In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import.” In her Nobel Lecture, she noted how language, whether spoken or written, can limn, or describe and detail, life. Derived from the Latin illuminare, meaning to “make light” or “illuminate,” limn has been used throughout literary history to generally describe—and convey the literal illustration of—a manuscript. One affordance of annotation is that it enables readers and writers to limn, or describe, their texts. In doing so, how does such annotation provide information?
It has become axiomatic to say that the world is becoming like science fiction (sf). From mobile phones that speak to us (reminding Star Trek fans of tricorders), to genetically modified foods, to the Internet of Things and the promise of self-driving cars, people in industrialized nations live immersed in technology. Daily life can thus at times seem like visions from the pulp sf of the 1920s and 1930s—either a world perfected by technology, manifested in events such as the 1939 World’s Fair, with its theme “The World of Tomorrow”; or a dystopian nightmare, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
Two hundred years ago, 20-year-old Mary Shelley won a bet with her future husband Percy Shelley and his friend Lord Byron to write a horror story: she created Frankenstein, the story of a Genevan scientist who created artificial life – and regretted it for the rest of his days. Shelley created more than she knew: her story is not just considered to be the first science-fiction novel, but has spawned an army of monstrous descendants.
What is it that continues to draw writers, particularly those who don’t usually write science fiction, to create artificial humans? How do writers use these characters to tell us about ourselves? What does the 21st-Century Frankenstein’s monster look like?
The purpose of The Joyce Project is to present an online edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses that comprehensively assists readers of this great modern novel, as they read. Joyce’s other fictions (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegans Wake) are mentioned often in the notes, but the site does not seek to aid readers of those works.
Ulysses, which incorporates so many different kinds of content, has always threatened to exceed the knowledge base of its readers and to overwhelm the reading process. The literary allusions alone seem to demand that shelves of other books lie open next to the novel, and other sorts of reference compound the problem exponentially. Must one walk the streets of Dublin to find order in the protagonists’ meanderings? Experience the spectacle of a Catholic priest approaching the altar to understand what Mulligan means by Introibo ad altare Dei? Know Mozart’s Don Giovanni to relate La ci darem la mano to the Blooms’ marital drama, and have Victorian music-hall tunes floating through one’s head to appreciate the phrase Woodman, Spare That Tree? The answer to thousands of such questions is Yes.
The changes in communication since the arrival of HTML in 1990 have made it possible simultaneously to reduce the number of required reference materials and to expand the dimensions of the reader’s enjoyment of the novel. Written notes can be linked to passages of text, allowing immediate access to contextualizing information, and further hyperlinks can carry the reader to related notes and textual passages. Visual images and videos available within the public domain can enrich the verbal information. Scholarly studies can be integrated into the reading experience. Today all of these resources can be made available on a single computer screen. This vision drives the construction of The Joyce Project.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed depicts a society with no laws or government, an experiment in “nonviolent anarchism.” Science fiction author Matthew Kressel was impressed by the book’s thoughtful exploration of politics and economics.
“After reading The Dispossessed, I was just blown away,” Kressel says in Episode 460 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It was just such an intellectual book. It’s so philosophical, and it was so different from a lot of the science fiction I had read before that. It made me want to read more of Le Guin’s work.”
Philip never really disappointed me. He was wonderful company. He’s the funniest guy alive. Even at his worst, when he was ranting and raving at his “bitch of a wife,” he was charming and funny and essentially benign. He was very obsessively devoted to promoting his own interests. I can live with that. That’s a very human quality. Later, Philip became something else. But I have to emphasize that core sweetness and decency never entirely left him.
The Wikipedia pages devoted to the Culture, a fictional civilization created by the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, are fabulously extensive. The main article is about nine thousand words long, and contains links to more than thirty other pages that provide more detail on the various aspects of Banks’s imaginary world. (I would not be at all surprised if Banks himself, in the writing of Culture novels, consulted Wikipedia to ensure consistency with his previous work.) For purposes of comparison, it might be noted that the main page on Jane Austen is a little shorter and with fewer links to other Austen-related pages. Yet there are certainly far fewer readers of Iain M. Banks than of Jane Austen. How are we to account for this discrepancy?
Of course, books can be a balm in these terrifying times—but as the surge in sales of plague-related literature reveals, sometimes all we want to read are books that speak directly to our terrifying times. Well, friends, with a little elbow grease, any book can be a coronavirus book. Behold: the first lines of 10 classic novels, rewritten for these times of social distancing.
Literature used to be a place for transgressive ideas, a place to question taboos, and seek naked insights into humanity. It no longer is.
Critics, writers and publishers are today enforcing a new vision that treats books less as a vehicle for artistic expression than as a product to be inspected for safety and wholesomeness. In the past few years, this has only gained momentum, with much of what is written about literature, old and new, becoming a series of moral pronouncements.
Sleep! How precious, how precarious! Many of us struggle with insomnia. Perhaps we have apnea. Perhaps we own a cat who believes motionless humans are food. Perhaps we are simply aware that up to forty thousand redback spiders can fit into the volume of the average pillow. But sleep can be overdone. Imagine waking to discover that decades or centuries have passed…
This is a convenient way for an author to arrange for a protagonist not unlike the reader to tour an alien setting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of authors have taken advantage of the plot possibilities of the long sleep.
Consider these five classic science fiction examples.
When we talk about fan fiction, we rarely think: “John Milton”. And yet, how better to approach his Paradise Lost (1667), which takes Satan (barely mentioned in the Bible) and makes this fallen arch-fiend into an ambivalent, epic hero? Structured on techniques and themes borrowed from Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and countless other texts and genres, Milton remixed classical and Renaissance forms to fashion the biblical universe into a setting for English literature’s (perhaps) greatest poem, one which Philip Pullman believes will [“n]ever be surpassed”.
DUTCH NOVELIST CONNIE PALMEN’S 2015 novel Jij zegt het, available now in a superb English translation by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury titled Your Story, My Story, tells Sylvia Plath’s story from the point of view of Ted Hughes. Palmen drew on Hughes’s 1998 collection of poems Birthday Letters to compose his side of the tumultuous relationship. While one of the aims of the novel is to portray Ted in a more sympathetic light, Palmen still depicts his extramarital affairs and violent tendencies. Yet its main goal is to undo his villainous reputation, to question the blame he has often been assigned for his wife’s suicide.
Palmen’s novel in translation has been released at approximately the same time as Heather Clark’s new biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (2020). Clark details the minutiae of Plath’s life, including when she took her first steps and what she ate, in order to portray her as heartbreakingly human. We also learn about Ted: more often than not, the details are endearing, such as the way he watches their children while she writes, though Clark does bring us face to face with his philandering.
Collecting books poses several different problems. Those are not just of a technical and economical nature, but specifically of a personal nature. For it can happen at a certain moment that one starts to wonder whether it is strictly necessary to own all those books. As it is quite easy to borrow most books from a library. And how rare are the books that we read twice or more! One could say this of novels especially. It appears that it is not necessary to own a collection of books, when we only want to read the books, or of books that we only read. Once one specializes in a certain science, things change: it is then necessary to at any moment have to one’s disposal certain standard works in the field of that science. Collecting standard and reference books then brings few personal problems with it…
I was thirteen and wanted to work. Someone told me that you could get paid to referee basketball games and where to go to find out about such weekend employment. I needed income to bolster my collections of stamps and Sherlock Holmes novels. I vaguely remember going to an office full of adolescents queueing in front of a young man who looked every inch an administrator. When my turn came, he asked me if I had any experience and I lied. I left that place with details of a game that would be played two days later, and the promise of 700 pesetas in cash. Nowadays, if a thirteen-year-old wants to research something he’s ignorant about, he’ll go to YouTube. That same afternoon I bought a whistle in a sports shop and went to the library…
“When things are too clear, they are no longer interesting,” says one of the author’s characters. Solzhenitsyn, far more than other writers, uses his characters to announce counterintuitive and unpopular truths. He knows that a bundle of passions can decide a seemingly clear-cut and rational action, to say nothing of the most consequential decisions that can be decided by a momentary mood. Hindsight is lazy in this regard, Solzhenitsyn intimates, since it reduces complexity to a counterfeit clarity. He replaces hindsight with a multitude of characters thinking and acting in the moment, so that at the beginning of World War I, “The clock of fate was suspended over the whole of East Prussia, and its six-mile-long pendulum was ticking audibly as it swung from the German to the Russian side and back again.” Indeed, the life and death of whole battalions of men, as the author vividly demonstrates, can be effected by a misplaced pencil movement on a general’s dimly lit field map.
It is now 55 years since Robert Darnton first became aware of the vast archive of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), one of the principal suppliers of books to the French market in the late 18th century. It is fair to say that this happy combination of remarkable source material and Darnton’s analytical skill has transformed book history. Darnton’s first major engagement with this literature, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) was followed in 1996 by The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a book that offered a key to understanding the mysteries of the long established and rather settled French book market. In the late 18th century, a network of protected and conservative domestic producers in Paris were increasingly vulnerable to the buccaneering strategies of publishers who were, like the STN, established abroad and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the French authorities. The novelties flooding the market from these safe havens ranged from serious works of theology to scabrous pornographic novels. It was the latter, needless to say, that caught the public imagination, but Darnton also had serious things to say about the Enlightenment and the importance of the book market in paving the way for a renovation in thought and the collapse of the Ancien Régime.
This essay looks at the history of the novel, starting from the influential postwar critical insistence on the importance of the novel as a nineteenth-century genre. It notes that this tradition singularly fails to take account of the history of the novel in antiquity–for clear ideological reasons. It then explores the degree to which the texts known as the novel from antiquity, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Petronius’s Satyricon, or Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, constitute a genre. Although there is a great deal of porousness between different forms of prose in antiquity, the essay concludes by exploring why the ancient novel, ignored by critics for so long, has now become such a hot topic. It argues that much as the postwar critics could not fit the ancient novel into their histories, now the ancient novel’s interests in sophisticated erotics, narrative flair, and cultural hybridity seem all too timely.
Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most skillful historical novelists, lives in solitary confinement in a cell four meters long, at Silivri Prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In I’ll Never See This World Again, his fifteenth book, and the first he wrote from prison, Altan recalled the passing comment of a judge who held the author’s fate in his hands: “If only you had stuck to writing novels and kept your nose out of political affairs.”
The fossil record documents our purely terrestrial linage going back hundreds of millions of years. Humans are merely a recent flourish on the tetrapod body plan and suggestions to the contrary are manifestly nonsensical.
Still, no author in possession of a cool story idea ever hesitated merely because it constituted an egregious contradiction of firmly established science. Here are five examples of stories in which humans came from somewhere beyond the sky.
I love all things dark in literature. I like scary, and deep, and difficult. I am ok with slow reads. I like thinking, watching and trying to understand. That’s why I was sure I’d have a lasting relationship with the complete collection of works by H. P. Lovecraft (it shows $0.59 for the Kindle edition at the moment, by the way, at least for my region). The lasting relationship never happened, even though “cosmic horror” still sounds very intriguing. Truth be told, I haven’t read much of the collection yet. And that is the problem in its core. I can’t! How do you read this? How do you read this boring, preachy, monotonous and-now-my-dear-reader type of writing?!
The first time he fell in love, Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his mid-30s. He had written two famous novels, Poor Folk and The Double, been arrested for treason, suffered a mock-execution, and served four years of hard labour in Siberia. He was now, in 1854, serving as a private in the army and the object of his desire, Maria Isaeva, was the capricious and consumptive wife of a drunkard called Alexander.
When the Isaevas moved to the mining town of Kuznetsk, 700 versts away in southwestern Siberia (a verst is roughly equivalent to a kilometre), Dostoevsky’s love seemed doomed. But then Alexander died, leaving Maria alone and in poverty. Dostoevsky sent her his last roubles and a proposal of marriage, telling the coachman to wait for her answer before making the week-long journey back through the snow. Maria turned his offer down: she could never marry a penniless private. She then fell in love with a man who was just as poor as Dostoevsky, and also a simpleton: “I barely understand how I go on living,” Dostoevsky wrote, aware that this current melodrama was repeating the plot of Poor Folk.
He eventually married Maria, and had his first full epileptic fit on their wedding night. She never recovered from the sight of his writhing, crumpled body: “The black cat has run between us,” as he put it in The Insulted and the Injured. The couple shared not a single day of happiness, but then it is hard to find many days of happiness in his story at all.