May 5, 2016

Ireland Rises Again!

It has been 100 years since Ireland’s Easter Rising, a fascinating, tragic episode that blended literature and liberation, defeat and victory, national reverence and remorse, and, in William Butler Yeats‘s high poetic oxymoron of “Easter, 1916“, ...

It has been 100 years since Ireland’s Easter Rising, a fascinating, tragic episode that blended literature and liberation, defeat and victory, national reverence and remorse, and, in William Butler Yeats‘s high poetic oxymoron of “Easter, 1916“, beauty and terror.

The Rising was led by a schoolteacher obsessed with death (Patrick Pearse), a veteran Fenian dynamiter (Tom Clarke), and a committed Marxist (James Connolly)—though women, volunteers, and farmers shared in the planning.

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The rebels seized Dublin’s General Post Office, held it for six days, and proclaimed an independent Irish republic, optimistically, “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”—that meant women and men, Catholics, Protestants, and others.

It was a brief period of insurrection: for example, Enniscorthy—hometown of our guest Colm Toíbín—was seized for a period of days; hundreds of British soldiers and Irish civilians were injured and killed. But after just a week, the rebels had been routed; Dublin had been shelled. When the leaders were captured, fifteen were executed and buried in quicklime without a funeral, setting off a permanent alienation of the Irish people from British occupiers.

A hundred years on, the history of the Easter Rising—and of the Irish republic that rose from it—is, like all histories, a mixed bag. Along the way: civil war, partition of the island (north and south), and emigration. In the 1990s the “Celtic Tiger” of tech and speculation romped through Ireland, but in the ‘08 melt-down the Tiger emigrated, too.

But suddenly another uprising—an emphatic vote for gay marriage, a pushback to the domination of Irish culture by the Catholic Church, and an emotional attack on structures of injustice—all expressed at the level of sentences, Tweets, performances, and songs.

We rely on a handful of charming and incisive writers to dissect the global dynamics of this exciting Irish moment, from Toíbín to Belinda McKeon and Mary O’Donoghue and the dark-minded Westerners, Colin Barrett and Lisa McInerney.  

You can hear the full version of Tom French’s poem, “1916,” below:

Podcast • October 12, 2015

Paul Theroux in Zimbabwe, USA

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. ...

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. It’s like Zimbabwe, in that the farmers have been kicked out so the fields are dead. There’s no activity. There’s people sitting in the shade, drinking, like Africa — black men drinking beer in the shade. Many of them are war veterans – guys who’ve made major contributions are sitting there with no job, living on welfare. And the shopkeepers are all from India. They’re from Gujurat – the inevitable Mr. Patel. So the Indian shopkeeper, the unemployed man drinking, children running around, careworn women, trying to keep the family together, defunded schools — very hot, very dry, very dusty. You look on the horizon and it’s just dust in the air. And you think: where have I seen this before? Yeah, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. The Western part of Kenya. The Eastern part of Uganda…

Paul Theroux, in conversation on Deep South, a first travel venture into his native United States.

Paul Theroux is my age, my model of what we’ll call “the young old man.” He remembers the sense, growing up near Boston, that “books were banned, writers were outlaws, and writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer, and also to leave home.”

Fifty-plus years and fifty-plus books later – novels, stories, a whole genre of grumpy, curious travel books – Paul Theroux is a world-class original: a tart American stylist with an acquired half-English accent and wardrobe, but “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson. On the page and more so in person, he’s great fun not least because he’s ever testing your reflexes and surprising you with his breaking ball.

For example: On the writers to be remembered forever, Paul Theroux thinks less of Albert Camus than of Georges Simenon, best known for his detective sideline, who has 400 titles in his name and wrote four books while Camus worked on L’Etranger in the 1940s, and was annoyed not to win the Nobel Prize. Theroux still isn’t sold on The Stranger: “It’s set in Algeria, with all French characters, no Arabs and no women in it. That’s a book? So Camus doesn’t do it for me. Orwell does. In my time? Maybe Noam Chomsky – not a stylist, and not Orwell’s sense of humor; but he has a backbone of iron, and he knows his mind. If people listened to him it would be a better world.”

We’re putting personal frames around the half-century we saw – from JFK’s Peace Corps, in which Paul served, to ISIS and the popular clamor around Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. It’s the same 50-year span that Barney Frank put in a subtitle of his memoirs: “From the Great Society to Gay Marriage.” In Paul Theroux’s melancholy summing up, it’s the arc from colonialism in Africa (where he led several schools) up through freedom-fights, independence, five-year plans and post-colonialism then down to something like despair and a mass longing to emigrate. “Now,” he’s saying, “if you go to any country in the world – and that includes China, India, Brazil, successful countries – go to any classroom… and they’ll say: I want to go to America. I want to leave this country. They won’t say ‘hell-hole,’ but hell-hole is in the back of their mind.”

Of his own writing life, he cites the Chuck Close line (as Philip Roth used to): “ ‘I don’t believe in inspiration; I go to work every day.’ Writing every day – it’s a joy. I never believe people when they say writing is hard. I say: you’re lucky. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a fisherman. You’re not picking pineapples. It’s a wonderful profession.”

Podcast • December 11, 2014

Steve Pinker’s Prose Guide

Our friend the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker has written a manual on prose style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, as he calls it. We asked Steve to bring along some samples of his favorite lines and paragraphs and we tried out some of ours on him, too. We invite you to play along.

Our friend the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker has written a manual on prose style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, as he calls it. It’s a mostly admiring counter to The Elements of Style, the immortal guide (“omit needless words”) compiled by E. B. White from the wisdom of his mentor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr. Not the least of the differences is that Steve Pinker’s brain science lets you feel he’s personally acquainted with the neurons that assemble language in our heads. Steve is the rare scientist who writes uncommonly well, in the company of people he admires like the physicist Brian Greene and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – none better than the great Darwin himself, who ended The Origin of Species with his unforgettable sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

We asked Steve to bring along some samples of his favorite lines and paragraphs and we tried out some of ours on him, too. It became a game of trading passages – from William James to Edna O’Brien, Vladimir Nabokov to Roger Angell. It sounded a bit like a trial run of a stage act for grammar nerds, and we invite you to play along. Steve can one up anybody, and he can identify the trope or the trick that makes a piece work – or not. Readers and listeners: fire away, please!

Podcast • July 3, 2014

The John Updike Radio Files

We've discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike's biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week. Begley talks about Updike's Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art.
Updike in the Archives

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We’ve discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike’s biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week.

Begley talks about Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art. Between lived experience and the pages of the New Yorker magazine, John Updike had the shortest digestive tract in the modern practice of serious literature, Begley says. How we miss him and wonder: what’s Updike thinking — as we did back in the day about the expanding universe, or Barack Obama on the rise, or the Red Sox in a pennant race? What would he say today about our obsession with our phones, or about the the jobless generation, or Google Glass?

Watch one of our favorite interviews with Updike, on the occasion of his second Pulitzer win in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest, from The Ten O’Clock News. What do you hear in that voice, and who has filled Updike’s shoes today?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0-qDdaFe14

Adam Begley sent us a Guardian list of his ten favorite Updike short stories. What are yours?

Five years ago, when HarperCollins approached me about writing a biography of John Updike, I would have classified myself as a moderate fan, thrilled by his supple, precise prose and respectful of his wide-ranging talent and effortless industry: every year a new Updike book! I admired many of his novels and most of his criticism; though aware of his poetry, I hadn’t read very much of it. It was apparent to me even then that Updike had earned himself an exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century short story writers.

Now, after a thorough immersion in all things Updike, my admiration has spread and deepened. I’ve come to cherish many of his poems, and the large majority of his 23 novels. After countless hours in the archives, I’ve discovered Updike the helplessly prolific letter-writer, scattering literary jewels throughout a vast correspondence. But Updike’s stories – there are 186 of them in the two-volume Library of America edition – remain for me the chief glory of his collected works. His stated aim in his short fiction was “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and it’s an aim he achieved beautifully.

1. The Happiest I’ve Been (1958)

An Updike alter ego, John Nordholm, looks back in tender reminiscence to a time when he was a second-year student at university. He has been home for Christmas at his parents’ farm, and is leaving again. He’s eager to put his childhood behind him and at the same time desperate to preserve the past intact, to protect and cherish it. The tension between these two impulses supplies the emotional power here, as it does in many of the stories Updike wrote about Olinger, a lightly fictionalised version of his Pennsylvania hometown, Shillington. While writing this story, Updike later explained, he had “a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up”.

2. Separating (1974)

A devastating story about the break-up of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, stand-ins for Updike and his first wife. It features a tragicomic last supper at which Richard, an unfaithful husband and flawed father, is supposed to inform his children that he and their mother are splitting up. At the end of the story, his eldest son asks him “why?” – which prompts an indelible final paragraph: “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness … Richard had forgotten why.” Minutely autobiographical and gorgeously shaped, Separating is perhaps the world’s best (and worst) argument for writing about what you know.

3. A&P (1960)

Updike’s most widely anthologised story, about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. As Updike’s first wife pointed out, the teenage narrator’s voice (“In walks these three girls … “) is very Salinger – but the dazzlingly vivid detail and the quixotic romanticism are pure Updike.

4. A Sandstone Farmhouse (1990)

A sequel of sorts to his brilliant early novel Of the Farm (1965), as well as a memorial to his widowed mother who died in 1989 and is here is resurrected with unsentimental candour and evident affection. Updike filled the story with incidents snatched directly from her last six months, quoting her verbatim and giving the precise circumstances of her death by heart attack. An attempt to immortalise the most important person in his life, it was also, for him, a kind of therapy.

5. The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island (1960)

As the story’s comically long-winded title suggests, Updike here stitches together disparate elements, a daring collage construction. Among the many marvels, this striking description of how fiction writers condense and transform experience: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

6. The Bulgarian Poetess (1964)

The first (and sweetest) of 20 stories featuring Henry Bech, another – this time rather unlikely – Updike alter ego. A New York Jewish writer, Bech is in some ways everything Updike was not: an anguished urban bachelor beset by writer’s block. But thanks to Bech, Updike was able to record in fiction an important part of his experience: the life of a professional author. In this story, Bech is travelling behind the Iron Curtain, as an ambassador of the arts, sponsored by the US government. (Updike did the same, the same year.)

7. Bech in Czech (1986)

Returning to eastern Europe decades later, our hero visits Kafka’s grave, meets a handful of dissidents, broods about the Holocaust, and suffers an attack of anxiety that is at once existential and postmodern: “More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt a cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop.”

8. Problems (1975)

The problems in this very short and ostentatiously clever story are presented as questions on a maths test: “During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C … Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” The story, from a collection of the same title, is emblematic of the brief moment of guilty limbo between Updike’s first and second marriages, a period during which divorce and its discontents replaced adultery as his simplex theme.

9. Here Come the Maples (1976)

A bittersweet record of the court hearing that put an end to the Maples’ marriage. The 17th of 18 stories chronicling more than two decades of the couple’s quarrels and reconciliations, it’s a barely fictionalised yet artful retelling of Updike’s own experience in the divorce court. The concluding kiss is priceless.

10. My Father’s Tears (2005)

Like The Happiest I’ve Been, this is a story about a university student who’s come home for the holiday and is now leaving again. Updike was 26 when he wrote the first story, 73 when he wrote the second. There are fewer bravura moments in My Father’s Tears, less writerly zeal, and yet it achieves a quiet, sober intensity. The reason for the father’s tears? “I was going somewhere,” the son tells us, “and he was seeing me go.” Updike’s talent had mellowed and deepened; it certainly hadn’t diminished.

Also explore a little-read essay from last week’s subject David Foster Wallace on the late writings of the ‘phallocrat’ novelists (or Great Male Narcissists), with John Updike ranking first among them. Quoting feminist friends who read “a penis with a thesaurus,” Wallace wrote for a generation that received Updike more skeptically, and with less rapture. Which is the Updike you know? Where’s his place in 21st-century literature?

Podcast • March 3, 2011

Andre Dubus III: How “The Fighter” Became The Writer

Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill ...


Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill town) becoming, first, a one-punch knockout street fighter, and later a National Book Award finalist for The House of Sand and Fog. Strangely, beautifully, painfully along the way, he finds himself coming into the same demanding vocation — writing — that had drawn his famous father away from a severely neglected family.

The story unfolds in the 1970s along the Merrimack River, just downstream from the scene of Wahlberg’s almost-Oscar movie, “The Fighter.” We’re in the same rough bars with the same wacko clans, hearing the same bad Boston accents — his friend Cleary says he’s always “hawny in the mawning.” As in Dickens, we are confronting social squalor in the home of the great imperial nation and wondering where the glory went — or where it is hiding in the town, even now.

There’s a lot of wondrously authentic energy in Andre Dubus’s voice, on the page and in our conversation. I remarked to him: Townie reads like David Copperfield, with heaps of crystal meth, junk TV, Fritos and Vietnam thrown in. He’s speaking here about his own memory of metamorphosis, as the crysalis of the thug breaks and the artist starts to spread his wings:

It’s something that was semi-conscious, this thought of the membrane in my life, and then became more clarified as I began to describe it in this book. … One thing that I realized, I would see people that weren’t experienced fighters, and they would do this shoving match thing: “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Experienced fighters don’t do any foreplay; once they know it’s a fight situation they pound you in the face as hard as they can. … Once you learn how do it, that psychological hymen in you is always broken. You can always do it. Once you break through it you’ll know how to do it and you’ll keep doing it. And that’s the barrier; once you learn to cross that you can fight.

But to the writing: I had a very interesting, strange experience when I first began to write. It felt so familiar, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. But it was another kind of membrane, where I was allowing myself to seep into the being, into the private skin of another, an imaginary other. I had to somehow disappear to become them, in the same way as a fighter. I had to let my fear of my safety disappear and my sense of myself disappear.

Andre Dubus III in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 1, 2011.

August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy: "… who fell down, and got up."

A contemporary church song caught Ted Kennedy almost too well. The words go: “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. For a saint… is ...

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A contemporary church song caught Ted Kennedy almost too well. The words go: “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. For a saint… is just a sinner… who fell down, and got up.”

The son of a gun kept getting up. The baby among the Kennedy brothers got the only long lifetime in politics. He suffered unspeakable losses and contributed blunders of his own — cheating in college, toying with the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. Just imagine any of this happening to you or me: oldest brother dead in a war plane; his two political partner brothers shot by assassins; himself nearly killed and never again out of a back brace and awful pain after a plane crash 45 years ago. I happened to be standing (on newspaper duty) near Ted Kennedy, next to Richard Nixon, at Senator Allen Ellender’s burial in Louisiana in 1972 when the last salute burst forth in a crackle of rifle fire. Kennedy, in uncontrollable panic, collapsed on the ground. And then, alone in his embarrassment and recovery, he picked himself up.

He didn’t just keep getting up. He got better at the many complicated jobs he had: Senator, surrogate father, custodian of a legend, a sort of Napoleonic general of liberal values in America. He got humbler, and tougher. He got surer and more visionary all the way. It thrills you now to know that he judged his stand against authorizing the Bush war in Iraq “the best vote I’ve made”– 40 years into his job, only seven years ago.

As kids we were tickled when Eddie McCormack told him to his face in 1962 that “if your name were Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.” Ted’s first premise in politics was obnoxious. The slogan in 1962 was: “He can do more for Massachusetts,” because his brother was president of the United States. Eddie McCormack was right. But the Democratic voters of Massachusetts made the wise choice. Kennedy himself liked to quote a mill-worker in Boston who told him on a factory visit in that first campaign: “They say you never worked a real job in your life? Let me tell you something: you haven’t missed a damned thing!” And then Ted buckled down to nearly five decades of a mission that reset the standard for both professionalism and passion in public life, with far the best personal staff and the best political instincts that anyone can remember in the U. S. Senate.

Let’s remember him as encouraging evidence that redemptive energy — grace beyond individual courage — underlies the life of a man and a country. Ted Kennedy will do as a sort of proof of Hemingway’s line that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated,” as he can also be defeated and not destroyed.