Monday, January 21, 2013

Daniel Mendelsohn’s moving tribute to literary mentor, Mary Renault

Back in 1983, I wrote a fan letter to an Australian author named Randolph Stow, whose novel, To The Islands, I had read for a university course. This was the one and only fan letter I ever wrote to an author whose work I admired.

I expected a reply from Stow, but as the weeks turned into months, it became apparent that a return missive wasn’t in the cards. It’s possible that Stow never received my letter in the first place (I lived in Toronto, he in Australia).

Daniel Mendelsohn had a more fortunate experience with a fan letter. In 1976, after discovering the novels of Mary Renault, 15 year-old Mendelsohn sent Renault a letter (he lived in New York, Renault in South Africa). To Mendelsohn’s surprise and delight, Renault responded, not with an expected form letter but a personalized letter. 

The young Mendelsohn and the best-selling author carried on a correspondence that lasted eight years. The story behind this unlikely correspondence forms the basis of Mendelsohn’s fascinating article in the January 7 New Yorker. The article is a tribute to Renault: how her fiction and letters inspired Mendelssohn’s career as a writer and helped him grapple with his own sexuality.

Mendelsohn’s article is a touching tribute to a friend and literary mentor, someone who obviously had a significant influence on a young man struggling to find his place in the world, both emotionally and intellectually. Mendolsohn is a fine writer who brings an incredible sensitivity and emotional depth to his work. I look forward to reading more of his work in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

After reading Mendelsohn’s article, I went out and bought two of Renault’s novels, Fire From Heaven and The King Must Die. Renault is best known for her historical fiction novels set in ancient Greece, and I’ll be reviewing one of those novels in the weeks ahead.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thoughts on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of modern literature, a coming of age novel that influenced millions of young adults around the world. The death of Salinger at 91 three years ago this month has prompted some reflections on the author’s most famous work, and about the author himself.

At 17, I read Catcher and was moved by Holden Caulfield’s pessimistic attitude and general disillusionment with the world. Here was a fictional character that understood the fears and anxieties of growing up in a world full of contradictions and phoniness. The novel spoke to me on many levels, as no other novel had before.

A year before Salinger’s death, I re-read Catcher and had a much different reaction to it than I did as a teenager. This time around, Holden comes across as confused and mistrustful. Who could blame him? His parents had withdrawn from him emotionally after the death of Holden’s brother. They sent him away to a private school, where he felt abandoned. A teacher at school makes a pass at him (or so Holden thinks), at a time when young Holden desperately needs reassurance in his life.

With the benefit of 30-plus years and maturity behind me, I found myself pitying Holden, rather than identifying with him. This is a teenager who has some serious issues and needs professional help, but his method of coping (although amusing in fiction) is to remove himself from life and criticize everyone and everything that he doesn’t agree with or understand.

Holden’s central themes in Catcher – adults aren’t to be trusted, running away from problems, avoiding contact with people – are exactly the wrong messages that young people need to hear. Teenagers and young adults need encouragement, feedback and involvement. They need to engage with the world, not run away from it.

As for Salinger, the author, he walked away from fame at the height of his popularity; he hasn’t published anything since 1965. The publishing world has been obsessing over his silence ever since. The author’s reclusive lifestyle seems to have been an extension of Holden Caulfied’s; in other words, when the going gets rough, walk away. Salinger apparently felt like a circus clown in promoting his work, and so he chose a life of self-imposed exile from the world of letters.

In Salinger’s case, he could afford to walk away from publishing, but this decision always struck me as odd. Writers are, by their very nature, introverted and prone to isolation. They spend most of their time alone, away from crowds. But you’d think that going on book tours and meeting fans would be a welcome relief from the solitary nature of the writing profession.

The work Salinger left behind is what’s important, though. The Catcher in the Rye, along with a handful of excellent short stories, will be read for generations. Salinger was a gifted writer who understood the struggles and frustrations associated with becoming an adult.

As for that pile of unpublished manuscripts that Salinger is rumoured to have left behind, who knows if it’s true. If he did leave a few novels in a safe, and his estate allows them to be published, there’s no guarantee that they are any good. Perhaps Salinger had nothing left to say, as Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities) suggested in an Esquire article published in the 1980s.

In any case, the Salinger story seems far from over. But my message to young readers is that engagement with the world is better than giving up on it. It’s easy to become disillusioned when things aren’t going your way. It’s much harder to put your difficulties aside and press on with confidence and hope. 

Readers should not look to Caulfield (or to Salinger) for life lessons. Read and enjoy Salinger’s works, but don’t pattern your life after him or his fictional alter ego.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thomas Cromwell: a kingmaker and king without a throne

Wolf Hall
A Novel by Hilary Mantel
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. (2009)

Historical fiction isn’t usually on my preferred reading list, but with all of the glowing reviews and literary awards for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In Wolf Hall, there is considerable fuss over politics, religion and Henry VIII’s all-consuming aspiration to produce a male heir. Mantel weaves many storylines into this fine tapestry, but the main story is of Thomas Cromwell and his rise from poverty to one of the most powerful men in England at that time.

The story begins with a severe beating the young Cromwell takes at the hands of his abusive father, a beating that soon leads to his running away from home and learning to survive on his own. Cromwell not only survives, but thrives, using his quick wit and street smarts, eventually learning several languages, developing key business contacts, becoming a lawyer and ingratiating himself into the good graces of the powerful Cardinal Wosley, and later Henry VIII.

Here we are presented with a Cromwell who is calculating and restrained; an influential power broker who prefers working behind the scenes on behalf of his powerful patrons. He is prudent, cunning, manipulative, patient, resourceful and ambitious. In his dealings with priests, ambassadors and royalty, Cromwell comes across as more of efficient administrator than a brutish henchman.

Cromwell’s story is all the more intriguing because it occurs during one of the most transformative epochs in English history, a time when priests, scholars and laypeople everywhere were starting to question the Christian interpretation of the Bible. This is an age in which being caught with an English translation of the Bible (or questioning its teachings) often led to imprisonment, torture and death.

It was also an age when Henry VIII’s patience with Rome was beginning to wear thin. The King resented the Church’s vast wealth and land holdings in England, and the money that continuously flowed from England into Rome’s coffers. He especially resented the Pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment or a divorce from Katherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, who would hopefully bear him a son.

Mantel is a skillful, assured writer who manages to advance her various plot-lines with great bravado. Her writing is elegant, poetic and subtle. In a novel with such breadth, dozens of characters swiftly enter and exit the stage, sometimes too swiftly. Occasionally, I found it a challenge keeping track of who was speaking to whom, and whose thoughts were being explored (a cast of characters at the start serves as a handy reference).

At her best, Mantel demonstrates a great skill in describing the political and religious tensions of the time, and in understanding her characters and their motivations. Here is a guarded Cromwell during one of his early encounters with Henry VIII, trying to surmise what makes the King tick:
 He is startled. Then he understands. Henry wants a conversation on any topic. One that’s nothing to do with love, or hunting, or war. Now that Wolsey’s gone, there not much scope for it; unless you want to talk to a priest of some stripe. And if you send for a priest, what does it come back to? To love; to Anne: and what you want and can’t have.
Wolf Hall covers a lot of ground in this sweeping novel, and Mantel successfully brings to life the many personalities, feuds, jealousies, intrigues and tensions that characterize this fascinating period of English history. At the centre of all this political and religious upheaval, and influencing the course of history, is a confident Thomas Cromwell, a sort of kingmaker and king without a throne.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adopting a Google mindset is good for business

What Would Google Do?
By Jeff Jarvis
Published by HarperCollins, 2009

Jeff Jarvis is a journalist, editor, and a professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He publishes a popular blog called Buzz Machine, about news and media trends. Readers may remember Jarvis as the blogger who made headlines a few years ago, when he publicly called out Dell Computers for its poor customer service.

In What Would Google Do? Jarvis has written about how Google (the world’s most popular search engine) has transformed the advertising industry and how it has affected other industries as well. The main premise of the book is an attempt to get companies (and industries) to understand the Google mindset, and to recognize the power of the individual in this age of open sourcing, mobile computing and social networking.

In a networked world, it’s all about the customer. More importantly, it’s about empowering customers to talk freely about your products and services. It’s about giving customers choices about where and how and what they buy. In my industry, advertising, Google has literally turned business models upside down, forcing newspapers, magazines and ad agencies to re-invent themselves.

With the advent of Google AdWords (a pay-per-click advertising model), advertisers now have the ability to target customers, based on viewing habits and website content. AdWords offers advertisers the option of paying for ads only when customers click on their links, a far more cost-effective (and profitable) advertising model than purchasing ads with traditional media.

In this new age of advertising, it’s no longer about sending messages en masse, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Now it’s all about targeting customers by age, demographics, interests, etc. “Advertisers are starting to mouth the right words – it’s about relationships, not messages,” writes Jarvis.

Jarvis doesn’t confine his observations to the advertising industry. He includes chapters on utilities, retail, manufacturing, automotive and financial services. He discusses how the Google mindset is changing those industries, by making companies more approachable, transparent and accountable.

Whatever business or enterprise you’re involved in, What Would Google Do? is an engaging read that will help you to better understand the power of the individual in today’s networked world. It may even inspire you to re-think current business practices and change the way you do business.

Although What Would Google Do? was published in 2009 (light years in the digital age), the themes discussed in this book are just as relevant today as they were four years ago.