The New York Times is reporting that David Foster Wallace died Friday at his California home. In lieu of more coherent reflections – at least for the time being – we at The Millions would like to salute a novelist whose achievements will stand in the company of American giants, and whose best work should have been ahead of him.
Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world's unknown "little" wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history's forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski's writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books - Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie - he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of "oral history," and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.Kapuscinski's singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: "The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves."Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.Some Links:New work from KapuscinskiMy review of Shah of ShahsA bit on Imperium (scroll down)A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)Excerpt from ImperiumExcerpt from Shah of ShahsExcerpt from The EmperorExcerpt from The Soccer WarExcerpt from The Shadow of the SunExcerpt from Another Day of LifeWikipedia bioKapuscinski's writing in GrantaBill Buford interviews Kapuscinski
TriQuarterly, the long-running trail-blazing literary journal more or less dreamed into existence by the late Charles Newman, is apparently no more, due to budget cuts at Northwestern University. Newman's foreword to his first issue as editor, reprinted at A Public Space, should be required reading for anyone thinking about the purpose and future of the little magazine and its role in the artistic ecology.
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn't have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut's first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I'm sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing "so it goes" today in response to Vonnegut's death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: "When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes.'"Also, I found Vonnegut's official site to be particularly poignant today.
I have been one of the few to extract a plausible living from a bookshop. When I was hired to work at Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Whitman had recently taken over running the place from her father, George. She wanted a permanent staff to confront the multitudes who flooded in on a daily basis, and she knew a good salary would keep people around. I was glad Sylvia was my boss. She was sweet and even tempered, while George was known to be irascible and unpredictable. Furthermore, everyone told me that George “didn’t like men.” (At one of his heralded Sunday breakfasts, he spied a single boy among the crowd of young female admirers and remarked, with narrowed eyes, “There’s a weed in my flower garden.”) My shift lasted from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sylvia warned me that George often came down in the evening, after she’d gone home, to engage in sabotage. Father and daughter were embroiled in a simmering conflict over “improvements.” Telephone, or cash register, or books organized by genre -- George was revolted by the idea. A few weeks earlier, under orders from the French authorities, the famously-treacherous staircase, described by Anaïs Nin as “unbelievable,” was taken down and replaced by a wider, sturdier, more conventional thing. Enraged, George attacked it with a hammer. The night of my first shift, I sat at the register, nervous that he would renew his assault. What should I do if he appeared with that hammer again? But when he turned up midway through the evening, it was not the stairs he had in mind. A friend was coming from Atlantic City. We needed another bed! Ignoring the line of waiting customers, George ordered me to climb out onto the dilapidated roof (of the 16th-century building) to retrieve a piece of rotting plywood, skewered with nails. I obliged, of course. Later, he brought me gluey pancakes, which I clandestinely flushed down the toilet. When readings were held outside the shop, George would sometimes throw chewed pieces of chicken out the fourth-story window. This was a snack for Colette, the shop dog. We all prayed the scraps would not fall on the author. George was thrillingly indifferent to appearances. When Bill Clinton visited, he descended in his pajamas to inform the former president that he had “betrayed his principals,” by executing a mentally-disabled man during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. George was epically and, at times, autocratically uninterested in anything convenient, orderly, or efficient. Cell phones? Computers? Kindles? No thanks. If we organized the books, he disorganized them. If we brought in the cleaners, he was livid. Cockroaches roamed and flourished. The wishing well was raided constantly by gypsies. George didn’t care; as long as people had books. Over the course of 60 years, he gave shelter to almost 40,000 people, many of that desperate genre: the aspiring writer. When I worked at the shop, we would often find scraps of paper under the stairwell that revealed themselves to be thank you notes to George from people like Langston Hughes or Graham Greene or Jacqueline Onassis. And so I, and the many thousands of others who passed through, add our not-quite-as-illustrious thank you notes to theirs. Photo courtesy of Harriet Lye.
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I met Iris Chang about a year and a half ago. She was passing through Los Angeles, and she stopped at the bookstore where I used to work to sign some copies of her book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. The book hadn't rewritten history and showered her with critical acclaim like The Rape of Nanking. But this time her book tour had taken her to Chinese-American cultural centers, which she seemed to appreciate. She was talkative in a quiet sort of way and lingered for a long time talking to the staff and browsing the shelves.The news that she committed suicide is a shock. As are the suggestions that she was driven to this by looking too long and too hard into the parts of human history that rest of the world works so hard to forget. We need historians and authors like Chang to remind us of what we are capable of. (More on Chang from the SF Chronicle.)