Daphne Merkin

  • The Laconic Verses

    DEPRESSION, FOR ALL THAT HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT IT, remains in many ways a voiceless illness. If depression were an actor in a play, it would be one without words, its presence a reminder that psychic darkness isn’t invisible so much as carelessly—or, as it may be, willfully—overlooked. Since time immemorial, clinical depression—the kind that sometimes ends in suicide—has not been given its due as a legitimate ailment, with claims on our attention and concern every bit as much as cancer. Like many psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, the ratio between biological determinants and

  • He Liked Having Enemies

    HAS THERE EVER BEEN A WRITER more reviled or more admired than D. H. Lawrence? (His full name was David Herbert Lawrence but he had begun using the initials “DHL” or “D. H. Lawrence” as his signature already as an eighteen-year-old.) Almost from the moment he put pen to paper, this mad genius of English literature with intense blue eyes and a flaming red beard raised a ruckus, which he not only thoroughly enjoyed but did his part in fomenting. He wrote with great fluency—3,500 words in a morning was a snap for him—and he would go on to write an astonishing amount, in many genres, before he died

  • Mum’s Boy

    “IT WAS HIS QUOTABILITY,” observed the critic Clive James, “that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden.” What comes to mind? The opening lines from “Annus Mirabilis,” certainly—“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”—but if there is one Philip Larkin quote even better known, it would surely be: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

    Did Larkin’s parents fuck him up? According to his sister Catherine (“Kitty”), ten years his senior, both parents “worshipped” Philip. All the same, they have undoubtedly been demonized—sometimes by the poet

  • Sub Mission

    IN THE ANNALS OF EROTIC LITERATURE, a subject that consistently draws women writers of a certain ilk—smart, literate, and tough-minded—is sexual submission. (The Germans, leave it to them, have a word for this kind of abjection: Hörigkeit.) There is something about the theme of a relational power imbalance, of inequality in the bedroom, that seems to exert a fascination in quarters that one wouldn’t ordinarily expect. I am thinking, of course, of Story of O, but also of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, the pseudonymously penned Nine and a Half Weeks (a spare and

  • The Trauma of the Gifted Child

    Somewhere a child is being hidden. The time is mid-July, 1942, and the first great roundup of Jews—more than thirteen thousand foreign Jews in all, including four thousand children—has begun in Paris, to be followed by more arrests days later in the unoccupied zones. A small boy—"born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power," he recalls in the memoir he will grow up to write—has been living for two years in Néris, a resort town in France known for its waters, with his parents. Before this, the family has been continually on the run, trying to flee across

  • Eyre Supply

    There is something about the Brontë sisters that is enduringly fascinating, something about their strange, gifted, and woefully abbreviated lives (none of them lived to forty) that reads like the stuff of myth. Perhaps it’s the combination of great personal privation and great artistic willfulness, the mixture of geographic isolation and literary renown, that lends their story an elemental note of warring forces both within and without. To think of these three motherless and conspicuously inbred young women—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—living off in a parsonage on the Yorkshire moors together

  • Blond Ambition

    IF CLARE BOOTHE LUCE, with her lowly origins and blinding ambition, hadn’t existed, she might have sprung fully formed from the imagination of Henry James—or, perhaps, Candace Bushnell. The very fact that it’s hard to figure out which universe of discourse Luce belongs in—the nuanced world of a literary master or the frothy realm of an expert purveyor of chick-lit—says a lot about the confusing tangle of impressions this brainy blond bombshell left in her wake. After many achievements—as a journalist, editor, playwright, wife of Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce, war correspondent, congresswoman,

  • Behind the Green Baize Door

    The wish to be taken care of or looked after past the childhood years, to have our basic needs administered to without great exertion on our part, is not one, or so it seems to me, that is much addressed outside of the therapist’s office—or, perchance, the rehab culture, where such primal longings get articulated by way of a dependence on drugs and alcohol. For the rest of us, who secretly yearn to have someone to help us lace up our shoes in the morning, like Julian English does in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra—or, more generally, to have our meals prepared for us and then affably

  • The Upside of Anger

    From the outset, it’s been clear that Claire Messud has all the necessary equipment—a fertile imagination, a grown-up sensibility, and writerly ambition in spades—to write very good fiction, perhaps even a novel that defined our times. One could detect in her prose the influence of many writers—Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen are just two that come to mind—without being able to pin her to a particular school or manner. She seemed, that is, very much her own person, trying out various devices as they suited her. If anything stood in her way, it was the fact that her imagination and sensibility

  • Shades of Gray

    How many secrets can one person have, especially a person who has made a living out of spilling them, ruthlessly mining his own experience for autobiographical monologues that brought him no small amount of fame and fortune? Not many, it would seem. But if you’re Spalding Gray, the writer and performer of self-revealing one-man performances such as Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy, you can have private secrets within performed secrets, unspoken confessions behind the public ones.

    That, at any rate, is what emerges from the pages of Gray’s journals, a document of wrenching and exhilarating

  • Into the Darkness

    A natural response to depravity or evil is to eject it from the human circle, to make of the perpetrator something inhuman. This response is understandable—we do it to protect ourselves from too painful an exposure to the unthinkable—but it doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of the issue or person at hand. Demonizing Hitler, for instance, doesn’t take away from the fact that he had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth like the rest of us. When it comes to malfeasance involving children, we are even more bent on distancing ourselves—from the mother who murders her offspring or the teacher who

  • culture April 26, 2010

    Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers by Lesley McDowell

    The intimate lives of writers have always had a special attraction for readers, perhaps because we imagine that people who can shape ideas and arrange scenes on the page should be able to offer us some special insight into how to order our messy off-the-page lives. This has rarely been proven the case—writers often seem less, rather than more, gifted at the mechanics of everyday existence; all the same it has not stemmed our interest in finding out what Sylvia said to Ted or why Simone pimped for Jean-Paul.

  • Medicine Clan

    The fact of our embodiment is something we all face with greater or lesser anxiety. We navigate the world as both thinking minds and reacting bodies, with room enough for heady distortion between them. The body, in its declared state of health or illness, can be used to bolster our psychological defenses; a slew of diagnoses can be called on to explain why we’re not functioning as we think we should be. That said, though interested in all the mentally agitated, I have never felt particularly sympathetic to the suffering of hypochondriacs, having always consigned them to the vast corpus of the

  • The Lady Vanquished

    Jean Rhys lived a hard-luck life and wrote, almost exclusively, about hard-luck women. Her pellucid writing, in which shards of pained observation cut a jagged edge in an otherwise fluid style, is so accessible that it is easy to overlook the art—the tight control—behind the seeming artlessness. Like those of Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, Rhys’s natural psychological habitat was despondency of a particularly female kind—what Mansfield in her notebooks describes as “an air of steady desperation,” hinging on desiring and desirability. With the exception of Rhys’s last novel, Wide

  • No Success Like Failure

    Posthumous literary reputations are tricky affairs, as is the appellation “a writer’s writer.” It might be said that both serve a compensatory function, making up for a less than obliging reality by suggesting an artistic worthiness that doesn’t translate into popular appeal. Such is the case of Richard Yates, once neglected and now celebrated, who died from emphysema at the age of sixty-six on November 7, 1992, after years of smoking four packs a day, alcoholism, and general bipolar calamitousness (including one early suicide attempt and intermittent breakdowns).

    Yates enjoyed brief visibility


    Vivian Gornick has always been an impassioned reader, writer, and inhabitant of her own life, holding firmly to the vastly unmodish notion that novels, memoirs, and essays are not just ironic, parsable constructs but have the power to help us locate, define, and even redeem ourselves. Gornick believes, that is, in the transcendent effect of literature, whether it be a novel by Virginia Woolf, a memoir by Edmund Gosse, or an essay by Seymour Krim—an effect made possible by dint of a book’s “clarity of thought” (an oft-repeated phrase of hers) rather than its sheer emotional power. Indeed, to