Literature

Double-Booked

In 1975, Émile Ajar won the Prix Goncourt for his novel The Life Before Us. The French literary prize is awarded only once to each author, so Ajar could not be recognized again.

Or so you’d think. It turned out that Ajar was a pen name of Romain Gary, who had already won the prize in 1956.

Gary/Ajar remains the only author to win the medal twice.

Writing Weather

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1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).

It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

Temp Work

Strapped for cash in the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut took a job at Sports Illustrated, though he “didn’t care or know squat about sports.”

They asked him to write a piece about a racehorse that had jumped the fence at the local track.

He fed a page into his typewriter, stared at it for several hours, typed “The horse jumped over the fucking fence” and left.

Comp Lit

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Emerson’s rules for reading:

  1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
  2. Never read any but famed books.
  3. Never read any but what you like.

“Or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, ‘No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en; / In brief, Sir, study what you most affect.'”

The Blitz Previewed

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E. Douglas Fawcett’s 1893 story “Hartmann the Anarchist” described an aerial bombardment of London — 47 years before World War II:

With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press.

Hartmann rains dynamite bombs, shells, and blazing petroleum from his airship before a mutiny brings him down. “It has not been my aim to write history,” writes the narrator. “I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners.”

See also Wreck of the Titan and A Blindfold Bullseye.

Precocious

Though she died at age 8, Marjory Fleming (1803-1811) had the soul of a mature writer. Her diary became hugely popular in Victorian London:

I am now going to tell you the horrible and wretched plaege that my multiplication table gives me; you cant conceive it. The most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 and 7 times 7; it is what nature itself cant endure.

And she was rumored to be the favorite poet of Walter Scott, who reportedly told her aunt, “Her repeating of Shakespeare overpowers me as nothing else does.”

Of summer I am very fond,
And love to bathe into a pond;
The look of sunshine dies away,
And will not let me out to play;
I love the morning’s sun to spy
Glittering through the casement’s eye,
The rays of light are very sweet,
And puts away the taste of meat;
The balmy breeze comes down from heaven,
And makes us like for to be living.

In her last illness she offered to recite a poem for her father; when he asked her to choose one, she startled him with Burns’ “Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene?”

See also An Unacknowledged Genius and Child’s Play.

Orwell That Ends Well

Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, rendered in Newspeak by J.A. Lindon:

Person or unperson. Query.
Unbellyfeel Ingsoc, oldthink, ownthink,
(PLUSUNGOOD THOUGHTCRIME. PENALTY: UNLIFE)
Or Ingsoc foolthink doubleplusungood
Own unlife bellyfeel, make self unlifer,
Unperson, unofficial. (PENALTY: JOYCAMP)
Only unwake: become unlifer. (FOOLTHINK)
Unwake, and thusby unperform our Ingsoc duty
(GOODWISE NOTE: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU)
Seems goodthink (DOUBLEPLUSUNGOOD THOUGHTCRIME).
Unwake: become unlifer.
Unwake — ungoodwise dream (PLUS-CERTAINFUL
SELF-BRINGED RESULT) —
Yes, there is the unsmoothness —
Correctful treatment in the Miniluv,
Post fail-maked self unlifer with a cord,
Is allsuch stopful — yes, there is the reason
We still goodwise perform our Ingsoc duty
Until we’re vaporized, although (CRIMETHINK)
Unbellyfeeling Ingsoc and Big Brother,
The Junior Anti-Sex League, rationed goods,
Sternness of Inner Party and its just
And ungood “watch and query” note on us,
We seemcould oldthink “free” perhaps become
With a bigneedle. (FOOLTHINK) Who would work,
Prolewise and sweatful, doubleplusunfresh,
For Ingsoc if he bellyfeeled to know
Correctful treatment in the Miniluv
That joyful place from which so few return,
And those how bigwise changed? Plusgooderwise
We live goodthinkful til some Spy reports us,
For IGNORANCE is STRENGTH, FREEDOM is SLAVERY,
And WAR (against the Party) brings NO PEACE
Inside the Miniluv till we become
Unpersons (now OFFICIAL). But unhard!
The clingful and face-crimewise-good-to-see
Ophelia! Joysexful girl, forget
My many faults in your Two Minutes Hate!

See also Hamlet in Klingon and GRKTRGDY.

Epic Verse

The world’s longest handwritten poem is nearly 1 kilometer long. Unveiled by French notary Patrick Huet in 2006, Pieces of Hope to the Echo of the World comprises 7,547 verses.

All that length is necessary — the poem is one long acrostic. The initial letters of its lines spell out the complete Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Special Delivery

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This is the Flammarion woodcut, so named because it first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’Atmosphère. No one knows who created it; it’s thought to depict a medieval pilgrim who discovers the point where earth and sky meet.

Flammarion’s book itself seemed touched by magic. As the astronomer was completing a chapter on the force of the wind, a sudden gale blew the last few pages out the window and off in a whirlwind among the trees. Then a downpour started, and Flammarion gave them up as lost.

He was astonished, then, a few days later when his printer delivered the full chapter, with no pages missing.

It seems the porter who normally brought Flammarion’s proof sheets had been returning to his office when he noticed the sodden manuscript leaves on the ground. He assumed that he himself had dropped them and so had collected them and carried them to the printer without telling anyone.

“Remember,” Flammarion writes, “it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.”

Mouthful

Composed in 390 B.C., Aristophanes’ play Ecclesiazusae concludes with the name of a dish on which the characters plan to feast.

The word is lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimupotrimmatosilphioliparomelitoaktakexhumeno-kichlepikossuphophattoperisteralektruonoptopiphallidokinklopeleioplagoosiraiobaphetragalopterugon. At 169 letters, it’s still the longest word in the Greek language.

Fine Scotch

A sentence composed entirely of contractions taken from Robert Burns poems:

E’en th’ flow’rs afiel’ ha’e fac’t heav’n wi’ th’ rightfu’, shinin’ blessin’ that’s prevail’d i’ th’ min’ o’ th’ faithfu’ servan’ an’ th’ mournfu’, wand’ring craz’d o’ th’ worl': heav’n’s pray’rs ha’e honour’d th’ cheerfu’ an’ th’ gen’rous ‘gainst t’other worl’s glib-tongu’d, wither’d pow’r.

When the English poet laureate Alfred Austin unveiled a statue of Burns in 1896, Punch proposed some remarks for him.

“Ye ken I canna mak’ ye a lang speech, bein’ mair a wanchansie mon, ram-feezled wi’ writin’, than a skirlin’, tapetless glib-gabbet,” he was to say. “Burns was nae feckless gowk, sae it’s a pleasure tae me tae unveil this sonsie statue.”

Peer Review

Was James Fenimore Cooper a great writer? His fellow authors didn’t think so. Mark Twain counted 114 literary offenses on a single page of The Deerslayer, including an “airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol” style that Bret Harte parodied:

Judge Tompkins: ‘Genevra, the logs which compose yonder fire seem to have been incautiously chosen. The sibilation produced by the sap, which exudes copiously therefrom, is not conducive to composition.’

Genevra: ‘True, father, but I thought it would be preferable to the constant crepitation which is apt to attend the combustion of more seasoned ligneous fragments.’

Of Cooper’s characters, James Russell Lowell wrote, “The women he draws from one model don’t vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”

“Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” Twain concluded, “and … the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.” Perhaps they were jealous.

Unquote

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“Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” — London Critic, 1855

Conflict of Interest

Eric Temple Bell led two lives. By day he was a mathematician at Caltech; by night he wrote science fiction as John Taine.

By a happy chance the two personalities met in 1951, when the Pasadena Star-News asked Taine to review Bell’s book Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science.

Not one to lose an opportunity, he accepted. “The last flap of the jacket says Bell ‘is perhaps mathematics’ greatest interpreter,'” Taine wrote. “Knowing the author well, the reviewer agrees.”

Self-Help

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Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton what book he’d most like to have on a desert island.

He answered, “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”

A Clean Breast

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As he lay dying in 1635, Lope de Vega asked whether the end was at hand. Assured that it was, he murmured, “All right, then, I’ll say it. Dante makes me sick.”

Clockwork

“Did you ever notice that remarkable coincidence? Bernard Shaw is 61 years old. H.G. Wells is 51, G.K. Chesterton is 41, you’re 31 and I’m 21 — all the great authors of the world in arithmetical progression.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1918 letter to Shane Leslie

A Wide Vocabulary

Doug Nufer’s 2004 novel Never Again is aptly named — in 202 pages he never uses the same word twice. Here’s the first sentence:

When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.

And here’s the last (and the moral):

Worldly bookmaker soulmates rectify unfair circumstance’s recurred tragedies, ever-moving, ever-hedging shifty playabilities since chances say someone will be for ever closing racetracks.

It’s an example of an Oulipo exercise in constrained writing — here’s another.

A Blindfold Bullseye

In 1908, German novelist Ferdinand H. Grautoff published Banzai!, a curiously prescient account of a war between Japan and the United States. Japan deals a surprise defeat to unprepared American troops, who rally to repulse them:

Our splendid regiments could not be checked, so eager were they to push forward, and they succeeded in storming one of the enemy’s positions after the other along the mountainside. At last the enemy began to retreat, and the thunder of the cannon was again and again drowned in the frenzied cheers. General MacArthur was continually receiving at his headquarters reports of fresh victories in the front and on both wings.

Note the name of the American commander. Grautoff gives no clue to his inspiration, but in an introduction he writes, “All the incidents we had observed on the dusty highway of History, and passed by with indifference, had been sure signs of the coming catastrophe.”

Timeless Reason

In an 1849 letter to his sister, Lewis Carroll asks which is more accurate, a clock that is right once a year or one that has stopped altogether. The stopped clock is more accurate, he says–because it’s correct twice a day.

You might go on to ask, ‘How am I to know when eight o’clock does come? My clock will not tell me.’ Be patient, reader: you know that when eight o’clock comes your clock is right; very good; then your rule is this: keep your eye fixed on your clock, and the very moment it is right it will be eight o’clock.

“‘But–‘ you say. There, that’ll do, reader; the more you argue the farther you get from the point, so it will be as well to stop.”

More Bad Poetry

The verses of Puritan poet George Wither (1588-1667) fairly glow — if by “verses” you mean “drivelings” and by “glow” you mean “suck like a tarpit”:

Her hair like gold did glister,
Each eye was like a star;
She did surpass her sister,
Which passed all others far.
She would me honey call;
She’d, O she’d kiss me too;
But now, alas! sh’ ‘as left me,
Falero, lero, loo.

When Wither was taken prisoner by the Cavaliers during the English civil war, Sir John Denham pleaded with Charles I: “I hope your majesty will not hang poor George Wither — for as long as he lives it can’t be said that I am the worst poet in England.”

“Extraordinary Prediction”

It is recorded of the poet Dryden, by Charles Wilson, in his ‘Life of Congreve,’ that having, strange to say, belief in astrology, he was careful to ascertain to the second the time at which his son Charles was born. He then calculated the boy’s nativity, and was alarmed to discover that evil influences prevailed in the heavens. … He concluded that in his eighth year, and on the day of birth, his son’s life would be seriously endangered if not lost; and that if he lived, the same danger would exist when he attained his twenty-third birthday, and again on his thirty-third or fourth. On the boy’s eighth birthday, despite every precaution to keep the boy from every possible danger, he was nearly killed by the fall of a wall. On his twenty-third birthday he was seized with giddiness and fell from an old tower belonging to the Vatican at Rome; and he was drowned at Windsor while swimming across the Thames in his thirty-third year.

The World of Wonders, 1883

The Author’s Tale

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

“Beware Jovanovich, my son!
The knopfs that crown, the platts that munk!
Beware the doubleday, and shun
The grolier wagnallfunk!”

He took his putnam sword in hand,
Long time the harcourt brace he sought;
So rested he by the crowell tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in harper thought he stood,
Jovanovich, with eyes of flame,
Came houghton mifflin through the wood
And bowkered as it came!

Dodd mead! Dodd mead! And from his steed
His dutton sword went kennicatt!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went quadrangling back.

“And hast thou slain Jovanovich?
Come to my arms, my bantam boy!
Oh, stein and day! Giroux! McKay!”
He scribnered in his joy.

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

— Anonymous

Short Verse

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

That’s the first verse of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” University of Liverpool librarian John Sampson found it a bit wordy, so he tightened it up:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The lowing herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to dark and me.

Still unsatisfied, he tried:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to me.

Finally he settled on:

Dusk tolls,
Herds flee,
Hinds scoot:
Not me.