A Year in Reading: Maud Newton

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I read some exceptional new books this year, including Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and especially the latest iteration of Mark Twain’s autobiography, and I discovered the amazing John Jeremiah Sullivan thanks to Lorin Stein’s debut issue of The Paris Review. I’ve discussed most of these books at more length, at my website, NPR, Salon, and elsewhere. Mostly, though, I’ve been focused on (for real this time) finishing up my own novel.

When I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. Not only do I want to be awestruck, I want to be driven to write better — as well as I possibly can — and I want to feel that the book I’m reading, however superior to my own work, shows me how I might do that. I want it to lead by example.

By now I have no idea how many times I’ve read and re-read Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a wry, sly, and piercingly insightful book about a group of elderly friends who start receiving anonymous crank calls telling them to “remember you must die.” I’m reluctant to describe the plot that way, though it is in fact in some loose sense the plot, because it makes the novel sound gimmicky and dully experimental, when in fact it is neither of those things. The characters are fleshy, fully alive on the page; the dialogue is true and deadly, and very, very funny; and the story is sexy and propulsive: past and present dalliances and double-crossings are always threatening to be revealed. 

“The fact that Spark is so unbelievably and witchily entertaining,” her editor Barbara Epler recently argued, “has kept her from her full share of glory as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. Humor has never been the long suit of most critics.”

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A Year in Reading: Maud Newton


It is dangerous for a writer to spend too long reflecting on the fact that a wordsmith as original, perceptive, scathing, and precise as Theodora Keogh could go out of print and drop completely from the public consciousness, and yet I have spent much of the past year (and a half) doing that. Compared in her day, with justification, to Colette, the expat Keogh was not just a novelist but, variously, a dancer, a wildcat owner, and a chicken farmer. Not to mention a president’s — Teddy Roosevelt’s — granddaughter. But she did not actively seek fame. On the contrary, she refused to let her publisher trade on her well-known maiden name, stopped publishing in the Sixties, let her copyrights lapse, and died last year in rural North Carolina.

My favorite of her novels is My Name is Rose, about an unfaithful wife who’s realizing she’s more talented than the trend-obsessed, would-be writer she married. I’m told most people prefer The Tattooed Heart, which is also very good. And the exacting (and notoriously misogynistic) Patricia Highsmith, as Joan Schenkar recounts in The Talented Miss Highsmith, an excellent new biography I’m still reading, was especially partial to Meg, which I raced through just a few months ago.

As Schenkar writes, this novel “about which Pat was so untypically excited is a wayward work, with just the kind of heroine who would appeal to Pat: a preadolescent, androgynous prep school girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan who carries a knife, dreams of being suckled by lions, blackmails her lesbian history teacher, runs with a wild gang of boys from the docks, and has a distinctly undaughterly relationship with the father of one of her friends. In the last sentence of her critique of Meg, Pat left no doubt about how much of herself she saw in Theodora Keogh’s young heroine. ‘Such an admirable personage is she with her banged-up knees, her dirty sweaters, her proud vision of the universe that, remembering one’s own childhood, one wishes one had kept more of Meg intact.’” Only used copies of Keogh’s books are available these days, but it’s one of my personal missions to convince someone to return her work to print.

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