Thursday, 5 May 2016

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Gaskell

From what one can gather of Mrs Gaskell's nature, she would not have liked Mrs Chadwick's book. A cultivated woman, for whom publicity had no glamour, with a keen sense of humour and a quick temper, she would have opened it with a shiver and dropped it with a laugh. It is delightful to see how cleverly she vanishes. There are no letters to be had; no gossip; people remember her, but they seem to have forgotten what she was like. At least, cries Mrs Chadwick, she must have lived somewhere; houses can be described. 'There is a long, glass-covered porch, forming a conservatory, which is the main entrance.... On the ground-floor, to the right, is a large drawing room. On the left are a billiard room... a large kitchen... and a scullery..... There are ten bed rooms... and a kitchen garden sufficiently large to supply vegetables for a large family.' The ghost would feel grateful to the houses; it might give her a twinge to hear that she had 'got into the best literary set of the day', but on the other hand it would please her to read of how Charles Darwin was 'the best-known naturalist'.

The surprising thing is that there should be a public who wishes to know where Mrs Gaskell lived. Curiosity about the houses, the coats, and the pens of Shelley, Peacock, Charlotte Bronte, and George Meredith seems lawful. One imagines that these people did everything in a way of their own; and in such cases a trifle will start the imagination when the whole body of their published writings fails to thrill. But Mrs Gaskell would be the last person to have that peculiarity. One can believe that she prided herself upon doing things as other women did them, only better-that she swept manuscripts off the table lest a visitor should think her odd. She was, we know, the best of housekeepers, 'her standard of comfort', writes Mrs Chadwick, being 'expensive, but her tastes were always refined'; and she kept a cow in her back garden to remind her of the country.

For a moment it seems surprising that we should still be reading her books. The novels of today are so much terser, intenser, and more scientific. Compare the strike in North and South, for example, with the Strife of Mr Galsworthy. She seems a sympathetic amateur beside a professional in earnest. But this is partly due to a kind of irritation with the methods of mid-Victorian novelists. Nothing would persuade them to concentrate. Able by nature to spin sentence after sentence melodiously, they seem to have left out nothing that they knew how to say. Our ambition, on the other hand, is to put in nothing that need not be there. What we want to be there is the brain and the view of life; the autumnal woods, the history of the whale fishery, and the decline of stage coaching we omit entirely. But by means of comment, dialogues that depart from truth by their wit and not by their pomposity, descriptions fused into a metaphor, we get a world carved out arbitrarily enough by one dominant brain. Every page supplies a little heap of reflections, which, so to speak, we sweep aside from the story and keep to build a philosophy with. There is really nothing to stimulate such industry in the pages of Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, and Mrs Gaskell. A further deficiency (in modern eyes) is that they lack 'personality'. Cut out a passage and set it apart and it lies unclaimed, unless a trick of rhythm mark it. Yet it may be a merit that personality, the effect not of depth of thought but of the manner of it, should be absent. The tuft of heather that Charlotte Bronte saw was her tuft; Mrs Gaskell's world was a large place, but it was everybody's world.

She waited to begin her first novel until she was thirty-four, driven to write by the death of her baby. A mother, a woman who had seen much of life, her instinct in writing was to sympathize with others. Loving men and women, she seems to have done her best, like a wise parent, to keep her own eccentricities in the background. She would devote the whole of her mind to understanding. That is why, when one begins to read her, one is dismayed by the lack of cleverness.
Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded by subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things, and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough of food-of the sinking health, of the dying life of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times? I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters; but what I wish to express is what the workman feels and thinks.
So she misses the contrast. But by adding detail after detail in this profuse impersonal way she nearly achieves what has not been achieved by all our science. Because they are strange and terrible to us, we always see the poor in stress of some kind, so that the violence of their feeling may break through conventions, and, bringing them rudely into touch with us, do away with the need of subtle understanding. But Mrs Gaskell knows how the poor enjoy themselves; how they visit and gossip and fry bacon and lend each other bits of finery and show off their sores. This is the more remarkable because she was hampered by a refined upbringing and traditions of culture. Her working men and women, her outspoken and crabbed old family domestics, are generally more vigorous than her ladies and gentlemen, as though a touch of coarseness did her good. How admirable, for instance, is the scene when Mrs Boucher is told of her husband's death.

Read more >>>

Great Irish Romances: W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne

It could rightfully be considered in an inauspicious start to a great love story, when years later one half of the storied couple reflects on the day of their first meeting as the day that “the troubling of my life began”, yet that is exactly how William Butler Yeats was to describe his first meeting with Maud Gonne on the 30th of January, 1889.  To the young, introspective poet from Co. Sligo, born to a family of modest means, Maud Gonne could have been nothing less than a force of nature.  Confident, cosmopolitan, and well-traveled, she had lived in Dublin, London, and France at various times in her young life, and it was in the latter that she became embroiled in an affair with the married French nationalist, publisher, and politician, Lucien Millevoye.
Although the affair with Millevoye was very much alive at the time of her first meeting with Yeats in 1889, Maud and Willie, as she affectionately referred to him found much to admire in each other.  Drawn together by a mutual love for Ireland- where Maud had spent the better part of her childhood in Howth- and in turn Irish Nationalism, they found in each other a type of symbiosis.  Yeats, the dreamer, mystic, and ideologist, and Maud Gonne the living embodiment of those qualities as evidenced by her almost boundless energy for activism and passion for social causes as evidenced by her work on behalf of evicted tenants.
The precise nature of the relationship between them, however, remains a subject of strong debate. Yeats’ feelings toward Maud at times clearly bordered on the obsessive, as he was to write in Cycles Ago, subtitled “In Memory of Your Dream One July Night”.
My world was fallen and over, for your dark soft eyes on it shone; A thousand years it had waited and now it is gone, it is gone.
In fact, much of Yeats’ work centers on the unrequited and tumultuous aspects of his relationship with Maud Gonne. Throughout the years, he was to propose to her no fewer than three times. Each time she refused him. Never one for convention, Maud in turn proposed a type of “spiritual marriage” that existed at a deeper level and for a higher purpose than mere mortal love. By this time, heavily involved with Yeats in his pursuit of mysticism and the occult and initiated by Yeats in the Secret Society of the Golden Dawn, Maud wrote often in her letters to Willie of their bridging the geographical distance between them through astral projection and meditation. She saw their union as one of their intellects, spirits and souls. While appreciative of their “spiritual marriage”, Yeats eventually recognized the need for a more earthly type of fulfillment. At various times, he became involved with other, arguably more suitable partners. None of these relationships were to prove lasting, as one by one his various lovers came to understand the hold that Maud continued to have over him.
Yet despite her oft spoken convictions that sexual love was unfulfilling, and should exist only for procreation; and her aversion to marriage, which she believed was an institution of no benefit to a woman, Maud Gonne was a woman of contradiction…and secrecy. Within three months of her initial meeting with Willie in London, Maud became pregnant by Millevoye with her first child, son Georges, who died of illness at seventeen months of age. When it became impossible for her to conceal her grief at Georges’ death from Yeats, Maud informed him that a child she had adopted had passed away. In 1894, she became pregnant by Millevoye once again, this time giving birth to her daughter, Iseult, again without Yeats’ knowledge, despite the intensity of their written correspondence and the depth of the emotional bond between them.
Maud’s secret life came to light in November of 1898, when the couple found themselves in Dublin together. Yeats later wrote that it was then that the two shared their first actual kiss.  
Shortly after, Maud apologized to Yeats, telling him that she could never be his wife, and finally sharing the story of her affair with Millevoye and the birth of her two children by him. Despite the fact that the revelations were almost more than Willie could bear, it appears that their relationship did become at some point, slightly more conventional, although Maud continued to express her fear and horror of the act of physical love. To others she stated that although she loved Yeats dearly as a friend, she could not for one moment imagine marrying him.
By 1903, Maud seemed to have overcome her aversion to marriage. That year she wed Major John MacBride of the Irish Brigade. Her marriage, by all accounts, shattered Yeats. That year, she gave birth to Seán, her son by MacBride. The marriage was short-lived, however, ending bitterly when Maud filed for divorce on the basis of MacBride’s alleged debauchery and adultery. The acrimonious trial that ensued was front-page news, both in Ireland and in mainland Europe, with the French courts eventually ruling that due to MacBride’s Irish citizenship, and the illegality of divorce in that country, Maud petition for divorce could not be granted. Instead, she was allowed a legal separation that left her bitter, and for over a decade after, a virtual prisoner in France, as she feared that the legal custody of her son Seán, as granted her by the French courts, would not be honored in Ireland where MacBride resided.
Despite the geographical distance between them, Yeats was able to travel to see Maud several times during this period. Her letters to Yeats, which had always begun with “My dearest friend”, and “My dear Willie”, took a decided change in tone, suggestive of the fact that their relationship had evolved into something more than a spiritual or mystical union. In December of 1908, Maud wrote, 
Dearest…It was hard leaving you yesterday…Life is so good when we are together. It is hard being away from each other so much there are moments when I…long to be with you…beloved, I am glad and proud beyond measure of your love…I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest…loving you as I do, I have prayed…that the bodily desire is gone.
The next year, Yeats explored rather eloquently in his journal of his perceptions of what he considered to be Maud’s internal conflict. 
She will not divorce her husband and marry because of her Church. Since she said this, she has not been further from me but is always very near.  She does seem to love more than of old.  In addition to this, the old dread of physical love has awakened in her.  This dread has probably spoiled all her life, checking natural and instinctive selection, and leaving fantastic duties free to take its place.  It is what philosophy is to me, a daily rooter out of instinct and guiding joy- and all the while she grows nobler under the touch of sorrow and denial.  What end will it all have?  I fear for her and for myself.  She has all myself.  I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poisons.  I am in constant terror of some entanglement parting us, and all the while I know that she made me and I her.  She is my innocence, and I her wisdom.  Of old she was a phoenix and I feared her, but now she is my child more than my sweetheart.
Yeats was aware at this time that there had been a type of role reversal.  Whereas at the time of their initial meeting, he had been the innocent, the years since had taken their toll on Maud Gonne, and both her letters and his writings indicated that she had developed an emotional dependence on him. 
It was a role that he seems to have relished at times, and resented at others.  Well into his forties by now, Yeats began to be tormented by thoughts of what might have been.  Having taken on a fatherly role in the life of young Iseult, then fifteen, he remarked at one point that he could easily have had a daughter her age. 
In April of 1916, the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, and brought an abrupt end to Maud Gonne’s marriage when John MacBride, as one of its leaders, was executed in the aftermath. Maud expressed to Yeats at the time her belief that in dying for Ireland, MacBride had left young Seán a name he could be proud of. The next year, in October of 1917, Yeats, feeling the inexorable pull of old age, married Georgie Hyde Lees after first proposing, and being refused by Maud’s now twenty-three year old daughter Iseult. Drawn together by Georgie’s interest in the occult, his relationship with her had been previously one of friendship, and within days of his wedding, he was wracked with guilt, writing in “The Heart Replies”,
I did not find in any cage the woman by my side; O but her heart would break to know my thoughts are far away.
While Yeats eventually began settling into married life (Georgie became pregnant in early 1918), Maud threw herself into her old life of political fervor and intrigue.  She defied an existing ban on her traveling to Ireland, and went despite it, resulting in her arrest in May of 1918, and brief imprisonment in Holloway Gaol.  It was an experience that led her to work tirelessly on behalf of prisoner’s rights.  In the aftermath of the signing of the treaty, under which the Irish Free State was established, young Seán MacBride went on to join the IRA. Maud as well had become rabidly anti-Treaty. In 1922, Seán was taken prisoner by Free State government forces upon the surrender of the Four Courts.  Not long after, Free State soldiers raided Maud’s house on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, burning most of her papers in the streets, including, sadly, the majority of the letters written to her by Yeats over the course of their almost thirty-five year relationship. 
The next decade brought change.  Maud and Willie grew apart somewhat, divided by the same political chasm that divided Ireland.  Yeats had, for a time, served as a Senator, and Maud, always the activist, continued to write, and make speeches in support of her more radical pursuits.  Their written correspondence continued, although somewhat slowed by the passage of time, and of old age, although their letters continued to communicate a deep friendship and abiding mutual respect. 
Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats met one last time in August of 1938 when she visited him in Rathfarnham for tea.  He died five months later on January the 28th of 1939, and was temporarily interred in France.  Maud in true fashion, strongly petitioned for the return of his remains to Ireland where was eventually laid to rest in Sligo in the shadow of his beloved Ben Bulben.  Maud Gonne was to follow on April the 27th of 1953.
Read more >>>

Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street

The vexed politics of commemoration is very much in the air. At Oxford, students have demanded that a statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed, while Princeton has just rebuffed calls to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Government and Public Affairs. There’s no evidence that Oliver Goldsmith, standing at the entrance to Trinity College Dublin, needs to shake on his plinth, but some may wonder what he’s doing there.

Any thinking on Goldsmith’s worth will benefit from Norma Clarke’s handsomely produced, attractively priced, and highly readable Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. Goldsmith is one of the most successful and enduring Irish writers. Among his many works a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) has been continuously in print since publication; a poem, The Deserted Village (1770) immediately entered the canon; and a play, She Stoops to Conquer, has never been out of the repertoire since its first performance in 1773.

Clarke has no issue with Goldsmith’s stature as a writer; in fact, she takes it for granted. Her book is, however, most interested in a part of Goldsmith’s writing life that tends to get passed over: his Grub Street experience. As a result, Brothers of the Quill elegantly topples conventional accounts of Goldsmith’s career.

Clarke begins her story with Goldsmith’s arrival in London from the continent in 1756. Goldsmith already had behind him a varied and incompletely successful career: studies at Trinity (interrupted by a failed attempt to emigrate to America); spells in Edinburgh and Leyden as a medical student; and extended travels in Europe as a busker.

In London, Goldsmith got a job as a tutor and was introduced to Ralph Griffiths, the powerful owner and editor of the Monthly Review. At this time, print culture was rapidly expanding. Booksellers and publishers took the place of patrons, and newspapers and periodicals (many short-lived) gave writers opportunities to earn money, if not a living. Goldsmith and Griffiths made an agreement. In return for £100 a year, and board and lodgings above the shop, Goldsmith would write reviews from 9am to 2pm daily. Goldsmith had become a ‘hack’: a writer for hire.

Goldsmith’s time with Griffiths ended badly, but he subsequently entered into similar relationships with other booksellers, most notably John Newbery, best known as an entrepreneurial publisher of books for children. For these men, Goldsmith produced to order reviews, prefaces, and translations that were published anonymously.

Goldsmith’s tremendous critical success with a poem, The Traveller, published under his own name in 1764, may have initiated his ascent to respected man of letters, but, as Clarke points out, his work on Grub Street still continued.

Goldsmith was doubly disadvantaged in London metropolitan society: he wrote for money, and he was an Irishman. About professional authorship, Goldsmith wrote obsessively-and inconsistently. He was capable of cherishing authorship as a possible source of independence and respectability, and of reviling it as base enslavement to poor public taste.

On Ireland, and being Irish, he was a lot less explicit. Many readers have seen the mark of the writer’s native land in his major works, particularly in the wasted landscape of ‘Sweet Auburn’, the deserted village, but Goldsmith insisted the setting was English.

The unconventional structure of Brothers of the Quill comes from Clarke’s belief that Goldsmith is best seen in the context of “other voices, other lives”. The first half of the book follows Goldsmith out of Griffith’s employ, while also providing deft and vivid accounts of other Irish writers in London.

Paul Hiffernan, an erudite former priest, published The Hiberniad, a stout defence of Irish learning and landscape. He was also a notorious sponger and avid subscription-getter for books that never appeared.

Edward Purdon from Limerick translated Voltaire and dropped dead in his late 30s, inspiring an epitaph from Goldsmith: ‘Here lies poor Ned Purdon, from misery freed/Who long was a bookseller’s hack;/ He led such a damnable life in this world, /I don’t think he’ll wish to come back’. Samuel Derrick from Carlow, a poet, produced a respectable edition of John Dryden but his most lucrative effort was a catalogue of Covent Garden prostitutes (regularly updated). Con Pilkington, son of the poet Laetitia (herself the subject of a fine book by Clarke), turned his precarious life into an early example of ‘misery lit’. Hacks could be learned and enterprising but their lives were often sordid and brief.

Fundamental to the low esteem suffered by hacks was the suspicion that pens for hire would write anything, sell anything, in a grubby effort to survive. Hack writing was often described in terms of prostitution or slavery. Some of the links Clarke sees between Goldsmith’s major writings and his fellow hacks are speculative and suggestive, rather than conclusive, but the overall context is compelling. Grub Street represents in little the ambivalent power of a commercial, and newly imperial, society. Like other hacks, Goldsmith was mired in the processes of selling, but in his predicament he also saw commerce as a system at once productive and barbarous: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay’ ( The Deserted Village). Nineteenth-century admirers of Goldsmith such as John Kells Ingram, one of the instigators of the Trinity statue, and the novelist William Thackeray, valued a gentle Goldsmith, full of love and feeling. Such versions of the author depended on autobiographical and partial readings of the works, on seeing Goldsmith in the naïve, but good-hearted, Mr Primrose, the Vicar of Wakefield, or as the nostalgic speaker of The Deserted Village, longing for the warmth and familiarity of a way of life that has been destroyed.

Read more >>>

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door”

On a recent cold, rainy Friday afternoon, I met my friend, whom I’ll call Nell—a small, compact, unflappable person with a halo of gold hair who ran away to join the circus when she was young. Nell was reading a book. When she raised her eyes from the page, she looked like someone who had stepped back from the curb at the very last moment before being hit by a bus. The book she was reading was a paperback novel with a pale gray cover, by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, called “The Door.” It was first published in Hungary, in 1987, then here in 1995, and was reissued last year, in a new translation by Len Rix. A few weeks ago, in The New York Review of Books, Deborah Eisenberg referred to the “white-knuckled experience” of reading it. Writing about “The Door,” in the Times, the writer Claire Messud, who, like Eisenberg, found the book mesmerizing, went so far as to say, “It has altered the way I understand my own life.”

Magda Szabó, who died in 2007, at the age of ninety, was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. (This year, The New York Review imprint will also publish a new translation of “Iza’s Ballad,” from 1963.) She was born into a Protestant family in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, in the northeast corner of the country, and went to university there. After graduation, she taught classics at a Calvinist girls’ school. In 1945, she began working in in the Ministry of Education, and two years later she married Tibor Szobotka, a writer who was the Hungarian translator of James Joyce and George Eliot, among others. The couple had no children. Her first book of verse, “The Lamb,” was published that same year. She followed it with a second collection, “Back to the Human,” and in 1949 was awarded the Baumgarten Prize, one of Hungary’s most prestigious literary awards. The prize was rescinded on the same day: she had been named as an “enemy of the people” by the recently installed Communist Party.

Szabó was fired from the Ministry. During the Stalinist rule of Hungary, from 1949 to 1956, she was not allowed to publish her work. Since then, her books have been published in forty-two countries; in 2003, the French translation of “The Door” won France’s Prix Femina Étranger. In Hungary her novel “Abigél,” which was published in 1970, was made into a popular television show, in 1978, and was ranked sixth in Hungary’s version of “The Big Read,” which followed the BBC model of the hundred favorite books of all time. Other books in the top ten included “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings.” In 1999, at a cold windy day at the Budapest Book Fair, long lines of people waited at an outdoor booth for Szabó to sign copies of her book. The other day, my sixteen-year-old daughter was lamenting the end of “Downton Abbey,” which had occupied many Sunday nights of her childhood, and we found an article online called “Downton Abbey: What to Watch Next Now That It’s Over.” If there was a similar article about what to read once you’ve finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, “The Door”—though it lacks the scope of those books, coming in under two hundred pages—might top the list.

“The Door” is about a writer, who is the narrator, who lives in a village in Hungary, with her husband, who is also a writer. Their work has been banned; before the start of the book, the ban has been lifted. Now that she will be able to write again, and there will be other demands competing with her household for her attention, the writer realizes that she will need domestic help. Almost immediately, she is presented with an older woman, Emerence, who is the kind of person who would affectionately be called “the Mayor” in a small town. She cooks and cleans for people in the village, she minds children, she sweeps the snow off the street in winter. She knows everyone’s business. She holds court on the scrubbed porch outside her house. No one is allowed past her closed front door, although a smell of disinfectant leaks out over the lintel.

The narrator learns that she is not interviewing Emerence for a job; Emerence will decide, in due course, whether she will work for her. After all, she doesn’t do everyone’s dirty laundry. While the novel is set in a village, and is populated by various village types, like a parable—the kind cop, the good nephew, the sad seamstress—only four characters, three of them human—the narrator, her husband, and Emerence—figure in this story. Indeed, we learn very little about the marriage, or the narrator’s husband, nor about her husband’s seemingly grave illnesses. Instead, the book is dominated by the narrator’s intense interest in ferreting out the details of Emerence’s story and Emerence’s passionate attachment to the fourth figure in the story, a dog, who has been inadvertently acquired by the writer and her husband when they find it abandoned on Christmas Eve. (I have some affinity with this part of the story, having acquired two cats in a similar manner.) The dog, whom Emerence insists on calling Viola, although it is male (later we find out why), immediately attaches itself fervently to Emerence, and the narrator—who really does not care a whit about the dog—is jealous at any deep affection that is not aimed in her direction.

As in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Szabó is writing about a writer who despite domestic and other difficulties—some of which are historical predicaments that affect domestic life—is trying to write, and like those books, “The Door” revolves around the relationship of two women, one of whom is telling the story and may or may not be a reliable narrator. Like Lila, the brilliant friend in the Neapolitan quartet, Emerence is a mystery to the writer, impenetrable, existing with her secrets behind a locked door, a woman of extraordinary gifts—there are hints of this throughout the novel—who has chosen to fetter her own wings.

Those who clean other people’s houses for a living or help raise children learn many secrets. For a long time I relied on one person whom I thought of as a friend to clean my house, and another to help raise my children. In the first instance—I thought—the relationship was straightforward, but it was not. In the second, I knew it was not. By the time my youngest child was in her care, my marriage was breaking up and she witnessed scenes and was the receiver of confidences. There were moments when my child was with her when I did not know where she was, exactly. I insisted that those moments must cease and when she refused, I removed my child from her sphere. (Did I really ever think my child was in danger? No, it was the principle of the thing, I told myself, a phrase I find myself falling back on when the ground under my feet is shaky.) She vanished from our lives for a time, to the distress of my child, who quite rightly thought then that she was left in the care of two squabbling children.

I thought of this time, now past, reading “The Door.” To read it is to feel turned inside out—as if our own foibles have been written in soap on the mirror, to be read when we wake up from the trance of our own self-importance. In a short introduction, the British novelist Ali Smith suggests that Emerence may indeed be Hungary itself. If so, the novel is also about how despite our own wishes to be free of history, our own agency is curtailed by our time and circumstances: in the novel, Emerence’s great calamity would have occurred, after all, whether the narrator was there to witness it or not.

The book, which closely parallels events in Szabó’s own life, begins and ends with a dream; it reads like one, too—a fever dream, the shadow of a shadow. When I read the Ferrante series, in one fell swoop, it seemed to me as I sped from book to book as if Lenu and Lila were two halves of the same person, one that went forward, and the other who remained in the landscape of childhood, with access to the past’s terrible power. “The Door” is a bone-shaking book. At moments of crisis—-one involves an actual bolt of lightning, another, the consumption of a stupefying meal—the reader experiences a sensory ricochet. It is as if you are watching someone being run over by a car—bad enough—and at the same time you are the victim under the wheel, and then, triply implicated, also the driver of the car, backing up to run over the person in the road once more. It’s hallucinatory and confounding. Reading, you think: this can’t be happening. And of course, it isn’t happening. It’s a book. But is it? Did it?

Read more >>>

Monday, 2 May 2016

James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation

“On one side of town I was an Uncle Tom,” said James Baldwin in an interview with The Paris Review, “and on the other the Angry Young Man.” But the list of epithets was much longer than that. Robert Kennedy, apoplectic at Baldwin’s statement in a private meeting in 1963 that black Americans couldn’t be counted on to fight in Vietnam, called him a “nut.” Harold Cruse, who attended the same meeting with Kennedy, complained of Baldwin’s “intellectual inconsistencies,” while Richard Wright, his earliest idol and first champion, considered him an ungrateful apostate. To Eldridge Cleaver, Baldwin was a traitor, with a “grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites.” British Immigration named him a persona non grata and J. Edgar Hoover, who kept a case file on Baldwin at the FBI that ran 1,884 pages long, declared him “a well-known pervert” and a threat to national security.

Baldwin, for his part, accepted no characterization. “A real writer,” he wrote, “is always shifting and changing and searching.” The credo guided his work and his life. He moved to France at the age of twenty-four to avoid “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” Later he would recoil whenever someone described him as a spokesman for his race or for the civil rights movement. He rejected political labels, sexual labels (“homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual are twentieth-century terms which, for me, really have very little meaning”), and questioned the notion of racial identity, an “invention” of paranoid, infantile minds. “Color is not a human or a personal reality,” he wrote in The Fire Next Time. “It is a political reality.”

His refusal to align himself with any bloc within the civil rights movement isolated him, and he suffered from it—Cleaver’s attack wounded him, as did Wright’s sense of betrayal and Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to exclude him from the list of speakers at the March on Washington. But the same resistance to alliances that cost him during his lifetime has given shape and power to his afterlife. Now that the old factions have disintegrated, and the national discussion of race has largely retreated from debates over proposed solutions to a debate over whether problems still exist, Baldwin’s work has regained its influence. That his observations about race in America feel as relevant and cutting as ever is as much a testament to his insight as to the level of the current discourse.

Today, like sixty years ago, much of the public rhetoric about race is devoted to explaining to an incurious white public, in rudimentary terms, the contours of institutional racism. It must be spelled out, as if for the first time, that police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents but outbreaks of a chronic national disease. Nebulous, bureaucratic terms like “white privilege” have been substituted for “white supremacy,” or “micro-aggressions” for “casual racism.” “All Power to the People,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “We Shall Overcome” have yielded to the understated, matter-of-fact “Black Lives Matter.” The rhetorical front has withdrawn from “How can we cure this?” to “What is the nature of the problem?”

Writers, scholars, and activists have turned to Baldwin for answers. The first annual volume of The James Baldwin Review appeared last year1 and at least a dozen books have been published about Baldwin since Barack Obama’s inauguration, most of which comb the embers of his legacy for some new spark; these include monographs about Baldwin’s life in Turkey and in Provence, his views on the criminal justice system, and his writing on music. One of the more valuable recent entries is Douglas Field’s All Those Strangers, an idiosyncratic biography that focuses on three (somewhat) neglected fields of Baldwin study: his relationship to the political left and the FBI, his thinking about Africa, and his conflicting views on religion and spirituality. Field emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Baldwin’s various identities. The strangers of the title are Baldwin’s incarnations:
Baldwin the deviant rabble rouser…; Baldwin the civil rights activist…; Baldwin the passé novelist and homosexual sidelined by Black Nationalists; Baldwin the expatriate; and the Baldwin struggling to work out his conflicted relationship to Africa.
As Field examines in turn each of these strangers, he creates a portrait of a writer of “outright contradictions” who sought truth at the expense of ideological purity. Baldwin was often hailed as a prophet but this praise was misplaced: he could not predict the future, but few writers were able to diagnose the present as vividly or unsparingly. That was enough.

With the man himself having departed the scene three decades ago, contemporary writers have chased his ghost. In The New Yorker, Teju Cole traveled to Leukerbad, the town where Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain (and the subject of his essay “Stranger in the Village”); in The New York Times, Ellery Washington followed Baldwin’s trail around Paris; and, again in The New Yorker, Thomas Chatterton Williams trespassed onto the property in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where Baldwin spent the final seventeen years of his life. (“Today, among my generation of black writers and readers,” writes Williams, “James Baldwin is almost universally adored.”)

No one has done more to popularize Baldwin in recent years than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who used Baldwin’s address to his nephew in “My Dungeon Shook,” the first part of The Fire Next Time, as a model for Between the World and Me, the most widely read book on race in America in a generation.2 Consecutive short essays by Coates in The Atlantic about his response to Baldwin’s nonfiction demonstrate the difficulty in pinning Baldwin down. “Baldwin’s writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all,” Coates wrote in the first essay. Writing two days later: “My point is that after all of this—after all his hard talk—Baldwin is still talking about love.”

This year on January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the most-viewed speech in America was Chris Rock’s recitation of “My Dungeon Shook.” Delivered at Harlem’s Riverside Church, about a mile west of Baldwin’s childhood neighborhood, the performance was remarkable both for Rock’s impassioned delivery and his omission of the essay’s most incendiary passage: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” There remain limits to what even a figure as respected and outspoken as Rock can say on the subject of race in America today.

Read more >>>

Friday, 29 April 2016

Sensational Novelist -The mysterious mastery of Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was quite literally a colorful character. His doctor described his attire at dinner as sometimes featuring “a light camel hair or tweed suit, with a broad pink or blue striped shirt, and perhaps a red tie." On another occasion he appeared wearing a low-cut shirt "dashed with great, gory squares" with a bright blue jacket and a rakishly-tied spotted neckerchief of the kind popularized by James Belcher, the bare-knuckle boxing champion.

His physique was as incongruous as his wardrobe. Five-foot-six, with a large head, acute myopia, and a weak chin (later masked with a bushy beard) he was apt when sitting to jiggle his knees nervously, "as if soothing invisible babies." He liked to party. Rebelling against the stolid English diet of gravy soup, mutton, and cabinet pudding as he rebelled against other stolid English conventions, he liked to indulge in Parisian pleasures: pints of champagne, paté de foie gras, garlic sauces, and sauciness.

Charles Dickens was friends with him, as a fellow author who collaborated in his plays and his magazine, but also partly because the younger man was an enthusiastic coadventurer on bachelor holidays that included whoring. The two shared "Haroun al-Raschid" expeditions, named after the Caliph in the Arabian Nights who each night goes slumming incognito in the streets of Baghdad.

Collins wrote over 20 novels, but today is chiefly remembered for two: The Moonstone (1868), arguably the first English detective novel, and The Woman in White (1859), a breathless mystery involving spousal abuse and attempted homicide, doubles, incarceration, madness, and a ground-breaking narrative method in which we hear from several different narrators in turn, as if they were witnesses in court, and piece the "truth" together from their fractured accounts.

These novels electrified 19th-century Britain and America. Indeed, the genre of which Collins was the presiding master became known as the "sensation novel." Thomas Hardy complained that such fiction contained "murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives." The sales figures attest that being shocked was a guilty pleasure that thousands of Victorians relished.

Where the Gothic novels of the previous century had depicted horrors that occurred in the monasteries and castles of Roman Catholic Italy and France, Collins pioneered a domestic Gothic that played out in ordinary, contemporary British streets and houses: what he dubbed "the secret theatre of home." His novels suggest the possibility that we are all impersonating someone and we are all hiding something. Freudian psychoanalysis would develop these insights, arguing that what is unheimlich (uncanny) is precisely that which is heimlich (domestic). We are the monsters of whom we are afraid.

Peter Ackroyd's new life of Wilkie Collins is the latest in his series of Brief Lives, biographies that provide an account of their subject in around 200 pages. Ackroyd is an old hand at describing Victorian London; he has produced many noteworthy volumes including biographies of Dickens, of J.M.W. Turner, and of London itself. Given the depth and breadth of his knowledge, however, this digest of Collins's life is both more superficial, and more plodding, than one would hope.

It begins well enough, with Wilkie's birth to the artist William Collins and his vivacious, sharp-witted wife Harriet Geddes, a woman who had wanted to be an actress but heeded her family's moral objections and became a governess instead. Wilkie would inherit her passion for the stage. Like his father (as Ackroyd points out) he also "possessed a painter's eye" and learned the importance of connecting "figures with the landscape, making each of equal importance." In his novels, locations such as The Shivering Sands, a quicksand which swallows up one of The Moonstone's suspects, embody the nervous energy, the subconscious fears and desires of the characters.

William Collins needed to study the Old Masters in Rome and, accordingly, took his small family to live abroad when Wilkie was a teenager. Wilkie dived precociously into the cultural, gastronomic, and sexual embrace of Italy and found the material that would enable him to write his first published novel, Antonina: or the Fall of Rome, a toga-ripping melodrama set in the fifth century a.d., whose success would enable him to evade the dull but respectable professions (preaching, tea-dealing) that his father recommended.

Once Ackroyd begins on Collins's writing career, however, the difficulties of a potted biography of such a prolific author become apparent. Ackroyd is committed to giving us an outline account of each of the books and plays that Collins penned. This leaves comparatively little room for discussion of other important matters, such as Collins's interest in mesmerism and psychology; the landmark criminal cases, exhaustively reported in the newspapers, that influenced his writing; his friendships; and his complicated emotional life.

After his novels, the thing for which Wilkie Collins is now most famous is the scandal surrounding his domestic arrangements. He lived for much of his adult life with a widowed shopkeepeer, Caroline Graves, whom he didn't marry. In his forties, he took up with a barmaid, Martha Rudd, with whom he set up a second household and had three children. He didn't marry her, either.

Many 19th-century men ran two relationships in tandem. Dickens cast off the wife who had borne him 10 children and took up with a teenage actress called Ellen Ternan. Dickens's illustrator, George Cruikshank, had a childless marriage and a secret family with one of his servants. William Frith, the painter of The Derby Day and other Victorian crowd scenes, took the cake when it came to having it and eating it too: He fathered 12 children with his wife and 7 with his mistress.

Read more >>>

Why Spinoza still matters

In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took up the question of whether it was time to rehabilitate Spinoza and welcome him back into the congregation that had expelled him with such prejudice. There was, though, one thing that they needed to know: should we still regard Spinoza as a heretic?

Unfortunately, the herem document fails to mention specifically what Spinoza’s offences were – at the time he had not yet written anything – and so there is a mystery surrounding this seminal event in the future philosopher’s life. And yet, for anyone who is familiar with Spinoza’s mature philosophical ideas, which he began putting in writing a few years after the excommunication, there really is no such mystery. By the standards of early modern rabbinic Judaism – and especially among the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, many of whom were descendants of converso refugees from the Iberian Inquisitions and who were still struggling to build a proper Jewish community on the banks of the Amstel River – Spinoza was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that.

What is remarkable is how popular this heretic remains nearly three and a half centuries after his death, and not just among scholars. Spinoza’s contemporaries, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, made enormously important and influential contributions to the rise of modern philosophy and science, but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today. The Spinozists, however, walk among us. They are non-academic devotees who form Spinoza societies and study groups, who gather to read him in public libraries and in synagogues and Jewish community centres. Hundreds of people, of various political and religious persuasions, will turn out for a day of lectures on Spinoza, whether or not they have ever read him. There have been novels, poems, sculptures, paintings, even plays and operas devoted to Spinoza. This is all a very good thing.

It is also a very curious thing. Why should a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose dense and opaque writings are notoriously difficult to understand incite such passionate devotion, even obsession, among a lay audience in the 21st century? Part of the answer is the drama and mystery at the centre of his life: why exactly was Spinoza so harshly punished by the community that raised and nurtured him? Just as significant, I suspect, is that everyone loves an iconoclast – especially a radical and fearless one that suffered persecution in his lifetime for ideas and values that are still so important to us today. Spinoza is a model of intellectual courage. Like a prophet, he took on the powers-that-be with an unflinching honesty that revealed ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society.

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

Read more >>>