Showing posts from 2011

Edith Wharton: A Backward Glance

“This wielding of the unreal trowel.” 
“Walter Scott’s Diary” (December 26, 1825).


I have hesitated for some time before beginning this chapter, since any attempt to analyze work of one’s own doing seems to imply that one regards it as likely to be of lasting interest, and I wish at once to repudiate such an assumption. Every artist works, like the Gobelins weavers, on the wrong side of the tapestry, and if now and then he comes around to the right side, and catches what seems a happy glow of colour, or a firm sweep of design, he must instantly retreat again, if encouraged yet still uncertain; and once the work is done, and he hopes to contemplate it dispassionately, the result of his toil too often presses on his tired eyes with the nightmare weight of a cinema “close-up.” Nevertheless, no picture of myself would be more than a profile if it failed to give some account of the teeming visions which, ever since my small-childhood, and even at the busiest and most agitated periods o…

Maud Gonne and Others – the Women of WB Yeats

As Joseph Hassett puts it in his introduction , WB Yeats “made a fundamental choice of the role of lover” and wrote many of his poems and lived much of his life in pursuit of “the old high way of love” (“Adam’s Curse”). Hassett’s book is therefore a study at one level of the various key women in Yeats’s life by whom he was inspired to write some of his best poems and whom he sought to love in a variety of ways, not all of them high, but with increasing inventiveness and complexity. The title indicates that the metaphor of the Muse is going to be used as a means both of grouping the women and of focusing the study. As a result, one key figure is omitted. Augusta Lady Gregory, for all that they worked closely together for over forty years and co-founded an Irish National Theatre, was “not a Muse” since “there is no indication that Yeats was erotically attracted to Gregory”; her feelings for him are not discussed. Maud Gonne naturally occupies a central role. Hassett astutely holds off i…

Art Imitating Life in Fitzgerald’s Novels

All great fiction is autobiographical since authors write most effectively about what they know.  More than most other writers, Fitzgerald drew upon his own feelings and experiences for his novels and short stories.  As he explained in his 1933 essay “One Hundred False Starts”:
     Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselvesòthat’s the truth.  We have two or three great and moving experiences in our livesòexperiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.
Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three storiesòeach time in a new disguiseòmaybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.1
Yet Fitzgerald’s fiction was never just thinly-disguised autobiography; it was instead transmutedòor transformedòautobiography.  None of the protagonists of his novelsòAm…

Thomas Hardy

‘The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people that can write know anything.’ So said a man who, during a busy career, found time to add several fine volumes to the scanty number of good books. And in a vivacious paragraph which follows this initial sentence he humorously anathematizes the literary life. He shows convincingly that ‘secluded habits do not tend to eloquence.’ He says that the ‘indifferent apathy’ so common among studious persons is by no means favorable to liveliness of narration. He proves that men who will not live cannot write; that people who shut themselves up in libraries have dry brains. He avows his confidence in the ‘original way of writing books,’ the way of the first author, who must have looked at things for himself, ‘since there were no books for him to copy from;’ and he challenges the reader to prove that this original way is not the best way. ‘Where,’ he asks, ‘are the amusing books from voracious students and habitual writers?’ This…

Matthew Arnold: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

Many objections have been made to a proposition which, in some remarks of mine[22] on translating Homer, I ventured to put forth; a proposition about criticism, and its importance at the present day. I said: "Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is." I added, that owing to the operation in English literature of certain causes, "almost the last thing for which one would come to English literature is just that very thing which now Europe most desires,—criticism"; and that the power and value of English literature was thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared that the importance I here assigned to criticism was excessive, and asserted the inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical ef…

Edna O'Brien: 'A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood'

Fifty years after leaving County Clare for London, the doyenne of Irish fiction Edna O'Brien is still preoccupied with the land of her birth. Starting with her sensational 1960 debut, The Country Girls, her novels about sex and religion quickly brought fame and notoriety. On the eve of a new short-story collection, she talks about love, exile – and why, at 80, she's still a party girl

I cannot speak for custom, and its effect on her variety, but I will say this for Edna O'Brien: age cannot wither her. Last summer, I was invited to a book party at the somewhat unlikely venue of Mahiki, the Sloane nightclub much frequented by Prince Harry, Kate Middleton et al. All around me were the usual suspects: novelists, publishing people, lots of journalists. It was fun, but noisy, and crowded, and you had to move carefully in order not to spill your cocktail. It was just as I was embarking on a dangerous manoeuvre from bar to banquette that I caught sight of her: the woman who, when I…

Arthur Schopenhauer: On the Sufferings of the World

UNLESS suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.

I know of no greater absurdity than that propounded by most systems of philosophy in declaring evil to be negative in its character. Evil is just what is positive; it makes its own existence felt. Leibnitz is particularly concerned to defend this absurdity; and he seeks to strengthen his position by using a palpable and paltry sophism.1 It is the good which is negative; in other words, happiness and satisfaction always imply some desire fulfilled, some state of pain brought to an end.

This explains the fact that we generally find pleasure t…

Jonathan Swift: On the Death of Esther Johnson [Stella]

THIS day, being Sunday, January 28, 1727–8, about eight o’clock at night, a servant brought me a note, with an account of the death of the truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend, that I, or perhaps any other person, ever was blessed with. She expired about six in the evening of this day; and as soon as I am left alone, which is about eleven at night, I resolve, for my own satisfaction, to say something of her life and character. 1
She was born at Richmond, in Surrey, on the thirteenth day of March, in the year 1681. Her father was a younger brother of a good family in Nottinghamshire, her mother of a lower degree; and indeed she had little to boast of her birth. I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue; from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life. She was sickly from her childhood until about the age of fifteen; but …

Katherine Anne Porter: "Old Mortality" - Forces at work in “Old Mortality”

“The past dies, but is not dead; the present generation moves on, then retreats to the past, moves on, [and] retreats again” (Stout 503). Stout words bring an interesting point: through time there is inconsistency with respect to peoples’ memories about world events. Thus how do you know that the facts you learned from previous generations are really the truth and not something that came from someone’s imagination? The answer to this question is illustrated by Katherine Anne Porter in her short story “Old Mortality.” In the story the author suggests that the only way to know what is real is through a person’s experiences. Porter developed a character that lived in a perfect world filled with romanticism and unrealistic events; she first created Miranda with the innocence of a child, the admiration for elders and love for romantic and poetic dreams. Through her short story “Old Mortality” Porter molded Miranda’s character. Porter describes human development through Miranda’s gr…

George Eliot: Middlemarch

The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapor-walled landscape. The clear heights where she expected to walk in full communion had become difficult to see even in her imagination; the delicious repose of the soul on a complete superior had been shaken into uneasy effort and alarmed with dim presentiment. When would the days begin of that active wifely devotion which was to strengthen her husband’s life and exalt her own? Never perhaps, as she had preconceived them; but somehow — still somehow. In this solemnly pledged union of her life, duty would present itself in some new form of inspiration and give a new meaning to wifely love. Meanwhile there was the snow and the low arch of dun vapor — there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman’s world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid — where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up pain…

Duke Humphrey's Library, Bodleian


Dublin - National Library of Ireland


Marina Tsvetaeva Museum, Elabuga, Tatarstan

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, was a Russian and Soviet poet. Her work is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth century Russian literature. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where she died of hunger. As an anti-Bolshevik supporter of Imperialism, Tsvetaeva was exiled in 1922, living with her family in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before returning to Moscow in 1939. Shunned and suspect, Tsvetaeva's isolation was compounded. Both her husband Sergey Efron and her daughter Ariadna Efron (Alya) were arrested for espionage in 1941; Alya served over eight years in prison and her husband was executed. Without means of support and in deep isolation, Tsvetaeva committed suicide on August 31st 1941. ...

William Makepeace Thackeray: The Last Sketch (Charlotte Bronte)

Not many days since I went to visit a house where in former years I had received many a friendly welcome. We went into the owner’s — an artist’s — studio. Prints, pictures, and sketches hung on the walls as I had last seen and remembered them. The implements of the painter’s art were there. The light which had shone upon so many, many hours of patient and cheerful toil, poured through the northern window upon print and bust, lay figure and sketch, and upon the easel before which the good, the gentle, the beloved Leslie labored. In this room the busy brain had devised, and the skilful hand executed, I know not how many of the noble works which have delighted the world with their beauty and charming humor. Here the poet called up into pictorial presence, and informed with life, grace, beauty, infinite friendly mirth and wondrous naturalness of expression, the people of whom his dear books told him the stories,— his Shakspeare, his Cervantes, his Moliere, his Le Sage. There was his last …