Sunday, May 30, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt eleven)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

With Deception, Simon & Schuster pulled out the stops to recoup its investment in Roth. The gleefully hyperbolic publicity campaign included a description of the novel as his “most original, poignant and provocative,” and naturally predicted it would have the same generation-defining impact as Portnoy’s Complaint. The cover of the February 1990 Esquire, where an excerpt appeared, featured a tousle-haired doxy wearing a negligee with one should strap loose. “A famous writer has a mistress,” the caption read. “They meet in a room with no bed. They have sex. They tell lies. They play games with each other. Then he exposes it all in a book.” Will Blythe’s introduction commented on the “fine carpets, paintings,” and “monastic silence” of Roth’s Manhattan apartment, and quoted Roth on the subjects of what feminists would think of his novel (“They’ll probably hate it, but fuck ‘em”) and how the magazine might go about pitching his excerpt: “’Philip Roth calls his forthcoming novel Deception. But who can say how far the deception really goes? Is it actually a novel? Or is that the greatest deception?’” Such impolitic remarks had been made with the understanding that Roth would have a chance to vet the introduction in advance, and, when Esquire neglected to honor this agreement, Wylie grimly wrote the magazine’s editor, Lee Eisenberg, that Roth was “outraged” and would “not allow his work to appear in Esquire again.”

Saturday, May 29, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt ten)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

One night at the Budíns’ house, Roth met the novelist and journalist Ludvík Vaculík, a disheveled fellow with a bushy mustache. A lifelong reader of Karl May, the great German chronicler of the American West, Vaculík bet Roth he could name more Indian tribes. “Veequahic?” he said, examining Roth’s list. “Vot is dis Veequahic?” “My high school,” said Roth, who lost by a score of 45-39, and hence was obligated to send Vaculík a copy of Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America. Roth described Vaculík as a “Czechoslovak Solzhenitsyn”: author of the widely translated The Guinea Pigs, Vaculík had demanded more liberal reforms in his “2,000-Word Manifesto,” published in June 1968, a crucial factor in persuading Soviet officialdom that something akin to “counterrevolution” was afoot in the midst of the Prague Spring. Stripped of his rights to travel or publish or receive more than a token of his foreign royalties, Vaculík defiantly started a samizdat press, Edice Petlice (Padlock Editions), which distributed books in editions of a hundred typewritten copies or so, circulated on a rental basis. When the exasperated authorities offered to return his passport and give him rail tickets to leave the country, Vaculík refused. “Why don’t you leave?” he asked them. “It amounts to the same thing.”

Friday, May 28, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt nine)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

Klímová introduced Roth to the writer Ivan Klíma (no relation), who lived in the Prague suburb of Nad Lesem with his wife, Helena, and their two children. A child during World War II, Klíma and his family had miraculously survived four years of internment at Theresienstadt, the camp for Czechoslovak Jews that Nazis insisted was only a ghetto with its own government—the only Nazi camp where the Red Cross was permitted to visit; however, inmates there were regularly transported to death camps, and only nine thousand or so survived from an original population or more than seventy-five thousand. Klíma (who “looked like an intellectual Ringo Starr”) had been teaching at the University of Michigan during the 1968 invasion, but elected to return to his country, where he refused to recant public speeches and writings in support of the Prague Spring. Now forbidden to publish, he was routinely interrogated and allowed only menial jobs; likewise his wife, a journalist and psychotherapist, was reduced to working as a typist, while their children were not allowed to pursue higher education unless their father conceded that the Soviet intervention had been necessary and also agreed to help the government “normalize” the political situation.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt eight)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

Roth’s lease at Kips Bay expired that winter, and he found more sumptuous quarters at 18 East Eighty-first Street, a stone’s throw from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum and incidentally across the street from Campbell’s funeral home, where he’d said goodbye to Maggie. Roth rented one of two parlor-floor apartments in the four-story building. His spacious living room was connected via a book-lined corridor to his study, also lined with bookcases and big windows giving a view of the backyard and its single plane tree. The small, nondescript bedroom was tucked away in the rear. Roth finished moving in at the end of January 1969 and summed up the month of February as “Awful . . . New apartment unfinished. No Ann.” From his tall front windows he could see caskets going in and out of Campbell’s, and that June he would observe thousands of heartbroken fans lining up to see Judy Garland, lying in state.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt seven)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

The Nice Jewish Boy was sound enough to rate a reading at the American Place Theatre on June 23, 1965; Roth wanted to hear it performed in front of an invited audience, so he’d have a better sense of how to proceed toward a final draft. The director was Gene Saka, and the two lead parts were read by promising off-Broadway actors, Dustin Hoffman and Melinda Dillon. But it was no good. Roth hectored Hoffman to be more “forceful”—his usual desideratum for dramatic portrayals of characters based on himself—but neither man could make the play or its eponymous hero very original or interesting. Roth withdrew it after the reading, and spent a year or so vaguely considering another rewrite before deciding that he disliked the whole collaborative aspect of theater; meanwhile the Ford grant wasn’t enough to live on, so he resigned after six months and took a teaching job for the fall.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt six)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

On September 2—a few days before Helen returned to school—Roth drove to the city and took her to a Broadway play (her first), an Actors Studio production of Three Sisters, preceded by dinner at Sardi’s. Helen remembered how her mother had lent her a pretty blue dress for the evening, and asked a lot of questions beforehand about where they were going and so forth. At the theater Helen and Roth had just settled into their seats—down front on the aisle (Mendy Wager had gotten them the tickets)—when Roth noticed a genial man with a mustache standing over them: “Mr. Philip Roth?” he inquired, and when Roth nodded the man produced a summons from his inside coat pocket. During intermission Roth left Helen in the lobby with an orange drink and pored over the papers in a toilet stall. “I am really sorry about the upset with the summons,” Fingerhood wrote him a week later. “However, that is evidently our friend’s way of saying that the offer of settlement which was discussed is unacceptable.” Fingerhood made it clear that Maggie’s lawyer could as easily have sent the papers directly to her—“but then,” Roth noted, “of course the drama and harassment would have gone out of it.”

Roth’s final weeks at Yaddo were blighted by two unanswered phone calls from Maggie (“both angry, I am told”), followed by a letter in which she bitterly informed him that her father had been killed the previous weekend but she couldn’t go to the funeral because Roth was six weeks behind in alimony. “It happens I am one week ahead,” he wrote Lurie, “but the pattern of accusation was so familiar, and the hallucinations, etc. . . . that I haven’t been able to come up from under. My head has been pounding for a week; it feels stuffed; and my neck is like stone.” Work, as ever, was the sovereign anodyne. Another artifact from his recent visit to Maggie’s apartment (after her latest suicide attempt) was a packet of ten-year-old prison letters from Maggie’s father to her mother. Roth appropriated a “collage” of quotes for Whitey’s sorrowful Valentine’s Day letter at the end of When She Was Good—the letter found frozen to the cheek of Lucy Nelson’s corpse. “To put it bluntly,” he wrote of Lucy’s real-life model, “I wish she were dead.”

Monday, May 24, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt five)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

The highlight of Roth’s undergraduate career was “The Seminar”—Martin’s two-semester, invitation-only honors course that covered the entirety of English literature “from its beginnings to the present,” or from Beowulf to Stephen Spender, as things stood then. For nine credit hours per semester (the equivalent of three regular courses) the workload was immense: Students had to read one or two books a week, as well as fifty pages in Albert Baugh’s Literary History of England, an underlined copy of which Roth would forever keep on the library table of his Connecticut living room. Because of Baugh, he liked to say, “I still know who Barnaby Goodge is and what Tottle’s Miscellany is and am the only person on West Seventy-ninth who has read Ralph Roister Doister.” Some of his other reading included Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a lot of Shakespeare (four plays, the sonnets, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”), Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, the major Romantics, at least one novel from Trollope’s Barchester series, Thomas Huxley, selected passages from Ulysses, and more. Students wrote a lot, too: at least one weekly critical paper and a summary of the assigned Baugh pages, all of it “scrutinized for accuracy and for common sense by Miss Martin.”

The class of eight students met for three hours every Thursday afternoon, either in the Vaughan Literature Building library, or in Miss Martin’s living room on South Front Street. Sitting beside the fireplace in the latter, Roth would admire the old rugs and floorboards, the vast shelves of books, and look forward to his own “life of reading books and writing about them”—and, of course, talking about them. Discussions often got heated, as students sought to impress Miss Martin with their superperceptive sniping at “unsubstantiated” opinions, or criticism that was merely “subjective.” As Roth recalled, “She herself had no more animus than a radar screen locating objects in space: what Mildred Martin located were our weakness of observation and expression. Nothing imperfect flew by her unnoted. She was the first of my scrupulous editors—the sternest, the most relentless, the best.” In 1991, during a videotaped chat with Roth, Martin still remembered the excitement of that particular seminar class—her best ever, she thought, along with the 1948-49 group that included Wheatcroft—and laughed about the time Roth and Minton had become so exercised over a line in Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” that they stood shouting at each other while “Tasch was egging you on.”

Sunday, May 23, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt four)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

Roth longed to go away—to live on a proper campus, where, not incidentally, he could pursue a less furtive love life. Around Thanksgiving he encountered the once hapless Marty (“Carl Furillo”) Castelbaum, chatting with friends on the corner outside Halem’s candy store. The young man was transformed: poised and dapper in his white bucks and Bucknell sweater, chatting easily about his pre-med courses and life on campus. Many years later, an elderly Dr. Castelbaum laughed when reminded of Roth’s impression of him as newly mature circa 1950: “That’s not what happened. I had a picture of the shiksa—that’s what happened.” But then, arguably, a tall blonde shiksa was the essence of what Roth had meant by “maturity” and “campus” (in a letter to John Updike, in 1988, he mentioned his appreciation for the actress Kim Basinger and added, “She was what I was looking for at Bucknell”). “This?” he said outside Halem’s that day, gazing at the photo Castelbaum had produced from his wallet. “You’re going out with this?” The young man assured him it was so, and Roth decided them and there that Bucknell was for him.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt three)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

Every weekday morning Roth rode the number 14 bus for twenty minutes to Raymond Boulevard, whence he walked another ten minutes to one of the two buildings that composed the physical plant of his then four-year-old college; a refurbished brewery on Rector Street, where he had his biology class and lab, and a refurbished bank building about five blocks away, near the Newark Museum, where he took Composition and Literature, Intermediate Spanish, and History of Western Civilization. The only greenery was a wedge of Washington Park (“drunks and all”), so named as the site where George Washington “had trained his scrappy army,” as Neil Klugman points out in Goodbye, Columbus. Roth loved his classes and got straight As, and at one time or another considered majoring in every subject, including biology. His zeal was fed by a number of first-rate professors who’d been purged from more prestigious academies in New York, casualties of the pre-McCarthy blacklist, a fact that naturally resonated with the future “lawyer for the underdog,” as Roth still fancied himself. Also he was now surrounded by book on a daily basis at the Newark Public Library, where he spent hours between classes roaming amid the open stacks—a once novel concept promoted by its legendary librarian, John Cotton Dana, who’d also provided the city’s growing immigrant population with collections of books in French, German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian. “What took place here was a robust engagement with all the new society had to offer,” Roth said of the palazzo-style building that embodied, for him, the best of Newark, and served as an abiding reminder of his own intellectual flowering.

Around noon Roth would take his brown-bag lunch out of his briefcase and sit with classmates in the park—sometimes old friends, but also new Italian and Irish acquaintances from high schools (Barringer, South Side) that had once seemed strange and hostile to a sheltered Weequahic boy. For Roth this was perhaps the best part of college, the very meaning of adulthood—“a great emancipation from Jewish xenophobia,” as he put it, from a ghetto-bred paranoia toward goyim that scarcely distinguished between Polish peasantry and Thomas Jefferson. Even at home he couldn’t escape it—as when Herman didactically reminded him of the time Sender had beaten his twenty-three-year-old son Ed “to prevent him from marrying a worldly woman”: “They don’t have that kind of discipline anymore,” Heman concluded, whereupon his sixteen-year-old son bolted from the dinner table in a rage. Not for nothing would Roth, in Portnoy, give the name Hymie to the brutal uncle who manhandles his son Heshie for even considering marriage to a shiksa—the “key moment” of the novel, as far as its author was concerned.

Friday, May 21, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt two)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

During lunch breaks on Union Square, Roth had wandered over to the used bookstores along Fourth Avenue, and bought a number of Modern Library editions for twenty-five cents apiece (a third of his hourly pay). His first real exposure to serious literature had come two years before, when Sandy brought home a summer reading list from Pratt that included Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In later years Roth liked to describe his younger self as “exogamous” (“I wanted to go out”), and he discovered the world beyond Newark largely through Anderson and other gentile writers with provincial origins in the South and Midwest—Faulkner, Dreiser, Lardner, Lewis, Caldwell—and aesthetic education he remembered on receiving his lifetime achievement medal at the 2002 National Book Awards: “through the ruthless intimacy of literature, its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars—through the passion for the singular and the aversion to generality that is fiction’s lifeblood—I would try to come to know their American places as specifically as I knew my own.” While still a teenager, Roth was captivated above all by the gargantuan lyricism of Thomas Wolfe, the lonely wandering epic novelist who sought to “set down America as far as it can belong to the experience of one man.” Wolfe was the catalyst for Roth’s ambition to become an artist of titanic appetites—geographic, intellectual, sexual—and he even succeeded in pressing Wolfe’s sprawling tomes on his friends. Heyman, in his retirement, would remember his old wistful longing to lead a Wolfean life, and try to revisit Look Homeward, Angel (“insufferable!”).

Thursday, May 20, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt one)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

The Roth family stopped going to Bradley Beach in the early years of the war, when the little towns along the Jersey Shore were blacked out, the beaches littered with detritus from torpedo warfare and patrolled by Coast Guard dogs sniffing the air for Nazi saboteurs. The Roths’ first summer back was 1944, and they were there again in August 1945, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered a few days later, and that night people poured into the streets of Bradley Beach banging pots and pans and honking their horns. Kids formed a conga line along the boardwalk, and Philip was among them, his jubiliation tempered somewhat by the sight of older people sobbing on benches—“probably the parents of boys who had been killed,” he thought. “The war was over and it was a wonderful thing, but not for them. They would have this grief forever.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt nine)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


My first air raid last night. The sirens began just after midnight; I was still awake and was joined by William Phillips. We sat talking pleasantly in the dark for about one hour, heard one distant burst of fire and then the all-clear signal. Altogether a singularly unalarming experience, except apparently to the lions in the Zoo, who went on roaring all night, But, as the first wail of the sirens was heard, my thoughts went to England and France.

Monday, May 17, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt eight)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


Today the papers are curiously colourless; obviously no further indication is to be given until Mussolini himself announces his intentions. But loudspeakers are being installed in the squares of every town and village.

I spend the day on the telephone, trying to obtain exit visas for my mother and my stepfather Percy, and writing last letters to England.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt seven)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


After Norway – what? Every country in Europe is waiting. If the Norwegian campaign has not increased the Italians’ liking for Germany, it has certainly increased their respect and fear. The cult of violence flourishes on success. So – what next? Switzerland? Holland? Belgium? Sweden? Rumania? The Caucasus? Every day brings fresh rumours, and with them the convication that Italy too will be in before the end of the month. The real war is coming.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt six)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


For two days the papers have been filled with attacks on England and the British blockade, and yesterday’s evening papers give prominence to “the unjustifiable laying of mines along the Norwegian coast.” It is clear that something is brewing, and as I wake up this morning, I find a note from my host on my breakfast tray. “Germany has invaded Denmark at 3 o’clock this morning. German troops have landed at Oslo. Norway is at war.” The Italian papers give the same news, but with a wholly pro-German colouring. A few hours later the midday posters state that the Norwegian government, like the Danish, has decided not to resist – her resistance at Oslo being merely, according to Gayda, “a formal gesture, amounting to nothing more than their verbal protest against the English blockade.” It is not till this evening that we hear, from the BBC, of King Haakon’s resistance, of the British and French promise of help to Norway, and of the sea and air battle.

Friday, May 14, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt five)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


Today the Hertlins have had a wire from home: Keinerlei Nachrichten. Their three nephews, all in the army, were called up to their regiments on August 21st and since then they have received no word of news from any of them, not even a field postcard. Yesterday, thinking that perhaps it was the post in Italy that was delayed, they sent a wire to their sister in Germany, to which this is the reply. Moreover, Karl added privately to me that he knew beforehand that the boys would not be allowed to write and that even if one of them should be killed or wounded, his parents would probably not be notified for a long time, nor would they be allowed to wear mourning. After an outburst of rage against the inhumanity of the régime, “It’s clear,” he added naively “that curses don’t work, or Hitler would long since be dead.”

By the same post they hear from their daughter, begging them to buy her shoes, stockings, gloves, soap and a woollen dress, since she can buy none of these things at home. They assure me that when they left Germany on August 20th no one believed in the possibility of war. They thought that Hitler would succeed in obtaining Danzig and the Corridor and were told that no one would intervene.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt four)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


We know – and it is war.

This morning – the last day that cars can be used – being a clear, cloudless day, we drove up into the hills to visit our old friends, the Senni family in Badia Prataglia, but as we drove along the Val di Chiana we saw in every village little groups of richiamati and women crying. We had meant to reach the Sennis in time for Chamberlain’s statement, but as we drove up to the door, one of the boys came down to meet us: “The speech is just over. It’s war.”

I went quickly upstairs and found Mary Senni (American by birth) and Diana Bordonaro (half-English) by the radio, with tears in their eyes. Half an hour later Chamberlain’s statement was repeated. When it was over, Mary came across to me: “If Italy comes in now on the German side, I shan’t be able to bear it! I would have let my boys go, to fight for something they believed in; but now – not against civilization!”

All afternoon we sat round the radio, listening to one country after the other – Europe moving to war. Then the King’s speech – slow and halting, but somehow very moving – and “God save the King.”

Later on we talk of the effect of all this on the Italian people. “Nothing,” says Diana, “no propaganda, will even persuade the Italian peasant and workman, that it was Chamberlain who wanted war. They’ll know it was Hitler’s fault.” “Yes,” says the son of twenty, “and the more time elapses, the more difficult it will be to persuade us to fight on the German side.” But I am not quite so sure.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt three)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


A sinister remark of Mussolini’s, said to an old friend (and official) in Romagna, who was asking him, a little anxiously about the future: “Stai tranquillo, erediteremo ancora.” Inherit what? From whom? One can only inherit from the dead – in the sense that Austria and Czechoslovakia are now dead.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt two)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


And now Albania. The news, foreshadowed in the English and French papers and wireless, came here (to the general public) as a bombshell: announced on the radio (just before the three-hour Good Friday services) at 10 a.m. The bulletin took the now familiar form of stating that the invasion was a measure necessary to “safeguard the peace” of the country invaded and to quell the “armed bands” patrolling it; it was further stated that there was “no resistance worthy of mention” except an attempt at resistance by ‘bands’ at Durazzo, and that the population is “cordial.” The manifestos dropped by planes told the Albanians that “any resistance would be immediately suppressed.” “Do not listen to the members for your government who have impoverished you and now want to lead you to shed your blood in vain. The Italian troops have come to establish order, justice and peace.” Here a party of “orthodox” (Fascist) Italians merely laughed at the pretext of “quelling the brigands” – (“How much do you supposed they were paid?”) – but were equally sceptical about the subsequent accounts of the invasion from Paris and London, which told of violent resistance from the Albanians and of the bombardment of Durazzo. The ultimate result of unceasing propaganda has now been to cancel out the effect of all news alike. One man said to me, “The radio has made fools of us all.” Late last night a further Italian bulletin stated that the accounts given in anti-Fascist countries of the Albanian operations “are so fantastic that it is not worth while to deny them – as they follow the same methods adoped during the Ethiopian war. It is now known and proved that the Fascist régime uses one method only: always to tell the truth.”

Monday, May 10, 2021

the last book I ever read (Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, excerpt one)

from A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 (New York Review Books Classic by Iris Origo:


Chamberlain’s pronouncement about Poland has been received with unexpected moderation in the press and with some enthusiasm privately – as being likely to put a brake on Hitler.

A country neighbour (small farmer – a shrewd, sensible, elderly man) has just been to lunch, and has made no bones about expressing his disgust at recent events. He is particulary indignant at Mussolini’s phrase about peace being “a menace to civilization.” “What about Sweden and Norway?” he says. “Aren’t they more civilized than us? And happier? Are the working classes less well treated there?” (This is unexpected; he would not have said this five years ago.) He tells us that all his peasants, like ours, are terrified. One young woman, who is just expecting her first baby, prays daily that it will be a girl. “What’s the use of having boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them?”

Sunday, May 9, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt seven)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

The most chilling scene ever filmed must be, for a writer, that moment in The Shining when Shelley Duvall looks at the manuscript on which her husband has been working and sees, typed over and over again on each of the hundreds of pages, only the single line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The manuscript for what became True at First Light was, as Hemingway left it, some 850 pages long. The manuscript as edited for publication is half that. This editing was done by Hemingway’s son Patrick, who has said that he limited his editing to condensing (which inevitably works to alter what the author may have intended, as anyone who has been condensed knows), changing only some of the place names, which may or may not have seemed a logical response to the work of the man who wrote, “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

This question of what should be done with what a writer leaves unfinished goes back to, and is conventionally answered by, citing works we might have lost had the dying wishes of their authors been honored. Virgil’s Aeneid is mentioned. Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle are mentioned. In 1951, clearly shadowed by mortality, Hemingway judged that certain parts of a long four-part novel on which he had been working for a number of years were sufficiently “finished” to be published after his death, and specified his terms, which did not include the intrusion of any editorial hand and specifically excluded the publication of the unfinished first section. “The last two parts needs no cutting at all,” he wrote to Charles Scribner in 1951. “The third part needs quite a lot but it is very careful scalpel work and would need no cutting if I were dead …. The reason that I wrote you that you could always publish the last three parts separately is because I know you can in case through accidental death or any sort of death I should not be able to get the first part in proper shape to publish.”

Saturday, May 8, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt six)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

It might seem safe to assume that a writer who commuts suicide has been less than entirely engaged by the work he leaves unfinished, yet there appears to have been not much question about what would happen to the unfinished Hemingway manuscripts. These included not only “the Paris stuff” (as he called it), or A Moveable Feast (as Scribner’s called it), which Hemingway had in fact shown to Scribner’s in 1959 and then withdrawn for revision, but also the novels later published under the titles Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden, several Nick Adams stories, what Mrs. Hemingway called the “original treatment” of the bullfighting pieces published by Life before Hemingway’s death (this became The Dangerous Summer), and what she described as “his semi-fictional account of our African safari,” three selections from which she had published in Sports Illustrated in 1971 and 1972.

What followed was the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body of work different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime. So successful was the process of branding this product that in October, according to the House & Home section of The New York Times, Thomasville Furniture Industries introduced an “Ernest Hemingway Collection” at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, North Carolina, offering “96 pieces of living, dining and bedroom furniture and accessories” in four themes, “Kenya,” “Key West,” “Havana,” and “Ketchum.” “We don’t have many heroes today,” Marla A. Metzner, the president of Fashion Licensing of America, told the Times. “We’re going back to the great icons of the century, as heroic brands.” Ms. Metzner, according to the Times, not only “created the Ernest Hemingway brand with Hemingway’s three sons, Jack, Gregory and Patrick,” but “also represents F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grandchildren, who have asked for a Fitzgerald brand.”

Friday, May 7, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt five)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

So pervasive was the effect of this Hemingway diction that it became the voice not only of his admirers but even of those whose approach to the world was in no way grounded in romantic individualism. I recall being surprised, when I was teaching George Orwell in a class at Berkeley in 1975, by how much of Hemingway could be heard in his sentences. “The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants,” Orwell had written in Homage to Catalonia in 1938. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white,” Hemingway had written in “Hills Like White Elephants” in 1927. “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details,” Orwell had written in “Politics and the English Language” in 1946. “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain,” Hemingway had written in A Farewell to Arms in 1929. “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

Thursday, May 6, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt four)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

This business of the subject is tricky. Whether they are painters or photographers or composers or choreographers or for that matter writers, people whose work it is to make something out of nothing do not much like to talk about what they do or how they do it. They will talk quite freely about the technical tricks involved in what they do, about lighting and filters if they are photographers, about voice and tone and rhythm if they are writers, but not about content. The attempt to analyze one’s work, which is to say to know one’s subject, is seen as destructive. Superstitution prevails, fear that the fragile unfinished something will shatter, vanish, revert to the nothing from which it was made. Jean Cocteau once described all such work as deriving from “a profound indolence, a somnolence in which we indulge ourselves like invalids who try to prolong dreams.” In dreams we do not analyuze the action, or it vanishes. Gabriel García Márquez once spoke to The New York Times about the “bad luck” that would befall him were he to discuss the novel he was then writing; he meant of course that the novel would go away, lose its power to compel his imagination. I once knew I “had” a novel when it presented itself to me as an oil slick, with an iridescent surface; during the several years it took me to finish the novel I mentioned the oil slick to no one, afraid the talismanic hold the image had on me would fade, go flat, go away, like a dream told at breakfast. “If you say too much you lose some of that mystery,” Robert Mapplethorpe once told a BBC interviewer who wanted to talk about his work. “You want to be able to pick up on the magic of the moment. That’s the rush of doing photography. You don’t know why it’s happening but it’s happening.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt three)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

I remember quite clearly the afternoon I opened that letter. I stood reading and rereading it, my sweater and my books fallen on the hall floor, trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases “unable to take” and “favorable action” fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all. We lived then in a big dark Victorian house, and I had a sharp and dolorous image of myself growing old in it, never going to school anywhere, the spinster in Washington Square. I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried. For a while I sat on the floor on my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

Of course I did not take the tablets. I spent the rest of the spring in sullen but mild rebellion, sitting around drive-ins, listening to Tulsa evangelists on the car radio, and in the summer I fell in love with someone who wanted to be a golf pro, and I spent a lot of time watching him practice putting, and in the fall I went to a junior college a couple of hours a day and made up the credits I needed to go to the University of California at Berkeley. The next year a friend at Stanford asked me to write him a paper on Conrad’s Nostromo, and I did, and he got an A on it. I got a B- on the same paper at Berkeley, and the specter of Rixford K. Snyder was exorcised.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt two)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

There was nothing particularly wrong with any of it, and yet there was something not quite right, something troubling. At first I thought that it was simply the predilection of many of the members to dwell upon how “powerless” they were, how buffeted by forces beyond their control. There was a great deal of talk about miracles, and Higher Presences, and a Power Greater Than Ourselves; the Gamblers Anonymous program, like that of Alcoholics Anonymous, tends to reinforce the addict’s own rather passive view of his situation. (The first of the G.A. “Twelve Steps” involves admitting that one’s life “has become” unmanageable. Five steps further, and still being acted upon, one avers that one is ready to “have these defects of character removed.”) “My neighbor introduced me to Hollywood Park, big favor he did me,” someone said that night. “They oughta bomb this Gardena,” a young man whispered to me fervently. “A kid goes in one of those places, he’s hooked for life.”

But of course, mea culpa always turns out to be not entirely mea. Still, there was coffee to be drunk, a cake to be cut: it was Frank L.’s “birthday” in Gamblers Anonymous. After six years on the program he had finally completed a full year without placing a bet, and was being honored with a one-year pin (“Frank L., I want you to remember just one thing, the one-year pin is just a leafmark, just a bookmark in the book of life”) and a cake, a white cake with an inscription in pink icing: MIRACLES STILL HAPPEN, the cake read, “It hasn’t been easy,” Frank L. said, surrounded by his wife, his children, and his wife’s parents. “But in the last three, four weeks we’ve gotten a … a serenity at home.” Well, there is was. I got out fast then, before anyone could say “serenity” again, for it is a word I associate with death, and for several days after that meeting I wanted only to be in places where the lights were bright and no one counted days.

Monday, May 3, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt one)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

The smoke grew thicker, the testimony more intense. I had not heard so many revelations of a certain kind since I used to fall into conversations on Greyhound buses under the misapprehension that it was a good way to learn about life. “See, I had just got through embezzling a large sum of money from my employer,” they were saying to one another, and “I started out for a Canoga Park meeting and turned around on the freeway, that was last Wednesday. I ended up in Gardena and now I’m on the verge of divorce again.” Mea culpa, they appeared to be crying, and many of them had cried it the night before and the night before that: every night there is a Gamblers Anonymous meeting somewhere around Los Angeles, somewhere like Long Beach or Canoga Park or Downey or Culver City, and the ideal is to attend five or six a week. “I never made this Gardena meeting before,” someone explained, “for one simple reason only, which is I break out in a cold sweat every time I pass Gardena on the freeway even, but I’m here tonight because every night I don’t place a bet, which with the help of God and you people is 1,223 nights now.”

Sunday, May 2, 2021

the last book I ever read (Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, excerpt seven)

from Chess Story by Stefan Zwieg:

“Check! Your king is in check!”

We immediately looked at the board, expecting an out-of-the-way move. But none of us was prepared for what happened a moment later. Czentovic raised his head very, very slowly and looked at each of us in turn (he had never done this). He seemed to be relishing something immensely, for gradually a pleased and distinctly mocking smile came to his lips. Only after he had savored to the full this triumph, still incomprehensible to us, did he address himself to our group with feigned politeness.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

the last book I ever read (Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, excerpt six)

from Chess Story by Stefan Zwieg:

The next day, we assembled in the smoking lounge punctually at the agreed-upon hour of three o’clock. Our group had grown to include two more lovers of the royal game, two ship’s officers who had requested leave from duty so that they could watch the tournament. Even Czentovic did not keep us waiting as he had the previous day, and after the obligatory choice of colors the memorable game between this homo obscurissimus and the renowned world champion began. I regret that it was played for such thoroughly incompetent spectators and that its course is as lost to the annals of chess as Beethoven’s piano improvisations are to music. On the succeeding afternoons we put our heads together to try to reconstruct the game from memory, but without success; we had probably been too intent on the two players to follow the progress of play. For the contrast in the two players’ intellectual constitutions became more and more physically evident as the game proceeded. Czentovic, the old hand, remained stock-still the whole time, looking fixedly and severaly down at the board: for him thought seemed to be close to physical exertion, demanding the utmost concentration in every part of his body. Dr. B. on the other hand moved completely freely and naturally. As a true dilettante in the best sens of the word, one who plays for the pure delight—that is, the diletto—of playing, he was utterly relaxed physically, chatting with us during the early breaks to explain the course of the game and casually lighting a cigarette. When it was his move he only glanced at the board. Each time he seemed to have been expecting his opponent’s play.