by Campbell Geeslin
“Dickens, writing profusely about Christmas, reciting popular works before audiences in England and America, became the author who seemed to embody the very spirit of the season.”
That quote is from the late Jack Newcombe’s introduction to A Christmas Treasury, a book he edited in 1982. Newcombe was on the staff of Life magazine.
He quoted Dickens too, of course: “Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest exchanges of affectionate attachment, which abound in this season of the year.” That is from Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, written in 1836.
William Makepeace Thackeray wrote about Dickens’ The Christmas Carol in 1844: “It seems to be a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness. What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!”
GOOD NEWS: Adam Kirsch is a poet and author of books about Lionel Trilling and Benjamin Disraeli. He wrote in The New York Times Book Review:
“The best literary news of 2013 is that, as Evan Hughes reported in The New Republic, books have not succumbed to the downward spiraling revenue trend: Sales of books in all formats actually grew by almost $2 billion in the last five years, and e-books have turned out to complement printed books without replacing them. It’s easy to see why writers should be happy—they can continue to get paid for their work—but this is equally good news for readers, who still need publishers to find, foster and distribute good writing.”
FACT OR FICTION: Richard Yates said of his writing, “The emotions of fiction are autobiographical but the facts never are.” He was quoted in The Guardian.
ABOUT BIOS: Gary Giddings is director of the Leon Levy Center of Biography at CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.
In an essay for The Wall Street Journal, he wrote: “Comparing life-writing to fiction writing, Andre Maurois argued that ‘biography is a means of expression when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature.’ We may buy biographies to learn about the subject, but we keep reading because the biographer has put something undeniably personal in the portrait.”
HANDICAP: Kimberly Elkins’s first book, What Is Visible: A Novel, isn’t due out until June but promotion has already begun. Amazon is taking orders, explaining that the book’s main character is blind, deaf and has no sense of taste or smell. Illness struck when she was two years old, 40 years before Helen Keller was born.
We are told that this fiction is written “in an intricate style, populated with many true historical figures.”
Elkins’ big challenge: her seriously afflicted heroine is one of the narrators.
REPEAT: Hollywood has announced that it will remake Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Sydney Lumet directed a 1974 version with a cast of stars that included Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. It is frequently shown on TV.
There was also a TV version in 2001 with Alfred Molina as the detective.
Why a new version? I certainly remember who did it. Don’t you?
ON RELIGION: Sam Sacks writes a column, Fiction Chronicle, for The Wall Street Journal. Recently he observed: “Reading a work of religious fiction is a little like stepping inside a house of worship. If the book professes the tenets of your faith, you read it to have your beliefs reaffirmed or refocused. But if you are an outsider to its creeds—if you are just visiting—you must be particularly open minded to resolve whatever beauties and truths it has to impart.”
AN ENDING: The late Geir Kjetsaa was professor of Russian literary history at the University of Oslo. He was also a translator and author of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer’s Life (1985).
In the biography, he described Russian reaction to the writer’s death: “The news of Dostoyevsky’s death was immediately circulated to every school in the city. All lectures at the university were cancelled; students and professors gathered for a memorial service. ‘The divine spark never once died in his breast,’ the university chaplain declared, ‘not even in the long years when he wore his prisoner’s garb.’ All over Russia the newspapers printed obituaries; when Anna [his wife] later did her sums, she discovered that almost 400 people had written about her husband’s death. Tolstoy now realized that Dostoyevsky had been ‘the person nearest, dearest, and most necessary’ to him. ‘And then suddenly I read that he had died,’ he wrote in a letter….‘It was as though the ground had given way beneath my feet.’”
REPORT: “E-book sales have flattened in 2013, giving publishers and bookstores hope that consumers’ appetite for print books will be renewed during the most crucial sales period of the year.” That was The New York Times’ report a week before the week of Christmas.
As the book-buying season moved into its final days, “This is the time when publishers release their splashiest books and count on Christmas shoppers being much more willing to part with $25 for a weighty hardcover.”
IRISH FICTION: The Irish Arts Council and New York University will name a Laureate for Irish Fiction next year “to promote Irish literature nationally and internationally and to encourage the public to engage with high-quality Irish fiction.”
The laureate will receive about $206,000 over three years, participate in public events and teach creative writing at University College Dublin and New York University.
MEMORIES: A. J. Liebling reported from Europe during World War II for The New Yorker. Those pieces were collected in Normandy Revisited (1958).
One night, back in a New York bar, Liebling found himself recalling the sight of “a deck awash with blood and condensed milk.”
He wrote in the foreword: “’Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them’ is particularly true of memories. In time they recur in forms so implausible that you must go back and make sure the events they represent were real.”
CELEBRATION: Wish Erica Jong and her Fear of Flying a happy anniversary. That novel was born 40 years ago and a new edition is just out. The New York Times paid tribute with a long article in last Thursday’s Style section.
Several women writers were interviewed. Jennifer Weiner’s first novel, Good in Bed, was published in 2001 and her 10th, All Fall Down, will be out in the Spring. Weiner told the Times, “Erica Jong was one of the writers that encouraged me, and made me believe I could tell stories in my voice and not have to assume someone else’s. Her strength as a writer is she’s unflinchingly honest about herself, about sex, about the way the world works and the way that it treats writers. After I became a published author, I would read her later stuff almost like a road map.”
SEQUEL: David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist and the author of several novels and biographies, has been signed to write a fourth novel in the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. Larsson had begun a fourth book when he died in 2004. The series has sold more than 73 million copies worldwide. Lagercrantz's book No. 4 is due out in August 2015.