Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Virginia Woolf: Art and Sexuality

Since the publication in 1941 of her last novel, Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf s reputation has undergone radical transformation. At first characterized as “experimental” and treated from an esthetic vantage point, her novels received serious, if somewhat limited, examinations as literary productions, while a view prevailed of her as a rather precious Bohemian associated with slightly disreputable characters from Bloomsbury. But even as late as the sixties, when Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse—and by some, The Waves— were considered major works, she herself was not regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, and as recently as 1975 the Norton Anthology did not consider her a “major author.” Still, with the gradual appearance in the sixties of Leonard Woolf s five-volume autobiography and the emergence of women’s and gay liberation movements, Woolf s reputation began to grow, rapidly accelerating after the publication in 1972 of Quentin Bell’s biography and the many reminiscences and biographical essays which began to flood the market shortly thereafter.

As an intrinsically interesting personality, as a figure of sociological interest, as a writer who seemed to have some measure of importance in literary history, and as an embodiment of a number of unconventionalities currently becoming conventionalized, Woolf has become virtually a cult celebrity. But if she is now regarded as a Major Literary Figure, it is more the case of a Major Figure who also happens to be Literary than a Literary Figure who happens to be Major. Indeed, her current status may turn out to have been achieved at a high price once her fortuitous enmeshment with present obsessions has had its day. For she now occupies the position with the ruling intelligentsia that Herman Hesse occupied during the late sixties with the student revolution. And so we see again a principally polemical use being made of a literary figure, this time with grossly disproportionate emphasis being placed on her life and its adaptability to current political-psychological programs. Nor is close scrutiny required to realize that most of the attention these days falls upon peripheral works by and about her: A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, The Years, A Writer’s Diary, Bell’s biography, Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, Woolf s letters and now her journals, as well as Moments of Being, an admittedly striking collection of previously unpublished autobiographical essays by Woolf herself. Far from being seen these days as an eccentric from Bloomsbury, a highbrow grafted away from her ancestral upper-middle-class roots, she is widely regarded as a patrician intellectual, a strong-minded and determined professional, and a somewhat sexually ambiguous feminist. Even her bouts with madness have served as a wound that can be shared with today’s educated and psychologically sensitized middle class.

Among the extraordinary quantity of writings about Bloomsbury that have recently pressed her into eminence can be found a number of journals and newsletters devoted exclusively to Woolf and her circle, founded in the main by women who are apt to be feminists and who frequently (though by no means always) indulge themselves in minute worryings of the details of Woolf s life, visiting Monks House, rifling through her papers, rubbing elbows with Quentin Bell, and then descending from this Parnassus to write reminiscences of tiresome inconsequence. With the widespread changes in social roles now being undergone by educated and academic women, their experiences in or with psychoanalysis, the availability of alternate sexual lifestyles, the possibility of escape from domesticity, the commonplaceness of divorce, and the earning of their own living, there is very strong identification with and admiration for Woolf in much of current female writing about her, an identification intensified by Woolf s own psychological and sexual problems. This phenomenon can be seen in such books as Nancy Bazin’s Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Mind, Jane Novak’s The Razor Edge of Balance, and Joanne Trautmann’s Jessamy Brides, to mention a few. One of the most startling of essays, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf,” by Cynthia Ozick, appeared several years ago in Commentary and castigated Leonard Woolf as a tyrannical and repressive husband who was virtually an anti-Semite. For now, at any rate, this essay would seem to represent the limits of appropriation.

With so much of Woolf s current status derived from extraliterary valuations, one finds that despite some recent signs of shifting here and there the novels still tend to be seen as they have been for a long time. In other words, the literary identity of the novels has not changed a great deal, but a reshuffling of their importance has resulted from those examinations which appropriate them as feminism, mythopoetic thought, polemics for androgyny, attacks on the social system, etc.

One of the greatest impediments to a just literary revaluation of Woolf's novels has been, even from the earliest years, the objection that they are lacking in sexuality, deficient in earthy vitality, that they are precious and rather weak in the kind of human interest that is present in her contemporaries, Joyce and Proust. There is nothing in Woolf s novels, her denigrators might remark, that quite corresponds in its impact to Stephen Dedalus picking his nose or Leopold Bloom masturbating. Despite the contemporary agreement, at least in theory, that literary “realism” is a convention as “artificial” as any other, the imputed absence of such an impact has cost Woolf a lot. If you scratch even a sophisticated contemporary reader, it would seem, you are bound to find a die-hard representationalist under the skin. Mimeticism still reigns supreme. For all of the involutedness and stylization of Joyce, he is felt to be a “realist” after all.

This representational bias against Woolf s supposed sexlessness has actually increased and been afforded greater currency as a result of Bell’s biography, with its insistent emphasis on Woolf’s “aetherial” character and her low sexual energies as a person. Instead of subjecting to investigation what can be meant by the term “sexuality” when it is used in connection with fiction, the reviewers of Bell’s biography fixed upon Woolf s sex life, particuarly the harm that supposedly was wrought by George Duckworth’s erotic displays towards his half-sisters Virginia and Vanessa. Virginia Woolf alludes very unfavorably in later life to George’s behavior and, in Moments of Being, to Gerald Duckworth’s pettings as well, but the assumption that her coldness as a person and the “sexlessness” of her novels can be traced to all of this is both rash and absurd, especially since Vanessa received similar treatment and developed very differently. Surely the seeds of their sexuality were sown long before their experiences with the Duckworths. As it turns out, there is nothing Bell tells us that can account for the causes of Woolf s sexual “coolness.” But once given the rash and dramatic conclusions of the reviewers of his book, it was not very difficult to move along to the conclusion that Virginia Woolf was basically a sexless person and (as if more were needed) that that is why her fiction itself is so sexless. Bell wrote: “Vanessa, Leonard and, I think, Virginia herself were inclined to blame George Duckworth. George certainly had left Virginia with a deep aversion to lust; but perhaps he did no more than inflame a deeper wound and confirm Virginia in her disposition to shrink from the crudities of sex, a disposition which resulted from some profound and perhaps congenital inhibition [i. e. , Bell knows nothing about the whole matter. ]. I think that the erotic element in her personality was faint and tenuous.” As for Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Bell admits that beyond her coolness, he does not know the extent of their sexual activities. In a letter, shortly after their marriage, Virginia writes, “but certainly I find the climax immensely exaggerated,” and Bell alludes to her subsequently as “frigid.”

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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Marta Szabo: The Guru Looked Good - Excerpt

One morning I was called into a very special meeting. I knew from the location that only the most elite members of the ashram would be present. I slipped into the confidential conference room that very few people knew about though it was just a few steps away from the room I shared with Helen. About twenty of the usual faces were gathered, sitting on the carpeted floor – secretaries, swamis, some department heads, people who just seemed, for whatever reason, to have won Gurumayi's favor over the years.

I noticed many of them had left colorful plastic sandals at the door. The sandals were pretty and good for the monsoon rains. Anything except plastic rotted and molded, never drying out. Gurumayi must have given the bright sandals out recently to some group in which I hadn't been included. Of course, no one mentioned them. They were just suddenly there, lined up at the door.

Katy Parsons welcomed us into the meeting and led us in the opening mantras. She had been around for a few years now, one of the most popular people in Siddha Yoga. Gurumayi seemed to love her and always wanted her around. And everyone else liked her too.

Katy was friendly to everyone, not just the elite. When she gave talks it sounded like a real person speaking. When Katy had first come to the ashram with her chubby, amiable husband and her seven-year-old daughter, her hair had been short and prematurely gray. She'd been some kind of non-profit executive out in the corporate world. Now she wore punjabis and her hair had grown long and become blonde.

Katy had a self-deprecating humor and was highly respected. Even though she was so new, Gurumayi had put her in all sorts of top executive positions – working with trustees and the board of directors -- the kind of positions that landed people in perpetual meetings and stress. But here in Ganeshpuri I saw Katy sometimes just walking around with Gurumayi as if she had plenty of leisure time. Katy was allowed to carry a small camera in the ashram and take pictures of anything she wanted. Snapshots. It was a strange sight. No one else – outside the official photography department -- was allowed to photograph anything, another new rule. Like everyone else, I liked and trusted Katy for her unaffected ways, and she always expressed a sincere warmth for me.

This morning Katy said that Gurumayi had asked her to come and give us an update on the New Yorker magazine article. We already knew something about the New Yorker article. It had started back in South Fallsburg the year before, just before I left. A journalist from the New Yorker magazine – one of the oldest and most prominent magazines in the country -- had begun visiting the South Fallsburg ashram and preparing an article about Siddha Yoga. Right from the start the journalist had raised alarm. She asked questions. The standard answers did not satisfy her. Instead of taking in all that the ashram had to offer, accepting our explanations for everything, she kept wanting to know what went on behind the scenes.

Since I was one of the heads of Registration back then, I had been put on alert. “Page Magdalena the moment the New Yorker journalist arrives,” I had been told, and there was a big flashing message in the journalist's computer record so that we wouldn't forget. The journalist was not to leave the lobby or go anywhere in the ashram without someone going with her.

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T.S. Eliot: Hamlet and His Problems

Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on this play.
Two recent writers, Mr. J. M. Robertson and Professor Stoll of the University of Minnesota, have issued small books which can be praised for moving in the other direction. Mr. Stoll performs a service in recalling to our attention the labours of the critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one observing that:
they knew less about psychology than more recent Hamlet critics, but they were nearer in spirit to Shakespeare’s art; and as they insisted on the importance of the effect of the whole rather than on the importance of the leading character, they were nearer, in their old-fashioned way, to the secret of dramatic art in general.
Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. Mr. Robertson points out, very pertinently, how critics have failed in their “interpretation” of Hamlet by ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors. The Hamlet of Shakespeare will appear to us very differently if, instead of treating the whole action of the play as due to Shakespeare’s design, we perceive his Hamlet to be superposed upon much cruder material which persists even in the final form.
We know that there was an older play by Thomas Kyd, that extraordinary dramatic (if not poetic) genius who was in all probability the author of two plays so dissimilar as the Spanish Tragedy and Arden of Feversham; and what this play was like we can guess from three clues: from the Spanish Tragedy itself, from the tale of Belleforest upon which Kyd’s Hamlet must have been based, and from a version acted in Germany in Shakespeare’s lifetime which bears strong evidence of having been adapted from the earlier, not from the later, play. From these three sources it is clear that in the earlier play the motive was a revenge-motive simply; that the action or delay is caused, as in the Spanish Tragedy, solely by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards; and that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. In the final play of Shakespeare, on the other hand, there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the “madness” is not to lull but to arouse the king’s suspicion. The alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing. Furthermore, there are verbal parallels so close to the Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd. And finally there are unexplained scenes—the Polonius-Laertes and the Polonius-Reynaldo scenes—for which there is little excuse; these scenes are not in the verse style of Kyd, and not beyond doubt in the style of Shakespeare. These Mr. Robertson believes to be scenes in the original play of Kyd reworked by a third hand, perhaps Chapman, before Shakespeare touched the play. And he concludes, with very strong show of reason, that the original play of Kyd was, like certain other revenge plays, in two parts of five acts each. The upshot of Mr. Robertson’s examination is, we believe, irrefragable: that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the “intractable” material of the old play.
Of the intractability there can be no doubt. So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. The versification is variable. Lines like:
   Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,
are of the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet. The lines in Act v. sc. ii.,
Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep…
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Grop’d I to find out them: had my desire;
Finger’d their packet;
are of his quite mature. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. We are surely justified in attributing the play, with that other profoundly interesting play of “intractable” material and astonishing versification, Measure for Measure, to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in CoriolanusCoriolanus may be not as “interesting” asHamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.
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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Big Game Hunter - Tony Judt

For a man who died more than four years ago, Tony Judt remains remarkably prolific. During his lifetime he built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most combative, clear-sighted and illuminating historians of his generation, crowned by Postwar, his sweeping history of Europe after 1945. In 2008 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a horrible condition that left him paralysed from the neck down. In the summer of 2010, at the age of only sixty-two, he died.

By this stage Judt was already becoming something of an industry. Only a few months after his death his publishers brought out a slim, moving memoir, Ill Fares the Land, and two years after that his conversations with his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder were published with the title Thinking the Twentieth Century. Now we have a third book, collecting some of the best essays and reviews from the last decade or so of his life. To put it bluntly, Judt has published more books since his death that some historians do in their entire lifetime.

I should perhaps declare my hand: I am a Judt fan. In my view, almost everything he wrote, from his early books on the French Left in the mid-20th century to his piercing essays in the New York Review of Books, was distinguished by a remarkable acuity, honesty and intellectual insight. One of the curious things about him, though, was that for much of his career he cut a relatively obscure figure, teaching French history at Cambridge and Oxford. Only in the last years of his life, after he had moved to New York, did his public standing gather momentum. Had he lived a bit longer, I suspect he would have become a household name.

Judt was never afraid of controversy. In particular, his essays on Israel made him a hate figure for many Jewish American activists. When Judt published 'Israel: The Alternative', which warned that the Jewish homeland was becoming a 'belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state', the New York Review of Books received more than a thousand furious letters, many of them describing him as anti-Semitic. The irony is that Judt himself, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in Putney, had previously been a keen Zionist and even volunteered as an Israeli army translator during the Six Day War. His critics called him a self-hating Jew, which was nonsense. As his wife, Jennifer Homans, notes in her moving introduction to this book, Judt hired a graduate student from the Jewish Theological Seminary to teach their two boys Hebrew. The furore surrounding his articles about Israel, she notes, 'disturbed him deeply'.

When the Facts Change reprints no fewer than eight of Judt's essays about Israel, most of them originally published in the New York Review of Books. There is no doubt that these were some of the most personal things he ever wrote, reflecting his deep frustration that the Zionist dream had taken, as he saw it, an ugly turn. Yet though they are powerful and often persuasive, they do not necessarily show him at his best. Judt was a fine polemicist, but he was an even better historian, and it is his historical pieces that really shine. In a splendid essay on the Cold War, for example, he takes an unfashionably long view, tracing its origins back to, among other things, the disruption to the European state system caused by the rise of Prussia. In this context, he suggests, the Cold War was 'not a problem but a solution'. Perhaps only now do we realise how right he was.

The real pleasure of this book, though, comes from Judt's evisceration of other historians. He was a quite brilliant bad reviewer. Some of his targets seem a little too easy: among the pieces here is a full-blooded assault on Vesna Goldsworthy's bookInventing Ruritania, a sub-Edward Said account of the Western 'invention' of the Balkans, in which 'everything is imagined, represented, constructed, Orientalized'. But what was refreshing about Judt is that he was not afraid to go out big game hunting. The very first essay in the book, for example, is a supremely perceptive review of Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes, absurdly overpraised in many circles. Judt rightly acknowledges Hobsbawm's strengths: the sweep of his narrative, the accessibility of his prose. But he shows very clearly how Hobsbawm, as an unrepentant Marxist, fudged and distorted the history of the early Cold War and failed to deal properly with the terror of Stalin's regime, which he implicitly supported for so long.

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W. H. Auden: “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

What responsibility does the artist have to society? Speaking at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy gave one answer to that perpetually nagging question. For a politician it was a highly unusual one, though perhaps less so then than now. “Society must set the artist free,” Kennedy declared, “to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” This is essentially the same view of artistic and personal freedom that Stephen Dedalus defends against the nationalist Davin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “When the soul of a man is born,” Stephen opines, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is essentially Rousseauist, corresponding to the liberal idea that individuals best serve the general good through the exercise of their personal freedom. For all its nobility of spirit, this view is frequently contested—even, or maybe especially, in democratic societies. Davin responds to Dedalus as many a politician has responded to the artist or intellectual, by demanding commitment: “A man’s country comes first. . . . You can be a poet or a mystic after.” He finds Stephen to be “a terrible man,” even a bit of a traitor, for insisting so unequivocally on his personal liberty. It is Stephen’s peculiar separateness, his disregard of party or faction, that Davin finds threatening.

Political orthodoxies of both the right and left have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics, supporting their contention by asserting a utilitarian moral right. Artistic freedom concerns one person alone, or at best a privileged minority, while politics concerns the good of many. Political concerns can seem reassuringly anti-elitist. For collectivists, whether nationalist or proletarian in their orientation, communal benefit always outweighs the prerogatives of the individual. The left in particular has long held that by allowing too much power to the few, liberal governments erode the welfare of the many. And for Marxists, the primacy of individual liberty and formal rights is a sham concealing unjust advantages and systematic oppression.

Yet poetry, relying as it does on the primacy of individual sensibility and the often-contested “right” to free expression, has a long and vexed historical connection to liberalism that has remained deeply problematic to critics from the more radical fringes of the left. For that reason, I am concerned mainly with the relationship between leftist critics and poetry; not because the right is lacking in doctrinal pressures, but because since the early twentieth century literary intellectuals as a group have inclined toward left-wing politics, and also because the left, at least in the West, retains strong anti-authoritarian and libertarian traditions that conflict with tendencies toward censoriousness and control.

In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.

In the classical sense, the term politics refers to a form of activity concerned with public life. In that context, the vicious intensity of the internecine cultural controversies we often see playing out in the pages of journals—or now, on social media—seems quite odd. Often the parties involved tend to share largely similar views on broader issues. The driving force in these conflicts is often “politics” in a less savory sense, as Jonathan Chait recently pointed out: the use of intimidation and rhetoric “to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Debates over speech and sensitivity often invoke an undemocratic understanding of what politics is and how it works, one concerned primarily not with individual freedoms but with enforcing group solidarity and the hegemony of a prescribed set of opinions.

Auden’s case is revealing. In the 1930s his work developed a following among committed Marxists. Ideologically Auden was a fellow traveler: not a Party member but sympathetic to the egalitarianism of the left. What he perhaps failed to realize, at least initially, was that this audience had certain expectations that did not conform to his traditionally liberal sensibilities. What was expected was overt encouragement of true believers, a celebration of class struggle, and unwavering demonstrations of loyalty to approved causes. Having courted their favor, Auden found himself in the position of having to meet their demands. Along with many other writers and artists, Auden traveled to Spain to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. On returning from Valencia, where he had worked as a radio broadcaster for the local government, Auden composed “Spain,” a poetic hymn to the fight against Franco. Fellow volunteer George Orwell commended “Spain” as “one of the few decent things written about the Spanish war” but also noted its less commendable portions:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
       Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
       Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
According to Orwell, “the second stanza is intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of a ‘good party man.’ In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.” Orwell’s criticism was telling. Auden later had fits of guilt about “Spain” and recanted parts of it. He had the bad timing, however, to drift away from the party line just as demands for ideological conformity were growing more strident. By the late thirties, it was clear that the war in Spain had not gone well, that Hitler was rearming, and that fascist movements were gathering strength throughout Europe. Auden became a convenient scapegoat for leftist critics angry at the political fecklessness of their own faction. F. W. Dupee, for instance, was less concerned with Auden’s commitment to anti-fascism than with asserting that poetry was a form of activity requiring political control and supervision. For Dupee, being a radical poet meant doing effective work on behalf of the party. In Partisan Review, he criticized Auden’s deviations from orthodoxy: Auden appeared to be thrusting “deeper and deeper into his own ego” and abandoning his role as “the impersonal voice of a generation.”

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Friday, 20 February 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy

Novelists might appear to be in charge of their invented worlds, but they often have to wait a surprisingly long time to do what they want; fiction isn’t quite as malleable as it may seem. Kazuo Ishiguro – for all that tight authorial control he is associated with – is no different. For a long time, he tells me, as we sit in his Cotswolds cottage on a bright, wintry afternoon, he’s wanted one of his novels to feature a man and his horse. Now, with the publication of his seventh, The Buried Giant, he has finally had his way. “That lone rider figure has always done it for me,” he laughs.
Ishiguro’s prototype was the character familiar from the westerns he loves, the John Ford and Sam Peckinpah movies that so frequently, as in Ford’s The Searchers, open with a distant rider crossing a vast landscape, “like a self-contained little community of just a man and a horse, a lonely community that moves from place to place”. What particularly resonates with Ishiguro is the idea of a man somehow adrift from history: “There’s a real sense that there’s a whole world travelling there in that man … he’s out of time, somebody who belongs to a more violent world. And peaceful people need him when violence is needed, but he’s not really welcome in a peaceful community.”
But it was not to the American frontier that Ishiguro looked for the backdrop for his own lone rider. Instead The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, takes us back to Britain after the Romans have departed, and the Anglo-Saxons are on the brink of fully occupying the island; the moment, in other words, “when England is created”. Its horseman is none other than Sir Gawain, the youngest of King Arthur’s knights, a figure of myth and legend, of chivalry and poetry; and in Ishiguro’s imagining, now an old man responding – just like John Wayne in The Searchers or James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – to one last call to arms. “Dressed in rusted chainmail and mounted on a weary steed”, Gawain’s “sacred mission” is to slay the she-dragon Querig.
The novel inhabits the gap in the historical record, argued over by archaeologists and historians, about what happened after the Roman occupation. The hypothesis Ishiguro brings to life is that waves of Anglo-Saxon migrants from the Germanic countries landed in the eastern part of Britain, “and at a certain point they massacred the people who were living here. There was what today we’d call ethnic cleansing – and they just vanished. The Britons, basically, were slaughtered.”
In support of this theory – another view suggests that the different groups interbred and assimilated – is that so little survives, in terms of place-names or the language that we use today, of the Romano-Celtic spoken at the time. It’s possible that it endures, in remnants, in Cornish or Welsh; that the survivors of the genocide fled to the westernmost parts of the country. By alighting on the moment before this brutal drama begins, Ishiguro captures a country on the brink of seismic change. As he puts it: “It’s not any old conflict that’s about to happen. This is the Anglo-Saxon settlement.”
It was both the uncertainty of what actually happened and the distance from contemporary events that attracted Ishiguro. His choice of setting was sparked by a reading of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or – more accurately – a tiny moment near the beginning when Gawain, “quite a pampered guy”, has to travel between castles, in a land without comfortable inns or courtly protection, constantly being chased out of villages by wolves and up hills by ogres: “And there’s a series of all the irritating things that happened in the countryside, how freezing cold it was, and rain, nowhere to shelter, and then he gets to the other castle and the story continues. And the way these things are mentioned, particularly the ogres, as if they’re just like boars or something in a field, I suddenly got this vision of a landscape … I thought, that’s quite a fun place to put something. And things like ogres and elves could be completely banal.”
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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Joyful, Gossipy and Absurd Private Life of Virginia Woolf

“I caused some slight argument with Leonard this morning by trying to cook my breakfast in bed. I believe, however, that the good sense of the proceeding will make it prevail; that is, if I can dispose of the eggshells.” (13 January 1915)

So wrote Virginia Woolf 100 years ago, musing on her latest domestic experiment. This attempt to cook eggs in bed was a light interlude in what was to become one of the worst years of her life. Reading her letters and diaries recently in the London Library, I discovered a more playful side to the modernist writer, who we have come to think of as stern, humourless, even tortured. Virginia’s daily journal and correspondence reveal a sensitive, perceptive young woman who loved a “debauch of gossip” with her friends. And this time in her life, January and February 1915, was a precious lull before the storm: one month later she plunged into a nervous breakdown so severe that she lost the rest of 1915.

Sadly, these breakdowns were nothing new. The sudden death of her mother from rheumatic fever in 1895 had provoked Virginia’s first breakdown at the age of 13. Her father’s death in 1904 triggered her second collapse; her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell wrote: “All that summer she was mad.” She also endured the death of her half-sister Stella in 1897 and her beloved brother Thoby in 1907; the repeated bereavements took their toll on her mental health. Virginia’s third breakdown in 1913, aged 31, occurred less than a year after her marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Between 1913-15 Virginia made several suicide attempts, including trying to jump from a window and overdosing on Veronal, a powerful sedative. As the ‘madness’ took hold, she would stop eating or sleeping and at times she hallucinated – Bell records that she once heard “the birds singing in Greek and [imagined] that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language”. 1915 ought to have been a good year for Virginia. As well as the publication of her first novel, she was starting to make a living from reviewing and other critical writing. She and Leonard were living in Richmond, making plans to set up their own printing press, and discussing buying a bulldog, to be called John. So why did 1915 take such a disastrous turn?

She had been grappling with endless drafts of The Voyage Out for four or five years – Leonard recalled her rewriting it “with a kind of tortured intensity”. It was finally published on 26 March 1915, the day after Virginia entered the nursing home where she was to remain for the next six months. The novel had been accepted for publication in 1913 (by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, who is said to have sexually abused her as a child) but was delayed because of her hospitalisation. Throughout Virginia’s life, the process of completing a book and working on proofs was a time of extreme anxiety, followed by the terrible wait for publication, and, still worse, the critical response. In 1936 while struggling with The Years she recalled the misery and self-doubt she had experienced two decades earlier: “I have never suffered, since The Voyage Out, such acute despair on re-reading . . . Never been so near the precipice to my own feeling since 1913.”

It was appropriate that I was rediscovering my great-aunt’s letters and diaries in the London Library: her father Sir Leslie Stephen was president of the Library from 1892 until his death in 1904. Virginia referred to it as “a stale culture smoked place” in 1915, although she was a regular visitor there. When the librarian showed me her original registration form, I was moved to see that she joined the library four days after her father’s death. Despite being only 22 years old, she describes her occupation on the form as “spinster”.

The joy of Virginia’s personal writings is the lively and varied content, from literary highs to domestic lows, gossip about her contemporaries and relatives, often satirical, sometimes spiteful (especially about the “Jews”, Leonard’s large family). On the one hand she is writing to Thomas Hardy: “I have long wished to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to you for your poems and novels, but naturally it seemed an impertinence to do so.” (17 January 1915). And in her diary at the same time she is documenting the daily catastrophes in their “House of Trouble” in Richmond: on a typical January day “the pipes burst; or got choked; or the roof split asunder. Anyhow in the middle of the morning, I heard a steady rush of water in the wainscot . . . various people have been clambering about the roof ever since. The water still drips through the ceiling into a row of slop pails.”

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