Links: Dirty Old Men

Playboy will publish an excerpt of Vladimir Nabokov‘s final work, an unfinished novella titled The Original of Laura. Don’t look so shocked: The magazine interviewed him in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway: KGB spy?

The Second Pass takes a look at ten books that need to be tossed out of the canon. First up, Don DeLillo‘s White Noise: “DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic.” I’m not buying the “polemic” bit, and who said he was shooting for realism anyhow?

The Iowa Review has a new editor.

Politico rings up Ward Just for a quote about the death of Robert McNamara.

Eudora Welty‘s estate pulled her name out of the running for the renaming of her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women.

The Atlantic has a modest proposal: Give tax breaks to publishers who support new and little-known writers. M.A. Orthofer retorts, “don’t ‘not-for-profit’ publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?”

John Updike‘s longtime home in Beverly Farms, Mass., sold last month for $2.5 million.

Jim Harrison has a pretty fancy house too, though his actual writing room looks like a cubicle in an abandoned real-estate brokerage.

George Pelecanos doesn’t know jack about writing about shotguns, according to a Field & Stream gunblogger: “Pelecanos in particular will put characters in a tense armed standoff, then have someone say ‘I can shoot you before you have time to rack that pump.’ In real life the immediate reply would be ‘Boom.'”

Links: Gathering Dust

Ann Patchett figures nobody’s read her 1994 novel, Taft.

Cormac McCarthy has won the PEN/Saul Bellow award for lifetime achievement, which should make Michael J. Fox happy.


John Jeter
, author of The Plunder Room, explains why breaking into publishing is a little like his day job of running a music club.

Don’t start an interview with Tobias Wolff by asking about writing process.

Identity Theory’s James Warner avoids a similar kerfuffle in his interview with Yiyun Li, by simply asking what questions she prefers to avoid. This, for once, elicits an interesting reply:

I don’t particularly like to be asked about my views of political situations, both current and historical. As a fiction writer, I believe that what needs to be said about any political situation can not be separated from my fiction, and I feel that I have said enough in my work.

(Though if you write a novel set during late stages of the Cultural Revolution—and The Vagrants is a great book—it’s hard to be surprised that somebody might ask for your thoughts on China today.)

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote down some impressions on the critics who contributed to an issue of TriQuarterly commemorating his 70th birthday—with high praise for scholar Alfred Appel Jr., who died last Sunday. (via Sam Jones)

Independent bookstores around the country are being decimated. Except the ones in Martha’s Vineyard.

Annals of Nabokov

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov‘s birth, an occasion that inspired the New Republic to open up its sizable vaults an showcase a handful of reviews that Nabokov wrote for the magazine, as well as a raft of critical assessments of his work. I was struck by his list of requirements in his 1941 piece, “The Art of Translation.” The bar’s set high:

First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

The critical pieces, for their part, are largely expressions of enthusiasm. For a literary culture that was apparently hurting for a new Faulkner or Hemingway in the late 50s and early 60s, Nabokov was the chosen successor; note the opening of John Updike‘s 1964 piece, in which he dismisses Norman Mailer and James Jones as “homegrown cabbages loyally mistaken for roses.” Writing on Pale Fire in 1962, Mary McCarthy enthused that it was “one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.” Conrad Brenner in 1958 was given to even broader proclamations, writing that Nabokov “will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize [true in both cases], yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner’s burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic.”

Nabokov, on the evidence, didn’t seem to be anxious for divine intervention to handle all of this acclaim—he simply kept writing, when he wasn’t chasing butterflies. And he clearly kept his sense of humor. In 1999 Jed Perl noted Nabokov’s semi-famous, semi-serious 1972 recipe for boiling eggs (aka “Eggs a la Nabocoque”), displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library:

“Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!),” he begins. A few lines later, the two eggs have slipped “soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan. If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium at an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away.”

The Best of the 50s

Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)

It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?

Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:

“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”