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Tymon Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Footnotes: Ryszard Kapuscinski

On his death in 2007 at the age of 74, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, born yesterday in 1932, was hailed by newspapers, colleagues and the literary establishment as one of the finest reporters of his generation.

Kapuściński’s best known books – such as Another Day of Life, The Emperor, The Soccer War and Imperium – combined his reporting on events with his personal experience of being in places such as Ethiopia, Angola, Latin America and the former Soviet Union.

His style mixed elements of magical realism with reporting – a form that author Adam Hochschild once described as “magical journalism”.

Born in the town of Pinsk in Belarus, Kapuściński was the son of schoolteachers and was brought to Poland after the outbreak of World War 2, where he studied history at the University of Warsaw. He was a member of the Polish communist party and participated in the 1956 opposition to Stalinism.

He was forced to leave the country after an article he wrote describing the hardships of steelworkers in a plant outside Kraców was attacked by hardliners within the party.

In 1957, he made his first journey to Africa and spent many years here in various countries over the next 40 years – he was witness to 27 revolutions and coups and worked for PAP, the Polish news agency.

Kapuściński kept two notebooks while covering news in the developing world – one for use in his agency stories and the other for use in his longer allegorical pieces, the ones that became the books that made his name.

In 2010, a former protégé and friend of his, Artur Domoslawski, published a biography of the author called Kapuściński Non-Fiction, which sparked a debate about many of the claims made by Poland’s “Journalist of the Century” – including that he had been friends with Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba – and which argued that most of his work was closer to fiction than fact.

Kapuściński also came under attack for his portrayal of Africa and Africans from academics and critics on the continent and his work continues to divide as much as it impressed during his lifetime.

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.

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.”

Footnotes: William Burroughs

JG Ballard once said he was “the most important writer to emerge since World War 2,” while Norman Mailer claimed that he was “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.”

They weren’t talking about themselves, but about William Seward Burroughs, the beat author born today in St Louis, Missouri in 1914, grandson of a famous American inventor. He was a Harvard dropout, heroin addict, homosexual and gun enthusiast.

Burroughs was many things to many people, but is probably remembered most as one of the founders of the beat movement, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; the author of 1959′s Naked Lunch; and the developer of the cut-out technique that he used to construct many of his novels.

He wrote 18 novels and various novellas, collections of short stories and essays, mostly drawn from his own experiences living in cities across the world from Mexico City to London, Paris, Berlin and Tangiers.

His work has inspired popular culture for generations, influencing everyone from David Bowie to Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits and there’s a photo of him included in the collage on the cover of The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His last filmed performance was an appearance in the music video for Last Night on Earth by U2.

Although he was openly homosexual for most of his life, Burroughs did have one child with his second wife, Joan Vollmer, whom he famously killed by accident while re-enacting the story of William Tell. He died on August 2, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas after suffering a heart attack.

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.”

Footnotes: Hannah Arendt

She died of a heart attack, aged 69, 36 years ago today, but German political theorist and writer Hannah Arendt had an undeniable influence on the way we think about totalitarianism and freedom and the way evil comes to take hold in societies and in the minds of seemingly reasonable people.

Born into a secular Jewish family in 1906, Arendt studied philosophy under Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a stormy romance at the University of Marburg. She worked on research into anti-Semitism but after being interrogated by the Gestapo, she left Germany and went to Paris. There she befriended literary critic Walter Benjamin and worked to support Jewish refugees.

In 1941 she escaped to the US, where she lived until her death. In her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt suggested that totalitarianism in Germany was more focused on megalomania and consistency rather than a system for the eradication of Jews. Her coverage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine became, in 1963, the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a term she coined and with which she is often associated.

Unafraid to speak her mind, Arendt did no favours for her popularity among Jews when she criticised Israel’s handling of the Eichmann trial and questioned the actions of Jewish leaders during the Holocaust.

In her essay On Violence, Arendt again split opinion by arguing that violence, rather than being a manifestation of power, is antithetical to power in so far as violence becomes an artificial means to an end, whether it’s used by governments or their opponents, and therefore exists only in the absence of power, rather than because of it.

After her death, Arendt had an asteroid named in her honour.

Footnotes: James Agee

Today is the centenary of the birth of American author, journalist, poet and film critic James Agee.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and educated at Harvard, Agee started out writing for Fortune and Time magazines.

In 1936, he spent eight weeks living with sharecroppers in Alabama and producing the material for his first book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

In 1942, Agee became the film and book critic for Time before leaving for The Nation, where he wrote some of the most influential film criticism of the period. He worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter on The African Queen and Night of the Hunter.

An alcoholic and chain-smoker, he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment in 1955 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

A Death in the Family, his autobiographical novel, was published in 1957 and earned him a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958.

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.

Footnotes: James Jones

American novelist James Jones would have been 90 years old today, but he died in 1977. Born and raised in Robinson, Illinois, Jones was most famous for the novels he wrote based on his experiences as an infantryman in World War 2.

As a witness to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, which brought the US into the war, Jones wrote his first published novel From Here to Eternity (later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra) based on the experience. It won the National Book Award and was named as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library.

Critics were less than receptive to his second novel Some Came Running (also made into a film starring Sinatra) – based on Jones’s homecoming experience after the war. The book was criticised for its misspelt words and punctuation errors which were in fact a stylistic choice on the part of Jones in an attempt to convey the provinciality of his characters. Jones adopted a more Hemingway-style bluntness for The Thin Red Line, written in 1962 and made into a film by Terrence Malick in 1998. Jones’s final novel, Whistle, was published after his death from congestive heart failure in 1977, and it completed his war trilogy (after From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line).

He hoped that these three books would “say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us”.

Footnotes: Julian Barnes Wins 2011 Man Booker Prize

So while the Nobel Prize committee gave this year’s prize to a Swede that no one has heard of, the Man Booker Prize judging panel led by former Director-General of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, gave their prize to punter favourite Julian Barnes.

Barnes, who has been nominated three times before, won the UK’s most prestigious award for his novel The Sense of Ending, beating a controversial shortlist that saw the panel accused of pandering to popular taste ahead of literary merit (a charge made by commentators against everyone on the shortlist except Barnes). His first novel in six years, The Sense of an Ending went straight to the top of bestseller lists in the UK when it was published earlier this year.

Rimington described the book as having “all the markings of a classic of English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading”. High praise and £50000 for Barnes, who once notoriously described the prize as “posh bingo”.

Barnes’s 11th novel is an exploration of the murkiness and subjectivity of memory and the ways in which people alter the past to suit themselves. Told through the eyes of the seemingly dull arts administrator Tony Webster, who looks back on his seemingly insignificant life – the book reveals Webster’s complicity in the tragic life of an old school friend.

In his acceptance speech Barnes said: “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

He also still believes that it’s “posh bingo”, but admitted he didn’t want to die and get a “Beryl”, in reference to Beryl Bainbridge who was nominated five times, never won and received a posthumous Best of Beryl Booker Prize.