Celebrating Byatt on her 80th birthday

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Byatt turns 80 today. I interviewed her some years back after she had finished The Children’s Book, a very long novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize. Set in the decades leading up to World War I, it follows several families (loosely based on the family and friends of the children’s writer, E. Nesbit) as they try to live according to exaggerated progressive and esthetic principles. Like all of Byatt’s works, this one is sprawling and erudite. Byatt herself seemed to know everything about everything — a modern incarnation of George Eliot, acutely aware of carrying this mantle. Byatt has written a lot but remains best known for her 1990 Booker award-winning novel, Possession. Academics of my vintage have a special fondness for this work since it tells the story of two literary scholars whose lives parallel those of the two 19th century poets they are researching. Both pairs fall in love in the face of obstacles. The book is filled with large swaths of Robert Browningesque and Christina Rossetti-ish poetry that Byatt composes for her characters. It’s a tour de force of mimicry though I admit to having skipped a good deal of it to get to the love story. I suspect that its appeal for many of us was that it was a dissertation wrapped in a bodice ripper. The 2002 movie, with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, captures the intellectually and emotionally overheated effect, making for a great grad student date flick. A dramatic moment in the interview was Byatt’s terse statement that she doesn’t speak to her sister, novelist Margaret Drabble. •

Feature image courtesy of Nationaal Historisch Museum via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

Because they aren’t quite real

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There’s a David Shields quote that I have encountered multiple times, first in his own book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and most recently in “Note to Self” by Elaine Blair, a review of the work (both written and editorial) of John D’Agata, subtitled “The lyric essay’s convenient fictions.” Both D’Agata and Shields are proponents of blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. This is the quote (boldface mine):

Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.

More… “Why Read Novels?”

Happy Birthday to Eytan Fox

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Eytan Fox, one of Israel’s most acclaimed filmmakers, turns 52 today. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him to be funny and deep. Walk on Water (2004), his most famous film, is both a social critique and a work of suspense.

More… “Like a Fox”

Finding life in landscapes

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New writers approaching creative work are often told that “landscape should be a character,” or, even worse, “landscape is a character.” To the extent this means anything, it’s well-intentioned enough. Landscape should be vivid, is how the phrase breaks down, and it should be important to the plot. But I’ve long wondered whether saying “landscape should be a character” is to misunderstand the nature of both character and landscape. More… “Landscape is Action”

In a civilized society, there would be little need for it

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Along with honor killings, slavery, and polygamy, personal charity is a relic of barbarism. As civilization advances, the satisfaction of basic human needs moves from the realm of personal charity to the realm of civic solidarity. The extent to which a modern society still relies on personal charity to provide unfortunate individuals with adequate access to food, shelter, medicine, and even education, by way of scholarships, should be a source, not of personal pride on the part of generous philanthropists, but of collective shame on the part of the community.
More… “Against Charity”

A love story

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This year I made a resolution to bike through the winter. Usually by January I’ve traded in my bike for public transportation and taxis, but I always feel biking’s absence from my life. It’s not just the exercise. In winter it’s too easy to spend your days shuffling tiredly between dark and dark. It’s too easy to hibernate, to let your life shrink down until you could live it on the tip of a pencil.

I bought my first bike — as an adult, I mean — at age 30, on something of a whim. I was in the midst of a protracted breakup, and I needed a little fun in my life. At first I only cruised around Philadelphia on weekends, or took slow rides on a path by the river, though soon enough I found myself biking to work. I found myself biking to run errands and to meet friends at bars and restaurants. Within a year I’d gotten rid of my car.

I always tell people I don’t believe in resolutions, but each year I find myself making a few anyway. I always tell people I don’t care about birthdays, but I recently turned 39, and it feels like a big one.

More… “Biking”

The realistic surrealism of Inio Asano's work

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In a certain way, Punpun seems like a normal, if rather put-upon, kid. Sure, his dad is an abusive ne’er-do-well who abandons his family and his mom is a neglectful lush, but Punpun himself seems like a rather average, likeable youth. He craves sweets, is both curious and terrified about sex, enjoys hanging out with his friends, and pines arduously for Aiko, the cute girl in his class.

Of course, one glance at Punpun will instantly show you what separates him from the rest of the crowd. Unlike most of the cast in Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun (two volumes thus far), who are drawn in a relatively realistic fashion, Punpun and his immediate family are delineated as what could best be described as little bird ghosts: two stick legs, an upside down U for a body, two dots for eyes and pointy little beak nose — a childish scrawl interacting with a photorealistic world. It’s not necessarily the most original way to convey a character’s alienated relationship with society, but in Asano’s hands it remains an odd and striking method.
More… “The Passion of Punpun”

A history of what may be the world’s most beloved color

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They kindly replied to my enquiry, but asked for my understanding that the design of a pill — including its shape and color — is based on proprietary marketing considerations. For this reason, they cannot tell me more about why the color blue was chosen. For Viagra. How could I have dared to think that Pfizer would have the answer I was hoping for? And this reply didn’t exactly encourage me to ask the company a second serious question: Why do some people see everything tainted in blue (cyanopsia) as a side effect of taking the drug? In any case, I guess the pill wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t this particular shade. More… “Encyclopedia Blue”

Why professors, pundits, and policy wonks misunderstand the world

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Intellectuals — a category that includes academics, opinion journalists, and think tank experts — are freaks. I do not mean that in a disrespectful way. I myself have spent most of my life in one of the three roles mentioned above. I have even been accused of being a “public intellectual,” which sounds too much like “public nuisance” or even “public enemy” for my taste.

My point is that people who specialize in the life of ideas tend to be extremely atypical of their societies. They — we — are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of  their fellow citizens. While anti-intellectual populists have often been wrong about the gold standard or the single tax or other issues, by and large they have been right about intellectuals.

More… “Intellectuals are Freaks”

Part II of “Put the Pedal to the Metal”

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“Backstory” is a term used to refer to information that precedes the story at hand. Backstory fills us in on details that will prove important to the story (if it is not important, it shouldn’t be there, and maybe most stories have no backstory). Sometimes backstory weighs so much that it threatens to tip the story over backward; that’s not good either. But you can cut-and-paste until the surface is how you want it to be. Writing is actually a muscular sport and requires a good deal of trying this and trying that. Only if you are willing to do the hard work of lifting what needs lifting can you expect to find your way to that perfect surface.

More… “In the Middle of Things”