Weekendnotes, Feb. 24-25

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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Late last month, Granta Books republished All the Devils Are Here by the late David Seabrook. It’s been largely overlooked since it first appeared in 2002, but now, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, Benjamin Myers hopes that its return will allow it to find the readership it deserves:

Initially met with relative indifference but beloved by a select few — including the Backlisted Podcast, which is responsible for its reanimation — All the Devils Are Here outshines most work of a similar ilk by being utterly committed to its subject: the portrait of a living hell inhabited by Kent residents past and present, including Charles Dickens, Carry On… film stars, TS Eliot, blackface boardwalk entertainers, John Buchan and retired rent boys. It is an archaeological dig, an exorcism, an occultist reading of wrongdoings in Rochester, Chatham, Ramsgate, Deal and Margate. It’s neither crime study, travel guide nor history text, yet somehow a bricolage of all — a Broadstairs Babylon.

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Meanwhile, Ariel Dorfman looks back at the slim oeuvre of Juan Rulfo and tries to account for the outsized power of Pedro Páramo:

What made Rulfo exceptional, a fountainhead for so much literature that was to follow, was his realization that to tell this tale of chaos, devastation, and solitude, traditional narrative forms were insufficient, that it was necessary to shake the foundations of story-telling itself. Though modernity was denied to his characters, isolated from progress by the tyrant of his tale, Rulfo expressed the plight through an aesthetic shaped by the avant-garde art of the first half of the twentieth century. This twisting of categories and structure was indispensable for him to express how a Comala that dreamed of beauty and justice, a place pregnant with hope, could be transformed into a bitter, confusing graveyard. What other way was there to portray the disorder of death? Linear, chronological time does not exist in death, nor in the deranged psyches of those who live as if they had already died. From the perspective of the afterlife, everything is simultaneous, everything has already happened, everything will happen perpetually in the restless minds of the ghosts. Rulfo’s technique of scrambling time and place, this and that voice, his characters’ inner and outer landscapes, imposes on the reader a feeling of helpless anxiety akin to the anomie the specters themselves suffer.

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For The Guardian, Olivia Laing reconsiders Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, eighty years after its first publication:

Rebecca is a very strange book. It’s a melodrama, and by no means short on bangs and crashes. There are two sunken ships, a murder, a fire, a costume party and multiple complex betrayals, and yet it’s startling to realise how much of its drama never actually happens. The second Mrs de Winter might not excel at much, but she is among the great dreamers of English literature. Whole pages go by devoted to her imaginings and speculations. The effect is curiously unstable, not so much a story as a network of possibilities, in which the reader is rapidly entangled.

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And for the BBC, Michael Pietsch, David Foster Wallace’s longtime editor, discusses the experience of meeting Wallace and working with him on Infinite Jest.

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Lastly, a couple of takes on the craft of literature. At the Sydney Review of Books, Sarah Holland-Batt, editor of the most recent Best Australian Poems anthologies, speaks about her way of reading and writing poetry:

 

When I’m reading poetry, I hear the lines in my head. I’m acutely aware of how the poem sounds, as well as what it means. I pay attention to the poet’s compositional strategies in the same way as I might do when listening to a piece of music. The cadence of a poem, its emphases, its rhetorical patterns, its use of form—all of these are close cousins to the kinds of structures you find in music. In writing my own work, I often feel driven by a musical and associative impulse; the act of writing becomes a chase or pursuit of language. Writing a poem often begins for me in an improvisational, generative state; as the poem begins to take shape, of course, you have to rein that impulse in so that the language is in service of the poem’s meaning. As I write, I read aloud excessively, which helps to smooth over the rough edges until the poem, for me, is as close as it can be to the finished artefact. I get immense pleasure reading poets who really know how to use sound; I find it aggravating when I can hear extra syllables in someone else’s lines. It bothers me, like an irritant under the nail.

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And, writing for Prospect magazine, Lionel Shriver revisits her notorious remarks about cultural appropriation for the purposes of literary art — and she doubles down on them:

…it’s impossible to gauge the degree of politically correct censorship going on behind the scenes at publishing companies and literary agencies. Editors and agents are unlikely to assert directly that a submission’s content is too hot to handle. Having tackled divisive subjects or deployed characters who don’t hew to the rules of identity politics — rules that are often opaque, or at least until you break them — authors are left with uneasy suspicions about why their manuscripts might be attracting no takers, but with no hard evidence.

Equally impossible to gauge is the extent of writers’ collective self-censorship. The tetchiness and public shaming of “call out” culture has to be influencing which subjects writers feel free to address and which they shy away from, as well as making many writers reluctant to include a diverse cast. Does the edict to eschew stereotypes mean a black character can never be a drug dealer? (So much for The Wire, then. Or Clockers, both created by white men.) Rather than tip-toe through this minefield, plenty of writers must be playing it safe with characters, topics and plots that won’t get them into trouble. But this caution is invisible. Literary roads not taken are mapped privately in a writer’s head, behind a screen, with the drapes drawn. We have no record of what a host of individual authors have decided to avoid.

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And away you go! See you back here on Monday…