The Literary Figures With the Weirdest Obsessions


This week saw the release of Brian Kimberling’s excellent debut novel, Snapper , a delightful, wry story of a young ornithologist romping around the Indiana backcountry in a glitter-encrusted truck called the Gypsy Moth. There’s no doubting Kimberling’s own expertise in (or obsession with) birding after reading either the book or his recent column in the Times , in which he describes die-hard birders as an “army of primitive hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear.” But Kimberling is only the latest in a long history of authors with burning, decidedly offbeat obsessions. After the jump, the author schools us on some of his favorites. Click through to learn some things about D.H. Lawrence’s proclivities you weren’t sure you wanted to know, and if you’re so inspired, swing by WORD next week to see your trusty literary editor chat with Kimberling in the flesh.

Anton Chekhov

Chasing butterflies like Nabokov, raising peacocks like Flannery O’Connor, keeping bees like Ted Hughes – well, whatever. A real Bohemian needs a mongoose. Chekhov called his Svoloch and described it in a letter as “a mixture of rat and crocodile, tiger and monkey.” A snake showing up at a picnic was a special event. He kept it for about a year and a half, but, citing a need to travel, he then donated it to the Moscow zoo, which he had fiercely criticized as an “animals’ graveyard.” The mongoose lived in captivity for two more years. The average lifespan of a captive mongoose today is about 20 years.

D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence found it stimulating to climb mulberry trees in the nude. It is not clear why he found the mulberry more alluring than, say, the maple. It’s an area ripe for field research. Alternatively this could be a great first date idea to propose to a Lawrence fanatic. Or, a sufficiently hirsute individual could identify mulberry specimens near one of Lawrence’s many residences and charge admission for historical reenactments. Presumably during his extended stays in Mexico Lawrence climbed saguaro instead.

Friedrich von Schiller

Friedrich von Schiller kept fruit flies. Rather, he put rotten apples under his desk to inspire him with memories of the orchards of his youth. When he faltered for the right word, he took a quick sniff, and it materialized. His younger friend Goethe was bemused by this practice. That said, Goethe’s subsequent practice of keeping a skull he believed to be Schiller’s on his desk is even more questionable. The location of Schiller’s real skull remains unknown.

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore was probably not obsessed with automobiles, but she was asked by Ford to come up with inspirational names for new ones, on the grounds that nobody knows words like a poet. Sadly they did not take her up on “Mongoose Civique” (would it run for 20 years?), “Resilient Bullet,” “Ford Silver Sword,” “Varsity Stroke,” Pastelogram,” “Andante con Moto,” or “Utopian Turtletop.” They went with Edsel instead.

Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was passionate about opera, which is not a strange obsession. However, Shostakovich made an opera out of Gogol’s story, “The Nose,” which was first performed in 1930, around 80 years after Gogol’s death. In 1931 Gogol was disinterred by Soviet authorities for removal to a different cemetery, and he was found lying face down in his coffin. Presumably he heard the music and did the conventional thing.

Or else he had been buried alive.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant required an assistant to get out of bed each morning because he couldn’t sleep unless comprehensively mummified in blankets. This operation commenced precisely at 5:00 a.m. every morning, until the assistant was dismissed for having acquired a habit of excessive drinking. It is difficult to sympathize with Kant in this instance.

You can now buy Kant Throw Blankets at Café Press.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens had two ravens, two St. Bernards, two Newfoundlands, a spaniel, a mastiff, a Pomeranian, a cat, a canary, and a pony. Their names, respectively, were Grip I, Grip II, Sultan, Linda, Don, Bumble, Timber, Turk, Mrs. Bouncer, Williamina, Dick, and Newman Noggs. Dickens had Grip I mounted after it died from eating lead paint. It is now in the Philadelphia Free Library, and is thought – via Barnaby Rudge – to have inspired one of Dickens’s American contemporaries to pen a well-known poem.

[Ed note: this photo was selected because Brian think Dickens looks like a Newfoundland in it. You know what they say about people and their pets.]

Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter kept a brightly painted Mexican pine coffin in her apartment during her later years – she reached the age of 90. She enjoyed startling visitors by standing in it and commenting on the fit. She had a strange longstanding intimacy with death – she was administered last rites twice in her 20s. Interestingly she was not ultimately buried in that coffin – it is now on display in the Katherine Anne Porter Room at the University of Maryland Library.

Jeremy Bentham

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham decreed that his remains, after meticulous dissection, should be stuffed into one of his good black suits and seated in his usual chair and displayed publicly at University College London with his old cane in hand. He’s still there, although his head has been replaced with a wax replica, because the original defied various attempts to preserve it.