Nov. 20, 2010


by W. S. Merwin

At my elbow on the table
it lies open as it has done
for a good part of these thirty
years ever since my father died
and it passed into my hands
this Webster's New International
Dictionary of the English
of 1922
on India paper which I
was always forbidden to touch
for fear I would tear or somehow
damage its delicate pages
heavy in their binding
this color of wet sand
on which thin waves hover
when it was printed he was twenty-six
they had not been married four years
he was a country preacher
in a one-store town and I suppose
a man came to the door one day
peddling this new dictionary
on fine paper like the Bible
at an unrepeatable price
and it seemed it would represent
a distinction just to own it
confirming something about him
that he could not even name
now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been here
beside me the whole time
what has frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
I know I must have used it
much more than he did but always
with care and indeed affection
turning the pages patiently
in search of meanings

"Inheritance" by W. S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius. © Copper Canyon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1912 twenty-nine-year-old novelist Franz Kafka (books by this author) wrote a despairing letter to his girlfriend Felicia Bauer, in which he swore to write her no more. He was in the midst of a five-year-long effort to woo her, and it was an endeavor conducted almost entirely by letter-writing. He wrote to her more frequently that she to him, and this sometimes sent him into the throes of anguish and so he would send her letters like this one, which he composed 98 years ago today:

Dearest, what have I done that makes you torment me so? No letter again today, neither by the first mail nor the second.
You do make me suffer! While one written word from you could make me happy! You've had enough of me; there is no other explanation, it's not surprising after all; what is incomprehensible, though, is that you don't write and tell me so.
If I am to go on living at all, I cannot go on vainly waiting for news of you, as I have done these last few interminable days. But I no longer have any hope of hearing from you.
I shall have to repeat specifically the farewell you bid me in silence.
I should like to throw myself bodily on this letter, so that it cannot be mailed, but it must be mailed.
I shall expect no further letters.

As it turns out, his farewell of silence did not last long. A few weeks later, the insomniac Kafka wrote to her in the dead of winter's night:

Well dearest, the doors are shut, all is quiet, I am with you once more. ... I was after you continuously this afternoon, in vain of course. As a matter of fact not quite in vain, for I constantly kept as close as possible to Frau Friedmann, because after all she was close to you for quite a time, because you say Du to each other, and because she happens to be the possessor of letters from you, which I certainly begrudge her. But why doesn't she say a word about you while I keep staring at her lips, ready to pounce on the first word? Have you stopped writing to each other? Perhaps she knows nothing new about you? But how is this possible! And if she knows nothing new, why doesn't she talk about you, why doesn't she at least mention your name, as she used to, when she was around before?

But no, she won't; instead, she keeps me hanging about, and we talk about incredibly unimportant things, such as Breslau, coughing, music, scarves, brooches, hairstyles, Italian holidays, sleighrides, beaded bags, stiff shirts, cufflinks, Herbert Schottlander, the French language, public baths, showers cooks, Harden, economic conditions, travelling by night, the Palace Hotel, Schreiberhau, hats, the University of Breslau, relatives — in short about everything under the sun, but the only subject that has, unfortunately, some faint association with you consists of a few words about Pyramidos and aspirin; it is cause for wonder why I pursue this subject for so long, and why I enjoy rolling these two words around my tongue. But really, I am not satisfied with this as the sole outcome of an afternoon, because for hours on end my head hums with the desire to hear the name Felice. Finally, by force, I direct the conversation to the railway connections between Berlin and Breslau, at the same time giving her a menacing look — nothing."

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer were engaged twice but never married. Kafka would once say: "Letter writing is an intercourse with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the receiver, but with one's own, which emerges between the lines of the letter being written ... Written kisses never reach their destination, but are drunk en route by these ghosts."

It's the 87th birthday of Nobel Prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer, (books by this author) born in the mining town of Spring, South Africa (1923). Her parents were Latvian and British Jewish immigrants, and she was educated at a Catholic convent until the age of 11, when her mom pulled her out. Her adolescent years she spent going to tea parties with her mom, and reading alone in her room, and she rarely interacted with other teens.

At 15, she published her first children's story in a South African magazine, and at 16, she published her first adult fiction. She started college in South Africa but didn't finish, and later said, "I'm an autodidact. The library was my education. I was taught by the literary imaginations of others. ... Proust, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, to name only a few to whom I owe my existence as a writer, were my professors."

From the beginning, she wrote about the apartheid in South Africa. It was the 1940s, and she was the only white person she knew in her small town that didn't agree with the apartheid system. She moved to Johannesburg, hung out with radicals and bohemians in the black community, and watched as her friends went to jail. Many other writers went into exile, but she decided to stay and write anti-apartheid stories from South Africa.

She said, "Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of 'the South African way of life'." Several of her books have been banned in South Africa, where she has lived all her life. She once said that she didn't set out to be a political writer, but that "Writing is an exploration of life. If you happened to live in the milieu of conflict, that obviously is what life means to you, and that is what you will explore." She said that writers are "selected" by their subjects. And a writer's subject, she says, is the "consciousness of his own era."

For 60 years she has contributed short stories to The New Yorker magazine. She's a big fan of the short story form — where, she says, "contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the only thing one can be sure of — the present moment."

She's written more than 200 short stories, which are collected in volumes like Face to Face (1949), The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952), Six Feet of the Country (1956), Friday's Footprint (1960), A Soldier's Embrace (1980), Loot (2003), and, recently, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007).

And she's written more than a dozen novels, which include A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), A Guest of Honor (1970), The Conservationist (1975) — which won the Booker Prize — as well as July's People (1981), The House Gun (1998), and Get a Life (2005). In 1991 she won the Nobel Prize for literature; it was the year after Nelson Mandela was released from jail, and still three years before South Africa came under black majority rule.

She said, "The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read and comes to realize that he is answerable."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Robert Francis Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts (1925). He began his political career as the manager of his brother's successful 1952 campaign for the United States Senate, then gained national attention the following year as assistant counsel to Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations. He continued to serve the Senate as a legal counsel until 1960, when he resigned to manage his brother's campaign for the presidency.

In 1961, he was chosen by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to serve as attorney general. As the head of the Justice Department, he sent Federal marshals to Montgomery, Alabama, to protect civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King Jr. He also organized a tough campaign against organized crime. After his brother's assassination, he resigned from his position as attorney general and ran a successful campaign for the Senate from New York. In the Senate, he was a vocal critic of President Johnson's policy on Vietnam. In March 1968, he announced that he was a candidate for president.

A day after winning the California primary, in the early morning of June 6, 1968, he was shot and killed as he left a campaign rally in Los Angeles. Two months before his assassination, he said: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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