Saturday, 28 May 2016

Old Possum's Nest - A second look at the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

This long-awaited critical edition of T. S. Eliot's poems is a scholarly milestone, a watershed in publishing history. The elaborate notes Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have provided for each line—indeed, each word—of each and every Eliot poem are so informative and the overviews for each stage of Eliot's career contain so much of the poet's own germane commentary that one can now trace Eliot's poetic development using no further aids than these two volumes.

The opening background section, "A Beginner in 1908," for instance, reproduces every key statement Eliot made, whether in essays, lectures, or letters to friends, about his literary origins. From a 1946 essay on Ezra Pound, for example:
Whatever may have been the literary scene in America between the beginning of the century and the year 1914, it remains in my mind a complete blank. I cannot remember the name of a single poet of that period whose work I read.
And further, in a 1924 letter to Pound not widely known, Eliot similarly dismisses British turn-of-the-century poets, especially the "Swinburnians," with the words, "I am as blind to the merits of these people as I am to Thomas Hardy." Again—and to me surprising, given the London milieu in which he was circulating—in a 1945 letter to A. Benedict Crannigan, Eliot insists, "I had no knowledge of the so-called Imagists until 1915, and Imagism made very little impression upon me." Henry James was important but, after all, he wrote novels and hence was not much use to a poet.

Indeed, the only significant contemporary, so far as Eliot was concerned, was his great friend Ezra Pound, to whom he repeatedly acknowledges his debt. Otherwise, he insists, his inspiration came from France—from "Baudelaire and his immediate followers, Laforgue, Corbière, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé." And the editors provide references to Eliot's most important remarks on French Symbolist poetry and especially his views on vers libre: "The pleasure one gets out of the irregularity of such verse is due to the shadow or suggestion of regular metre behind." The kind of "free verse" D. H. Lawrence wrote, says Eliot scathingly in a 1924 essay on Whitman, produces "more notes for poems than poems themselves."

Nine pages of close commentary elucidate the background of Eliot's first volume Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), and the title poem is given 17 further pages. No matter how well we think we know "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there is sure to be new information here. I did not know, for instance, that in a little-known essay (1959) in the Kipling Journal, Eliot remarked that "I am convinced [the poem] would never have been called Love Song but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head, The Love Song of Har Dyal." And under the notes for "Hysteria," one of Eliot's rare prose poems (1917), the editors have culled some of the poet's most important—and little-known—comments on the genre, which are tersely caustic, as in "I have not yet been given any definition of the prose poem which appears to be more than a tautology or a contradiction." Or, conversely, "verse, whatever else it may or may not be, is itself a system of punctuation"—a pithy comment made in a set of letters to the Times Literary Supplement under the heading "Questions of Prose" (1928).

Such notes are more than helpful: They are transformative, and Eliot scholarship and criticism will never be the same. For The Waste Land, the editors have supplied "An Editorial Composite," which is to say "a 678-line reading text of the earliest available drafts of the various parts and passages of the poem." These drafts will be familiar to readers of the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, edited by the poet's widow, Valerie Eliot (1971); but to read the text in its earliest form, before Eliot and then Pound made the crucial cuts and changes, is a sobering experience. It is not just that the overwritten imitations of Popean satire were eliminated, but Pound challenged every phrase, every modifier so that

Terrible city I have sometimes seen and see
Under the brown fog of your winter dawn.

becomes

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.

The change of "Terrible" to "Unreal" was Eliot's own, thus cementing the echo of Baudelaire's "Fourmillante cité." But the qualifier "I have sometimes seen and see," which dilutes the force of the apostrophe, is bracketed by Pound, and the latter also understands that the "winter dawn" should not be "your" (the city's) but "a."

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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Homage to Poe

Outside the afternoon had already grown sunless and gray as we settled into our seats in eighth-grade English class. Our teacher, without preamble, carefully lowered the tone arm on a rackety portable record player. There was a scratchy pause, and then, unforgettably, we heard a low and sonorous, but slightly manic, voice whispering: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

It was Basil Rathbone, reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe. We sat mesmerized, until the actor produced his final, blood-curdling shriek: "Here, here—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

At the time, I failed to recognize that the voice on the record was the same as that of Sherlock Holmes, but I already knew a little about Poe. My steelworker father used to recite: It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee. That was about all he could remember. As a child, I loved the wistful sound of the words, just as I would later be taken by the tintinnabulation of "The Bells" and the mournful repetition of "nevermore" in "The Raven." But when, in sixth grade, I had finally borrowed a friend's copy of the Signet Classics paperback of The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, I found Poe disconcerting, even disappointing.

Mostly, this was because I could barely understand his complicated sentences and sometimes couldn't figure out what was happening. "A Descent into the Maelstrom" dragged at the beginning, and its account of being caught in the vortex of a whirlpool went tediously on and on. "The Masque of the Red Death" was hardly a story at all, just a series of symbolic tableaux. Even "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" opened with pages of dry theorizing: "The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis." Though I was suitably delighted when C. Auguste Dupin deduced that the savage murders could only have been committed by an orangutan, I nonetheless regarded this solution as farfetched, despite the usual caveat (frequently enunciated by my hero, the sleuth of Baker Street) that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

"The Purloined Letter" also charmed me with its central conceit that people will invariably overlook the obvious, even if the maxim's application in this instance seemed distinctly unrealistic: The police would surely have examined every scrap of paper in the minister's apartment, no matter where its hiding place.

My initial puzzlement about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was hardly surprising. His fiction can seem too rhetorical, too thickly textured, too literary for most young people. Still, Basil Rathbone's recording did persuade me to give the writer another try—sometime. The opportunity finally arose in high school when I opened my new English textbook and discovered the revenge story "The Cask of Amontillado." In class, our teacher emphasized Poe's use of irony and guessed, like many other readers and critics, that the narrator Montresor was speaking to a priest. The phrase "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" could obviously be addressed to one's confessor. But I wasn't quite convinced of this.

What were the "injuries" and the "insult" that Montresor had suffered from the doomed Fortunato? I soon had my own ideas. When the two men repair to the damp underground vaults to sample the much-anticipated Amontillado, Montresor says to his tipsy companion: "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was." I had read enough fiction by then to know that lost happiness usually meant lost love. Obviously, this rich, rather stupid aristocrat had somehow stolen Montresor's girl, married her, and then, through neglect and drunkenness, made her life miserable. Just look at the sodden fool: He is out carousing by himself on the street, decked out in jingle bells and clown regalia, while Lady Fortunato, we later learn, sits at home waiting for him.

So I boldly contended that Montresor could no longer bear the repeated disrespect, probably coupled with physical abuse, endured by the woman he adored. He walls up Fortunato and, after a suitable period of mourning, weds his widow. As he lays dying, Montresor finally tells the whole story to the person who really knows his soul—his wife, the former Mrs. Fortunato. My teacher was somewhat nonplussed by my argument—especially when I extrapolated the future wedding—but I cling to it even now.

From that time on, I grasped that textual ambiguity could contribute to a poem or story's power and appeal. Like Shakespeare's plays, Poe's tales of the grotesque and arabesque are tantalizing, open-ended, susceptible to multiple interpretations. When you finish "Ligeia"—in which a dark-haired beauty of indomitable willpower returns from the dead and takes over the body of the fair Rowena—you are left with some interesting questions: Is Ligeia truly alive again? Will she and her husband take up their marriage from where it left off? What will Lady Rowena's relatives say about her disappearance? Could everything be just a hallucination of the opium-addled narrator?

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Monday, 23 May 2016

The Hardship of Henry James

Why is Henry James so hard? I found myself asking the perennial question about “The Master” again (and again and again) while I worked my way through the volume of his autobiographical writings, published by The Library of America in time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the author’s death in 1916. Autobiographies consists of the three volumes of memoirs that James composed near the end of his life: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and a Brother (1914) and The Middle Years (1917), unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously. The book also contains some extracts from the journals and other relevant writings by James. (As a bonus, we get “Henry James at Work” by Theodora Basanquet, James’s super secretary who was with James from 1907 to his death in 1916.) It is a handsome volume, superbly edited by the eminent Jamesian, Philip Horne, whose historical and biographical notes do as much as such notes can do to illuminate some of James’s most difficult prose. As I say, it is a handsome volume (you know those Library of America editions—amazing production values), though my own copy of it is somewhat less than handsome now. It’s pretty much mutilated with pen, pencil, sharpie marks and enough post-it notes to paper over the Empire State Building—part of a dogged effort to tame the wild and crazy style of the late James—some of those sentences are insane!—into something like serviceable sense. My copy is water-stained as well: that would be the result of my sweat and tears. (Or it could be that I read it once in the bath: I thought I might be more open to it if I were a bit more relaxed.) It’s also dented in various places, as are the places on the walls of my apartment where I threw it. On the inside flap of the book, the editors at the Library of America assure us with understandable pride that the “page layout” for their editions “has been designed for readability as well as elegance”. Elegant, absolutely, but there is no amount of design in the whole wide world of arts and crafts that will make some of the pages in this particular volume readable, at least not without a lot of work and in some cases not even then. (Everyone knows that there are sentences in late James that no one has ever understood; subordinate clause that sprawl beyond the lifespan of any mind; orphaned pronouns whose natural antecedents elude all efforts at reunification; abstractions that mock any attempt to draw them into the range of human comprehension.)

I promise you though, this review isn’t going to be one of those hate-on-James-for-being-so hard, bitch sessions. In fact I love Henry James, not in spite of his difficulty, but at least in part because of it: I think James is difficult partly because life is difficult and his difficulty is partly a way he has to help show us the damage done to us by that difficulty. Before I get to that though, I think it’s important once more to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The difficulty of Henry James, especially the late James (and there’s not much later than the volumes that make up these autobiographies): that’s a very big elephant—at least as big as the ones P.T. Barnum used in his shows. James, by the way, loved those shows as a kid, “the Barnumite scenes” of his youth. He loved acrobats and pantomimes and all kinds of overacting. He loved ice cream and pastries and the fun little neighborhood things that mean the world when you’re young, and the way those little things get turned into stories as good as ghosts or the sweetest summer fruit—“local allusions—mystifications always—that flowered into anecdote as into small hard plums”. One of the joys of these late volumes, especially “A Small Boy Among Others”, is the chance they give us to see Henry James as a child. It makes me think of a line from Charles Lamb that you may remember from your own childhood—it’s the epigram at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”. Henry James, that student of the law who went on to become the supremely magisterial and mandarin advocate for the most complicated cases of personal and impersonal injury, cases so elusive that except for his exacting and surpassingly subtle representation, would have never had their day in court—this profoundly Old Adult Writer (too old even for the young adult category, much less for kiddie lit.): can you think of any lawyer we are less likely to suppose once a child?

Still, Henry James, I might have supposed, was a child once. One of the great gifts of his autobiographical writings is to confirm it. Here we have a portrait of the recondite stylist not just as a young man, but as a little boy who loved the things that children love and who was thrilled and hurt by the things that thrill and hurt children—small things, sometimes, as small as the smallest of “breakable toys” maybe, but not too small for a child, nor for a man wise enough to keep a child’s hold on memories that other adults might discard as too little to keep—“no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny” (18).

As far as hurt goes, James suffered his share, some of which is recorded in these books. There is the feeling, for example, he had as a boy that the older brother he adored didn’t wish to associate with him, for reasons that are perhaps as obvious as contemporary readers interested in recruiting the young James as an avatar of the “queer” (one of James’ own key terms of description and self-description) seem to think they are: “’I play with boys who curse and swear.’ I had to sadly recognize that I didn’t . . . I simply wasn’t qualified” (158). There is his general terror of competition—“I never dreamed of competing” (110); his feeling that he’s already forfeited the regular games of manhood (marriage, for example, and a real career) before they’ve even started, and that all that’s left for him are the irregular ones to be played on the side—the odd friendship and the craft of fiction.

Some of the hurt James suffered as a boy and a young man are recorded in these books. The worst of it is the reason they were written in the first place--the deaths that mark and bring on the loss of his youth. James begins his autobiography on the occasion of his older brother’s death--William whom he admired as he much as he admired anyone (so felt and fluent are the passages where he pays tribute to his brother, that I’m tempted to say that he admired him as much as anyone has ever been admired). And then there is his father, Henry James senior and his cousin, Mary Temple, both of whom he adored, and whose deaths also dwell at the heart of these memoirs: “Such then is the circle of my commemoration and so much these free and copious notes a labour of love and loyalty” (5), a circle of commemoration that extends to include not only family and friends, but the now vanished scenes (as vanished as summer fruit in winter) where who and what and how he loved were most present and best represented: “where is that fruitage now . . . the mounds of Isabella grapes and Seckel pears in the sticky sweetness of which our childhood seems to have been steeped?” (46).

James may be at his most conspicuously hard to handle when he’s writing, or avoiding writing, about his share of what’s hardest for all of us to handle: death, for starters: the death of those who have been dearest to us. When he comes to the most dire difficulty, James can be as hard for us to figure out as math, that “dire discipline”, was for him: “the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank”. Isn’t that just the way the mind of a reader of James can feel, drawn to a blank by his strange syntactical operations? In everything he wrote, it seems to me, and in his late work, especially, James converts a feeling of helplessness at the hands of the most awful existential algorithms (the conversion of life into death, first of all) into a sense of blankness, a crippling of mind which makes it all but impossible to understand what he is saying about our worst losses and how we should best address them. What makes James’s late prose so damned difficult I see gathering most thickly at the Grave; at the death and disappearance of who and what he most loved. Take what he says about the awful terror Mary Temple suffered at the hour of her death. Her letters are so beautiful and brave—the last one in particular, and yet, “there came a moment, almost immediately after, when all illusion failed; which it is not good to think of or linger on and yet not pitiful not to note”. All those negations (a double, a triple negative): who doesn’t get a little confused? Even when you factor the shift in the value of “pitiful” from James’s time to our own (for James the term means something more like compassionate), it still takes a minute for the reader (maybe longer if the reader is bad at math) to figure out that she’s supposed to note (and not, not note) the terrible, terrified death of the twenty four year old Mary Temple. (The reader’s not supposed to think of or linger on it. For the sake of simplicity and space, not to mention respect for the distress of everyone concerned, I’ll let slide what if, anything, the difference might be between thinking of and noting.)

About the math, I admit, I’m being a little bit fanciful. (Like James and like a lot of literary types, I have my own personal problems with math.) But what I’m dead serious about is this: I think James illuminates our emotional troubles by converting them into cognitive ones. What’s hard for the heart to undertake without breaking becomes in James what’s hard for the mind to understand without failing.

It’s not just death: other grave losses (what can feel like death to the heart) bring on this problem in comprehension as well. James is at his most rebarbatively abstract, complicated and confusing when he is grieving the disappearance of the simple and natural and concrete from the social scenes of his youth. The antecedents of his pronouns are never harder to discover than when what they mark the blessed particulars, and beyond that, the blessing of particularity, that give weight and grace to our individual lives (the particular people and places we love); the blessed particulars, the blessing of particularity, that by the dim view of the likes of James, are lost in the homogenizing movement of modernity.

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Anne Enright: In search of the real Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped. She did not have to become a bag lady for her work to be revived, though that possibly helped too. The story of her mental decline is terrifying for anyone who works with words, who searches her clean, sour sentences for some hint or indication of future madness, and then turns to check their own. 

Brennan is, for a new generation of female Irish writers, a casualty of old wars not yet won. The prose holds her revived reputation very well, especially the Irish stories. These feel transparently modern, the way that Dubliners by Joyce feels modern. It is partly a question of restraint. Benedict Kiely, Walter Macken, perhaps even Mary Lavin, ran the risk of being “Irish” on the pages of the New Yorker, which is to say endearing. Frank O’Connor was the cutest of the lot, perhaps, as well as the most successful. Brennan remains precise, unyielding: something lovely and unbearable is happening on the page.

Despite the lack of surface charm, Brennan was very Irish indeed. Her mother, Una, took part in the fighting during Easter 1916, alongside her father, Bob, who was arrested and sent to prison for it. Maeve was born 37 weeks later: conceived along with the Irish state you might say, she was a true daughter of the Rising. A few years later, Bob Brennan left his young family to take part in the war of independence and in the Irish civil war. He spent months in hiding and on the run and Maeve’s childhood home was raided several times by men carrying guns. After the state was founded, he set up the Irish Press for Éamon de Valera, and in 1933, when Maeve was 17, her father was appointed to Washington as Ireland’s first envoy to America. The Brennans could not have seen this remarkable future when they fell in love in the Gaelic League in Wexford, but they both saw some great ideal. Their three girls were named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.

She was a “Gaelic princess”. Her hair was chestnut, her eyes were green. A pixie, a changeling, she was admired for the sharpness of her wit. It is hard to find a description of Brennan that is not code for her ethnicity. In 1941 she moved to New York and found a job at Harper’s Bazaar and when her family returned to Ireland, she stayed behind. Already reclusive, she moved from one rented room to another and rarely had a kitchen to call her own. Still, she seemed to miss some idea of Ireland, or of domesticity. Her biographer Angela Bourke wrote that: “Throughout her adult life, to the point of eccentricity, Maeve drank tea and sought out open fires.”

In 1949, at the age of 32, she secured a staff job at the New Yorker where she had the great good fortune to be edited by William Maxwell, who became a loyal friend. “To be around her,” he wrote, “was to see style being reinvented.” Brennan was a beautiful, unmarried woman in a dingy office full of men. She wore a fresh flower in her lapel and smelled of Cuir de Russie, a perfume designed by Chanel for women who dared to smoke in public. She worked all the time, produced very little, and ate boiled eggs to keep her figure neat.

By the early 1950s the descriptions of her Irishness had tipped from fey to fierce. Her tongue “could clip a hedge” she had “a longshoreman’s mouth”, she said “fuck” in company and drank in Costello’s on Third Avenue. Once, when nobody came to take her order as she sat in a booth there, she lifted a heavy, full sugar bowl and dropped it on the floor. There was no sense, when she married her New Yorker colleague, St Clair McKelway, fellow drinker – fellow madman, indeed – that he was taking a virgin Irish bride. Brennan was 36. They were, a friend said, “like two children out on a dangerous walk: both so dangerous and charming”.

It is worth saying that no middle-class Irish woman at the time would set foot in a Dublin pub. Irish drinking culture, for all its famous good fun, was deeply shame-bound. Maeve’s thirst had its origins in a terrific social uncertainty, but also in a great want. As her posthumous editor Christopher Carduff said, her work showed “a ravenous grudge, a ravenous nostalgia and a ravenous need for love”.

Brennan’s progress as a fiction writer was far from steady. She wrote a column of city observations as “The Long-Winded Lady”, and short pieces of memoir, in the sad, bright tone the New Yorker did so well. Her first published stories were lightly satirical and set in America. These were published between 1952 and 1956, after which came silence. The Irish stories, on which her reputation was revived, did not start to appear until 1959, a year after her mother’s death, when her marriage had fallen apart. There was a second rush, of more hopeful fictions, after the death of her father in 1964.

The stories involve two couples, the Bagots and the Derdons, who live in Ranelagh, where Brennan grew up. The Bagots are happier than the Derdons, but it can be hard to distinguish the memoir pieces from the fiction and one couple from another – they are all so lonely and their compass so small. They live, interchangeably, in Brennan’s childhood home at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, they climb the same little stairs and look out on the same laburnum tree. The stories are painful acts of reclamation. Brennan circles around the few events of these people’s lives. A new sofa arrives at the house, to great excitement. A man selling apples knocks at the door. People get married, they walk in the park, go to work and die. There are visits, disappointments and interminable, small cruelties – especially between the Derdons, whose only son John becomes a priest, leaving his mother bereft. Some of the most affecting stories are almost entirely without incident. A man goes into his dead wife’s bedroom and finds nothing there. A woman sees her own shadow on the wall of her children’s room, and is comforted by it.

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Friday, 20 May 2016

Emily Dickinson Isn’t You

“I couldn’t let go,” Jerome Charyn begins his author’s note to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, as if remembering a severed romantic relationship. He remained transfixed after writing a fictionalized account of Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, in which he inhabited, or vampirized, as he says, the nineteenth-century poet’s voice, detailing flings with noted scholars and tattooed handymen—all imagined of course. He spent two years on the book, culling through all the letters, biographies, studies, accounts, and poems he could. “I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” Charyn writes in his new book. “Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, and like a spider, she spun her meticulous web…”

Her seduction of Charyn implies her lingering claim on the present, but his inability to “let it go” introduces his attempt to put his mark on her. In the twenty-first century, Emily Dickinson has become very much about our selves, an interpretation that has been allowed to flourish partly because of her anonymity: The bulk of her poems, of course, were published after she died, and she lived with her parents all her life, unmarried and leaving letters that only hint at possible lovers, hardly ever leaving her home. During the last 30 years, it has been many writers’ impulse to try her on, explore the “masks,” as Charyn calls them, that she wore in her poems, and give motive to her writings through more expressive means. Among the better-known works there’s Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, which traces the works that informed Dickinson’s rich interior life; Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home,” which sees her as feminist forebear; Maureen McLane’s “My Emily Dickinson” from her biblio-memoir My Poets; and Camille Paglia’s essay from Sexual Personae, comparing her to the Marquis de Sade.

Charyn’s book gives a checkered history of the many interpretations of Dickinson, at times attempting to connect them to her actual biography. He starts to trace key disputes in Emily Dickinson scholarship, from the intended recipient for her Master letters—a major clue to a possible hidden romance—to her jumbled publication history. (Her editors Matthew Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd removed her punctuation, then her heirs began to find more unpublished poetry and letters—as did their children.) There was no complete volume of Dickinson’s poetry until 1955. This volume, when it finally appeared, led to a fuller picture of Dickinson by 1976, when “Vesuvius at Home” and the popular one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, which Charyn writes much about, both came out.

The goal of such writings is ostensibly to better know Emily Dickinson, though by means of murky, refracted knowledge—as if making sense out of the same image as projected through a hall of mirrors. But in Charyn’s book, which leans heavily on his own personal web of associations, some sense of who Dickinson might have been ends up feeling more out of reach.

A Loaded Gun progresses with a snaking chronology, imitating the slipperiness of its subject. One chapter, “The Two Emilys—and the Earl,” examines Emily Norcross Dickinson, Emily Sr., in detail, along with Emily’s father, as a portrait of the people who ostensibly best knew her; another chapter is devoted to Dickinson’s very close relationship with her dog, Carlo, her only recorded long-term companion.

Charyn’s book quickly sets up themes that reflect more about his own cultural tastes than Dickinson. He examines, for instance, figures who have been as enchanted as he is with Dickinson as muse. The chapter “Ballerinas in a Box” mostly traces the artist Joseph Cornell’s near-obsession with Dickinson, but Charyn takes such a circuitous path that the portrait becomes muddled. He opens with quotes from male poets and critics who revived Dickinson’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Allen Tate, he tells us, wrote in 1932 that many were mistaken that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry,” but went on to call her “a dominating spinster whose very sweetness must have been formidable.”

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Brontës’ Secret

No body of writing has engendered more other bodies of writing than the Bible, but the Brontë corpus comes alarmingly close. “Since 1857, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her famous Life of Charlotte Brontë, hardly a year has gone by without some form of biographical material on the Brontës appearing—from articles in newspapers to full-length lives, from images on tea towels to plays, films, and novelizations,” wrote Lucasta Miller in The Brontë Myth, her 2001 history of Brontëmania. This year the Brontë literary-industrial complex celebrates the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth, and British and American publishers have been especially busy. In the U.S., there is a new Charlotte Brontë biography by Claire Harman; a Brontë-themed literary detective novel; a novelistic riff on Jane Eyre whose heroine is a serial killer; a collection of short stories inspired by that novel’s famous last line, “Reader, I married him”; and a fan-fiction-style “autobiography” of Nelly Dean, the servant-narrator of Wuthering Heights. Last year’s highlights included a young-adult novelization of Emily’s adolescence and a book of insightful essays called The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which uses items belonging to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as wormholes to the 19th century and the lost texture of their existence. Don’t ask me to list the monographs.

I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are Peoples of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts? The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister, Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other 19th-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive? In an essay on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights published in 1925, Virginia Woolf bears witness to this miracle:
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious. So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds.
If Charlotte’s novels keep up a stiff wind, Emily’s one novel, Wuthering Heights, is a thunderstorm. Her characters, even the ghosts, Woolf writes, have “such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” (Like most readers, Woolf ignores the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, a lesser novelist and poet, and the Brontë brother, Branwell, a failed poet and artist turned alcoholic.) And just think, Woolf went on to write in a more famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, what Charlotte might have produced had Victorian mores not corseted her potential.

Woolf seizes on a passage in Jane Eyre in which she believes she hears Charlotte breaking out of Jane’s voice to lecture the reader about women’s exclusion from the “busy world” and “practical experience,” and to lament the confinement of their talents “to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” According to Woolf, this shows that Charlotte’s imagination, however bold, is also constricted—that she “will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.” Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

But Woolf gets it exactly wrong, thereby missing what makes the Brontë story so satisfying. The sisters’ social and economic disadvantages didn’t hold them back. Charlotte and Emily explored—and exploited—the prison-house of gender with unprecedented clear-sightedness. It so happens that the sisters had a good deal of “practical experience,” and they didn’t like it one bit. Pushed out into the world, they came home as fast as they could, and in their retreat from society found the autonomy to cultivate their altogether original voices. Those forays into the marketplace of female labor, though, gave them their best material.

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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Alice Munro, Our Chekhov

The announcement that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Alice Munro probably strikes many readers and writers as deliriously incredible. Few contemporary writers are more admired, and with good reason. Everyone gets called “our Chekhov.” All you have to do nowadays is write a few half-decent stories and you are “our Chekhov.” But Alice Munro really is our Chekhov—which is to say, the English language’s Chekhov. (In Munro’s great story, “The Beggar Maid,” an ambitious man sees that a friend of the woman he is courting “mispronounced Metternich,” and says indignantly to her: “How can you be friends with people like that?” I’m put in mind of Chekhov’s story “The Russian Master,” which has a character who repeatedly torments a young teacher by asking him why he has “never read Lessing.”)

Yet many of Munro’s readers had sadly concluded that she was not, somehow, the kind of writer that the Nobel committee seemed to like; I had decided that she would join the list of noble non-Nobelists, a distinguished category that includes Tolstoy, Nabokov, Borges, Hrabal, Sebald, Bernhard, Ingmar Bergman—and Chekhov, as it happens.

We were wrong, and for once it was wonderful to be wrong. Greatly enjoying being wrong, I spent an hour yesterday rereading one of Munro’s finest stories, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which appeared in this magazine. It tells the story of Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years. Grant has been a professor, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature, Fiona a hospital administrator. In their old age, Fiona begins to develop signs of serious dementia, and Grant has her placed in a local nursing home, Meadowlake. The marriage has been a happy one, or so Grant feels, despite the fact that he has been a considerable philanderer: “He had never stopped making love to Fiona in spite of disturbing demands elsewhere. He had not stayed away from her for a single night.” And just as he has been, in his way, devoted to his wife, so Fiona never strayed from him. It was never, despite Grant’s many infidelities, an open marriage. She put up with his adventures.

On the morning of his first visit to the nursing home, after a month’s separation from Fiona, Grant is “full of a solemn tingling, as in the old days on the morning of his first planned meeting with a new woman.” Fiona has not quite forgotten Grant (this is his great anxiety), but she has found a new friend in the nursing home, a man of about Grant’s age, named Aubrey, wonderfully described as having “something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse. But where Fiona was concerned, he was not discouraged.” Grant is naturally jealous, but his love for Fiona is protective, and over the next weeks he begins to adapt to the new happiness that Fiona has clearly found with Aubrey: “He didn’t see much point in mentioning their marriage, now.” When Aubrey—who was only a temporary resident—leaves the nursing home to return to life with his younger wife, Fiona is distraught, and Grant decides that he will ask Marian, Aubrey’s wife, if she might occasionally let Aubrey visit Fiona. Marian refuses: she doesn’t want to upset her bewildered husband. He belongs at home, she says, with her. She says that it was probably a mistake to have put him in the nursing home, even briefly. Grant returns home empty-handed, but he finds a phone message from Marian: Would he like to go with her to “a dance in town at the Legion supposed to be for singles on Saturday night…. I realize you’re not a single and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not either, but it doesn’t hurt to get out once in a while.” The old philanderer is interested—partly because a seducer has never retired from the game, but largely because he thinks that this may be the best way to get Marian to let Aubrey visit Fiona in the nursing home. Perhaps Marian will be inclined, once the affair is properly blossoming, to send her husband back there for good?

The story is beautiful in the irony of its symmetries—the philanderer who unexpectedly loses his loyal wife to the love of another man, and then returns to his old erotic ways in order to secure his wife’s own continuing infidelity. But two additional elements, both characteristic of Munro’s careful art, make it a great story. First, there is Munro’s astounding lack of sentimentality—the clear-eyed, utterly unillusioned, bleakly subtle description of the nursing home, its inmates, and its staff. Grant, for instance, becomes reliant on one of the nurses, who has her own problems—an absent husband, four children, one of whom is asthmatic. “To her, Grant and Fiona and Aubrey too must seem lucky. They had got through life without too much going wrong. What they had to suffer now that they were old hardly counted.” The second very Munro-ish element is the formal freedom of the story, which compacts a lot of life into a short space, and moves backwards and forwards over a great deal of terrain. Strikingly, the story begins with two paragraphs, subsequently abandoned, about Fiona and Grant as young people, before they were even married, and then vaults silently over fifty years to begin the narrative of Fiona’s elderly mental decline. These two first paragraphs are beautifully full of energy and joy and hope; they capture with extraordinary economy the happiness of youth, a happiness largely absent from the rest of the story. This is how “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” begins:
Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant left-wing politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to strange tirades with an absentminded smile. All kinds of people, rich or shabby-looking, delivered these tirades, and kept coming and going and arguing and conferring, sometimes in foreign accents. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and this activity in her house was probably the reason.
Because of this sparkling first paragraph, we begin “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” thinking that it will be a story about a young woman’s growth, rather than the tale of her decline (albeit a decline that includes a final unexpected love affair). We carry with us, through the sadness of aging and loss, the memory of these devastating opening lines—devastating just because they are not continued, but simply abandoned by Munro at the very start of her tale. The effect is as if Michael Haneke’s film “Amour” were to open with a scene in which we see the two elderly protagonists as young unmarried lovers, and then brutally scroll forward five decades.

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