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Tymon Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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Footnotes: Victor Hugo

He was once described by poet Jean Cocteau as “A mad man who believed himself to be Victor Hugo”; but whatever he thought of himself, Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, was born today in 1802.

A poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, visual artist and statesman, Hugo wrote his first play when he was 14. He published The Hunchback of Notre Dame when he was 29 and it became a bestseller of the day, making him a popular name in Europe.

Increasingly involved in French politics (he ran for the position of state president in 1848), he was exiled by Napoleon III in 1851 and went to live on the island of Guernsey, where he remained until 1870 and where he wrote his great novel of social injustice, Les Miserables.

In a letter that earned him a place in Guinness World Records for the shortest correspondence, Hugo wrote to his publisher in 1862 to inquire as to the book’s success – his note consisted of a question mark.

His publisher replied with an exclamation mark. Married to his childhood friend, Adele Foucher, in 1821, Hugo was well known for his sexual appetite (he reportedly had sex with his wife nine times on their wedding night) and was a foot fetishist and frequenter of brothels who had an affair with the actress Sarah Bernhardt when she was in her 20s and he in his 70s.

The French government gave prostitutes a grant to attend his funeral when he died in 1885, to which they wore black scarves over their “privates” to mark their respect for one of Paris’ best customers.

There are streets named after him in most French cities and his funeral procession in Paris was attended by two million people.


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Footnotes: Carson McCullers

Born on the 19th of February 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, Lula Carson Smith was the daughter of a watchmaker of French Huguenot descent.

At age 17 Lula left home, intending to study piano at the Juilliard School in New York, but fate had other plans for her. After losing the money for her tuition, she worked in a number of menial jobs in The Big Apple while studying creative writing at night school at Columbia University.

After marrying a former soldier, Reeves McCullers, Carson McCullers, as she was now known, became one of the great chroniclers of life in America’s South, beginning with her best known novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Published in 1940 when she was 23, it tells the story of a mill town in Georgia, based loosely on her own experiences.

She published seven other books, including Reflections in a Golden Eye (made into a film by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor), The Member of the Wedding and the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café. She divorced Reeve in 1940 but remarried him in 1945. She attempted suicide in 1943 and Reeve tried to convince her to commit suicide with him in 1953, but she left him and he killed himself in their Paris flat.

She suffered from strokes for much of her life, as well as alcoholism, and died aged 50 in 1967, after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Her unfinished biography, Illumination and Night Glare, dictated during her final years, was published in 1999.

She left behind a small but hugely admired body of work, described by Gore Vidal as “one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.”


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Footnotes: Grace Paley

Born 11 December 1922, poet and political activist Grace Paley was regarded in her lifetime as one of the great American short story writers.

Born in the Bronx, New York, Paley studied in the 1940s under the poet WH Auden at the New School for Social research, where his social concern and sense of irony proved to be an enduring influence on her work.

Paley taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1966 to 1989 and was made the first official New York State writer in 1989. She was later poet laureate of Vermont from 2003 until 2007, when she died at the age of 84 of breast cancer.

Her first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, featured stories of New York life, which introduced several characters that would recur in later collections – Changes at the Last Minute and Later the Same Day.

Her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was produced with the assistance of fellow American short story writer and postmodernist Donald Barthelme and continued her exploration of race, gender and class in America. Her three volumes were published together in 1994 as Collected Stories, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

In a 1978 New York Times interview Paley said: “I’m not writing a history of famous people, I am interested in a history of everyday life.”

She was equally known as an activist as described in her New York Times obituary: “A self-described ‘somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist’, Paley was a lifelong advocate of liberal causes. During the Vietnam War, she was jailed several times for antiwar protests; in later years, she lobbied for women’s rights, against nuclear proliferation and, most recently, against the war in Iraq.”


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Footnotes: Robert Louis Stevenson

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the birth of Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson.

Best remembered for his novels Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was born Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson on November 13 1850 in Edinburgh. Suffering from illness for much of his short life (he died at the age of 44), Stevenson was an avid traveller and wrote several books about his travels, particularly to islands such as Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa (where he finally settled, died and is buried on the island of Upola).

Although rejected by many members of the literary establishment as a children’s and horror writer, his reputation grew in the 20th century with Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling and Vladimir Nabokov counted among his admirers. When he died of a cerebral haemorrhage, Samoans – who had given him the native name of Tusitala, translated as “the teller of tales” – maintained an all-night vigil over his body.

Today his works remain in print and he is the 26th most translated author of all time.


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The Man Booker Prize Shortlist – Julian Barnes vs Some Other People


Following the announcement of the longlist a few weeks ago the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize has now been released, prompting the usual debates about who was left off, why whoever is on it is there and who should win based on merit and the odds offered by the bookies. (more…)


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