Sunday, 15 January 2017

The stories behind the story of Albert Camus’s ‘The Stranger’

When Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was published in France in early 1942, no one, least of all its 29-year-old author, could have guessed the impact the book would have, then and in the future. The Outsider / The Stranger (Stuart Gilbert’s English translation, published in 1946, had different titles in different countries) wasn’t exactly a best-seller in its early years. It came to have a life of its own, but oftentimes, there was no separating the book from its writer.

It wasn’t just how the book came to be written, or the fact that Camus wrote it as the Second World War broke out, but because of the aura that surrounded Camus soon after the book’s publication. It coincided with the recognition of Camus as a key figure of the French resistance.

The Stranger continues to have a vivid afterlife. It became synonymous with existentialism, to Camus’s own chagrin, and it won its author fame and notoriety in equal measure. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Camus – the most enduring one with Camus in a trench coat, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lips – were all taken between 1944 and 1945, after the War, and after the book was published (when Camus’s favoured Gauloises were once again available).

The Stranger, that sparest of novels, retains its ambiguity 75 years after its publication. It’s a novel born of its times and yet enduring. It has been analysed at various levels: for its characters and the motives – baffling and intriguing – that drive them. What drives Meursault in his life, and what makes him commit the act that condemns him; the disbelief on the part of the magistrate and the chaplain, their (absurd) entreaties in the name of religion; its unidimensional female characters, not just Marie, but even Meursault’s dead mother; and then, the silent Arab in the novel, whose passivity has, however, in recent times, evoked a reaction, especially a novelistic one.

In her book on The Stranger, Alice Kaplan doesn’t attempt to answer every question. It can, almost like the very book it seeks to unravel, be read in many ways. As a biography of a book, and of its author during the time of its writing. It’s also a primer on what makes a great classic, or what makes a writer, write a great classic. It is also about how a book comes into being. As Kaplan demonstrates, a classic is never created in isolation; it is propped up by its admirers, its supporters and an entire team of adherents. Camus, in this sense was fortunate. It was fortune, hard-earned, and richly deserved.

In mid-1940, when Camus finally completed the manuscript in a lonely hotel room in Paris, it was the book he just had to write. The Stranger “was a book he found in himself, rather than writing a book about himself.” It was fiction that was in him, Kaplan writes, waiting to be discovered.

The Stranger was not a straightforward book by any measure. It came out of Camus’s heartbreak and disappointments, within himself, and his own creative life. Both his lungs had already been affected by tuberculosis, his first marriage to Simone Hie had failed, and he faced a life without the prospect of a steady job. Camus had been published twice already, but he was an Algerian writer and this made him somewhat “provincial”. Paris was the scene of literary activity and recognition, but Paris seemed farther away than ever at that time.

For all this, in early 1939, Camus set out to write an oeuvre; to fashion a literary legacy for himself. The Stranger would form the first of his writings: part of a trilogy that included the play Caligula and the long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. These emerged out of Camus’s concerns with the philosophy of the absurd – that freedom is meaningless, and doesn’t signify anything for the universe remains essentially indifferent, his interest in writing “negative fiction”, and his own life, growing up in a working-class neighbourhood, Belcourt, in Algiers. Algeria was a French colony till its independence in 1962.

Kaplan maps out the influences on Camus – literal and personal. His childhood was largely “silent”, and spent with his mother and uncle, both deaf, and so language was reduced to a minimum, largely referencing objects, never abstractions. But it was precisely this period of disappointments that gave him reason for hope. A lifelong idol, Andre Malraux, writer, activist, spoke against the growing threats of Fascism while on a visit to Algeria. Camus’s mentors, besides his teacher of philosophy, Jean Grenier, also included Pascal Pia, a radical journalist and editor. Camus went to work for Pia’s leftist newspaper, Alger-Republicain; and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between them.

Camus reported and wrote of the criminal trials he witnessed in court, a couple of which Kaplan details, such as the trial following the murder of a conservative Islamic theologian. The trials and the courtroom scenes gave Camus several insights into ethnic tensions that prevailed in Algeria, and the absurdity of the justice system; French justice only appeared to heighten the injustices of colonialism.

Like his great contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus also read American noir. As Kaplan writes, Sartre read Dashiell Hammett before he wrote Nausea, a philosophical work that reads like a detective novel. Camus preferred James M Cain’s bestselling The Postman Always Rings Twice, translated into French in 1936. Meursault’s narration echoes, Kaplan suggests, Frank’s first-person confession in Cain’s novel. Cain evoked, as Camus himself acknowledged, “sensationalism through understatement.”

The Stranger was completed as Camus worked during the day in a dingy hotel room in Paris, while in the evenings, he worked for a newspaper set up by Pia. It was a time of loneliness and camaraderie. As the war raged on, Camus moved from Paris to Oran in Algeria, a city on the coast, to the west of Algiers. (The outbreak of typhus in Oran would influence Camus’s second novel, The Plague, published in 1947.)

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Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner

The young Thomas Hardy was determined to make a living out of literature. But the market was crowded, and he had no influential connections. For years he struggled to find a voice that would sell. What finally brought success was the “partly real, partly-dream country” that he created from his lifelong association with rural Dorset. The imagined Wessex that emerged from his novels of the early 1870s – Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd – appealed to a nostalgic appetite for vanishing pastoral traditions among the urbanised population of Victorian Britain. He wrote about the country, but his popularity was a product of the city.

Mark Ford’s absorbing new study argues that our wish to see Hardy as a man of Dorset has distracted us from his formative life as a Londoner. In Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley ponders the sensitive “nervous motion” of his cousin Sue Bridehead, making her quite unlike the stolidly rustic women he had known as a child. “London had done it, he supposed.” The vortex of London, with its unpredictable opportunities and competitive pressures, was also the phenomenon that made Hardy.

Architecture, not fiction, was what first took him to live in the capital. His father was a builder, and a respectable career as an architect seemed to the family a natural progression for their talented boy. Hardy had been apprenticed to a local architect in Dorchester for five years when he arrived in London in 1862, at the age of 21. It was as an assistant architect in the thriving offices of Arthur Blomfield that he found work. A dedicated self-improver, he combined his daily duties with an intensive programme of reading, visiting museums and galleries in order to study paintings, attending concerts, operas, plays and church services, playing the violin, taking lessons in French, and writing poetry. He lost the Christian faith of his youth (though not what he termed his persistently “churchy” tastes), and moved closer to a radical hostility to the settled hierarchies of class and money. His growing disaffection meant that he had no inclination to pursue fashionable social connections, and he would in any case hardly have had time for them.

Some of Hardy’s activities in these early years were, as Ford remarks, wilfully eccentric – such as his “peculiar attempt to rewrite the book of Ecclesiastes in Spenserian stanzas”. Such a project was unlikely to win fame and fortune. Attempts to publish his poetry came to nothing, and it began to look as though recognition as an architect was a more realistic prospect. He won first prize in two competitions, one for the design of a country mansion, and another for an essay on the topical subject of the “Application of Coloured Bricks and Terra Cotta to Modern Architecture”, which won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ silver medal. Hardy was clearly gratified by these accolades, but they were not what he really wanted. His unrelenting pursuit of a cultural education became an obsession that brought him to the point of collapse. Exhausted and apparently defeated, in 1867 he returned to Dorset and resumed work as an architect with his first employer.

The five years Hardy spent in London might have put paid to his chances as a writer. But he was quick to recover health and hope, and to profit from what he had learned in the city. He had come to understand that novels, not poems, offered the best chance of a literary career. The modern discontents that he had encountered in London gave him a subject. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was a protest against the rigid prejudices that had frustrated his aspirations. It did not find a publisher, but readers’ reports were encouragingly respectful.

Hardy had acquired another reason for perseverance, for Emma Gifford, his future wife, was convinced that he had a prosperous future as an author. He had to prove that she was right before he could embark on marriage. With characteristic resolve, he began to turn out novels with astonishing regularity, gradually making his way towards an acknowledged position in the literary world. His first published book, Desperate Remedies, was designed to cater for the urban taste for sensation fiction. Under the Greenwood Tree, a stronger novel, came out in the following year, and began to explore the possibilities of a rural setting. A Pair of Blue Eyes appeared in 1873, when Hardy was 33, and its modest success gave him the confidence to become a full-time writer. The next novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, made his name. Hardy was able to marry, and moved with his new wife back to London.

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Saturday, 14 January 2017

Jane Austen at 200: still a friend and a stranger

“Downright nonsense” was the verdict of Mrs Augusta Bramston, a Hampshire friend and neighbour of the Austen family, on reading Pride and Prejudice. In 1814, Jane Austen published Mansfield Park, a sophisticated study of love and family life. Mrs Bramston nevertheless thought she ought to give it go, and having struggled through volume one, “flattered herself she had got through the worst”.

Jane Austen recorded this and other hilarious remarks from friends in a list of opinions on Mansfield Park. The document, in Austen’s own neat handwriting, is just one of the funny and sad items in the British Library’s new exhibition, Jane Austen Among Family and Friends, which opened on Tuesday.

Austen surely recorded the comments in a spirit of malicious mockery rather than regret. Even if only a small number of readers appreciated her at the time of her death in 1817, she hopefully knew just how brilliant a writer she was. Two hundred years later, everyone knows it. Her face is to appear on £10 notes and £2 coins, and the bicentenary of her death will see a slew of exhibitions showcasing her writing and world.

The British Library show concentrates on the handful of people who did value Austen: her family and friends. To them, she was not just an entertaining writer, but a daughter, sister and especially an aunt to her 33 nieces and nephews. Yet, while the Austens were proud of her, they couldn’t quite comprehend that she had published four well-received novels. “Every country has had its great men,” wrote her niece Caroline, “Such a one was my Aunt.” She was actually doing her best to talk up Austen’s achievements, but lacked the language with which to do so. “Great” writers were so obviously supposed to be male, and not anyone’s aunt.

Many of Austen’s stories – and some of her very earliest are on display at the British Library – were first written for family members, to be read aloud during quiet country evenings in the various parsonages, cottages and, in a few lucky cases, the mansions in which the extended Austen clan lived.

Until she published her books, Austen had no income apart from pocket money from her father or brothers. “Her whole world was her family,” explains Sandra Tuppen, the exhibition’s curator. “They gave her stability to write, she was reliant on them for money.” But with that came a sense of obligation. The exhibition contains a watercolour of Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s mansion in Kent, where Jane spent long periods as the poor relation relied upon for cheap childcare. Once you know this, you understand how Austen the novelist used her insider-outsider perspective to skewer the vanities of the genteel world.

George Austen, Jane’s father, looms large in the exhibition. First, there’s the mahogany writing desk he bought her for her 19th birthday, which folds up into a neat, lockable box for travel. It represents a vote of confidence from the man who would act as her first, if unsuccessful, literary agent. One of the British Library’s treasures today, the desk’s drawers would have concealed the drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

George also purchased the notebooks in which Jane wrote out the uproarious and wicked short stories of her adolescence and teens. The notebook called “Volume the Second” contains Jane’s own handwritten version, for example, of “The Beautiful Cassandra”. The heroine falls in love, but not with a bewitching young viscount. The object of her desire is a bonnet. She steals it from a shop, before going to a confectioner’s where she “devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away”. Cassandra’s riotous adventures take place in 12 short chapters, each a sentence long: another joke was that this “novel” contained only 350 words. The three of Jane’s notebooks containing her teenage writings have been reunited by the British Library for the first time in 40 years.

But then there’s a letter from Jane to her brother Frank, telling him of their father’s death in Bath. His decease plunged his widow and daughters into financial crisis, for with George’s death their income simply stopped. From then on Jane had to live upon the charity of her brothers. “It’s a difficult society in which to be a woman,” explains Tuppen. “At one point, Jane has to stay in Kent for two months because there’s no one free among her brothers to ‘bring’ her home again.” It was not respectable to travel in a public stagecoach alone. Frank was Jane’s benefactor, but also her controller.

Every word written by Austen was published long ago, so what is there to gain from seeing the real thing? The paper, the pens, the handwriting are all important, according to Tuppen. “The kinds of book she had to write in affected how her stories grew,” she says, pointing out that all the exhibits are small, no sheet of paper wider than a handspan. Paper was expensive; Austen had to use it carefully. “You also get a sense of her as a human being, quick thinking, very witty,” Tuppen continues, pointing out one letter where she has flipped the paper to squeeze more words in upside-down.

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Montaigne On Trial

French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.

 “Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.

Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.

The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.

He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.

But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.

This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.

Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.

As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle.

The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”

Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.

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Friday, 6 January 2017

Anne Brontë: the sister who got there first

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among ... rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

Anne grew up poor. Agnes’s family are not rich to begin with, but things really get desperate when her father Richard loses their meagre savings on a dodgy investment and slumps into depression. So the women take over. Agnes’s capable, enterprising mother Alice slashes their expenses. Then they start working out how they might make more money. Mary goes for the most genteel work she can find: she starts selling her watercolours. Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. Her family scoff that she’s much too young, but she persuades them. She arrives at her first job, with the Bloomfield family (in real life, they were the Inghams), feeling a “rebellious flutter” of excitement. But instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”. And when the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell asked Anne’s sister Charlotte if the scene with the nestlings had really happened, Charlotte replied that no one who had not been a governess really knew the dark side of so-called respectable human nature.

Anne was after more than shock value; she wanted to show that Tom’s cruelty was sanctioned, even encouraged, by his family. Agnes realises that Tom’s cruelty is all of a piece; whether he is torturing birds, hitting his sisters or kicking his governess, he wants to “persecute the lower creation”, because he sees women, girls and defenceless animals as his to exploit, abuse and oppress. After months of being wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, overworked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horrors of a first job – Agnes has started to understand how the world works. Her consciousness has been raised. And then she is fired.

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The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi

Couple of years ago, when Coldplay’s Chris Martin was going through a divorce from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling down, a friend gave him a book to lift his spirits. It was a collection of poetry by Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, translated by Coleman Barks. “It kind of changed my life,” Martin said later, in an interview. A track from Coldplay’s most recent album features Barks reciting one of the poems: “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.”

Rumi has helped the spiritual journeys of other celebrities—Madonna, Tilda Swinton—some of whom similarly incorporated his work into theirs. Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,” one of them goes. Or, “Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul.” Barks’s translations, in particular, are shared widely on the Internet; they are also the ones that line American bookstore shelves and are recited at weddings. Rumi is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim.

The words that Martin featured on his album come from Rumi’s “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem that he wrote toward the end of his life. Its fifty thousand lines are mostly in Persian, but they are riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Koranic anecdotes that offer moral lessons. (The work, which some scholars consider unfinished, has been nicknamed the Persian Koran.) Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, told me that Rumi probably had the Koran memorized, given how often he drew from it in his poetry. Rumi himself described the “Masnavi” as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”—meaning Islam—“and the explainer of the Koran.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion,” Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told me recently.

Rumi was born in the early thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. He later settled in Konya, in present-day Turkey, with his family. His father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. It was there that he met an elder traveller, Shams-i-Tabriz, who became his mentor. The nature of the intimate friendship between the two is much debated, but Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Koranic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.

This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Koran acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”

The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.

In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

It’s verse of a very particular kind. Barks was born in 1937 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in English literature and published his first book of poetry, “The Juice,” in 1971. The first time he heard of Rumi was later that decade, when another poet, Robert Bly, handed him a copy of translations by Arberry and told him that they had to be “released from their cages”—that is, put into American free verse. (Bly, who has published poetry in The New Yorker for more than thirty years—and whose book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” from 1990, greatly informed the modern men’s movement—later translated some of Rumi’s poems himself.) Barks had never studied Islamic literature. But soon afterward, he told me recently, over the phone from his home in Georgia, he had a dream. In the dream, he was sleeping on a cliff near a river. A stranger appeared in a circle of light and said, “I love you.” Barks had not seen this man before, but he met him the following year, at a Sufi order near Philadelphia. The man was the order’s leader. Barks began spending his afternoons studying and rephrasing the Victorian translations that Bly had given him. Since then, he has published more than a dozen Rumi books.

In our conversation, Barks described Rumi’s poetry as “the mystery of opening the heart,” a thing that, he told me, “you can’t say in language.” In order to get at that inexpressible thing, he has taken some liberties with Rumi’s work. For one thing, he has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ ” Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph. When I asked him about this, he told me that he couldn’t recall if he had made a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references. “I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “I used to memorize Bible verses, and I know the New Testament more than I know the Koran.” He added, “The Koran is hard to read.” Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “ ‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.”

Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggest that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.

For his part, Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Koran so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Safi has compared reading Rumi without the Koran to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.

Rumi used the Koran, Hadiths, and religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional readings. One of Barks’s popular renditions goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” The original version makes no mention of “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi wrote were iman (“religion”) and kufr (“infidelity”). Imagine, then, a Muslim scholar saying that the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love. What we, and perhaps many Muslim clerics, might consider radical today is an interpretation that Rumi put forward four hundred years ago.

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Monday, 2 January 2017

A Great Writer We Should Know - Antonio Di Benedetto

The year is 1790, the place an unnamed outpost on the Paraguay River ruled from faraway Buenos Aires. Don Diego de Zama has been here for fourteen months, serving in the Spanish administration, separated from his wife and sons. Nostalgically Zama looks back to the days when he was a corregidor (chief administrator) with a district of his own to run:
Doctor Don Diego de Zama!… The forceful executive, the pacifier of Indians, the warrior who rendered justice without recourse to the sword…, who put down the native rebellion without wasting a drop of Spanish blood.
Now, under a new, centralized system of government meant to tighten Spain’s control over its colonies, chief administrators have to be Spanish-born. Zama serves as second-in-command to a Spanish gobernador: as a Creole, an americano born in the New World, he can aspire no higher. He is in his mid-thirties; his career is stagnating. He has applied for a transfer; he dreams of the letter from the viceroy that will whisk him away to Buenos Aires, but it does not come.

Strolling around the docks, he notices a corpse floating in the water, the corpse of a monkey that had dared to quit the jungle and dive into the flux. Yet even in death the monkey is trapped amid the piles of the wharf, unable to escape downriver. Is it an omen?

Besides his dream of being returned to civilization, Zama dreams of a woman, not his wife, much as he loves her, but someone young and beautiful and of European birth, who will save him not only from his present state of sexual deprivation and social isolation but also from a harder-to-pin-down existential condition of yearning for he knows not what. He tries to project this dream upon various young women glimpsed in the streets, with negligible success.

In his erotic fantasies his mistress will have a delicate way of making love such as he has never tasted before, a uniquely European way. How so? Because in Europe, where it is not so fiendishly hot, women are clean and never sweat. Alas, here he is, womanless, “in a country whose name a whole infinity of French and Russian ladies—an infinity of people across the world—[have] never heard.” To such people, Europeans, real people, America is not real. Even to him America lacks reality. It is a flatland without feature in whose vastness he is lost.

Male colleagues invite him to join them in a visit to a brothel. He declines. He has intercourse with women only if they are white and Spanish, he primly explains.

From the small pool of white and Spanish women at hand he selects as a potential mistress the wife of a prominent landowner. Luciana is no beauty—her face puts him in mind of a horse—but she has an attractive figure (he has spied on her, bathing naked). He calls upon her in a spirit of “foreboding, pleasure, and tremendous irresolution,” unsure how one goes about seducing a married lady. And indeed, Luciana proves to be no pushover. In his campaign to wear her down, she is always a move ahead of him.

As an alternative to Luciana there is Rita, the Spanish-born daughter of his landlord. But before he can get anywhere with her, her current lover, a vicious bully, humiliates her grossly in public. She pleads with Zama to avenge her. Although the role of avenger attracts him, he finds reasons not to confront his formidable rival. (Zama’s author, Antonio Di Benedetto, provides him with a neatly Freudian dream to explain his fear of potent males.)

Unsuccessful with Spanish women, Zama has to resort to women of the town. Generally he steers clear of mulattas “so as not to dream of them and render myself susceptible and bring about my downfall.” The downfall to which he refers is certainly masturbation, but more significantly involves a step down the social ladder, confirming the metropolitan cliché that Creoles and mixed breeds belong together.

A mulatta gives him an inviting look. He follows her into the dingier quarter of the town, where he is attacked by a pack of dogs. He dispatches the dogs with his rapier, then, “swaggering and dominant” (his language), takes the woman. Once they are finished, she offers in a businesslike way to become his kept mistress. He is offended. “The episode was an affront to my right to lose myself in love. In any love born of passion, some element of idyllic charm is required.” Later, reflecting on the fact that dogs are as yet the only creatures whose blood his sword has spilled, he dubs himself “dogslayer.”

Zama is a prickly character. He holds a degree in letters and does not like it when the locals are not properly respectful. He suspects that people mock him behind his back, that plots are being cooked up to humiliate him. His relations with women—which occupy most of the novel—are characterized by crudity on the one hand and timidity on the other. He is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.

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