressing a view that a lot of people aren’t expressing right now.”
Others were particularly interested in his writing. J. Gregory Given, a doctoral student in the study of religion, found his historical references compelling. “As someone who uses historical sources...watching him tell parts of a story through block quotes from letters, from other books, and histories of the period, is really fascinating.”
Saunders seemed to have raised high expectations for his new book. Of reading “Lincoln in the Bardo, Frick said, “I am excited. From the reading that we heard, it seems like he’s captured Lincoln’s sadness, but also his humor, and the way he seemed to observe beauty in a really difficult time.”
The 100 best novels: No 8 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The eighth title in our chronological series, Mary Shelley's first novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre
Monday 11 November 2013 07.00 GMT
he summer of 1816 was a washout. After the cataclysmic April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, part of what is now Indonesia, the world's weather turned cold, wet and miserable. In a holiday villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a young English poet and his lover, the guests of another poet, discouraged from outdoor pursuits, sat discussing the hideousness of nature and speculating about the fashionable subject of "galvanism". Was it possible to reanimate a corpse?
The villa was Byron's. The other poet was Shelley. His future wife, 19-year-old Mary Shelley (nee Godwin), who had recently lost a premature baby, was in distress. When Byron, inspired by some fireside readings of supernatural tales, suggested that each member of the party should write a ghost story to pass the time, there could scarcely have been a more propitious set of circumstances for the creation of the gothic and romantic classic called Frankenstein, the novel that some claim as the beginnings of science fiction and others as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre. Actually, it's both more and less than such labels might suggest.
At first, Mary Shelley fretted about meeting Byron's challenge. Then, she said, she had a dream about a scientist who "galvanises" life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses: "I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion."
The scientist Victor Frankenstein, then, is the author of the monster that has come in popular culture to bear his name. Frankenstein's story – immortalised in theatre and cinema – is framed by the correspondence of Captain Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who, having rescued the unhappy scientist from the polar wastes, begins to record his extraordinary story. We hear how the young student Victor Frankenstein tries to create life: "By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light," he says, "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
Unforgettably, Frankenstein has unleashed forces beyond his control, setting in motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings him to the brink of madness. Finally, Victor tries to destroy his creation, as it destroys everything he loves, and the tale becomes a story of friendship, hubris and horror. Frankenstein's narration, the core of Shelley's tale, culminates in the scientist's desperate pursuit of his monstrous creation to the North Pole. The novel ends with the destruction of both Frankenstein and his creature, "lost in darkness".
The subtitle of Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus", a reference to the Titan of Greek mythology who was first instructed by Zeus to create mankind. This is the dominant source in a book that is also heavily influenced by Paradise Lost and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mary Shelley, whose mother was the champion of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, also makes frequent reference to ideas of motherhood and creation. The main theme of the book, however, is the ways in which man manipulates his power, through science, to pervert his own destiny.
Plainly, Frankenstein is rather different from, and much more complex than, its subsequent reinterpretations. The first reviews were mixed, attacking what one called a "disgusting absurdity". But the archetypal story of a monstrous, supernatural creation (cf Bram Stoker's Dracula, Wilde's Dorian Gray and Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde) instantly caught readers' imaginations. The novel was adapted for the stage as early as 1822 and Walter Scott saluted "the author's original genius and happy power of expression". It has never been out of print; a new audiobook version, read by Dan Stevens, has just been released by Audible Inc, a subsidiary of Amazon.
A Note on the Text:
The first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in three volumes by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones on 1 January 1818. A second edition appeared in 1822 to cash in on the success of a stage version, Presumption. A third edition, extensively revised, came out in 1831. Here, Mary Shelley pays touching tribute to her late husband, "my companion who, in this world, I shall never see more", and reveals that the first preface to the novel was actually written by Shelley himself. This is the text that is usually followed today.
Other Mary Shelley titles:
The Last Man, a dystopia, published in 1826, describes England as a republic and has the human race being destroyed by plague. Shelley also explores the theme of the noble savage in Lodore (1835). Her children's story Maurice, written in 1820, was rediscovered in 1997 and republished in 1998.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
The 100 best novels
by Jane Austen
Monday 4 November 2013 07.01 GMT
ow on earth to choose just one Jane Austen novel? Austen, for some, is simply the supreme English novelist, on any list. Some will say: she is the greatest. Nominate all six, from Pride and Prejudice on. But the rules of our selection only allow one title per author: there has to be a choice. So, to represent her fiction here, I've chosen Emma for three particular reasons.
First, it's my personal favourite, a mature and brilliant comedy of manners (and much more besides) completed towards the end of her life. Second, published by John Murray, Emma takes us into a new literary landscape, the beginnings of a book world that lingers unto the 21st century. And third, most importantly of all, Austen's last novel has the sparkle of early books such as Pride and Prejudice, mixed with a sharper and deeper sensibility. There's no accounting for taste: I simply prefer it to the others.
Emma was written in a white heat – according to the scholars – between 21 January 1814 and 29 March 1815 (the year of Waterloo), and it comes as the climax to a remarkable period of intense creativity. Pride and Prejudice (whose first draft, "First Impressions", was written in 1796-7) had been published in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814. Austen's work was becoming something of a cult, and she was aware of her audience. Indeed, the Prince Regent was a fan (Emma is dedicated to him). Austen must have been conscious that she was no longer writing just for herself. She was at the peak of her powers, yet had less than two years to live. All this, I think, gives Emma an added depth as the final flowering of a great artist and her work.
|Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in Emma (1996)|
'The novel is supremely English – in character, landscape, sensibility and wit.'
Photograph: Allstar/ Cinetext/ Miramax
The novelist herself is highly conscious of her art. Emma, she wrote to a friend, is "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like". Perhaps. However, compared with her other heroines – Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and Catherine Morland – Emma is the most complex, subtle and complete. Yes, she is "handsome, clever and rich". But she's only 21 and will be sent on the familiar Austen cycle of wrong-headedness, remorse, repentance and ultimate self-realisation (with Mr Knightley) in a far deeper way than her predecessors.
Emma represents mature Austen in another way, too. She has perfected the art of free indirect speech to convey the inner life of her heroine while retaining her control of the narrative as the omniscient author. Light and shade are expertly and satisfyingly in harmony, and the novel's deceptively simple plot is spun into so much teasing variety, through games, letters and riddles – the book is exceedingly playful – that the reader is never less than fully engaged, even charmed. Then there's Austen's mature delight in her milieu. She herself famously wrote that "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on", and Emma's Highbury exemplifies this credo. Here, fully in command of her genre, Austen revels in her characters and their foibles. Mr Woodhouse, Mr and Mrs Elton, poor Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax and her fiance, deceitful Frank Churchill and, of course, noble Mr Knightley – these are among the most vivid and universal characters in English fiction, as real to us as Pickwick or Jeeves.
Emma herself is endlessly fascinating, a woman to whom the reader returns again and again for the seductive intimacy of her thoughts, a secret communion that's braided with the lesson that self-knowledge is a mystery, vanity the source of the worst pain, and the subconscious a treacherous and imperfect instrument in the management of the psyche. You can object that Emma is a lady and a snob, but she also makes a timeless appeal to the reader's better nature.
Austen seems to have known that she was working on something special. Mansfield Park had been published by Thomas Egerton. This time, however, she wanted better terms and more literary prestige. There was only one address for that: 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair. She approached John Murray, Byron's publisher, offering her new manuscript. Murray accepted at once and his edition appeared in December 1815, after a trouble-free editorial process in which her new publisher made a point of treating her with the greatest respect, though author and publisher never actually met.
Emma occupies a special place in this list because it is supremely English – in character, landscape, sensibility and wit. It's provincial, opaque, sparkling and wonderfully optimistic while being at the same time tinged with intimations of sorrow and mortality. In the end, it answers Jane Austen's own high-spirited prescription for the novel, expressed in Northanger Abbey: "in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language".
A Note on the Text:
There was just one text prepared in Austen's lifetime, the John Murray edition, dated 1816, though it was actually published in three volumes in December 1815. No manuscript survives. Subsequent editions, notably by RW Chapman, have made silent corrections to typographical errors, but no substantial emendations. Emma has been continuously in print since its first publication: that's one definition of a classic.
Other Austen Titles:
Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817.
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