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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Julius Caesar

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 12 is the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He was the great military leader who managed to capture for the Roman Empire most of what became France and Great Britain.

In a series of dispatches from the battlefield, Caesar became his own war correspondent. Unlike many of the Roman poets and historians of the era, Caesar wrote short descriptive prose that was easy for ordinary people to understand. His stories of military victories turned him into a national hero, but the Roman Senate increasingly saw him as a threat. It passed legislation requiring him to lay down his military command and return to Rome.

But Caesar realized that he had the largest and most battle-tested army in the empire under his command. And if he returned to Rome, his political opponents would end his career. And so, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, directly challenging the authority of the Senate. The result was a civil war. Though he was outnumbered in many of the major battles, Caesar won the war. And he was extremely merciful with captured military leaders, because he wanted them as his allies. That might have been his biggest mistake, since it was a group of those men he spared that began to conspire against him.

He was an absolute dictator of Rome, with ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate.

The Roman republic never returned. Instead, Rome would be ruled by a series of emperors for the rest of the empire’s existence.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

On July 12 in 1389, King Richard II appointed poet Geoffrey Chaucer to the position of Chief Clerk of the King’s Works in Westminster. Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, spent his lifetime associated with aristocracy: as an adolescent, he served as a page for a wealthy household and later fought in France with Edward III, who paid the ransom when Chaucer was captured during a siege. The clerkship came with a significant salary — 30 pounds per year — but a heavy workload: Chaucer supervised the building and maintenance of several royal projects, including the Tower of London and Westminster Palace. Chaucer traveled widely as Clerk, which afforded him the opportunity to meet people across a spectrum of social classes: peasants, nobles, and clergy. Their voices are the narrative cornerstone of Chaucer’s greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, the story of group of pilgrims journeying to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

Franz Kafka/ Great Czech Author

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 3 was the birthday of writer Franz Kafka (1883) , who wrote the story The Metamorphosis, about a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day transformed into a hideous insect. Many consider it the finest short story ever written. All of Kafka’s most famous works were published after his death, and all contain surrealistic elements that led to the phrase “Kafkaesque,” as a descriptor for bizarre, dark stories.

He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the oldest of six children. His father was a temperamental, controlling man, and two of Kafka’s brothers died in infancy. Later, three of his sisters died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Kafka was a fine student and went on to train as a lawyer, though his heart wasn’t in it, and he later found better work at an insurance company, which allowed him plenty of time to work on his stories.

Kafka was always anxious, and frequently suffered from depression and illnesses. Some historians now believe he may even have suffered from anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia, which may explain some of the more surrealistic plots in his work. In his diary, he once wrote: “The tremendous world I have in my head! But how to free myself, and free it, without being torn in half. And a thousand times sooner be torn in half than keep it in me or bury it. For this I’m here, that’s quite clear to me.”

One of Franz Kafka’s most famous works is The Trial (1925), about a man arrested and prosecuted by remote authorities. The man, and the reader, never learn exactly what the man’s crimes were. He wrote The Judgment (1913) in a frenzy over one night in September 1922. He called that story “a complete opening of body and soul.” During his lifetime, he burned more than 90 percent of his work. He hated most of The Metamorphosis, saying, “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.”

Franz Kafka died from tuberculosis at the age of 40 in 1924.

Before he died, he wrote a request to his friend Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

Max Brod ignored his wishes and after Kafka died, made sure that his works were published, and Kafka became famous. In 1988, a handwritten manuscript of The Trial sold at auction for $1.98 million.

 

Joyce Carol Oates/American Writer

Monday, July 16th, 2018

June 16 was the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Joyce Carol Oates , born in Lockport, New York (1938). Oates has written more than 70 books and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize five times. She is often been criticized for being so prolific, and once replied, Each book is a world unto itself and must stand alone, and it should not matter whether a book is a writers first, or tenth, or fiftieth.”

 

Oates was raised Catholic in Millersport, New York, where her father was a tool and die designer. She led a typical working-class life, though she once called her childhood a daily scramble for existence. Her grandmother encouraged her obsessive reading habits and gave Oates Lewis Carrolls Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Oates referred to as the most profound literary influence of my life.

 

In her teens, she tore through the works of Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky. Her grandmother gave her a typewriter when she was 14, and she began writing stories immediately. By the time she graduated Syracuse University as valedictorian, she’d already completed several novels, though she found them shoddy and threw them away. Her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was published in 1969.

 

Oates writes about class and violence, and also writes in genres like romance and mystery. She once submitted a novel to her agent under a pseudonym, Rosamond Smith, and it was accepted for publication without her agent even guessing. When the ruse was discovered, Oates was unrepentant. She said, “I wanted to escape from my own identity. She’s written about boxing in the book On Boxing (1987) and a fictionalized account of actress Marilyn Monroe’s life, called Blonde (1999). Her other books include We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and A Fair Maiden (2010).

 

Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac, June 2017

George Orwell/Great English Writer/20th Century

Monday, June 25th, 2018

Today, June 25, 2018, is the birthday of the man who wrote, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” That’s George Orwell , born Eric Blair in Motihari, India (1903).

 

He wrote his first poem — which he dictated to his mother — at the age of four or five. He was 11 when he wrote a patriotic poem after World War I broke out. It was published in the newspaper. He wrote a short story that he described as “a ghastly failure,” and a rhyming play, and helped edit the school’s newspaper. He was also constantly narrating his own actions in a writerly way, in his head. “I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons,” he later wrote, “and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.”

 

His father was a civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell’s words, “lower-upper-middle class.” Orwell received a scholarship to Eton, the prestigious boys’ school, but he felt alienated from his wealthy classmates. He opted not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge, but served as a military policeman in Burma instead. His essay “A Hanging,” which he published in 1931, is about his time there; it describes his role in the execution of a prisoner.

 

He believed there were four great motives for writing prose: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. By “political,” he meant in the widest sense of the word: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” His writing was pushed even more toward the political after Hitler’s rise to power, and the Spanish civil war. He said, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” In the early 1940s, he began work on a novella about a group of farm animals that decide to stage an uprising against their tyrannical farmer. Orwell called it Animal Farm (1945), and often described it as a satirical tale against Stalin and the Soviet Union.

 

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art,” he wrote in his essay “Why I Write” (1946). “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. […] Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”

 

His next — and final — novel was Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. Orwell died of tuberculosis just a few months after it was published. Far from being a failure, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into 62 languages, has sold millions of copies, and just this past January it was No. 1 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list.

 

Garrison Keiller/Writers Almanac, June, 2017


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