In his excellent introduction to Edith Wharton’s Writing Fiction, author and critic Brandon Taylor offers an observation that bears repeating: Literature from the past may contain dated worlds and ideas, but we can and should engage with it. Wharton’s works, for example, still present “some initial revelations about the way we live and write today,” he explains. Old scripture can also give us “something to argue for.” Classic texts may remain static, but they are revolutionized over time by the changing experiences of readers and offer us the unique opportunity to be in “great union” with them. New presentations can help us achieve that intimacy.
Literary superstars like Taylor have been eager to take on the role of guide and medium, providing front matter that connects the past with the present by placing classic texts in a contemporary context. Lately, readers have been treated to Merve Emre thinking of Virginia Woolf Annotated Mrs. dallowayEsmé Weijun Wang explaining Joanne Greenberg’s I never promised you a garden of rosesand Margo Jefferson schooling us on Gwendolyn Brooks Maud Martha. Toni Morrison, Rachel Cusk, Rachel Kushner, Jennifer Egan and Hilary Mantel wrote all the presentations.
The authors of the six prefaces below ask us to reexamine our relationship with stories from the past. Through their interaction with the books they write about, they offer us new ways to read old works—and elevate this literary art form to new heights. Here, before deciding on a story, we might ask: What lasts? What do you need?
Karl Ove Knausgaard in James Joyce’s A portrait of the artist as a young man (Introduction translated by Martin Aitken)
In Joyce’s 1916 debut novel, the author’s now infamous alter ego, Stephen Dedalus (seen later in Ulysses), makes his fiery debut. Young Dedalus rejects the religion he was raised with, shuns the Irish traditions he has come to know, leaves home, and ultimately commits to becoming an artist, refusing to serve what does not serve him. In his foreword to the 100th anniversary edition of Penguin’s book, Norwegian sensation Knausgaard calls Portrait has “Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, perhaps the prime example of that genre in English literature.” Knausgaard predictably thinks about identity, but he does not unnecessarily dwell on it. Instead, his meandering observations and philosophical musings steal the show. Detailed observations about Joyce’s major work – that it “swells” with “mood”, that it is really a book about Drunk-allow a larger view to appear. “Literature is never the property of others and knows no center, which means that its center is every place where literature exists,” he writes. “Only by refusing to serve, as Stephen does, can the artist do just that: serve.”
Lauren Groff at Yūko Tsushima’s The woman running in the mountainstranslated by Geraldine Harcourt
Set in 1970s Japan, Tsushima’s novel – published in 1980 and republished in 2022 – follows the plight of Takiko Odaka, a young single woman on the verge of giving birth in a society that condemns unwed mothers . Tsushima captures the wild range of feelings and experiences that pregnancy and early motherhood inspire: the beauty, the suffering, the boredom, the banal domestic struggle, the unwavering determination to seek happiness no matter what. tea Matrix Author’s Foreword Groff does what few forewords do: It lets the author speak for himself. Groff quotes extensively from Tsushima, one of Japan’s most influential writers and producers, intervening only to help readers sort out the relationship between Tsushima’s life and work. As a result, rather than getting the rigid sense of an expert dissecting their subject, one feels that Groff and Tsushima are kindred spirits: both are writers and mothers; both are interested in the complexity – and mundanity – of violence and ecstasy, joy and pain; they both ask What is a heroine? What is heroic? (although from different places and times). They are letting us in on the secret that, perhaps, the answers are not what we have been led to believe.
Yiyun Li to Leo Tolstoy War and peace IN Tolstoy together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li
To understand and appreciate the genius of Tolstoy together—which celebrates the experience of reading the novelist’s masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812 and its effect on several aristocratic families—try to imagine an entry as a stack of nested Matryoshka dolls. Tolstoy together it is so. The first is introducing Li War and peace; then comes Brigid Hughes, founding editor of the nonprofit publisher A Public Space, introducing Tolstoy together; then the book turns to war and peace, as other acclaimed writers and readers from around the world share their insights into the classic—and their personal and shared experiences reading it. Li’s introduction includes and brings all these pieces together; she writes that readers “want writers to articulate what we haven’t yet found our words for, we want our senses to become unusual.” She compares War and peace to an old tree whose grandeur needs no protection, ending with the unexpected but welcome admission that “fallibility is in everything I do.” Perhaps her ability to accept her own imperfection encourages her to break all the rules? Here, one book becomes a preface to another book, and the introduction does not belong to just one writer. with Tolstoy togetherLi gives readers the exact language she knows they’re looking for.
Sally Rooney at Natalia Ginzburg’s All of Our Yesterdaystranslated by Angus Davidson
In her introduction to Daunt Books’ handsome reprint of the late Italian author Ginzburg’s third novel about life before and during the war, Rooney gushes about her “transformative” encounter with Ginzburg’s “perfect” 1952 novel, then bursts into a summary of the main events of the book and the life of the author. Ginzburg grew up in a family of anti-fascists and married a Jewish organizer who was later tortured and killed by the Nazi regime he opposed. Its protagonist, Anna, also belongs to a family of dissidents doing their best to survive World War II. As a young wife and mother, she shelters runaways in the basement of her home. Rooney delights in the plot elements and the “depth and truth” of the full cast of characters, rejoicing in Ginzburg and Anne’s recognition of the “supreme moral urgency” of the moment. It ursine the time, not just the setting of the 1940s, which Rooney tells us he is thinking of when he writes, “In times of crisis … there can be no ethics without politics.” Like Ippolito, Emanuele, and Danilo—Ginzburg’s young men who meet in secret to share books considered, by some, too powerful—Rooney tells him, as if a friend, here, you really should read this.
Zadie Smith at Toni Morrison’s Recitative
Morrison, the Nobel laureate and queen of American letters, wrote 11 novels—and just one stand-alone short story. Originally published in 1983 in an anthology edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka, Recitative follows two characters – Twyla and Roberta – who have known each other since childhood. Readers should understand that one is black and one is white, but not which is which. All racial identifiers intentionally omitted. One of the first things readers may notice about Smith’s presentation is its size: It’s as long as the story it presents. Smith knows Morrison has presented her readers with a puzzle and is eager to play along. It performs a shutdown (many close) reading the text spanning almost 40 pages, breaking down speech patterns, plot and character points, and even the title of the story. But instead of trying to solve the mystery (though, she confesses, she wishes she could), she discovers why mystery matters and appreciates Morrison’s “poetic form and scientific method.” Morrison, Smith tells us, believed that a story could be an experiment. Smith seems to be asking why an entry shouldn’t also be one.
Colm Tóibín at Henry James’s The Art of the Novel: Critical Introduction
When it comes to the extraordinary and enduring work of American-born novelist and critic James, one would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate or interesting guide than Irish writer Tóibín. Tóibín wrote a novel, master, with James as the main character; he is also the author of Everything a novelist needs, critical essay on James and his works. In the 2011 University of Chicago Press reprint of The art of the novel—a curated selection of the forewords James wrote for many of his works—Tóibín leaves no stone unturned. Alongside the original 1934 introduction by poet and critic RP Blackmur, he shares his fascinating reflections on James’s collection. James’s penchant for dining out in 1877 London increased his interactions with “the most important figures of the day”; Tóibín’s delicious introduction provides readers with dramatic insights into gossip (“Robert Browning’s talk doesn’t sit well with me”) and real-life incidents (Screw turn was first told to James by the Archbishop of Canterbury!) that inspired his best-known works. If you’re as good as James and Tóibín, even a preface can be a masterpiece.
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