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
Harper Lee passed away this morning at the age of 89. While it’s sad to see her go, her passing is a reminder that the author of To Kill a Mockingbird lived long enough to see the election and re-election of our nation’s first black president, a heartening data point to enter into the ledger of history. A shadow was cast over Lee’s final year due to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a “sequel” of sorts to Mockingbird in which the idealist hero Atticus finch has become sour, embittered and, sadly, racist. Last August, Magin LaSov Gregg offered a unique take on the novel and the controversy surrounding it. We’re happy to share it again today.
I almost didn’t read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman because of what the reviews said about Atticus, who transforms from an ACLU-ish lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird to a Klan meeting attender in Watchman. But when I read to the very end of page 278, it wasn’t the proto-Tea Party Atticus that irritated me. What bothered me was that early reviews of Watchman allowed Jean Louise to be eclipsed by her father, as if Atticus were the whole point of this story.
I don’t disagree that Watchman is an inferior literary work. How can it not be? It’s possibly a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was among a handful of books that re-defined female possibility for me when I was growing up poor, white, and in perpetual fear of losing my mother to an illness that eventually killed her. Scout Finch showed me what it meant to be brave and to thrive in absence of a mother. In my sometimes-bleak girlhood, Scout was both who I wanted to be and who I wanted to become: independent and able to transcend the limitations that life handed me.
Since you can’t get tickets to “Hamilton,” perhaps you would be interested in another unexpected adaptation of an incredibly long but popular book: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The five-and-a-half hour stage performance opened yesterday at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The New York Times says that it “wins full marks for ambition, but falls short as a work of dramatic art.” The Chicago Tribune calls it “a long, complicated night of theater.”
Watch an excerpt from the play on the New York Times site.
The fact that these are not ringing endorsements should not detract from the crazy fact that this thing exists at all.
The novel that provides the source material, often called Bolaño’s magnum opus (including in the Times review), is not a prime candidate for adaptation. It’s long, for one, clocking in at more than 900 pages. It’s also weird as hell. There is lots of mystery and far too much murder, but there is no clear narrative arc or what you might call a real “ending” — though there is speculation that recently discovered writings include another chapter to add to what has already been published.
Even with three intermissions, sitting through the 2666 adaptation seems like it would be a tough slog. That’s not always a bad thing with great art, and if anyone out there is willing to do it, we’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
For me, the whole concept — an ambitious and possibly insane attempt to adapt the violent, mystical, cryptic masterpiece of a dead author — seems like it would be more interesting as a novel itself.
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
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: “Jed–young, gay, black, out of rehab and out of prospects in his hometown of Chicago–flees to the city of his fantasies, a museum of modernism and decadence: Berlin. The paradise that tyranny created, the subsidized city isolated behind the Berlin Wall, is where he’s chosen to become the figure that he so admires, the black American expatriate.”
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: “The Heart takes place over the twenty-four hours surrounding a fatal accident and a resulting heart transplant as life is taken from a young man and given to a woman close to death.”
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: “Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past.”
Also this month: We’ll review new releases Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore and Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue.