Monday, 29 August 2016

Mann’s inhumanity to Mann

Klaus Mann was six times jinxed. A son of Thomas Mann. A homeless exile. A drug addict. A writer unable to publish in his native tongue. A not-so-gay gay. Someone haunted all his life by a fascination with death.” Thus opens Frederic Spotts’s elegantly written and deeply moving biography of the writer Klaus Mann. These lines set the tone for the exploration of the tragic life of a courageously uncompromising and truly European intellectual, who, born in 1906 and living through the darkest period of European history, was plagued by both political and personal calamities in almost equal measure. Spotts leaves the reader in no doubt that Thomas’s coldly judgemental attitude towards his eldest son was a root cause of many of Klaus’s problems.
In his diary, Klaus complained that his father’s “general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong toward me”. If there was indeed such a lack of interest, it certainly did not prevent the harshest of judgements, for, in his own diary, Thomas pronounced of Klaus: “The boy is morally and intellectually not intact”. In his novella Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), a thinly disguised family portrait, Thomas describes the character modelled on Klaus as someone who “knows nothing, can do nothing and thinks only how to play the clown and lacks even the talent for that”. There is little if any evidence to suggest that Klaus’s remarkable achievements later in life altered his father’s damning verdict on him.
In many ways, Klaus was Thomas’s opposite: while his father remained a closet homosexual all his life, Klaus bravely embraced his sexuality, and wrote about it in explicit terms in many of his works. As Spotts puts it: “The son suffered from being openly homosexual, the father from not being so”. While Thomas was a great respecter of authority, Klaus had an anarchic streak, defied social conventions, and detested nothing more than moral cowardice and political opportunism. These are the subject of his best-known work, the novel Mephisto, an astute analysis of the psychology of a Nazi collaborator, first published in 1936, in Amsterdam. It almost beggars belief that this momentous “parable of an artist’s political opportunism” was published only forty-five years later in Germany, after a protracted legal battle, purportedly concerning character defamation, the main character in Mephisto having been based on the German actor Gustav Gründgens.
Thomas was a loyal family man, whereas Klaus was prone to one-night stands and tempestuous affairs. Thomas was always careful to consider his own financial and reputational advantages; Klaus lived and breathed politics, sacrificing everything for his beliefs. His many initiatives included the founding, in 1933, of the exile journal Die Sammlung (“The Collection”), which his father publicly repudiated in order to protect his publishing ventures in Nazi Germany, but to which many other literary heavyweights contributed, among them Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Jean Cocteau, Alfred Döblin, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Spender, as well as Albert Einstein and Leon Trotsky. It was three years after Hitler’s seizure of power before Thomas distanced himself publicly from the Nazi regime – Klaus had been an outspoken anti-Nazi long before 1933. And while Thomas was a careful craftsman, meticulously constructing and polishing each of his novels and short stories, Klaus worked at white heat, his mind “as dazzling as a Catherine wheel, endlessly spewing out colour and fire”.
Although some of his works were greeted with critical derision or even remained unpublished during his lifetime, his output was prolific: Klaus wrote seven novels, half a dozen plays, four biographies, three autobiographies and hundreds of stories, as well as numerous essays, reviews and articles. Before his death from a drug overdose in 1949, at the age of only forty-two, he produced what Spotts rightly describes as a “unique record of the catastrophic first half of the twentieth century, told in both fiction and non-fiction”. Tellingly, on the news of Klaus’s death, Thomas, Katia and Erika Mann, who were in Stockholm at the time for a series of lectures, decided not to interrupt their schedule to attend his funeral. Of his many siblings, only Michael Mann decided to pay his respects.
Misfortune followed Klaus throughout his life. Each of his many love affairs ended badly; fellow writers whom he admired and supported let him down; many of his publishing ventures ended in failure; and after he had served for almost three years in the US Army, which he joined in order to fight Nazism, he was denounced as a Soviet agent and subjected to an inquiry by the FBI. Having turned his back on Germany in 1933, he found that post-war Germany, eager not to be reminded of the horrors of the Third Reich and the moral culpability of its collaborators, shunned the politically uncomfortable émigré.
The one blessing in his life seems to have been his relationship with his formidable sister Erika, the oldest of the six Mann siblings, and a successful actress, journalist and writer in her own right. Together, brother and sister moved to Weimar Berlin and starred in sexually and politically provocative plays, toured America, journeyed across Europe (including to Spainduring the country’s Civil War), and were important figures in the American literary exile community during and after the Second World War. Yet even his beloved sister failed to attend Klaus’s funeral.
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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Aravind Adiga The Man Booker winner talks about his new novel. Or cricket. Or both.

Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world.
Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but born to a life of wealth and comfort – have on his personality?
As the narrative raises these questions, India’s most popular sport is intriguingly used as a framework. The story dwells on the changes that have taken place in cricket, from being a genteel sport built around notions like personal honour and sacrifice to becoming a commercialised spectacle with temporary heroes and match-fixing (“How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness?” an old cricket-lover bemoans) – and how this changing trajectory in some ways mirrors that of the nation.
Excerpts from an interview about the novel:

From the cover to the jacket description, Selection Dayseems positioned as a book about cricket, but you use it as a pretext to examine many other things: the parent-child relationship, the link between sport and masculinity, the interaction between the privileged and the poor in a country where many different universes coexist. Are you interested in cricket on its own terms? Did you set out to write a “cricket book”?The best way to answer this would be to tell you about the original inspiration for Selection Day. I’ve always loved the Italian neo-realist film directors of the 1950s, men like De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves, and their successors like Pasolini. Nearly fifteen years ago, in a cinema hall in New York, I watched Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, and was profoundly moved.
It’s the story of a group of brothers who migrate from a village to the big city of Milan, in the years after World War Two. They hope to become rich, but discover that all they have done is exchange rural poverty for urban destitution. The only way out for the brothers is to enter the world of professional boxing. The brothers come to hate boxing, and what it forces them to do, but they are trapped.
I knew even as I was leaving the theatre that I wanted to write a novel that would be both intimate and sweeping, as the film was. I returned to India from America in 2003, and I was always on the look out for a way to write aRocco and his Brothers here. Boxing isn’t particularly big in India, though, so the idea lay in dormancy for a decade.
In 2011, I was having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with a businessman who began telling me of his new venture: he was sponsoring two exceptional young cricketers from the city’s slums. Every month, their father came over and took a cheque from the businessman; in return, if the boys ever made it into the IPL or the national team, they would have to hand over a big part of their fees to the businessman. I immediately asked him how old the boys were. Thirteen and fourteen, he said. “What if the boys, or one of the boys, decides he does not want to play cricket, but wants to be an engineer or doctor?” The businessman said that this wasn’t possible. Every Indian boy wants to play cricket. (He went on, if I remember right, to suggest that this was the kind of doubt I had only because – like some other NRI types – I wasn’t “mentally Indian” enough.)
I thought his statement was rubbish – “Every Indian boy wants to play cricket” is the kind of cloying generalisation, so common in India, that hides many stories of frustration. The other thing that struck me was that what this businessman was doing would be strictly illegal in America, where they have laws to protect underage athletes from the greed of coaches, businessmen, and team selectors. You can go to jail in America for doing what this businessman was doing here.
We always talk about America as a land of money, but the truth is, there are more laws there to regulate capitalism – or there were, until the late 1990s – than there are anywhere else. After lunch, I walked over to my favourite restaurant in Mumbai, Café Ideal on Chowpatty, and there I thought this could be my “Rocco.” Two brothers playing cricket, and one of them, the more talented one, would start to dislike the game. That’s how the novel began, in 2011. It took me five years to finish it, and in the course of that time it went strange places.
You often use animal metaphors in your work. In your first novel, Balram Halwai was the “white tiger”, a rare creature of initiative and daring, who tries to transcend the class he was born into. Did you conceive of the precocious, 14-year-old Manjunath in similar terms? Or is he more like the turtle, the “domed creature” mentioned in this book, peering cautiously out of his shell?Manjunath Kumar is certainly not Balram Halwai; he is, if anything, his opposite. All of us in India have seen the schoolboy in cricketing whites on his way to practice. When you attend a lot of school cricket matches in Mumbai, as I did during the writing of this novel, you see variations on that familiar theme. You see, for instance, the cricketer in stained white clothes, who is walking alone, his head bent, mumbling to himself, the epitome of abject humiliation. You look at him and you know something really bad has happened that morning – he has been dropped from the school team, perhaps.
I was watching a boy like this once, one Sunday morning right outside the Azad Maidan, when a taxi driver began laughing. “Tendulkar! Tendulkar!” He yelled at the boy, to rub it in further. I could see that the poor boy was close to tears now. That was how Manjunath Kumar (and his brother Radha Krishna) were born.
There is a hint of child abuse – in two senses of the term – in Mohan Kumar's relationship with his two young sons. He seems to fit the image of the obsessive "sports parent", pushing his kids into a world they don't want to be in, and consequently stunting their development.Much of what Mohan Kumar is doing to his sons – and there are hundreds of fathers like him just in Mumbai – would be illegal in the West. I interviewed a few of these “cricketing dads” – lower-middle-class men whose obsession is to turn their sons into the new Tendulkar. Some of them regulate every aspect of their child's life, including nutrition, exercise, and even in some cases hairstyle. After a while, their desire to control their son's body and mind starts to feel creepy.
Many of the book’s funniest observations about India and Indians come from Anand Mehta, a globe-trotting investor who left Manhattan to return to Bombay. For instance, at one point you have him say that Indians are basically a sentimental race and that their hunger for social-realist melodrama is no longer being satisfied by Hindi cinema, but cricket is still serving this purpose. At another point he suggests that cricket is a narcotising force that aids “male social control in India”. Are some of his views a stand-in for your own?Each character in the book, I hope, represents some aspect of me, but no character is all of me. Anand Mehta has studied and lived in New York, like me, and he shares my interest in World War Two history. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. I meet people like him in Mumbai and I don't like them.
You must remember that I was born in Chennai, a big city, and when I arrived at the age of seven in Mangalore, I thought I was superior to everyone there because my English was better. I was the local Anand Mehta. But when I would return to Chennai on my holidays, I was mocked by my old classmates because I now spoke English with a thick accent. Like all humiliated provincials I became suspicious of the big-city boy.
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Saturday, 27 August 2016

What was Auden thinking when he wasn't writing poetry?

"At the beginning of the 21st century," Edward Mendelson writes in his entry on W. H. Auden in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "many readers thought it not implausible to judge his work the greatest body of poetry in English of the previous hundred years or more." Even allowing for a literary executor's special pleading, this is an extravagant claim: Auden's poetry is full of good things, but it is also full of bad things. And the latter are usually the result of bad rhetoric. That Auden regarded "September 1, 1939," for example, as "infected with an incurable dishonesty'' says something for the probity of his criticism. If he was capable of writing nonsense, he was also capable of owning up to writing nonsense.

Some of the bad rhetoric that marred Auden's work can be blamed on his left-wing politics.Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (1988) brilliantly supplies the cultural and historical context for those politics. Yet Auden also acquired his rhetorical excesses from William Butler Yeats, whose public persona he initially tried to emulate. One of the virtues of this mammoth, six-volume edition of Auden's prose, which covers his essays and reviews from 1926 until his death in 1973, is that it shows how the poet gradually renounced the public stage for a more self-effacing, meditative, private life, especially after settling in America in 1939 at the age of 32.

"When the ship catches fire," he wrote in a piece on Rilke, "it seems only natural to rush importantly to the pumps, but perhaps one is only adding to the general confusion and panic: to sit still and pray seems selfish and unheroic, but it may be the wisest and most helpful course." Later, speaking with the Paris Review in 1972, he insisted that "a poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted."

How Auden regarded this duty can be seen in his moving eulogy for his friend Louis MacNeice, "The Cave of Making" (1964), in which he celebrated the demands of the art to which he devoted his life.

After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot
be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly
still insists upon
being read or ignored . . .

One can agree or disagree with the charge brought by Philip Larkin that Auden's intellectual interests stultified his poetry, but one cannot maintain that the essays in which he pursued those interests are stultifying. They exude zest. There may be much about the writing of Auden's generation that is meretricious. Evelyn Waugh was unsparing about Stephen Spender—"To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee"—yet Auden wrote a sprightly, elegant, witty prose. And if his reviewing paid the bills, it also helped to shape his protean poetry. The relationship between the state and the individual, history and human suffering, cultural vitality and cultural decay, talent and the snares that entrammel talent—these are the constant preoccupations of his poetry, and they are abundantly explored in these well-annotated volumes.

Since Auden only published two essay collections, The Dyer's Hand (1962) and Forewords and Afterwords (1973), there is much uncollected and unpublished work gathered here, and together with the previously published pieces, they reveal a good deal about the poet's inner life. In 1964, for instance, in a review of autobiographies by Waugh and Leonard Woolf, he wrote something of an autobiography of his own in which he gave expression not so much to family or personal history as to the exile's inexorable loneliness. Writing about other artists beguiled his sense of aloneness.

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Friday, 26 August 2016

The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s “great, inestimable merit,” Henry James once wrote, “was a complete appreciation of the usual.” He was right: You won’t find a single uncanny moment in that Victorian author’s 47 novels. Yet reading Trollope in the 21st century can nevertheless be a bit spooky. That’s because seemingly everything that happens today has already been covered in one of his books, albeit in a less technologized form.

An example: Recently, in advance of watching a new adaptation of Trollope’s 1858 novel, Doctor Thorne, I revisited the book. Within a few chapters I came upon an account of a local parliamentary election in the fictional county of Barsetshire, where Trollope’s greatest novels are set. One of the candidates, Sir Roger Scatcherd, is a stonemason turned developer whose fortune has won him a baronetcy despite his coarse, boastful manner and well-earned reputation for drunkenness. During the campaign, someone paints a caricature of him on “sundry walls” about the town of Greshamsbury, pictures in which a laborer “with a pimply, bloated face, was to be seen standing on a railway bank, leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand, while he invited a comrade to drink. ‘Come, Jack, shall us have a drop of some’at short?’ ” The working-class voters of the district, “somewhat given to have an opinion of their own,” relish Sir Roger’s rough, plainspoken ways. Still, he has his detractors: As the baronet stands up to make a speech, someone throws a dead cat at him.

I could go on, but the resemblance between particular current events and Trollope’s fiction is like the weather: However much it changes from day to day, in one form or another, it’s always there. His novels amount to a compendium of every recurring pattern of human behavior as observed by a wise, amused, and tenderly exacting deity. He sees all our little self-delusions and vanities, but he loves us just the same. In fact, sometime they make him love us more.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty of filming from such a perspective that makes top-notch movie and TV adaptations of Trollope’s work hard to come by. The new Amazon Prime miniseries based on Doctor Thorne, adapted and hosted by the oleaginous Julian Fellowes, is one of the worst. As Slate’s Willa Paskin has noted, Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal. Fellowes’ characters are forever yammering on about how “things are changing” in the class system they inhabit, but the shows themselves cling fetishistically to the past they pretend to critique, sighing over the chandeliers and ogling the ormolu.

This was all very well when, with Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, Fellowes stuck to his own material, but Trollope adaptations are so rare that for him to coat one of the divine Barsetshire novels in his distinctive brand of syrup seems especially unjust. Apart from some well-acted but languidly paced BBC adaptations from the 1970s, in recent years there have been respectable adaptations of The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, but these are two of Trollope’s more sour works. The Way We Live Now, in both its example and in the ambition suggested by its title, seems to have partially inspired the fat “social novels” of the 1990s, and it got mentioned a lot for its depiction of a Bernie Madoff–style financial scheme when that scandal was in the news. But, as Adam Gopnik noted last year in the New Yorker, The Way We Live Now is not typical: Rather, it’s “the Trollope novel for people who don’t like Trollope novels.”

There have been a lot of them. Trollope was popular in his lifetime, but for much of the 20th century, his fiction suffered critical and scholarly disdain. To the modernists intent on shaking off the conventions of Victorianism, he represented the epitome of that era, his serenely omniscient and ironic third-person narrator the essence of bogus authority. An autobiography published shortly after his death in 1882 revealed that Trollope thought of novel writing as more craft than art, and in James’ words, he “never troubled his head nor clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his business.” He is most famous among writers today for the regimen he described in that book: Rising before dawn and working for three full hours every day, even if that meant finishing one novel and starting the next because the allotted time hadn’t expired. Trollope had a day job with the postal service to get to, after all.

That prosaic approach didn’t jibe with the literary world’s efforts to transform the image of the novel in the 20th century. What had once been seen as a lucrative form of entertainment, produced for mostly middle-class and mostly female readers was recast as the highest pinnacle of the literary arts, the work of inspired geniuses answering the call of the muse rather than the landlord. So in the mid-20th century, the imperious critic F.R. Leavis, a loyal soldier in this project of solemnification, pronounced Trollope’s works as “beneath the realm of significant creative achievement” in terms of “the human awareness they promote, awareness of the possibilities of life.” (It’s no coincidence that the promulgation of this heroic notion of the novelist coincided with the rise of the idea that the greatest of novelists must be men, and even a male novelist like Trollope, with, as James put it, a “feminine” interest in the familiar and ordinary, was dismissed.) By the latter half of the century you could get through an entire undergraduate English program with a heavy emphasis on British literature, as I did, and never once be assigned a Trollope novel.

But a funny thing happened to Trollope on his way to the dustbin of history: His novels acquired an avid, amateur readership. It’s impossible to measure such things, of course, but he seems rivaled only by Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle among 19th-century authors with an active contemporary fan base. The Trollope Society of the U.K. maintains an extensive database of books, quotes, and characters—very useful given that quite a few characters appear in more than one novel. The U.S. branch of the society has paid membership, annual meetings, lectures, and regional reading groups.

The reasons for this have little to do the perfection of Trollope’s form or the vividness of his prose. Although he is Austen’s most direct literary descendent, he lacks her discipline, and his novels are notorious for their digressions on fox hunting and Tudor architecture. But his people! Trollope’s great strength lies in his immensely fertile gift for character. He created dozens of indelible fictional people, and among Trollopians you need only mention Mrs. Proudie or Glencora Palliser to elicit laughter or sighs. Even his relatively minor characters are sharply drawn and, unlike Dickens’, rarely caricatured. This is why Fellowes’ broad, sentimentalized adaptation, populated by people who seem lifted from a low-end high-school drama and jammed into corsets and top hats, is such a travesty.

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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Emperor of Nostalgia - Joseph Roth

At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.

The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found itself too weak to withstand the armies of Russia, Serbia, and Italy on its borders, and fell to pieces.

“Austro-Hungary is no more,” wrote Sigmund Freud to himself on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else…. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.” Freud spoke for many Jews of Austro-German culture. The dismemberment of the old empire, and the redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe to create new homelands based on ethnicity, worked to the detriment of Jews most of all, since there was no territory they could point to as ancestrally their own. The old supranational imperial state had suited them; the postwar settlement was a calamity. The first years of the new, stripped-down, barely viable Austrian state, with food shortages followed by levels of inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class and violence on the streets between paramilitary forces of left and right, only intensified their unease. Some began to look to Palestine as a national home; others turned to the supranational creed of communism.

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, a middle-sized city a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (known in Austria as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. Brody itself had been a center of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1890s, two thirds of its people were Jewish.

In German-speaking parts of the empire, Galician Jews were held in low esteem. As a young man making his way in Vienna, Roth played down his origins, claiming to have been born in Schwabendorf, a predominantly German town (this fiction appears in his official papers). His father, he claimed, had been (variously) a factory owner, an army officer, a high state official, a painter, a Polish aristocrat. In fact Nachum Roth worked in Brody as agent for a firm of German grain merchants. Moses Joseph never knew him: in 1893, shortly after his marriage, Nachum suffered a brainstorm of some kind on a train journey to Hamburg. He was taken to a sanatorium and from there passed into the hands of a wonder-working rabbi. He never recovered, never returned to Brody.

Moses Joseph was brought up by his mother in the home of her parents, prosperous assimilated Jews. He went to a Jewish community school where the language of instruction was German, then to the German-language gymnasium in Brody. Half his fellow students were Jewish: to young Jews from the East, a German education opened the doors to commerce and to the dominant culture.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at the University of Vienna. Vienna at this time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 souls living in what amounted to a ghetto of a voluntary kind. “It is hard enough being an Ostjude,” a Jew from the East, remarked Roth; but “there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.” Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews.

Roth was an outstanding student, particularly of German literature, though for the most part he looked down on his teachers, finding them servile and pedantic. This disdain is reflected in his early writings, in which the state-run education system appears as the preserve of careerists or else timid, uninspired plodders. He worked at a part-time job as a tutor to the young sons of a countess, and in the process picked up such dandyish mannerisms as kissing the hands of ladies, carrying a cane, wearing a monocle. He began to publish poems.

His education, which was leading him toward an academic career, was terminated by the war. Overcoming pacifist inclinations, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. Ethnic tensions ran high enough in the imperial army for him to be transferred out of a German-speaking unit; he spent 1917–1918 in a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia. His period of service became the subject of further fanciful stories, notably that he had been an officer and a prisoner of war in Russia. Years later he was still peppering his speech with officer-caste slang.

After the war Roth began to write for newspapers, and soon gained a following among the Viennese. Before the war Vienna had been the capital of a great empire; now it was an impoverished city of two million in a country of a bare seven million. Seeking better opportunities, Roth and his new wife, Friederike, moved to Berlin. There he wrote for liberal newspapers but also for the left-wing Vorwärts, signing his pieces “Der rote Joseph,” Joseph the Red. The first of his Zeitungromane, “newspaper novels,” came out, so called not only because they shared the themes of his journalism but also because he broke his text into short, snappy sections. The Spider’s Web (1923) deals presciently with the moral and spiritual menace of the fascist right. It appeared three days before Hitler’s first putsch.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The qualities of Robert Musil

“Why, then, aren’t we realists?” Ulrich asked himself. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their ideas and their conduct had long left no doubt of that; but they were nihilists and activists, sometimes one and sometimes the other, whichever happened to come up. —Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities 

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value. —Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

 The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880– 1942) occupies a peculiar position in the pantheon of great twentieth-century writers. He is admired by literati for a handful of astringent modernist fictions, especially for his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Bewilderments of the Schoolboy Törless). This brutal yet seductively introspective tale of adolescent cruelty and sexual exploitation at a German military boarding school was published to instant critical acclaim in 1906, when Musil was only twenty-six. (Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Törless was hailed as a prescient allegory of the spiritual deformations of the Nazi era.)

Musil’s play Die Schwärmer (1921, The Enthusiasts) explores that favored modern topic, the collapse of traditional bourgeois ideals; its taut language and intense dramatization won it the Kleist Prize in 1923 and, eventually, a regular spot in the German theatrical repertory. Drei Frauen (1924, Three Women), a celebrated suite of three novellas, plumbs the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence—one of Musil’s staple themes.

Then there are Musil’s essays, some of which are masterpieces of ironic cultural commentary. “Uber die Dummheit” (“On Stupidity”), a lecture that Musil delivered in Vienna in 1937, deserves special mention for its signal contemporary relevance. Particularly pertinent is its withering analysis of “the higher, pretentious form of stupidity” —the “real disease of culture,” in Musil’s opinion, which infiltrates even “the highest intellectual sphere” and has repercussions throughout society. “The examples,” he dryly notes, “are pretty blatant.” As indeed they are. Finally, some of Musil’s short prose pieces, collected in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author), rival Kafka’s fables in their vertiginous humor and enigmatic creepiness.

All of Musil’s works (the German edition of which runs to nine volumes) have their partisans and admirers. But for most of us, Robert Musil is first and foremost the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities), a book in which the major themes of his earlier works coalesce to form a novelistic tapestry of extraordinary wit, complexity, and intelligence.

It is worth stressing the wit. The Man Without Qualities, the book upon which Musil’s claim to greatness chiefly rests, is regularly cited alongside Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler as a triumph of high modernism. Like those other novels, The Man Without Qualities is a book of weighty seriousness and deep erudition. It is also, in parts, an exceptionally funny book. Few readers with any sympathy for Musil’s writing will be able to read far without laughing aloud, at least as they make their way through the first volume. Whatever else one can say about it, The Man Without Qualities stands as one of the great modern works of satire.

Set in Vienna in 1913, it depicts a world on the edge of a precipice—the moral, cultural, political precipice that was to give way to the abyss of World War I the following year. But it turns out that, in Musil’s hands, peregrinations at the brink of disaster are as amusing as they are poignant; and Musil’s man without qualities—a gifted, amoral, concupiscent mathematician of good family named Ulrich—is one of the most engaging comic anti-heroes in modern fiction.

It almost goes without saying that The Man Without Qualities is a peculiar book, or set of books. Like the other great novels just mentioned, it is monumental—in its literary ambition, its intellectual sophistication, and, not least, in its length. Certainly, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Musil began working on The Man Without Qualities in 1924. He published the first volume—some thousand pages—in 1930, and the first part of the second volume in 1933 (for which he was awarded that year’s Goethe Prize).

Under pressure from his publisher, who had been steadily advancing him money for years, Musil reluctantly began preparing the second part of the second volume for publication in the late 1930s. By then, Musil and his wife Martha, a painter whose parents were assimilated Jews, were living in penurious exile from the Nazis in Switzerland. An energetic (not to say fanatical) rewriter— a literary perfectionist, really—Musil had retrieved the galleys from the printer and was in the process of extensively reworking them when, in April 1942 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Apparently, he succumbed while performing his morning gymnastics (another activity to which he was fanatically devoted). According to his widow, who found him a short while later, the look on his face was one of “mockery and mild astonishment.”

We really have no idea how Musil intended to end The Man Without Qualities. Probably, the last section would have been titled “A Sort of Ending” to mirror the opening sequence, “A Sort of Introduction.” He once said that he wanted to conclude the book in the middle of a sentence, with a comma. Be that as it may, in addition to the twenty chapters in half-corrected galley proof, there exist dozens of draft chapters as well as voluminous notes, character sketches, alternative chapters, and miscellaneous jottings related to the book. Musil’s widow published the second part of the second volume in 1943. The “complete” German edition of this incomplete novel was published in 1951.

The first English translation of The Man Without Qualities was by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, who also collaborated on translations of Törless and some of Musil’s stories. Published in three volumes from 1954 to 1960, this edition included all of the novel that Musil published during his lifetime (all of volume one and the first thirty-eight chapters of volume two). A projected fourth volume was to contain the posthumously published chapters and notes. Although incomplete, the Wilkins–Kaiser translation remains a sound introduction to The Man Without Qualities: the translation is fluent, and a prefatory essay provides an excellent précis of Musil’s career.

The one clear advantage of the new, two-volume translation of The Man Without Qualities[1] by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is that it contains Musil’s posthumously published chapters. It also contains several hundred pages of Musil’s notes, sketches, and alternative versions of chapters. While some of this material will interest readers of the novel (as distinct from those who prefer to dissect it), much of it will command the attention only of Musil specialists. It must be said, too, that shoe-horning all of this material into only two volumes has bloated the second volume to tumid, phone-book proportions: a pity, not only because it makes the book difficult to handle, but also because it seems unfair to the striking and elegant jacket design that Knopf provided.

In an afterword, Burton Pike tells us that “the translator’s intention was to have the writing startle the reader in English in the same way it startles a reader in German.” In the event, he and his co-translator have produced a version of the novel that is generally a bit more literal than the previous translation; whether it is always quite as readable is another question. It is perhaps an improvement to translate “Haus und Wohnung des Mannes ohne Eigenschaften” as “House and home of the man without qualities” (Wilkins–Pike) instead of “Abode of the Man Without Qualities” (Wilkins– Kaiser); or to render “ein leichter Geruch von verbranntem Pferdehaar” as “a whiff of burnt horsehair” (W–P) rather than “a faint whiff of brimstone” (W–K)—though given the presence of the devil in the previous clause, there is surely something to be said for “brimstone.”

In any event, other decisions in the new translation are more dubious. For example, Wilkins–Kaiser translated the second part of the first volume, “Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.” If nothing else, this does have the advantage of more or less accurately rendering the German. The Wilkins–Pike alternative— “Pseudoreality Prevails”—may indeed fulfill Mr. Pike’s ambition to “startle the reader.” The problem is that it would probably have startled the author as well: presumably, if Musil had wanted “Pseudoreality Prevails” he would have written it.

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Monday, 22 August 2016

Thomas Hardy: A Broken Appointment

You did not come, 
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,— 
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there 
Than that I thus found lacking in your make 
That high compassion which can overbear 
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake 
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum, 
You did not come. 

You love not me, 
And love alone can lend you loyalty; 
–I know and knew it. But, unto the store 
Of human deeds divine in all but name, 
Was it not worth a little hour or more 
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came 
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be 
You love not me?