Though I’m not in the newspaper trade anymore, where interesting people and topics flow constantly through the door, I’m at the next best thing, a powerhouse liberal arts college. The flow continues as brilliant minds visit — not in the hopes of getting good attention on the front page — but simply in order to stretch their legs and show just why they deserve to be called brilliant.
I sat down today with Daniel Mendelsohn, one of a handful of writers who keep a shine on that venerable old plaque embossed with the word “critic.” He’s at Claremont McKenna College as a visiting fellow, and I was looking forward to meeting him. I never had while I was at the Times, though I’d often hoped back then that we could bank up enough of our little book review budget to snag a freelance piece from him (him and also Neil Gaiman … with Gaiman, I tried and tried to get him. Lord how I tried). I mentioned that to him and he smiled.
He lamented the deflation of book coverage in newspapers, and he sounded an optimistic note about Pamela Paul and the New York Times. (While others decline, the Gray Lady, like the Dude, abides.)
In keeping with our surroundings, the conversation focused on the notion of the humanities in our tweet-afflicted, Facebook-smitten, tumblr-besodden era. (I’m sure that litany rings corny, but hey this is my blog. I’ll do what I want.)
The Call of the Siren was silent in the past several weeks as my mom’s health turned and we lost her — just as 2013 locked its doors and turned out the lights.
When a loss is coming, we prepare for the worst — for the pain and sorrow. We rarely think about silver linings. That’s why, aside from grief and shock, I was surprised to find myself living the circularity of myth in her last days and in the days after.
I’m talking about the kind of circularity represented by the Phoenix, or that Lisa Ohlen Harris describes at the end of her book The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving (Texas Tech University Press). Of her mother-in-law Jeanne, Harris writes:
I miss Jeanne. I do. We’ve started a new life in a beautiful place because Jeanne died and released me from caregiving. Now instead of learning side effects to medications, I am memorizing the names of the trees and mountain ranges and the April flowers springing up in my garden.
I’ve just pulled off my gloves and am brushing damp soil from the knees of my jeans when I hear geese. I tilt my head up and raise a hand to shield myself from the rain as I peer into the sky and see the flock overhead, winging and honking and flying free to their summer home.
Her ending pulled me like a magnet, and I wanted to share the last grafs about renewal with you, my friends, even though I have nothing else to say.
It just feels good to feel the keypads under my fingers.
For more of Ohlen Harris’ ruminations, visit her blog here.
Like other successful contemporary novelists – John Updike, for instance, or A.S. Byatt (take your pick) — Nicholas Delbanco is at ease as both creator and critic.
In his oeuvre, several critical studies and essay collections walk alongside his acclaimed novels, including, most recently, Sherbrookes, a reconstitution of his trilogy about a Vermont family as a single work (think of Peter Matthiessen’s remaking of his own Watson trilogy as the mammoth-sized novel Shadow Country).
Whether he’s writing for Harper’s or in the pages of his books, Delbanco approaches the process of creation with a careful understanding of its nuances and pitfalls that only a practiced scrivener can appreciate. His critical works include Group Portrait, The Lost Suitcase, Anywhere Out of the World, and Lastingness, which all ruminate on the nature of the writer’s craft.
Now joining them is The Art of Youth, which looks at three talents whose art (and lives) ended early: Stephen Crane, Dora Carrington, and George Gershwin. The book is enjoyed a favorable critical reception (for more information, go to the links at the end of this post), and Nick generously agreed to provide some insights into his book, and its subjects, in the following exchange for Call of the Siren.
Posted in Books, Dora Carrington, George Gershwin, Longevity, Nicholas Delbanco, Publishing, Reading, Stephen Crane, Writing
Tagged Dora Carrington, George Gershwin, John Updike, Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets, Nicholas Delbanco, Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane