On Novels and Novelists

Out with vampires, in with haunted houses: the ghost story is back

Just in time for Halloween (or shortly thereafter), here are several new ghost stories:

It has been supplanted in recent years by vampires, witches and other monsters, but now the good old-fashioned ghost story is back with a bang, with everyone from debut novelists to established literary stars such as David Mitchell and Gillian Flynn hoping to raise the hairs on readers’ necks this Halloween.

Read here about the following upcoming publications:

  • The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • Little Sister Death by William Gay
  • Rawblood by Catriona Ward
  • The Watchers by Neil Spring
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

“A good ghost story asks the reader to examine the horror within – but it’s in a safe and contained way,” says Catriona Ward. See what the other authors mentioned here have to say about why they have written a ghost story and why they think readers enjoy ghost stories.

Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling

Ed Vulliamy profiles Irish author Edna O’Brien. Now 84, O’Brien has not always been appreciated in her native land. Her “first and great novel,” The Country Girls was hailed in London, where it won the Kingsley Amis award, but banned in Ireland. This difference in the reception of her book, Villiamy writes, “etched the course of O’Brien’s life.”

Vulliamy explains how O’Brien’s relationship to Ireland while living and writing abroad played out. He places her squarely within the context of other Irish writers:

The extent of the Irish domination of literature in English during the 20th century – per capita – is staggering. From a country of its size, consider: Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Stoker, Wilde, Beckett, Synge, O’Casey, Butler, Flann O’Brien, Heaney, Trevor – and it continues in Mahon, Banville, McGahern and Tóibín.

Jonathan Franzen’s Crackling Genius

In a long article for the New York Times, Rachel Kushner visits Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz, CA. Having just finished reading Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, Kushner wanders through a conversation with Franzen about the background of the novel.

Read here how Kushner and Franzen meandered through topics that include Catholicism, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, East Germany, Edward Snowden, capitalism, and the death of Franzen’s cousin—“how this cousin made sense of his difficult life.”

Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: Never-Before-Seen Pictures of Truman Capote, Taken by David Attie

Eli Attie, son of photographer David Attie, describes how he found previously unknown photos his father had taken of Truman Capote in Brooklyn, NY.

Eli Attie wrote the afterword for _ Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir_ by Truman Capote, with the lost photographs of David Attie, to be published on November 3, 2015.

Andy Weir on his strange journey from self-publishing to Hollywood

I haven’t read Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, but I loved the movie. (I saw it in 3-D, which I highly recommend.) I knew the general story of how the work had come into being: how Weir did massive amounts of research, published it serially online, then crowdsourced some of the science concepts to make the science part of science fiction incredibly accurate.

Here writer Sara Vilkomerson explains how the main character, botanist Mark Watney, came into existence:

He’s a lovable character who’s part Han Solo, part MacGyver…and one big part Andy Weir. “My theory is that every protagonist is someone the author wants to be or who the author wants to screw,” says Weir, 42. “Just so we’re clear, Mark Watney is who I want to be. He has all the qualities I like about myself magnified without any of the qualities I dislike.”

This article appeared in Entertainment Weekly in November 2014, just as production on the film version of The Martian was commencing.

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Posts:

This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

10 Best Novels by Poets

Novelist and poet Naja Marie Aidt offers a list of novels “that bring a poetic sensitivity to language into the history of the novel.” She especially asks us to take a look at the work of the Danish poets included (the first two entries on her list), whom we Americans may not know about.

Read what she has to say about the use of language by the authors of these novels:

Azorno by Inger Christensen
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
Insel by Mina Loy
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Harper Lee and Truman Capote: A Collaboration in Mischief

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThe recent publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the original manuscript that eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, revived interest in the childhood friendship between Lee and Truman Capote. Soon there will be some new work by Capote as well. In October Random House will publish a collection of lost short stories by Capote that were discovered by Peter Haag, the owner of Capote’s German publisher, while he was doing research in the Capote archive at the New York Public Library.

And soon there will also be a middle-grade novel to introduce young readers to the childhoods of these friends who grew up to be two of the American South’s finest writers. Greg Neri has written Tru & Nelle, to be released next spring.

both [Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote] were oddballs who took refuge in detective novels, and they quickly bonded over their mutual love of Sherlock Holmes and the Rover Boys, spending long afternoons reading mysteries in their treehouse sanctuary. To entertain themselves, they started writing their own stories on her father’s Underwood typewriter, taking turns as one of them narrated while the other typed.

Maybe some budding writers will be encouraged to pursue their dreams by reading about two other children who loved reading and writing.

Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales

When Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm began collecting and writing down songs, stories, and folklore in the early 1800’s, they were working to preserve the authentic voices of the people. Under the influence of a Romantic movement calling for the unification of Germany, they collected these stories to save what they believed was authentic German popular culture.

In this article in The New York Review of Books, Marina Warner traces the history of Grimms’ folk and fairy tales. She notes how the tales have changed over time and what those changes suggest. Since fairy tales and folklore contain many of the archetypes found in later literature, this is a fascinating read for those interested in literary history and literary criticism.

Why Do I Love New York?

A Crime Writer’s Tour of the City That Never Sleeps

Linda Fairstein is an attorney turned novelist. She joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1972 and headed the sex crimes unit from 1976 until 2002. She continues to consult as a sex crimes expert. Fairstein is the author of a series of crime novels featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. The most recent book, Devil’s Bridge, is #17 in the series.

In this article she describes why New York City is so fascinating for a crime novelist:

Yes, I love New York — and perhaps it’s because I’m a crime novelist that I’m fascinated by its dark underbelly and rich history, which keep me riveted and searching for new discoveries at every turn.

10 Novels with Multiple Narratives

Susan Barker’s novel The Incarnations traces 1,000 years of Chinese history through the reincarnations of two main characters. She explains why she likes novels with multiple narratives:

Truth is often a multiplicity of perspectives, and sometimes the more viewpoints and versions of events there are, the closer the reader gets to an overarching truth. I like the element of mystery these books can sometimes involve, the way the cogs in the reader’s brain have to grind to figure out connections between the various narrative threads.

I like novels narrated from multiple points of view for the same reason. I studied life stories, and I’m fascinated by the way different people experience the same event differently. You’ve heard the adage “There are two sides to every story.” In fact, there are as many sides to every story as there are participants in the event.

Here are the novels with multiple narratives that Barker recommends:

2666 by Roberto Bolano
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Great House by Nicole Krauss
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Here are a couple of books I’d add to the list:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“Dune,” climate fiction pioneer: The ecological lessons of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece were ahead of its time

I know a lot of people who love Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’ve never read. But I’m going to have to pick it up soon, since Frank Herbert is the native son of our new home town, Tacoma, WA. We now live very near where the arsenic smelter that Herbert grew up with was located. Just last year a park not far from us was completely dug up for removal of arsenic-contaminated soil. New soil was put down, and the ball fields were reseeded and closed for a year for the grass to grow in.

In this piece for Salon Michael Berry discusses the significance of Dune as it turns 50. He hopes that the novel will take its rightful place in the annals of ecological fiction “now that there is a renewed interest in literature – science fiction and otherwise – that explores the effects of a changing global climate.” Berry concludes:

as “Dune” celebrates its golden anniversary, it stands as a piece of literature with far-reaching influence, inspiring new generations of readers, writers and scientists to look at their own planet in a different light.

Monday Miscellany

Amherst College: Emily Dickinson Collection

Dickinson poem
We like March — his shoes are purple

To say Emily Dickinson has an association with Amherst College is a bit of an understatement. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of the college and her father, Edward Dickinson, was treasurer of the school for over 35 years. In 1956, Millicent Todd Bingham gave Amherst College the Dickinson poems and Dickinson family papers she inherited from her mother, Mabel Todd Bingham. Many of these wonderful materials were digitized for this fine collation, and lovers of poetry and American literature will find this entire collection to be a real delight. Visitors to the site will find 850 documents here, including drafts of poems like “Further in summer than the birds” and “On that Specific Pillow.” Visitors can search the collection by genre, contributor, subject, or date range. After selecting a particular item, visitors can also zoom in and out as they see fit to get a sense of Dickinson’s handwriting and creative process.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread

Kevin Smokler is the author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. Here he describes how, in rereading these 10 high school classics, he “found that useful thing I missed the first time around”:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • the poems of Emily Dickinson
  • The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell

Smokler also provides the list in the next item.

Genre Kryptonite: Novels of Female Friendship

While definitely asserting his guyness, Kevin Smokler (see above) explains why he has learned a lot from these novels of friendship between women:

  • Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares
  • How To Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto
  • Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

‘God, Let Me Be Loved’: The Tragedy of Truman Capote

In all of American letters there is no tale sadder than the biography of Truman Capote. A true prodigy, Capote was publishing stories in national magazines by his early twenties, and published his first novel at age 24. After dabbling in writing for the theater and the movies, he returned to prose, first with the classic 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and then eight years later, his masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, about the senseless killing of a Kansas farming family.

And then…nothing, or very near to it.

Michael Bourne writes an appreciation of the quixotic Truman Capote. About why Capote doesn’t get the critical respect he deserves, Bourne writes:

Ultimately, though, the damage to Capote’s literary reputation is mostly self-inflicted. True, he wrote two genre-defining works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, along with some truly great stories, including the heartbreaking “A Christmas Memory.” But he could have done so much more. Capote is hardly alone in coming to a sad end. Ernest Hemingway shot himself in despair; Tennessee Williams, a contemporary and close friend of Capote’s, choked on a bottle cap after more than twenty years of creative failure. But they got their major work done. Capote didn’t. Yet for all this, he remains worth reading because unlike most self-deceiving people he was also a genius, and part of that genius was a capacity to look honestly at his own deceptions, even if in life he couldn’t help being misled by them.

As Good as It Gets: Nominations for Best Film About a Writer

“Writers like watching movies about themselves,” writer Roger Rosenblatt announces. But:

What we are not shown doing in movies is writing. Composers are shown composing because we can listen to their flights of fancy on the soundtrack. Painters are shown painting, because one can actually see art in progress. Kirk Douglas did some very good van Gogh impressions. Ed Harris went so hog wild in “Pollock,” one was tempted to go out and buy an original Harris. But writers are rarely shown laboring at the craft unless you count Nicholson’s “all work and no play.” I suppose there’s nothing visually dramatic in what we do, though we can get quite worked up about crumpling little balls of paper, tossing them on the floor, then turning our heads this way and sometimes that.

Nonetheless, Rosenblatt discusses several films about writers before choosing these three winners:

  • The Third Man (1949)
  • Starting Out in the Evening (2007)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)