Posts

The Tragic Sense- Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) remains the greatest English language novelist since Charles Dickens, and many of the best writers of the 20th century, including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, paid homage to his excellence or came under his influence. And as one learns from the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Conrad was a hero to William Faulkner, André Gide, and Thomas Mann. What’s more, “He has turned up in the pages of Latin American writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. He’s been cited as an influence by Robert Stone, Joan Didon, Philip Roth, and Ann Patchett; by W.G. Sebald and John le Carré.”

A Pole by birth, for 20 years a merchant seaman by profession, a late-blooming novelist for whom English was his third language (after French and his native Polish), a spinner of yarns about seafaring ordeals and romances with dusky beauties, Conrad has be…

Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom

The most original, radical and controversial of all early modern philosophers was born in Amsterdam in 1632. Bento de Spinoza was the middle son of one of the many families of Portuguese origin who, as Judaizing “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition, had settled in that tolerant Dutch city in the early decades of the century. He was raised and educated in an open (and non-ghettoized) Jewish community – quite rare in the seventeenth century – and entered the family’s importing business (dealing in dried fruit and nuts) after his father’s death in 1654. Bento (he would have been called “Baruch” in the synagogue – both names mean “blessed”) was, at this time and to all appearances, an upstanding member of the Sephardic congregation.

And yet, by the summer of 1656, something had changed. On July 27 that year, the following proclamation was issued by the parnassim (directors) sitting on the ma’amad (governing board) of Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation:

The Senhores of the ma‘amad make it …

Was Jane Eyre Written as a Secret Love letter?

In the summer of 1846 Charlotte Brontë faced two crises. Both she wished to keep secret.

First: due to cataracts, her father was going blind. Why was this so calamitous?

As a Church of England parish priest Patrick Brontë enjoyed a small but permanent income, a large rectory that was home for his children, sister-in-law, and servants, and the social status that made him a leader in his community.

His children, now all adults, had enjoyed a happy and secure childhood living in the Haworth parsonage. Crucial to all four had been the constant writing of fiction and poetry. Virtually all of it remained unpublished. When they reached maturity, it was time for the young Brontës to find work to help support the family. In this they failed. Charlotte, when she was 19, and Anne, when she was 20, got brief jobs as governesses; Emily, at 20, taught for some months in a boarding school for girls; but all soon returned home. Branwell, also at age 20, tried being a tutor in the home of a clergyman,…

'The Moonstone' Is A Hidden Gem Of A Detective Novel

I was about 12 when I first encountered The Moonstone — or a Classics Illustrated version of it — digging through an old trunk in my grandfather's house on a rainy Bengali afternoon. I loved the Classics Illustrated series (the graphic novels of my youth that simplified famous novels for children), presenting us with swashbuckling plotlines, and heroes and villains that were unmistakably, unashamedly, what they were supposed to be.

The Moonstone was all I could have hoped for. A mysterious, cursed jewel, wrested from India, only to be stolen later from a great British mansion. Enigmatic, dangerous priests who follow it across the ocean in hopes of wresting it back. A young, beautiful, rich and courageous heroine (who in my mind looked very like me). Deaths. Disappearances. Romance. Bungling policemen. A smart butler. And enough twists and turns to keep a reader on tenterhooks until a highly satisfying ending is delivered. I devoured it in a day, and thought back on it with pleasure…

Kierkegaard’s Muse

This biography would not have been written if the woman portrayed, Regine Olsen (1822–1904), had not been loved and jilted by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who went on to devote a massive body of philosophical work to her. Kierkegaard courted Regine for a year, then broke it off when he realized his aloof, melancholic disposition made him unfit to be a good husband. When she fought his decision, even going so far as to say she would be willing to live in a cupboard in his apartment—for she was a small woman, but loving, fiery, intelligent, sardonic—he acted like a rogue to try to make her hate him enough to accept their separation.

He never quite succeeded in convincing her he was a rogue. For six years Regine saw Kierkegaard on walks and at church; they would smile and sometimes nod at one another but they never spoke. In the meantime, Fritz Schlegel was courting her. One Sunday in church, Regine smiled and looked questioningly at Kierkegaard; he nodded back. W…

The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne: the first unapologetic literary celebrity

Either you love it, or you really have missed something. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to give it its full title, is one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic, funny and deliciously conversational novels ever written. Its author, Laurence Sterne, died 250 years ago on Sunday. An entirely obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known locally for the wit of his conversation and of the sermon that he occasionally gave in York Minster, he burst onto the literary scene in 1760, in his late 40s, with the first two volumes of this book (he added another seven volumes at intervals over the next seven years).

Tristram, its narrator, tries to tell the story of his life but keeps being diverted by the need to describe the quirks of his utterly eccentric family. He starts at the moment (and I mean the very moment) of his conception, and then finds himself working backwards in time to explain the chains of events that made him who he is. Like all of us, he is the “sport of small accident…

“No Longer the Person I Was”: The Dazzling Correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casarès

ON THE MORNING of June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. That same night, Albert Camus and Maria Casarès landed in bed together. Though the latter event did not amount to a hill of beans to those unfolding on the French coast, Camus and Casarès would never again be the same. Nor will they ever be the same for those who read their correspondence — 865 letters (at more than 1,000 pages) stretching from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1960.

By the summer of France’s liberation, Camus was a household name in France. Two years earlier, the twentysomething Algerian-born author had galvanized the French literary scene with the publication of his novel L’Étranger (The Stranger). In 1943, he joined the resistance newspaper Combat and quickly became its editor in chief. Faithful to the newspaper’s watchword — De la résistance à la révolution (From resistance to revolution) — Camus announced, in fiery language, that resistance was simply a first step. The goal was not jus…