Literary daybook, Jan. 23

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 23, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 23, the World Champion Six Day Bike Race is scheduled to start.
-- "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1969)
By Jimmy Breslin

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in literary history
On this day in 1930, Derek Walcott was born on St. Lucia, West Indies. Walcott's two-dozen collections of poems and plays -- the most recent, "Tiepolo's Hound," widens the range by including his paintings -- earned the 1992 Nobel. The Nobel committee cited the "multicultural commitment" in Walcott's work, and so many followed suit (often adding "post-colonial") that interviewers now get a forewarning: "If anybody uses the word 'multiculturalism' I'm walking out of the room." There is a similar island breeze in Walcott's other interviews: Describe a typical day? "I work very early until noon, then look at nonsense on the TV in my pajamas." Why does he rise at dawn? "To smoke." Fame?

"This is Fame: Sundays,
an emptiness
as in Balthus,
cobbled alleys,
sunlit, aureate,
a wall, a brown tower
at the end of a street,
a blue without bells,
like a dead canvas
set in its white
frame ..."

Walcott is certainly committed to the Caribbean and its diversity -- "There is some kind of devotion that happens in small places that is very intense," he says. More grandly, Joseph Brodsky says that the West Indies were "discovered by Columbus, colonized by the British, and immortalized by Walcott." Walcott's quarrel with the m-word is that it is just policy-talk, a hopeless contrivance by politicians and the tourist industry. It is a word that the Islands, having happily enjoyed the real thing for so long, do not need:

"I was entitled to the feast of Husein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Dragon Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad." That is from Walcott's Nobel speech, which he used as an opportunity to scorn those who look upon Caribbean culture "as grammarians look at a dialect, as cities look on provinces and empires on their colonies ... illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized." Those scorned would have to include fellow islander and Nobel-winner V.S. Naipaul: "These people [Trinidadians] live purely physical lives, which I find contemptible ... It makes them only interesting to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes."

Walcott says he has "a mulatto of styles"; among them is his 1992 epic poem "Omeros," in which he rewrites "The Odyssey" Caribbean-style. The Homeric impulse is in earlier poetry too, such as "Map of the New World":

"At the end of this sentence, rain will begin.
At the rain's edge, a sail.
Slowly the sail will lose sight of islands;
into a mist will go the belief in harbours
of an entire race.
The ten-years war is finished.
Helen's hair, a grey cloud.
Troy, a white ashpit
by the drizzling sea.
The drizzle tightens like the strings of a harp.
A man with clouded eyes picks up the rain
and plucks the first line of the Odyssey."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal