Writing through time, real and imagined.

David Hockney paintings on the cover of the UK editions of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet.

About three-quarters of the way through Ali Smith’s novel, Autumn, a young woman named Elisabeth pulls a chair up to the bedside of an elderly former neighbor whom she is visiting in a care home. He is asleep, or drifting in and out of the past and present of nearly a hundred years of dreams.

She’d brought the chair from the corridor. She’d shut the door to the room. She’d opened the book she bought today. She’d started to read from the beginning, quite quietly, out loud. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it…

On the stories of Clarice Lispector.

Today — December 10, 2020 — marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Clarice Lispector, whose fictions have proved abiding in their apprehensive eloquence. Colm Tóibín called her “one of the hidden geniuses of the twentieth century,” and her Complete Stories, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson and edited by Lispector’s biographer, Benjamin Moser, puts that genius in plain sight.

Some writers occupy chairs, some rooms, some houses — some whole neighborhoods of affect and action. Others of singular inspiration, such as Joyce, compose entire cities with their words, or, like Kafka, create strange dominions entirely their…

Celebrating Edna O’Brien on her 90th birthday.

Edna O”Brien at Hay Festival 2016, photo by Andrew Lih [detail].

In addition to being one of the most accomplished fiction writers in English in the past hundred years, Edna O’Brien possesses an intensity of purpose and a force of personality — one might more simply call this bravery — that make her seem a heroine worthy of Madame de Staël or George Eliot. O’Brien’s rebellion against the repressive strictures of the Ireland in which she was raised is well documented. Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), engaged sexual and social themes previously off-limits in the suffocating sanctimony of her mid-twentieth-century homeland. Indeed, her debut and its sequels (The Lonely…


John le Carré (1931–2020)

A British intelligence agent throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, David Cornwell, under the pseudonym John le Carré, went on to use his personal experience of the ethically destitute climate of Cold War espionage to create a fictional world more unglamorous, chilling, and dispirited than any previously ventured by a writer of spy thrillers — and more gripping and compelling in just about every way. In thrall to “the expediency of temporary alliances” that makes them pawns in an amoral but mortal calculus, his always compromised characters move through an alienated existence wearing the masks of their assumed identities.

Page-turning as pilgrimage.

In 2012, the acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer published a book-length essay about his long intimacy as a reader with Graham Greene (1904–1991), capturing in his title — The Man Within My Head — the fascination Greene has held for many. It’s something of a mystery how Greene’s oeuvre, consisting mostly of books that take the unassuming dimensions of commercial fiction, can so haunt the mind, insinuating profound questions of imposture and authenticity into our ruminations and — Greene being Greene — our prayers.

For much of his career, Graham Greene divided his output into “novels” and “entertainments” — the…


On reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet

“We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.” So Elena Greco, called Lenù by those who know her, describes the adventure that cements her friendship with Raffaella Cerullo, known familiarly as Lina or Lila, a friendship that Lenù will narrate across six decades in the novels of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. …

Eight soulful books of contemplation and inspiration.

Frank O’Hara once called a collection of his poems Meditations in an Emergency, a title that nicely encompasses most human reflections on faith, fate, and fear, three themes that come together, in different ways, in each of the eight volumes of collected here.

Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) is one of the most intriguing spiritual figures of the twentieth century. An enormously talented writer possessed of a bohemian temperament, a prodigious literary energy, and a searching mind, he retreated from the world in his early twenties, giving his spiritual restlessness a forbidding and yet ultimately freeing destination: a Trappist monastery in Kentucky…

On reading other people’s diaries, with recommendations worth spending time with.

There’s no book I’d rather have at my bedside than a good diary; never having been able to keep one myself, I enjoy marking the passage of days in someone else’s life in the discrete segments daily entries offer. The pleasure of such reading is cumulative, an accretion of details that provides all the joy of getting letters without the worry of writing back. A special quality of immediacy enlivens a diarist’s prose with provisional perceptions. “In diaries, as in life,” suggests Thomas Mallon, “people are much more changeable than they are in novels.” …

On the evolving lives of minds and words, from Oliver Sacks to the Oxford English Dictionary to T. S. Eliot.

In a 1990 essay called “Neurology and the Soul,” a piece considering then-recent books on mind, memory, and consciousness, Oliver Sacks wrote with some excitement of Gerald M. Edelman’s concept of neural Darwinism, or neuronal group selection. Elucidating Edelman’s theory of the ongoing evolution within individuals of neuronal maps that shaped perception, Sacks explained:

In each human being, things are constantly shifting in their significance, as is the underlying neurophysiological response. Neuronal groups are organized into sheets of brain tissue, called maps, which respond to different kinds of external stimuli — auditory, visual, and tactile — as well as to…


A small survey of large achievements in Russian fiction

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were integral to the flowering of the Russian novel in the nineteenth century. That flowering . . . would seem to represent one of the three principal moments of triumph in the history of western literature, the other two being the time of the Athenian dramatists and Plato and the age of Shakespeare. In all three the western mind leapt forward into darkness by means of poetic intuition . . .

Those words were written by George Steiner, who died on February 3rd at the age of ninety. They are from one of his most memorable books…

James Mustich

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/

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