Wyatt Mason

Wyatt Mason is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. His translation of Rimbaud’s works is published by Scribner.

Ink-Dot Eyes: Jonathan Franzen

Wyatt Mason, 2 August 2007

The confessional mode in literature has an uncomplicated appeal for both writers and readers: the unburdening of guilt, vicarious or otherwise. But as Tobias Wolff cautioned in his mordant memoir of military service during the Vietnam War, In Pharaoh’s Army: ‘Isn’t there, in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your...

“And yet, once you get past some sloppy stage-setting and the unlikeliness of Oskar’s quest (which, it turns out, was less a matter of improbability than, in a storytelling miscue, Foer’s withholding too much for too long) the novel earns your trust. Whereas Everything Is Illuminated grows more ponderous and preposterous, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close improves and deepens. The imaginative terrain it rests on, and to which Foer is staking a maturing claim, is a place where fact can make room for fiction, and fiction accommodate fact. Coming out of a period during which our horrors have become ‘unimaginable’, Foer’s imagining of Oskar’s wish, to which the novel movingly builds, is a reminder that fiction, unlike life, finds a value in wishes that don’t come true.”

In 1945, Somerset Maugham contributed a list to Redbook magazine of what were, in his opinion, ‘the ten best novels in the world’. Maugham’s choices were neither surprising nor controversial (War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick) but in a note that accompanied his list, he suggested that ‘the wise reader’ will ‘get the greatest enjoyment out of reading...

“The trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.”

‘I can’t imagine anything more quaint than a scatological retelling of some nursery tale, or a fiction about a writer writing the fiction you are reading,’ Tobias Wolff confessed in his 1993 introduction to the Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories. Writing fiction about a writer who is writing the fiction we are reading, Wolff would have us understand, is obscene. A...

Fleeing the Mother Tongue: Rimbaud

Jeremy Harding, 9 October 2003

Arthur Rimbaud, the boy who gave it all up for something different, is a legend, both as a poet and a renouncer of poetry. He had finished with literature before the age of 21. By the time his...

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