Columns

COLUMNS Erudition and the Contemporary Novel

by Stuart Walton

People, especially those who read regularly, are acquiring new knowledge, new vocabulary, new reaches of cultural reference all the time. Imposing a static level of understanding is the melancholy work of educationalists with a superstitious fear of exclusion. In any debate about what terminology is acceptable, there will always be moments of embarrassment when somebody objects to a particular word that others had happily understood. The recent Twitter debate included people objecting to the word 'erudite' itself as being alienating to the general reader. [read full column]

COLUMNS Double-Decker Ballad

by Mersiha Bruncevic

Sleepless Nights is a collection of half-true memory vignettes written by Elizabeth Hardwick. It is also a book that I have been carrying around with me everywhere lately, returning to it almost ritualistically. On the first page, Hardwick writes: ‘If only we knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.’ I keep the book with me to reread this and other parts, all of which deal with remembering scattered fragments and trying to make something of it. Hardwick calls it being ‘borne backward to the bricks and stuffs’ of the past. [read full column]

COLUMNS In Praise of Curiosity

by Ed Simon

The Argentinean writer Alberto Manguel, a close friend of Borges, argues that ‘“Why?”, in its many variations, is a question far more important in its asking than in the expectation of an answer. The very fact of uttering it opens numberless possibilities, can do away with preconceptions, summons up endless fruitful doubts.’ Curiosity requires a willingness to embrace negative capability and to be mired in skepticism, but the results of individual questioning — even if the process remains unanswered — is the entrance into a reality more expansive in infinite potential than that offered by mere certainty. Such an ethos isn't that of our current discourse (maybe it never was), for curiosity is a skill like any other, but today its teaching isn't given pride of place. [read full column]

COLUMNS The Biographer as Detective

by Nina Ellis

I’m not the first person to think of the biographer as a sort of detective. Google turns up four articles with the same title as this column. In one, Walter Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel writes that ‘what had begun as an exercise in exposition became a detective story with the subject both my client and my quarry.’ In another, Henri Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling addresses the French lack of interest in biography: they ‘see it as grubby and Anglo-Saxon’, she says, like ‘being a private detective or a nosy parker.’ [read full column]

COLUMNS A Private Conspiracy

by Mersiha Bruncevic

The Surrealists claimed that automatic writing can unjam the jammed mind. If done correctly, it should release creativity from the constraints of reason and reveal how random coincidences are actually linked in a metaphysical way. The practice can serve as a cosmic connector of dots, it seems. This particular method is also part of a larger scheme, one that Breton calls the ‘private conspiracy’. The idea is that the artist is a prisoner and logic is the prison. According to Breton, an artist must always conspire to get out of that mental jail. Automatism is one way of breaking free. [read full column]

COLUMNS Give Me Difficulty

by A.V. Marraccini

The new Nero exhibition at the British Museum makes its stakes clear at the entrance: this will be a reevaluation of the mostly negative ‘myths’ surrounding the history of the much-maligned last of the Julio-Claudians. There is a paradox at heart here: British Museum blockbuster exhibitions must make money for the cash-strapped institution and also satisfy a broad range of knowledge in the viewing public. Difficulty usually isn’t in the cards. [read full column]

COLUMNS Maimes at Groin

by Jack Solloway

Most authors enjoy wordplay, and the worse the better it seems. Writing mischief into French, English and every other language under the inevitable sun, Samuel Beckett (LES MEAT BUCKET) knew a thing or two about name games. His play Not I features — not an eye — but a mouth, suspended 8ft off the stage in total darkness. In Krapp’s Last Tape, as Beckett himself explained in a 1960 letter to Alan Schneider, he pits white against an anagram of ‘darke’ in ‘Bianca in Kedar Street’ and there’s plenty more of this interplay between light and shade strewn throughout (‘darke’ means dusky or dark-skinned in Hebrew). [read full column]

COLUMNS Tender Maps

by Mersiha Bruncevic

Anna Kavan was a pale, frail Englishwoman whose greatest pleasure in life was race car driving along the French Riviera, while high on heroin. She famously referred to her syringes as bazookas. After a failed marriage in Burma and a name-change, she took up with a group of race car drivers in the south of France in the 1930s. They treated the sport more like Russian roulette than a competitive sport. It was around this time that she picked up her lifelong drug habit. When Kavan was found dead at her house in Notting Hill, the police said that they found enough heroin there to ‘kill the whole street’. [read full column]

COLUMNS The Art of Everyday Life

by Nina Ellis

Everyday life is my new escapist fantasy. I recently started reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books, day-to-day epics which now feel like portals to delicious normality. They centre on tasks like cleaning up after a party or packing the car to go visit your sister: ‘He was back again, standing in the bedroom doorway, waiting with exaggerated patience for her to shut her suitcase,’ Howard writes of someone’s annoying husband. Her characters are immersed in the mundane actions that make up their lives — and after a year of not being allowed to throw proper parties or visit my sister, I’m loving being immersed in them too. [read full column]

COLUMNS Dusting My Bookshelves

by Jessica Sequeira

Dust has a dry sense of humour. It can clog up machines to stop them from working, blind oxen in a storm, muffle sounds. Or recall them for future use — scientists now say dust can store sounds as memory. Perhaps forever, perhaps as glow. Cosmic dust is what makes the beautiful light you see in pictures of the universe. Dust does has no prejudices. It just settles, moving toward inertia, getting into the gears of progress until events are finished, done and dusted, the dust settled. Even the gunpowder. [read full column]