For this book is the talking voice that runs on,

Dear Stevie, Once I entered your Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), I immediately noticed three things: that I was being held captive; that I was complicit in my captivity; and that the thing that held me inside was neither plot nor character, but something less tangible. I had fallen in love with a voice. Yours,…

The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats

Dear Elizabeth, Do you know this feeling we have when we quite unexpectedly understand why a particular book is a classic? When we understand what it means; when we suddenly get to know what it feels like. Have you ever felt it? When a book draws from a tradition it so thoroughly understands that it…

From now on I shall only wear white,

Dear Nuala, Sometimes I feel that your novel Miss Emily (2015) is haunted by the ghost of something – a bird? – it distractedly let slip out of its realm of possibilities. It centers around the relationship between the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson and a fictional Irish housemaid named Ada Concannon. The story is set…

his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy

Dear Vita, You begin your novel The Edwardians (1930) with a very curious note: “No character in this book is wholly fictitious.”  It gives us a hint to what the book will taste like: melancholic and ambiguous, both an imaginative expansion upon the life you knew well and a deep immersion on its contradictions. The…

Shut the noise out with your own noise

Dear Patricia, WHILE READING your novel Deep Water (1957), I felt as if you had gradually thrust us into the muddy waters of your protagonist’s troubled mind. The book is narrated in third person through the perspective of Vic Van Allen, an inhibited man in his late thirties, who runs a small press in the…

And it could have been any street in the city

Dear Ann, How can one write a naturalist novel and still convey strong symbolic effect? I don’t know the answer, but I think you achieved that. The Street (1946) in your first novel is both a concrete space and a distorting mirror for a perverse version of the American Dream, a thin surface impossible to…

I don’t know what my limits are anymore

Dear Irmgard, The eponymous heroine of your novel Gilgi (2013, tr. Geoff Wilkes. Original title: Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931) is a twenty-one-year-old German middle-class girl who lives in Cologne, during the rise of fascism, in the 1930s. Gilgi, short for Gisela, is independent, matter-of-fact, and ambitious: she is determined to climb the social ladder and…

Everyone was fleeing and everything was temporary

Dear Anna, Do you know this feeling we have when something terrible happens in a dream and we must scream or run, but we find ourselves suddenly unable to do it? We have no voice, or our legs are suddenly unbearably heavy. This feeling of being trapped: that’s the stuff your novel Transit (tr. Margot…

They didn’t dare before; now they do, that’s all

Dear Anna, I was halfway through Manja (tr. Kate Phillips, 2003. Manja: Ein Roman um 5 Kinder, 1938) this past week, when your book acquired a new poignancy for me. Do you know that eerie feeling, when we overhear a stranger on the bus or out passing by us in the street, and, by accident,…

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine

Dear Margaret, You ingeniously managed to fulfill the task of writing a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and, most importantly, you did it precisely by escaping from this task, taking it to its limits, with the help of some tricks of theatrical illusion. Hag-Seed (2016) is, at the same time, an attempt at…