Today is the birthday, I’m told, of W. Somerset Maugham (1874) and Virginia Woolf (1882). Though only eight years apart by birth, they seem to inhabit different centuries, Maugham’s books harking back to the Victorians (his first novel, after all, appeared in 1897) with their masterful storytelling and straightforward approach to form, Woolf being the quintessential modernist–formal experimentalism in the service of exploring the mysteries of consciousness. No skills learned from reading one will be of much help in approaching the other.
One thing they do have in common: central places in major postmodern novels. A thinly veiled Maugham has a star turn in Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, while Woolf herself as well as her novel Mrs. Dalloway occupy the center of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
Thanks to The Paris Review for the reminder that today is the seventieth birthday of one of our truly great novelists. Julian Barnes has been called (I forget by whom, maybe me) the best English writer of French novels. I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out. Like so many readers, I discovered him through Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), a really funny, heartbreaking novel that at times seems more like a bundle of essays and observations by a grieving physician. Since then, he has written many more novels and short stories and essays, including A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Arthur and George, and The Sense of an Ending, which finally won him the Booker Prize. I started inflicting my infatuation with Flaubert’s Parrot on students when I split our old Twentieth-Century British Literature course in two somewhere around 1990 to create Modern and Contemporary/Postmodern (the name was changed to protect the innocent) courses. I think it is the only novel never to fall out of the syllabus, although Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day might share the distinction. If I were still teaching, it would still be there.
As I write this, the Dylann Roof mass murder trial is in the penalty phase. For purposes of this blog, I am not interested in the final sentence (nor in the trial itself). What does intrigue me is that his existence and his actions would have made perfect sense to a woman who died more than fifty years before he committed his terrible crime. Flannery O’Connor, from neighboring Georgia, depicted again and again in her fiction the sudden, irrational outbursts of violence that punctuate human existence, including a feature that came out at trial, namely that gestures of kindness sometimes serve only to escalate the aggression. One thinks of the Misfit, in the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” lashing out to shoot the Grandmother when she tenderly claims him as one of her babies, recoiling from her touch as from the bite of a snake. She reminds us, too, that in the right hands tractors can be as deadly as guns, even if farm vehicles, harder to reload, are strictly one-time weapons. O’Connor, a devout if somewhat idiosyncratic Catholic, had a theory of “redemptive violence,” although it is hard to diagnose anything like redemption in this current, decidedly non-literary calamity. She would have understood the hate, denial of common humanity, fixation on an idea (however bad), and unreason perfectly.
Today would have been the ninetieth birthday of the best English poet you’ve never heard of, even if you kind of follow such things. Charles Tomlinson, who died in 2015, wrote poetry and essays, translated works from multiple answers, and edited volumes by poets as unlike as American modernist William Carlos Williams and 17th-18th century Englishman John Dryden. My favorite escapade was his was teaming up with Mexican Octavio Paz, Italian Edoardo Sanguinetti, and Frenchman Jacques Roubaud to write in a Japanese group cycle form, a Renga, which is also the title of the resulting volume. Not the best thing any of them ever wrote, but it’s very interesting.
I had to give up teaching him over the years because he wasn’t in any of the available anthologies. He should have been. Never flashy, he was nonetheless intelligent, wily, funny, and profound.
Sometimes your best stuff winds up on the cutting-room floor. Back when I wrote Twenty-five Books that Shaped America, Moby-Dick came in at twenty-six. Instead, I included a children’s book about a lost girl and her dog. Okay, and some odd friends and a number of witches and a corrupt leader. I knew I was being naughty, but this book undoubtedly reached many more readers and perhaps has a longer cultural reach. But when I submitted the manuscript and (after a couple of weeks) got an email with the subject line, The Wizard or the Whale, I knew I was busted. I also knew that every review would take me to task for omitting a universally acclaimed (even by those who haven’t read it) masterpiece. So I reread the book for the first time in many, many years and wrote the chapter all in under two weeks. More than one reviewer singled it out for particular praise, demonstrating once more that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Maybe I just haven’t been working fast enough.
I’ve always grieved a little over deleting this chapter. I had a great time writing it, in part because like many of you, for a long time I only knew the movie, and if you only know the movie, you don’t know the half of it. Over the intervening years, I have semi-promised (or threatened) a number of folks that I might one day make the chapter available. It is now on my website; here is the link: The Lost Wizard Chapter.