MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Tolstoy Together: War and Peace

I’m a big fan of A Public Space’s online book club. Recently, APS began hosting an encore club to reread War and Peace with Yiyun Li, author of Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace.

For reference, here are some quick links:

All of Yiyun Li’s daily posts are here; perspectives on the issue of translation, historical context, Tolstoy as a stage director, etc., here and here.

From A Public Space:

#TolstoyTogether | September 15 – December 8 
An Online Book Club—Free and Open to All 

The Schedule. We will read together daily for 85 days. A gentle schedule: 12-15 pages a day, around 30 minutes, that can provide an anchor this fall, when transitions bring hope, thrill, and sometimes uncertainty. Find the reading schedule here.

How It Works. The book club is free and open to all. Every morning, Yiyun Li shares notes on the day’s reading on A Public Space’s Twitter and Instagram accounts (@apublicspace) with the hashtag #TolstoyTogether. Readers share their thoughts and responses, and ask questions using #TolstoyTogether

Yiyun Li’s Daily Reading Journal for #Tolstoy Together can also be found here.

Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace: Order your copy here.

From a recent conversation between among Yiyun Li, Garth Greenwell, Idra Novey at Politics & Prose Bookstore.

Filed under: book recs, literature

Herman Melville at 200

Born Herman Melvill 200 years ago on this day, the writer I have idolized since I first got seriously into literature went largely unrecognized during his own lifetime, apart from his early commercial success.

“There is no knowing Herman Melville,” writes Jill Lepore in her profile in the current issue of The New Yorker. “He needed to write. He wanted to be read. He could not bear to be seen.”

She quotes Melville’s famous metaphor for the creative act:

Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Here’s a motley assortment of reflections on the unknowable, unfathomably fascinating Melville:

–a trove of links and information from the Melville Society

–Melvilliana: Clement C. Moore’s blog on all things Melville

–from Deutsche Welle, a consideration of Melville’s modernity from a European perspective

–on the inspiration of Mount Greylock from his window as Melville wrote Moby-Dick

–And a nod to Melville the poet:


In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

Filed under: literature, Melville

RIP Amos Oz (1939-2018)

The literary giant and peace activist has died at 79 — another terrible loss of 2018.

Filed under: literature

Walt Whitman, Novelist


Walt Whitman, 1853 or 1854. Credit The New York Public Library

This looks exciting: report of a short serialized novel the young Walt Whitman published anonymously in 1852. University of Houston grad student Zachary Turpin discovered the work — The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle — in the archives of the Library of Congress:

Tucked away in the long-forgotten, never-digitized “Sunday Dispatch”, the short novel was all but lost to the ages. But Turpin, who unearthed “Jack Engle” in the Library of Congress archive, used unpublished notes and outlines to connect the story to Whitman, one of America’s best known and most beloved poets.

In her report for The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler describes the novel as “a quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures [that] features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer …”
A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review has published the entire text, along with background material, here. The opening:
Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An AutoBiography:
PREFATORY.—Candidly reader we are going to tell you a true story. The narrative is written in the first person; because it was originally jotted down by the principal actor in it, for the entertainment of a valued friend. From that narrative, although the present is somewhat elaborated, with an unimportant leaving out here, and putting in there, there has been no departure in substance. The main incidents were of actual occurrence in this good city of New York; and there will be a sprinkling of our readers by no means small, who will wonder how the deuce such facts, (as they happen to know them) ever got into print.

Filed under: literature, Walt Whitman

Finding the Key: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.

This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.

The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.

Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.

I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”

And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”

Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).

It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.

Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:

We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

Filed under: book recs, literature

The Endurance of Proust


Summers were the time for Mahler to compose, and for me summers always seemed the perfect time to become immersed in Proust’s universe, so there’s something pleasing about the fact that both share July as their birthday month.

Here’s another association that intrigues me: the philosophical underpinnings of Proust’s lifelong project. Consider these brief extracts from the philosopher Henri Bergson — an enormous influence on early Modernism and an actual relative of Marcel Proust through marriage (his wife was a cousin of Proust) — on his concepts of time, duration, and consciousness:

The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing
but change.

This amounts to saying that there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state. If the state which “remains the same” is more varied than we think, [then] on the other hand the passing of one state to another resembles — more than we imagine — a single state being prolonged: the transition is continuous.

Yet, just because we close our eyes to the unceasing variation of every physical state, we are obliged when the change has become so formidable as to force itself on our attention, to speak as if a new state were placed alongside the previous one. Of this new state we assume that it remains unvarying in its turn and so on endlessly.


[O]ur duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never
be anything but the present —- no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration.

Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation.

From this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice.

Meanwhile, the critic, scholar, and writer Daniel Mendelssohn recently observed the following on Proustian “resurrection” in an interview with the Paris Review:

It’s true that “In Search of Lost Time finishes” ‘well.’ There is a sort of optimism in thinking that a work of art can allow us to recreate and to preserve the past. It’s different for me, though. I never claimed that my writing would be able to do anything at all for my family, long gone. The past is the past, the dead are the dead, that is an unchangeable reality.

If literature is able to bring something to life, it’s the writer — and the writer alone — who reaps the benefits, not those he writes about. This is true in the case of Proust’s narrator. All the characters he mixes with have the same fate — transformation into literary fodder, to allow his own reinvention, as a writer.

Filed under: aesthetics, literature, philosophy, Proust

A Crazy Night from Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams in 1953;  photo by Walter Albertin

Tennessee Williams in 1953; photo by Walter Albertin

This is exciting: the discovery of an early short story by Tennessee Williams that is being published for the first time in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine.

“Crazy Night” is the story’s title. Apparently it dates from the 1930s and recounts an undergraduate romance between the narrator, a young freshman in love with a senior named Anna Jean. According to the AP report, which quotes Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli:

“Crazy Night” is set on an unnamed campus in the early ’30s, after the stock market crash of October 1929 and before the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, when “students graduating or flunking out of college had practically every reason for getting drunk and little or nothing that was fit to drink.” The title refers to a ritual at the end of spring term during which students are expected to binge on alcohol and sex, a bacchanal “feverishly gay” on the surface but “really the saddest night of the year.”

“There is a theme of disappointment, the old ‘mendacity theme’ from ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'” Gulli says. “He could show how beneath the cloak of respectability his characters had horrible insecurities and dark secrets. Williams was a master of showing the desperation and need humans have for companionship and was equally skilled at showing how relationships go sour and lead to cynicism.”

Tennessee Williams, who holds a special place in my personal pantheon of revered authors, wrote short stories throughout his life. “It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for the plays,” writes his friend Gore Vidal in his introduction to the marvelous volume of Collected Stories published by New Directions in 1985. “The truth is more complicated,” Vidal observes:

In the beginning, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire (“Something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being”) would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire still remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then — and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright — he would have the play produced so that he could, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his… “For love I make characters in plays,” he wrote; and did.

Filed under: literature, playwrights

Walk on the Wilde Side


Creating quite the stir was of course second nature to Oscar Wilde, and he set many tongues wagging throughout the course of his extensive North American tour in 1882. Nowadays we have complex PR machines. Back then it was Oscar giving interviews to the local papers to generate buzz for his series of lectures on “the science of the beautiful.” He set the tone immediately upon disembarking in New York after his less-than-pleasing encounter with the Atlantic Ocean by (allegedly) proclaiming to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Wilde ended up making some 140 appearances at cities and towns across 15,000 miles of the continent, alighting in gilded age salons and mining town saloons alike. Anthony Paletta sums up some of the press reaction to his first lecture, in New York, billed as having something to do with the “English Renaissance”:

[It] seems to have faltered in its prepared elements and shone in its improvisational bits, attracting praise from some quarters (“The Cincinnati Enquirer”) and dismissal from others (“The Nation,” grumpy even in the 1880s, observed that Wilde “can hardly succeed in this country”). “The New York Times” commented on the “aesthetic and pallid young men in dress suits and banged hair” in the rear of the venue — banged-hair an attribution with some whiff of the homosexual demimonde at the time.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

But no one quite matched the savage disdain penned by the journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce following Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco in March:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thought, but no thinker. His lecture is mere vebal ditchwater—meaningingless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip and idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, and eloquence to qualify him for the duties of a caller on a hog-ranche, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddle-string, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everything his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statute of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes. He makes me tired.

And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw–of a revival of letters, this man who cannot write! This little and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Today’s shock jocks have nothing on Ambrose Bierce. But just what stirred him to such an extremity of umbrage?

Filed under: literary criticism, literature

Melville Rejected

MS submission cover letter by Herman Melville: 9 May 1854

Cover letter for a short story submission by Herman Melville (dated 9 May 1854)

Herman Melville was 34, with Moby-Dick several years behind him, when he submitted the manuscript for his short story “The Two Temples” along with the cover letter pictured above to the publisher G.P. Putnam. His first novel, Typee, became a best-seller when it appeared in 1846, but the increasing ambition and complexity of Melville’s subsequent writings resulted in a decrescendo in sales and public interest – particularly starting with his third novel, the richly symbolic fantasy Mardi (1849).

Harper & Brothers, Melville’s publisher, rejected his (subsequently lost/destroyed) novel Isle of the Cross in the wake of Moby-Dick and the truly far-out Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which had bombed commercially and critically.

That’s the context around his submission of “The Two Temples” to the monthly periodical Putnam’s, which began publication in January 1853. In fact founder George Palmer Putnam circulated a letter to prominent American authors, including Melville, announcing his plans to create a platform for American writers and pundits. So in May 1854, Melville submitted his manuscript for “The Two Temples.” Structured as a diptych, this story recounts the narrator’s cold rejection by a “beadle-faced man” when he attempts to enter a church; contrasting with this “excommunication” in his homeland, he takes comfort in the temple of the theater when he later finds himself a stranger in London.

Melville’s cover letter for the submission is currently being offered for $35,000. It reads:

Pittsfield May 9th [1854]

Dear Sir –

Herewith you have a M.S.

As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore – in case it suits you to publish – you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.

– If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.


H. Melville

G.P. Putnam, Esq.

Booktryst contributor Stephen J. Gertz explains that Melville’s protagonist “reaches the conclusion that this theater is a true church, the other not at all.” He quotes the letter Putnam editor Charles F. Briggs sent to Melville to clarify why the magazine decided to reject this submission by such a recognized writer:

“I am very loth [sic] to reject the “Two Temples” as the article contains some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire, but my editorial experience compels me to be very cautious in offending the religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the “Two Temples” would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church.”

Gertz believes that this very personal rejection letter was intended to minimize fallout, since Putnam’s “wanted to retain [Melville] as a contributor. Briggs is suggesting that to assuage Melville’s feelings they should buy another, more appropriate, piece from him.” As it happened, “The Two Temples” ended up with the writer’s private papers and was never published in his lifetime. Gertz further describes why this letter was important:

“Two Temples” represented the metaphysical path that Melville had begun to travel with Moby-Dick and had further bestrode, deepening his spirituality. His earlier works had been popular; $5 a page was top wage for a short story; he was still in demand. (And Melville desperately needed the money.) Beginning, however, with Moby-Dick, religious themes began to rapidly creep into his work. His readership began to slowly creep out, and from then on publishers became increasingly wary to publish Melville. “Two Temples,” so overtly theological and spiritually rebellious, was, if not the beginning of the end, a definite so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen to [the popular style of writing represented by the early] Omoo, amen.

Hat tip: Ted Goia (Twitter: @tedgoia)

Filed under: American literature, book news, literature, Melville, publishers

Camus and the “Wild Longing for Clarity”

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

It’s a few days late to honor the official 100th birthday of Albert Camus (November 7), but the commemorations I’ve been seeing remind me how refreshingly pertinent the core of his thought remains to our everyday lives. Aspects of it are obviously dated, but – it seems to me – nowhere nearly as much as the grim, sour, mid-century theorizing so many of his Continental peers.

Probably a key underlying reason for that freshness is Camus’ literary gift. Jerry Delaney, who adapted La Chute for a stage production in Santa Fe in 1999, offers an especially discerning recent assessment for The American Scholar, reminding us of the writer’s claim that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists.”

I retain strongly physical memories of my first time reading L’Étranger – of summer, the heat around me, which melded with Camus’ descriptions of the beach and the merciless sunlight. But even the more challenging essays offered little explosions of insight and recognition similar in kind to the fiction.

Delaney describes how Camus’ idea of the “absurd” could move us so profoundly:

It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

How astonishing it is to recall that Camus wrote the epochal Le Mythe de Sisyphe while still only in his 20s. From my teenage vantage point when I first encountered this essay, it seemed the scripture of a very wise man, of someone who had lived through more than I could begin to imagine. Delaney ponders why Camus’ essay has such staying power:

Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.

Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.

We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is Camus’ famous formulation – an existentialist update of Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”? But the context for this imagined Sisyphean contentment is far more reminiscent of Nietzsche’s version of eternal recurrence (in Zarathustra and elsewhere): the ceaseless cycle of life, repeatedly infinitely, without escape, as a “fate” to be affirmed with joy.

And what of the phantom of “engagement” that preoccupied Camus and his followers? Well, the wisdom arrived at in Sisyphus “is not a conclusion but a point of departure.” Delaney refers to L’Homme révolté, the essay which followed in 1951, as the political response to that wisdom: “Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel” – in contrast to the posture of revolution. According to Delaney, for Camus the difference was that “rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution.”

Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.

…More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Filed under: ethics, literature, philosophy

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.