Literature of the Planet
Hopefully, in 2021, we will see theaters open again. The premiere of Zadie Smith’s first play, The Wife of Willesden, an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, was one of last year’s planned events that did not happen. Don’t worry, Hamish Hamilton is publishing the manuscript in June, if it doesn’t hit the stage soon. Seeing what Smith does with Chaucer’s bawdy poetry is going to be fascinating.
Jonathan Franzen is not considered to have broken the fourth wall, but his latest novel sounds a little meta-fictional. The first in a trilogy called The Key to All Mythologies is Crossroads (4th Estate, October). The name, of course, comes from a book that the obnoxious Casaubon never finishes reading in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In the second half of the 20th century, Crossroads featured three generations of the Hildebrandt family. Franzen is often referred to as the greatest living author in America, which he isn’t because he doesn’t have one, but he doesn’t like social media and likes to watch birds, so in my book he gets a gold star.
From one novelist with a garland to another. In March, Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro will publish Klara and The Sun (Faber). It’s about a “artificial friend” standing in a shop watching the public spend, spend, spend, which is one way of learning about the human race.
Literature in Scottish
Graeme Macrae Burnet is a writer who likes to use form to play around. A series of notebooks sent to the author in 2020 through psychotherapist Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a contemporary of RD Laing in the 1960s, consists of a case study (Saraband, October). The notebooks come from a woman who claims that Braithwaite is liable for the death of her sister. I tend to agree with the concept of madness by Laing: sometimes it is the world that is insane, not the person.
“She paints a portrait of Shetland in Jen Hadfield’s The Stone Age poetry collection (Picador, March), which implies “everything-door and wall, flower and rain, coast and sea, the standing stones whose existence charges the land-has a living consciousness that can be engaged as a private encounter.” This might sound crazy, but as someone who has had many substantive interactions with inanimate ob
If memory serves, a character attempts to kill himself by swallowing rocks in James Robertson’s “rousing” historical novel And the Land Lay Still – the kind of action that would get the attention of the doctor. The upcoming novel News of the Dead (Hamish Hamilton, August) by Robertson also goes full bore, covering the Scottish Highlands for decades.
The Highlands have long been captivated by Culloden. Paul O’Keeffe (Bodley Head, January) discusses the importance of the last great war on British soil in his latest novel, “Battle and Aftermath,” One of his many discoveries is that the war resulted in the mapping of the Scottish Highlands by the British Army, which led to the Ordnance Survey being formed. From the Duke of Cumberland (or “The Butcher,” as some call him) to Jacobite leader Charles Edward Stuart, who “went from being a sweet-talking prince to a bitter alcoholic invalid.” O’Keefe also traces the fate of the survivors.
Rosemary Goring interacts with a former member of Stuart’s House in the fall. Homecoming: Queen of Scots (Birlinn), the Scottish Years of Mary, searches out the places where Mary stayed in Scotland during her 12 years, from Linlithgow Palace to Borthwick Castle and Carberry Hill.
Sathnam Sanghera, a journalist and memoirist, is another book intended to shed new light on British history. Empireland (Viking, January) looks at how modern Britain, from the formation of the NHS to its separation from the European Union, continues to shape imperialism-and its colonial mentality.
Latest demonstrations by Black Lives Matter have demonstrated the different manifestations of oppression in Britain and abroad. Black is the Body (Doubleday, Feb.) by Emily Bernard consists of 12 personal essays about her experiences in America as a black woman. She writes about growing up in the Deep South, getting stabbed at a coffee shop in New Haven, marrying a white man and taking him back to her home, and adopting two Ethiopian daughters.
U.S. historians might look at 2020 as one of the strangest years in the world, even without a global pandemic.