And now is the time, Friar, now is the time. I will not repent. I will never abjure my work, I will not say I am sorry for what my seven women and three men recounted to each other on the hills above Firenze. I will not betray all those who, in some near or remote future, will confront another plague and weave their own tales, the stories that, as night falls, will allow them and their fellows to survive.
Balthus was everything his brother, Pierre Klossowski, was not: handsome, wealthy, and internationally regarded as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. He and Pierre were estranged for decades. Today, Balthus’s canvases hang on the walls of MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Pierre’s books struggle to stay in print. It is only now, seventy years after it was written, that his first novel, The Suspended Vocation, has finally found its way into English, providing the occasion to reassess his subterranean, but nevertheless profound, influence on post-war fiction and philosophy.
“But did Mom ruin Martha Stewart’s marriage?” Now I needed to know. After all, I’d used the line often enough at cocktail parties down the years, when people still had cocktail parties: “My mother ruined Martha Stewart’s marriage.” There’d be a moment of shock and awe: it seemed so daring to dime my own family out like that, but what people didn’t know was that in a family like mine, there was no diming out. Everything was copy, for a memoir or a novel or a film script.
When, a few weeks ago, I took down from my shelves Dickens’s Great Expectations and found the “Dear Reader” letter, I was transported again—as I’d been so often while reading Dickens—to that mid-century world of my childhood. Other than the one time my mother and I read to each other from the opening pages of Great Expectations, I don’t recall ever seeing my father or mother actually reading a book of Dickens, and yet, in memory, our family life—a mid-twentieth-century Brooklyn world determined by difficult economic circumstances, inhabited by eccentric, larger-than-life characters, rooted in family feuds about inheritance and money, and steeped in scenes of intense, high drama—seems distinctly Dickensian.
None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a “necessary evil.” Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of New York, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would “never concur in upholding domestic slavery,” that “nefarious institution” based on “the most cruel bondages”—“the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.
I was twenty-eight years old and working as an engineer in Guatemala and I knew that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to go to Paris. And so I quit my job, bought a one-way ticket, and flew to Paris in the early winter of 1999, with no other plan than to become a writer. I knew that my entire life up to that point had been lived by someone who no longer existed, or who no longer wanted to exist. I was all alone. I was miserable, and helpless, and completely lost.
“In so many ways, Native people are like the canary in the coal mine,” said Dr. Joe Hobot, president of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis. A catalog of social ills, he said, from the opioid crisis to police brutality, acutely affect Native people, but these are often overlooked until it’s no longer “just” a Native issue. “In part, it’s because we are such a numerically small community, but I also think part of it is a sense of defeatism.”
One of the most difficult issues of the pandemic is when and how schools should reopen. Among the ironies of the situation is that parents who are sick of distance learning are now willing to bear it as long as necessary to keep their children safe. Second, Betsy DeVos—an evangelist for distance learning who praised it at her confirmation hearings in 2017—is now demanding a return to brick-and-mortar schools. Third, the Trump administration, which scorned public schools, now sees them as essential for the lives of children, as well as the economy. And the situation is made even more challenging because the Trump administration has politicized decision-making and even the CDC itself.
Derek Walcott had many New Yorks, and all of them played a part in his life and in his evolution as a writer. But perhaps the most important of all his New York sojourns was the one from the Fifties, a nine-month period between 1958 and 1959 when Walcott lived in the city as a young man. Walcott also tried to write during his time in New York, but it would be some years before he achieved the detachment necessary for him to be able to coherently set down his complex, troubled feelings about the city. In New York, by learning what he wasn’t, Walcott quickly absorbed the lesson of what he was: a West Indian.
Am I being reductive? All of narrative fiction, I’ve suggested, can be sorted into four grand categories. Each presents a rich world of feeling in which any number of stories can be told and positions established, but always in relation to, or rather, driven by, a distinct cluster of values and consequent emotions. My claim is that it really is worth being aware which of these worlds we are being drawn into. We read better. We know where we are. And what the dangers are.