Monday, 27 February 2012

Albrecht Dürer: Diary of a Journey to the Netherlands (July, 1520- July, 1521)

Anno 1520
On Thursday after St. Kilian's Day, I, Albrecht Dürer, at my own charges and costs, took myself and my wife from Nuremberg away to the Netherlands, and the same day, after we had passed through Eriangen, we put up for the night at Baiersdorff, and spent there 3 crowns, less 6 pfennigs. From thence on the next day, Friday, we came to Forchheim, and there paid for the conveying thence on the journey to Bamberg 22 pf., and presented to the Bishop a painted Virgin and a "Life of the Virgin," an "Apocalypse," and a florin's worth of engravings. He invited me to be his guest, gave me a toll-pass and three letters of introduction, and settled my bill at the inn, where I had spent about a florin. I paid 6 florins in gold to the boatmen who took me from Bamberg to Frankfurt. Master Lucas Benedict and Hans the painter sent me a present of wine. Spent 4 pf. for bread and 13 pf. as tips.
Then I journeyed from Bamberg to Eltman and showed my pass, and they let me go free. And from there we passed by Zeil; in the meantime I spent 21 pf. Next I came to Hassfurt, and showed my pass, and they let me go without paying duty; I paid 1 florin to the Bishop of Bamberg's chancery. Next I came to Theres to the monastery, and I showed my pass, and they also let me go free; then we journeyed to Lower Euerheim. There I stayed the night and spent I pf. Thence we went to Meinberg, and I showed my papers and was allowed to pass. Then we came to Schweinfurt, where Dr. George Rebart invited me, and he gave us wine in the boat: they let me also pass free. 10 pf. for a roast fowl, 18 pf. in the kitchen and to the boy. Then we traveled to Volkach and I showed my pass, and we went on and came to Schwarzach, and there we stopped the night and spent 22 pf., and on Monday we were up early and went toward Tettelbach and came to Kitzingen, and I showed my letter, and they let me go on, and I spent 37 pf. After that we went past Sulzfeld to Marktbreit, and I showed my letter and they let me through, and we traveled by Frickenhausen to Ochsenfurth, where I showed my pass and they let me go free: and we came to Eibelstadt, and from that to Haidingsfeldt, and thence to Wurzburg; there I showed my pass and they let me go free. Thence we journeyed to Erlabrunn and stopped the night there, and I spent 22 pf. From that we journeyed on past Retzbath and Zellingen and came to Karlstadt; here I showed my pass and they let me go on. Thence I traveled to Gmunden, and there we breakfasted and spent 22 pf. I also showed my pass, and they let me go free. We traveled thence to Hofstetten; I showed my pass, and they let me through. We came next to Lohr, where I showed my pass and passed on; from there we came to Neustadt and showed our letter, and they let us travel on; also I paid 10 pf. for wine and crabs. From there we came to Rothenfels, and I showed my pass, and they let me go free, and we stayed there for a night, and spent 20 pf.; and on Wednesday early we started and passed by St. Eucharius and came to Heidenfeld, and thence to Triefenstein; from there we came to Homburg, where I showed my pass and they let me through; from there we came to Wertheim, and I showed my letter, and they let me go free, and I spent 57 pf. From there we went to Prozelten; here I showed my pass, and they let me through. Next we went on past Freudenberg, where I showed my letter once more, and they let me through; from there we came to Miltenberg and stayed there over night, and I also showed my pass and they let me go, and I spent 61 pf.; from there we came to Klingenberg. I showed my pass and they let me through; and we came to Worth and from there passed Obernburg to Aschaffenburg; here I presented my pass and they let me through, and I spent 52 pf.; from there we journeyed on to Selgenstadt; from there to Steinheim, where I showed my letter and they let me go on, and we stayed with Johannes for the night, who showed us the town and was very friendly to us; there I spent 16 pf., and so early on Friday morning we traveled to Kesselstadt, where I showed my pass and they let me go on; from there we came to Frankfurt, and I showed my pass again, and they let me through, and I spent 6 white pf. and one thaler and a half, and I gave the boy 2 white pf. Herr Jacob Heller gave me some wine at the inn. I bargained to be taken with my goods from Frankfurt to Mainz for 1 florin and 2 white pf., and I also gave the lad 5 Frankfurt thaler, and for the night we spent 8 white pf. On Sunday I traveled by the early boat from Frankfurt to Mainz, and midway there we came to Hochst, where I showed my pass and they let me go on; I spent 8 Frankfurt pf. there. From there we journeyed to Mainz; I have also paid I white pf. for landing my things, besides 14 Frankfurt thaler to the boatmen and 18 pf. for a girdle; and I took passage in the Cologne boat for myself and my things for 3 florins, and at Mainz also I spent 17 white pf. Peter Goldschmidt, the warden there, gave me two bottles of wine. Veit Varnbuler invited me, but his host would take no payment from him, insisting on being my host himself; they showed me much honour.
So I started from Mainz, where the Main flows into the Rhine, and it was the Monday after Mary Magdalen's Day, and I paid 10 thaler for meat and bread, and for eggs and pears 9 thaler. Here, too, Leonhard Goldschmidt gave me wine and fowls in the boat to cook on the way to Cologne. Master Jobst's brother likewise gave me a bottle of wine, and the painters gave me two bottles of wine in the boat. From there we came to Elfeld, where I showed my letter and they took no toll; from there we came to Rudesheim and I gave 2 white pf. for loading the boat; then we came to Ehrenfels, and there I showed my letter, but I had to give two gold florins; if, however, I were to bring them a free pass within two months, the customs officer would give me back the 2 gold florins. From there we came to Bacharach, and there I had to promise in writing that I would either bring them a free pass in two months, or pay the toll; from there we came to Caub, and there again I showed my pass, but it would carry me no further, and I had to promise in writing as before; there I spent 11 thaler. Next we came to St. Goar, and here I showed my pass, and the customs officer asked me how they had treated me elsewhere, so I said I would pay him nothing; I gave 2 white pf. to the messenger. From there we came to Boppard, and I showed my pass to the Trier customhouse officer, and they let me go through, only I had to certify in writing under my seal that I carried no common merchandise, and then the man let me go willingly.
From there we came to Lahnstein, and I showed my pass, and the customs officer let me go through, but he asked me that I should speak for him to my most gracious Lord of Mainz, and he gave me a can of wine, too, for he knew my wife well and he was glad to see me. From there we came to Engers, which is in the Trier territory; I presented my pass and they let me go through; I said, too, that I would mention it to my Lord of Bamberg. From there we came to Andernach, and I showed my pass, and they let me go through; and I spent there 7 thaler and 4 thaler more; then on St. James's Day early I traveled from Andernach to Linz; from there we went to the custom house at Bonn, and there again they let me go through; from there we came to Cologne, and in the boat I spent 9 white pf. and I more, and 4 pf. for fruit. At Cologne I spent 7 white pf. for unloading, to the boatmen 14 thaler, and to Nicolas, my cousin, I made a present of my black fur-lined coat edged with velvet, and to his wife I gave a florin; also at Cologne Fugger gave me wine: Johann Grosserpecker also gave me wine, and my cousin Nicolas gave me wine. They gave us also a collation at the Barefoot Convent, and one of the monks gave me a handkerchief; moreover, Herr Johann Grosserpecker has given me 12 measures of the best wine, and I paid 2 white pf. and 8 thaler to the boy; I have spent besides at Cologne 2 florins and 14 white pf. and 10 white pf. for packing, and 3 pf. for fruit; further, I gave I pf. at leaving, and I white pf. to the messenger.
From there we journeyed on St. Pantaleon's Day from Cologne to a village called Busdorf. We lay there over night, and spent 3 white pf.; and early on Sunday, we traveled to Rodingen, where we had breakfast and spent 2 white pf. and 3 pf. more, and again 3 pf. Thence we came to Frei-Aldenhoven, where we lay the night, and spent 3 white pf.; thence we traveled early on Monday to Frelenberg, and passed the little town of Gangelt, breakfasting at a village called Stisterseel, and spent 2 white pf. 2 thaler, further 1 white pf., and again 2 white pf. From there we journeyed to Sittard, a pretty little town, and from there to Stocken, which belongs to Liege; where we had a fine inn and stayed there over night, and spent 4 white pf. And when we had crossed over the Maas we started off early on Tuesday morning and came to Merten Lewbehen [sic]: there we had breakfast and spent 2 stivers and gave a white pf. for a young fowl. From there we traveled across the heath and came to Stosser, where we spent 2 stivers, and lay there the night: from thence on Wednesday morning early we traveled to West Meerbeck, where I paid 3 stivers for bread and wine; and we went on as far as Branthoek, where we had breakfast and spent 1 stiver; from there we traveled to Uylenberg, where we stayed the night and spent 3 stivers; from there we traveled on Thursday early to op ten Kouys, where we breakfasted and spent 2 stivers; thence we came to Antwerp.
There I sent to Jobst Planckfelt's inn, and the same evening the Fugger's factor, by name Bernhard Stecher, invited me and gave us a costly meal—my wife dined at the inn. I paid the driver for bringing us three, 3 florins in gold, and 2 stivers for carrying the goods.
On Saturday after the Feast of St. Peter in Chains, my host took me to see the burgomaster's house at Antwerp, which is newly built and large beyond measure, very well arranged with extraordinarily beautiful large rooms; a tower, splendidly ornamented; a very large garden; in short, such a noble house as I have never seen in all German lands. A very long new street has been built in his honour, and with his assistance, leading up to the house on both sides. I gave 3 stivers to the messenger, and 2 pf. for bread and 2 pf. for ink; and on Sunday, which was St. Oswald's Day, the Painters invited me to their hall with my wife and maid, where everything was of silver, and they had other costly ornaments and very costly meats; and all their wives were there too; and as I was being led to the table, everyone on both sides stood up as if they were leading some great lord. There were among them men of high position, who all showed me the greatest respect and bowed low to me, and said they would do everything in their power to serve and please me. And as I sat there in honour, there came the messenger of the Town Council of Antwerp with two servants and presented to me four cans of wine from the Magistrates of Antwerp, who told him to say that they wished thereby to show their respect for me and to assure me of their good-will; wherefore I returned them my humble thanks and offered my humble services. Thereupon came Master Peter, the town carpenter, and gave me two cans of wine with offer of his willing service; so when we had spent a long time together merrily, till late into the night, they accompanied us home with lanterns in great honour. They begged me to be assured of their good-will, and promised that in whatever I did they would help me in every way; so I thanked them, and laid down to sleep.
Also I have been in Master Quentin's house, and I have been in all the three great shooting places. [Editor's note: Quentin Matsys, the painter]. I had a very splendid dinner at Staiber's. Another time at the Portuguese factor's, whose portrait I have drawn in charcoal; I have made a portrait of my host as well; Jobst Plankfelt gave me a branch of white coral; paid 2 stivers for butter and 2 stivers to the joiner at the Painters' armoury.
Also my host took me to the Painters' workshop in the armoury at Antwerp, where they are making the triumphal arches through which King Charles is to make his entry. It is 400 bows in length and each arch is 40 feet wide: they are to be set up on both sides of the streets, beautifully arranged and two stories high, and on them they are to act the plays; and this costs to make, 4,000 florins for the joiners and painters, and the whole work is very magnificently done.
I have dined again with the Portuguese factor, and once with Alexander Imhof. Sebald Fischer bought of me at Antwerp sixteen "Small Passions" for 4 florins, thirty-two of the large books for 8 florins, also six engraved "Passions" for 3 florins, also twenty half-sheets of all kinds taken together at 1 florin to the value of 3 florins, and again 5 1/4 florins' worth of quarter-sheets,—forty-five of all kinds at 1 florin, and eight miscellaneous leaves at 1 florin; it is paid.
To my host I have sold a "Madonna" picture, painted on small canvas, for 2 florins Rhenish. I took once more the portrait of Felix the lute player. 1 stiver for pears and bread; 2 stivers to the surgeon-barber: besides I have given 14 stivers for three small panels, besides 4 stivers for laying in the white and preparing them. I have dined once with Alexander the goldsmith, and once with Felix Hungersberg; once Master Joachim has eaten with me, and his partner also once.
I have made a drawing in half colours for the Painters. I have taken 1 florin for expenses. I made Peter Wolffgang a present of four new little pieces. Master Joachim's partner has again dined with me. I gave Master Joachim 1 florin's worth of prints for lending me his apprentice and colours, and I gave his apprentice 3 crowns' worth of prints. I have sent the four new pieces to Alexander, the goldsmith. I made charcoal portraits of these Genoese by name: Tomasin Florianus Romanus, native of Lucca, and his two brothers, named Vincentius and Gerhard, all three Bombelli. ...

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Tragedy of Fate and the Tragedy of Culture: Heinrich von Kleist’s The Schroffenstein Family

On 21st November 1811, on a lake’s edge near Potsdam, a 34 year old Kleist shot himself dead in a suicide pact with his terminally ill lover. He left behind him just under a decade of intense literary output which has established him as one of the most important writers of the German romantic period. On the bicentenary of his death, Kleist scholar Steven Howe explores the importance of his first dramatic work and how in it can be seen the themes of his later masterpieces.

Heinrich von Kleist is without doubt one of the most challenging figures in German literary history. In a career lasting a little under a decade, from 1802 through to his premature death in 1811, he produced a remarkable body of creative work that radically called into question the prevailing intellectual, aesthetic and ethical orthodoxies of the age. Today, Kleist is perhaps most familiar, certainly to British audiences, as the dramatist behind the violently tragic Penthesilea and the brilliantly enigmatic The Prince of Homburg, and as the author of a series of daring and dramatic short stories, including Michael Kohlhaas, The Marquise of O…, and The Earthquake in Chile. Altogether less well-known, however (notwithstanding Eric Bentley’s adaptation in German Requiem), is his first major literary production, the five act play The Schroffenstein Family, published in 1803. Aside from a brief premiere at the National Theatre in Graz in January 1804, the drama found little immediate resonance, and it has traditionally been regarded as belonging to the second class of the author’s imaginative work. Kleist, for his part, also seems to have attached little value to the piece, referring to it in a letter to his sister, Ulrike, as a ‘wretched botched job’. That the drama suffers from the defects one might expect of the first work of a young poet is a point that few would demur: the language is overwrought, the plot convoluted, and the entire exposition lacks the refined touch which Kleist was later to perfect. That being said, the play nonetheless contains a number of scenes and episodes which provide an early glimpse of the author’s promise and genius, and introduces several of the most significant themes and features which were to subsequently become a hallmark of his poetics.

The action of the drama revolves around the conflict between the rival houses of Rossitz and Warwand, and the fate of two star-crossed lovers, Ottokar and Agnes. The imaginative debt to Romeo and Juliet is plain to see, and Kleist hews closely to the model of Shakespeare’s tragedy, though with one significant variation – the two feuding houses are here different branches of the same family. The origins of the conflict extend from a testamentary contract, according to which the property of either house should fall to the other branch if the line of descent is broken. This breeds an atmosphere of mistrust, as both houses suspect one another of pursuing its demise, and particularly that of its heirs. When the younger son of Count Rupert, head of the Rossitz branch of the family, dies in unexplained circumstances, his suspicions thus fall directly on his counterpart, Count Sylvester, and the drama opens with him compelling his immediate family to swear an oath of bloody and absolute vengeance against the entire house of Warwand.

The tragic trajectory of the play is set by the issue that Ottokar, the elder son of Rupert, partakes in this oath-swearing, unaware that the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Agnes, is the daughter of Sylvester. Once alerted to the fact, he is convinced by Agnes of her father’s innocence in the matter of the child’s death and attempts to negotiate a reconciliation between the warring counts. His efforts are thwarted, however, by Rupert’s burning hatred for Sylvester and his untameable lust for revenge. Upon learning of his son’s clandestine affair, Rupert resolves to murder Agnes, and when the two lovers secretly meet at a mountain cave, he and his vassal, Santing, accost them. In an attempt to deceive his father and protect his beloved, Ottokar exchanges clothes with Agnes; failing to note the switch in the darkness, Rupert stabs his own son to death, whereupon the presently arriving Sylvester follows suit by murdering Agnes in the mistaken belief that she is Ottokar. Ironically – or perhaps appropriately – it falls to the blind grandfather, Sylvius, to recognise the true identities of the two victims and reveal the double filicide. At the play’s end, an old widow, Ursula, discloses the true state of affairs, namely that Rupert’s son’s death was accidental – he drowned in a forest brook. With the misunderstanding resolved, a despairing reconciliation follows, and the drama closes with the mad-driven bastard son of the Rossitz house, Johann, addressing Ursula as master and personification of fate.

That the mechanisms of fate and chance do serve as an important motor for the action of the drama is very much an accepted commonplace in interpretive criticism. In his personal letters, Kleist reveals a fascination with the unknowable powers of contingency and coincidence that intrude upon and shape the life of the individual, and such concerns penetrate to the core of many of his literary works: time and again, he confronts his characters with situations over which they have no control and to which they must then react. In Schroffenstein, chance happenings are heaped upon one another in such a way as to both blunt much of the originality of the constellation, and to strain reader credulity after the fashion of the Gothic tale – it is not without reason that Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk has been cited as a possible source of inspiration. The outcome is a demonstration of the operations of fate and contingency which, viewed in a narrow sense, seems at times laboured and contrived. The design of the inquiry is, however – in a further parallel to Romeo and Juliet – overlaid with a deeper disquisition on the limitations of human awareness. Ursula’s laconic words to Rupert and Sylvester, ‘If you kill one another, it is an error’, acquire, in this context, special relevance, pointing as they do towards the movement of error and the instances of misunderstanding that drive the action to its tragic close. Here one can detect the influence of Kleist’s encounter with Kantian philosophy, which appears to have shattered his faith in the possibilities of absolute truth and knowledge. The fallibility of perception emerges, as a consequence, as a dominant theme and subject of reflection in Kleist’s work, and remains so across his entire literary corpus. In Schroffenstein, this manifests itself through the frequent recurrence of error and confusion, bred by the characters’ inability to communicate and their attendant susceptibility to misreading reality. Typically, Kleist drives the issue towards aesthetic extremes, crafting an enveloping atmosphere of illusion, deceit and suspicion within the extended family which, in turn, calls forth gruesome acts of vengeance and retributive violence. In this regard, the drama can perhaps be seen as the most Jacobean and Sturm und Drang-like of Kleist’s works – as a grizzly, though at times darkly comedic, exploration of the workings of fate and the human capacity for misunderstanding, and of their effects in unleashing man’s violent potentialities. ...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

E M Forster: What I Believe

I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world were ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy — well, they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they don’t seem enough, their action is no longer stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot. They want stiffening, even if the process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, at all... My lawgivers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St Paul. My temple stands not upon Mount Moriah but in the Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My motto is “Lord, I disbelieve — help thou my unbelief.”

I have, however, to live in an age of Faith — the sort of thing I used to hear praised and recommended when I was a boy. It is damned unpleasant, really. It is bloody in every sense of the word. And I have to keep my end up in it. Where do I start?

With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty. Not absolutely solid... We don’t know what other people are like. How then can we put any trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering political storm? In theory we can’t. But in practice we can and do. Though A is unchangeably A or B unchangeably B, there can still be love and loyalty between the two. For the purpose of loving one has to assume that the personality is solid, and the “self” is an entity, and to ignore all contrary evidence. And since to ignore evidence is one of the characteristics of faith, I certainly can proclaim that I believe in personal relationships.

Starting from them, I get a little order into the contemporary chaos. One must be fond of people and trust them if one isn’t to make a mess of life, and it is therefore essential that they shouldn’t let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must myself be as reliable as possible. And this I try to be. But reliability isn’t a matter of contract... It is a matter for the heart. In other words, reliability is impossible unless there is a natural warmth. Most men possess this warmth, though they often have bad luck and get chilled. Most of them, even when they are politicians, want to keep faith. And one can, at all events, show one’s own little light here, one’s own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it’s not only the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness doesn’t comprehend. Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which has now passed, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of dying for a cause, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalise the ... reader... It wouldn’t have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circles of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome. Probably one won’t be asked to make such an agonizing choice. Still there lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer, and there is even a terror and hardness in this creed of personal relationships, urbane and mild though it sounds. Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the state. When they do — down with the state, say I, which means that the state will down me.

This brings me along to Democracy, "Even love, the beloved Republic, that feeds upon freedom and lives". Democracy is not a beloved Republic really, and never will be. But it is less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support. It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization. It does not divide its citizens into the bossers and the bossed - as an efficiency-regime tends to do. The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere. They found religions, great or small, or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested scientific research, or they may be what is called "ordinary people", who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours. All these people need to express themselves; they cannot do so unless society allows them liberty to do so, and the society which allows them most liberty is a democracy.

Democracy has another merit. It allows criticism, and if there is not public criticism there are bound to be hushed-up scandals.

That is why I believe in the press, despite all its lies and vulgarity, and why I believe in Parliament. Parliament is often sneered at because it is a Talking Shop. I believe in it because it is a talking shop. I believe in the Private Member who makes himself a nuisance. He gets snubbed and is told that he is cranky or ill-informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put right just by being mentioned. Occasionally, too, a well-meaning public official starts losing his head in the cause of efficiency, and thinks himself God Almighty. Such officials are particularly frequent in the Home Office. Well, there will be questions about them in Parliament sooner or later, and then they will have to mind their steps. Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it criticizes and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported. So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.

Only Love the Beloved Republic deserves that. What about Force, though? While we are trying to be sensitive and advanced and affectionate and tolerant, an unpleasant question pops up: does not all society rest upon force? If a government cannot count upon the police and the army, how can it hope to rule? And if an individual gets knocked on the head or sent to a labour camp, of what significance are his opinions?

This dilemma does not worry me as much as it does some. I realize that all society rests upon force. But all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front. These intervals are what matter. I want them to be as frequent and as lengthy as possible, and I call them "civilization ". Some people idealize force and pull it into the foreground and worship it, instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I think they make a mistake, and I think that their opposites, the mystics, err even more when they declare that force does not exist. I believe that it exists, and that one of our jobs is to prevent it from getting out of its box. It gets out sooner or later, and then it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made. But it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong are so stupid. Consider their conduct for a moment in The Nibelung's Ring. The giants there have the guns, or in other words the gold; but they do nothing with it, they do not realize that they are all-powerful, with the result that the catastrophe is delayed and the castle of Valhalla, insecure but glorious, fronts the storms. Fafnir, coiled round his hoard, grumbles and grunts; we can hear him under Europe today; the leaves of the wood already tremble, and the Bird calls its warnings uselessly. Fafnir will destroy us, but by a blessed dispensation he is stupid and slow, and creation goes on just outside the poisonous blast of his breath.

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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Anthony Trollope: On English Novelists of the Present Day

In this chapter I will venture to name a few successful novelists of my own time, with whose works I am acquainted; and will endeavour to point whence their success has come, and why they have failed when there has been failure.

I do not hesitate to name Thackeray the first. His knowledge of human nature was supreme, and his characters stand out as human beings, with a force and a truth which has not, I think, been within the reach of any other English novelist in any period. I know no character in fiction, unless it be Don Quixote, with whom the reader becomes so intimately acquainted as with Colonel Newcombe. How great a thing it is to be a gentleman at all parts! How we admire the man of whom so much may be said with truth! Is there any one of whom we feel more sure in this respect than of Colonel Newcombe? It is not because Colonel Newcombe is a perfect gentleman that we think Thackeray's work to have been so excellent, but because he has had the power to describe him as such, and to force us to love him, a weak and silly old man, on account of this grace of character. It is evident from all Thackeray's best work that he lived with the characters he was creating. He had always a story to tell until quite late in life; and he shows us that this was so, not by the interest which be had in his own plots,—for I doubt whether his plots did occupy much of his mind,—but by convincing us that his characters were alive to himself. With Becky Sharpe, with Lady Castlewood and her daughter, and with Esmond, with Warrington, Pendennis, and the Major, with Colonel Newcombe, and with Barry Lynon, he must have lived in perpetual intercourse. Therefore he has made these personages real to us.

Among all our novelists his style is the purest, as to my ear it is also the most harmonious. Sometimes it is disfigured by a slight touch of affectation, by little conceits which smell of the oil;—but the language is always lucid. The reader, without labour, knows what he means, and knows all that he means. As well as I can remember, he deals with no episodes. I think that any critic, examining his work minutely, would find that every scene, and every part of every scene, adds something to the clearness with which the story is told. Among all his stories there is not one which does not leave on the mind a feeling of distress that women should ever be immodest or men dishonest,—and of joy that women should be so devoted and men so honest. How we hate the idle selfishness of Pendennis, the worldliness of Beatrix, the craft of Becky Sharpe!—how we love the honesty of Colonel Newcombe, the nobility of Esmond, and the devoted affection of Mrs. Pendennis! The hatred of evil and love of good can hardly have come upon so many readers without doing much good.

Late in Thackeray's life,—he never was an old man, but towards the end of his career,—he failed in his power of charming, because he allowed his mind to become idle. In the plots which he conceived, and in the language which he used; I do not know that there is any perceptible change; but in The Virginians and in Philip the reader is introduced to no character with which he makes a close and undying acquaintance. And this, I have no doubt, is so because Thackeray himself had no such intimacy. His mind had come to be weary of that fictitious life which is always demanding the labour of new creation, and he troubled himself with his two Virginians and his Philip only when he was seated at his desk.

At the present moment George Eliot is the first of English novelists, and I am disposed to place her second of those of my time. She is best known to the literary world as a writer of prose fiction, and not improbably whatever of permanent fame she may acquire will come from her novels. But the nature of her intellect is very far removed indeed from that which is common to the tellers of stories. Her imagination is no doubt strong, but it acts in analysing rather than in creating. Everything that comes before her is pulled to pieces so that the inside of it shall be seen, and be seen if possible by her readers as clearly as by herself. This searching analysis is carried so far that, in studying her latter writings, one feels oneself to be in company with some philosopher rather than with a novelist. I doubt whether any young person can read with pleasure either Felix Holt, Middlemarch, or Daniel Deronda. I know that they are very difficult to many that are not young.

Her personifications of character have been singularly terse and graphic, and from them has come her great hold on the public,—though by no means the greatest effect which she has produced. The lessons which she teaches remain, though it is not for the sake of the lessons that her pages are read. Seth Bede, Adam Bede, Maggie and Tom Tulliver, old Silas Marner, and, much above all, Tito, in Romola, are characters which, when once known, can never be forgotten. I cannot say quite so much for any of those in her later works, because in them the philosopher so greatly overtops the portrait-painter, that, in the dissection of the mind, the outward signs seem to have been forgotten. In her, as yet, there is no symptom whatever of that weariness of mind which, when felt by the reader, induces him to declare that the author has written himself out. It is not from decadence that we do not have another Mrs. Poyser, but because the author soars to things which seem to her to be higher than Mrs. Poyser.

It is, I think, the defect of George Eliot that she struggles too hard to do work that shall be excellent. She lacks ease. Latterly the signs of this have been conspicuous in her style, which has always been and is singularly correct, but which has become occasionally obscure from her too great desire to be pungent. It is impossible not to feel the struggle, and that feeling begets a flavour of affectation. In Daniel Deronda, of which at this moment only a portion has been published, there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended. Perhaps I may be permitted here to say, that this gifted woman was among my dearest and most intimate friends. As I am speaking here of novelists, I will not attempt to speak of George Eliot's merit as a poet.

There can be no doubt that the most popular novelist of my time—probably the most popular English novelist of any time—has been Charles Dickens. He has now been dead nearly six years, and the sale of his books goes on as it did during his life. The certainty with which his novels are found in every house—the familiarity of his name in all English-speaking countries—the popularity of such characters as Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, and Pecksniff, and many others whose names have entered into the English language and become well-known words—the grief of the country at his death, and the honours paid to him at his funeral,—all testify to his popularity. Since the last book he wrote himself, I doubt whether any book has been so popular as his biography by John Forster. There is no withstanding such testimony as this. Such evidence of popular appreciation should go for very much, almost for everything, in criticism on the work of a novelist. The primary object of a novelist is to please; and this man's novels have been found more pleasant than those of any other writer. It might of course be objected to this, that though the books have pleased they have been injurious, that their tendency has been immoral and their teaching vicious; but it is almost needless to say that no such charge has ever been made against Dickens. His teaching has ever been good. From all which, there arises to the critic a question whether, with such evidence against him as to the excellence of this writer, he should not subordinate his own opinion to the collected opinion of the world of readers. To me it almost seems that I must be wrong to place Dickens after Thackeray and George Eliot, knowing as I do that so great a majority put him above those authors.

My own peculiar idiosyncrasy in the matter forbids me to do so. I do acknowledge that Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, and others have become household words in every house, as though they were human beings; but to my judgment they are not human beings, nor are any of the characters human which Dickens has portrayed. It has been the peculiarity and the marvel of this man's power, that he has invested, his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature. There is a drollery about them, in my estimation, very much below the humour of Thackeray, but which has reached the intellect of all; while Thackeray's humour has escaped the intellect of many. Nor is the pathos of Dickens human. It is stagey and melodramatic. But it is so expressed that it touches every heart a little. There is no real life in Smike. His misery, his idiotcy, his devotion for Nicholas, his love for Kate, are all overdone and incompatible with each other. But still the reader sheds a tear. Every reader can find a tear for Smike. Dickens's novels are like Boucicault's plays. He has known how to draw his lines broadly, so that all should see the colour.

He, too, in his best days, always lived with his characters;—and he, too, as he gradually ceased to have the power of doing so, ceased to charm. Though they are not human beings, we all remember Mrs. Gamp and Pickwick. The Boffins and Veneerings do not, I think, dwell in the minds of so many.

Of Dickens's style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules—almost as completely as that created by Carlyle. To readers who have taught themselves to regard language, it must therefore be unpleasant. But the critic is driven to feel the weakness of his criticism, when he acknowledges to himself—as he is compelled in all honesty to do—that with the language, such as it is, the writer has satisfied the great mass of the readers of his country. Both these great writers have satisfied the readers of their own pages; but both have done infinite harm by creating a school of imitators. No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens. If such a one wants a model for his language, let him take Thackeray.

Bulwer, or Lord Lytton,—but I think that he is still better known by his earlier name,—was a man of very great parts. Better educated than either of those I have named before him, he was always able to use his erudition, and he thus produced novels from which very much not only may be but must be learned by his readers. He thoroughly understood the political status of his own country, a subject on which, I think, Dickens was marvellously ignorant, and which Thackeray had never studied. He had read extensively, and was always apt to give his readers the benefit of what he knew. The result has been that very much more than amusement may be obtained from Bulwer's novels. There is also a brightness about them—the result rather of thought than of imagination, of study and of care, than of mere intellect—which has made many of them excellent in their way. It is perhaps improper to class all his novels together, as he wrote in varied manners, making in his earlier works, such as Pelham and Ernest Maltravers, pictures of a fictitious life, and afterwards pictures of life as he believed it to be, as in My Novel and The Caxtons. But from all of them there comes the same flavour of an effort to produce effect. The effects are produced, but it would have been better if the flavour had not been there.

I cannot say of Bulwer as I have of the other novelists whom I have named that he lived with his characters. He lived with his work, with the doctrines which at the time he wished to preach, thinking always of the effects which he wished to produce; but I do not think he ever knew his own personages,—and therefore neither do we know them. Even Pelham and Eugene Aram are not human beings to us, as are Pickwick, and Colonel Newcombe, and Mrs. Poyser.

In his plots Bulwer has generally been simple, facile, and successful. The reader never feels with him, as he does with Wilkie Collins, that it is all plot, or, as with George Eliot, that there is no plot. The story comes naturally without calling for too much attention, and is thus proof of the completeness of the man's intellect. His language is clear, good, intelligible English, but it is defaced by mannerism. In all that he did, affectation was his fault.

How shall I speak of my dear old friend Charles Lever, and his rattling, jolly, joyous, swearing Irishmen. Surely never did a sense of vitality come so constantly from a man's pen, nor from man's voice, as from his! I knew him well for many years, and whether in sickness or in health, I have never come across him without finding him to be running over with wit and fun. Of all the men I have encountered, he was the surest fund of drollery. I have known many witty men, many who could say good things, many who would sometimes be ready to say them when wanted, though they would sometimes fail;—but he never failed. Rouse him in the middle of the night, and wit would come from him before he was half awake. And yet he never monopolised the talk, was never a bore. He would take no more than his own share of the words spoken, and would yet seem to brighten all that was said during the night. His earlier novels—the later I have not read—are just like his conversation. The fun never flags, and to me, when I read them, they were never tedious. As to character he can hardly be said to have produced it. Corney Delaney, the old manservant, may perhaps be named as an exception.

Lever's novels will not live long,—even if they may be said to be alive now,—because it is so. What was his manner of working I do not know, but I should think it must have been very quick, and that he never troubled himself on the subject, except when he was seated with a pen in his hand.

Charlotte Bronte was surely a marvellous woman. If it could be right to judge the work of a novelist from one small portion of one novel, and to say of an author that he is to be accounted as strong as he shows himself to be in his strongest morsel of work, I should be inclined to put Miss Bronte very high indeed. I know no interest more thrilling than that which she has been able to throw into the characters of Rochester and the governess, in the second volume of Jane Eyre. She lived with those characters, and felt every fibre of the heart, the longings of the one and the sufferings of the other. And therefore, though the end of the book is weak, and the beginning not very good, I venture to predict that Jane Eyre will be read among English novels when many whose names are now better known shall have been forgotten. Jane Eyre, and Esmond, and Adam Bede will be in the hands of our grandchildren, when Pickwick, and Pelham, and Harry Lorrequer are forgotten; because the men and women depicted are human in their aspirations, human in their sympathies, and human in their actions.

In Vilette, too, and in Shirley, there is to be found human life as natural and as real, though in circumstances not so full of interest as those told in Jane Eyre. The character of Paul in the former of the two is a wonderful study. She must herself have been in love with some Paul when she wrote the book, and have been determined to prove to herself that she was capable of loving one whose exterior circumstances were mean and in every way unprepossessing.

There is no writer of the present day who has so much puzzled me by his eccentricities, impracticabilities, and capabilities as Charles Reade. I look upon him as endowed almost with genius, but as one who has not been gifted by nature with ordinary powers of reasoning. He can see what is grandly noble and admire it with all his heart. He can see, too, what is foully vicious and hate it with equal ardour. But in the common affairs of life he cannot see what is right or wrong; and as he is altogether unwilling to be guided by the opinion of others, he is constantly making mistakes in his literary career, and subjecting himself to reproach which he hardly deserves. He means to be honest. He means to be especially honest,—more honest than other people. He has written a book called The Eighth Commandment on behalf of honesty in literary transactions,—a wonderful work, which has I believe been read by a very few. I never saw a copy except that in my own library, or heard of any one who knew the book. Nevertheless it is a volume that must have taken very great labour, and have been written,—as indeed he declares that it was written,—without the hope of pecuniary reward. He makes an appeal to the British Parliament and British people on behalf of literary honesty, declaring that should he fail—"I shall have to go on blushing for the people I was born among." And yet of all the writers of my day he has seemed to me to understand literary honesty the least. On one occasion, as he tells us in this book, he bought for a certain sum from a French author the right of using a plot taken from a play,—which he probably might have used without such purchase, and also without infringing any international copyright act. The French author not unnaturally praises him for the transaction, telling him that he is "un vrai gentleman." The plot was used by Reade in a novel; and a critic discovering the adaptation, made known his discovery to the public. Whereupon the novelist became angry, called his critic a pseudonymuncle, and defended himself by stating the fact of his own purchase. In all this he seems to me to ignore what we all mean when we talk of literary plagiarism and literary honesty. The sin of which the author is accused is not that of taking another man's property, but of passing off as his own creation that which he does not himself create. When an author puts his name to a book he claims to have written all that there is therein, unless he makes direct signification to the contrary. Some years subsequently there arose another similar question, in which Mr. Reade's opinion was declared even more plainly, and certainly very much more publicly. In a tale which he wrote he inserted a dialogue which he took from Swift, and took without any acknowledgment. As might have been expected, one of the critics of the day fell foul of him for this barefaced plagiarism. The author, however, defended himself, with much abuse of the critic, by asserting, that whereas Swift had found the jewel he had supplied the setting;—an argument in which there was some little wit, and would have been much excellent truth, had he given the words as belonging to Swift and not to himself.

The novels of a man possessed of so singular a mind must themselves be very strange,—and they are strange. It has generally been his object to write down some abuse with which he has been particularly struck,—the harshness, for instance, with which paupers or lunatics are treated, or the wickedness of certain classes,—and he always, I think, leaves upon his readers an idea of great earnestness of purpose. But he has always left at the same time on my mind so strong a conviction that he has not really understood his subject, that I have ever found myself taking the part of those whom he has accused. So good a heart, and so wrong a head, surely no novelist ever before had combined! In storytelling he has occasionally been almost great. Among his novels I would especially recommend The Cloister and the Hearth. I do not know that in this work, or in any, that he has left a character that will remain; but he has written some of his scenes so brightly that to read them would always be a pleasure. Of Wilkie Collins it is impossible for a true critic not to speak with admiration, because he has excelled all his contemporaries in a certain most difficult branch of his art; but as it is a branch which I have not myself at all cultivated, it is not unnatural that his work should be very much lost upon me individually. When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing which does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o'clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth mile-stone. One is constrained by mysteries and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries will be made clear, and the difficulties overcome at the end of the third volume. Such work gives me no pleasure. I am, however, quite prepared to acknowledge that the want of pleasure comes from fault of my intellect.

There are two ladies of whom I would fain say a word, though I feel that I am making my list too long, in order that I may declare how much I have admired their work. They are Annie Thackeray and Rhoda Broughton. I have known them both, and have loved the former almost as though she belonged to me. No two writers were ever more dissimilar,—except in this that they are both feminine. Miss Thackeray's characters are sweet, charming, and quite true to human nature. In her writings she is always endeavouring to prove that good produces good, and evil evil. There is not a line of which she need be ashamed,—not a sentiment of which she should not be proud. But she writes like a lazy writer who dislikes her work, and who allows her own want of energy to show itself in her pages.

Miss Broughton, on the other hand, is full of energy,—though she too, I think, can become tired over her work. She, however, does take the trouble to make her personages stand upright on the ground. And she has the gift of making them speak as men and women do speak. "You beast!" said Nancy, sitting on the wall, to the man who was to be her husband,—thinking that she was speaking to her brother. Now Nancy, whether right or wrong, was just the girl who would, as circumstances then were, have called her brother a beast. There is nothing wooden about any of Miss Broughton's novels; and in these days so many novels are wooden! But they are not sweet-savoured as are those by Miss Thackeray, and are, therefore, less true to nature. In Miss Broughton's determination not to be mawkish and missish, she has made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say. They throw themselves at men's heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again. Miss Broughton is still so young that I hope she may live to overcome her fault in this direction.

There is one other name, without which the list of the best known English novelists of my own time would certainly be incomplete, and that is the name of the present Prime Minister of England. Mr. Disraeli has written so many novels, and has been so popular as a novelist that, whether for good or for ill, I feel myself compelled to speak of him. He began his career as an author early in life, publishing Vivian Grey when he was twenty-three years old. He was very young for such work, though hardly young enough to justify the excuse that he makes in his own preface, that it is a book written by a boy. Dickens was, I think, younger when he wrote his Sketches by Boz, and as young when he was writing the Pickwick Papers. It was hardly longer ago than the other day when Mr. Disraeli brought out Lothair, and between the two there were eight or ten others. To me they have all had the same flavour of paint and unreality. In whatever he has written he has affected something which has been intended to strike his readers as uncommon and therefore grand. Because he has been bright and a man of genius, he has carried his object as regards the young. He has struck them with astonishment and aroused in their imagination ideas of a world more glorious, more rich, more witty, more enterprising, than their own. But the glory has been the glory of pasteboard, and the wealth has been a wealth of tinsel. The wit has been the wit of hairdressers, and the enterprise has been the enterprise of mountebanks. An audacious conjurer has generally been his hero,—some youth who, by wonderful cleverness, can obtain success by every intrigue that comes to his hand. Through it all there is a feeling of stage properties, a smell of hair-oil, an aspect of buhl, a remembrance of tailors, and that pricking of the conscience which must be the general accompaniment of paste diamonds. I can understand that Mr. Disraeli should by his novels have instigated many a young man and many a young woman on their way in life, but I cannot understand that he should have instigated any one to good. Vivian Grey has had probably as many followers as Jack Sheppard, and has led his followers in the same direction.

Lothair, which is as yet Mr. Disraeli's last work, and, I think, undoubtedly his worst, has been defended on a plea somewhat similar to that by which he has defended Vivian Grey. As that was written when he was too young, so was the other when he was too old,—too old for work of that nature, though not too old to be Prime Minister. If his mind were so occupied with greater things as to allow him to write such a work, yet his judgment should have sufficed to induce him to destroy it when written. Here that flavour of hair-oil, that flavour of false jewels, that remembrance of tailors, comes out stronger than in all the others. Lothair is falser even than Vivian Grey, and Lady Corisande, the daughter of the Duchess, more inane and unwomanlike than Venetia or Henrietta Temple. It is the very bathos of story-telling. I have often lamented, and have as often excused to myself, that lack of public judgment which enables readers to put up with bad work because it comes from good or from lofty hands. I never felt the feeling so strongly, or was so little able to excuse it, as when a portion of the reading public received Lothair with satisfaction. ...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Poland's 1996 Nobel Laureate poet Wislawa Szymborska has died

Poland's 1996 Nobel poet Szymborska dies at 88

Her personal secretary says that Poland's 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska has died. She was 88.

Michal Rusinek said Wednesday that Szymborska died "quietly, in her sleep." She resided in the southern city of Krakow.
The Nobel award committee's citation called her the "Mozart of poetry," a woman who mixed the elegance of language with "the fury of Beethoven."
Szymborska has been called both deeply political and playful, a poet who used humor in unforeseen ways. AP

On Death, without Exaggeration

It can't take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can't even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn't strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won't help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies' skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it's not.

There's no life
that couldn't be immortal
if only for a moment.

always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone.

By Wislawa Szymborska
From "The People on the Bridge", 1986
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door. 
Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.