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Writing Worth Reading

Face Off: Photography And Painting

The story of painting from the late 19C onward is the story of painters adapting to the challenge of photography. “Painting had to express something about the visual world that went beyond recording how it looks.” The revolution went full circle from impressionism to abstraction to photo-realism. And somehow, painting has won. It still speaks to us in ways that photography has never learned to do (1,940 words)

Short Stories Everyone Should Read

If an alien beams you up and asks what it’s like to be human, hand it some short stories to read. “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live” (1,200 words)

Geoff Dyer’s Idle Days At Sea

Review of Dyer’s account of life on board a aircraft carrier, Another Great Day At Sea, which breaks with the admiring consensus. The book is dismayingly underpowered. Too little structure, too little effort, too little life. “The glibness gets old, quickly, and without cover of humor, Dyer’s extreme solipsism becomes overwhelming, even annoying. Everyone is a character sketch without a real personality” (1,630 words)

Shivering In Tolkien’s Shadow

JRR Tolkien completed his prose translation of Beowulf in 1926 at the start of his writing career. He declined to publish it during his lifetime, perhaps fearing for its quality. He need not have worried. It is “a great work of translation”, faithful and deft. “The force of Tolkien’s passion for medieval art occasionally overwhelmed his scholarship, but its sheer strength also explains the lasting power of his work” (1,585 words)

The Cinema Of The Future

Film is for us what theatre was in the age of Shakespeare or painting was in the days of Leonardo da Vinci: the art form with the biggest impact, the largest budgets, the most ingenious minds at work. And yet films have little social purpose. They entertain, they make money. We should demand more of them. Films should be engineered to make us happier, to show how problems can be solved, to teach us virtues (2,580 words)

Wallace Shawn On Ibsen

Interview discussing Shawn’s new translation of Ibsen’s Master Builder. “If a man can presume to make a list of men who contributed to the feminist view of life, you’d have to put Ibsen at the head of the list. But he’s laying out on the table some of the worst male fantasies. He was a very daring writer, and he dared to be sort of sickening. He dared to create characters who were sort of dreadful” (4,430 words)

Iceland Reads

Small country has big appetite for books. Iceland’s 100 publishing firms produce 1,000 titles a year with an average print run of 1,000 copies for a population of 320,000. In autumn the bókatíðindi, a catalogue listing 90% of the books published in Iceland each year, is mailed to every household in the country, free of charge. The vogue for Nordic noir has helped Icelandic writers find markets abroad (1,580 words)

The Elephant In The Discotheque Pick of the day

Can you have genius, yet no taste? Consider the Bee Gees. They were prodigies; hit-makers for 34 years, rivalled only by The Beatles. In 1978 the songs from Saturday Night Fever accounted for 2% of worldwide music industry revenues. But they were never chic, often ridiculed, not without reason. “Forgive them. They wrote a dozen of the finest songs of the twentieth century. The Bee Gees were children of the world” (2,840 words)

Interview: Zia Haider Rahman

Writer discusses his much-admired first novel, In The Light Of What We Know. “About three months in, when I realized that the novel was going to be long, I decided to write the end. I became concerned that I would change as a human being during that time and that this change would be reflected in an altering of the fundamental tone or key of the novel. I did not want the underlying tone to seem as if it had disappeared” (5,800 words)

Hrabalesque: A Guide to Rambling On

Review of Rambling On, a newly re-edited and translated collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech writer best known for his novel Closely Observed Trains. “In Hrabal’s fiction, the men are always drunk and the women are always objects of desire. But despite the frequency of some problematic motifs, Hrabal’s lyrical prose is beautiful and charming, with elements of Surrealism and Magical Realism” (3,670 words)

The Ten Best Novels Of The 1940s

Most short-lists would probably find room for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; Albert Camus’s The Plague; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. But the very best novel of the decade, by this reckoning, was The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis, set in 16C provincial France, “the perfect historical novel”, though “only slightly longer than a novella” (975 words)

Interview: Sir Norman Rosenthal

Gossipy conversation in which Rosenthal reminisces about his life in the art trade from librarian at Agnews to exhibitions director at the Royal Academy. “All art that we find interesting is both objectively and philosophically modern. If Poussin is good today, then he’s modern. Who knows whether Cézanne will be interesting in 200 years? It seems to me that if they’re good today, that’s all that matters” (13,300 words)

Norman Rush

Rush is a great American writer whose chosen form is the novel, but who belongs more to the tradition of aphorists and essayists — Pascal, Leopardi, Montaigne. His novels may lack technical perfection and unity of vision, but they are rich in lateral thought and simple opinion. “The reward is that in Rush’s novels there is the constant possibility that the next sentence is about to tell us something new” (4,220 words)

Seven Reasons Not To Write Novels

Spain’s greatest living novelist explains why you shouldn’t follow in his footsteps. There are too many novels already; anybody can write one; even if you get published, the money is terrible and the fame minimal; posterity will forget you; writing is hard work. The only reason to write novels: You get to live, while you write, in a fictional world that, unlike the real world, is full of possibilities (1,600 words)

“The Rainbow”, By D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence was over-lionised in the 1960s and is over-neglected now. He was a great but very uneven writer. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is arguably the most influential, and certainly the most notorious, of his novels, “but much of it now seems embarrassing”. Sons and Lovers, is many readers’ favourite. The The Rainbow, timeless and symbolic, is the book which “secures his claim on posterity” (1,764 words)

Art In The Future

The fine-art industry today is roughly where the music industry was in the 19C, serving an elite audience. 20C music transcended limitations of class and scale by exploiting technology and developing new genres. 21C fine art will do the same. The market will expand massively; digital technologies will be co-opted; a new tier of “upper-middle-brow” art — think HBO in television — will refine popular taste (980 words)

The Many Poses Of Marcel Marceau

Marceau was the first, and perhaps the last, master of mime as popular art. He infused formal traditions with the slapstick of Chaplin and Keaton. But when he died he left no heir. “He had performed the same sketches for sixty years. There was nothing for other mimes to build on. He inspires only poor imitations. Upon his death, the art of mime steps back out of the mainstream. It becomes a busker’s act—obscure, often mocked” (1,650 words)

Dead Girls As Objects

William Vollmann “puts the ick in lovesick” with his new short-story collection, Last Stories And Other Stories. The book, “a sort of necrophiliac dreamscape”, is “harrowing in the boredom it delivers, except for the bits, mostly toward the end, in which his male characters have slushy sex with rotting female corpses, some of them ghosts or vampires or supernatural beings of some other sort” (Metered paywall) (1,060 words)

Is “Finnegans Wake” Unreadable?

No, but it presents a “Himalayan challenge” — 600 pages of “dense, lightly punctuated prose aspiring to the condition of poetry”, incorporating words from 65 languages. “Heaven forbid that it should be imitated”, said an early reviewer: “This is Mr. Joyce’s individual mode of self-expression, and therefore nobody can do anything properly comparable with it without doing something quite different” (990 words)

Why Classic Rock Isn’t What It Used To Be

What counts as classic rock? The radio industry put a lots of market research and math into getting the formula right. The answer it comes up with is: rock recorded between 1973 and 1982, with some backdating into the 1960s for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. REM, Nirvana, Metallica and U2 get in under the wire. Right in the sweet spot are Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and Van Halen (1,970 words)

Barry Gibb: The Last Brother

The Bee Gees were “one of the strangest, most complicated, most brilliant groups ever to achieve pop stardom”. They had hits in the Sixties, fell apart, got their groove back in the Seventies when their manager called: “He was producing a disco movie, and he needed songs for the soundtrack”. The last brother, Barry, is rich and gloomy at 67: “A heart attack onstage would be ideal. Right in the middle of Stayin’ Alive(4,580 words)

Monty Python: A Revolution In The Head

Monty Python was a product of its time aesthetically and politically. Trying to revive it now means losing what made it great. “Python evolved out of British satire much as psychedelia evolved from the protest movement, or Situationism from left-Libertarianism: disillusionment with straightforward political solutions, belief in the transformative power of imagination, desire to open minds by force” (3,100 words)

Reality Hunger

On the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, “notorious as a filmmaker”, but first and foremost a poet, who published his first collection at 20. “His atmosphere was constant scandal. In his movies, he loved fusing the hieratic with the everyday. And in his writing, too, he liked combining two things that don’t usually go together: a classical form or tone that could absorb its squalid subjects” (1,760 words)

Sink Or Swim

Ungated today by the LRB; for how long I know not; read it while you can. Reviewing a reissue of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Wood skewers the purple prose lovingly and lethally. “If there’s a tangle in Durrell it’s inextricable. If there’s a treasury it’s inexhaustible. Creatures of habit are inveterate, dusk is blue, shadows and trams are violet, dawn is mauve – but then so are voices and a mosque” (3,280 words)

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