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September 11, 2013

Sons and Lovers, Mothers and Fathers

D. H. Lawrence    (1885 - 1930

D. H. Lawrence
(1885 – 1930)

by Steve King

On this day in 1885 D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, outside Nottingham, the fourth of five children. Lawrence’s autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers (1913) made famous the tortured conditions of his upbringing: his uneducated father’s pit-and-pub life, his mother’s contempt for this and her self-sacrifice to escape, Lawrence’s own conflicted feelings about all of it.

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September 6, 2013

Conrad, Marlow, Africa

joseph-conrad-heart-of-darkness-154x210by Steve King

On this day in 1890, thirty-two year-old Joseph Conrad took command of a small stern-wheeler for the trip down the Congo river from Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls) to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Though Conrad was not exposed to the full horror that Marlow witnessed and felt beckon, these experiences were the genesis of Heart of Darkness, published twelve years later.

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July 30, 2013

Emily Bronte: “Peculiar Music”

emily-bronte-154x210 By Steve King

On this day in 1818, Emily Bronte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire. Most accounts portray Emily as the brightest, most intense, and most difficult of the three sisters — “not a person of demonstrative character,” wrote Charlotte, “nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, without impunity, intrude unlicensed.”

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June 14, 2013

Beware of book blurbs

shutterstock_74882698-620x412The Washington Post did not review Martin Amis’ latest novel favorably, but the book blurb suggests otherwise

By Prachi Gupta

As book blurb whore/not whore Gary Shteyngart will tell you, writing book blurbs is an artform — but it’s also a bit of a farce.

As Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles points out, the book blurb from the Washington Post on the front of Martin Amis’ “Lionel Asbo” (which Charles did not review favorably) is so disingenuous, it borders on lying:

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June 4, 2013

Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion

goethe_theoryofcoloursBy Maria Popova

“Colour itself is a degree of darkness.”

Color is an essential part of how we experience the world, both biologically and culturally. One of the earliest formal explorations of color theory came from an unlikely source — the German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1810 published Theory of Colours (public library; public domain), his treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colors. Though the work was dismissed by a large portion of the scientific community, it remained of intense interest to a cohort of prominent philosophers and physicists, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.

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Forster’s Passage to India

E. M. Forster    (1879 - 1970)

E. M. Forster
(1879 – 1970)

On this day in 1924, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India was published. It was a commercial and critical success, and it would confirm Forster’s status as one of the 20th century’s most important writers; nonetheless, the forty-five-year-old Forster made a decision to stop writing novels immediately afterwards, for reasons never clearly or consistently explained.

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May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as guileless heterosexual—but in the novel, his sexuality's ambiguous, and he's linked to Gatsby & co. by their shared need for deception.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as guileless heterosexual—but in the novel, his sexuality’s ambiguous, and he’s linked to Gatsby & co. by their shared need for deception.

By Noah Berlatsky

“Come to lunch someday,” [Mr. McKee] suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is usually thought of as the story of… well, the great Jay Gatsby, poor boy made nouveau riche, and his efforts to win the aristocratic Daisy Buchanan away from her boorish aristocratic husband Tom. But the quote above is about Daisy’s cousin, the narrator Nick Carraway. In the passage, as you can see, Fitzgerald makes a flamboyant phallic pun (“Keep your hands off the lever” indeed), and then shows us McKee and Nick virtually in bed together. Many people skim over that scene—as I did more than once. But once it’s been pointed out, it’s difficult to see it as anything but post-coital.

Baz Luhrman’s recently film version of Gatsby makes a nod to this incident: Mr. McKee, a photographer, is very interested to learn that writer Nick is also an artist. But while McKee may still be gay, film-Nick (Toby Maguire) is adamantly not. In the book, Nick meets Mr. McKee at a party and goes home with him. In the film, he still goes to the party, but ends up canoodling and maybe probably having sex not with a man, but with a woman. Film Nick is first attracted to Gatsby’s parties by a glimpse of a lovely flapper flitting through the bushes. He seems visibly affected by the sensuality of Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress. In the book, he recognizes her appeal, but seems unmoved or even disgusted by it. In one telling passage while at the party, he notes that he “was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” In the next sentence, he says Myrtle pulls her chair over and “her warm breath poured over me.” A couple paragraphs later he’s sneering at her “artificial laughter.”

It’s not a shock that the film decided to erase the hints of gayness. Even in 2013, gay content is controversial, and gay characters can be hard for a lot of people to accept, in various senses. You could argue that it’s a cowardly choice, and I’d probably agree with you. But Hollywood is cowardly almost by definition. No surprises there.

What is surprising, perhaps, is how much eliminating Nick’s queerness matters. There are many, many things wrong with Luhrmann’s clumsy, ADD Gatsby. But the thing that is most wrong is Nick.

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May 7, 2013

Faulkner in Hollywood

William Faulkner   (1897 - 1962)

William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)

On this day in 1932 William Faulkner reluctantly arrived in Hollywood to begin work as a screenwriter, a labor that would last, on and off, for twenty years. Faulkner had already published The Sound and the Fury, and although far from a popular success he was regarded as one of America’s most talented young writers; on the other hand, a local store had just refused his $3 check.

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May 6, 2013

Thoreau as Porcupine & Orchid

Henry David Thoreau   (1817 - 1862)

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

On this day in 1862 Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four, from bronchial and respiratory problems. Thoreau was an integral but prickly member of the Transcendentalist community in Massachusetts — as might be expected from the writer of “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” and as described in Emerson’s funeral eulogy.

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May 4, 2013

Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Norman Mailer    (1923 - 2007)

Norman Mailer
(1923 – 2007)

On this day in 1948 Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead was published. A front-page editorial in the London Sunday Times lobbied to have the book withdrawn for its “incredibly foul and beastly,” language, but most reviewers ranked it among the best war novels, and conferred upon Mailer a celebrity status that he claimed to regret.

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