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V. S. Naipaul’s Barbarians, Diversity in Poetry, and Proust’s Unpublished Stories

What did the Victorians eat when they went out in London [1]? Lentils, Indian and Malay curries, and “red-hot chops, with their brown, frizzling caudal appendages sobbing hot tears of passionate fat”: “In London in 1885, there was a cheap Italian restaurant (its name and location haven’t survived) where a person could dine on a breaded veal cutlet served with curry sauce instead of the usual wedge of lemon. Breaded veal cutlets – often on the menu as côtelette Milanese – were a standard item at Victorian Italian restaurants, but the curry sauce was a novelty. A writer in the Caterer was enthusiastic: ‘Its crisp breadcrumbs will become slightly moistened by the sauce, but the eggs will hold good against curry and gravy.’ (This cutlet actually predates the original Japanese katsu curry, pork tonkatsu, first served in 1899 at a Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei.) Before the First World War put an abrupt stop to it, the possibilities for eating out in London were far more extensive and varied than one might imagine.”

You know what’s missing in this piece [2] by Bob Hicok welcoming the declining interest in his poetry simply because he is a “straight white guy”? Any discussion of poetry. He takes the mere fact that there are supposedly more books by black, female, gay, and transgender poets as a sign that today’s work is better than that of the past. What matters is inclusion not quality, and the greater the diversity (associated exclusively and clumsily with skin color and sex), the better. But riddle me this, cher Bob: One of the great thrills of reading is encountering something new. So why is it that so little today is truly interesting? Could it be that it has always been so?

Nine stories that were cut from Proust’s first collection, Plaisirs et les Jours, will be published for the first time [3]: “The pieces were discovered by Bernard de Fallois, founder of the publishing house, who died in late 2018. They will be collected together under the title The Mysterious Correspondent and Other Unpublished Novellas. The 180-page book, which will be published on October 9, will include facsimiles of Proust’s original pages.”

Pacific Standard to shut down [4].

David Berman has died. He was 52 [5].

Matt Hanson revisits [6] Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, which is “a prescient warning about the power of demagogues, which remains all too relevant more than 60 years later”: “The plot is simple. Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is a boozy roustabout who washes up in an Arkansas drunk tank only to be discovered by an idealistic radio journalist named Marcia Jefferies. Rhodes instantly becomes a huge radio hit for his guitar-twanging, whiskey-swilling, just-plain-folksy ways and as his star steadily rises, aided by mass communication, he becomes something of a folk hero to the thousands who tune in everyday to hear his homespun country aphorisms and hillbilly songs. The trouble, as we know from the start and Rhodes’ audience doesn’t figure out until it’s too late, is that behind the bushy hair and toothy grin lies a red-blooded all-American megalomaniac. None other than Andy Griffith plays Rhodes, in his film debut.”

Essay of the Day:

“There was a time,” Elizabeth Powers writes, “when V. S. Naipaul, reporting on the growth pains of the postcolonial world, was a favorite of the literary establishment.” Why did he fall out of favor [7]?

“It is worthwhile to note that the change in Naipaul’s reception occurred in the same years that Western liberals abandoned their infatuation with another truth teller, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, during his post-Soviet exile. While Naipaul has not given any indication that he took an interest in Solzhenitsyn’s writings, his accounts of the effects of colonialism on native peoples—in The Middle Passage and The Loss of El Dorado and, later, in A Way in the World (1994) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998)—resemble the kinds of case studies that Solzhenitsyn assembled in The Gulag Archipelago (first English publication, 1974). And just as Solzhenitsyn failed to display the gratitude of an exile and instead called attention to the spiritual vacuity of the West, Naipaul was denounced in attacks that neglected to deal with the substance of his writing. An egregious instance, again, is that of Edward Said, who called the writings by Naipaul ‘travel journalism [that is] unencumbered with much knowledge or information . . . unrestrained by genuine learning or self-education.’ Whatever his interpretation of facts on the ground, Naipaul was steeped in the historical sources, and Said’s wrong-headed response, like that to Solzhenitsyn, reflects the ideological distortions of the present age.

“Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, has written that Naipaul’s ‘response to the growth in his reputation as a villain was to stoke it.’ One cannot help thinking that criticism also amused Naipaul and that his acerbic and offhand responses reflect his Trini­dadian background, in particular the figure of the jokester that is prominent in the early fiction. A term that truly enraged his critics was ‘barbarian,’ which Naipaul used frequently in connec­tion with Third World countries and peoples and which was assumed to encapsulate his loathing and condescension. His critics simply could not get past its present connotations, which, besides the contrast to ‘civilized,’ suggest depravity and evil.”

Read the rest. [7]

Photo: Rocher St. Michel D’Aiguilhe [8]

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