Sunday, 7 February 2016

Delusions of Candor - How will we remember Gore Vidal?

In October of 1975, dining in Rome, Gore Vidal told his new friend the novelist Michael Mewshaw that Françoise Sagan was “a magnum of pure ether.” He didn’t stop to clarify, but rigor was beside the point; the Vidalian bon mot was about the speaker, not about the subject. In the course of more than half a century, his quips, aphorisms, insults, and punch lines amounted to a self-portrait, airbrushed so as to highlight his favorite warts: Olympian detachment, patrician hauteur.

It was an act, a put-on—perhaps the most effective double bluff in the history of literary P.R. In 1977, after visiting Vidal at his cliff-perched villa on the Amalfi Coast, Martin Amis observed that “he has little of the paranoia worryingly frequent among well-known writers.” Norman Mailer had been onto something, Amis concluded, when he said that “Vidal lacks the wound.”

“My God,” Vidal told Amis, “what a lucky life.” The official story, as set down in Vidal’s memoirs and essays, and in hundreds of reviews, profiles, and, finally, in his obituaries—he died in 2012—went like this: grandson of Thomas P. Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, son of Gene Vidal, a high-school football star whose exploits as an aviation pioneer landed him on the cover of Time, he was born in 1925, at West Point, grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied at Exeter. If asked about his mother, Nina Gore, who had swapped family life for a succession of boyfriends and husbands, Vidal would explain that her desertion—and her alcoholism, and her sexual confessions—hadn’t really bothered him. (A reporter bold enough to press the subject would be silenced with a reference to Freudian quackery.)

At seventeen, Vidal would explain, he “quit schooling” for good and enlisted in the Army, served as first mate on a supply ship in the Aleutian Islands, and then—almost by accident, virtually without sweat, and for the simple reason that he could—became a novelist (“Julian,” “Myra Breckinridge,” “Burr,” “Creation”), essayist (“Homage to Daniel Shays,” “The Hacks of Academe”), playwright (“Visit to a Small Planet,” “The Best Man”), screenwriter (“Ben-Hur”), politician (valiant failed campaigns for Congress, in New York, and for the Senate, in California), actor (“Bob Roberts,” “Gattaca,” “Igby Goes Down”), steel-chinned prime-time brawler (points victories over Buckley in 1968 and Mailer in 1971), and friend to everyone worth knowing (Greta, Tennessee, Eleanor, Orson, Mick, Sting). Yet he remained immune to the seductions of celebrity and clear-eyed about the workings of power. Stepbrother of a sort to Jacqueline Bouvier, he had been a welcome guest at Hyannis Port and the White House until he grew bored with the whole thing and unmasked Bobby Kennedy (notable for his “vindictiveness” and “simple-mindedness about human motives”) in his essay “The Best Man, 1968” and then the Kennedy courtiers in “The Holy Family” and “The Manchester Book.” Later efforts in this truth-to-power vein had titles like “Shredding the Bill of Rights,” “State of the Union, 1975” (it wasn’t good), “State of the Union, 1980” (worse), and “State of the Union, 2004” (don’t ask).

And while his contemporaries—as speared in his essay “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction”—nervously tracked their positions on the New York literary stock exchange, Vidal lived in regal exile with his partner, Howard Austen, quite impervious to what anyone thought about his writing, his quoted comments, or his sexual proclivities. The one sign of human frailty was his insistence that the hordes of visiting photographers favor his “good” side, the left.

This was the figure known to most, but not to all. At the end of the war, Warrant Officer Vidal was stationed at Mitchel Field, on Long Island, and working part time for the publisher E. P. Dutton. He came into the city whenever he could. On a Sunday in November of 1945, he attended a lecture on love at the Ninety-second Street Y. It was here that he met Anaïs Nin.

Born in France to Cuban parents, Nin, who was forty-two, was writing fiction alongside a diary that she would one day publish. “He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines,” Nin wrote, after Vidal paid a visit to her studio. “He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures.” He is also “lonely,” “hypersensitive,” “insecure.” When Vidal opened up to her—“He dropped his armor, his defenses”—it was not to talk about his grandfather the senator or his father the aviator but his mother the deserter. “Psychologically,” Nin wrote, “he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children.”

At first, Vidal was thrilled by the connection. Returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., he told her, “You have cast a spell on me. What I once accepted, I now do not like. I found my grandfather, the senator, boring.” But the spell soon wore off. In March of 1946, Vidal invited Nin to a dinner at the PEN Club. “Was shocked by the mediocrity of the talks,” she wrote. “A ‘literary’ world so thoroughly political, intriguing, and commercial, but a world Gore intends to conquer.” The next month, she writes, “Gore in the world is another Gore. He is insatiable for power. He needs to conquer, to shine, to dominate.” In November, she notes that Vidal’s letters—he had then retreated to write in a Guatemalan monastery that he had acquired for a pittance—“sound attenuated, diminished, dulled. Lack of faith, of responsiveness to surroundings and people. A blight.” By December, she admits defeat: “Whatever Gore was with me, whatever side he showed me, was not the one he was to show in his life and in his work.”

“The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Four: 1944-1947” was published in 1971, and Nin’s use of the past tense carries a hint of retrospect, as if she were taking account of later developments. In 1970, the composer Ned Rorem, another diarist friend, described the “cynical stance” that Vidal had perfected over the previous quarter century: “Those steely epigrams summing up all subjects resemble the bars of a cage through which he peers defensively. ‘It’s not that love’s a farce—it doesn’t exist.’ . . . Rather than risk being called a softy, he affects a pose of weariness.”

Jay Parini, in his authorized biography, “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal” (Doubleday), wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose. Although Parini exhibits some skepticism toward his subject, and notices that Vidal’s claim of indifference to the world’s opinion was at odds with the many framed magazine covers and threats of libel suits, he begins each chapter with an epigraph culled from Vidal’s table talk and publicity spiel. When it comes to telling the story of the life, Parini proves content to deliver the strapping, self-assured, untouchable Vidal, the builder and overseer of a well-protected, many-colonied “empire of self”—a phrase repeated throughout the book, in a dizzying range of connections.

As Parini approaches Vidal’s later years, his defensive instincts go into overdrive. He praises an essay on John Updike—ten thousand words of ill-argued bile—as “a kind of cultural service,” and declares Vidal “more relevant than ever” in the years after 9/11, when he was in the habit of writing things like: “The unlovely Osama was chosen on aesthetic grounds to be the frightening logo for our long-contemplated invasion and conquest of Afghanistan.”

Vidal is the book’s leading witness, though not a reliable one; his testimony is undermined by what the novelist Adam Mars-Jones called “delusions of candour,” and possibly by delusions of a different sort. Though Parini believes that Vidal gave more interviews than any writer “in the history of literature,” his notes, which are far from comprehensive, contain thirty references to interviews conducted when his subject was in his eighties. Five of the conversations took place in 2010, the year that Vidal began to suffer the effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or “wet brain,” which Parini calls “a stage in alcoholism when the drinker begins to lose touch with reality.”

The underlying problem is a lack of distance. Parini met Vidal in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and the two became great friends. They spoke on the phone every week—“for periods on a daily basis”—and spent time together in a dozen cities. Parini cannot resist playing Boswell any more than he can resist making the Boswell comparison, and it has a damaging effect on his role as biographer. A sentence from a passage ostensibly dealing with the early days of Vidal’s relationship with Austen, whom he met in 1950, begins, “A key memory of their relationship (for me) dates to the late eighties.” It seems unlikely that Vidal would have become the subject of one of Parini’s books—alongside Melville, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Jesus—if not for the personal connection.

Yet it would be hard to imagine a less intimate biography. Parini loved spending time with the worldly, woundless Vidal, and he seems eager to perpetuate Vidal’s myths about himself. In a letter from the late forties, Vidal wrote that psychoanalysis is “quite a frightening experience,” and that “it’s not a pleasant thing to see oneself.” But when Vidal tells Parini that his experience of therapy failed because “I have no unconscious,” the biographer doesn’t pause to comment.

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

Jacques Prévert: Breakfast

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He added the sugar
To the coffee and milk
He stirred it
With a teaspoon
He drank the coffee
And put back the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit a cigarette
He blew some rings
With the smoke
He flicked the ashes
Into the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put his hat
On his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
He went out
Into the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And I
I took my head
In my hands
And I wept

Copyright (c) 1997 by Alastair Campbell

'Pearl Buck In China': A Child Across The Good Earth

Ever since her 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read — either in the West, or in China) that's come to fascinate readers.

The big shift was set in motion almost 15 years ago, when literary scholar Peter Conn lifted Buck out of mid-cult obscurity in his monumental biography called, simply, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Now, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has made a case for a reappraisal of Buck's fiction and her life. Spurling claims that Buck had a "magic power — possessed by all truly phenomenal best-selling authors — to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination."

Spurling's book is called Pearl Buck in China, and after reading it, I've been motivated to dust off my junior high copy of The Good Earth and move it to the top of my "must read again someday" pile. Following Conn's lead, Spurling further succeeds in making Buck herself a compelling figure, transforming her from dreary "lady author" into woman warrior.

Spurling's biography focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese childhood, as the daughter of zealous Christian missionaries, and young adulthood, as the unhappy wife of an agricultural reformer based in an outlying area of Shanghai. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in 1892 and, from her earliest days, she was much more than a cultural tourist. She roamed freely around the Chinese countryside, where she would often come upon the remains of abandoned baby girls, left for the village dogs, and she would bury them. Buck's first language was everyday Chinese, and she grew up listening to village gossip and reading Chinese popular novels, like The Dream of The Red Chamber, which were considered sensational by intellectuals, as her own later novels would be.

Buck's father, Absalom, was often away, traveling over his mission field (an area as big as Texas), preaching blood-and-thunder sermons to often hostile Chinese passersby. After the first "ten years he had spent in China," Spurling tells us, "[Absalom] had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts." The young Buck and her family lived at subsistence level in houses that were little more than shacks and apartments on streets thronged with bars and bordellos. They managed to survive the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent violence that heralded the advance of the Chinese Nationalists.

By the time she arrived as a charity student at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, Buck was indelibly alienated from her American counterparts. "Girls came in groups to stare at me," wrote Buck, remembering her first harsh college days some 50 years later. She was set apart not only by her out-of-date clothes made by a Chinese tailor, but also by her extraordinary life experiences, which encompassed firsthand knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery.

As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one world to another. Buck's unconventional childhood also seems to have made her resistant to group think: In midlife, as a famous novelist, she made enemies criticizing the racism of the mission movement; she also shocked contemporaries by writing in her memoir, The Child Who Never Grew, about her brain-damaged daughter Carol, at a time when such children were quietly institutionalized and publicly forgotten.

Spurling quotes liberally from some of Buck's domestic novels, which defied the mores of her time by depicting sexual despair and physical revulsion within marriage. And, finally, she earned herself no points with China's new leaders when she likened the zealotry of communism to that of her father and his missionary colleagues. Writing in 1954 about an encounter with a breathless Chinese communist woman, Buck said: "And in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension."

Pearl Buck in China, similarly, rescues Buck and some of her best books from the "stink" of literary condescension and replaces that knee-jerk critical response with curiosity.

Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories. "We looked out over the paddy fields and the thatched roofs of the farmers in the valley, and in the distance a slender pagoda seemed to hang against the bamboo on a hillside," Pearl wrote, describing a storytelling session on the veranda of the family house above the Yangtse River. "But we saw none of these." What they saw was America, a strange, dreamlike, alien homeland where they had never set foot. The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. "These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me," she said.

Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. "I spoke Chinese first, and more easily," she said. "If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia…. I did not consider myself a white person in those days." Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.

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Confucius Comes Home

In my fifth year in Beijing, I moved into a one-story brick house beside the Confucius Temple, a seven-hundred-year-old shrine to China’s most important philosopher. The temple, which shared a wall with my kitchen, was silent. It had gnarled cypress trees and a wooden pavilion that loomed above my roof like a conscience. In the mornings, I took a cup of coffee outside and listened to the wakeup sounds next door: the brush of a broom across the flagstones, the squeak of a faucet, the hectoring of the magpies overhead.

It was a small miracle that the shrine had survived. Confucius, who was born in the sixth century B.C., traditionally had a stature in China akin to that of Socrates in the West. He stressed compassion, ritual, and duty. “There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son,” Confucius said. Chairman Mao believed in “permanent revolution,” and when the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966, he exhorted young Red Guards to “Smash the Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Zealots denounced Confucius for fostering “bad elements, rightists, monsters, and freaks,” and one of Mao’s lieutenants gave the approval to dig up his grave. Hundreds of temples were destroyed. By the nineteen-eighties, Confucianism was so maligned that the historian Yu Ying-shih called it a “wandering soul.”

In September, 2010, nine months after I moved in, I was at my desk one morning when I heard a loudspeaker crackle to life inside the temple. A booming voice was followed by the sound of a heavy bell, then drums and a flute, and the recitation of passages from writings by Confucius and other ancient masters. The performance lasted twenty minutes. An hour later, it was repeated, and an hour after that, and again the next day.

The wandering soul, in one form or another, has been stirring. As China undergoes an economic transformation ten times the speed of the first industrial revolution, people are turning to ancient ideas for a connection to the past. The classics have become such reliable best-sellers that, in 2009, the company behind National Studies Web, a site that sells digitized Confucian texts, went public on the Shenzhen stock exchange. To appeal to entrepreneurs, Peking University and other respected schools created mid-career courses that promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in the classics.

Confucianism has no priesthood or rites of conversion, and is not generally considered a religion, but new members of China’s middle class regard an interest in philosophy and history as a mark of cultivation and cultural nationalism. Parents have enrolled their children at private Confucian academies; I visited a weekend school where children aged three to thirteen were learning the classics by rote, reciting each passage six hundred times. Around the country, Chinese tourists flocked to the surviving Confucius Temples, where they filled out prayer cards. “The overwhelming number are about exams,” Anna Sun, a sociologist at Kenyon College, who studied the cards, told me. “They are primarily wishes for the college entrance exam, but also the TOEFL, the G.R.E., law school.”

It would have been anathema to Chairman Mao, but his heirs have changed their view on revolution. In the eighties, when China set itself in pursuit of prosperity, the Party studied how Confucian values had helped to stabilize other countries in East Asia. Generations of Chinese thinkers had dreamed of finding the optimal recipe for “national studies”—the mixture of philosophy and history that might insulate China from the pressures of Westernization. After the democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a violent crackdown, leaders needed an indigenous ideology that might restore the Party’s moral credibility. Top Communists gave speeches at meetings devoted to Confucianism, and state television launched a series about traditional culture intended, it said, “to boost the people’s self-confidence, self-respect, and patriotic thought.” In 2002, the Party officially stopped calling itself a “revolutionary party” and adopted the term “Party in Power.” The Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, declared, “Unity and stability are really more important than anything else.” In February, 2005, the Party chief, Hu Jintao, quoted Confucius’ observation that “harmony is something to be cherished.”

Soon, “harmony” was on billboards and in television commercials and intoned by apparatchiks. In 2006, a team of government-backed historians marked Confucius’ 2,557th birthday by unveiling what they called a “standardized” portrait: a kindly old figure with a luxuriant beard, his hands crossed at his chest. The Chinese Association for the Study of Confucius, supported by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, introduced traditions that had never existed before. It arranged for couples to renew their wedding vows in front of a statue of the sage.

As a gentler alternative to Mao, Confucius has been enlisted as an avatar on the world stage. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics made no mention of the Chairman but featured recurring references to harmony and to the classic texts. In the past decade, China has opened more than four hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach language, culture, and history. Many universities have welcomed them; the program provides teaching materials and cash. (Some scholars have complained that the institutes seek to limit expression. In July, McMaster University, in Canada, closed its Confucius Institute after a teacher complained that she had been prevented from practicing Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.)

The Confucian revival has been especially visible in the city of Qufu, the sage’s home town, in present-day Shandong Province. In 2007, the city’s International Confucius Festival was co-sponsored by the Confucius Wine Company. Thousands of people filled a local stadium, giant balloons bearing the names of ancient scholars bobbed overhead, and a Korean pop star performed in an abbreviated outfit. Near the cave where Confucius was said to have been born, a five-hundred-million-dollar museum-and-park complex is under construction; it includes a statue of Confucius that is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In its marketing, Qufu has adopted comparisons to Jerusalem and Mecca and calls itself “The Holy City of the Orient.” Last year, it received 4.4 million visitors, surpassing the number of people who visited Israel.

No one has harnessed the interest in Confucius more successfully than Yu Dan, a professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University. She presented a popular series of lectures on state television and wrote a book, “Confucius from the Heart” (2006), that is said to have sold ten million copies. Today, she occupies a position in Chinese pop culture somewhere between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Dr. Phil. She plays down themes that irritate modern readers—such as Confucius’ observation that “women and small people are hard to deal with”—and writes, reassuringly, “The truths that Confucius gives us are always the easiest of truths.” Scholars mock her work—one critic attended book signings in a T-shirt that read “Confucius is deeply worried”—but within a year Yu became the second-highest-paid author in China, after Guo Jingming, a writer of young-adult fiction who travelled with guards to hold back the crowds.

At Yu Dan’s headquarters in Beijing, a suite of offices on a high floor at the edge of the campus, her assistant ushered me into a modern conference room. Yu Dan arrived, smiling broadly, and asked the assistant to prepare tea. Yu Dan, who is in her late forties, has high cheekbones and a short, severe haircut. I asked what prompted her to embrace the classics. She said that, like others her age, she had grown up denouncing the ancient scriptures. “When I began writing ‘Confucius from the Heart,’ a lot of people asked me, ‘Why are you writing this?’ And I said, ‘I am atoning for the crimes of my generation, because we were young and we criticized him mercilessly.’ ”

She paused, and turned her attention to the assistant, a graduate student. “Child, how could you be so stupid!” Yu said. “This tea has been steeping for too long!” She looked at me, and the smile returned. “Children today do not know how to host people,” she said. After Yu became popular, the Party invited her to conferences, and she began presenting her readings of the classics in a political context. “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do,” she told me, adding, “We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens.”

Confucius—or Kongzi, which means Master Kong—was not born to power, but his idiosyncrasies and ideas made him the Zelig of the Chinese classics. His story runs through the ancient books—the Analects, Zuozhuan, Mengzi, the Records of the Grand Historian—with details that range from historical to mythical. His father, Shuliang He, was an aging warrior—physically enormous and famously ugly—who was desperate for a healthy son. When he was in his seventies, he found a teen-age concubine, and they had a son, in 551 B.C. The baby, like his father, was unsightly, with a crooked nose and a bulbous forehead so peculiar that he was given the name Qiu, meaning “mound.” (Admirers insisted that his head resembled a crown.)

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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A protest against reality: the life and afterlife of Bruno Schulz

David Grossman, Roberto Bolaño, Danilo Kiš, Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, China Miéville, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth and Nicole Krauss... This is not a fantasy Hay Festival line-up but a roster of authors who have used either the fiction or the life of Bruno Schulz in their books. Now the German Maxim Biller has joined them and the title of his novella Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz (published alongside two of Schulz’s own stories) will provoke a response from anyone familiar with Schulz’s uniquely striking work: how do you presume to get inside a head that generated such profoundly strange ideas?

These were ideas as strange as years that, “like a sixth, smallest toe, grow a 13th freak month”; houses that spontaneously seal up unvisited bedrooms and passageways; a boy’s father transforming into a crab and his uncle into a length of tubing (“Can there be anything sadder than a human being changed into the rubber tube of an enema?”). Schulz’s fiction is a protest against reality, an extended attempt to return to “the age of genius”, which is partly his own childhood and partly something “on a level above chronology”: a mythic age. Yet, for all its fanciful metamorphoses, Schulz’s work, as V S Pritchett pointed out, has “not a touch of whimsy in it”. It is as often seedy as it is mystical and if it catalogues a series of escapes from reality into the exciting realm of myth, the fantasies we enter are usually an uneasy mixture of amazement and threat. Sooner or later, reality always returns to foreclose on every too-ambitious dream.

Biller’s novella, like Schulz’s work, operates on multiple levels. We join Bruno sitting in a dank basement in the provincial Polish town of Drohobycz, on a November day in 1938, writing a letter to Thomas Mann. He experiences hallucinations, including the transformation of boys tapping on the basement window into birds (of the many animals in Schulz’s fiction, birds are primary). Bruno is also writing an account of a recent arrival to Drohobycz who claims to be Thomas Mann; Biller thus embeds a literary impersonation within a literary impersonation. This strand appears to be a fiction that Bruno is creating, not least because the impostor interacts with his dead brother-in-law Jankel Hoffman, who killed himself in 1910 (although Biller, for unexplained reasons, moves his suicide to 1928).

Like the real Schulz, Biller’s version teaches art at a secondary school in Drohobycz. “Fate tied Bruno Schulz for his entire life to Drohobycz,” wrote his biographer Jerzy Ficowski. Biller’s Bruno is so acquainted with “Fear” that it appears as a proper noun and the real Schulz was also a nervous and self-effacing man: “Appearing too scared to dare exist, he was rejected by life and slouched along its peripheries,” Witold Gombrowicz, Schulz’s contemporary in the Polish avant-garde, later recalled. While Schulz made attempts to escape Drohobycz – to Lviv, Vienna and Warsaw – some form of lassitude, likely derived from fear, always defeated him.

If Drohobycz was Schulz’s prison, however, it was also the staging ground for his transformation of reality. All of the stories in his two collections, Cinnamon Shops (1934, published in English as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937, although portions of it pre-date his debut), both translated by Celina Wieniewska, take place there. Despite the enthusiastic reception that the books enjoyed, he remained in Drohobycz, unmarried, frustrated and unhappy, struggling to support his mother, his widowed and mentally disturbed sister and her depressive son. And it is there that he died in November 1942, shot in the street during a so-called wild action against the Jewish population. The story goes that he was the “house Jew”, or slave, of the Gestapo Hauptscharführer Felix Landau, ordered to paint fairy-tale scenes on the walls of the Nazi’s child’s nursery. When Landau killed another officer’s Jewish dentist, Schulz was murdered in reply. “You killed my Jew – I killed yours,” his murderer told Landau. (It should be noted that David Grossman, who made a slightly altered version of this story the centrepiece of his 1986 novel See Under: Love, now suspects that the story is false and that Schulz’s murder was random.)

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Monday, 1 February 2016

Design for Living - What’s great about Goethe?

In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.

Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-­language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”

Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution.

One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.

Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims: 

Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though, Rosebud in the heather!” 
Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so 
That there’s no forgetting, no! 
I’ll not stand it, ever!” 

Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.

English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.

This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.

The key to Goethe is that the spiritual “healthiness” so disliked by Eliot was not that of a man with a perfect constitution but that of a recovered invalid. He knew the “weakness” that Arnold described all too well. Goethe’s early life was a privileged one—he was the only surviving son of a prosperous bourgeois family in Frankfurt—and as a young man he teetered on the brink of waywardness. Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer’

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

In a sense, I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

In my case, there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it or even write it. As a result, I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.

As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met (on a trip to Florence with my sister in 1994), Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.

How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

I buy a book. It’s called Teach Yourself Italian. An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.

Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorise some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.

I attend elementary courses. The first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel La ciociara (Two Women), I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.

In the spring of 2000, six years after my trip to Florence, I go to Venice. In addition to the dictionary, I take a notebook and on the last page I write down phrases that might be useful: Saprebbe dirmi? Dove si trova? Come si fa per andare? – Could you tell me? Where is? How does one get to? I recall the difference between buono and bello. I feel prepared. In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wake-up call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language.

A few months later, I receive an invitation to the Mantua literary festival. There, I meet my first Italian publishers. One of them is also my translator. Their names are Marco and Claudia.

Marco and Claudia give me the key. When I mention that I’ve studied some Italian, and that I would like to improve it, they stop speaking to me in English. They switch to their language, although I’m able to respond only in a very simple way.

They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. Thanks to them, I finally find myself inside the language.

Returning to America, I want to go on speaking Italian. But with whom? I know some people in New York who speak it perfectly. I’m embarrassed to talk to them. I need someone with whom I can struggle and fail.

One day, I go to the Casa Italiana at New York University to interview a famous Roman writer, a woman, who has won the Strega prize. I am in an overcrowded room, where everyone but me speaks an impeccable Italian. The director of the institute greets me. I tell him I would have liked to do the interview in Italian. That I studied the language years ago but I can’t speak well.

“Need practising,” I say. “You need practice,” he answers kindly.

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