Monday, 30 April 2012

Rabindranath Tagore: the poet at 150

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 Literary Supplement last year.
An interesting question, but one that betrays its author's parochialism. Because the poet isn't ignored in his native Bengal, where middle-class family homes routinely contain some Tagoreana, whether a portrait, one of his own paintings, or CDs of Rabindrasangeet (his songs form a genre of their own). Publishers such as Harvard and Hesperus have brought out valuable editions of his work. And while the British literary calendar has not been bursting with Tagore celebrations, his anniversary has prompted festivals, concerts, revivals of his plays and, at Cumberland Lodge this Wednesday, a conference on his educational thought. Tagore may no longer have the (slightly suspect) popularity he gained among the likes of WB Yeats and Ezra Pound before the first world war, but he retains his devotees.
And rightly so. Thanks to translators such as William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson, English readers can get a clearer sense of the pleasures in his work. With some historical imagination, they can also appreciate its achievement. Tagore was an Indian subject of a British monarch, adding to a literature dominated by Hindu mythologies. Yet rather than struggle within these personal and artistic constraints, he broke free of them. His work didn't reel off the deities, but revelled in human life and nature. Nor did his colonial status deter him from both criticising the British and urging Indians to learn from the west.
His life is thus an object lesson in how an artist, or anyone, can reimagine the possibilities handed down to them. Tagore has been logged in British cultural memory as a mystic, but he was too energetic, inventive, provocative for that. His 150th anniversary is as good a time as any for readers to rediscover just how various and interesting a man Tagore was.

by: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
      I AM restless. I am athirst for far-away things.
      My soul goes out in a longing to touch the skirt of the dim distance.
      O Great Beyond, O the keen call of thy flute!
      I forget, I ever forget, that I have no wings to fly, that I am bound in this spot evermore.
      I am eager and wakeful, I am a stranger in a strange land.
      Thy breath comes to me whispering an impossible hope.
      Thy tongue is known to my heart as its very own.
      O Far-to-seek, O the keen call of thy flute!
      I forget, I ever forget, that I know not the way, that I have not the winged horse.
      I am listless, I am a wanderer in my heart.
      In the sunny haze of the languid hours, what vast vision of thine takes shape in the blue of the sky!
      O Farthest end, O the keen call of thy flute!
      I forget, I ever forget, that the gates are shut everywhere in the house where I dwell alone!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein

Detail, Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906 

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 muse to Hemingway, Gertrude Stein seems to embody high modernism in its most creative and progressive form. Her patronage of modernism’s giants—Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse—made her a radical in her day. Her playful and innovative writing seems to anticipate much of postmodern thought. Her open, unapologetic, same-sex partnership with Alice B. Toklas belongs more to the liberal world of 2012 than to 1912. And yet throughout her life Stein hewed to the political right, even signing up to be a propagandist for an authoritarian, Nazi-dominated political regime.
Stein’s Vichy past has long been known to scholars of her work, if not to the public at large. In 1970, Stein’s biographer Richard Bridgman revealed not only that Stein was a fan of Pétain but had even spent a good part of the war translating his speeches into English in the hopes of having them published in America (they never were). Janet Hobhouse, another early biographer, noted the ironic dissonance between Stein’s fierce critique of the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbor and her “sanguine” acceptance of the Nazi occupation of France. And Linda Wagner-Martin, though insisting on Stein’s ties to the Resistance (claimed by Stein herself after the war), also referred to Stein as an apparent propagandist for Vichy.
Yet surprisingly, most of Stein’s critics have given her a relatively free pass on her Vichy sympathies. Others have tried to ignore or justify equally inexplicable events: for example, Stein’s endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, or her performance of the Hitler salute at his bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945. Until recently, in fact, the troublesome question of Stein’s politics didn’t really figure in debates over her legacy—as opposed, for example, to the vehement debates surrounding Mussolini supporter and modernist poet Ezra Pound.
Stein’s obvious vulnerability as a Jew in Vichy France—a regime that sent more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived—explains some of this critical response. Even if we acknowledge that Stein was a Vichy propagandist, what right have we to condemn her for doing what she could to save herself in a terrifying situation? Hiding in plain sight might have been the best way to deflect attention away from herself. Given that many of Stein’s neighbors in the small southern town where she lived during the war were Pétainists makes this argument even more convincing. And the fact that Stein apparently joined her neighbors in supporting the French Resistance after 1943 further underscores these formative ties to her community.
On the other hand, we have no evidence to suggest that Gertrude Stein was anything but an enthusiastic supporter of the Vichy regime. In her correspondence during this period, Stein explicitly refers to herself as a “propagandist” for the “new France.”  She was apparently excited by the possibility that Pétain himself had approved of her project to translate his speeches. And in one of the only pieces of Vichy propaganda Stein actually brought to press, a 1941 article on the French language in the Vichy journal La Patrie, Stein envisions a productive continuity between the political and cultural project of Pétain’s National Revolution and her own experimental writing. Even after the war, Stein continued to praise Pétain, stating that his 1940 armistice with Hitler had “achieved a miracle” (this, after Pétain had been sentenced to death by a French court for treason).
Stein’s Pétainism thus presents us with a difficult critical dilemma, but an important one. As admirers of Stein’s playful, radical, pre-postmodern writing, we may want to rescue her from her disquieting political views. But to do so greatly simplifies both her complex character and the historical moment in which she and her fellow modernists lived. Close attention to that moment requires suspending some of our most cherished beliefs about the greatest writers and artists of the early twentieth century: their belief in innovation, in revolution, in the profound necessity of going forward. In fact, for modernists like Stein, the path forward into the future often lay in a return to something lost in the wake of modernity. And it is here where the promises of fascism (and of its variants, like Pétainism) proved particularly attractive to certain modernist writers.
In 2007, journalist and author Janet Malcolm published a short book, Two Lives, in which she mused about Gertrude Stein’s connections to a man who may have led her into the orbit of the Vichy regime, a Frenchman named Bernard Faÿ (pronounced fah-ee). Malcolm asked why the modernist Stein would have been drawn to Faÿ, a royalist historian with pronounced far-right political tendencies. Malcolm’s book opened the door to discussing Faÿ’s centrality to the difficult and complex choices Stein made during the Second World War. It also began raising crucial questions about the intersection between artistic modernism and political fascism. My own recent work on Stein and Faÿ has mined the archives to find an exact historical context for this unlikely intersection.
Stein and Faÿ met in 1926, and became so close that Alice Toklas ultimately referred to Faÿ as Stein’s “dearest friend during her life.” For Stein, who not only acquired friends with ease but just as quickly dropped them, the twenty-year friendship with Bernard Faÿ was indeed an anomaly. A French writer and historian of American culture, Faÿ held a prestigious position in Paris as the youngest person ever given a Chair at the elite Collège de France. As Stein’s chief French translator, Faÿ was also the mastermind behind Stein’s highly successful tour of America in 1934–35 following her best-seller The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein even dedicated her famous book Lectures in America to Faÿ, since it was by listening to Faÿ lecture at the Collège that Stein said she learned how to speak in public.
But Stein and Faÿ’s friendship was based on more than mutual career support. While Faÿ was helping Stein with legal and literary matters, he was also conversing with Stein about the problems of their day—and about possible solutions. In their individual writings and correspondence, we see a remarkable convergence of right-wing ideas and convictions. Both Stein and Faÿ agree that modernity, understood as the nineteenth-century development of industrial and organizational societies in France and America, has become the source of twentieth-century cultural decline. Both trace the roots of this decline to social changes that took place in the wake of the French and American revolutions, changes that had culminated in the disastrous governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt in America and Léon Blum in France. Both agreed that the eighteenth century, in both America and France, was the absolute zenith of human achievement and possibility. And both embrace their own and each other’s role in guiding their respective societies back to that essential, eighteenth-century mode of life.
These convictions would have remained sub rosa for both Stein and Faÿ had the two friends not been confronted with the moment of Vichy. For it was the emergence of the Vichy regime that would allow both to imagine, at least for a while, that their political convictions might actually be realized in practice. For Bernard Faÿ, who had known Philippe Pétain as the “Victor of Verdun” during the First World War, the Vichy regime with its dictatorial authoritarian creed was a salutary development after a century and a half of “democratic nonsense.” Elitist to the core, a royalist and a devout Catholic, Faÿ felt strongly that only a return to the political system and “spiritual values” of the ancien régime could restore France to its premodern, pre-Revolutionary glory.
Pétain’s Vichy regime seemed to Faÿ to promise just that. With his recovery plan for the nation based on a reactionary platform of “family, work, and fatherland,” Pétain sought to use the defeat of the French at the hands of the Nazis as the stimulus for a complete overhaul of French society. Faÿ eagerly signed on to the program. When Pétain authorized an armistice with Hitler in June 1940, Faÿ found himself transformed from a college professor into one of the central figures in the new regime. He was named director of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, an enormously prestigious position in Paris. Secretly, he was also made chief henchman in charge of the repression of French Freemasons. The latter—mostly secular, left-wing, and often Jewish—were perceived as particularly loathsome by the Vichy regime. Faÿ’s mission was to identify and expose these groups; and while he was not directly in charge of their arrest and deportation, the information he compiled had insidious results. By the end of the war, six thousand French Freemasons had been directly questioned or surveilled, with many losing their jobs; almost a thousand had been deported to concentration camps and almost six hundred killed.
Faÿ’s central role in the Vichy regime undoubtedly had an effect upon Gertrude Stein’s fate during the Second World War. According to Faÿ himself, he prevailed upon Pétain to protect Stein and Toklas and to give them special dispensation to be left undisturbed during the war. Faÿ apparently secured perks like bread tickets and driving privileges for Stein, and possibly intervened when Stein’s name appeared on the third and final installment of the Nazi’s list of banned books in May 1943. Faÿ also stepped in—at the request of Picasso, who somehow knew exactly whom to contact—when the Nazis showed up at Stein’s apartment in Paris to seize her art collection (it was left undisturbed). In crucial ways, therefore, Faÿ was an indispensable friend to Stein during a period in which she was in considerable danger. ...

Monday, 23 April 2012

Joseph Conrad on Henry James (1905)

Henry James

 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--the publishing business acquiring a symbolic meaning from its negative nature. Because, emphatically, in the body of Mr. Henry James's work there is no suggestion of finality, nowhere a hint of surrender, or even of probability of surrender, to his own victorious achievement in that field where he is a master. Happily, he will never be able to claim completeness; and, were he to confess to it in a moment of self-ignorance, he would not be believed by the very minds for whom such a confession naturally would be meant. It is impossible to think of Mr. Henry James becoming "complete" otherwise than by the brutality of our common fate whose finality is meaningless--in the sense of its logic being of a material order, the logic of a falling stone.
I do not know into what brand of ink Mr. Henry James dips his pen; indeed, I heard that of late he had been dictating; but I know that his mind is steeped in the waters flowing from the fountain of intellectual youth. The thing--a privilege--a miracle--what you will--is not quite hidden from the meanest of us who run as we read. To those who have the grace to stay their feet it is manifest. After some twenty years of attentive acquaintance with Mr. Henry James's work, it grows into absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one's artistic existence. If gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense of favours to come, it becomes very easy to be grateful to the author of The Ambassadors--to name the latest of his works. The favours are sure to come; the spring of that benevolence will never run dry. The stream of inspiration flows brimful in a predetermined direction, unaffected by the periods of drought, untroubled in its clearness by the storms of the land of letters, without languor or violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every turn of its course through that richly inhabited country its fertility has created for our delectation, for our judgment, for our exploring. It is, in fact, a magic spring.
With this phrase the metaphor of the perennial spring, of the inextinguishable youth, of running waters, as applied to Mr. Henry James's inspiration, may be dropped. In its volume and force the body of his work may be compared rather to a majestic river. All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind, pinned down by the conditions of its existence to the earnest consideration of the most insignificant tides of reality.
Action in its essence, the creative art of a writer of fiction may be compared to rescue work carried out in darkness against cross gusts of wind swaying the action of a great multitude. It is rescue work, this snatching of vanishing phases of turbulence, disguised in fair words, out of the native obscurity into a light where the struggling forms may be seen, seized upon, endowed with the only possible form of permanence in this world of relative values--the permanence of memory. And the multitude feels it obscurely too; since the demand of the individual to the artist is, in effect, the cry, "Take me out of myself!" meaning really, out of my perishable activity into the light of imperishable consciousness. But everything is relative, and the light of consciousness is only enduring, merely the most enduring of the things of this earth, imperishable only as against the short-lived work of our industrious hands.
When the last aqueduct shall have crumbled to pieces, the last airship fallen to the ground, the last blade of grass have died upon a dying earth, man, indomitable by his training in resistance to misery and pain, shall set this undiminished light of his eyes against the feeble glow of the sun. The artistic faculty, of which each of us has a minute grain, may find its voice in some individual of that last group, gifted with a power of expression and courageous enough to interpret the ultimate experience of mankind in terms of his temperament, in terms of art. I do not mean to say that he would attempt to beguile the last moments of humanity by an ingenious tale. It would be too much to expect--from humanity. I doubt the heroism of the hearers. As to the heroism of the artist, no doubt is necessary. There would be on his part no heroism. The artist in his calling of interpreter creates (the clearest form of demonstration) because he must. He is so much of a voice that, for him, silence is like death; and the postulate was, that there is a group alive, clustered on his threshold to watch the last flicker of light on a black sky, to hear the last word uttered in the stilled workshop of the earth. It is safe to affirm that, if anybody, it will be the imaginative man who would be moved to speak on the eve of that day without to-morrow--whether in austere exhortation or in a phrase of sardonic comment, who can guess?
For my own part, from a short and cursory acquaintance with my kind, I am inclined to think that the last utterance will formulate, strange as it may appear, some hope now to us utterly inconceivable. For mankind is delightful in its pride, its assurance, and its indomitable tenacity. It will sleep on the battlefield among its own dead, in the manner of an army having won a barren victory. It will not know when it is beaten. And perhaps it is right in that quality. The victories are not, perhaps, so barren as it may appear from a purely strategical, utilitarian point of view. Mr. Henry James seems to hold that belief. Nobody has rendered better, perhaps, the tenacity of temper, or known how to drape the robe of spiritual honour about the drooping form of a victor in a barren strife. And the honour is always well won; for the struggles Mr. Henry James chronicles with such subtle and direct insight are, though only personal contests, desperate in their silence, none the less heroic (in the modern sense) for the absence of shouted watchwords, clash of arms and sound of trumpets. Those are adventures in which only choice souls are ever involved. And Mr. Henry James records them with a fearless and insistent fidelity to the PERIPETIES of the contest, and the feelings of the combatants.
The fiercest excitements of a romance DE CAPE ET D'EPEE, the romance of yard-arm and boarding pike so dear to youth, whose knowledge of action (as of other things) is imperfect and limited, are matched, for the quickening of our maturer years, by the tasks set, by the difficulties presented, to the sense of truth, of necessity--before all, of conduct--of Mr. Henry James's men and women. His mankind is delightful. It is delightful in its tenacity; it refuses to own itself beaten; it will sleep on the battlefield. These warlike images come by themselves under the pen; since from the duality of man's nature and the competition of individuals, the life-history of the earth must in the last instance be a history of a really very relentless warfare. Neither his fellows, nor his gods, nor his passions will leave a man alone. In virtue of these allies and enemies, he holds his precarious dominion, he possesses his fleeting significance; and it is this relation in all its manifestations, great and little, superficial or profound, and this relation alone, that is commented upon, interpreted, demonstrated by the art of the novelist in the only possible way in which the task can be performed: by the independent creation of circumstance and character, achieved against all the difficulties of expression, in an imaginative effort finding its inspiration from the reality of forms and sensations. That a sacrifice must be made, that something has to be given up, is the truth engraved in the innermost recesses of the fair temple built for our edification by the masters of fiction. There is no other secret behind the curtain. All adventure, all love, every success is resumed in the supreme energy of an act of renunciation. It is the uttermost limit of our power; it is the most potent and effective force at our disposal on which rest the labours of a solitary man in his study, the rock on which have been built commonwealths whose might casts a dwarfing shadow upon two oceans. Like a natural force which is obscured as much as illuminated by the multiplicity of phenomena, the power of renunciation is obscured by the mass of weaknesses, vacillations, secondary motives and false steps and compromises which make up the sum of our activity. But no man or woman worthy of the name can pretend to anything more, to anything greater. And Mr. Henry James's men and women are worthy of the name, within the limits his art, so clear, so sure of itself, has drawn round their activities. He would be the last to claim for them Titanic proportions. The earth itself has grown smaller in the course of ages. But in every sphere of human perplexities and emotions, there are more greatnesses than one--not counting here the greatness of the artist himself. Wherever he stands, at the beginning or the end of things, a man has to sacrifice his gods to his passions, or his passions to his gods. That is the problem, great enough, in all truth, if approached in the spirit of sincerity and knowledge.
In one of his critical studies, published some fifteen years ago, Mr. Henry James claims for the novelist the standing of the historian as the only adequate one, as for himself and before his audience. I think that the claim cannot be contested, and that the position is unassailable. Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting--on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience. As is meet for a man of his descent and tradition, Mr. Henry James is the historian of fine consciences.
Of course, this is a general statement; but I don't think its truth will be, or can be questioned. Its fault is that it leaves so much out; and, besides, Mr. Henry James is much too considerable to be put into the nutshell of a phrase. The fact remains that he has made his choice, and that his choice is justified up to the hilt by the success of his art. He has taken for himself the greater part. The range of a fine conscience covers more good and evil than the range of conscience which may be called, roughly, not fine; a conscience, less troubled by the nice discrimination of shades of conduct. A fine conscience is more concerned with essentials; its triumphs are more perfect, if less profitable, in a worldly sense. There is, in short, more truth in its working for a historian to detect and to show. It is a thing of infinite complication and suggestion. None of these escapes the art of Mr. Henry James. He has mastered the country, his domain, not wild indeed, but full of romantic glimpses, of deep shadows and sunny places. There are no secrets left within his range. He has disclosed them as they should be disclosed--that is, beautifully. And, indeed, ugliness has but little place in this world of his creation. Yet, it is always felt in the truthfulness of his art; it is there, it surrounds the scene, it presses close upon it. It is made visible, tangible, in the struggles, in the contacts of the fine consciences, in their perplexities, in the sophism of their mistakes. For a fine conscience is naturally a virtuous one. What is natural about it is just its fineness, an abiding sense of the intangible, ever-present, right. It is most visible in their ultimate triumph, in their emergence from miracle, through an energetic act of renunciation. Energetic, not violent: the distinction is wide, enormous, like that between substance and shadow.
Through it all Mr. Henry James keeps a firm hold of the substance, of what is worth having, of what is worth holding. The contrary opinion has been, if not absolutely affirmed, then at least implied, with some frequency. To most of us, living willingly in a sort of intellectual moonlight, in the faintly reflected light of truth, the shadows so firmly renounced by Mr. Henry James's men and women, stand out endowed with extraordinary value, with a value so extraordinary that their rejection offends, by its uncalled-for scrupulousness, those business-like instincts which a careful Providence has implanted in our breasts. And, apart from that just cause of discontent, it is obvious that a solution by rejection must always present a certain lack of finality, especially startling when contrasted with the usual methods of solution by rewards and punishments, by crowned love, by fortune, by a broken leg or a sudden death. Why the reading public which, as a body, has never laid upon a story-teller the command to be an artist, should demand from him this sham of Divine Omnipotence, is utterly incomprehensible. But so it is; and these solutions are legitimate inasmuch as they satisfy the desire for finality, for which our hearts yearn with a longing greater than the longing for the loaves and fishes of this earth. Perhaps the only true desire of mankind, coming thus to light in its hours of leisure, is to be set at rest. One is never set at rest by Mr. Henry James's novels. His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on; and even the subtle presence of the dead is felt in that silence that comes upon the artist-creation when the last word has been read. It is eminently satisfying, but it is not final. Mr. Henry James, great artist and faithful historian, never attempts the impossible. ...

Friday, 20 April 2012

Hanif Kureishi: Something Given - Reflections on Writing

"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.
            Many of my dad's friends considered his writing to be a risible pretension, though he had published two books for young people, on the history and geography of Pakistan. But even for my father, who loved seeing his name in print - I remember him labouring over the figures for average rainfalls, and on the textile industry - this was not authentic writing. He wanted to be a novelist.
            He did write novels, one after another, on the desk he had had a neighbour build for him in the corner of the bedroom he shared with my mother. He wrote them, and he rewrote them, and he rewrote them. Then he typed them out, making copies with several sheets of carbon paper. Sometimes, when his back hurt, he sat on the floor and wrote, with his spine pressed against the wardrobe. But whatever his posture, every workday morning I would hear his alarm, and soon after he would be hammering at his big typewriter. The sound pounded into us like artillery fire, rocking the house. He wrote at the weekends too, on Sunday afternoons. He would have liked to write in the evenings but by nine o'clock he'd be asleep on the sofa. My mother would wake him, and he'd shuffle off to bed.
            In one sense his persistence paid off. By the time he was sixty he must have completed five or six novels, several short stories, and a few radio plays. For many writers this would be considered a life-time's work. Often he became dejected - when he couldn't make a story live; or when he could, but had to break off and leave for the office; or when he was too tired to write; and in particular when his books were turned down by publishers, as all of them were, none of them ever reaching the public. His despair was awful; We all despaired along with him. But any encouragement from a publisher - even a standard letter expressing interest - renewed his vigour. Whether this was folly or dedication depends on your point of view. In the end all he wanted was for someone to say: "this is brilliant, it moved me. You are a wonderful writer," He wanted to be respected as he respected certain writers.
            Once, in Paris, where I was staying, I went to a restaurant with one of' my father's elder brothers. He was one of my favourite uncles, famous for his carousing but also for his violent temper. After a few drinks I admitted to him that I'd come to Paris to write, to learn to be a writer. He subjected me to a tirade of abuse, Who do you think you are, he said, Balzac? You're a fool, he went on, and your father's a fool too, to encourage you in this. It is pretentious, idiotic Fortunately, I was too young to be discouraged; I knew how to keep my illusions going. But I was shocked by what my father had had to endure from his family. You couldn't get above your station; you couldn't dream too wildly.
            Perhaps my uncles and father's acquaintances found his passion eccentric because Asian people in Britain hadn't uprooted themselves to pursue the notoriously badly paid and indulgent profession of 'artist'. They had come to Britain to make lives for themselves that were impossible at home. At that time, in the mid-'60s, the images of India that we saw on television were of poverty, starvation, and illness. In contrast, in the south of Britain people who bad survived the war and the miserable 1950s, were busily acquiring fridges, cars, televisions, washing machines
            For immigrants and their families, disorder and strangeness is the condition of their existence. They want a new life and the material advancement that goes with it. But having been ripped from one world and flung into another, what they also require, to keep everything together, is tradition, habitual ideas, stasis. Life in the country you have left may move on, but life in the diaspora is often held in a strange suspension, as if the act of moving has provided too much disturbance as it is.
            Culture and art was for other people, usually wealthy, self-sufficient people who were safe and established. It was naive to think you could be a writer; or it was a kind of showing-off. Few of father's friends read; not all of them were literate. Many of them were recent arrivals, and they worked with him in the Pakistan Embassy. In the evening they worked in shops, or as waiters, or in petrol stations. They were sending money to their families. Father would tell me stories of omnivorous aunts and brothers and parents who thought their fortunate benefactor was living in plenty. They knew nothing of the cold and rain and abuse and homesickness. Sometimes they had clubbed together to send their relative to England who would then be obliged to remit money. One day the family would come over to join him. Until this happened the immigrant would try to buy a house; then another. Or a shop, or a factory.
            For others, whose families were in Britain, the education of' their children was crucial. And this, along with money, was the indicator par excellence of their progress in the new country. And so, bafflingly to me, they would interminably discuss their cars.
            Even we had to get a car. Most of the time it sat rusting outside the house, and my sister and I would play in it, since it took Father six attempts to get through the Driving Test. He became convinced that he was failed because of racial prejudice. Eventually he complained to the Race Relations Board, and next time he passed. Not long after he crashed the car with all of us in it.
            Writing was the only thing Father wanted to be interested in, or good at, though he could do other things: cook, be an attentive and entertaining friend, play sports. He liked being a father. His own father, a doctor, had had twelve children, of which ten were sons. My father had never received the attention he required. He felt his life had lost 'direction' due to lack of guidance. He knew, therefore, what a father should be. It wasn't a question for him. He and I would play cricket for hours in the garden and park; we went to the cinema - mostly to watch war films like "Where Eagles Dare; we watched sport on television, and we talked.
            Father went to the library every Saturday morning, usually with me in tow. He planted notebooks around the house in the toilet, beside his bed, in the front room beside his television chair in order to write wherever he was. These notebooks he made himself from a square of cardboard and a bulldog clip, attaching to them various odd-shaped sheets of paper -- the backs of flyers which came through the letter-box, letters from the bank, paper he took from work, envelopes. He made little notes exhorting himself onwards: "the whole secret of success is; the way to go is; one must begin by ...; this is how to live, to think, to write ...' He would clench his fist and slam it into the palm of his other hand, saying, "one must fight."
            Father was seriously ill during much of my youth, with a number of painful and depressing ailments. But even in hospital he would have a notebook at hand. When dying he talked of his latest book with his usual, touching but often infuriating grandiosity. "In my latest novel I am showing how a man feels when..."
            My mother, quite sensibly, wondered whether he might not be better off doing something less frustrating than shutting himself away for most of his spare time. Life was slipping away; he wasn't getting anywhere. Did he have to prefer failure as a writer to success at anything else? Perhaps she and he could do things together. Nothing changed, that was the problem. The continuous disappointment that accompanied this private work was hard for everyone to bear, and it was the atmosphere in which we lived, Sometimes Mother suggested the illnesses were precipitated by his hopeless desire for the unattainable. But this was not something Father liked to hear.
            He was convinced that she didn't understand what such a passion entailed. The fact was, she did. Yet he wanted to get to people. He had something to say and wanted response. He required attention, The publishers who rejected his work were standing between him and the audience he was convinced was waiting.
            Father was good company funny, talkative, curious, nosy and gossipy. He was always on the look-out for stories. We would work out the plots together. Recently I found one of his stories, which concerns the Indian servant of an English couple living in Madras before the Second World War. The story soon makes it clear that the servant is having an affair with his Mistress. Towards the end we learn that he is also having an affair with the Master. If I was surprised by this fertile story of bisexuality, I always knew he had an instinct for ironies, links, parallels, twists.
            He liked other people and would talk with the neighbours as they dug their gardens and washed their cars, and while they stood together on the station in the morning. He would give them nicknames and speculate about their lives until I couldn't tell the difference between what he'd heard and what he'd imagined he'd heard. "Suppose, one day," he'd say. "that man over there decided to..." And off he would go. As Maupassant wrote, "You can never feel comfortable with a novelist, never be sure that he will not put you into bed one day, quite naked, between the pages of a book?
            It amused Father , and amazed me - it seemed like a kind of magic - to see how experience could be converted into stories, and how the monotony and dullness of an ordinary day could contain meaning, symbolism and even beauty. The invention and telling of stories - that most indispensable human transaction - brought us together. There was amusement, contact, entertainment. Whether this act of conversion engaged father more closely with life, or whether it provided a necessary distance, or both, I don't know. Nevertheless, father understood that in the suburbs, where concealment is often the only art, but where there is so much aspiration, dreaming and disappointment, as John Cheever illustrated - there is a lot for a writer.
            Perhaps after a certain age Father couldn't progress. Yet he remained faithful to this idea of writing. It was his religion, his reason for living, the God he couldn't betray and the God who wouldn't let him down. Father's art involved a long fidelity and a great commitment. Like many lives in the suburbs, it was also a long deferral. One day in the future when his work was published and he was recognised as a writer - good things would happen to him and everything would change. But for the time being everything remained the same. He was fixed, and, from a certain point of view, stuck.
            Writers are often asked - and they certainly ask themselves - what they would do if they were not published. I suspect that most writers would like to think that they would continue as they do already, writing to the best of their ability without thought of an audience. Yet even if this is true that most of the satisfactions are private you might still need to feel that someone is responding, even if you have no idea who they are. Until you are published it might be difficult to move on; you could easily feel that nothing had been achieved, and that by failing to reach another person - the reader - the circle had not been completed, the letter posted but not received. Perhaps without such completion a writer is destined to repeat himself, as people do when having conversations with themselves, conversations never heard by anyone.
            Yet father would not stop writing. It was crucial to him that these stories be told. Like Scherazade, he was writing for his life.
            Where do stories come from? What is there to write about? Where do you get material? How do you start? And: why are writers asked these question so often?
            It isn't as if you can go shopping for experience. Or is it? Such an idea suggests that experience is somehow outside yourself', and must be gathered. But in fact, it is a question of seeing what is there. Experience is what has already happened. Experience, like love and hate, starts at home: in the bedroom, in the kitchen. It happens the moment people are together, or apart, when they want one another and when they realise they don't like their lover's ears. ...

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Life of a Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke

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 Left Bank of Paris by the flickering kerosene lamp, the poet's pen scratching on paper pulled out of stacks heaped on table and chairs; or perhaps, as so often in the Bibliotheque Nationale, amid silence, clearing throats, and shuffling feet; or a few years later in a cottage near Rome, or later still in the dying Swedish summer, under a beech tree.
Until the end, the poet knew that real life finally exists only within., waiting to become something other than itself. As he said in his Seventh Elegy:
Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within U.S. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.
He wrote these words in a tower during the last phase of his brief life, surrounded by high Swiss mountains, a man looking older than his years, writing feverishly at his stand-up desk, as memories, evoked and promptly displaced, were remolded according to his artful design.
The poet's life began in Prague.
He grew up during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the facades of the great buildings along the Vltava River still looked splendid. The plaster covering the ancient bricks had not yet peeled off as cafes and theaters cast their lights upon the water. And the Hradcany Castle looked down upon the city, dominating the scene with its massive walls, a symbol of imperial power.
Vaclavske Namesti--or Wenzelsplatz, as the Germans called it in that bilingual city--is a generous plaza lined with trees and a busy thoroughfare leading from the broad steps of the National Museum toward the center of town. The area surrounding it was the focus of Rilke's childhood. The rumbling carts and horse-drawn wagons have now been replaced by automobiles and trucks, but most of the old structures still stand, suggesting time frozen in an unchanging present. As today's visitor emerges from the subway station near the museum and turns into the streets where the young Rilke lived, he finds a scene that even now connects him with the distant past of the 1870s. The street where Rilke was born--Jindrisska ulice or Heinrichgasse--trails among tired-looking buildings that still betray their nineteenth-century origin behind their renovated storefronts.
A few yards farther down from Heinrichgasse 19, where the young Rilke lived with his parents in a rented flat (the building has since been torn down to make room for a bank), the street widens into a square with a gate and a church. Svatemo Jindrisska or St. Heinrich, standing next to a well-kept rectory, is wide and commodious with a round nave and a stubby steeple of the same yellow sandstone as the gate. This was the place where Rilke was baptized and where his mother offered her devotions during his early years.
The geography of the world surrounding the young Rilke reflects in many important ways the topography of the future poet's mind. Across from Heinrichgasse 19 was the Herrengasse--Panska ulice--the street in which his maternal grandparents owned an impressive mansion and in which his mother had spent her girlhood. This building, too, was torn down to make room for a bank, but one can still discern from the adjoining ornate structures how elegant the place must have been. Peering out of the window of his parents' apartment, the child could not help but be aware of the great contrast between his own home and the mansion around the corner where, he feared, he might not quite belong. Already as a small child, then, Rilke lived in two contrasting yet not far distant places: Heinrichgasse for the common folk and Herrengasse, "the street of the gentry," Jindrisska and Panska ulice. They were to make up the fabric of his life, the texture of his work.
Prague was one of the principal cities of the Austro-hungarian Empire, a city of divergent classes, languages, peoples: Czech, German, Jewish. German remained the language of the Austrian governing elite, the military officer corps, and the professional establishment. It was also the native language of a considerable population of Germans and German-speaking Jews who were responsible for a lively and often controversial culture.
The complex history of Prague and Bohemia as part of the Austrian empire created tensions akin to those in a colonial city where a German minority dominated community and economic life and a Czech majority were looked down upon and too often relegated to the lower reaches of the social scale. But by the time of Rilke's childhood, Czech intellectuals were becoming increasingly vocal, especially with the establishment of an autonomous Czech component of the Carl-Ferdinand University, which supported the further growth of an indigenous professional class. And a rich literary and cultural tradition was being nourished by contemporary artists of stature.
During these fin-de-siecle years for the Hapsburg monarchy, German middle-class families like the Rilkes were also caught in conflicting social and ethnic pressures. Being part of the governing minority produced some of their anxieties and those of many of their compatriots. As Germans, both the poet's parents felt privileged by nature, yet neither was an aristocrat, a status that would have guaranteed their entry into German society.
Rilke's father, Josef, born in 1838, had failed in his ambitions even within the bourgeoisie. At the time his son was born in 1875, he was a minor railroad official who had not managed to obtain a commission in the army after many years of service, including some distinction in Austria's war against an insurgent, unifying Italy. A throat ailment forced him to take too many sick leaves, and when by 1865 officer status had become even more elusive, he took a job with the Turnau-Prague-prague Railway (secured with the help of his more successful older brother, Jaroslav), in which he advanced moderately over the years. Still, when he courted Rilke's mother, he was handsome and well mannered and comported himself like an imperial officer, even in civilian clothes.
Born in 1851. thirteen years younger than her future husband, Sophie (or, as she called herself, Phia) Entz was the daughter of a highly placed bank official with the title of Imperial Counsellor; her mother, Caroline, came from. an upper bourgeois (but not aristocratic) German family, well established and distinguished as manufacturers and landowners. Although Carl Entz never achieved the rank of nobility, he had risen to prominence within his class, and the mansion in the Herrengasse where Phia was raised with her sister and two brothers would remain in her memory as a treasured ideal: a baroque edifice with high ceilings, broad stairways, and many rooms filled with polished furniture.
Yet Phia felt trapped in her sumptuous home. At one point she shocked everyone by rebelliously draining a bottle of champagne. The act was symptomatic of the same drive toward personal freedom that would later energize her son. Social ambition--a passion the grown Rainer Maria would share--was the main outlet for a woman in her time, which led her to respond to the promise Josef Rilke's military bearing implied. She married him in 1873.
Since Jaroslav Rilke had been recently elevated to the peerage, Phia may have hoped that this privilege might also be extended to his younger brother. Unfortunately for her, this turned out not to be the case. Indeed, her expectation that Josef would lead her into the noble houses of the first families in town was to prove an ill-fated illusion for which she would never forgive him.
In their modest apartment in Heinrichgasse, they were soon in straits, for Josef's salary did not suffice for Phia's needs. Her dowry was quickly spent, and the cramped, badly furnished flat was a constant reminder of her error. Meanwhile, her sister Charlotte had become an aristocrat by marrying a titled imperial officer, Mahler von Mahlersheim, who rose to the rank of colonel by the time of Rilke's childhood.
Phia's expectations of Josef were not ungrounded. There was a tradition in Josef Rilke's family on which the myth of the noble line had been based, just as there was a tradition for military service, though severely disrupted by death, illness, and hopelessness for three of the family's four sons. The first blow was the death from dysentery of Emil, the second son; there followed Josef's decision to abandon his career; later came the suicide of the youngest son, Hugo, whom the child Rilke loved well, because he could not bear being still a captain at fifty-one. Only the eldest son, jaroslav, was successful. The one brother to pursue a civilian career, he lent luster to the family as a distinguished attorney. Their sister, Gabriele, however, found a titled husband, Wenzel, Knight of Kutschera-Waborski, a prosecuting attorney in Prague, by whom she had four children.
Jaroslav was the magnet of the family, a source of nurture and protection for them all, whose generous though autocratic spirit was to shape the young Rilke's life. He used his high worldly position with the grandeur of an Old Testament patriarch. His law office represented a great number of important German families in Prague and the Bohemian territory, many of them landowners who depended on his expertise in real estate. He was also politically active as a delegate to the Bohmische Landtag, the legislative assembly of the Bohemian territory.
Yet Jaroslav, too, was possessed by the lust for nobility. He married into an aristocratic family--his wife was Melvine, Freiin von Schlosser--and was active in trying to establish his own family as descendants of a noble line from Carinthia. He almost succeeded. In 1873 Jaroslav acquired the title of Knight of Ruliken, but only for himself and his children. At one time he had employed most of his office for weeks in an effort to trace his family origins, but he could not prove his nobility. When the attempt failed, the emperor bestowed the title only upon him and his direct descendants in recognition of his service.
Eventually Jaroslav would turn to his brother Josef's only son to groom him as his likely successor. Rilke's failure to live up to his family's expectations as either a soldier or a jurist, fighting instead for the right to be a poet, became one of the great conflicts that shaped his career.
I have no beloved, no house, no place where I can live. All the things to which I give myself grow rich and spend me. --"The Poet"
The poet entered a world without moorings that allowed him no place to rest. Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke, born prematurely on December 4, 1875, was at first so weak that his parents had to wait a fortnight before they dared take him to the Church of St. Heinrich down the street for his christening. The previous year a daughter had died a week after her birth, and Phia now watched over this newborn with excessive care. In fact, during Rilke's early years she acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy. Two of his names--Rene and Maria--make plain the mother's attempt to lend him a female identity. For five years, until he went to school, she dressed him like a girl against his father's ineffectual opposition. "I had to wear beautiful long dresses," Rilke recalled many years later, "and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll."
At his nineteenth birthday Rene's indignation emerges clearly in a letter to his fiancee, Valerie von David-Rhonfeld, in which he blamed his mother for a childhood of which he had only the darkest memories. Phia appeared to have been perpetually absent, leaving him "in the care of a conscienceless, immoral maidservant." She who should have regarded him as her primary duty loved him only when she could parade him "in front of some astonished friends" in a new little dress. Phia, by contrast, insisted that as a small child he liked his female role, playing with dolls and wanting a doll bed and kitchen as a present. He spent hours combing his doll's hair.
Phia's fondness for seeing Rene in delicate long dresses cannot be seen merely as the fashion in those days. There seems to have been a playful conspiracy between mother and son with deeper psychological tensions. Rene and his mother, whom he strikingly resembled, surely shared pleasure in disguise, in "dressing up"; the girls' clothes and games must also have confirmed the strong bond that held mother and son together, especially when he felt threatened. According to a family anecdote, on one occasion when he was expecting to be punished the seven-year-old boy made himself into a girl to placate his mother. His long hair done up in braids, his sleeves rolled up to bare his thin, girlish arms, he appeared in his mother's room. "Ismene is staying with dear Mama," he is quoted as saying. "Rene is a no-good. I sent him away. Girls are after all so much nicer." Decades later Rilke used the same anecdote in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, but instead of calling himself "Ismene," Malte used "Sophie"--Phia's full name.
For the growing child, this feminine posture was soon associated with a gift for writing verse. Phia urged poetry upon him before he was even able to read. At seven he started to copy poems, and he knew many of Schiller's lengthy ballads by heart before the usual German schoolboy would have been able to recite them. Her teaching insisted on refinement. Very early in life Rene had to learn French, which Phia encouraged him to use wherever feasible in place of "vulgar" Czech. Her instinctive support of her child's literary talents was thus combined with snobbery. Moreover, through Phia the young poet-to-be was administered a powerful potion of romantic religiosity, an adoration of saints and saints' lives, holy relics, and fervent devotions, which enriched his repertoire of images for the rest of his life.
But there was a countercurrent. Rene's father may not have been able to stand up to his wife, who hurt his sensibilities by parading their son in female dress, but he managed to supply him with toy soldiers and dumbbells for exercise. Josef was not without success; Rene developed genuine feelings for chivalry and military glory. Many of his childhood drawings were of soldiers, knights in armor, horsemen bearing banners with crosses. He saw himself as a brave commander of troops. At the age when he started copying poems to please his mother, he wrote his father from a summer holiday that he was now "a major in the second cavalry squadron" and had a "saber hammered with gold." He was also a knight with a "tin decoration" and was "eating like a wolf, sleeping like a sack." He was even climbing trees.
For all his attachment to his mother, the child also sought to please his father, and it was more than a superficial connection. Later, his daughter and family liked to think of him as "his father's child through and a judgment obviously informed by the desire to show him as acceptable male rather than as his mother's pet. And it is true that as an adult Rilke found nicer things to say about his father, who died when the poet was thirty, than about his mother, who survived him by five years. Even as at nineteen he reviled Phia as "a pleasure-loving, miserable being," he found good words to say about his father: "Whenever he was home, only my papa bestowed upon me love combined with care and solicitude." As a mature man he glossed over his father's failures, pretending that Josef had actually become an officer "following a family tradition" and describing his later career as occupying a rather high position" as a civilian working for a private railroad. In the descriptive poem composed at the time of his father's death in 1906, "Portrait of My Father as a Young Man," he depicted Josef In full military regalia, thus dressing him up as well:
In front of the full ornamental braiding of the slim aristocratic uniform, the saber's basket hilt. . . .
Yet Josef Rilke never understood his son's insistence on becoming a poet, a decision he correctly associated with Phia. Poetry seemed to him always frivolous compared with a "real" job like a bank clerk's. But he also supported his son with an allowance whenever he could, even after Rene's marriage. His father, Rene told a correspondent, was of "unspeakable goodness," making the son's life, which Josef could not understand, an object of touching daily concern." When Rilke wrote his autobiographical novella, Ewald Tragy, in 1899--which was so close to the facts that he never published it in his lifetime--he treated Josef with real understanding despite their conflict. ...
By Ralph Freedman

Monday, 16 April 2012

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; there is hardly a sentence but reminds him that he is in the society of a great literary swell, who has read everything, and can mock or burlesque life right and left from the literature always at his command. At the same time he feels his mastery, and is abjectly grateful to him in his own simple love of the good for his patronage of the unassuming virtues. It is so pleasing to one`s `vanity, and so safe, to be of the master`s side when he assails those vices and foibles which are inherent in the system of things, and which one can contemn with vast applause so long as one does not attempt to undo the conditions they spring from.
I exulted to have Thackeray attack the aristocrats, and expose their wicked pride and meanness, and I never noticed that he did not propose to do away with aristocracy, which is and must always be just what it has been, and which cannot be changed while it exists at all. He appeared to me one of the noblest creatures that ever was when he derided the shams of society; and I was far from seeing that society, as we have it, was necessarily a sham; when he made a mock of snobbishness I did not know but snobbishness was something that might be reached and cured by ridicule. Now I know that so long as we have social inequality we shall have snobs; we shall have men who bully and truckle, and women who snub and crawl. I know that it is futile to, spurn them, or lash them for trying to get on in the world, and that the world is what it must be from the selfish motives which underlie our economic life. But I did not know these things then, nor for long afterwards, and so I gave my heart to Thackeray, who seemed to promise me in his contempt of the world a refuge from the shame I felt for my own want of figure in it. He had the effect of taking me into the great world, and making me a party to his splendid indifference to titles, and even to royalties; and I could not see that sham for sham he was unwittingly the greatest sham of all.
I think it was `Pendennis` I began with, and I lived in the book to the very last line of it, and made its alien circumstance mine to the smallest detail. I am still not sure but it is the author`s greatest book, and I speak from a thorough acquaintance with every line he has written, except the Virginians, which I have never been able to read quite through; most of his work I have read twice, and some of it twenty times.
After reading `Pendennis` I went to `Vanity Fair,` which I now think the poorest of Thackeray`s novels--crude, heavy-handed, caricatured. About the same time I revelled in the romanticism of `Henry Esmond,` with its pseudo-eighteenth-century sentiment, and its appeals to an overwrought ideal of gentlemanhood and honor. It was long before I was duly revolted by Esmond`s transfer of his passion from the daughter to the mother whom he is successively enamoured of. I believe this unpleasant and preposterous affair is thought one of the fine things in the story; I do not mind owning that I thought it so myself when I was seventeen; and if I could have found a Beatrix to be in love with, and a Lady Castlewood to be in love with me, I should have asked nothing finer of fortune. The glamour of Henry Esmond was all the deeper because I was reading the `Spectator` then, and was constantly in the company of Addison, and Steele, and Swift, and Pope, and all the wits at Will`s, who are presented evanescently in the romance. The intensely literary keeping, as well as quality, of the story I suppose is what formed its highest fascination for me; but that effect of great world which it imparts to the reader, making him citizen, and, if he will, leading citizen of it, was what helped turn my head.
This is the toxic property of all Thackeray`s writing. He is himself forever dominated in imagination by the world, and even while he tells you it is not worth while he makes you feel that it is worth while. It is not the honest man, but the man of honor, who shines in his page; his meek folk are proudly meek, and there is a touch of superiority, a glint of mundane splendor, in his lowliest. He rails at the order of things, but he imagines nothing different, even when he shows that its baseness, and cruelty, and hypocrisy are well-nigh inevitable, and, for most of those who wish to get on in it, quite inevitable. He has a good word for the virtues, he patronizes the Christian graces, he pats humble merit on the head; he has even explosions of indignation against the insolence and pride of birth, and purse-pride. But, after all, he is of the world, worldly, and the highest hope he holds out is that you may be in the world and despise its ambitions while you compass its ends.
I should be far from blaming him for all this. He was of his time; but since his time men have thought beyond him, and seen life with a vision which makes his seem rather purblind. He must have been immensely in advance of most of the thinking and feeling of his day, for people then used to accuse his sentimental pessimism of cynical qualities which we could hardly find in it now. It was the age of intense individualism, when you were to do right because it was becoming to you, say, as a gentleman, and you were to have an eye single to the effect upon your character, if not your reputation; you were not to do a mean thing because it was wrong, but because it was mean. It was romanticism carried into the region of morals. But I had very little concern then as to that sort of error.
I was on a very high esthetic horse, which I could not have conveniently stooped from if I had wished; it was quite enough for me that Thackeray`s novels were prodigious works of art, and I acquired merit, at least with myself, for appreciating them so keenly, for liking them so much. It must be, I felt with far less consciousness than my formulation of the feeling expresses, that I was of some finer sort myself to be able to enjoy such a fine sort. No doubt I should have been a coxcomb of some kind, if not that kind, and I shall not be very strenuous in censuring Thackeray for his effect upon me in this way. No doubt the effect was already in me, and he did not so much produce it as find it.
In the mean time he was a vast delight to me, as much in the variety of his minor works--his `Yellowplush,` and `Letters of Mr. Brown,` and `Adventures of Major Gahagan,` and the `Paris Sketch Book,` and the `Irish Sketch Book,` and the `Great Hoggarty Diamond,` and the `Book of Snobs,` and the `English Humorists,` and the `Four Georges,` and all the multitude of his essays, and verses, and caricatures--as in the spacious designs of his huge novels, the `Newcomes,` and `Pendennis,` and `Vanity Fair,` and `Henry Esmond,` and `Barry Lyndon.`
There was something in the art of the last which seemed to me then, and still seems, the farthest reach of the author`s great talent. It is couched, like so much of his work, in the autobiographic form, which next to the dramatic form is the most natural, and which lends itself with such flexibility to the purpose of the author. In `Barry Lyndon` there is imagined to the life a scoundrel of such rare quality that he never supposes for a moment but he is the finest sort of a gentleman; and so, in fact, he was, as most gentlemen went in his day. Of course, the picture is over-colored; it was the vice of Thackeray, or of Thackeray`s time, to surcharge all imitations of life and character, so that a generation apparently much slower, if not duller than ours, should not possibly miss the artist`s meaning. But I do not think it is so much surcharged as `Esmond;` `Barry Lyndon` is by no manner of means so conscious as that mirror of gentlemanhood, with its manifold self- reverberations; and for these reasons I am inclined to think he is the most perfect creation of Thackeray`s mind.
I did not make the acquaintance of Thackeray`s books all at once, or even in rapid succession, and he at no time possessed the whole empire of my catholic, not to say, fickle, affections, during the years I was compassing a full knowledge and sense of his greatness, and burning incense at his shrine. But there was a moment when he so outshone and overtopped all other divinities in my worship that I was effectively his alone, as I have been the helpless and, as it were, hypnotized devotee of three or four others of the very great. From his art there flowed into me a literary quality which tinged my whole mental substance, and made it impossible for me to say, or wish to say, anything without giving it the literary color. That is, while he dominated my love and fancy, if I had been so fortunate as to have a simple concept of anything in life, I must have tried to give the expression of it some turn or tint that would remind the reader of books even before it reminded him of men.
It is hard to make out what I mean, but this is a try at it, and I do not know that I shall be able to do better unless I add that Thackeray, of all the writers that I have known, is the most thoroughly and profoundly imbued with literature, so that when he speaks it is not with words and blood, but with words and ink. You may read the greatest part of Dickens, as you may read the greatest part of Hawthorne or Tolstoy, and not once be reminded of literature as a business or a cult, but you can hardly read a paragraph, hardly a sentence, of Thackeray`s without being reminded of it either by suggestion or downright allusion.
I do not blame him for this; he was himself, and he could not have been any other manner of man without loss; but I say that the greatest talent is not that which breathes of the library, but that which breathes of the street, the field, the open sky, the simple earth. I began to imitate this master of mine almost as soon as I began to read him; this must be, and I had a greater pride and joy in my success than I should probably have known in anything really creative; I should have suspected that, I should have distrusted that, because I had nothing to test it by, no model; but here before me was the very finest and noblest model, and I had but to form my lines upon it, and I had produced a work of art altogether more estimable in my eyes than anything else could have been. I saw the little world about me through the lenses of my master`s spectacles, and I reported its facts, in his tone and his attitude, with his self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire. I need not say I was perfectly satisfied with the result, or that to be able to imitate Thackeray was a much greater thing for me than to have been able to imitate nature. In fact, I could have valued any picture of the life and character I knew only as it put me in mind of life and character as these had shown themselves to me in his books. ...

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

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 imprisoned for 18 months for that act (and a quasi-medical determination of his homosexuality), finding God and the Catholic faith, getting released, and immediately returning to Paris to moon after the boy who caused his imprisonment; Rimbaud eventually drifting to Ethiopia, turning his back forever on poetry, living as a trader until his bitter, disappointed (and, of course, squalid) return to France, dying six years before Verlaine, who would remain loyal to his erstwhile lover’s reputation (and the money it could bring in) and even try his hand at writing a Rimbaud biography.

It’s not a properly satisfying Victorian double-narrative; Balzac would have tidied it up quite a bit and no doubt provided at least some kind of appeasing ending. Instead, what do we have? A poet of great talent is already three-quarters bad at living his life; he meets and falls in love with a much younger poet of genius, eventually tries to kill him, and never stops weeping about any of it. The younger poet survives his wounding but walks away from poetry altogether, leading for nearly twenty years a life that not only has nothing to do with the arts but that can’t in any way be twisted into a metaphor for them. He dies, and a little while later the older poet dies too. Nothing is learned by either man even though both manage to regret everything they ever did, separately or together. They meet, they destroy each other’s lives almost accidentally, then they part. C’est tout?

Of course the element missing from such a summary is the only essential part of it all: the poetry. Throughout all these sordid goings-on, both Verlaine and Rimbaud were writing some of the finest French verse ever crafted. That is the thing that separates them from the innumerable garret-dwellers whose antics are identical to theirs. That is why we have many editions of their collected works, and that is why every season will have its new Rimbaud biography.

The one by American novelist Edmund White now appears in the series of ‘brief lives’ commissioned by James Atlas under the imprint Atlas & Co. White’s double status as a writer and a homosexual seems calculated to prompt at least some comparisons with Rimbaud (or Verlaine, for related but interestingly different reasons, as we shall see), and he deals with these comparisons early in the book, in an introductory chapter of startling honesty and immediacy. White is as unassuming an author as Rimbaud was an arrogant one, but they share a certain quality of garrulous charm:

… as a desperate, self-hating homosexual, as an aspiring writer, as a sissy-rebel. I, too, wanted to reach out to the older writers in New York and have them extend a welcoming hand, as Verlaine had welcomed an unknown Rimbaud (and sent him the money for a train ticket to Paris). I, too, wanted to escape the ennui of my petit-bourgeois world, and to embrace bohemia. I, too, wanted to forego years of apprenticeship and shoot to the artistic top as a prodigy, not a drudge. I, too, wanted to make men leave their wives and run off with me. ...

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Catullus: Tears for Lesbia’s Sparrow

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!