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Harmony in Blue and Silver, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Even before Marcel Proust died in 1922, ordering iced beer from the Ritz on his deathbed, his monumental novel about art and memory was being dissected for wisdom on a stunning variety of topics.

It has been celebrated for its obsessions with everything from Norman architecture to optics, homosexuality, classical music, botany, tactical warfare, fin de siècle fashion and princely copper-pot French cuisine. (In one passage the narrator describes Françoise, the enduring housekeeper, combing Les Halles for the choicest cuts of meat, like Michelangelo in Carrara, “selecting the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Pope Julius II.”)

Proust has even been hailed as a pioneer in the field of brain function (“Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” by Jonah Lehrer) and as surely the strangest self-help author in the canon (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” by Alain de Botton).

So it’s remarkable that before now no one has focused at book length on painting, a subject that dominates his novel — “In Search of Lost Time,” or if you prefer, the more melodic Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past” — like almost no other.

As Eric Karpeles, a painter, points out, Proust names more than 100 artists, from Bellini to Whistler, in the novel and mentions dozens of actual works from the 14th through the 20th century, making the novel “one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature.”

In its pivotal moments, paintings often play supporting roles, as when Charles Swann, a leading candidate for fiction’s most tortured character, wills himself into love with the faithless courtesan Odette de Crécy partly because she resembles a figure in a Botticelli fresco: “The words ‘Florentine painting’ did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring the image of Odette into a world of dreams.”

Mr. Karpeles has now helped translate the dreamlike visual passages of Proust back into the images that inspired them. His guidebook “Paintings in Proust,” just published by Thames & Hudson, makes up a kind of free-floating museum of the paintings, drawings and engravings that figure or are evoked in the novel. Even for those who have never scaled the 3,000 pages of Mount Proust, the book presents a lush coffee-table snapshot of the artistic spirit of Third Republic France as filtered through Proust’s keen sensibility, formed mostly in the Louvre, with excursions (real or imaginative) to Florence, Venice, New York and London.

But for Proust cultists, the collection of more than 200 reproductions will undoubtedly be greeted with the literary equivalent of a hosanna. It fills a longstanding gap in the huge shelf of books — including ones by Samuel Beckett, Edmund Wilson, Roger Shattuck and Gilles Deleuze — devoted to navigating and understanding the novel. While some of the its painting references are famous enough to call the images to mind — Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” details of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, “The Angelus” by Millet — many are not. And some of the artists mentioned, like the society portrait painter Jules Machard, have fallen so far from art history’s pages that even digging up reproductions would require detective work.

“This grew out of my own desire to be able to see these paintings in one place — and looking to see if such a book existed, I couldn’t find anything,” said Mr. Karpeles, who added that he had come across only a doctoral dissertation that focused on paintings in Proust and a book published in a small printing in Bogotá, Colombia, in the early 1990s with a number of black-and-white reproductions. “If you can’t conjure up the visual analogy that Proust is making,” he said, “then I think you lose many of the insights in the book.”

In late 2003, when Viking began publishing a landmark series of new translations of “In Search of Lost Time,” Mr. Karpeles, 54 — who fell in love with the novel as a high school student in New York and has studied it devotedly through the years — was spurred to action. “I thought, ‘Aha, this is when I’m finally going to do what I always said I was going to do, which is to track down these paintings,’ ” he said.

But the personal project grew so large that it became a professional one. Mr. Karpeles wrote a proposal to create a visual companion to Proust, twinning the images with corresponding passages from the novel, using C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s original English translation as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981 and D. J. Enright in 1992. Mr. Karpeles found a fellow Proustian, Robert Adkinson, an editor (now retired) at Thames & Hudson in London, in 2006 who agreed to take on the book, not an easy or cheap one to publish because of the number of reproductions and the cost of permissions.

Even when the permissions weren’t expensive, they proved complex. The estate of one minor neo-Impressionist, Henri Le Sidaner — his work is praised in the novel by a boorish lawyer, who prefers it to that of Monet — declined to participate in Mr. Karpeles’s project because of concerns that it would only remind people of Proust’s sly ridicule.

But most of the paintings woven into the novel’s pages are there because Proust loved them and used them to amplify descriptions and evoke moods. (The narrator, Marcel, an anxious traveler, compares foreboding Parisian skies to those in the work of Mantegna or Veronese, “beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in process, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.”)

Second maybe only to music, painting is the vehicle used in the novel to examine the mysterious commerce between perception, memory and art. The art critic John Ruskin was one of Proust’s most important influences. Proust’s character Elstir, a Zen-like Impressionist thought to be made up of pieces of Whistler, Monet, Gustave Moreau, Édouard Vuillard and others, is important not only in terms of plot — Elstir introduces Marcel to Albertine, who will become his faithless love interest — but also in terms of ideas.

Elstir can come off at times as Proust’s caricature of the beret-draped Romantic, rushing to the beach at night, naked model in tow, to capture a certain quality of moonlight. But Elstir’s artistic ideal, to perceive things more innocently — or as Beckett describes it, to represent “what he sees, and not what he knows he ought to see” — is profound. And it goes to the heart of one of Proust’s main themes: that we are held prisoner by preconceptions, by habit and by the normal machinery of memory, which provides only a pale, distorted record of experiences.

At the end of the novel, the narrator resolves to devote the rest of his life to writing the novel that will become “In Search of Lost Time.” He stands at a party surrounded by many of the novel’s aging main characters and by the paintings of his beloved Elstir, which Proust has described so vividly it is easy to forget that they don’t exist somewhere, maybe in a room of their own at the Louvre.

But the insight that Proust has the narrator draw from such imaginary art seems as authentic and powerful now as it ever did: “It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.”

Randy Kennedy
New York Times

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The death of the editor Robert Giroux, whose distinguished career at the leading American publishers Harcourt and Farrar, Straus & Giroux led to the first appearance in print of writers such as Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag and Robert Lowell, provides an opportunity to reflect on the pivotal importance of publishing’s back-room alchemists.

Obituaries may have reported Giroux’s most celebrated near misses – Kerouac’s On The Road, which caused consternation when it was delivered on a 120-foot scroll, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger – but, of course, his successful commissions vastly outweighed such momentary mishaps (and, to be fair, most editors would raise their eyebrows at a writer who, like Kerouac, insisted that their novel had been dictated by the Holy Ghost and was thus beyond editorial suggestion).

Giroux’s lasting contribution, though, beyond the nurturing of any one writer or book, was perhaps to personify the joys of a life spent with a red pen in one hand and a stack of promising, but unpolished, manuscripts under the other. Unlike his more outgoing partner, Roger Straus, Giroux was keener on sticking closer to the sentences on the page.

At a recent party in London to launch a Random House imprint, Square Peg, its publisher likened the business of getting books into print with that of appearing on the television programme Dragons’ Den – complete with rather amusing parallels between various publishing industry high-ups and the hard-nosed characters from the business world who make or break the desperate entrepreneurs paraded before them.

There were probably few editors in the room who didn’t experience a pang of recognition – the commercial demands and the ferocity of publishing houses’ sales and marketing departments are commonplace nowadays.

The books business, of course, couldn’t thrive without both its creative and more financially minded talents – there’s no point in perfecting the metaphors if there’s not enough money to pay the printer.

But there is something special about the peculiar skill of editing – which requires the patience to pore over a succession of drafts and redrafts until no further improvement seems possible, plus the tact integral to encouraging and containing writers (rumoured, occasionally, to be highly strung creatures) and, finally, the self-effacement to bring to fruition someone else’s work without much public recognition.

Much is made, in the age of online democracy, about the probable demise of the editor – about letting the work speak for itself without mediation or hindrance. Whether the unexpurgated internet can ever produce a Kerouac or a Lowell won’t, one suspects, be known for a long time yet; and maybe editors and cyberspace aren’t incompatible.

But if the life of a dedicated and sensitive editor shows us anything, it must be that even books by the most brilliant of writers are far more collaborative than we allow. As Giroux recollected saying to the not entirely easy-going writer Djuna Barnes, “You have to trust someone, Miss Barnes. Why not trust me?”

Alex Clarke
The Guardian

In the face of any looming apocalypse, imagined or not, prophets abound. For the literary academy, which has been imagining its own demise for almost as long as it has been around, prophets seem always to look to science, with its soothing specificity and concreteness. As the modern discipline of literary criticism was forming in the early 20th century, scholars concentrated their efforts on philology, a study that was thought to be more systematic than pure literary analysis. When the New Critics made their debut in the 1920s and 30s, their goal was to give a quasi-scientific rigor to literary theory: to lay out in detail the formal attributes of a “good poem” and provide guidance as to how exactly one discovered them. Later the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in his 1957 Anatomy of Criticism, famously queried: “What if criticism is a science as well as an art?” And some of the poststructuralist thought that began to filter into America from France in the 1960s took as its bedrock linguistic and psychoanalytic theory.

But very few pro-science activists suggested that literary scholars should actually work the way scientists do, using such methods as accumulating data and forming and testing hypotheses. Even Frye argued that, while the critic should understand the natural sciences, “he need waste no time in emulating their methods. I understand there is a Ph.D. thesis somewhere which displays a list of Hardy’s novels in the order of the percentages of gloom they contain, but one does not feel that that sort of procedure should be encouraged.”

Over the last decade or so, however, a cadre of literary scholars has begun to encourage exactly that sort of procedure, and recently they have become very loud about it. The most prominent (at least in the nonacademic media) are the Literary Darwinists, whose work emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism. In the past few years, such critics have had the honor of a long, if quizzical, New York Times Magazine profile and, in May, a place on the Boston Globe’s Ideas page, where Jonathan A. Gottschall, a leading proponent of Literary Darwinism and an adjunct English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, explained why the approach is for him, as he says, “the way and the light.”

His comments have been receiving widespread attention in the blogosphere, perhaps because they touch a nerve: The idea that traditional literary studies are in decline, or already dead, is bandied about almost casually now. The symptoms are legion, from the discussion of books as an old technology to the tight job market and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor in the humanities. And, like Gottschall, many academics see literary theory as an alienating force that has driven students away from their disciplines, and splintered the disciplines to the point, sometimes, of outright war.

Nonetheless, many literary scholars are skeptical of the idea that Literary Darwinism will save their sector of the academy. And some of the strongest criticism comes from those you might think would be allies — other members of the loosely defined group of literary critics breaking new ground with studies that incorporate scientific theory and even, in a few cases, empirical method. Literary Darwinists are “a very small group of people that position themselves as martyrs for the cause … because they expect to be berated by everyone else in the field,” says Lisa Zunshine, an English professor at the University of Kentucky, who works with cognitive approaches to understanding literature. “But, in spite of the publicity that they’re getting, I don’t see that they’re actually attracting so many people.”

Britt Peterson
The Chronicle of Higher Education

For generations, the study of literature has been a pillar of liberal education, a prime forum for cultural self-examination, and a favorite major for students seeking deeper understanding of the human experience.

But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the “outside world,” but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can’t find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.

The latest author to take the flagging pulse of the field is Yale’s William Deresiewicz. Writing recently in The Nation, he described a discipline suffering “an epochal loss of confidence” and “losing its will to live.” Deresiewicz’s alarming conclusion: “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.”

Not every literary scholar is so pessimistic, but most would agree that the field’s vital signs are bad, and that major changes will be needed to set things right.

Though the causes of the crisis are multiple and complex, I believe the dominant factor is easily identified: We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

I think there is a clear solution to this problem. Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

Jonathan Gottschall
Boston Globe

It is hard to imagine a genre more misunderstood than memoir. Sometimes, these personal stories of our lives can illuminate the hearts and minds of writer and reader alike. Other times, they amount to little more than narcissism.

As a memoirist, critic, and teacher, Sven Birkerts is well positioned to explore this subject, and thankfully so. His “The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again,” is instructive, observant, and astute, a meditation on craft and culture by a relentlessly thoughtful writer. It is even at times a memoir itself, as honest and artful as any he examines.

Memoir, Birkerts writes, requires the juxtaposed perspectives of past and present, of what one recalls and how one recalls it. The recollection should be intuitive rather than chronological, a “felt past” allowing the themes of one’s life to emerge. They should be as relevant to the reader as they are defining of the writer, “universalizing the specific” in ways that assume “there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience.”

Lyrical memoirists, like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, have pursued “restoration, searching out recurrences and patterns, but also then allowing for the idea that pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience.” Coming-of-age memoirists, like Frank Conroy, Jo Ann Beard, and Maureen Howard, have sought to extract from this “most dramatically fraught period of our lives” a sense of “how I came to be who I now am,” Birkerts writes.

Sons have sought reconciliation with their remote fathers through memoir, as in writings by Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff, and Blake Morrison. Daughters have sought distance from their domineering mothers, as in writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Still others have struggled to confront and overcome trauma in their pasts, from incest to disfigurement, like Mary Karr, Richard Hoffman, Lucy Grealy, and Kathryn Harrison, Birkerts writes. Each memoirist has traversed the landscape between past and present in varying ways, using an array of literary techniques to craft their works.

Ultimately, however, memoirists share the human desire to know themselves, for their own sakes as well as their readers. They seek to recall and re-create their lives, and, in so doing, to compel readers to do the same. “Memoir is a narrative art,” Birkerts writes, “but through its careful manipulation of vantage point it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory and the corrective actions of hindsight. In other words it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

Birkerts is as incisive a literary analyst as he is eloquent a literary essayist. His occasional forays into his own life further elucidate his points by way of example, while they offer glimpses into the mind of a memoirist writing about memoirists. His book, required reading for anyone interested in the genre, is an engaging study of how we come to understand ourselves through this most personal of literary expressions.

Robert Braile
Boston Globe

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Photo: Michael Malyszko

From a review of Mary Jo Salter’s latest volume of poems, “A Phone Call to the Future”:

Back in the 20th century, when such things seemed to matter, poets argued about the virtue of meter and rhyme. Occasionally the debate produced insights of lasting consequence, like Robert Frost’s snarky metaphor for free verse (“playing tennis with the net down”) and Charles Wright’s brilliant response: “the high wire act without the net.” But the debate was perpetuated more often by tribal loyalties than by artistic necessity. An argument that forecloses possibilities for art — that says X is good because Y is bad — can rarely be trusted.

Mary Jo Salter came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and the New Formalists, were sparring. The Language poets (named after a magazine called Language) represented a new surge of experimental writing, while the New Formalists (with whom Salter was associated) wanted to resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry’s relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative. Like Salter, many of the New Formalists modeled their work on a strategically narrowed version of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who wrote both free and formal verse with homespun virtuosity. But while Bishop continues to be read, the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art…

We grow wise when we ought to be depressed, said the philosopher E. M. Cioran; wisdom is a way of controlling or defending ourselves against grief. But the kind of technical mastery cherished by the New Formalists may too easily foster a taste for emotional mastery. The impressionable ear gets used to the sound of well-turned conclusions. Questions are foreclosed; satisfaction sets in.

This is not about subject matter: Bishop’s domestic vignettes feel as spooky and harrowing as Hecht’s poems about the Nazi death camps because she resists all opportunities for emotional closure, preferring to dwell on what she called the “surrealism of everyday life.” In contrast, the new poems collected in “A Phone Call to the Future” feel comfortable with their conclusions, content with the maturity acquired through their realization, however rueful the feeling of lost youth: “You reach an age when classics / are what you must have read.” The satisfaction embodied by such quips seems coercive.

Only a few poets transcend the history of taste to participate in the history of art — and only in a handful of poems. Salter has been struck by lightning more than once, and “Another Session,” from her 2003 collection “Open Shutters,” suggests she’ll be struck again. In this sonnet sequence about depression and its aftermath, a patient confesses to her therapist the need “to be praised / for forcing these indictments from my throat. / For saying them well.” All of Salter’s poems are well said. “Another Session” is, like “Elegies for Etsuko,” a disorienting work of art.

James Longenbach
New York Times

In many ways, Ms. Pearl’s [author of Book Lust] rise in the book world parallels Seattle’s rise in the publishing world. Though the big publishing houses are still ensconced in New York, the Seattle area is the home of Amazon, Starbucks and Costco, three companies that increasingly influence what America reads.

Books by relatively unknown or foreign authors become best sellers by dint of their anointment at the hands of Amazon editors. A forgotten older paperback, recommended and featured by the book buyer at Costco, can sell more copies in six weeks than it did in the last few years combined. Almost every book Starbucks stocks in its coffee shops sells more than 100,000 copies in its outlets alone. That pushes most Starbucks selections into the top 1 percent of all books sold that year, without counting sales in other types of stores.

The three companies settled in Seattle for different reasons, and each had its own motivation for choosing to sell books. Together, though, their combined power in the book industry has put the city in the position of tastemaker.

Each company, in its own way, “guides their customers, by selecting the books they will see,” Ms. Pearl said. “New York may publish the books, but Seattle significantly defines America’s reading list.”

Industry trends suggest Seattle’s influence will keep growing. More people are bypassing bookstores and buying at mass-market merchants, online retailers and specialty stores, says Albert N. Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration.

In the last two years alone, sales of consumer books sold through such nontraditional outlets grew by more than $260 million, Professor Greco said. The presence of Costco, Amazon and Starbucks ensures that “Seattle will keep making an impact on what we read,” he said.

When Kim Ricketts, founder of a book promotion company in Seattle, visited the big publishing houses in New York last month, she said she was repeatedly asked for advice on how to do business with the three Seattle heavyweights: “Publishers want to find the golden ticket — how to get their title beloved by one of these companies.”

Seattle’s literary seeds have been here for decades, with local authors, abundant writing courses and robust independent bookstores, according to J. A. Jance, the Seattle mystery author whose books have sold 15 million copies over the last 20 years. “Maybe it’s the rain, but Seattle has always been a reading town,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, the city has spent nearly $200 million to improve its libraries, including the new downtown showpiece designed by Rem Koolhaas and completed in 2004.

This love of books even seeps into the town’s corporate cultures, says Ms. Ricketts, who 10 years ago started organizing author visits for employees at Microsoft, Starbucks and other companies in the area. “The authors were always shocked at how big the crowds were and how many books they sold,“ Ms. Ricketts remembers.

The town’s enthusiasm for books may have made it easy to find well-qualified employees, but Amazon, Starbucks and Costco each occupy a different niche in the book world.

Starbucks started offering books to enhance the coffee-house experience, thinking that customers would enjoy spending more time in the shop if they had a provocative read and conversation starter to go along with their coffees and scones. They also hoped it would increase spending by each customer.

Starbucks sells just one title at a time, usually for a period of two to three months. The selections bear little resemblance to one another. Some have been almost unknown; others were already best sellers. The latest title, “Beautiful Boy,” focuses on a father trying to help his drug-addicted son.

“We wanted to find extraordinary books that would encourage people to discuss compelling issues” like war, hope, faith and family, said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment…

Costco has become so successful at selling books that it has become a hot spot on the author book promotion circuit. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, and Bill Clinton have signed books in Costco warehouses.

The flip side of the success of the big Seattle booksellers is the gradual decrease in the number of small independent stores, which have struggled as a result of a variety of factors…

Book lovers as well as writers miss the corner bookstore. But Americans are busy, and if they can pick up the latest book while they’re stocking their pantry, sitting at their computer or going out for coffee, it saves them valuable time, said Brian Jud, author of “Beyond the Bookstore: How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets.”

They just may not realize that someone in Seattle helped them choose it.

Julie Bick
New York Times

George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…

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Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard (courtesy of New York Times)

Do you know what it’s like to be deeply, unbearably in love, all the while aware that you can never completely trust the object of your affection? I would wager that Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard do, almost to the point of delirium.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no intimate acquaintance with the personal lives of these dramatists. It’s just that their ruling passion, jubilant and exasperated, proclaims itself publicly in pretty much everything they write, including their new plays of this season (“Rock ’n’ Roll” from Mr. Stoppard, and “Homelife” and “Me, Myself & I” from Mr. Albee).

How could it be otherwise, when it’s the most basic tools of their trade that they so adore? The faithless lovers of Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee are, in a word, words.

Or to quote one of the interchangeable title characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the 1966 play that made the young Mr. Stoppard famous: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

It is one of the livelier paradoxes of the English-speaking theater today that its two most dazzling wordsmiths are incurably suspicious of the language they ply with such flair. No other living playwrights give (and, it would seem, receive) more pleasure from the sounds, shapes and textures of their lavishly stocked vocabularies. And none is more achingly conscious of the inadequacy of how they say what they say.

This contradiction is not just an element of their style; it’s the essence of it. It’s what gives that distinctive, heady tension to their plays, the friction that sends the minds of receptive theatergoers into exhilarated overdrive. It is also what makes actors say that mastering these playwrights’ ornate, fast-footed language requires the sort of hard study demanded by Shakespeare.
Inordinately slick and fleet of tongue, Stoppard and Albee heroes — from the 19th-century Russian philosophers of Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” to the battling husband and wife of Mr. Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — are forever trying to pin down chameleon words, like so many adrenaline-drunk Ulysseses wrestling shape-changing sea gods. (Words, as one character in “The Coast of Utopia” puts it, “just lead you on” and “arrange themselves every which way.”) These heroes may not stand a chance of winning but, oh, what a beautiful fight…

That state of questioning every word can paralyze. There’s the sense with Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard that their characters keep talking as fast as they can because otherwise they would sink into silence and all the terrifying questions that lie within…

Within this shadowy context, so profound as to be immeasurable, Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard use bright, impeccably assembled dialogue to illuminate the provisional structures of daily life. They see the cosmic joke within the limitations of language and revel in it in ways that remind us of how much the Absurdists have in common with music-hall comedians.

Ben Brantley
New York Times

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Clockwise from left: Livrario Lello in Porto, Hatchards in London, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires

Every booklover has their favourite shop, and while it’s true that many independents have been driven out of business by online sales and supermarket bestsellers, you still don’t have to look too hard to find one that’s thriving.

The Guardian

To read the Guardian’s full list of the top ten bookstores in the world: Bookstores