“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.”
So begins Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North. This fraught first sentence, spoken by a westernized Sudanese narrator returning home, has many layers of division—between home and away, between outsider and insider, between strong and weak, between man and woman, between West and East, between black and white.
In his essay for this series, All Our Names author Dinaw Mengestu indicts what he calls “the fractured gaze”: any worldview that sets apart “us” apart from “them.” For Mengestu, literature offers a way to see beyond the simplistic labels that confine us. In a passage from Season of Migration to the North that suggests the essential human sameness of the Sudanese and Europeans, Mengestu locates his mission statement.
Read more. [Image: Doug McLean]
Two sets of events, separated by a decade. In 2003 and 2004, The Atlantic published a pair of short stories by a young writer named Nic Pizzolatto. In early 2014, the magazine’s website declared Pizzolatto’s unfolding HBO hit, the heady crime drama True Detective, the best show on television.
In the universe of True Detective, this would be unmistakable evidence of a shadowy conspiracy. Alas (or rather, thank goodness), in the duller reality of everyday life, it’s merely a coincidence.
It wasn’t until after I’d written the piece on True Detective (and participated in the first installment of our post-episode roundtable), that I belatedly discovered the earlier connection. Pizzolatto submitted the two stories, “Ghost-Birds” and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” to The Atlantic’s fiction editor, Michael Curtis, in September 2002. At the time, Pizzolatto was in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, and these were the very first stories he’d submitted anywhere. “I knew so little that I submitted two stories at the same time,” Pizzolatto told me in a phone interview.
Some time later, he received a call in return. “I came home from teaching classes, and there was a message from Mike Curtis on the answering machine, saying that he really liked the stories,” Pizzolatto says. “I think at first I thought it was one of my friends, being an asshole.”
Curtis says he was struck by Pizzolatto’s “fluency with philosophical ideas and moral stringency”—qualities that will be familiar to viewers of True Detective. Curtis met Pizzolatto on a visit to Arkansas, and remembers him as “young, serious, and all business, with none of the repressed vanity or career anxiousness of many MFA students.” Pizzolatto, for his part, says, “The Atlantic really gave me my writing career—even just the conviction to be a writer.”
Read more. [Image: HBO]
The Great Gatsby may have been inspired by it, and Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, carried a copy of it on his travels. But few Americans have heard of “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” That’s what the British novelist John Fowles called Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, a revered French classic published in the fall of 1913. This centenary edition of the short book is timed to the anniversary of the author’s death barely a year later: Henri-Alban Fournier (his real name) was killed during the early months of World War I, just before he turned 28.
A story of restless youthful questing, The Lost Domain (the translator wisely gave up on a literal rendition of the title) casts a fairy-tale spell—without feeling merely old-fashioned. The haunting account of two teenage companions, one a bold wanderer at 17 and the other a little younger and a lot warier, is steeped in Alain-Fournier’s long-gone rural past. Yet the protracted adolescent limbo it evokes is familiar.
Read more. [Image: Oxford University Press]
Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.
The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin’s work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.
Read more. [Image: Miika Niemelä / Flickr]
I started my middle-school English and Latin classes the same way every day: with short lessons in etymology and cultural literacy—knowledge of a society’s history, references, symbols, and stories. So, a typical day’s lesson might include the etymology of the word “calculus” (Latin for “small stone, pebble” used by Romans in order to calculate sums in the marketplace) and, in order to maintain a theme, a lesson in Demosthenes. Considered the greatest of Greece’s orators, he overcame a childhood stutter by filling his mouth with pebbles and speaking through them, a remedy portrayed in the film The King’s Speech.
I teach these daily etymology and cultural literacy items not for their individual educational merit, but because, taken together, they form the foundation of my students’ future learning.
Take for example, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels to teach, and a perennial favorite among my eighth-grade students. The first page, in all of its beautiful rhetoric and brilliant prose, poses a real challenge to even the most dedicated modern reader. The first chapter sets the stage for the action to come: Dickens explains the political and social strife in England and France through references to cultural, literary, and religious figures.
Read more. [Image: Murray Close/Lionsgate]
The Irish author’s latest novel, The Guts, does what Doyle has done since he first published The Commitments: expertly weave sadness, tenderness, awkwardness, and pride into every page.
Read more. [Image: Mike Segar / Reuters; Viking Adult]
Author Ben Marcus says the beautiful but sorrowful strangeness of Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” make it a perfect piece of writing.
Read more. [Image: Doug McLean]
From years of use, people know this: Twitter can be a lot of noise.
But sometimes, to get a tweet just right, to make it fit, I stop and consider the language. In this digital format, we are forced to distill and compress, two poetic virtues that the web rarely requires.
But what if you’re not trying to describe an airport or a sunset, but Beowulf, the (gory, dark) epic Old English poem?
That was the task that Stanford medievalist (and “text technologies”) researcher Elaine Treharne took on. She compressed Beowulf into 100 tweets as part of teaching her course on the many “existing and imagined manifestations” of the work.
“The underlying theoretical question for this course is ‘What is (the) Text?’ What constitutes Beowulf? What is its core and what do we understand by ‘Beowulf’?” she wrote in her explanation of the project. “In some senses, this seeks to address, for Beowulf, F. W. Bateson’s question, ‘If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where then are Hamlet and Lycidas?’”
At last, the great detective Sherlock Holmes has broken free of the clutches of his captors.
Last month, a Chicago judge ruled that Holmes, a fictional character created in the late 19th century by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is in fact out of copyright—meaning that the exclusive copyrights once held by the publishers of the original Sherlock Holmes stories no longer apply. Unless the decision is overturned on appeal, new Holmes adaptations should be just about as legally unregulated as adaptations of Shakespeare or folk tales. Given the success of adaptations like Elementary and BBC’s Sherlock, that means we’re likely to see a whole lot more Holmes content in the not-too-distant future. And since a strong public domain benefits art, that’s a boon both for Holmes-lovers and for everyone else.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes was out of copyright already. The original novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887—more than 125 years ago. Even in the U.S., where copyright has been extended and extended and extended again, protection usually applies only 95 years from the date of publication, meaning Holmes and Watson should be well out of it.
At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.
Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters. This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one.
When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.
Read more. [Image: Doug McLean]