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Tymon Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Footnotes: Gertrude Stein

Today marks the birthday of feminist, modernist writer, art collector and lesbian Gertrude Stein. Born in 1874 in West Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Stein grew up in Oakland, California, a town she once famously described with the phrase: “There is no there, there.”

The youngest of five children of wealthy German Jewish parents, Stein was raised with a strong sense of European culture and history. Her parents died within a few years of each other; her mother, Amelia, in 1888 and her father, Daniel, in 1891.

She attended Radcliffe College, where she studied psychology under William James, before taking up medicine at Johns Hopkins, a course she never finished, rebelling against the male-dominated world of medicine. In 1903, Stein moved to Paris with Alice B. Toklas, who remained her partner and secretary for the rest of her life. She never lived in her native country again. The apartment that Stein, Toklas and Stein’s brother Leo shared on the Left Bank became famous as a gathering place for artists, writers and intellectuals including Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso.

Stein was a passionate advocate of the new movement in literature that was pioneered by many of her literary friends including William Carlos Williams, F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Stein’s own works stringently rejected the narrative conventions of 19th-century literature and her books were not initially well received. The writer Clifton Fadiman once described her as “a woman masterly in making nothing happen very slowly”.

However, the publication in 1933 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas saw her achieve bestseller status in America, where she was treated as a celebrity on her book tour in 1934.

Despite warnings that she leave France during the Nazi occupation, Stein and Toklas remained and displayed uncomfortably un-Jewish, sometimes pro-Hitler political views. A relationship with the powerful Vichy government official Bernard Fay may have helped them and their art collection to survive the war. Stein wrote a piece that called for Hitler to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a suggestion whose sincerity has been the cause of much debate.

Stein died in 1946 at the age of 72 and was buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where she lies in the company of Toklas, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac.

Footnotes: Margaret Atwood

She’s most recognised as a novelist but Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who celebrates her 73rd birthday today, began her writing life as a poet.

She’s most recognised as a novelist but Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who celebrates her 73rd birthday today, began her writing life as a poet.

Born in Ottawa, the daughter of a forest entomologist, Atwood didn’t go to school full-time until she was in Grade 8. She began writing poems at the age of 6 and decided she wanted to pursue a profession as a writer when she was 16.

In 1961, at the age of 22, she won the EJ Pratt Medal for poetry for her collection Double Persephone. She once wrote: “With a lyric poem you look, meditate and put the rock back. With fiction you poke things with a stick to see what will happen.”

She continued to write poetry before publishing her first novel The Edible Woman in 1969. Married in 1968 and divorced in 1973, Atwood once said: “A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.”

It was with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, that Atwood received international attention.

A dystopian tale of a near future set in a totalitarian theocracy in which women are subjugated, the novel won the first Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 1987 and was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award and Booker Prize. It became a film in 1990, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and written by Harold Pinter.

Atwood was subsequently twice nominated for the Booker Prize for her novels Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace before she won the award in 2000 for The Blind Assassin.

Now a regular tweeter and social activist who has written about Canadian literature, debt and science fiction, Atwood continues to write short fiction, poetry and novels with the third novel in her Oryx and Crake trilogy, Maddaddam, due for publication next year. She lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Footnote: Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh

He was once described as “the nastiest-tempered” man in England, but for many readers Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was one of the great prose stylists of his time.

Born today in 1903, Waugh was the son of a publisher and served briefly as a schoolteacher before turning to writing full time with the publication of his first novel Decline and Fall in 1928.

He once said, “Anyone could write a novel given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife.” He was married twice and had seven children. He’s most remembered for his debut novel, as well as A Handful of Dust, his most well-known book Brideshead Revisited and his trilogy of war novels collected as Sword of Honour.

Waugh, like his contemporary Graham Greene, also wrote several travel stories for newspapers about Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

Raised as an Anglican, Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 and remained a devoted and staunch adherent of the church who was opposed to the changes made after the Second Vatican Council.

He served in the army during World War 2 and had a mental breakdown in the 1950s after extended drug dependence that saw his health deteriorate and led to him hearing voices while on board a ship travelling to Sri Lanka.

While he continued to publish throughout the ’50s until his death in 1966, his later works were not well received by the public or critics. When he died, Greene wrote that Waugh had been “the greatest novelist of my generation”.

The publication of his diaries, in 1973, led to a new interest in his work that resulted in the Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1982, which was a huge critical and popular success in both Britain and the US.

Footnotes: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud had been living in London for just over a year when he died there on 23 September 1939 at his home at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead.

Having fled his native Vienna due to persecution by the Nazis, the father of modern psychoanalysis had been suffering from cancer of the mouth, first diagnosed in 1923, the result of his love of cigars.

Honouring an agreement they had made years earlier in the event of Freud’s illness becoming unbearable, his physician, friend and fellow refugee Max Schur, after consultation with Freud’s daughter Anna, administered heavy doses of morphine, which resulted in Freud’s death.

Although he had spent most of his life in Vienna, Freud was cremated at London’s Golders Green Crematorium. Later his ashes were placed in the crematorium in an ancient Greek urn, given to Freud by Princess Marie Bonaparte, who had helped him leave Vienna. Bonaparte had also tried to help Freud’s four sisters leave the Austrian city but she was unsuccessful and all four died in Nazi concentration camps.

In the year before his death, Freud was visited by London’s famous artists and literary set, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig, HG Wells and Salvador Dali – whose meeting with Freud forms the basis for playwright Terry Johnson’s farce Hysteria. Zweig, a popular Austrian writer, was also present at the cremation.

When Freud’s wife, Martha, died in 1951, her ashes were placed in the urn with her husband’s. Their daughter Anna, who was also a psychoanalyst, was cremated at the same crematorium in 1982 and her ashes rest on a shelf next to those of her parents.

Footnotes: Sir Alec Guinness

He was 86 when he died on 5 August in 2000, and in an acting career spanning three decades Sir Alec Guinness immortalised many classic literary roles on screen.

Born in London, Guinness began his acting career on stage at the age of 20. In 1939, he adapted Great Expectations for the stage and played the role of Herbert Pocket. Film director David Lean, who saw the production, would later have Guinness reprise the role for his 1946 screen adaptation and the two would collaborate on a series of films for which Guinness was most well known. With Lean, Guinness would appear in a number of films adapted from novels including his Oscar-winning performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Fagin in Oliver Twist, Yevgraf Zhivago in Dr Zhivago from the novel by Boris Pasternak and Professor Godbole in A Passage to India.

Guinness also appeared in the role of James Wormold in Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and as Major HO Jones in the Elizabeth Taylor/ Richard Burton film of Greene’s The Comedians. He was nominated for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay of Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth in 1958.

In the late ’70s and ’80s, Guinness again garnered acclaim for his portrayal of John Le Carre’s spook George Smiley in the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Of course, for a younger generation Guinness was immortalised for his role as Obi-Wan Kanobi in George Lucas’s Star Wars films, a role for which he received an Oscar nomination. He was knighted in 1959 and wrote three volumes of his bestselling autobiography from 1985 until his death in 2000.

Footnotes: Ambrose Bierce

He’s most famous for disappearing without a trace while travelling with rebel troops in Mexico in 1913, but writer, critic, journalist, satirist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce also left behind him many short stories including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the collection of satirical pieces The Devil’s Dictionary.

The 10th child of a family of 13 children whose names all began with the letter A, Bierce was born today in Ohio in 1842. After leaving home at the age of 15 to become a printer’s devil, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War. He lived most of the rest of his life in San Francisco, where he wrote for Randolph William Hearst’s Examiner and established himself as one of the West Coast’s most influential journalists and critics before he left the paper in 1906.

The Devil’s Dictionary, his collection of satirical definitions of words, was originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book but later retitled under Bierce’s preferred name in 1909. In 1913, he travelled to Mexico where he joined the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa as an observer. According to legend he wrote a letter to a friend on December 26 in which he said: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” These were the author’s last known words as he subsequently vanished without a trace and his body has never been found. His disappearance was the subject of the late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo, later adapted into a film starring Gregory Peck. Biographers still try to uncover what happened to Bierce and many critics consider the stories he wrote based on his war experiences among the best in the genre.

Footnotes: Charles Mingus

The world would have been a far more interesting place were Charles Mingus Jr, born today in 1922, still around.

One of jazz’s most formidable and influential musicians, Mingus was the composer of seminal songs such as Goodbye Pork Hat, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the author of one of the best musical autobiographies, Beneath the Underdog – a stream of consciousness, fabulist account of his life, sexual exploits and thoughts about race and class in 1960s America.

Mingus was as well known for his tantrums as he was for his music – chastising audiences, destroying his bass on stage in response to heckling and fighting on stage with fellow musicians. His career was cut short by the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affected his bass playing and led to his death on January 5 1979 in Mexico, where he had travelled for treatment.

His final project, a collaborative album he was working on with Joni Mitchell, was released after his death. He was 56 years old.

Footnotes: Milan Kundera

Yesterday was Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s 83rd birthday. The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Immortality, among others, lives in France, his home since leaving Czechoslovakia in 1975.

The son of a musicologist, Kundera’s work is full of musical influences. He studied at the Prague Film School in the late 1940s and, after graduating in 1952, was appointed as a lecturer in world literature.

He wrote his first novel, The Joke, in 1967, a satirical look at totalitarian regimes which, like all Kundera’s work, was banned after he criticised the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In 1984, Kundera published his most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In 2008, a controversy erupted when it was alleged Kundera had denounced a pilot to the Czech police in 1950.

He denied the accusation, but it was supported by the police report – despite which, the pilot did not believe Kundera was his betrayer.

In November 2008, 11 international authors came to Kundera’s defence, including SA Nobel Laureates JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Kundera has yet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and you have to wonder if the negative publicity may have hurt his chances forever.

Footnotes: George Plimpton

The Paris Review has just celebrated the publication of its 200th issue. Unfortunately for one of the world’s most revered and beloved literary journals, its first editor-in-chief, George Plimpton, isn’t around to share in the celebrations.

Plimpton, who died in 2003, was born on 18 March 1927, into an influential New York family. He was a Harvard graduate who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, drove a tank in Italy for the US Army during World War 2, obtained a second degree at Cambridge and, at the age of 26, became the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review. A Harvard classmate of Robert Kennedy’s, Plimpton was present when the senator was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968 and was credited as being one of the people who helped wrestle the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the ground. For his most well-known book, Paper Lion, Plimpton signed up for pre-season training with the Detroit Lions NFL team and turned his experiences into a book, which was later made into a film. He performed similar exercises for books about baseball and golf and for articles about a range of sporting activities written for Sports Illustrated.

He appeared in a number of television episodes and films, playing secondary characters – these included ER and Good Will Hunting. He was also an interviewee in the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, about the famous fight in Zaire between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman.

Footnotes: Douglas Adams

One of the 20th century’s most beloved and bestselling authors should have celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday. Unfortunately, Douglas Noel Adams died of a heart attack in 2001, but his hugely successful series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the cult it spawned, live on.

The series began as a radio comedy for the BBC in 1978 before Adams turned it into a “trilogy” – of five books.

Unnaturally tall and with an early gift for writing, Adams spent several years after university struggling to break into the world of television and radio before he and producer Simon Brett pitched their idea for a comedy sci-fi series to the BBC in 1977.

Aside from this series of books, Adams also wrote two books featuring private detective Dirk Gently – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (the novels were recently adapted for television by the BBC), as well as several books about his passion for travelling and preserving endangered species.

When he collapsed unexpectedly after a gym session in 2001, Adams – a lifelong atheist – was cremated and his ashes now rest in Highgate cemetery in London. His memorial service became the first church service to be webcast by the BBC.