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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wilkie Collins / The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation

The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation

Wilkie Collins's novel caused unprecedented excitement when it appeared in 1859, and has not lost its capacity to thrill

Jon Michael Varese
Thu 26 Nov 2009

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Victorian readers opened Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round to find the concluding instalment of A Tale of Two Cities, and, immediately following it, the opening instalment of a new novel with no author ascribed. They joined a new protagonist, "Walter Hartright, by name," on a night-time walk over Hampstead Heath, winding on moonlit paths until they reached the intersection of the Hampstead, Finchley, West End, and London roads – somewhere in the area of where the Finchley Road tube station now stands. There they were stopped, every drop of blood in their bodies frozen still by "the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly" upon Walter's shoulder. And there, for the first time, they met the mysterious Anne Catherick –better known as The Woman in White.
Often singled out as the foundation text of "sensation fiction" – a genre distinguished by its electrifying, suspenseful, and sometimes horrific plots, as well as its unsavoury themes of intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and the like – The Woman in White was an immediate sensation in its own right. (In honour of its 150th anniversary, you can currently sign up to read the story as it was originally published, in weekly parts. There are tweets, too.) Margaret Oliphant hailed it as "a new beginning in fiction", while at the same time Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed it as "great trash". And while Henry James disliked the "ponderosity" of The Woman in White (calling it "a kind of 19th-century version of Clarissa Harlowe"), he acknowledged that the book had "introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors".

Despite such drastically mixed reviews, The Woman in White was a mad success with the public, and made no less of a sensation out of its 35-year-old author, Wilkie Collins. In middle-class dining rooms everywhere, discussion turned to the intriguing cast of characters Mr Collins had invented – mannish, eloquent Marian Halcombe; faithful and angelic Laura Fairlie; sinister, secretive Percival Glyde; and of course Count Fosco, seductive and cunning, with his cockatoo, his canary-birds, and his white mice running over his immense body. Two months in, Dickens was calling the novel "masterly", and Prince Albert admired it so much that he later sent off copies as gifts.
During its serialisation in All the Year Round (from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860), and upon its publication in book form, The Woman in White inspired not only a series of imitators (chief among them Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne [1861] and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret [1862]), but also what John Sutherland has described as a "sales mania and a franchise boom." Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. The poet Edward FitzGerald named his herring-lugger "Marian Halcombe"; cats were named Fosco and thought to look more sinister; and Walter became a fashionable name for babies. As Kenneth Robinson, one of Collins's earliest biographers, pointed out, "even Dickens had not known such incidental publicity".

While Collins was no stranger to the literary scene at the time of The Woman in White's appearance (by 1859 he had published four novels, two collections of short stories, and numerous other books and essays), he had not yet become an author of completely independent means. Unlike Dickens (his friend, boss, and mentor) he had not been catapulted to international fame by his early novels, and thus still retained his day job as a journalist. But The Woman in White changed all that. As a serial, the novel lifted the circulation of All the Year Round to even higher levels than had Dickens, and Sampson Low's first printing of 1,000 copies of the three-volume edition in August of 1860 sold out on publication day. When Smith and Elder made a £5,000 bid for Collins's next novel the following summer, Collins knew that he had made it. "FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS!!!!!!" he wrote to his mother in July of 1861. "Ha! ha! ha! Five thousand pounds, for nine months or, at most a year's work – nobody but Dickens has made as much."
Collins's storytelling talents were utterly mesmerising for Victorian readers – and they are no less captivating for readers today. He was the master of the "cliff-hanger", and given the 40 or so of them that strategically punctuate The Woman in White, it's not difficult to see why this Victorian novel continues to thrill us. Our flesh creeps when Anne Catherick places her hand on Walter's shoulder; our hearts ache when Marian Halcombe falls ill and Count Fosco violates her diary; our blood curdles when Walter Hartright stands next to his beloved's tombstone, only to look up and find her standing there. The apparitions that Collins conjures are the ghosts that ensured not just his success but his longevity. They are what have kept readers going back for more during the last 150 years, and they bear testament to the value of Collins's self-professed, "old-fashioned" opinion that "the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story ..."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self

JG Ballard
Illustration by T.A.

My hero: 

JG Ballard 

by Will Self

Saturday 14 November 2009

omorrow, on what would have been his 79th birthday, family and friends of JG Ballard will gather in London to celebrate his extraordinary life and still more extraordinary literary achievement. I don't really do "heroes", and Jim Ballard's whole outlook was antithetical to the notion of the "great man" (though less so, I suspect, to that of the "great woman"), but if I were in search of an antiheroic hero it would have to be him. When I was stranded in the doldrums of my early 20s, desperate to write fiction but uncertain that there was any way to yoke my perverse vision to any recognised form, Ballard's luminous short stories and minatory novels showed me a way forward.

Then there's the man himself. I was just one of the scores of journalists who went out to sleepy Shepperton to beard its seer, and no matter how many times we'd already been told not to expect some drug-crazed weirdo, we were all surprised to find the genial, rather bluff Jim Ballard, happy to discuss anything from the wilder shores of futurity to the pinched parochialism of England's greening.
Over 15 years I got to know this intensely private man – a little. It was difficult for me not to look to him for advice – and he showed me the respect of never providing any, save by omission, the real advice being: think for yourself. Early in life, during the Japanese occupation of his natal city, Shanghai, Ballard had learnt the vital lesson that anyone can descend effortlessly into barbarism, and so he eschewed all state-sanctioned morality and the mock heroics that bolster it up.
Ballard's contribution to literature, to the visual arts, to architectural theory and even philosophy will, I feel certain, be increasingly acknowledged in the decades to come. His writing life straddled the period from when censorship meant that commonplace thoughts could not be set down to the current era when anything can be said – but hardly anyone bothers to listen. He thus stands as the last great English avatar of the avant garde – heroism enough for anyone.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

My Hero: Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM

Antonia Fraser
Saturday 24 October 2009 00.05 BST

hat fires up a love of history in a young person? I have come to the conclusion that for every celebrated historian who sets the youthful imagination ablaze, there are quite as many quirky individuals, in my case a Catholic nun at a convent school to which I was sent, initially as a Protestant, at the age of 14. It is true that I had already discovered history for myself. I regarded it as a private, even secret pleasure; my parents had both been classicists at university. As a romantic eldest child, I dreamed of castles and queens – and of course knights and princes, princes charming. But oddly enough no history was officially taught at the Dragon School, Oxford, which I had attended for four years, something I have recently checked from the printed reports, in case I had, in that useful modern phrase, misremembered.

It was not until I reached St Mary's Convent, Ascot, that I encountered an inspired teacher of history who was as entranced by the subject as I was. Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM had educational qualifications summed up in the official history of the school as follows: she "sort of blew in from Ireland". But she had the supreme qualification of enthusiasm: suddenly history was no longer private but an exciting public topic on which we were all entitled – no, encouraged – to have views. I can still see her now, her cheerful, slightly rubicund face (the stiff white coifs and black habits of the 1940s tended to exaggerate the colours of the complexion) and soft Irish accent as she began with the words she pronounced as often as possible: "The Empress Maria Theresa . . ." Many years later, writing about Marie Antoinette, I criticised the empress quite strongly as a mother. For Marie Antoinette, unlike me, was 15th out of a family of 16, and also unlike me had a mother who paid little attention to her education. Suddenly I could hear Mother Mercedes's reproachful words in my ear and for a moment it seemed ungrateful to criticise the woman she admired, when she herself had done so much for me.


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, October 17, 2009

My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen

My hero Fridtjof Nansen

Sara Wheeler
Saturday 17 October 2009 00.07 BST

olar exploration tends to attract more testosterone than talent, and in the Arctic department expeditions have generally concluded with an inglorious bout of shoe-eating. One man towers over the other ice-encrusted sledgers: Fridtjof Nansen, colossus of the glaciers. In August 1895, he and stoker Hjalmar Johansen battled to 86 degrees north on maple-wood skis, just 230 miles short of the pole. Theirs was the biggest single advance in polar travel for four centuries.

A long-faced Norseman with a touch of the archetypal brooding Scandinavian (as well as a hint of the Sphinx), Nansen was born near Christiania, the former name of Oslo, in 1861, and in the course of a tumultuous life became an outstanding scientist, diplomat and humanitarian as well as an explorer. He was a founder of neurology, discovering that nerve fibres, on entering the spinal cord, bifurcate into ascending and descending branches. They are still known as Nansen's fibres. A Nobel peace prize was among many laurels bestowed for his work as a League of Nations high commissioner, in the course of which he had originated the Nansen passport for refugees.

Following independence in 1905, he became his country's first ambassador to the Court of St James's, and at one point almost rose to the position of Norwegian prime minister. Perhaps that is why he was a better explorer (and writer) than the rest: he did other things – a man for all seasons. Nansen sensed at a profound level the "yearning after light and knowledge", and, almost uniquely, was able to marry that understanding to physical capability and snowcraft.
When I camped on the Greenland icecap, I sensed the ghostly presence of Nansen. (It was he, along with five companions, who made the first crossing of that huge country). Of all the frozen beards who had been there before me, only Nansen communicated a sense of the true subjugation of the ego that endeavour can bring. Failure, he acknowledged, would mean "only disappointed human hopes, nothing more". This great poet of northern latitudes concluded: "If we perish, what will it matter in the endless cycle of eternity?"


Saturday, September 26, 2009

My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith

My hero: Edward Goldsmith

Saturday 26 September 2009 00.01 BST

My uncle Teddy died last month and I will miss him enormously. But his death is more than a personal blow.
Teddy was an early pioneer of the green movement. He launched the Ecologist magazine four decades ago, and his Blueprint for Survival was a defining document. It sold in huge numbers, and inspired countless young people to get involved. He helped set up the first green political party - People, which later became the Green party.
Teddy's slogan was "No deserts in Suffolk", and to capture people's attention, he recruited a camel. He lost his deposit, and in a bizarre twist was chased by a paper-waving official who accused him of animal cruelty, citing the effects on the camel of breathing in car fumes. "That's exactly my point," Teddy declared. "Imagine what it's doing to us!"
Today we're all green. But when Teddy started out, he was virtually alone. His was a decision to stand apart from his peers, risk marginalisation and even ridicule. But he never minded. When he was described by an Italian bishop as "the anti-Christ", he was flattered. When President Suharto of Indonesia labelled him an "enemy of the state", he wore it as a badge of honour. The insults went on and on, and he relished them all.
Part of the reason was that he was hard to pigeonhole. In some ways he was conservative; he had huge respect for traditional societies and he hated change. When I introduced glossy paper to the Ecologist, he thought it was outlandish. But he was also radical and courageous. Whenever the Ecologist was sent legal threats, his reaction was always the same: "Bring it on!"
Near the end of his life, Teddy said; "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." He did more than that. He was responsible, perhaps more than anyone else, for waking us up from our collective slumber. He will remain a hero of mine, and if we survive the crisis, he will be revered by many, many others.