Why did you write a prelude to Heart of Darkness? What does Conrad’s book mean for you, and why should readers revisit it today?
I’m writing this on MLK Day in the United States, but I grew up in England where protesting apartheid, demanding sanctions and boycotts were part of what it meant to belong to the Left as a youth in the 1980s. I’m forty-four. As anachronistic as it may seem to revisit Conrad, those conditions, of the Congo, of institutional racism, exploitation, uniformed brutality, capitalism and privateering have not changed. As for the book itself, Henry James had a phrase: “The plot won’t tell… not in any literal vulgar way.” And the impressionism of Conrad’s novella is masterful. The nebulous horror, the lack of elephants in a book about the ivory trade, the haunted corruption that make Heart of Darkness one of the ur-texts of modernism, also mean that it is a pulled punch — Yet, the fact that Conrad planted the existence of Kurtz’s papers in Heart of Darkness says that there is a counter-narrative to all that Conrad obscures, or a narrative that has no need of ambiguity — that has always been there. Heart of Darkness is everywhere, not just Apocalypse Now, but in the original screenplay of Alien, in the post-punk of The Gang of Four (“We Live As We Dream, Alone”), in T.S. Eliot, and the streets of American cities. Mistah Kurtz! is a vulgar book, in at least one sense.
Do you have a favorite copy of Heart of Darkness that’s all banged up and scribbled on? Continue reading
Friends, I really wanted to read Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott so I could respond to it and contribute something to the discussion described in its subtitle: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. But I wasn’t able to get past page 7.
Page 7 is where Scott—one of the film critics at The New York Times—serves up yet another helping of the blandly acceptable word salad that characterizes this book: “Every culture, every class and tribe and coterie, every period in history has developed its own canons of craft and invention.” Great, thanks. What?
This is a book in which the author—borrowing the humor of, like, Dave Barry’s grandpa, or something—actually interviews himself, writing both the Qs and As, and amuses himself with responses such as: “Well, no, actually. I mean yes.” Continue reading
“If there is anyone on earth who could decide not to die it would be Susan Sontag; her will is that ferocious, that unbending, that unwilling to accept the average fates or outcomes the rest of us are bound by.”
From The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe
The first time someone told me the premise of Sudden Death by the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue (translated by Natasha Wimmer), she followed it up by saying, “but it’s not really about that. It’s about everything.”
She was right, of course.
Sudden Death is about a tennis match between the famous Italian painter Caravaggio and the famous Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo in Piazza Navonna in Rome on October 4, 1599. This tennis match is not exactly a historical fact, but you can’t exactly prove it didn’t happen, either. Tennis, in those days, was an almost unimaginably rough sport, a contest for drunken ruffians and rowdy young aristocrats. Dueling at tennis was an acceptable alternative to dueling to the death. In this duel, Quevedo is “seconded” by Pedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of Osuna, while Caravaggio’s second is the estimable Galileo Galilei. Each point of the tennis match is narrated in rapturous detail, as if Enrigue were reporting from the sideline at Wimbledon. Continue reading
Chris Jackson co-founded the bookstore McNally Jackson, edited Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and is making the stupidly white world of literary publishing a little more diverse: “The lens that we have is a way in which we can claim the entire world.”
How an old Philip Roth remark sort of predicted Donald Trump: “The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.”
And speaking of the absurdity of American reality: “Amazon is planning to open hundreds of physical bookstores.”
Nathan Heller on airplanes: “Flight is the best metaphor for writing that I know.”
Saudi Arabia almost executes a poet: “The pen has yet to be proven mightier than the sword.”
Photo of Chris Jackson by Shaniqwa Jarvis for the New York Times
One of the best books I read in 2015 was The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s an Algerian writer’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger—especially to the way Camus’s protagonist thoughtlessly shoots an Algerian man at the midpoint of that book, and nobody—not the shooter, not the author, not subsequent generations of readers and literary critics—stops to consider the humanity of that dead, fictional Algerian.
In Daoud’s novel, the idea that Camus treated the dead Algerian unjustly is practically a foregone conclusion, especially since the French have a history of abusing Algerians. But this is not a type of injustice that we typically think about. The Meursault Investigation accuses an author of abusing his own character. It turns a fictional death into a real-world injustice. That’s rather astounding. And it has big implications for storytelling in general. Continue reading