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Super Goethe

Herr Glaser of Stützerbach was proud of the life-sized oil portrait of himself that hung above his dining table. The corpulent merchant was even prouder to show it off to the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar and his new privy councilor, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. While Glaser was out of the room, the privy councilor took a knife, cut the face out of the canvas, and stuck his own head through the hole. With his powdered wig, his burning black eyes, his bulbous forehead, and his cheeks pitted with smallpox, Goethe must have been a terrifying spectacle. While he was cutting up his host’s portrait, the duke’s other hangers-on were taking Glaser’s precious barrels of wine and tobacco from his cellar and rolling them down the mountain outside. Goethe wrote in his diary: “Teased Glaser shamefully. Fantastic fun till 1 am. Slept well.”

Goethe’s company could be exhausting. One minute he would be reciting Scottish ballads, quoting long snatches from Voltaire, or declaiming a love poem he had just made up…

Author of Himself - Evelyn Waugh

Some of the most incongruous moments in literature come when the fancifully extravagant collides head on with the soberly punctilious, and brightly coloured butterflies are plucked out of the sky to be broken on pedagogy’s slowly turning wheel. John Gross once suggested that the idea of a graduate seminar on the novels of Ronald Firbank would itself be Firbankian – a net flung over soap bubbles, a nail hammered through gossamer threads, or rather, in strict procedural terms, an attempt to interpret something that can occasionally seem to be written only to defy interpretation. Much the same, you suspect, can be said of Evelyn Waugh (1903–66). The appearance of his collected works, monumentally assembled in forty-three stout hardback volumes at £65 apiece, offers the same bewildering spectacle of scholarship running amok through material that, in the majority of cases, was expressly designed to keep scholarship at bay. None of this, naturally, is to disparage the work of the series’ ge…

The Poet of Ill Tidings - Bertolt Brecht

Although far better known internationally as a playwright than as a poet, Bertolt Brecht had a supreme gift for language. He applied much of the same plucky, rebellious spirit to his poems that he did to his world-class theater productions of the late Weimar years, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht began publishing his poetry as a teen, around the same time that Germany was gearing up for the First World War. By the 1930s, his work had taken on a decidedly anti-Nazi bent. In 1937, while exiled in Svendborg, Denmark, Brecht produced a cycle of unrhymed epigrams that he called Deutsche Kriegsfibel (German War Primer), which he published in the Moscow-based German monthly Das Wort and later included in his Svendborg Poems. Brecht’s frequent collaborator from his Weimar years, the composer Hanns Eisler—who, in American exile, would furnish the score for the anti-Nazi Hollywood film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), co-written by Brecht and dire…

Temporary king - Anthony Powell

Rather more than halfway through Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, at the beginning of the cold winter of 1946–7, we find Powell and his wife Violet freezing in London, grateful for the ham sent to them as a gift by their friend the writer Malcolm Muggeridge – who has gone to America on a journalistic assignment – and spending a lot of their time with their other close writer-friend, George Orwell. All three men read one another’s work as it was being written, offering judgements and encouragement. For some time, the friendship was a sort of triumvirate.

Muggeridge, who during his days as a television pundit became far more famous – in Britain, anyway – than either of the other two, is now an extinct comet, all but unheard of. Orwell’s immortality in the history of literature seems assured, though at this stage, Powell was trying to allay his disappointment over the fact that Animal Farm had “made no great impression on the general public”, as Spurling puts it. What of Pow…

Milton’s Satan and the struggle for power

Just over 350 years ago (on October 10, 1667, to be precise), the poet and MP John Denham went into the House of Commons “one Morning with a Sheet, Wet from the Press, in his hand”. Asked “What have you there, Sir John?”, he replied, “Part of the Noblest Poem that ever was Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age”. This encounter, recorded by Jonathan Richardson in 1734, supplies a possible publication date for a poem which would become one of the most important in English: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Milton’s name was already well-known. He was the controversial blind man who publicly advocated the execution of King Charles I in 1649 before serving in Oliver Cromwell’s republican government. Milton also spoke out against the Catholic Church, didn’t believe in the Trinity and had written pamphlets about the merits of divorce. His anti-monarchical stance didn’t prevent Denham, a lifelong royalist, from praising the poem. But Milton wrote Paradise Lost (dictating it, since he had become com…

Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell

Why is it always Orwell o’clock? Why is everything mildly unpleasant about government instantly Orwellian? Why is every banal propaganda effort obviously 1984 sprung to life? Why is it all as crushingly predictable as the Orwell Prize, the outstandingly foreseeable new Churchill And Orwell double biography, and now a new life-size bronze Orwell statue outside the BBC?

There is a simplicity and a clarity to Orwell’s prose. It flows nicely. But there is also nothing special about it other than the fact it has been canonised as the ultimate in English authorial excellence.

This is still very much a surprise to me, because there is just so much wrong with it. Are the violent caricatures of Jews in Down And Out In Paris And London really defending the downtrodden in 1933? Are the rantings (against amongst others, vegetarians) in The Road To Wigan Pier even coherent? Were the baying hysterical yellow people forcing a European into Shooting An Elephant really an appropriate metaphor for colon…

Søren Kierkegaard

I fell for Søren Kierkegaard as a teenager, and he has accompanied me on my intellectual travels ever since, not so much side by side as always a few steps ahead or lurking out of sight just behind me. Perhaps that’s because he does not mix well with the other companions I’ve kept. I studied in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of philosophy, where the literary flourishes and wilful paradoxes of continental existentialists are viewed with anything from suspicion to outright disdain. In Paris, Roland Barthes might have proclaimed the death of the author, but in London the philosopher had been lifeless for years, as anonymous as possible so that the arguments could speak for themselves. 

Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It’s a strange word to use for a thinker…