Category Archives: Books


Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright posse up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about big ideas, big landscapes, and tackling the biggest questions–like what it means to be human.

Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.

Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.

“Has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western–fiction classics.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times best-selling author

(Photos, from top: Austin Wright and Robert Dwyer.)

For both of you, name your favorite sheriff, besides your own character, from books or film (or both).  Why do you like him or her best?

Rob: Ed Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men, both the book and the movie. It’s one of my favorite stories—I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers—and I’m riveted by Bell’s pathos as he confronts this new violence in the modern west. He embodies that clash between an idealized western past and a modern western reality. Even though The Sheriff is set eight decades earlier, I think it still grapples with some of those same questions of change. Along with Bell we wonder: Has the modern age become worse, more violent? Or has it always been so?

Austin: My four-year-old son is obsessed with Toy Story, so lately my favorite has been Sheriff Woody. But every time I revisit the Lonesome Dove miniseries, I am deeply moved by Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Sheriff July Johnson. He’s a rather pathetic man who nonetheless wins me over for his plodding commitment to goodness even as his personal life implodes for reasons understood by the viewer but beyond his comprehension. I’m fascinated by Larry McMurtry’s decision to include Johnson as a major character—such a wonderful foil to the supremely competent Gus and Call, the buddies at the heart of the greatest buddy story ever told.

Why do you think people are drawn to read Westerns and does anything  about the genre need to be corrected for today?  What are the issues involved with writing a Western—and how did you approach and resolve them?

The Western is an ideal canvas for big stories. It shows mankind unfettered, inhabiting a land where the big machines of government and society are stripped away, and what’s left are those primordial struggles: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself. Even the landscape itself is expressive of this—the barren desert, the endless plain. In a certain way the Western genre is like the fantasy genre in that the landscape becomes a character, expressive of mood. We also think the long relationship between Westerns and movies lends a cinematic feel to these stories, which only enhances the effect.

The biggest issue with the Western is popular perception—that the genre is archaic, and socially problematic. And, certainly, it can be. But there are great stories and storytellers in the Western’s past and present. We tried to tell a story that’s more inclusive, that presents a wide array of characters without making inclusion the only aim of the story. We think that’s the trick—modernizing the Western without making it about something else, without making it political.

What interested you about writing  a Western—why did you choose to write one?

As a kid, Austin’s favorite John Wayne movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and when we revisited the film as adults, it made clear to us how effectively the small frontier town could function as a microcosm to deal with larger, societal themes. We wanted to do that, but with more modern themes that wouldn’t have been as apparent in the Westerns of the 1960s. Our goal was to write a novel that paid loving homage to the Westerns we cherished as kids, while also recognizing the failures of these stories and modernizing the genre for a new era.

Tell us about your novel.

Our first draft centered around one character, Sheriff John Donovan, clinging to power over the town he views as his, unwilling to pass the torch to a new generation, even as cancer consumes his body. Our idea was to take the quintessential Western hero, the lawman, and imbue him with moral ambiguity so the reader is constantly unsure whether he’s good or bad. (We felt it would be cowardly to raise this question in the reader’s mind without answering it ourselves—so we do, eventually, reveal the color of Donovan’s hat…)

At the time we started planning our second draft, we were both into the Game of Thrones books, with their sprawling cast of characters. We thought how cool it would be to fill out our own story with more point-of-view characters, each a subversive take on a stereotypical Western archetype. Kat is a prostitute with a heart of steel rather than gold. Jack is a fearsome, half-Comanche outlaw who seeks not riches but to right historical wrongs. Annabel is a schoolmarm who, rather than pine after our protagonist, rejects him to seize control over her own story. We try to give each of these characters their own inner lives and ambitions—and, for most of them, a gun at their hips. And then we nudge them toward a series of indomitable clashes of will, much like the duels at the end of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western.

You have known each other for a good part of your lives—where did you meet and how long have you known each other?

We met in 2001 as high schoolers in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. That year, our school system launched a program to equip every student with a laptop. We both aspired to write novels, and we quickly put our slick new iBooks to work writing stories in class when we should have been taking notes. We would email our stories back and forth—and then, without really ever asking, we started expanding on each other’s work. It became clear almost immediately we brought complementary skills to the writing process, and a natural partnership formed.

In the intervening years, we’ve written several complete novels and screenplays—plus more than a dozen aborted projects—some of which are cringeworthy in retrospect, and none of which will ever see the light of day. It wasn’t until The Sheriff, which we started in 2013, that we felt we were writing something worthy of publication.

Discuss your working methods—do you find that you both write in the same way?  What tips might you give to other writers to help them with their own work?

Austin does more of the plotting and focuses on the big picture. Rob is more focused on making sure individual scenes are packed with tension and reveal something interesting about the characters. We’d like to believe this has led to a novel that works on both a micro and macro level—a series of memorable moments that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

As far as tips for writers, worry about process over payoff. Writer’s block creeps in when you start thinking about the finished house instead of how to lay the next brick. This is as much an admonition to ourselves as to anyone else.

What exactly can a Western give a reader besides escapism? 

Westerns are inherently allegorical. The horse is freedom of movement; the gun the right to exert one’s will, to self-actualize; the town a microcosm of society. The west means something different to everyone; it’s an idea, an idealized setting. It offers a means for writers to ask fundamental questions about morality, freedom, human nature, and purpose. We think fantasy and sci-fi are similar in this way. Sure, a story about space and future technology is inherently escapist, but it allows authors to tackle the biggest questions, like what it means to be human, in a way that would be harder in a more conventional setting.

Thank you, Rob & Austin.  We’ll look forward to more next week.

View  The Sheriff on Amazon.

The second part of this interview will be available 4/9.

(c) 2021 by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright  (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Cover photo: TwoDot.


(Martin Doyle’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/20.) 

The great Irish books you may never have heard of

It is all too easy for a good book to disappear into obscurity. Books slip by if critics and prize judges don’t pick up on them. Even a shortlisting might not save them as memories are even shorter and each year a tidal wave of new titles sweeps over bookshops’ shelves. Ironically the second-hand section of a bookshop often contains the most original work.

As in the scope of searchlights in a prison movie, there are always blind spots, two perhaps being writers from the North and the diaspora. (I hope the title of the brilliant What Was Lost by Birmingham-Irish writer Catherine O’Flynn, which won the 2007 Costa first novel award, is not prophetic.) There are also the works of well-known writers that don’t fit their usual mould.

Perhaps in elevating some writers on so high a pedestal, we risk unfairly overshadowing others. It would be almost a cardinal sin to let Bloomsday pass without genuflecting to the greatness of James Joyce, whereas poor old Joyce Cary is so neglected that a reviewer recently misgendered him, so unfamiliar were they with his life and work.

Just as Patrick and Brigid are not the only Irish saints, let us look beyond the usual suspects and celebrate the literary Columbas and Dympnas. Here, many of Ireland’s leading writers champion a treasure that deserves to be unburied.



Many people would be familiar with the influences of this work because its contents have poured out into so many tributaries that their origins maybe invisible. But Keating’s project is similar to Virgil’s in the Aeneid in respect of Rome, to create an origin myth for his country. My generation knew some of this material as stray stories and orphan histories. But reading it now in Dineen’s old translation, there is something incantatory and oddly punkish and wild in this work, written by a Catholic priest about whom less is known than Shakespeare, and whom no one in the written record ever remembers meeting.
Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is A Thousand Moons



Ostensibly taking the subject of a garden over a year-long period, Emily Lawless’s A Garden Diary (1901) weaves considerations of emigration, belonging, war, politics and the entrancement of the natural world. Taking native plants from the Burren and trying to cultivate them in her Surrey garden, Lawless considers the possibilities of rootedness and exile. As we move through, the prose becomes more searching, more expansive, until we meet nature “face to face”. We follow Lawless in hushed awe through the garden to meet its maker: “The air itself seemed changed; sanctified. The familiar little paths one walked along were like the approaches to some as yet invisible Temple.”
Seán Hewitt’s JM Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism was published in January. His debut poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, came out last year



The well-nigh total neglect of the work of Derry-born Joyce Cary is inexplicable, for he is one of the finest of the 20th century’s Anglo-Irish novelists, fully the peer of Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch. His masterpiece undoubtedly is The Horse’s Mouth, featuring the rambunctious painter Gulley Jimson, partially based on Stanley Spencer. Jimson is a cadger and petty thief, whose energies are divided between his art, his old girlfriends and the pub. The novel is at once gloriously funny and deeply serious, but perhaps its finest achievement is the immediacy with which it renders the sense of what it is to be an artist.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow



Tonn Tuile (Tidal Wave) is a truly exceptional novel in the context of Irish-language literature. Groundbreaking in its day simply because it deals with what we might call “normal people” – a middle-class couple who live in Dublin during the Emergency. It explores with delicate precision the death of romantic love and youthful dreams under (mostly) everyday pressures. Ordinary urban life was not a common subject in Irish-language 20th-century fiction. Ó Néill’s style is simple, understated. He writes a lyrical, accessible prose. A little gem and my favourite novel as Gaeilge.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff). Look! It’s a Woman Writer, which she has edited, is due next month from Arlen House

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(Chilton Williamson, Jr’s article appeared in the Spectator, 7/25; Photo:  Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Professor Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock (5878987c) Cormac McCarthy The Sunset Limited – 2011 Director: Tommy Lee Jones Professor Productions USA TV Portrait.)

The harshness and hope of an American master

Cormac McCarthy of all living American novelists has realized most fully the potential grandeur of his métier by revealing the spiritual condition of our time in the old epic language. In this sense, he is the most serious American novelist of the post-war era.

McCarthy’s work is magnificently oblivious to modern industrial and technological society and to the post-urban and suburban culture of consumerism, triviality and superficiality that are its fruits: the penalty a decadent civilization pays for its self-alienation from nature, humanity and metaphysical reality, and its embrace of an artificial world in which what is real and human withers and dries up, and art becomes well-nigh impossible. McCarthy’s solution for this basic artistic obstacle has been to set all of his novels with the exception of The Road — a post-apocalyptic story that occurs at some future unspecified date — either in the historical past, or in regional backwaters where modernity has barely penetrated, or both.

McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933 but grew up in Tennessee, where he lived before he moved in early middle age to Texas. The South was thus his formative social milieu, and Faulkner his principal literary influence. For both men the past was dimensionally larger — broader, deeper, more spacious — than the narrow, cramped and shallow present. This is because it lived substantially in its own past; not at the intellectual level necessarily, or even the conscious one, but in the sense that because the radical historical discontinuities of the 20th century had not yet occurred, people were still imaginatively connected to the world as it was before their own arrival in it.

A sense for connections is the basis of all storytelling, and the character of a story determines the language in which it is told. Storytellers with a keen awareness of history and an intuitive sympathy for it are naturally inclined toward an epic sensibility, an appreciation of the portentous and a heightened rhetorical style suited to these things. It is not, of course, the modern style. Once upon a time, that was Hemingway’s. Though Ernest Hemingway was Faulkner’s exact contemporary, their prose (like everything else about their work) is diametrically opposed. In his own estimation Faulkner’s most serious literary competitor, Hemingway once referred to his rival’s later books as being ‘all sauce’.

Had he lived to read the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Papa might have said the same of some of them. Shelby Foote called the English language the real hero of All the Pretty Horses, the first volume in the Border Trilogy. No doubt he meant it as a compliment, which to a certain extent it is. Nevertheless, language does bear some of McCarthy’s novels away with it as violence carries the Kingdom of God, but with less satisfactory results. In this respect they are comparable to Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelungs: what is there is magnificent, but what isn’t there in some instances is overwhelming. Wagner — the Wagner of the Ring, at least — denied that he wrote operas at all; his compositions were ‘music dramas’, he insisted. While McCarthy has never objected to being described as a novelist, one can make a plausible argument for his fictions being something more (or less) than novels, at least as the genre is commonly understood.

They are for the most part strictly linear stories, save for the more modernistic books in which dislocations in time are frequent (Faulkner again). In general McCarthy allows language to do far more of the work, and bear a great deal more of the structural weight, that more prosaic novels leave to the narrative line and the characters to handle. Across page after page in Blood Meridian the author seems compelled to record and name precisely every topographical feature, every species of tree, every type of composite rock the bounty hunters ride past. The tendency is already apparent in The Orchard Keeper (1965), set in rural east Tennessee in the 1930s. Here the descriptive prose, while exquisitely poetic, fails to compensate for faults common to a first novel. In quantitative terms, there is simply too much of it, and overwriting is a serious qualitative problem. Most of this is related to McCarthy’s obsessive quest for photographic and phonographic exactness and verisimilitude, and to the scientific scrupulosity he shares with Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, who catalogs as much of the natural world as he can cram into his notebooks as a means of controlling it.

Nevertheless, McCarthy’s chief weakness as a novelist lies with his characters, always convincing in the detailed minutiae of their appearance, their clothes and their speech, but usually at too steep a price. ‘Ordinary’ people typically have little of real importance or interest to say to each other, but a character in a novel is supposed to be there for good reason — namely, that he is more than an ordinary person, someone who when he speaks has something of more than ordinary interest to say, expressed in a more than ordinarily interesting way. McCarthy’s mainly rural, uneducated people speak exactly as the vast run of ordinary American rustics speak and have spoken for a hundred years and more. The result is that his characters all sound alike as they converse in basic, almost monosyllabic sentences or sentence fragments punctuated by monotonously repetitive four-letter words, profanity and blasphemy.

Fitzgerald jotted in his notebooks that ‘Character is action’, which is true, and a thing no novelist should ever forget. The problem is that ‘action’ in a novel by Cormac McCarthy is nearly always an act of violence, though it may be a brave and even heroic one of the kind that John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses and Billy and Boyd Parham in The Crossing perform. Both novels, like their sequel Cities of the Plain, are compelling stories about characters who, though faultlessly true to type, are hardly complex, developed and individuated ones. McCarthy’s great artistic error in the Border Trilogy is his decision to bring the boys together in the final volume — at which point the reader discovers that they are actually one and the same person.

Violence in its most cruel, brutal, sanguinary and explicit (almost pornographic) forms has always been inseparable from McCarthy’s artistic imagination; it is a primary component of his metaphysical vision, most fully and comprehensively expressed in Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West. Set in the late 1840s and early 1850s and based on the author’s extensive research in the gubernatorial archives of the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, Blood Meridian is the story of a brigade of violent American misfits hired by the governor of Chihuahua as headhunters to slaughter as many borderland Indians — Comanche and Apache, principally — as they can manage and bring their scalps to the gubernatorial palace to exchange for bounty. The party is headed up by Judge Holden, who makes his appearance in the book’s first few pages when he publicly identifies an itinerant preacher as an outlaw guilty of fornication with an 11-year-old girl and bestiality with a goat — charges that he knows to be utterly false and that he naturally expects will result in the man’s lynching by the angry crowd.

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(Seán Hewitt’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/13; Illustration: JM Synge: For many years, his drama was too close to home.)

In the year of the dramatist’s 150th anniversary, his work continues to demonstrate the importance of wildness, resistance and imagination

The artist Jack B Yeats, a close friend and collaborator of JM Synge’s, wrote a letter to the dramatist in the wake of the riots that greeted the Abbey Theatre’s premiere of The Playboy of the Western World in late January 1907. He also drew a small cartoon.

In the first scene, a man, holding his hat behind him, his knees touched together in a posture of nervous modesty, leans against a window to talk with a young woman, a small bird perched on his arm. “Will it be mild as milk?” Yeats writes, “or will it be…”

In the second scene, a jeering audience with raised fists watch the man being tossed off a high cliff into the sea. The man is upside-down, mid-air, his hat flying off into a tall wave.

As his career had progressed among the fraught cultural conditions of the Irish Revival, Synge increasingly gravitated towards the second option. His literary output began with a bucolic Romanticism, taking a turn of experiments through Decadence and symbolism. But it was the pressures of a modernising Ireland that urged him into what the scholar Mary Burke has recently called a form of “modernist provocation”.

Synge moved to Germany as a young man, and then to Paris. The riots over the first performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), an avant-garde play considered to be an assault on the audience, would certainly have come to Synge’s attention. In fact, Jarry’s collapsing of the distinction between noble and ignoble, between “primitive” and civilised, finds a striking afterlife in Synge’s own riot-inducing masterpiece just over a decade later.

Synge’s fantasy, imagination and lyric flights of poetry were the tender side of his vision; but for every sweet word there was a sharp, brutal undercurrent, a violence and earthiness that all poetry, and all life, should be rooted in. This was at the heart of his work.

Whereas some writers and audiences wanted a “purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, spring-dayish, Cuchulanoid National Theatre”, what Synge valued most in the life of the peasantry was what he saw as their savage, ironic humour, their imaginative freedom, and their brutality. This, he saw, was their chief challenge to the homogenising tendencies of modernisation; their alterity was in their opposition to the values of the imperial project and also to the values of the middle classes, who were “an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty headed swine”. If he was to hold a mirror up to the nation, it would not be while the people were “going to Mass on a fine… Sunday morning”.

This year marks 150 years since Synge was born in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, into a wealthy Protestant family with long-held connections to the gentry and to the Church of Ireland. Members of the Plymouth Brethren, the Synge family were led by their mother, Kathleen.

Early on, Johnny (as he was known to his relatives) was uncomfortable with the practices of his Anglo-Irish family. In 1885 his brother Edward began evicting tenants in Cavan. Johnny, at the age of just 14, argued strongly with his mother about the rights of the tenants, until she asked him: “What would become of us if our tenants… stopped paying their rents?”

He did manage some small victories, among them was convincing his mother to change the family subscription from the Daily Express to the more liberal Irish Times, which she nevertheless considered “a rebel paper”.

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(Emily Langer’s article appeared in the Washington Post, 2/10; via Karen Schimmel;  PHOTO:  Maria Guarnaschelli, right, with her daughter, chef Alex Guarnaschelli, in New York in 2013. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Network Magazine.)

Maria Guarnaschelli, an indomitable cookbook editor who forged a new canon of kitchen classics and brought her exacting tastes — both literary and culinary — to undertakings including a massive update of the time-honored tome “Joy of Cooking,” died Feb. 6 in Manhasset, N.Y. She was 79.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Alex Guarnaschelli, a prominent New York chef and regular on Food Network programming. The cause was complications of heart disease, according to an announcement from the publishing house W.W. Norton, where Mrs. Guarnaschelli had been a vice president and senior editor for nearly two decades until her retirement in 2017. She had spent the earlier years of her career at Scribner and William Morrow.

Mrs. Guarnaschelli was widely recognized as one of the most influential forces in the world of cookbook publishing, cultivating writers whose cooking guides became mainstays of American kitchens. Her reputation grew along with their success.

“I’m a powerful woman,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “Even my husband has told me he’s a little afraid of me. I’m unconventional. I’m relentless. I’m passionate. When I believe in something, I’m like a … warrior. That’s frightening to people. Maybe in another century I would have been a witch and burned at the stake.”

She earned the devoted loyalty of many of her writers, who over the years included Jeff Smith of the “Frugal Gourmet” franchise; Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (1988) and other baking classics; Lynne Rossetto Kasper, former host of the popular public radio program “The Splendid Table”; Judy Rodgers, author of “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002); Molly Stevens, author of “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” (2004); and J. Kenji López-Alt, author of “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (2015).

“She didn’t just make beautiful cookbooks,” culinary expert Rick Rodgers said in an interview, reflecting on Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s career. “She made cookbooks that changed the way Americans cook.”

For Mrs. Guarnaschelli, her manuscripts were not the kitchen equivalent of coffee table books — things of beauty that telegraphed sophistication but rarely imparted it from their places of repose. Rather, cookbooks were essential tools to be written with professionalism and precision.

Working on “The Cake Bible,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli supported the author when she insisted that the book include weight as well as volume, affording more exact measurements of flour and sugar than the cups and tablespoons most commonly used in American kitchens.

“Who but Maria would have had the daring to publish a cookbook with charts and weights and put her heart and soul into the work,” Levy Beranbaum wrote in a tribute to Mrs. Guarnaschelli. They worked together on seven volumes, Levy Beranbaum said in an interview; ‘The Cake Bible” is today in its 56th printing.

In international cuisine, Mrs. Guarnaschelli was credited with elevating the sophistication of books available to American home chefs through her work with writers including Julie Sahni — author of “Classic Indian Cooking” (1980), which was Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s first cookbook — Rick Bayless, a doyen of Mexican cuisine; and Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer who specializes in Chinese cooking.

She allowed them “to use unusual and exotic ingredients with no apology,” Rodgers observed. “The reader had to come up to the level of the author. The author did not come down to the level of the home cook and make excuses like, ‘I know you’re not going to be able to find this chili . . .’ ”

Mrs. Guarnaschelli took on her most high-profile project in the early 1990s at Scribner, which by then was the publisher of “Joy of Cooking,” the gargantuan red-and-white volume that generations of women received when they married or otherwise left home. By the time Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s update of the book was published in 1997, the saga had become, in the description of the Los Angeles Times, “one of the biggest cookbook stories of the decade.”

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(Hilton Als’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 2/8. PHOTO: Photograph from AKG / TT News Agency. )

The Danish memoirist built a literature of disaster, brick by brick.

Don’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement. Like a number of dispassionate, poetic modernists—the writers Jean Rhys and Octavia Butler, say, or the visual artists Alice Neel and Diane Arbus—Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence. Her world—the world she describes in “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency,” the three short books that make up the trilogy—was cash poor, emotionally mean, and misogynist. The sun must have shone sometimes in Denmark before and during the Second World War, but the atmosphere in “The Copenhagen Trilogy” is damp, dark, and flowerless. It’s not so surprising, then, that one of the first works Ditlevsen published, as a teen-ager, was a poem titled “To My Dead Child”:

I never heard your little voice.
Your pale lips never smiled at me.
And the kick of your tiny feet
Is something I will never see. . . .
See how I kiss your icy hand,
happy to be with you yet awhile,
silently I kiss you, weeping not,—
though the tears are burning in my throat.

In this attempt to imagine a mother’s repressed grief at the stillbirth of a child, Ditlevsen, who went on to publish more than twenty volumes of verse, fiction, children’s literature, and memoir, was beginning to explore the territory she masters in the trilogy’s terse, cinematic chapters: the drama and the particularity of disappointment.

You can’t be disappointed without first having hoped. As a little girl, Ditlevsen yearned for a complete union with her mother. “Childhood” (which was published in Danish in 1967 and is translated here by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the five-year-old Tove living with her parents, Alfrida and Ditlev, and her older brother, Edvin, in a small apartment in Vesterbro, the red-light district of Copenhagen. Times are hard. But they’ve always been hard. Tove’s parents met while both were employed at a bakery before the First World War. Ditlev, who was ten years Alfrida’s senior, had been sent to work as a shepherd when he was six. Social advancement was connected to economic advancement, and you couldn’t achieve either without an education. But higher education—or high school—was not an option if you were penniless, like Ditlev. A bookish socialist who wanted to be a writer—a dream that “never really left him,” according to his daughter—he was eventually hired as an apprentice reporter at a newspaper, but, “for unknown reasons,” he gave up the job. In any case, Ditlev’s love of words can’t compete with Alfrida’s constant arias of disillusionment. Alfrida is unhappy with the life she has made with her husband, but what can she do? She’s a woman. And poor. Her life is limited. Still, she makes an opera out of her dissatisfaction, and Tove is her rapt audience. Being an audience is one way to be loved. Being silent is another. Ditlevsen writes:

In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper. . . . Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, “Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.” Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. . . . [I]f I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me. Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us. And my heart could have still whispered “Mother” for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it. . . . Then something like love would have filled the whole world.

No mother is ordinary to her child. She is always as beautiful, confusing, and monumental as the world. It’s only when the child grows up that the parent becomes ordinary—which is to say, human. Part of the work of becoming an adult is figuring out how to reconcile your vision of your parents with who they actually are. Ditlevsen’s early obsession with writing may not have given her insight into that process, but she did learn how to use language to describe the rejecting force of Alfrida’s various gripes and dismissals. By the age of seven or so, Ditlevsen knew that writing was her vocation, and that, as such, it would separate her, “unwillingly, from those I should be closest to”; the gravitational pull of creativity would tear her away from her family, as it does to so many writers, even as she tore her family apart, the better to see it and tell its story.

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GB. ENGLAND. Buckinghamshire. British playwright Tom STOPPARD. 1977.

(Gaby Wood’s article appeared in the March 2021 issue of  the Atlantic; via Pam Green.)

For Britain’s leading postwar playwright, virtuosity and uncertainty go hand in hand.


Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.

This article was published online on February 7, 2021.

In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”

Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.

Stoppard is the alchemist who turned Shakespeare into Beckett; he has held audiences rapt at that feat for half a century, and riveted by the work that has followed. “What’s it about?” an audience member once asked him of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to which he allegedly replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.” Since that play premiered, in 1966, Stoppard’s linguistic hijinks and relish for experimenting have seemed too clever to some and thrillingly ambitious to others. The dichotomy was perhaps inevitable, given the scope of his intellectual appetite: He has fused philosophers with acrobats (Jumpers) and dissidents with footballers (Professional Foul), devised poetic plots from the laws of physics (Arcadia), and rewritten 19th- and 20th-century history until it was antic or aslant (Travesties, The Coast of Utopia). But his virtuosity has been more than gymnastics. The restless author of more than 20 plays for the stage, as many for radio and TV, and several Hollywood screenplays, he has spun more serious ideas into silly jokes than Charlie Chaplin and Richard Feynman combined. He has also said as much about literature and love as Ivan Turgenev.

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(Louis Menand’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 2/1; PHOTO: Nichols on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which swept the Academy Award nominations.Photograph by © Bob Willoughby / MPTV Images.)

An intuitive storyteller, the director perfected narratives—including his own.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in October, 1957. Apart from their manager, Jack Rollins, whom they’d met for the first time just a week or two before, no one in New York had ever heard of them.

Nichols and May had worked out their comedy act in Chicago, playing mostly hole-in-the-wall venues as members of a local theatre group called the Compass. They performed sketches—a man on the phone with his mother, a movie star getting interviewed, a man trying to pick up his secretary in a bar. They had a script, but left room for ad-libs, and they ended the show by asking the audience to suggest an opening line, a closing line, and a style (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Jack Kerouac), and then improvising a skit. They were an overnight hit. By the second week, they were upstaging Sahl, a man not renowned for the length of his fuse, and he began cancelling their set.

They moved uptown to a tonier joint, the Blue Angel, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where they did a midnight show. It quickly started selling out, and soon they were the talk of the town (night-life division). In those days, television variety shows scouted talent in supper clubs like the Blue Angel, and in December Nichols and May went on “The Steve Allen Show.” In January, they performed two sketches on an NBC special, where they were seen by tens of millions of viewers.

They were now nationally known and in demand. Rollins asked for big fees, and by the spring May had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and Nichols was living in a duplex on East Fifty-eighth Street and driving a Mercedes convertible. He was twenty-six. It was the first time that he had had any money. He found that he enjoyed the life style.

Nichols and May released an album, “Improvisations to Music,” in 1958. It made it onto the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1960, they took their act to Broadway, where “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” ran for three hundred and eleven performances. The album of the show went to No. 10 in the Billboard rankings and won a Grammy.

Some people who saw them perform—including the critic Edmund Wilson, who went to the Broadway show four times—thought that May was the star. May is a kind of comic genius. Her father, Jack Berlin, worked in the Yiddish theatre, and she had been appearing onstage since she was a child. She was fearless—also glamorous, sexy, and terrifying to men. (She and Nichols were not lovers.) There is a story that when they were performing in Chicago she would go onstage without underwear and flash the audience.

She married when she was sixteen, had a daughter (Jeannie Berlin, who became a movie actress), split from her husband, and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she hung out at the university, attending classes but never registering. That was where she met Nichols, a University of Chicago dropout who had found a home of sorts as an actor on the local drama scene.

Nichols was widely regarded as (his term) a prick. He was supercilious and had a quick tongue—“a scary person,” as one colleague put it. May was introduced to him by the Compass’s director, Paul Sills, as “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.” (The Compass became Second City, the legendary feeder troupe for “Saturday Night Live”; Sills was its original director.) They quickly recognized that they were soul mates. They were sophisticated, faster with a comeback than anyone they knew, and unencumbered by conventional, or even unconventional, pieties. They saw through everything and everybody, including themselves.

More to the point, as May put it, “we found each other hilarious.” Onstage, they were complementary. “He was always directing the scene while he was doing it,” one of the Compass players remembered. “Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.” Nichols did not disagree. “She was more interested in taking chances than in being a hit,” he said. “I was more interested in making the audience happy.”

What made the show so hot? Nichols and May were witty people, but they used standard comic setups (the quarrelsome couple, the all-thumbs first date), and they lampooned some pretty soft targets—the British movie “Brief Encounter,” for instance, which they set in a dentist’s office. (“There, I’ve said it. I do love you. Rinse out, please.”) Despite the reputation the act acquired, the dialogue was not remotely risqué. They were not in Lenny Bruce territory. They were barely in Mort Sahl territory.

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Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

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(Joseph M. Hassett’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 11/20.)

The elixir of love is potent medicine for all locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred

WB Yeats’s December 14th, 1918 letter to New York lawyer John Quinn alludes to the dramatic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 on the Yeats family. He recounts that his wife George fainted upon receiving the telegraphed news that his father had been stricken with potentially fatal influenza and pneumonia. The poet’s initial impression that the fainting was caused by this news turned out to be wrong – in fact, George also had life-threatening flu and pneumonia.

The situation was especially dire because George was expecting their first child in February. The prospective parents were temporarily living in premises at 73 St Stephen’s Green that had been leased by Maud Gonne, the longtime elusive object of Yeats’s romantic pursuit and the subject of many of his poems.

The Yeatses had taken over Gonne’s lease for six months while she was imprisoned in England on suspicion of participating in a wartime conspiracy between Irish republicans and the Kaiser’s secret service. On November 24th, 1918, Gonne, who had been released on medical grounds, but barred from travelling to Ireland, suddenly appeared at the Yeatses’ door demanding entry. Given George’s condition, the potential for a police raid in search of Gonne, and the tight quarters occasioned by the presence of nurses attending George, Yeats refused entry to his erstwhile muse. A bitter quarrel ensued. Yeats eventually found new accommodationsdown the Green, his wife and father recovered, and Anne Butler Yeats was born on February 26th, 1919.

The month before Anne’s birth, her father was writing his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, which famously declares:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….

The first World War, the Russian revolution and incipient anarchy in Irish politics were part of the cauldron of disturbance out of which the poem emerged. Still, one wonders, following the lead of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in The Irish Times on May 25th, 2020, whether the turmoil visited on the Yeats family by the 1918 pandemic was part of the mix. The Second Coming vividly captures a sense of the world spinning out of control.

Lessons to be discerned from this traumatic experiment in living were not articulated until three years later when the sequelae of 1918 merged with similar turmoil, troubling Yeats while he was isolated in his Galway tower amid the violence and uncertainty of civil war. The poem that emerged this time was The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It describes the circumstances of its origin in terms that resonate with the fear and anxiety we suffer while locked in, physically and psychologically, by Covid-19:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty.

Yeats later explained that he responded to these pressures with “an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature”.

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