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un(der)known writers

Un(der)known Writers: Penelope Mortimer

There is much to know about Penelope Mortimer. She was married to one man, but gave birth to two children from extramarital affairs with two other, separate men. While pregnant, she would leave her first husband for her second, John Mortimer. Their relationship was anything but sunny, and the details became excellent source material for her scathingly brilliant novels, of which The Pumpkin Eater stands out. The Pumpkin Eater deals with the slow burn of betrayal, the collapse of trust, the tribulations of reproduction and parenting, and the devastating isolation and depression that plagued women’s domestic lives in the 1950s and 60s. It was made into a popular film in 1964 starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Published a year before feminist classics such as The Feminine Mystique and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, The Pumpkin Eater is a revelation. With its unrelenting honesty and gallows humor, it’s unbelievable that the novel could have ever lapsed into the shadows. Thankfully, it has been reissued under the aegis of the New York Review Books.

In addition to her contributions to fiction (nine novels, two short-story collections), Mortimer was the author of a controversial biography of the Queen Mother, an advice columnist for The Daily Mail, the movie critic for The Observer, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. She was also a mother to six children. She would go on to write a three-volume memoir About Time—though the third volume remains, sadly, unpublished. Mortimer lived to the age of 81, continuing to write at her cottage in the Cotswolds. As Daphne Merkin quotes in her NYRB introduction to The Pumpkin Eater, “Owning land,” Mortimer recorded in her memoir, “made some stubbornly preserved part of me emerge rampant, sweeping the rest out of sight.”

From The Pumpkin Eater (1962):

I wanted to go home, but now my father was dead there was no home to go to, only a house where my mother mourned and thanked goodness that I had at last seen reason. Jake told me that he heard that Conway was roaming London blind drunk. I knew this, because for a week after our meeting he had rung me every day with such vile punishment that now I never answered the telephone, and if I was alone in the house I took the receiver off the hook. I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity: each time I poured myself a brandy in the afternoon I could say to myself “I am a woman who drinks.” It was the positive action rather than the brandy itself that gave me courage. By tea-time I could sit at the head of the table and listen calmly enough to the children, even though I could not understand them. They roistered like billeted troops, cramming themselves with bread and chocolate, swigging great mugs of milk and sweetened tea, miraculously innocent, strong, indifferent. The thought of this half ton of hungry, growing, sentient body and brain coming from my body should, perhaps, have satisfied me. In fact, lacking now my own instincts, values and beliefs, I had nothing to offer them, and what they offered me—dependence, love, trust—seemed a monumental responsibility which I could no longer bear.



Un(der)known Writers: Helle Busacca

Helle Busacca was born in Sicily in 1915, raised in Milan and died in Florence in 1996. She taught in various high schools throughout Italy and became known as a poet during her lifetime. She held close associations with many other artists, notably Eugenio Montale, who once called her “a sullen little bird,” in his 1956 workFarfalle di Dinard. Her brother Aldo’s life in American academy and his subsequent suicide in 1965 left a deep impression on her work. Many of her poems are filled with an aching nostalgia of a world she seems to have never experienced.

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Un(der)known Writers: Harry Crews


Harry Crews interviewed by Jim Knipfel in “Stories Told in Blood

I mean, yeah, I’d been drinking pretty heavy. Look, it’s obvious that my job, or anybody that does the kind of thing that I do, novelist, dramatist and so on, I have to get out of my skin and get into his skin and see the world the way he saw it. To do that, you have to manufacture motives, which probably, more often than not, are wrong. He didn’t do it out of what you think he’s doing it out of. But you’re always asking yourself, what is this character acting out of? Why the hell is he like this? The answer’s never easy. You can’t just go back and say, ‘Well, his mama got on him when he was a little boy, and he never got over it.’ Welll, maybe that’s true, but that won’t take you very far.

(via Robert King)


Un(der)known Writers: Lev Shestov


Excerpted from Athens and Jerusalem:

We live surrounded by an endless multitude of mysteries. But no matter how enigmatic may be the mysteries which surround being, what is most enigmatic and disturbing is that mystery in general exists and that we are somehow definitely and forever cut off from the sources and beginnings of life. Of all the things that we here on earth are the witnesses, this is obviously the most absurd and meaningless, the most terrible, almost unnatural, thing – which forces us irresistibly to conclude either that there is something that is not right in the universe, or that the way in which we seek the truth and the demands that we place upon it are vitiated in their very roots.

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Un(der)known Writers: Nicola Chiaromonte


“The individual who has lived through a great historical upheaval has not only been dispossessed of his beliefs. He has found himself face to face with a reality that goes far beyond him and everyone else. He has discovered that one cannot be satisfied with substitutes for truth, and that one cannot at will believe in anything or nothing at all. He has seen that in the relations between man and the world something exists that cannot be changed. At the same time, he has sensed the reality of a Power which nobody can control. Finally, he has found himself personally in question, and he knows that, under any circumstances whatsoever, there is only one thing that matters: the relation between individual conscience and the world. This is some thing that cannot be counterfeited.”

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