Readers of James Joyce will be well used to flipping back and forth between the main text and endnotes, or perhaps keeping Google at hand, to find explanation for some obscure reference to Irish politics or a piece of 100-year-old Dublin slang. It is this specificity of setting and precision of detail that Joyce contended was a crucial cornerstone of his work, arguing that “In the particular is contained the universal.” This point may be made most accessible in "The Dead," the final short story in his collection Dubliners. Although, like all of his fiction, it is rooted firmly in specifics of Irish culture, it is structured around the universally familiar time of Christmas, and its very meaning hinges upon this seasonal setting. Even if one is not an active participant in annual yuletide celebrations, popular culture has ensured that we all recognise the greeting card image of the traditional Christmas gathering: friends and family joined in a single warm home, with the snow falling outside, to enjoy food, drink, music, speeches, and general merrymaking. Joyce’s story presents this exact Christmas-time setting. However, his narrative does not move in the same stream of hokey sentimentality that so many Christmas stories do: he keeps the unfortunate exchanges, conversational faux pas, and awkward silences, which are such an inevitability, firmly intact. Although Joyce may not believe in any notion of idealization of the holiday season, he nonetheless suggests that this Christmas romanticism, that we all on some level buy into, can in fact be the catalyst for moments of profound realization. Indeed, the story ends with the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiencing one of the most famous epiphanies in all of literature, which is directly inspired by the preceding Christmas celebrations: “He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.” The absence of a question mark in this last sentence suggests that these Christmas celebrations, even if Gabriel does recognize them as “foolish,” are a necessary component in bringing him to his epiphany, by forcing him into a more emotional state of mind. This emotional resonance of the Christmas season may come in part due to its unique ability to force us to simultaneously confront both the past and future. Situated on the cusp of the New Year, Christmas is a natural time for reflection, whilst also providing a hope of some new beginning. Furthermore, the image of snow -- the blank white surface -- is suggestive of a sense of optimistic forward thinking, and the nostalgia that comes from bringing family together is bound to force the mind backwards. This duality implicit in the Christmas tradition is also embodied in the two most enduringly popular Christmas narratives of our time: Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories take their protagonists on journeys into alternate realities based on decisions they have made in the past, and decisions they might make in the future, culminating in an epiphany of redemption. While "The Dead" also forces its protagonist to examine the past and an imagined future, its ending is much more ambiguous and has none of the redemptive qualities of Dickens or Capra. This is reflected through the fact that unlike these narratives "The Dead" does not take place on Christmas Eve, which allows an opportunity for change before the day itself, but rather on the final day of the “Christmas-time” period -- the day known fittingly as Epiphany. By setting his story in the wake of Christmas, Joyce implies that it is too late for change, with that possibility lying dead in the past. Furthermore, the fact that he informs us of the story’s Epiphany setting by referring to a New Year’s resolution already broken (the "reformed" drunk Freddy Malins gets “screwed” at the party), reinforces the notion that a failure to self-improve is a theme at the story’s center. The image Gabriel conjures of his grandfather on horseback, endlessly circling a statue in town on his confused horse, also suggests an inability to move forward, and is part of a larger tapestry within Dubliners that presents all of Ireland in a state of “paralysis.” Likewise, Gabriel’s assured vision of the future, in which he imagines his aunt’s funeral and thinks “that would happen very soon,” suggests a sense of impending death, with no chance of aversion. His prophetic name further implies the certainty of this future, and seems to end the story on a note of undiluted bleakness. However, although "The Dead" does not offer hope in the straightforward way that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life do, there is surely some hope in the fact that Gabriel experiences an epiphany at all. If everything in the world were truly in “paralysis,” this moment of transcendence and absolute truth-seeing would not be possible, and although it brings no joy, it is a key moment of recognition and self-understanding; a moment of growth. What Joyce presents us with in "The Dead" is a true, unidealized epiphany. In the real world epiphanies are hard -- we do not have literal ghosts and angels to gently guide us towards them. And that is why Joyce’s story is the perfect coda for the holiday season. As we leave Christmas, which is a time of fantasy -- taking us away from the routine of our normal lives, and saturating us in narratives of schmaltz -- "The Dead" represents a return to reality; a reality in which brief moments of self-realization are hard-won, and even when they do come they do not necessarily offer any possibility of tangible change. For Joyce, the true epiphanies do not come during Christmas, amidst wine and tinsel and distant relatives, but after the celebrations have died down, when we find ourselves alone, awake in the witching hour with only our own imagined ghosts of the past and the “shades” of the future to keep us company. Image Credit: Flickr/formatc1
Back in 2011, my cousin bought me a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson for Christmas. The biography had been released a couple of months earlier, less than three weeks after Jobs’s death, and had become an immediate bestseller -- one of those books that makes the transitional leap from the bookstore to the "impulse-buy" shelf by the supermarket checkout, and the kind of thing I snobbishly regard with suspicion while waiting to pay for my kale. I really had no notion as to why my cousin would choose to buy this particular book for me. I am not only something of a luddite, but am also a sworn enemy of Apple, the company which Jobs co-founded. During my teenage years, I spent most of my savings on an iPod Mini, only for the battery to die after 11 months. Although it was covered by a one-year warranty, when I made my claim they told me that for battery-related issues the warranty is a mere six months, and that the cost for one of their technicians to replace the battery would be almost as much as the iPod itself. After that experience, I swore I would never buy another of their overpriced products again, and have held a deep personal grudge against Jobs and his cohort ever since. Thus when I opened the wrapping paper on that Christmas afternoon five years ago to find myself confronted by the arrogant stare of Steve Jobs, I smiled and said a polite word of thanks, and then immediately disregarded the book, exiling it to a bottom corner of my bookshelf, where it has been gathering dust ever since. Earlier this year, for my birthday, I received a copy of the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film Steve Jobs on DVD. (Yes, I still watch DVDs. I told you I was a luddite.) Although the subject of Jobs did not strike me as being any more interesting in 2016 than it did in 2011, and I still had not forgiven him for the iPod Mini incident, it seemed as though some invisible hand in the universe was intent on forcing him into my life, and so, encouraged by the row of five-star reviews on the DVD cover, I decided to give it a chance. I ended up being surprised not only by how much I enjoyed the film, but how interesting I found the historical context of Apple and the early days of developing computer technology. The film stayed in my mind for a few days, and, becoming unexpectedly eager to dig a little deeper into the facts behind the fictionalized Sorkinese dialogue, I decided to commit myself to trying out the 600-page Isaacson tome on the much-mythologized Jobs. Lo and behold, the book I had not given a second glance half a decade ago ended up being one of my favorite books of 2016. That is not to say that it converted me to the Church of Apple, but it introduced me to new perspectives on technology that I had not previously considered, such as why Jobs believed it was essential that the iPod Mini had no convenient flap to easily replace a dead battery, and the advantages and disadvantages that stem from this "closed system" model. Jobs never wanted the seams or screws to be visible on any of his products, wishing them to be complete entities in themselves, which could not be corrupted by any inferior outside components. This approach yielded great success for Apple, and helped bring a sense of beauty into the world of computing, which had previously been dominated by clunky and unattractive machines. As someone who has grown up in the age of computer technology, I suppose I had never questioned many of these digital facts of life before. To me, elements such as the great Apple/Microsoft divide have simply always been part of the natural order of things, and it had never really occurred to me how intertwined the destinies of the two companies have been, and how the progress of computer technology might have turned out entirely differently had either one of them not existed. I learned more from Isaacson’s biography than I have from a single book in a long time, simply by virtue of the fact that it concerned a subject I previously knew nothing about and assumed I had no interest in. It is a credit to Isaacson that he manages to make the complex evolving world of computer technology so accessible and fascinating to a novice like me; when he concludes that Jobs will be placed “in the pantheon next to Edison and Ford” I can now see where he is coming from, where previously I would have, in my ignorance, snorted in disbelief at the notion. The Edison and Ford comparison strikes me as particularly apt, in that Jobs was not necessarily the greatest engineer himself, but seems to have had the clairvoyant ability to see the potential in other people’s inventions and predict what the customer wanted before they themselves knew. With this greatness came a darker side to his personality, which allowed him to take credit for other people’s ideas, berate his employees for not being able to meet his impossible standards, and neglect his familial responsibilities. Isaacson does not shy away from these more negative qualities, and is able to portray the complexity of Jobs -- a man you may admire, but would probably not invite to your home for dinner -- while also preserving that aura of enigma which inevitably surrounds anyone who achieves things that defy easy explanation. Steve Jobs was not necessarily my favorite book of the year (that title would probably go to Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity) but it affected me in the most significant way, and will probably be the book I end up recommending most often. It is a book which, for one pretentious reason or another, I considered to be outside of the realm of my interest, and it never would have occurred to me to read it had it not fallen into my lap. It also reminded me of something that is easily forgotten: namely, that the unexpected book has the greatest potential to surprise you, and offers the greatest potential for learning outside of one’s normal cultural sphere. Without even noticing it, many of us are guilty of trapping ourselves into small pockets of literature. So, inspired by my enjoyment of Steve Jobs, I am making a New Year’s resolution to embrace the unexpected book; to make an effort to read things I have never heard of, on subjects I know nothing about. If 2016 was able to introduce me to the book that would finally allow me to forgive Steve Jobs for the iPod Mini, I’m looking forward to seeing how my mind will be changed by the unexpected books of 2017.
As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days. However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics. If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food. Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school. After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce. Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach. These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer. My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals -- “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.) Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid -- they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy. Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam -- she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas -- enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.
Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to a single article for the first and only time in its history. With no prior announcement or warning, the August 31st, 1946 issue eschewed the magazine’s trademark cartoons and "Talk of the Town" section in favor of something less frivolous: a 30,000-word article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The article appeared just over a year after the bombing, and became a surprise sensation: the issue sold out almost as soon as it hit the stands, was reprinted as a special edition giveaway for U.S. Book of the Month Club subscribers, and went on to sell more than three million copies in book form. The piece’s title -- Hiroshima -- represented the intentions of its author, John Hersey; that it is to say, it suggested an air of neutrality. Hersey’s article was not to be a clear-cut damnation of the bombing quoting facts and figures about casualties and the decimation of infrastructure. Rather it would be a simple declaration of the human aspect, somehow so often ignored in the nuclear debate, deferring judgment to the reader. In a style that would later be recognised as a highly influential precursor to the New Journalism movement, Hersey’s article combines the narrative conventions of fiction with intensive research, creating a nonfiction account of the aftermath of the bombing following the intertwined stories of six survivors, all of them ordinary civilians. There is Miss Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk whose leg is broken when the building she is in collapses. She is rescued, but, unable to walk, she is forced to spend three days under a makeshift corrugated iron shack with no food and water. Her companions are “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” None of them speak once for the duration of the three days. There is also Father Kleinsorge, a German priest who seems to come away from the blast relatively unscathed, but suffers for months afterwards from a terrible undiagnosed sickness and finds the cuts he sustains never seem to heal, continually opening up again. Likewise, Mrs. Nakamura and her children suffer from a lingering illness, with her hair falling out in clumps until she is completely bald. Like so many other survivors she also finds herself destitute -- everything she has ever owned is destroyed in the blast. And yet, Hersey reminds us that these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima” -- the survivors -- and in doing so, he highlights the absurd nature of this kind of indiscriminate weaponry. He tells us that Dr. Sasaki, one of the six protagonists, “calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.” With this realization, every moment of Dr Sasaki’s life gains a sudden significance, because every small factor -- every pause, every moment of chance -- becomes an element leading him to the pure luck of his survival. And what did he do to make him any more worthy of living than anyone else? Hersey suggests all of these themes in a voice of absolute detachment and neutrality. His voice is clearly not aligned to “the Americans,” nor is it to the Japanese. In a way this voice of calm seems almost to emanate from the bomb itself: describing the horrors wrought in a neutral tone that knows nothing can be done to change the reality of what has happened. Although Hersey’s voice is characterized by its impartiality, it is important to emphasize that part of the popular success of Hiroshima stemmed from its ability to truly put American readers into the perspective of the victims for the very first time. When people speak of the atomic bombings as a justified preventative action, or, indeed, when anyone speaks of nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, it is always from the perspective of the aggressor. Hersey’s narrative put readers on the ground, amid the confusion and the fear and the suffering, reminding us that the 100,000 lives sacrificed to potentially save 1,000,000 others included hospital patients, schoolchildren, doctors, mothers, priests, and all manner of ordinary people. Hersey showed the readers of The New Yorker that the victims were people just like them, and it was his gifts as a storyteller (just the year before he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) combined with his journalistic skills that gave the piece its resonance and humane power. Hiroshima ends with the voice of the child -- Hersey quotes from a school essay written by one of Mrs. Nakamura’s children. The child recalls the bombing and aftermath with a sense of excitement, and even fondness. Perhaps the child is still too young to understand the full impact of everything he has seen, but by ending with this voice, Hersey suggests a sense of dread for the next generation; a generation normalized to violence and mass destruction. The structure of Hiroshima reinforces this, with each of the four parts covering a longer period of time: the first narrates the moment of impact, the second the next few hours, the third the next few days, and the final part the following months. This expansion of time moves the reader exponentially further and further from the moment of destruction, highlighting the speed with which a tragedy of this magnitude can become ordinary to us and be forgotten. Indeed, one of the most horrifying things about Hiroshima is the speed with which the survivors, and the city, return to a state of routine and normality. In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that Hiroshima is as relevant as ever. Drone warfare is now a simple fact of life, and the nuclear threat still very much exists. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was asked whether she would be “prepared to authorize the nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children,” to which she answered, without hesitation or preceding clarification: “Yes.” Perhaps such a sense of assurance is considered a necessary component of leadership, and perhaps any sign of hesitation would be construed as a weakness and a political shot in the foot. However, if Hersey’s Hiroshima teaches us anything it is that there is no such thing as assurance when it comes to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it suggests that we need leaders who will hesitate; who will consider the woman who puts out her arm for help, only for her skin to slip “off in huge, glove-like pieces.” We need leaders who will stop for a moment to think about the men with empty eye sockets, “the fluid from their melted eyes” pouring down their faces, and remember that the world cannot be so easily divided into "friend" and "enemy." Hesitation is, in fact, what gives us our humanity, and blind assurance is what robs us of it. So consider this anniversary an invitation to hesitate. As is only proper, The New Yorker has made an exception to its subscribers-only policy for access to their archives. You can read John Hersey’s timeless article here. You can read it now, and imagine the many lives that might have been.
The Story of Kullervo, the first known prose work by J.R.R. Tolkien, is to be published this week in the United States, offering fans of Middle Earth a chance to read what may be one of the earliest sources for Tolkien’s quintessential literary fantasy realm. The story is a retelling of the tragedy of Kullervo from The Kalevala, a Finnish saga compiling oral folklore, which was first published in 1835. The world of The Kalevala proved to be an immense influence on Tolkien’s writings, as did the circumstances of its publication, which reclaimed a national mythology for Finland; Tolkien later expressed an aspiration to do the same for England. As well as Tolkien’s story (which is unfinished, with the conclusion rendered only in a brisk outline), this volume includes an introduction, notes, and concluding essay by editor Verlyn Flieger, as well as two manuscript versions of a lecture Tolkien delivered on the subject of The Kalevala. The publisher’s claim that this represents a “world first publication of a previously unknown work” is disingenuous, given that almost all of these materials have appeared previously: the story and lectures in the annual academic journal Tolkien Studies in 2010, and the concluding essay in Flieger’s own Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien in 2012. Misleading marketing is nothing new in publishing, but while this is not a deception approaching the scale of, for example, Go Set a Watchman -- mostly because there was never really any doubt that this would be only of interest to academics and committed Tolkien fans -- it still leaves a bitter taste. Fortunately, the target audience will find plenty to interest it in The Story of Kullervo, perhaps most significantly the title character, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, one of the most important characters in the First Age of Middle Earth. Túrin appears in the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most fully in The Children of Húrin in 2007. The “hapless Kullervo” directly parallels Túrin in a number of respects -- both lose their fathers at an early age, unwittingly commit incest with their estranged sisters, and kill themselves by falling upon their own swords. The story offers early glimpses of numerous other Middle Earth tropes. For example, this story marks Tolkien’s earliest use of verse and song within a prose narrative, a stylistic element that pointed to his love of Germanic and Nordic sagas and would become a defining feature of his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings. Likewise, some names are reminiscent of those that would become significant in Tolkien’s legendarium, with Wanwe and Ilu evolving into Manwë, King of the Valar, and Ilúvatar, the omnipotent Creator, respectively. Fans of The Hobbit might also notice a potential precursor in Kullervo’s journey down a river in a barrel, and more devoted Tolkienites might see an amalgam of Galadriel and the Blue Wizards in the mysterious figure of the “Blue-robed Lady of the Forest.” Although this will likely be the chief source of interest for readers, it would be unfortunate to summarize The Story of Kullervo solely in relation to Tolkien’s later work. The story itself is an enjoyable and creative reworking of the Kullervo myth, and serves as great introduction for those unfamiliar with Finnish folklore. As one of Tolkien’s earliest writings (he was still an undergraduate when he wrote it) there is clearly still plenty of room for stylistic development, and his confusing habit of changing the names of characters without explanation will undoubtedly alienate some readers. However, for those willing to stay with it, The Story of Kullervo presents a captivating story. It also reveals a much darker side to Tolkien; he evidently takes relish in the many moments of violence, manipulating the rash Kullervo (whose name Tolkien tells us means "wrath") towards his tragic fate. The most significant problem, however, is that the story breaks off after less than 40 pages, meaning that it takes up only around one-fifth of the volume to which it gives its title. One hesitates to use the word "filler," but the book leaves the distinct impression that there is not quite enough material here to justify publication in its own volume. For instance, Tolkien’s two draft lecture manuscripts are almost identical in places, yet both are published in full with their own separate sets of notes. Likewise, although Flieger’s essay is insightful, presented alongside her introduction and extensive notes, it is virtually rendered redundant, repeating facts and background information that (in some cases) have already been cited twice before. Aside from the lectures, it is disappointing not to see any other writings by Tolkien on The Kalevala included in this volume. At least one unpublished poem, "The New Lemminkäinen," a parody of W.F. Kirby’s translation of The Kalevala written by Tolkien in 1911, is known to exist, and might have bulked up the page count while also providing a rare insight into Tolkien’s sense of humor. Whether this text was made available to Flieger or not remains unknown, but it would certainly not have been out of place here, and would have provided a little more justification for this volume’s existence. Flieger herself seems to express a sense of uneasiness regarding the necessity of this publication in her introduction, ultimately concluding that the story deserves a wider audience. However, it is hard to see this book, which is decidedly academic in approach, being of much interest to anyone who is not already at least somewhat versed in Tolkien scholarship. But perhaps this is the volume’s ulterior purpose, or at least its unintended consequence: to address that division between academics and casual readers. Like that of Harper Lee’s, the value of Tolkien’s name ensures that thousands of fans will buy this book; if that results in them being introduced to the writings that influenced him so heavily and are so little read these days outside of academic circles, that is surely a good thing. It will undoubtedly bring greater attention to The Kalevala, and Tolkien -- always more comfortable in the role of academic than bestselling writer -- would probably have approved.
After his first collection of short stories and a novel were commercial failures, Yann Martel surprised the world with Life of Pi, the best-selling phenomenon that won him the Man Booker Prize in 2002. He then took a break from fiction for almost a decade, focussing on a letter-writing campaign to then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during which Martel sent Harper a book every fortnight along with an explanation of why the PM should read it. In 2010 Martel published his third novel, the much-anticipated Beatrice and Virgil, which divided critics and audiences with its allegorical take on the Holocaust. Now, with The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel revisits familiar themes like faith and grief, traveling surprising territory. If Martel has made a career out of anything, it is upsetting expectations, and this is an unexpected book, comprising three separate stories that span the 20th century and cover everything from the dawn of the motor vehicle to theosophical musings on Jesus and Agatha Christie, connected by the unlikely device of chimpanzee biology. The Millions caught up with Martel in Waterstone’s bookstore in Manchester, England, during the U.K. leg of his book tour for a conversation as wide-ranging as his novels, covering Jesus, animal husbandry, and J.M. Coetzee’s one bad novel. TM: This book has had quite a long gestation period. It was the book you were trying to write when you went to India, where you ending up writing Life of Pi. This book is kind of about family and homecoming -- do you think you were too young to write the book at that time, that you had to become a father in order to write it? YM: Hmm...I hadn’t thought of that actually. Not that I’m aware of. Because I also started working on a novel that’s set in Portugal in my early-20s when I was at university. And there I couldn’t do it just because I was too immature. I didn’t know how to tell a story. I just had ideas, I had these little cards all over the wall full of ideas. And at that time the story had a talking dog. I had other characters too, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t actually start writing paragraph after paragraph telling a story with these little notes on the wall. And then the same thing happened in India. I had all kinds of elements. I had characters. I had a senator, as I do in the book now, but in that version he was addicted to electricity exactly like you would be to a drug. So there were elements, but it didn’t come together. It’s only after my last novel, Beatrice and Virgil, that it somehow all came together. But I hadn’t thought of fatherhood...That might be, but I’m not sure. I just finally came of age that I could write the book. TM: But it sounds like it’s a completely different book than it would have been. YM: Yeah, well…Animals, crucifixes, Portugal, you know, those sort of remain. But you’re right, the Agatha Christie stuff is completely new, the pathology stuff too. TM: In this version, the predominant animal in the book is the chimpanzee. YM: Yes, there’s a chimpanzee each in each of the three parts, but in a different form. In the first it’s, to use that old academic term, reified. In the second part it’s sort of an imaginary chimpanzee in someone’s body. And then in the last part there’s a real one. My idea was: what are the three kinds of relationships we have with faith? TM: When I think of a chimpanzee I think about Charles Darwin, evolution, the Scopes Monkey Trial – science, basically. Whereas, you’re subverting that and using the chimpanzee as a religious image. YM: Yes, I chose the chimpanzee precisely because of its Darwinian associations. I definitely used it in that context: that chimps are incredibly close to us, but not. You know, we share 97 percent of our genetic material. I wanted something that would be uncomfortably close, so close enough that we can see a kinship, but far enough that if you put it on a crucifix you’d be outraged. You’d see that there’s a traditional disconnect between putting a chimpanzee on a cross. So I wanted something that would hark to that 19th-century discovery that suddenly brought animals close to us. Because it’s interesting if you look at the history of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, other religions have a lot of animals in them. Christianity is typified by a complete absence of animals. Well, look at the Old Testament -- it’s full of animals. The New Testament there’s far less of them. Literally far fewer mentioned. They are purely symbolic -- the lamb of God, the fish as a symbol for Jesus. That has nothing to do with fish or lambs. They’re purely symbolic. And then Darwin comes in brilliantly and suddenly says “You know these things that you’ve completely forgotten, that you thought were automatons with no souls, no feelings? Actually they’re a lot closer to us, they’re cousins.” And he brings them really right close up to us and I wanted one of the ones that was brought closest to us, which was the greater apes. So you’re right, it’s exactly because of that play with Darwin. But it was also interesting to me, if you had a chimpanzee on a cross, as they ask themselves in the novel, does that reduce Jesus? Or does it elevate creation? To me it’s ambiguous, one of those ambiguities I wanted to let rest with the reader. Or, since Jesus is supposed to be God made human, that means a chimpanzee is 97 percent human-like, and therefore 97 percent Jesus-like. So there’s a divine echo. And, as I’ve said in a few interviews now, I find that fits also because if you read about religious figures, or any number of wise people, they have a sense of presence. There’s a very strong sense in religious figures that they are right here, right now, really imbued in the present moment. So when Jesus talks to a leper he’s fully addressing that leper, his full divinity is there and the leper is completely stunned. That extraordinary sense of presence is a very animal-like quality. Animals have a very strong sense of presence. Your dog, your cat, when it looks at you, all it’s thinking about is the present moment. They are trapped, in a sense, in the present. They have memory, of course, but it’s a kind of memory that is only triggered for purposes of usefulness. So, you come into the room it remembers you, therefore it interacts with you. But it’s only looked at in the present moment. And animals have no capacity to entertain the future. So, in a funny way, Jesus has a very animal-like quality, and animals have a very Jesus-like quality. And the ones who are in between those two extremes are us, who have such a difficult time being in the present. We are constantly worried about the past, and dealing with our past, in a very self-aware way, in a very unconscious way too. And we’re always worried about the future. We’re worried about climate change, and then we’re worried about what our mothers did to us when we were young. And it’s a present moment that seems the one that slips by unnoticed, even though it’s the only one that actually exists. How’s that for a long-winded answer? I can’t even remember what your question was. TM: [Laughs.] No, it’s great! I was going to say it reminded me of something Richard Dawkins often says when he’s asked about the relationship between humans and animals. He brings up this image of all of the missing links between humans and chimpanzees, standing in evolutionary order: each would be able to mate with the one next to it on either side and produce offspring, so at what point along the line do you mark the cut-off between human and animal? And you’re kind of extending that: chimpanzee, to human, to God. YM: Absolutely, to divine figures. To me, it’s funny, it’s clearly more than just a quantitative break with the great apes; it is qualitative. The fact that we share 97-point-something of our genetic material is remarkable. But, that two-point-whatever-it-is difference is like the difference between butterscotch pudding and chocolate pudding. They’re mostly similar, but the key ingredient makes all the difference between chocolateness and butterscotchness. That’s why I always find animals are carriers of an ineffable mystery. If you look in the eyes of a gorilla or of a chimpanzee, it is vaguely troubling because you do get a sense that there’s some sort of contemplation taking place there. There’s some sort of rudimentary brain thinking, emoting…Emoting in a way that’s more self-reflective, than your average animals emoting. You know, there’s a sense in the higher apes that there’s a kind of proto-thinking. And I just find that like…Wow! Why do we have so much intelligence? We have such aggressive intelligence, and it’s not doing us any good. We’re destroying our planet; we’re throwing things completely off-balance. Whereas the gorilla lives in stasis with nature in a state of balance. So they have just enough intelligence. Like all animals, they’re just intelligent enough to survive. We clearly have an excess of it. And so, you’re right, you wonder at what point there was that jump and why. TM: At one moment in the book, you describe an animal research lab as a kind of “Auschwitz” for chimpanzees, and in your last novel Beatrice and Virgil you touch on similar themes: one of the characters is writing an allegorical play about the Holocaust using animals, and it’s said that he’s doing this to “speak of the extermination of animal life.” So what are your thoughts on the way that humans treat animals in the present day? Do you think it’s something that future generations will look back on with amazement and disgust? YM: It’s funny, that’s a question I would only get in England. It’s a wonderful question. I think our treatment of animals is deeply, deeply schizophrenic. So, on the one hand -- and it’s even more schizophrenic in North America -- you have people who will spend thousands and thousands of pounds on vet bills for their little puppy, and at the same time there’s industrial, mechanized slaughter of animals on a daily basis to feed our excessive fondness for meat. So, even in England, where animal husbandry is probably the best in the world, nonetheless the fact is they’re still brought in and slaughtered. So I think it’s schizophrenic. My problem with meat -- I used to be a vegetarian, now I eat meat again -- is really the not taking of responsibility. So I don’t mind someone going out there blasting away at a deer with a rifle, because you have to get up early in the morning, try to get your deer, shoot at it, get it right, kill it, drag it to some place -- you’ve earned your meat then. What I object to is the idea of going to a supermarket and just taking this meat that you have no idea where it came from. For a couple of pounds or dollars you get the remnants of a sentient being. So that I find disturbing and I find it desensitizes us to sentient beings. So, in a sense, you mistreat animals, you eventually will mistreat human beings. If you’re casual to animal life you will eventually be casual to human life. We overvalue a tiny number of species and disregard the ones that we eat, and disregard the ones that are wild. And I think, in some ways, it is un-Christian, which is why I like the idea of the chimpanzee -- I think it elevates creation. TM: You’ve mentioned a number of times that J.M. Coetzee is your favorite living writer. Obviously he’s known for talking a lot about animals in his books as well, and you both use allegory quite a lot. Would you say that he was a particular influence on this book? I noticed in The High Mountains of Portugal that the narrative is all in the present tense, which is a stylistic device that he uses. YM: Definitely the present tense. In fact, the first draft was in the past tense and I found it didn’t work. And Coetzee doesn’t use it all the time, but he uses it incredibly effectively. Because, as I said, you remember I was talking about the sense of presence? Well, the sense of presence is best expressed in the present tense. I did get it through him. I find he’s…a funny guy…I’ve never met him, but he’s a weird man, J. M. Coetzee. He is preoccupied with the way we treat animals. But my preoccupations are somewhat more conventionally human than his. You know, even Peter Singer will say the worth of an animal is to some extent based on its ability to enjoy life, it’s appreciation of what life might mean. So hence, a slug is worth less than a human being, because a slug, because of the make-up of its very small brain, makes less of life. Whereas I think Coetzee’s gotten to stage now where, you know -- man and animal, eh it’s all the same! There’s a certain slight nihilism I feel, maybe? Which I don’t share -- push comes to shove, I’ll chose a human over any animal. I’m mainly influenced by his style, he’s just an extraordinary…He does so much with so little. In a sense, his sentences are quite simple. He doesn’t use great vocabulary. You know, but he just…His artistry is astonishing. But it’s interesting too, he’s also very hit and miss. So, I don’t know if you read his last one The Childhood of Jesus? TM: Are you going to say you didn’t like it? YM: Well, it’s terrible! Did you like it? TM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I did. YM: I found it was abysmal, I thought it was a parody of himself. You had these longshoremen having these discussions. I thought this is laughable! So either I completely misunderstood it, I had no idea what it was about…Also I did make the mistake of reading it on my e-reader, so I was reading it and it suddenly ended, because I couldn’t tell where I was, and I said “Oh, there’s got to be a mistake here, maybe I didn’t download it properly…” And I thought none of it worked. Once again, scene by scene he’s brilliant, but, you know, none of it worked for me, and it’s the only one that’s been that bad. TM: Do you know what you’re going to be doing next? YM: No. I work on one book at a time, takes me a long time. This is sort of the last idea I’ve had for a long time. Before Beatrice and Virgil turned into a novel it was going to be a flip book with a novel and an essay. I did write the essay, and it’s about representations of the Holocaust. That discussion still strikes me as interesting, since people still don’t want to visit the Holocaust in any other way but the conventional social, realistic way. It’s funny, I did this radio show and I mentioned this and immediately this guy said “Ah, but there’s the movie Life is Beautiful.” I said “Yeah, can you name any others?” There’s Mel Brooks’s The Producers... TM: And the film that Jerry Lewis tried to make. YM: Exactly, there’s that other one, that was never finished. So there’s those two movies, and with Mel Brooks that’s a story within a story. And Life is Beautiful is pretty well the only movie that takes metaphorical lightness towards the Holocaust. But in literature, yeah, Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest just recently, and Time’s Arrow... Anyway, so I may revisit that essay. My publishers are going to say “Oh fuck, the Holocaust again...This is not going to sell.” So I may just put it out with some small publisher just to have it out there. But in terms of another novel I have no ideas -- literally, zero. I have four kids, so they’re like four little Russian novels running around me. I’m going to spend time with them and then I have no idea what I’m going to do next...Nobody knows. I’ll see. When I get more sleep from having four children I might, um… TM: Perhaps a children’s book? YM: I thought of that, but my partner writes children’s books. I figure she knows better and I don’t really want to go in her territory. More likely I’ll write something that’s adult-like, but infused by the fact that I have children. There’s so many good children’s books out there anyway, so many people who write so amazingly well for children that I don’t want to. I’m not going to do it like Richard Adams, just sort of pass the time, tell a story to his children, and he’ll write this amazing book, you know, Watership Down. I don’t think I’ll…Well maybe I will feel the inclination to do that in a few years, but not so far. Who knows?
Fifty years ago this month, The New Yorker published a bizarre short story by J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, written in the form of a 28,000-word letter from a seven-year-old child at summer camp. No one could know it at the time, but this story was to mark one of the longest and most fascinating silences in literary history. Shortly after the story appeared, Salinger retreated into his reclusive rural New Hampshire home, and never published anything again in his lifetime. The story, titled "Hapworth 16, 1924" in a disorienting merging of date and location, remains something of a baffling enigma: branded as unreadable by critics, and never republished, only the most dedicated Salinger devotees bother to track it down and slog through it. Indeed, the negative reaction to the story is thought to have been the catalyst for Salinger’s retreat from publication, even though he personally believed it to be “a high point of his writing.” "Hapworth" is the final story (although the first chronologically) in Salinger’s Glass series, a sequence of short stories revolving around a family of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers. Despite, the swift ascension to the status of American classic for The Catcher in the Rye (just five years after it was published it was being compared to everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Ulysses and The Great Gatsby) Salinger’s reputation gradually declined as he began to focus on the Glass stories, losing more and more fans with each subsequent publication. One of the most common criticisms leveled against the Glass stories was that Salinger was writing them purely for himself, at the price of alienating his readers. Salinger even admitted as much, stating “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” and “there is a real enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods.” Thus, "Hapworth" came for many to represent the culmination of this, and the ultimate in insufferable self-indulgence, with its endless verbosity and preposterous length. Even within the story, Salinger appears to acknowledge this, with his narrator warning us that “This is going to be a very long letter!” and later urging the reader “Please, please, PLEASE do not grow impatient and ice cold to this letter because of its gathering length!” This length is perhaps the greatest obstacle for readers aiming to tackle "Hapworth." However, it is not just the practical side of reading such a long story filled at times with impenetrable language and incoherent structuring, but more the implications that come with the fact that we are told this letter has been authored by a seven-year-old. The narrator, Seymour Glass, is frequently held up as bastion of human intelligence in the earlier Glass stories, and even as something approaching an enlightened spiritual guru. But "Hapworth" takes this concept to a level well beyond the far-fetched, endowing its child protagonist with the power to accurately predict the future, recall past lives, and write with the vocabulary of a PhD candidate. One of the most critically derided passages of the story takes up around a quarter its length and consists entirely of Seymour’s absurd and entirely age inappropriate list of requested reading material: “the complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy […] any thoughtful books on human whirling or spinning […and] both the French edition and Mr. Cotton’s wonderful translation of Montaigne’s essays.” Likewise, Seymour’s request to his father to share any “imaginary sensual acts [which] gave lively, unmentionable entertainment to your mind” has proved another source of eye-rolling disbelief for readers, leading many to the assumption that "Hapworth" is simply some kind of curious in-joke between Salinger and his imaginary Glass family. However, such an interpretation, though valid, is simplistic, and with so little having been written on "Hapworth," it seems that the 50th anniversary offers a chance to reexamine the story, and see if the overwhelmingly negative critical consensus is not somewhat hyperbolic. When "Seymour: An Introduction" (the immediate predecessor to "Hapworth" in the Glass series) was published in 1959 it attracted more negative reviews than any of Salinger’s previous stories, but since then some critics have argued that Salinger was well ahead of his time, including Eberhard Alsen, in his A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger, suggesting he in fact “anticipated by a decade the self-reflexive trend in American postmodernist fiction.” Roger Lathbury, who attempted to republish "Hapworth" in 1997 and even met and exchanged letters with the reclusive author, posits a similar theory for "Hapworth," arguing that Salinger was “trying something new, arguably something different than any other American writer: to reconcile non-material (Eastern) ways of transcendence with the particulars of American daily life.” Lathbury contends that this accounts for its unusual style -- “a letter that is not a letter” -- and that to write what Salinger wanted to write necessarily required “a seismic shift in sensibility.” Salinger addressed this exact concept in an earlier story entitled “Teddy,” which also takes a child prodigy with spiritual gifts as its protagonist: “It’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.” Likewise, the form of "Hapworth" is recycled from an earlier unpublished story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which is also presented as a letter written home from summer camp. Thus, one might hypothesize that"Hapworth" represents an attempt by Salinger to readdress his earlier fiction, and more radically alter his style, moving away from the traditional structures of the American short story to reflect his spiritual Eastern-influenced themes. This would explain "Hapworth’s" rambling and meandering style: rather than forcing his story into a conventional linear structure, it follows the contours of the mind. However, unlike the modernist form of stream-of-consciousness, "Hapworth" is both internal and external at the same time: in addressing his letter to his family, Seymour the narrator is communicating externally; but, at the same time, large portions of the letter seem to be directed at himself. And perhaps the same could be said for Salinger: through "Hapworth" he is addressing both the reader and himself. Amid all of this, however, the story does have a strange kind of structure, though it is one of circularity. Moments from the beginning have their corresponding counterparts at the end, and yet nothing is really tied up neatly. For instance, in the letter’s opening, Seymour expresses his belief that it is every individual’s moral duty to act kindly without hope of reward: “without examining […the recipient of a good deed’s] face or combing it for gratitude;” and just before signing off he mentions an acquaintance’s need “to see the grateful recipients’ faces in person when he does them a favor.” Here Salinger is trying to reconcile the moral ideal with the imperfection of human nature. And indeed, despite Seymour's almost superhuman abilities, "Hapworth" reveals a "humanness" in the character that is rarely glimpsed in the other Glass stories. However, the presentation of such "humanness" is arguably Salinger’s undoing. By revealing too much of Seymour, who had previously been conspicuously physically absent from most of the Glass stories, Salinger shatters the enigma, and reveals the man behind the curtain. It is clear this was his intention, as the story revolves around the conflict between the spirit and body, but for many devotees of the Glass saga, uniting the saintly Seymour of the previous stories with the angry and pretentious Seymour of "Hapworth" is too great an ask. Still, Salinger fans will find plenty of interest in "Hapworth," not least the familiar upbeat style -- a balance of the intellectual and the colloquial -- complete with the trademark tautology and adjectival listing that came to define much of Salinger’s later work. And one could also argue that while revealing Seymour’s imperfection -- “Do not think me infallible! I am utterly fallible!” -- spoils the mystery of the character, it also opens up new enigmas, such as the possibility that the letter is inauthentic, and is in fact authored by Buddy, Seymour’s younger brother. Buddy’s voice is apparent via a brief introduction before the letter begins, in which he assures us twice that he intends to type up an “exact copy,” which is what we will read. This over-assurance is immediately suspicious, and the opening line, in which Seymour states “I will write for us both,” might also serve as evidence. Inconsistencies in the text, such as Seymour’s not knowing the address his parents are staying at, reinforce this hypothesis, but, once again, there is no concrete proof, only further and deeper mystery. This is the crux of "Hapworth" -- it defies interpretation, and in this way stands as Salinger’s ultimate embodiment of the Glass family’s ideals. Just four years earlier he had admitted that Buddy was his “alter-ego,” blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and here we see him bringing the ideals of his fictional world into the reality of his work as a writer. In Franny and Zooey, Salinger quotes at length from Swami Prabhavananda: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” "Hapworth" can be seen as a culmination of this ideal, as it represents Salinger writing purely for himself, and for the pleasure of the work. The fact that he continued to write for the rest of his life, but ceased publishing, also meant he was rejecting considerable "fruits:" Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks at the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list in 1961-1962, for instance. Whether or not any of this was intentional on Salinger’s part is purely speculative, but one cannot deny that he took considerable risks with "Hapworth," and that, as Roger Lathbury has argued, “For refusing to repeat his popular successes, Salinger deserves respect and honor.” Thus, ironically, the very complaint critics had of his later work (that it was becoming too self-involved) is the very thing that makes it unique -- no other American writer ever created so complete a retreat into his or her fictional world. The story itself remains ambiguous, and a thorn in the side of Salinger fans and scholars alike. Nonetheless, the exaggerated critical drubbing it received should not put new readers off, and it remains, undeniably, a true original. Within "Hapworth 16, 1924," J.D. Salinger praises this very quality -- “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” -- suggesting perhaps that this was his primary goal. In that sense, at least, he succeeded. "Hapworth 16, 1924" was published in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965 and has never been republished. It is available to read in The Complete New Yorker. All quotations by Roger Lathbury are from personal email correspondences. Image Credit: Wikipedia.