Amid many recent books purporting to explain our present age’s apparent problems with the truth, Michiko Kakutani’s stands out.
It stands out because of its author’s reputation as a judicious writer; she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism. But more than that, it stands out because of the specificity of its central claim – which holds not, as other books have argued, that there is more falsehood in the world now than ever, or it is easier to be duplicitous, and on a grander scale, than at any time in recent history; but rather that the very idea of verity is under attack, and that it has been in retreat for some time. Continue reading →
North Korea is in part fascinating because it is mysterious. Cut off from viewing eyes not by geographical remoteness but by political design, the state and the lives within it seem strange and bizarre to observers. The mystery of the hermit state is part of its myth, which is cultivated by North Korea’s leadership, as well as a by-product of its peculiar circumstances. Outsiders can enter only irregularly. Western journalists cannot report on North Korea as they might any other country. Outside analysts can only guess at the bare facts of its economy, its politics and its culture. Continue reading →
Review – The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’ by Samer
The Syrian war has produced a great deal of writing, but little of real permanence. Most of its derivative works are journalistic accounts and dry geopolitical analyses. It has yet to produce a new novelist, poet, or memoirist of note, rather than simply providing new material for old hands. Some day, a great book about the Syrian civil war will be written – something that draws deeply from the conflict and sets the tone for a changed nation, region, and world. Such an era-defining conflict will have that effect. Continue reading →
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is one of the most imaginative works of twentieth century fiction. The book is a dream, a vision, literally so. It depicts, as a framing narrative, a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the great figure at the head of the Mongol Empire. The two of them exist in a dream state, caught in a suspended moment. They discuss wonders and marvels, the result of Polo’s travelling. These are the cities of the title. Continue reading →
Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.
The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.
Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves. Continue reading →
Review – The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 by D. J. Taylor
Is there such thing as a presiding literary culture today? Such is the implicit question of the final chapters of D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory, a history of literary life in this country since the end of the Great War. Surveying the ruins of the contemporary publishing industry, where technology has aided the self-publisher and self-publicist and little else, he concludes that there is not. Instead, there could soon be two competing literary cultures – one distinctly and deliberately highbrow, a culture of expensive hardbacks and fashionably small circulations, and the other a culture of genre fiction, ghost-written autobiographies and discounted bestsellers. Continue reading →
I imagine you have heard of it already, billed as both a great piece of investigative journalism and a terrible crime against literature: the presumed unmasking of the hitherto unknown Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer of style whose essential feature, whose animating influence, had been anonymity. She could have been anyone. That was the thrill; that was a serious attraction. Continue reading →