Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chris Power / 2009 was the year of the short story

Alice Munro
Poster by T. A. 

2009 was the year of the short story

Alice Munro won the Man Booker International, Raymond Carver's widow published a revised edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and fine collections appeared from old hands and debutantes. This year proved that reports of the short story's death have been greatly exaggerated
Chris Power
Tuesday 29 December 2009 08.45 GMT

2009 has proved that rumours of the death of the short story – so often forecast that almost every review of almost every collection seems duty-bound to repeat and thus propagate it – are greatly exaggerated. The consensus running through the end-of-year reviews is that it's been a vintage year for short fiction, and I agree. I come here to praise the short story, not to bury it.
Starting at the top, one of the world's greatest living short story specialists, andone of its greatest writers full-stop, took the 2009 Man Booker International prize. Canadian Alice Munro published her 14th collection, Too Much Happiness, earlier this year. A powerful grouping of stories more violent than her normal work, it shows her enormous talent remains undiminished as she nears her ninth decade.
Mavis Gallant is already well into hers, and while no new work is forthcoming an edition of her previously uncollected stories, The Cost of Living, has just been published. As for the brand new, this year saw collections from big names such as Kazuo IshiguroHa JinChimamanda Ngozi AdichieJames Lasdun, and this parish's own AL Kennedy.
Good work from the living, then, but notable new collections issued even from beyond the grave. Raymond Carver's Beginners reinstates the writer's original drafts of the stories that made up his definitive 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; stories that his editor Gordon Lish famously and controversially reduced in length, in some cases cutting up to 78% of Carver's prose. I had misgivings before reading it, but Beginners is a fascinating document. The decision to publish these versions is controversial, but the logic behind his widow Tess Gallagher's desire to show the "connective tissue" between his pre- and post-Lish work seems sound. Additionally the endnotes, wherein the editors detail what revisions were made where and when, are like morsels of crack for Carver geeks.

This has also been an excellent year for debuts. I read David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned back to back, and while their shared interests – hunting, ichthyology, destructive rages, divorce, abuse and guns – might lie heavily on their readers' psyches, the quality of the writing precludes any chance of leaving them depressed. Both superb, Vann's book in particular suggests the arrival of a significant talent; one who can marry tremendous plot twists to an appealingly downbeat style that fans of Carver and Cormac McCarthy alike will thrill to.
In case you're wondering what Legend of a Suicide, supposedly a novel, is doing in a blog about short stories, it was originally published as a story collection in America. Vann told the Guardian he prefers the way the book is being sold in the UK, but really it sits somewhere between the two forms: the stories are discrete, but at the same time are all reactions to or descriptions of a single central event. Another book that hovers in this enjoyable and I think fertile space between the story collection and the novel is this year's Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a story cycle set in Crosby, Maine, and presided over by the retired schoolteacher of the title. It's sold upwards of 400,000 copies so far: impressive for a literary novel, extraordinary for short fiction.
Of course, all this jubilation would be Panglossian without some acknowledgement of the short story market's real and present downsides. In the US it's commonplace for short story writers to get a deal for their first collection only on the proviso that a novel follows, a business practice that casts short story-writing as apprentice work. In the UK it's worse still, with story collections treated like dirty secrets to be snuck out in disguise (pace Penguin's strategy with Vann), with only a determined study of the back cover revealing the truth. And I don't know if it's a case of reading practices following publishing's lead or vice versa, but I'm constantly surprised and disheartened by the number of readers who tell me they don't read short stories, as if they were a homogenous type that could be not to your taste like, say, policiers.
I do see more reason to celebrate than to mourn, however. Radio 4 broadcasts nearly 150 stories a year; the Atlantic's recent decision to sell short stories via its Kindle store inspires hope for a vibrant market for individually sold shorter works, while flash fiction and sites dedicated to the short story continue to proliferate online.
This year saw the US publication of the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a particular favourite of mine, whose sharp, hilarious, often minuscule fictions have long had a small but dedicated following. She's the next subject in the short story series I've been writing for the last couple of years, and in the words of the New Yorker her body of work "will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal." Hamish Hamilton have just picked up the UK rights, so British readers as yet unfamiliar with her will soon have an even better chance to find out how good she is. It looks like 2010's already shaping up to be another good year.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Edward Goldsmith / Environmentalist who founded 'Ecology' magazine and championed the green movement

Edward Goldsmith

Edward Goldsmith: Environmentalist who founded 'Ecology' magazine and championed the green movement

David McKittrick
Sunday 18 October 2009 23:00 BST

Edward Goldsmith devoted a lifetime to "green" causes and the promotion of ecology, spending decades preaching that industrialisation was endangering mankind and that major change was essential if the planet was to survive.
In one sense his approach was radical in that he tackled head-on many of the barely questioned tenets of western society. In another it was conservative in that his remedy was a return to old-fashioned, even primitive forms of political and social life.
The presence of both of these elements in his philosophy, together with the vigour he put into his campaigning, antagonised many and made him many enemies in the course of his long career. But he revelled in the combative. As an ecological pioneer he was often dismissed as cranky. Yet he lived long enough to see much which was initially derided as silly enter the political mainstream, both nationally and internationally.
His home page lists some of his diverse concerns, including biotech, climate, farming, forests, global governance, health, trade and globalisation, technology, waste and pollution. He listed, with what appeared suspiciously like pride, various criticisms that had been levelled at him over the years. "For some of my critics I am now a racist, fascist, neo-Nazi, and extreme right-wing ideologue," he wrote. "But in the past I have been referred to as a Bolshevik, a whacko-communist-liberal, an anarchist, a Jacobin, an omnivorous pseudo-ecological tribalist, a madman and a Palaeolithic counter-revolutionary."
As these epithets suggest, he was too much of an individualist to be slotted into any particular pigeon-hole. He did, however, regard himself as one of the founding fathers of what in time became the Green Party.
He could dish it out as well as take it. He regarded James Lovelock, who formulated the Gaia hypothesis that the earth constituted a superorganism, as an important figure. Yet he variously described some of his views as absurd, ridiculous and crazy.
Goldsmith cheerfully admitted that in his early days as an eco-warrior many people thought he too was touched, especially those who visited his home. "I had a compost toilet that cost me all my friends. They were sick from the smell of it," he remembered. "Quite a lot of people thought I was mad." Mad or not, he certainly had staying power in the ecological world, publishing and often editing a key magazine, The Ecologist, from the late 1960s until the late 1990s.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Paris in 1928, Edward Réné David Goldsmith was the son of Frank Goldsmith, a well-off landowner and one-time Conservative MP. In his early years Teddy Goldsmith stayed in family hotels around France, before moving to London, where he initially lived in Claridges. Much of it was "one long holiday," he said, though there was a darker side: "Many of my relations died in Hitler's gas chambers," he later related.
A spell at Millfield School was followed by a move to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics. He completed his course but, he was to recall, "I realised while I was at Oxford that everything I was being taught was nonsense. It became quite clear that these people didn't know what they were talking about. Everything was compartmentalised. It was impossible to see the whole picture, so I determined to find out why this was the case, and what the whole picture might be."
The family money gave him the opportunity to travel widely. Anthropology "grabbed me," he remembered, and he traversed the Third World studying tribal life. This was not in itself unusual but what was different with Goldsmith was his belief that advanced societies had much to learn from people they regarded as primitive, backward and unenlightened.
"I spent a lot of time in Africa, in tribal societies," he explained. "One thing I became convinced of was that these were the only truly 'sustainable' societies I had ever seen. That word is used a lot nowadays, but then it meant nothing. It seemed extremely important to me, and here were people putting it into practice. Yet their very existence was threatened by the remorseless expansion of industrial society."
His experience left him with an indelible belief that commercialisation, industrialisation, and indeed modern finance structures, were all radically and dangerously wrong. He accused the World Bank, for example, of "financing the destruction of the tropical world, the extermination of its wildlife and the impoverishment and starvation of its human inhabitants."
He simultaneously believed that small was beautiful but also that the key lay in the bigger picture. This came out in his criticism of scientists, who, he argued, "cannot understand each other. They are looking at little bits of reality – that is why they cannot perceive the whole. They are victims of their own specialised disciplines."
It quickly became clear that he would be taking a practical as well as a theoretical approach. In the general election of February 1974 he stood in Suffolk as a "People Party" candidate, riding on a borrowed camel with the slogan "No Deserts in Suffolk. Vote Goldsmith." He lost his deposit but none of his campaigning zeal. This was fully deployed when the authorities thought of siting a nuclear power close to his home: he moved his desk to the site entrance and sat there, preventing diggers from starting work. It worked.
In 1969 he established The Ecologist, which would for decades provide a platform for his views. Funded by his brother, the late billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith, it sent out the green message to a small but growing band of enthusiasts.
An early issue was a huge success when it was published as a book entitled A Blueprint for Survival. This is regarded as the most important of Goldsmith's many works, Jonathon Porritt describing it as "a get-real summons like no other."
Over the decades more and more people began to subscribe, at least in part, to the messages Goldsmith tirelessly emitted via The Ecologist and in speeches, books and other writings. Inevitably, fissures appeared. When he was described as right wing he responded: "If by right wing you mean conservative then I totally accept this criticism. I am a true conservative in the sense that I believe in the family, in the community, in religion and in tradition."
He could by no stretch of the imagination be described as any sort of conventional right-winger, but many green adherents moved away from him as their movement tended towards the left. Goldsmith did not regard this as a tragedy, perhaps because he relished argument so much. Anger and an element of polarisation were in fact part of his personal mission: "Why aren't more people angry?" he asked.
As Jonathan Porritt summed him up: "He could be withering about every political persuasion, and seriously loved getting people worked up as he challenged their complacent orthodoxies."
Asked in later life about his contribution, Goldsmith replied: "I hope I've helped. If in some small way I've helped to slow the runaway juggernaut that we've created, or make people aware of it, that has to be a good thing. I hope I have done that."

Edward Réné David Goldsmith, environmentalist: born 8 November 1928; married 1953 Gillian Pretty (one son, two daughters), 1981 Katherine James (two sons); died 21 August 2009. 

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd

My hero: Oscar Wilde

By Michael Holroyd
The Guardian, Saturday 5 September 2009

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer, in holidays
Hand-coloured photograph of Wilde circa 1890. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images
I first came to Oscar Wilde through reading his Life by Hesketh Pearson. This enthralling biography was first published in 1946, and I read it a few years later when I was in my early teens. It was less the tragedy of Wilde's last years that gripped me than the wit and humanity of the man, his generosity of spirit and radical ideas.
I lived most of my early years with my grandparents. The atmosphere was one of eccentric conventionality. Wilde's startling paradoxes ("Work is the curse of the drinking classes") turned upside down the unthinking clichés I used to hear. The man who claimed that "a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at" changed my view of the world. Wilde made me laugh, made me think and revealed to me the seriousness of imaginative humour.
What I came to value was the charming way he arrived at deeply unpopular opinions. He upset much of what I had been encouraged to take for granted. I found myself warming to his revolutionary assault on the dictatorship of a political democracy which depended on that "monstrous and ignorant thing called Public Opinion". He was an extraordinarily brave writer. "One is absolutely sickened," he wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, "not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." I think of that whenever I hear the phrase "brought to justice" glibly used in the media.
Wilde's epigrams and ideas float through all his work – his plays, fictionand essays. "Every great man has his disciples and it is always Judas who writes the biography," he said. And perhaps that was no bad thing while a Damocles sword of respectability hung, as Carlyle complained, over the poor English life-writer. Perhaps, too, Wilde had a more lasting influence on me than I realised. "To arrive at what one really believes," he wrote in The Critic as Artist, "one must speak through lips different from one's own." This is no less true for a biographer than for a playwright.

001 My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd
002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia raser
006 My hero / Ted Hughes by Michael Morpurgo

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm

036 My hero / Rober Lowell by Jonathan Raban (Kiss)

037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Linch by Paul Murray

042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford (Kiss)
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
095 My hero / Les Murray by Daljit Nagra (Kiss)
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
100 My hero / Tomas Tranströmer  (Kiss)

120 My hero / Graham Greene by Richard Holloway
134 My hero / Homer by Madeline Miller
146 My hero / Roald Dahl by Michael Rosen

167 My hero / Oliver Sacks by Hilary Mantel
169 My hero / Jean Rhys by Linda Grant
176 My hero / Mae West by Kathy Lette
181 My hero / Lydia Davis by Ali Smith
184 My hero / Louise Bourgeois by Tracey Emin
185 My hero / Albert Camus by David Constantine
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer

211 My hero / Mavis Gallant by Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje
227 My hero / Salman Rushdie by Antonia Fraser
233 My hero / Robin Williams by Anne Fine

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Obituaries / Edward Goldsmith

Goldsmith: his 1972 book Blueprint for Survival called for a world order based on small, self-sufficient communities Photograph: The Ecologist


Edward Goldsmith

Environmental campaigner and writer who founded The Ecologist magazine

Walter Schwarz
Thursday 27 August 2009 20.20 BST

Edward Goldsmith, who has died aged 80, was an influential environmental scholar, polemicist and campaigner who founded and edited the Ecologist. A special issue in 1972, Blueprint for Survival, proposing the formation of a movement for sustainability, was published as a book, sold 750,000 copies in 17 languages and led to the foundation of the People party, later the Ecology party, which eventually became the Green party.
Blueprint for Survival was a call for a new world order founded not on economic growth but on stable populations of small, self-sufficient communities, similar to those that Goldsmith had seen in his early travels. "I began to see that the survival of primitive people and of the environment were inseparable," he wrote at the time. "Primitive people were disappearing. So was wildlife. I realised that the root problem was economic development. So I decided to start a paper to explore these issues."
However, Goldsmith's extremist, conservative philosophy, opposed to economic development and globalisation in favour of local self-sufficiency, later marginalised him in the green movement, whose politics were moving leftwards. While greens welcomed the Channel tunnel as investment in public transport, he damned it as "designed to further increase our economic activity, exacerbating our rapidly deteriorating environment".
Goldsmith was influenced by the sociological writings of Karl Polanyi, which emphasised the way economies are embedded in society and culture. His travels with his millionaire college friend John Aspinall introduced him to tribal communities on which his later thinking was based. The Ecologist, founded in 1969 and edited by Goldsmith from 1970 to 1989 and 1997-98, was partly financed by his younger brother, James, the billionaire financier.
For all his gloomy prognostication and his passionate commitment to protest, Goldsmith was a gregarious and exuberant bon vivant, a gifted raconteur who hosted parties in his homes in rural Cornwall, London, Paris and the south of France. His sociability, energy and charismatic charm won over even his most bitter critics. He liked to recall that, after attempting a business career in Paris, and failing, he gave his share of the family inheritance to his brother, an investment that laid the foundation for James's fortune and, indirectly, his own prosperity.
Edward Goldsmith

Goldsmith's passion for anti-science and his love of good company and good living combined in his foundation, with Denis de Rougement, Gerard Morgan-Grenville and others, of Ecoropa, a travelling debating society of scientists and writers which met convivially in pleasant parts of France, Italy and Spain and Germany.
His extreme social conservatism led Goldsmith at one stage to give support to an extreme rightwing, racist group in France. That, in part, led to Nicholas Hildyard's departure in 1997 from the Ecologist, which was then edited for 10 years by Goldsmith's nephew, James's son Zac.
Zac Goldsmith, environmental adviser to the Conservative party and prospective parliamentary candidate in Richmond Park, said his uncle "was responsible more than anyone else for waking us from our collective slumber. Radical ideas are no longer so radical – the credit crunch has made that obvious. If we pull through the environmental crisis, we all owe Teddy Goldsmith a debt of gratitude. He never regarded his work and status as ends in themselves, just a means to an end, an approach that today's politicians would do well to emulate."
The environmentalist Jonathon Porritt said: "Teddy was the first person who articulated the essence of sustainability in a complete and uncompromising way. He never worried about realistic possibilities. His mission was to have it all. Not always the most accommodating, but he was at his best applying scientific rigour to a problem."
Goldsmith was the son of Frank Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Stowmarket, Suffolk, from 1910 until 1918 who later ran luxury hotels in France. He was educated at Millfield school and Queen's College, Nassau. At Magdalen College, Oxford, he got a third-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics.
He began campaigning, in flamboyant style, in the February 1974 general election when he stood as the People party candidate at Eye, Suffolk. In protests against intensive farming which degraded the soil, he and his supporters paraded with a camel borrowed from Aspinall's private zoo, bearing the slogan "No Deserts in Suffolk. Vote Goldsmith." Few people did, he lost his deposit and retreated to a Cornish village from where he edited the Ecologist until 1989.
Goldsmith soon returned to egregious protest when the Central Electricity Board tried to test-dig for a nuclear power station five miles from his home. As the diggers arrived, he blocked the entrance to the site by installing his desk and sat in his chair dictating letters to a secretary. The police declined to intervene and the project was eventually abandoned. In 1979 he contested Cornwall and Plymouth in the European parliamentary election for the Ecology party.
In the 1980s he directed some of his fiercest attacks towards the World Bank, which he saw as financing illusory progress by forcing developing countries to export food while destroying their natural ability to grow it. In an open letter to Tom Clausen, the bank's president, he told him to "stop financing the destruction of the tropical world, the devastation of its remaining forests, the extermination of its wildlife, and the impoverishment and starvation of its human inhabitants".
Another of Goldsmith's targets was big dams, which he saw as spreading poverty by flooding the lands of the poor for the benefit of wealthy industrialists and exporters. Goldsmith and Hildyard published a three-volume study: The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams (1984-92), which was later quoted in protests against dams in other countries.
Yet another consistent target was the UN's food and agricultural organisation, which Goldsmith claimed was controlled by multinational agro-industrial companies. He wrote: "Development may be designed to combat poverty, but it is in fact creating poverty. The main cause of poverty today is environmental degradation caused by economic development. Most people who live in the world's great slums are development refugees."
To combat what he saw as destructive economic development, Goldsmith elaborated his own spiritual philosophy. In his 1992 book The Way, he sought to expand Fritz Schumacher's notion of "Buddhist economics" based on "right livelihood" and "the middle way". Arguing that evolution was "purposeful, not for humans but for the planet", he set forth 66 precepts for "right living," warning against being "blinded by science which is itself a faith and has become an enemy. Ecology is also a faith – in the wisdom of those forces which created us with extraordinary benefits – and in our ability to develop cultural patterns that will enable us to maintain the integrity and wisdom of the natural world."
He saw scientists in their white coats as having "all the attributes of religion – faith, dogma and priesthood". Questioning the notion of objective knowledge, he pointed out that "man is a participant, not an objective observer". Few anthropologists would agree with Goldsmith that traditional societies do not change, but there is perhaps more sympathy for his central thesis that the natural world has wisdom greater than human.
Goldsmith, who was bilingual, launched a French edition of the Ecologist and co-edited a volume in French, La Médicine à la Question (1981). He also created versions of the Ecologist in Spain, Brazil, India and New Zealand. Other books included Can Britain Survive? (1971), The Earth Report (1988, co-edited with Hildyard), 5,000 Days to Save the Planet (1990, with Hildyard and others) and The Case Against the Global Economy (1996, edited with Jerry Mander). He received the Right Livelihood award and was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur for his services to France.
Goldsmith is survived by the son and two daughters from his first marriage, to Gillian Pretty, and by his second wife, Katherine James, and their two sons.
 Edward René David Goldsmith, environmentalist, writer and editor, born 8 November 1928; died 21 August 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Elizabeth Kolbert / Field Notes from a Catastrophe / Review by Anushka Ashana

Feeling the heat

Anushka Asthana on Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Field Notes from a Catastrophe
by Elizabeth Kolbert

Anushka Asthana
Sunday 12 August 2007 23.55 BST

The Inuit people of Banks Island have no word to describe what we know as a robin. After all, the islanders, 500 miles inside the Arctic Circle, deep in Canada's Northwest Territories, had never seen the creatures until they suddenly turned up in numbers a few years ago. 'We just thought, "Oh gee, it's warming up a little bit,"' islander John Keogak tells Elizabeth Kolbert. 'It was good at the start - warmer winters, you know - but now everything is going so fast.'

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Emily Blunt / Down to Earth, Even When Off the Wall

Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt

Down to Earth, Even When Off the Wall

Published: February 26, 2009

FOR someone who broke into Hollywood playing a hysteric, Emily Blunt is remarkably hard to flap. On a cold, bright day at the Chateau Marmont hotel here, this friendly 26-year-old British actress — whose tightly wound turn as Meryl Streep’s groveling girl Friday all but stole “The Devil Wears Prada” from Anne Hathaway — shows only a mild interest that Brad Pitt has rolled up on his motorcycle. Unlike Mr. Pitt and seemingly every other guest at the funky-cool Chateau, who dress like rock stars fresh from shopping at their local Goodwill store, Ms. Blunt arrives looking somewhere between saucy and demure in a short green flowered dress over black tights and knee-high copper boots, her face blessedly free of the pounds of blinding green eye shadow she piled on for “Prada.”
The eye shadow returns under different cover in Ms. Blunt’s latest film, “Sunshine Cleaning” (opening March 13), a cheeky if sentimental minor pleasure directed by Christine Jeffs. In person Ms. Blunt gives off a distinct whiff of Kensington, but she brings a capable American accent, red and purple hair extensions and bags of trashy brio to the movie, in which she and Amy Adams play sisters traumatized by the death of their mother long ago who find salvation cleaning up bloody crime scenes. Though the meatiest role goes to Ms. Adams as the responsible elder sister, Ms. Blunt cannily underplays both the comedy and the tragedy of the vulnerable Norah, whose good intentions far exceed her life skills.
“Norah’s hopeless, like a bull in a china shop,” Ms. Blunt said fondly. “She has great potential, but she’s stuck, despite yearning for more than her situation. She wants to know what happened in the past, and no one wants to talk about it. She’s funny and heartbreaking, and I love her curiosity. I’m always drawn to people who are a little off the wall.”
That taste for the offbeat and a fetching lack of vanity when it comes to playing disagreeable women have made some of Ms. Blunt’s choices happier than others. She seductively preyed on a young woman in her first major role as a coolly enigmatic beauty in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love” (2004).
But she has also, at some peril to her career, been the best thing about a few terrible movies, notably as the ominously efficient assistant of Susan Sarandon’s screen husband in the roundly panned “Irresistible” (2006), which Ms. Blunt cheerfully calls “the most resistible film in the world.” Her lithe body shows up briefly and mostly undressed in“Charlie Wilson’s War” and dressed to kill as a sexy Ms. Wrong for Steve Carell in “Dan in Real Life” (2007). She juices the comedy “The Great Buck Howard” (set to open March 20) as a publicist for a has-been magician played by John Malkovich. She won a Golden Globe for her regal dignity as the neglected daughter of a New Labor image maker played by Bill Nighy in a bloated 2005 television drama, “Gideon’s Daughter.”
On the other hand, her adventurous spirit has also allowed Ms. Blunt, despite her rosy glow and patrician diction, to avoid getting stuck in the muslin-and-bonnets period pieces that have sapped the careers of fine actors like Jennifer Ehle overseas. Ms. Blunt paid her dues early on, appearing on British television in “Boudica,” about the British warrior queen who took on the Romans, and in a two-part series as Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
She might still be endlessly reprising what she calls the “head girl demeanor” had her agent not pushed her to audition for “Prada.” She convinced the film’s director, David Frankel, that the part, though written for an American, might work better with a British accent.
Ms. Blunt brought both killer timing and a touching pathos to this fashion victim who leaps to gratify her abusive boss’s every whim while heaping scorn on Ms. Hathaway’s hapless underling. She waded into broad comedy with the character of Emily — who flounces around in Vivienne Westwood threads Ms. Blunt chose herself — with the same verve she brings to suiting up in head-to-toe fumigation gear in “Sunshine Cleaning.” That gear, she said, made her and Ms. Adams look like “a couple of blue condoms.”
Ms. Adams, who proudly laid claim to introducing Ms. Blunt to the American mall during the shoot in Albuquerque (a town Ms. Blunt describes as “very beige”), describes her as “a very strong gut actress who really trusts herself, even when she’s asked to do a lot of physicality.”
“The Devil Wears Prada” may be no more than a well-turned piece of Hollywood fluff, but Ms. Blunt’s fearless embrace of her prickly character nimbly skewers the way abuse of corporate power at the top filters down into petty bullying at the bottom.
A gifted mimic who never went to drama school and plunders the quirks of people she knows (“I’m combining, so it’s not stealing, it’s research,” she said gleefully), Ms. Blunt was raised in the stockbroker-belt London suburb of Roehampton, which provided her with an abundance of Sloane Rangers on whom to base Emily. She also drew on her encounters with Hollywood workaholics.
“You meet a lot of people in this world who are defined by the job they do,” she said. “It’s sad, because they cease to develop on a human level, they’re so fear-driven. So I’ve had to sever the two existences.”
For someone whose résumé is stacked with unhinged women, Ms. Blunt seems serenely well prepared for life, not to mention Hollywood life, which she enjoys without taking it too seriously. One of four children, she comes from a loving family and is very close to her elder sister, a literary agent who lives around the corner from her new apartment in Notting Hill Gate. Her mother, Joanna Mackie, is a former theater actress turned teacher, and her younger brother is a film student, but Ms. Blunt had little acting ambition until she started performing in school plays, where the shelter of “pretending to be someone else” incidentally helped rid her of a powerful stammer.
Still, she was “drifting around, shrugging my shoulders like every other 16-year-old” when her future agent noticed her in the musical “Bliss” at the Edinburgh International Festival. Instead of going to college to study languages and become a translator, she went straight into West End theater, then into television before landing “My Summer of Love” when she was 20.
“Acting became something I grew accustomed to doing rather than something I’d always desired,” Ms. Blunt insisted.
Spend time with her, and you discover at least two Emily Blunts. One is the self-deprecating young woman who calls herself lazy, snorts at the idea that she can sing (an Internet rumor based on backup vocals she did for an album by her former boyfriend, the Canadian musician Michael Bublé) and laments that the cello she plays rather beautifully in “My Summer of Love” mostly sits in her apartment “staring balefully at me.”
The paparazzi can’t seem to catch her doing anything worse than running errands at a Los Angeles supermarket with her current beau, John Krasinski of “The Office.” A self-described homebody, Ms. Blunt rarely hangs out on the Hollywood scene. After filming “Prada,” she moved into the guest house of Wendy Finerman, the producer of “Prada,” where she lived for six months and “became part of my family,” Ms. Finerman said. “I couldn’t wait to keep passing her along.”
Ms. Blunt said: “I have level-headed friends separate from the business, people I grew up with. I look to those to find sanctuary.” Polishing off a great slab of chicken sandwich, she leaned back and said: “Great. I inhaled that.”
Then there’s the other Emily Blunt, the one who is always looking for new roles and fresh ways to layer her characters and make them harder to read, the quick study who, according to Mr. Frankel, came to the “Prada” set every day even if she wasn’t working and gave notes about the blocking. This fall Ms. Blunt will appear as Benicio Del Toro’s love interest in a remake of the horror movie “The Wolf Man,” which, she said, “veers away from the slasher movies back to the classic ghost stories.”
She added with a touch of defiance, “I don’t care if people think I sold out doing ‘The Wolf Man.’ It’s a great movie.”
Ms. Blunt is frank about having to pay off her apartment, but she meets the suggestion that her career might bog down in supporting roles if she’s not more selective with forceful asperity. “You’ve got to see ‘The Young Victoria,’ ” she said, in which she plays the queen as, of all things, an irrepressible rebel madly in love with Albert.
“Emily has the potential to become one of the great actresses,” Mr. Frankel said. “She’s beautiful and sexy. She’s a great mimic.” And, he said, in a business full of slick talkers, she sees through phoniness.
Ask Ms. Blunt for role models, and she reels off the usual suspects: Streep, Sarandon, Mirren, Dench. Ask her whom she wants to be like, and she interrupts you midsentence with one crisply enunciated word: Blanchett.