by Campbell Geeslin
“March is a tomboy with tousled hair, a mischievous smile, mud on her shoes and a laugh in her voice. She knows when the first shadbush will blow, where the first violet will bloom, and she isn’t afraid of a salamander.” The quote is from Hal Borland’s Sundial of the Seasons (1964).
ENGLISH AS FOSSIL: If the dialogue in some fiction seems a bit stilted, the reason may be found in a new study reported by Nicholas Wade in the science pages of The New York Times.
Wade said that Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, had found that written languages tend to be fossilized. Wade wrote, “Living languages are likely to be descended from a spoken language that diverged from the written version.”
SALTER SAYS: I never knew the lowly comma could be so controversial until I read “Holy Writ,” an article by Mary Norris in the March 2 New Yorker. Norris has been on the magazine’s staff since 1978. Her book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, is due in out April.
She once had an exchange with James Salter on the subject of the “kinky” commas in his novel Light Years. He replied: “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course: you take the liberty.”
WARNINGS: Charles C. Mann is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. In The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “Human beings developed language, anthropologists tell us, tens of thousands of years ago. Presumably the first spoken utterance was something practical, like ‘Lions are attacking!’ or ‘Your hair is on fire!’ But not long after came, ‘Who are we and how did we get here?’ Homo Sapiens, that congeries of narcissists, has been contemplating its journey ever since.”
Mann was reviewing Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
NEW SLUG: In an essay about Georges Simenon in The New York Times Book Review, Scott Bradfield tried to make sense of the Belgian novelist's "two identities." One was as the high-speed author of pulp mysteries—what Simenon called "novels for secretaries"—200 of which he churned out in seven years. The other was as a serious author.
"When he decided to write 'good' books," Bradfield wrote, "he took the advice of his mentor, Colette— 'Get rid of the all the literature, and you’ve got it'"— then went on to write 200 serious books, over 50 years.
"More than any other detective with a ream of adventures under his belt," Bradfield observed, "Maigrit [Simenon's fictional detective] rarely solves crimes; instead he solves people."
Bradfield’s latest novel is The People Who Watched Her Pass By.
PAPA OF PAPERBACKS: An exhibition titled, “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze,” opened at the Grolier Club in Manhattan last week, marking the 500th anniversary of the Venetian printer's death. On display are 150 libelli portatiles (portable little books), the form for which he is famous.
Scott Clemons, president of the club, told The New York Times: “It’s become a cliché to call them the forerunners of the Penguin Classics. But the concept of personal reading is in some ways directly traceable to the innovations of Aldus’s portable library.”
PUFFS FOR A POPE: Tom Nolan reviews mysteries for The Wall Street Journal. In a column about The Whites by Harry Brandt (a.k.a. Richard Price), Nolan said: “It’s a pleasure to savor his descriptions: the marijuana-puffer who ‘blew out enough smoke to announce a pope’; the ‘omelets that were so oily they looked shellacked.’”
FAT BOOKS: Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard is the author of a six-volume, 3,200-page novel, My Struggle. The fourth volume, Dancing in the Dark, is about to be published in English.
Andrew Anthony in The Guardian called the books an "unflinching memoir."
The author said, "When I write something, I can't remember in the end if this is a memory or if it's not—I'm talking about fiction. So for me it's the same thing. . . . There's a lot of false memory in the book, but it's there because it's the way it is, it's real."
WOOING THE MUSE: Maya Angelou died last year. She used the English language in her own way. In 1993, she contributed a chapter to a book called Writers Dreaming, edited by Naomi Epel.
Angelou wrote: “I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes but I don’t like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
WITH MUSIC: Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 38 suspense novels. The latest is Motive. In a Playlist column in The Wall Street Journal, Kellerman said, “When I turned fifty, I decided it was time to learn to play a steel guitar.” The first song he learned on his 1930 Weissenborn was “Sleep Walk.” The suspense here is how will his new musical sideline figure in his next novel?
STYLE: Nothing in French literature seems more “French” than Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
A translation by Matthew Ward (1988) is interesting because he points out in a note that “Camus acknowledges employing an ‘American method’ in writing The Stranger, in the first half of the book in particular: the short precise sentences, the depiction of a character ostensibly without consciousness, and, in places, the ‘tough guy’ tone. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Cain, and others had pointed the way.”
NIMBLE: Dwight Garner, book critic for The New York Times, reviewed a new novel, The Sellout, by Paul Beatty.
“So much happens in The Sellout that describing it is like trying to shove a lemon tree into a shot glass. It’s also hard to describe without quoting the nimble ways Mr. Beatty deals out the N-word. This novel’s best lines, the ones that either puncture or tattoo your heart, are mostly not quotable here.”
MIRROR: H.L. Mencken died in 1956. His columns were collected in a book, Prejudices: A Selection, in 1958. The title of one essay is “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.”
Menken wrote that it is the critic’s “business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment—and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.”
WARNING: Anne Tyler’s new novel is A Spool of Blue Thread. She is cited in The Writer’s Quotation Book (1980). The editor was James Charlton.
Tyler had this to say about writers who talk about their writing: “It makes me uncomfortable for them. If they’re talking about a plot idea, I feel the idea is probably going to evaporate. I want to almost physically reach over and cover their mouths and say, ‘You’ll lose it if you’re not careful.’”
In a recent interview in the London Daily Mail, Tyler said, “I began writing with the idea that I wanted to know what it would be like to be somebody else, and that’s never changed. Every time I start a book I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be completely different.’ Later I think, ‘Oh darn, I seem to have written the same book over again.’”
MIAMI: If there were an award for an attention-grabbing book title, this season it might well go to The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, by Irving Welsh.
The author is Scottish but spends time in Miami Beach, a place he describes in his novel as that “sun-drenched refuge for strutting grotesques and desperate narcissists.” The quote is from Sloane Crosley’s review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Crosley's novel, The Clasp, will be published in the fall.