Literary Studies

‘I consider myself more a vaudevillean than a scholar,’ George Saunders writes cheekily in his introduction to this collection. Yes, he is indeed a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University in upstate New York, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and a regular in the pages of the New Yorker, but in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain he is first and foremost a vaudevillean: in seven short acts he sings, dances, and acts the comedian. According to Martin Amis, ‘all writers who are any good are funny’, even Kafka and Tolstoy, and he has a point. Saunders may not be quite vicious enough to qualify as ‘any good’ in Amis’s terms, but he is at least unfailingly sharp and good-humoured.

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In one of the indelible memories of my life, I take in a room drained of sunlight – late afternoon, early evening – and the blotchy font of a 1990s Picador paperback edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I feel a slipping sentence: ‘In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.’ The words move and there is movement and ‘a buckle of noise’ and ‘the first drops of rain’.

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How could she write happiness so well? For Gabrielle Carey, this is the driving question in her search for Elizabeth von Arnim (1866–1941), an Australian-born writer of more than twenty bestselling satirical novels who married a German count and then an English lord, bore five children, lived all over Europe, and hosted the British intellectual and literary élite at her Swiss chalet. Von Arnim’s novels are still available in many editions. A literary celebrity in the early twentieth century, she retains a loyal readership but has been largely forgotten by literary history. After losing ‘faith in the very idea of happiness, let alone the pursuit of it’ in a deep personal crisis, Carey turns to von Arnim as a guide to restore her faith, following the author’s dictum that happiness is ‘attainable by all except the unworthy and deluded’.

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Besides a capacity to write well, critics need to be well-informed. I sometimes get exasperated by reviewers without sufficient expertise in the topics they are considering. On the other hand, academic pedantry can also be off-putting, particularly when couched in a clunky style. In general, I’ve found the most memorable pieces to be those which say something about the reviewer as well as the author under review, like portraits which work through a kind of double vision, offering insights into the painter as well as the sitter. There was a very good essay on Les Murray by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books a few years ago which had this double-edged quality.

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André Gide, when asked who was the greatest French poet, is said to have replied ‘Victor Hugo, alas’, and many readers have responded in similar fashion to William Faulkner’s place in the history of the American novel. Werner Sollors, the eminent Harvard scholar of American Literature, unambiguously described Faulkner in 2003 as ‘ultimately the most significant American novelist of the [twentieth] century’, a judgement echoed in this book by Michael Gorra, who calls him ‘the most important American novelist of the twentieth century’. But Faulkner’s marked proclivity for both stylistic excess and thematic incoherence has always made him a difficult author to appreciate and study. Hence Gorra’s The Saddest Words, a judicious and measured blend of biography, contextual history, and travelogue, performs a signal service in making this complicated author more accessible to a wider reading public.

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This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

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When William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’, he meant the details: their ability to evoke entire universes. So did Aldous Huxley when, experimenting with mescaline, he discovered ‘the miracle … of naked existence’ in a vase of flowers. More recently, Jenny Odell’s bestseller How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy (2019) made a case for rejecting productivity in favour of active attention to the world around us.  

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In his description of the verse novel as ‘the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them’, Michael Symmons Roberts emphasises the form’s sometimes disjunctive use of literary techniques commonly associated with poetry and prose fiction. While the verse novel has gained popularity since the 1980s, many of its features may be traced to epic poems such The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, and the long narrative poems of the Romantic and Victorian periods. The form was established by Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was divided into stanzas; however, the definition and key features of the verse novel are still hotly debated.

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After My Brilliant Career appeared in 1901, Miles Franklin spent a few years living in Sydney, where she enjoyed being fêted as a new literary sensation. Her attempt to earn a living by writing fiction and journalism about women’s issues was less than successful; even the timely and witty suffrage novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), was knocked back at first. In 1906, at the age of twenty-six, she left Australia for the United States. She spent the next nine years living in Chicago and working for the Women’s Trade Union League, secretary to its wealthy patron, Margaret Dreier Robins, and editing its journal, Life and Labour, with her compatriot Alice Henry. The two Australians enjoyed recognition as enfranchised women, a status that American women were still fighting for.

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Gail Jones’s beautifully crafted narratives invite and reward careful reading. All her work bears the mark of her formidable intellect. Yet her texts don’t show off: they assert the primacy of embodied experience and interpersonal relationships as much as the inner life of the mind. They provoke you to attend to their many layers of meaning, often requiring at least two readings (and some research) to fully grasp their complexity. But the reader’s reward is in the ‘ah’ moments when, for example, an image takes on particular resonance or an idea emerges from the text’s depths. It is to these intricacies that Tanya Dalziell’s monograph, Gail Jones: Word, image, ethics, turns its attention.

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