Blog

The Blog before the Book

4/15/2021: With the book now in press, I'm closing the blog, which has been superseded by the new and improved chapters based on the original daily entries. Just for a nostalgic look back to the summer, and a foretaste of the book appearing in the fall, you'll still see here a few of my favorite postings, going back to the first entry, on Virginia Woolf.  Enjoy. . .

 

August 14: Judith Schalansky, "Atlas of Remote Islands"

As we’ve seen this week, island-based writers have often drawn connections with islands elsewhere, imaginatively crossing vast differences of time and space. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (2009) goes so far as literally to draw an entire atlas of islands, each of them given a short description -- really, a prose poem -- on the facing page. Each entry is headed with a selective timeline and a set of distances to other far-away places, together with a thumbnail hemispheric sketch to show the island’s location. Schalansky meticulously drew each island to the same scale...

Read more about August 14: Judith Schalansky, "Atlas of Remote Islands"

August 3: Songs of the Aztec Nobility

This week, we head northward to Mexico and Guatemala, where indigenous cultures continue to have a major presence. Some nine million people speak one of the many indigenous languages, chiefly Nahuatl or one of twenty-one Mayan languages, often with many Spanish words mixed in. Religiously and culturally as well, Mexico and Guatemala are home to complex interweavings. Thirty years ago, I bought a striking mask in an outdoor market on the edge of Mexico City. It portrays a woman who could be a Hollywood starlet, but for her horns, adorned with ribbons in the colors of the four sacred...

Read more about August 3: Songs of the Aztec Nobility

July 28: Voltaire: "Candide, or Optimism"

Sir Thomas More composed Utopia just at the very beginning of Europe’s encounter with the New World, but by the time Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, the Americas were firmly under Europe’s sway, and the spread of global commerce and empire meant that the New World could no longer be represented as an Edenic no-place. Following in Raphael Hythlodaeus’s footsteps, Voltaire’s endlessly optimistic young Candide ventures to Brazil, hoping for a better world than he’s found in a corrupt and war-torn Europe. Voltaire’s South American scenes are purely imagined locales,...

Read more about July 28: Voltaire: "Candide, or Optimism"

July 21: Murasaki Shikibu, "The Tale of Genji"

Murasaki Shikibu was Higuchi Ichiyo’s favorite author for good reasons, not only as her greatest predecessor as a Japanese woman writer, but more specifically as a poet turned writer of fiction. Murasaki’s masterpiece challenges us today on many levels, beginning with the nearly 800 poems interspersed through her book’s fifty-four chapters. Arthur Waley, who first translated Genji into English in the 1920s, excised most of the poetry and turned the surviving lyrics into prose, making the Genji look more like a European novel, or we might say a kind...

Read more about July 21: Murasaki Shikibu, "The Tale of Genji"

June 22: The Hebrew Bible

The issues of imperial conquest and colonial rule that we’ve explored in sub-Saharan Africa have deep histories farther north as well. Throughout the past four millennia, the region of Israel/Palestine has seen particularly fraught conflicts between – and among – local populations and a whole series of foreign powers. On my first trip to Jerusalem some years ago, I was taking a taxi to give a lecture up at Hebrew University, when we passed an anomalously vacant lot. When I asked the driver why such a large plot was standing empty, he replied: “Every meter of this land is covered in blood...

Read more about June 22: The Hebrew Bible

June 4: Donna Leon, "By Its Cover"

 

Ever since the days of Marco Polo, Venice has been a city of travelers, and it has long been a destination for travelers as well, from the eighteenth-century aristocrats who would make it a prime stop on their European tour to writers from Byron and Goethe to Henry James and Marcel Proust. The American crime fiction writer Donna Leon lived in Venice for over thirty years, and she made it the setting for her bestselling series featuring the reflective Commissario Guido Brunetti. Donna Leon observes her adoptive city as both an outsider...

Read more about June 4: Donna Leon, "By Its Cover"

May 18: Marcel Proust, "In Search of Lost Time"

So many writers have immortalized Paris – or Paris has immortalized so many writers – that no one writer can loom as large as Dickens in London, Joyce in Dublin, or Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto. But for me, Paris is Proust, and I’m hardly alone. Any number of books seek to bring us back into Proust’s world, with period photos of streetscapes and portraits of the “real” people behind Proust’s characters. My favorite in the “Proust’s Paris” genre is an album whose cover shows a dashing young Marcel – the actual one, not the fictional one – pretending to serenade a young lady friend, his...

Read more about May 18: Marcel Proust, "In Search of Lost Time"

May 11: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

After making his round-the-world wager with his friends at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg strides to his home at 7 Saville Row, several blocks away, to collect some clothes and his newly hired servant Jean Passepartout. Halfway there, he crosses the route that would be taken by Clarissa Dalloway fifty years later (had she, or he, actually existed), on her way to nearby Bond Street to buy flowers for her party that evening. Woolf begins her novel with Clarissa’s meditative stroll, which becomes a kind of hymn to the joys of London:

Such fools we are, she...

Read more about May 11: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway