What a performance this novel is! And not just in the virtuoso sense. What an exhausting mishmash of contradictions: snobbery, self-abasement, campery, stock masculinity. The whole pastiche is laced with vivid images of what it means to be finally old and ugly.
In late March 1941, more than six months into the relentless German aerial campaign that was then destroying great swaths of London’s fabric and spirit, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her heavy overcoat with stones and waded into the River Ouse. Her suicide occurs halfway through Will Loxley’s scattergun study of English writers and writing during the war, though its inevitability haunts the first half of the book, as claustrophobic as the pea-soupers that had defined London’s self-image in the centuries before the Blitz took on that singular responsibility.
In These Precious Days, her second essay collection (after This is the Story of a Happy Marriage in 2013), celebrated American writer Ann Patchett sets out to explore ‘what matter[s] most in this precarious and precious life’. Patchett is the author of seven novels, including Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction, and her most recent, the internationally acclaimed The Dutch House (2019). When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Patchett did not have a novel in progress and decided that 2020 was not the time to start one. Instead, she wrote essays, something she has always done when she doesn’t have a novel on the go.
In You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), Wole Soyinka’s final volume of memoirs, the writer cites a piece of Yoruba wisdom: ‘T’ágbà bá ńdé, à á yé ogun jà – as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles’. This was once the hope of a man who describes himself as a ‘closet glutton for tranquillity’. At one point, Soyinka even dared to think that he would assume the position of a serene elder at forty-nine: seven times seven, the sacred number of Ogun, his companion deity. But Ogun is wilful as protector and muse. The life the god carved for Soyinka took the image of his own restlessness. A poet, playwright, novelist, and Nobel Laureate, Soyinka remains an activist for democracy, his bona fides hard won as a political prisoner during the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) and in exile during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha (1993–98).
In winter 2019, Victoria’s Labor government tabled legislation that would make it easier for trans people to correct the sex marker on their birth certificate. Previously, trans people were required to have surgery on their reproductive organs before they could amend this foundational legal document. This requirement caused significant problems for the many trans people who don’t want or cannot afford surgery. Unable to correct their birth certificate, trans people often lived with a mismatch between their gender presentation and legal identity, a situation which forced them to disclose their transgender status and expose themselves to harassment and discrimination – or worse.
When the leukaemia with which he had been diagnosed in 1991 claimed his life twelve years later, Edward W. Said left behind more than the usual testaments to a successful academic career: landmark studies, bountiful citations, bereft colleagues, and the cadres of pupils whose intellectual maturation he had overseen. More importantly, he embodied a many-sided ideal of intellectual and civic engagement that combined the vita contemplativa with the vita activa. A professor in Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature for forty years, Said was a member of the exiled Palestinian National Council and arguably the most visible advocate for the Palestinian cause throughout his later life.
The feminist philosopher Nancy Bauer once asked her female students why they spend ‘their weekend evenings giving unreciprocated blow jobs to drunken frat boys’. They tell her that ‘they enjoy the sense of power it gives them. You doll yourself up and get some guy helplessly aroused, at which point you could just walk away. But you don’t.’ The question Bauer wants to ask, but can’t, is: ‘Why the fuck are you all doing this?’ She can’t ask it because she does not want to patronise her students, she does not want to moralise, and she does not want to presume how they ought to be having sex. Yet, in the face of her students’ silence, their own failure to make sense of their desires, she wonders if what they do – be it narcissism or self-effacement, a substitution of sadism for masochism, or just a grown-up version of ‘Mommy will kiss it better’ – is what they really want? Or have they been made to want it? Have they been made to believe that this is what women want to do: kiss men’s booboos better?
William Darrah Kelley – a Republican congressman from Philadelphia – stood at the front of a stage in Mobile, Alabama, watching as a group of men pushed and shoved their way through the audience towards him. It was May 1867, Radical Reconstruction was underway, and Southern cities like Mobile were just beginning a revolutionary expansion and contraction of racial equality and democracy. The Reconstruction Acts, passed by Congress that year, granted formerly enslaved men the right to vote and to run for office in the former Confederate states. Northern Republicans streamed into cities across the South in 1867, speaking to both Black and white, to the inspired and hostile – registering Black voters and strengthening the already strong links between African Americans and the party.
‘What is so good about Dickens’s novels?’ It is a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’, in John Mullan’s reckoning. ‘Gosh he is good – though so careless,’ Iris Murdoch wrote to Brigid Brophy in 1962. Many writers before and since have found Dickens not only improvisatory and self-indulgently digressive but also sentimental, melodramatic, and sermonising – a great entertainer rather than a good writer. Mullan undertakes to demonstrate that what appears to be carelessness is as often as not ‘technical boldness and experimental verve’. Composing ‘on the wings of inspiration’, in response to the exigencies of serial publication, Dickens essentially revised as he wrote. Yet, consulting the manuscripts of the novels, Mullan notes how meticulously he adjusted his diction and phrasing. Like Oliver Twist’s companion in crime, the Artful Dodger, who comes alive through his sleights of hand and language, the Artful Dickens is a magician in prose and a talented conjurer: ‘his feats of legerdemain might equally apply to his writing’.