Randall Curb

Acknowledging all of her marriages, her name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette Gauthier-Villars de Jouvenel Goudeket. The world knew her simply as Colette, the surname of her father, who, though aspiring to be a writer, exerted less influence on her than any of the other men whose names she took. Most influential of all was her Christian namesake, her mother, Sido, and through much of Colette's voluminous autobiographical writing it is that figure who casts the longest, most inexorable shadow. One of the many triumphs of Judith Thurman's sumptuous new biography is her essential portrait of maman Colette, who believed in her daughter's talents and her instincts but never gave up trying to subdue her. That emotional tug of war affected Colette permanently. In her early relationships with men, Colette sought domination and mastery. Later, after a five-year lesbian relationship and a second marriage, she turned the tables. She didn't become a mother herself until age 40, and then she purposefully withheld affection from her only child, a daughter. Only when she married the third time, at 62, did she seem to find balance in a romantic alliance. The difficulty of achieving such equilibrium in love affairs was, of course, her great narrative theme. Thurman gives us all the love affairs (including one with her stepson, who was 16 to her 47) and all the novels, the fleeting sweetness and the lingering tristesse. No paradoxes or ambivalences escape her. As a writer, Colette was a psychological realist with an occasional sentimental streak.

Admired by writers as diverse as Cocteau and Mauriac, Colette is arguably the finest French writer of her sex in the 20th century. Her first novel appeared under her first husband's pseudonym in 1900, and she was still writing shortly before her death, at age 81, in 1954.

Besides the signature novels Cheri, The Vagabond, Gigi she wrote about almost everything except politics and religion, which bored her. Though intensely independent, especially when it came to money, she had no real interest in feminism. As Thurman says, There was not an idea that could carry Colette away, or a sensation that couldn't. More than anything, she wanted to be her own creation. A village girl from Burgundy who came to galvanize tout Paris, she made her life her writing, which is never entirely free of its central character: Colette. Thurman has put all her vitality back on the page, and vitality is what Colette is all about.

Acknowledging all of her marriages, her name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette Gauthier-Villars de Jouvenel Goudeket. The world knew her simply as Colette, the surname of her father, who, though aspiring to be a writer, exerted less influence on her than any of the other men whose names she took. Most influential of all was her Christian […]

The actress Rachel Roberts wrote in her memoirs that everybody has a story and a scream. The Italian novelist Cesare Pavese said, No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide. Both Roberts and Pavese killed themselves.

What Mark Seinfelt has done in his new study is to give us the stories, the screams, and, inasmuch as they can be determined, the reasons for suicide of 50 celebrated writers of the past 100 years. Defining his parameters, Seinfelt notes that suicide was a rare phenomenon among writers and artists before 1900. In Greek and Roman times, when self-murder was often viewed as a noble way to defy persecution or stand up for one's principles, such figures as Socrates, Cato, and Seneca chose suicide as a virtual affirmation. But in our century, only a few ideologues have deliberately sacrificed themselves to a cause, a protest, or a dogma. In the literary world, Yukio Mishima is perhaps the most striking example of such martyrdom.

Sometimes it seems that once Freud unlocked the subconscious and he had several writers as analysands a Pandora's box of suicidal impulses was opened among the literati. Chronic depression, madness, alcoholism, drug addiction, existential despair, inconsolable feelings of worthlessnessÐall these things had plagued writers in earlier epochs. Yet suicide, once considered the gravest sin, was usually held at bay. Only in a century of unprecedented martial slaughter, nuclear holocaust, and genocide has it become a near-commonplace of intellectual life. For the Dadaists (whom Seinfelt does not address), it was the only act that made sense in a world in which reason played no part. It is not Seinfelt's intention to illustrate theories or put the suicides he recounts into an overarching historical/psychological paradigm. His approach is that of the mini-biographer, with each writer's life story discretely sketched, his or her career outlined, and the events leading up to suicide summarized. The chapters, one per writer, are often meager on analysis but are satisfyingly generous on vital detail. About a few of the most famous authors, such as Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, Seinfelt is both short-sighted and uninspired. But with writers less read, like Hart Crane (the subject of his longest chapter) or Stefan Zweig, he performs a more valuable service than merely rendering a downward spiral: He makes you want to read their work.

Final Drafts is an intriguing bedside-table book, better for dipping into than for reading at a stretch. The stories are necessarily grim and disturbing, but the subjects rarely fail to fascinate.

Randall Curb writes for The Oxford American, Southern Review, and American Scholar.

The actress Rachel Roberts wrote in her memoirs that everybody has a story and a scream. The Italian novelist Cesare Pavese said, No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide. Both Roberts and Pavese killed themselves. What Mark Seinfelt has done in his new study is to give us the stories, the screams, and, […]

Perhaps still best known in this country for his portrayal of the unflappable gentleman's gentleman Jeeves in the BBC/PBS Jeeves and Wooster series, Stephen Fry is a writer, actor, and comedian just the shady side of 40. He would admit that some of his life has been pretty shady indeed. It has also been so eventful and so worth musing upon that in this volume he gets only as far as his acceptance to Cambridge. The promise of a sequel is implicit, and anyone who enjoys the shenanigans, opinions, digressions, and divertissements of this, Fry's first formally autobiographical book, will want to pressure him to write ever more quickly.

Fry has used his early life as literary material before. His novel The Liar gave us some idea of his turbulent years at an English public school and of his first love, for a fellow student. It is that mad love that stands at the center of this ruthlessly frank memoir. Coming with the full emotional chaos of puberty and to a boy already alienated from most of his schoolmates by a loathing of everything athletic this early passion helped unhinge Fry. In only a few years, he became a liar, a thief, a truant (he was ultimately expelled), and a near suicide. Yet, in a book bracingly free of recriminations and grudges, Fry blames no one for his crimes, misdemeanors, or adolescent unhappiness. One of Fry's many targets for he is a sane and able polemicist is facile psychologizing, easy excuses, fuzzy thinking.

Fry addresses the reader directly, abandons chronology, flies onto tangents ranging from the sublime nature of music to lessons learned from E. M. Forster and Montaigne, engages in riotous wordplay, and charms with a wit like that of his hero Oscar Wilde. One of his schoolmasters once tagged him, ambivalently, as exuberant. That exuberance made this unique autobiography a huge bestseller in England and should win over a large, enthusiastic audience here.

Randall Curb is a writer in Greensboro, Alabama.

Perhaps still best known in this country for his portrayal of the unflappable gentleman's gentleman Jeeves in the BBC/PBS Jeeves and Wooster series, Stephen Fry is a writer, actor, and comedian just the shady side of 40. He would admit that some of his life has been pretty shady indeed. It has also been so […]

Julian Barnes's concern with the ways we reconstruct, or even invent, the past has been a rich theme in several of his books (Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). But in England, England his first novel in six years that theme has its strongest vehicle to date. Whether the past belongs to the lifetime of a single individual or to the historical annals of Barnes's native England, it is a slippery proposition. How do you distinguish the authentic from the phony, truth from embroidery? Barnes's answer is: much of the time, you can't.

England, England's other themes relate to the nature of nationhood, the excesses of a free-market economy, the fraudulence of the tourism industry, the search for love, and the possibility of personal salvation. Yet, being a novel by Julian Barnes, it is not ponderous; it is masterfully plotted, stylish, vivacious, and devilishly funny. Barnes, who loves French literature, has the withering wit, and frequently the moral stance, of Moliere.

Like a Moliere protagonist, the novel's central character bears the corporate title Appointed Cynic. Her name is Martha Cochrane, and the corporation she serves is Pitco, a multinational kingdom ruled by the megalomaniacal Sir Jack Pitman. We are a few decades into the next millennium, when Sir Jack, a kind of Rupert Murdoch/Donald Trump with Rabelaisian overtones, decides to crown his career by creating the ultimate theme park. Occupying the entire geography of the Isle of Wight, this leisure world encapsulates all of England's best-known landmarks and offers recreations of as many incidents from British history as the average Joe has ever heard of. The island with its replicas of Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, and Buckingham Palace in time becomes more English than the mainland; it is therefore christened England, England. The old country, robbed of its vital tourist revenue and its standing in the European Union, gradually regresses into a near-feudal state. Even the royal family moves to the island, where their duties are minimal waving to crowds of tourists and their salaries large.

Julian Barnes is philosophical, like Iris Murdoch; narratively innovative, like John Fowles; satirical, like David Lodge; funny, like Tom Sharpe; erudite, like A. S. Byatt. Yet he is altogether, fascinatingly himself as any reader of England, England will gratefully discover.

Randall Curb is an essayist and reviewer in Greensboro, Alabama.

Julian Barnes's concern with the ways we reconstruct, or even invent, the past has been a rich theme in several of his books (Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). But in England, England his first novel in six years that theme has its strongest vehicle to date. Whether the past […]

His literary arrival already hailed by the likes of Salman Rushdie and John Updike, Ardashir Vakil has a reputation to live up to with this, his very first novel. Rushdie, who knows an authentic voice when he hears one, has excerpted Beach Boy in his new anthology of the most brilliant Indian writing of the past 50 years since his and Vakil's native country gained independence in 1948. Both writers now live in London, but both are still emotionally immersed in the life of India's most populous and varied city. They continue to live and breathe Bombay.

Beach Boy is in the classic mode of the coming-of-age story. Its hero is only a bit younger than usual a very precocious, even highly sexed eight-year-old. Cyrus Readymoney belongs to Bombay's privileged Parsi class, those adherents to Zoroastrianism who have been largely Westernized. He feels no guilt about his family's wealth in a city of grinding poverty, and his closest adult friend is a holdover from the Imperial regime, an eccentric and brilliantly evoked maharani. Rather neglected by his social (and adulterous) parents, Cyrus wanders all over Bombay, usually in search of Hindi and Hollywood cinema. He even pretends, with some success, to be an Indian child film star. His fantasy life injects both humor and pathos in Vakil's portrait.

Set in the early '70s, the novel is clearly autobiographical. Even if Vakil's own adolescence didn't so closely parallel Cyrus's, the luxurious sensory detail of the story would reveal the author's teeming memory of the sights, sounds, and, most of all, tastes of his setting. Cyrus loves to eat, and one of the richest pleasures of the book is in vicarious feasting. Wherever our young voyeur goes, he's sure to find food and, with few exceptions, sure to relish it.

A bit of a thief and a rogue, an eavesdropper and a liar, Cyrus is reminiscent of Truffaut's hero in The 400 Blows. Like Truffaut, Vakil lets the story unfold through character and incident, not formal plot. And the characters are vivid and unique from Cyrus's love interest (the adopted daughter of the maharani) to his imperious Aunt Zenobia and his neighbor Mr. Krishnan, a thundering but lovable Communist. The boy's immediate family only gradually come into focus, however, and for good reason. By the end of the novel, great sorrow will come to the Readymoneys, and Cyrus will confront a harsher world. With Arundhati Roy's best-selling The God of Small Things and Vikram Chandra's wonderful Love and Longing in Bombay, Indian literature seems to be entering a golden age. Beach Boy has been touched by Midas too, and Ardashir Vakil is on the threshold of what could be a gilded career.

His literary arrival already hailed by the likes of Salman Rushdie and John Updike, Ardashir Vakil has a reputation to live up to with this, his very first novel. Rushdie, who knows an authentic voice when he hears one, has excerpted Beach Boy in his new anthology of the most brilliant Indian writing of the […]

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby is clearly a paradigm for this new novel, Ethan Canin writes about men struggling to shape a life different from the one they inherited. His fiction often involves an escape, or attempted escape, from family and social roots. In that escape, lies must sometimes be told, and the truth of one's character gets blurred almost to a vanishing point. The suspense in Canin's writing comes from our fascination with determining just where that escape will lead and what final truth if any will settle on his characters.

For Kings and Planets is the story of two young men a naive Missourian and a worldly New Yorker who meet as undergraduates at Columbia University in the 1970s. Orno Tracher is ostensibly the Gatsby figure, looking to the East as New World, a place of culture and vice where he can reinvent himself. Yet he will forever find that he is pulled back to conventional values and mores no matter where he lives. Marshall Emerson, the sophisticate Orno meets his first day in Manhattan, is the son of intellectuals, seemingly at home in the bohemia that both attracts and repels Orno. The novel takes both men through their 20s, as Marshall drops out of Columbia to sell his soul to Hollywood, and Orno, after much agonizing, goes to dentistry school and embarks on an affair with Marshall's sister Simone. Neither of these decisions seems to please Marshall, and he will try to undermine them both.

Canin, whose prose is always sharply focused while subtle, makes Orno a fairly simple fellow but never allows us too firm a grasp on Marshall, a consummate liar who, at times, may not understand some of his own motivations. Self-destructive and mercurial, he baffles the nonetheless faithful Orno. It is these two and not the assorted women in their lives who make this a psychologically intricate and satisfying novel. For all the liaisons in the book, Canin never writes blatantly about sex, and the women his protagonists sleep with even share tell us more about the men than about themselves. He is a great suggester and knows his strengths, which are more of the Henry James than the John Updike variety.

For Kings and Planets is Ethan Canin's fourth book. His first, Emperor the Air, is a brilliant collection of stories and his third, The Palace Thief, a superb set of novellas. His earlier novel, Blue River, is not his finest work, but with this rich narrative Canin shows he can sustain the longer form. More than that, he triumphs in it.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby is clearly a paradigm for this new novel, Ethan Canin writes about men struggling to shape a life different from the one they inherited. His fiction often involves an escape, or attempted escape, from family and social roots. In that escape, lies must sometimes be told, and […]

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