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Showing posts from April, 2012

Rabindranath Tagore: the poet at 150

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The significant anniversary of a dead writer often reveals as much about current tastes and fashions of critics and audiences as about the artist. So it is with Rabindranath Tagore. These are the last days of the 150th birth anniversary of one of the most remarkable poets and thinkers produced by India, or indeed the world. Even that grand description does not do him justice. He was also a composer who provided the national anthem for not one but two countries (India and Bangladesh), the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature and the founder of a school and a university, both of which are still going, in Santiniketan, West Bengal. As the title of one excellent biography puts it, he was a myriad-minded man – the kind of figure a nation probably gets only once in its life (see also Goethe and Tolstoy). Yet the scant press coverage accorded to him this past year has, ironically, focused on why he is so neglected. "Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?" sniffed the Times …

The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein

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Why were so many prominent modernist writers and philosophers attracted to fascist or authoritarian regimes in the first half of the twentieth century? A list of those who were not—Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil—pales in comparison to a list of those who were—Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsun, Paul de Man, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Filippo Marinetti, Martin Heidegger, Robert Brasillach, and a host of others. Add to the latter the name of Gertrude Stein, one of the most avant-garde of modernist writers in the English language, who was also—it turns out—a committed supporter of Philippe Pétain, head of state of the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France during the Second World War. Gertrude Stein, a Vichy supporter?  For most people, including those filling the rooms of several recent major museum exhibits on Stein, this news might come as a surprise. A Jewish-American experimental writer, friend of Picasso and m…

Joseph Conrad on Henry James (1905)

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The critical faculty hesitates before the magnitude of Mr. Henry James's work. His books stand on my shelves in a place whose accessibility proclaims the habit of frequent communion. But not all his books. There is no collected edition to date, such as some of "our masters" have been provided with; no neat rows of volumes in buckram or half calf, putting forth a hasty claim to completeness, and conveying to my mind a hint of finality, of a surrender to fate of that field in which all these victories have been won. Nothing of the sort has been done for Mr. Henry James's victories in England.
In a world such as ours, so painful with all sorts of wonders, one would not exhaust oneself in barren marvelling over mere bindings, had not the fact, or rather the absence of the material fact, prominent in the case of other men whose writing counts, (for good or evil)--had it not been, I say, expressive of a direct truth spiritual and intellectual; an accident of--I suppose--…

Hanif Kureishi: Something Given - Reflections on Writing

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"Now, whether it were by peculiar grace. A leading from above, a something given..." - Wordsworth. Resolution and Independence.                                     My father wanted to be a writer. I can't remember a time when he didn't want this. There were few mornings when he didn't go to his desk early, at about six o'clock in one of his-many suits and coloured shirts, the cuffs pinned by bejewelled links, before he left for work carrying his briefcase, longside the other commuters. Writing was; I suppose, an obsession, and as with most obsessions, fulfillment remained out of reach. The obsession kept him incomplete but it kept him going. He had a dull, enervating civil service job, and writing provided him with something to look forward to. It gave him meaning and 'direction,' as he liked to put it. It gave him direction home too, since he wrote often about India, the country he left in his early '20s and to which he never returned.           …

Life of a Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke

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Poems are not . . . simply emotions . . . they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things . . . and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained . . .; to childhood illnesses . . . to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel . . . and it is still not enough. -- The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

"It would not be enough for a poet to have memories," said Rainer Maria Rilke's protagonist and oracle, the young poet Malte Laurids Brigge. "You must be able to forget them." His author lived by that credo, saving and storing each life experience before expunging it with cold dedication.
It is not difficult to imagine a setting for these remarks: the dingy room on the…

William Dean Howells: Thackeray

It was of the organ-builder that I had Thackeray`s books first. He knew their literary quality, and their rank in the literary, world; but I believe he was surprised at the passion I instantly conceived for them. He could not understand it; he deplored it almost as a moral defect in me; though he honored it as a proof of my critical taste. In a certain measure he was right. What flatters the worldly pride in a young man is what fascinates him with Thackeray. With his air of looking down on the highest, and confidentially inviting you to be of his company in the seat of the scorner he is irresistible; his very confession that he is a snob, too, is balm and solace to the reader who secretly admires the splendors he affects to despise. His sentimentality is also dear to the heart of youth, and the boy who is dazzled by his satire is melted by his easy pathos. Then, if the boy has read a good many other books, he is taken with that abundance of literary turn and allusion in Thackeray; ther…

Rimbaud: Foutez-moi le paix!

They’re two famous figures in the annals of French poetry, and yet one: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.

Verlaine was older: an unhappily married man, a poet of renown, an established if erratic figure in the literary firmament. Rimbaud was much younger (he was 8 when Verlaine got his bachelor’s degree, and he was only 17 when the two of them met, on Rimbaud’s initiative and at Verlaine’s urging, in Paris in 1871), a meteoric genius astonishing the world of French poetry from the moment Verlaine introduced him to it.

The narrative of their tempestuous relationship yields to a series of unsatisfying climaxes: Rimbaud’s scandalous assertions of Verlaine’s sexual passivity; their squalid living situations (some variation of ‘squalor’ clings to every contemporary account of Rimbaud –a noteworthy though noxious distinction in the malodorous setting of 19th-century France); their titanic drinking bouts; their wanderings; Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, getting arrested and imprison…

Catullus: Tears for Lesbia’s Sparrow

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Sparrow, my sweet girl’s delight,whom she plays with, holds to her breast, whom, greedy, she gives her little finger to, often provoking you to a sharp bite, whenever my shining desire wishes to play with something she loves, I suppose, while strong passion abates, it might be a small relief from her pain: might I toy with you as she does and ease the cares of a sad mind!