All eyes these days are on the political prize that is the White House, but other prizes are in the offing all the same. Across the water in Brexited Blighty, the Man Booker Prize fiction longlist was released a couple of weeks back. On it a few longtime literary figures appear, among them J. M. Coetzee for his forthcoming sequel to The Childhood of Jesus, alongside previously heralded authors such as Deborah Levy, whose new novel Hot Milk we praised for its unsparing depiction of the mother-daughter dynamic. A surprise is a crime thriller by the Glaswegian author Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project, since the genre as a whole is often deprecated as nonliterary. A few Americans turn up on the international list, including Paul Beatty for The Sellout and David Means for his debut novel Hystopia. The winner will be announced in late October.
Get away from the political cycle, and last week belonged to Colson Whitehead. A fine and inventive novelist, Whitehead is the author, most recently, of The Underground Railroad, a title that takes that historical phrase literally and imagines a slave-era America whose states, depot after depot, are as different from each other as European nations. Though he confesses to being a bit perplexed at the enthusiastic early reception for the just-released book, Whitehead has been carefully building up to this success, with the magna cum laude just awarded: Oprah picked it for her book club.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment turns 150 this year, and how you come down on whether old Raskolnikov deserves to swing may reflect attitudes that will play out in the voting booth come November. In a smart essay in the old-school-conservative New Criterion (behind paywall), Gary Saul Morson observes that “as Dante makes the punishments of hell appropriate to one’s sins, Dostoevsky has his madmen experience a hell appropriate to their philosophy.” If that philosophy isn’t a down-the-line churchy one, then the fire-and-brimstone Russian might not have had much use for it by the time he got around to writing his best-known (but not best) novel.
Is it worth reading 150 years on? Of course, though, worldly world-lit reader Michael Orthofer observes in a lively and very entertaining conversation with Renaissance-man economist Tyler Cowen, “the problem is finding what is of value, what is important.” He adds, “we have these established books like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, but Russian literature goes so much deeper, for example, to take just an example of a big language.” For more on what to read, from Russian and from many other source languages big and small, see Orthofer’s impossibly wide-ranging blog The Complete Review.
If crime, punishment, politics, and other sundry head swirls have you a bit perplexed yourself, you might be cheered by the words of one E. B. White, an author best known for his children’s book Charlotte’s Web but the creator of much more besides. When, in 1973—a fraught year, that, with a presidency just beginning its death spiral—a fan wrote him a letter bemoaning the prospects for humankind, White replied, in part, “as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.” He added, “Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.” Amen. See the whole text here.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.