By Campbell Geeslin
In 1860, Charles Dickens set fire to many of the letters he had written over the course of two decades. He used them to cook, and he commemorated the incident in—what else?—a letter to a friend.
“Dickensian scholars would have sold their souls for that barbecue fuel," John Sutherland, emeritus professor at University College London, told the Times Book Review. "There survive, of course, about 15,000 Dickens letters. But whole tracts of the private Dickens will be forever lost."
Sutherland's exchange with Williams was prompted by his review of Living on Paper: Letters From Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 in the same issue. Murdoch wrote 26 published novels, philosophical treatises, and “an ocean of letters.” She spent four hours at her desk every afternoon replying to letters. At 17 she was asked what she planned to do with her life and she replied: “Write.”
“I can live in letters” she told a friend. “I have in fact only once corresponded with anyone (now departed from my life) who was as good at writing letters as I am.”
Murdoch, wrote Sutherland, belonged to “a generation and class for whom the handwritten letter was as necessary as breathing. The habit was instilled at her boarding school, where letters home were an obligatory chore. Throughout her life, her personal messages retained an endearing jolly-hockey-sticks flavor.”
"The traditional use of letters for the ‘life and letters’ biography is going to be tricky in the future," Sutherland said. "Or perhaps, if some way of getting to all that correspondence in the cloud is found (the delete key never deletes, one is told) it may be enriched and enhanced. We shall see.”
SEA CHANGE: Novelist Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, is 100 years old this year. His new book is a memoir, Sailor and Fiddler. Time magazine devoted a page to him.
Wouk said that he had kept a journal since 1937 and that it was about a hundred volumes. He didn’t consult it for his new book because “I was writing from memory. If I started looking in my dairies, I might have said, ‘Oh, yes, let’s put in that.'"
Asked what his favorite decade was, he said, “I’ve got ten to choose from. I’d have to say the 1940s, when the big change in my life was going from writing comedy to going to sea as a naval officer. . . .
“I was out at sea with very different company from what I’d grown up with. It gave me a point of view, which I carry with me today. I’m a sailor.”
SPECULATION: “When presidents or candidates speak in public nowadays, . . . voters focus on the makeup artists and sorcerers lurking behind the curtain, murmuring stage directions and working the teleprompter,” wrote historian Michael Beschloss in the Times Book Review. “Americans have become conditioned to speculate not only about the content of what politicians tell them but, as much or more, also about their motives and artifice—sometimes to the point of ridiculous paranoia. For example, when George W. Bush debated John Kerry in 2004, some viewers insisted that a visible bulge in the back of the president’s suit must be some kind of electronic device allowing Bush’s strategists to give him advice on what to say.”
ANSWERS: What would happen “if the world suddenly stopped spinning?” The answer to that and other such questions are in What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe.
The web site bookdepository.com described the book with: “The Sunday Times number one bestseller by the wildly popular xked.com, hilarious and informative answers to important questions you never thought to ask.”
Another question: “How fast can you hit a speed bump, driving, and live?”
LITERARY VINES: “There are only two or three human stories,” Willa Cather wrote, “and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” That was the beginning of Dwight Garner’s Times review of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. The story is about an affair between two men.
Garner said: “Mr. Greenwell writes long sentences, pinned at the joints by semicolons, that push forward like confidently searching vines. There’s suppleness and mastery in his voice. He seems to have an inborn ability to cast a spell.” The review ended with, “Mr. Greenwell has written a book about the faces we present to the world, and he has nothing consoling to say about anything at all.”
OLD STUFF: It turns out that Rumplestiltskin is even older than we thought. A British anthropologist and a Spanish folklorist have collaborated on a study that traces the roots of popular fairy tales in much the same way biologists trace DNA. And just as Wilhelm Grimm suspected in the 19th century, reports The Guardian, the scholars' work showed that many of the most familiar tales date back thousands of years.
The team studied the links among 275 Indo-European fairy tales, "mapping the stories through common languages and geographic proximity." Jack and the Beanstalk seems to have sprouted from a genre of stories known as "The Boy Who Stole Ogre's Treasure," about the time "eastern and western Indo-European languages split—more than 5000 years ago." The origins of Beauty and the Beast and Rumplestiltskin date back 2500 to 6000 years.
"We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written," Durham anthropologist Jaime Tahrani told the Guardian. "They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed.”
His collaborator, Sara Graca Da Silva of the New University of Lisbon credits the stories endurance to "the power of storytelling and magic from time immemorial.”
THE LAST MAN: George Weidenfeld, the legendary British publisher, died last week in London, at the age of 96. The Guardian called him "the last man standing out of a group of Hitler refugees . . . who came to Britain in the 30s and became publishers after the war."
In 1938, as a young law student in Vienna, Weidenfeld was offered sanctuary in Britain by an evangelical Christian group called the Plymouth Brethren. Last year, as waves of Syrian refugees were fleeing to Europe, he set up a rescue fund for Christian Syrians. “I had a debt to repay.”
A REMINDER: Is a writer’s responsibility only to his art? That’s the question Francine Prose takes up in the Times Review Bookends column. She quotes Shelley on the subject— "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" —and says her reaction even in college was, "Seriously?"
One answer to the question, she suggests, "is to separate our responsibility as artists (to art) from our human responsibility (to other human beings.)"
But for her, Samuel Beckett offered the best description of an artist's obligation: “Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.”
“If I could do needlework," Prose concluded, "I’d embroider it on a sampler and hang it over my desk to remind me of my responsibilities.”
NOT HACK WORK: Alan Dean Foster wrote the novelization of the hit movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He was quoted in the Times Book Review: “A novelization is much harder to write than a screenplay. When a couple of screenwriters take a best-selling novel and write a screenplay from it and it wins a couple Academy Awards, everybody says that’s great writing. But when you take a screenplay and turn it into a novel, it’s a much more difficult task because there’s much more writing involved and much more character development and scene development. Some people say it’s hack work. I say the writing stands on its own.”
TO LOVE A BOOK: “Teaching a book, talking about it with young people, is the best way to fall in love with it,” Daniel Alarcón was quoted in the Times Book Review. He is the author of At Night We Walk in Circles and City of Clowns.
Alarcón taught English at a high school in Harlem. Asked what his favorite book to assign was, he said he had little choice in the matter. “When I asked the assistant principal what I should teach, he told me to go up to the bookroom and see what novel we had the most copies of…
“There were 110 students in tenth grade, and it was a happy surprise to find 80-something copies of The Bluest Eye. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s debut novel in maybe ten years, and I really enjoyed diving back into it.”