Commonplace Book: “Life Raised to a Higher Power”

Two essays on modern German-language literature caught my attention recently. First, a piece from 2017—which I saw linked somewhere as "timely" on social media—in The New Criterion by Jeffrey Meyers on illness in the life of Franz Kafka and the work of Thomas Mann. Meyers claims that Kafka might have been a character in The … Continue reading Commonplace Book: “Life Raised to a Higher Power”

J. M. Synge, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea

The Playboy of the Western World & Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge My rating: 5 of 5 stars Yesterday for St. Patrick's Day I read these two classic early 20th-century dramas by the Irish playwright J. M. Synge. The texts I used were from the first edition of the Norton Critical Modern Irish … Continue reading J. M. Synge, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea

Thomas Pynchon, V.

V. by Thomas Pynchon My rating: 4 of 5 stars Thomas Pynchon's astoundingly precocious 1963 debut is a double narrative. Its first plot, set largely in 1956, narrates the misadventures of ex-Navy sailor Benny Profane ("a schlemihl and human yo-yo") along with a company of bohemians called the Whole Sick Crew, as they drink and … Continue reading Thomas Pynchon, V.

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

Three Lives by Gertrude Stein My rating: 3 of 5 stars One hallmark of modernism is a reversal in the priority of literature and painting. While theorists from antiquity through the 19th century debated in the abstract the relation between the two media, between word and image, literature pragmatically ruled over painting: the latter was … Continue reading Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai My rating: 3 of 5 stars Back in the 1950s, Donald Keene thought he had to apologize to his Anglophone readers, in his "Translator's Introduction," for this classic 1947 Japanese novel's not being "Japanese" enough—for dealing in urban alienation, radical politics, and existential despair rather than cherry blossoms and … Continue reading Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison My rating: 4 of 5 stars The other day, someone trying to sell a gimmicky book Tweeted the boilerplate provocation that "no novels by white men" should be taught in American high schools for "the next 20 years." She then predictably pitted Ernest Hemingway against Toni Morrison to sharpen her point. … Continue reading Toni Morrison, Beloved

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James My rating: 4 of 5 stars How did this 1898 novella become modern and postmodern literary theory's most inscrutable touchstone? According to Henry James's Notebooks—and scholars have disputed this, but then they dispute everything, as we'll see—he got the kernel of the novella, a ghost story, from … Continue reading Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser My rating: 3 of 5 stars Who could begin an essay like Susan Sontag? "Great writers are either husbands or lovers," starts her piece on Camus; of Simone Weil, she announces, "The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois." Or take On Photography's first … Continue reading Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work

Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov My rating: 4 of 5 stars The Defense, originally titled The Luzhin Defense, is Nabokov's third novel. It was published in Russian in Berlin in 1930 under the name V. Sirin, Nabokov's pseudonym from his émigré years. This 1964 English translation was done by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the … Continue reading Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense