by Campbell Geeslin
The deep lines of a life of adventure—of “searching”—are vivid in a photograph of Peter Matthiessen’s face in Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.
The 86-year old author died April 5 in Sagaponack, N.Y. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both nonfiction and fiction. His last novel, In Paradise, was published April 8.
Matthiessen had leukemia. He was interviewed at his Long Island home just before being hospitalized. The photograph was by Damon Winter.
Jeff Hemelman’s account of the author’s life ended with a quote from one of his more than 30 books, The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972). Matthiessen wrote: “Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”
TOPS ON TWITTER: “The Five Most Influential Authors of Our Time” was the title of an article last week on The Houston Chronicle’s website. “These days, Twitter has become a way of measuring a celebrity’s reach and popularity and, indeed—their influence.”
1. Paulo Coelho has 8.8 million followers on Twitter.
2. Stephen Fry has 6.5 million followers.
3. J. K. Rowling has 2.75 million followers.
4. Salman Rushdie has 669,465 followers.
5. Malcolm Gladwell has 196,909 followers.
Not a U.S. born writer in the bunch. Coelho is from Brazil; Fry and Rowling are Brits; Rushdie was born in India, and Gladwell was born in Canada.
CURSES: “The Case for Profanity in Print” was the title of an essay in The New York Times by Jesse Sheidlower. He is the author of The F-Word and president of the American Dialect Society. He quoted from a 1934 article by Allen Walker Read in the journal American Speech about the F-word: “No sensible person would maintain that sex in itself is obscene, for it can be a wholesome, ennobling force.”
“Yet in this serious essay,” wrote Shiedlower, “which appeared in an academic journal published by a well-established scholarly society, [Reed] did not once use, or even quote, the word in question. Mr. Reed was writing eighty years ago. It’s time to print exactly what we mean.”
In Sheidlower’s long Times article, I couldn’t find that F-word spelled out.
LIARS: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare is a new novel by Jude Morgan. He is author of a dozen books including Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes (2010). The author wrote in the new book’s postscript that novelists “are liars by profession. People pay us to make up stories for them.”
NOT FOR THE EAR: Dan Chiasson is a poet and associate professor at Wellesley. In a New York Review of Books essay about a trio of new books by poets, Chiasson wrote, “One big invention modern poetry made was to change our sense of the word ‘song,’ which for eons was a relatively uncomplicated synonym for ‘poem.’”
“’Compose’ is what musical composers do, of course, but its older sense is ‘to put together,’ to build, to construct. The ‘words’ of a poem shouldn’t be chosen to please the ear, but to ambush reality.”
Then Chiasson came up with a generalization: “American poets tend to want the benefits of song—its emotionality, its melodiousness—without its costs: its triviality, its obviousness, its feyness.”
DEAD MOTHERS: Sophie McKenzie, author of Close My Eyes (2013) and dozens of other books for youngsters, observed in The Guardian: “Often mothers in children’s books are dead. This isn’t because children’s authors like killing them off, but because one of the big challenges for any kids writer, especially those who, like me, set their stories in the contemporary world, is to get the adults out of the way as soon as possible, so that the youngsters can take the center stage.”
A QUESTION: Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, has Hitler as a comedian. The novel was a bestseller in Germany when it was published there in 2011. It’s just been published in English.
John Williams wrote in The New York Times Book Review that “Hitler remains an uneasy proposition.” Then Williams quoted from an interview with Vermes in The Observer: “Books don’t have to educate or turn people into better human beings—they can also just ask questions. If mine makes some readers realize that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognizable as such, then I consider it a success.”
ON TITLES: Amy Einhorn is an editor with her own imprint at Penguin Random House. In an interview in the April Poets & Writers, she talked about titles.
Einhorn said, “I can’t overemphasize how important I think titles are. When I’m reading a submission and I forget the title, that’s a problem. But they’re hard. I want people to walk into a bookstore and know what the title they’re asking for is, or to know what they are typing in the store’s box.
“This is a gut-level thing that is hard to articulate, but titles also connote something about the book. Does that sound like a small literary novel? Does that sound quiet? Does that sound like I’ve heard it before?”
GREAT SENTENCES: An article in The Guardian commented on how some genre fiction can have great sentences. To prove the point, the following quotes are from The American Scholar blog.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson.
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” –Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams.
“She had the impatience of a 14-year-old—that life had not allowed her to remain 14, she could sometimes imply, was her special tragedy.”—Light (2002) by John Harrison.
“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” –Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by John le Carré.
NAMED AFTER HER: D. H. Lawrence’s hometown is about to have an inn named after his most famous book. Readers of the local newspaper in Eastwood, Nottingham-shire voted to call the new inn “The Lady Chatterley.” It will open on June 24.
WINNER: Karen Joy Fowler won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel. The $15,000 prize will be presented in Washington on May 10. The New York Times said the book was selected from 430 novels and short story collections published in the U.S. in 2013.
ABNORMAL’S GONE: Zadie Smith’s most recent book, published last fall, was NW: A Novel. In The New York Review of Books, she wrote an essay entitled “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.”
Smith wrote: “There is a scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. People in mourning tend to use euphemism, likewise the guilty and ashamed. The more melancholy of all euphemisms: ‘the new normal.’ It’s ‘the new normal,’ I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before.”
END THE DEBATE: “Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist,” The Guardian said, “because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. E-books are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we’ll stop having this debate about paper vs. e-books because it will no longer make a lot of sense.”
NO PRINT: Karen Russell is the author of two much-praised bestsellers, Swampland (2011) and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2014). Her new book, Sleep Donation, is a digital-only novella published by Atavist Books.
Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times that “Atavist plans to publish one title a month for the rest of 2014, in a mix of formats: digital, print and enhanced-digital form.”
AN HONEST MAN: John Paul Stevens, former justice in the Supreme Court and author of Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, was asked by The New York Times Book Review what he planned to read next and he said, “Reviews of Six Amendments.”