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Archive for September, 2005

New Yorker fiction

I’ve heard that the New Yorker used to be known for the high quality of its fiction; however, in the years that I’ve been a reader (since 1989), I can’t say that the fiction is all that great. That said, there are some works that stand out as not being self-indulgent drivel and linger in the mind.  The Canadian short story writer Alice Munro is always great and her most recent Nyer story “The View From Castle Rock” (Aug 29 issue) is no exception.  The story of a family emigrating from Scotland to Canada, it is humane and harsh and real, as are all her stories.

The poignant ending reminds me of a novella by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower, that draws the reader into an intimately realized historical setting and then as suddenly douses the imagination with the actual facts and dates of all the characters’ deaths. It’s funny because I was just talking to J. about how I hate that in novels. It occurred in both The Kiterunner and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and I think many more books (The Poisonwood Bible is another), where the early intensity of the story is diluted by the author’s need to tell the whole story – everything that happened to everyone, and the emotions and actions start to feel unearned and inauthentic. It is as if you are looking through binoculars and are very close to the action and then the binoculars are turned around and you are suddenly distanced. This is not the case in Munro or Fitzgerald’s work because they are not imagining what happened to the characters, they are not loading detail upon detail of the unfolding of each person’s destiny, forging toward a predetermined ending, they tell us what actually happened and leave us to fill in the gaps, to make the leap between imagination and reality.  In both cases, it’s just great writing.

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Herzog and Edmund Wilson

The NY Times Book Review also had an article about Edmund Wilson and draws an interesting connection between Wilson and Saul Bellow, saying that “Writing a biography of Edmund Wilson is like taking one of Saul Bellow’s better-known protagonists and reducing him to a sober set of themes.” Apparently Bellow and Wilson had some kind of mutual effect on each other, with Bellow dropping in on Wilson’s classes at the University of Chicago or listening to him lecture at Princeton. The Times notes “the sheer passionate untidiness of Wilson’s personal life” as belonging to a Bellow’s novel, and that would certainly fit in with what I’ve read so far in Herzog. I’d been thinking that what Bellow achieved in Herzog is an amazingly complex portrait of a person, and it’s done in a unique and subtle fashion. Through painstaking accumulation of detail, action and emotion, the man, Herzog, takes shape in our minds, almost as a real person might after several meetings start to impress his or her personality upon us.

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