Sunday, 30 September 2012

Frans Hals: Two Boys Singing

Unlike many traditional Baroque artists, Hals did not paint completely objectively. He would create an atmosphere and a different sense of composure for each subject to convey a true sense of self in his paintings. In this way he would accentuate not only their status in society through various symbolic gestures and dress but also portray features of the sitter that made them human. Furthermore, Hals was noted for his bright pictures and he seemed to love the vivid sheens and clarity of images in daylight.

Frans Hal's first private works were of the ordinary society of Haarlem. The earliest one noted is of two boys singing and playing. He would use these free subjects as a means of practice for his intense draughtmanship and painting style. The 'tavern' or lower classes were not limited in their expressions like the upper classes were and through these subjects that Hals could find new ways of creating and defining character in his subjects.

Rereading: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Following the fanfare that accompanied the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965, Truman Capote, ever the consummate self-publicist, claimed to have written a book that was truly different and original – even, perhaps, the first of its kind. For many critics, the "non-fiction novel", as Capote was calling it, belonged to a tradition dating back to Daniel Defoe's The Storm (1704), in which Defoe used the voices of real people to tell his story, a tradition that boasted many exponents, among them Mark Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, James Agee and Lillian Ross. But Capote was adamant that his own blend of "immaculately factual" reportage and fictional techniques represented the discovery of a new form; it tallied with Capote's "quest to be self-generated", as Harold Bloom puts it, not related to Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers, not influenced by any other writer, but a talent in his own right, unique in the world of American letters.

Capote had exploded on to the literary scene with short fictions that exhibited a retrospective point of view. He was, first and foremost, an exquisite stylist – "the most perfect writer of my generation", as Mailer called him. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) were carefully wrought examples of swamp gothic – unashamedly ornate, lush and impressionistic, and for all its metropolitan sass, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), Capote's third novel, in which he gave us the kooky, amoral Holly Golightly, also had its roots in the deep south. Yet, even early on, and despite phenomenal success, Capote seemed conscious of the need to push his writing in new directions. He wanted, as he said, "to do something else", and In Cold Blood gave him the opportunity, allowing him to ditch his attachment to childhood and nostalgia, the literature of the backward glance, and to immerse himself in something that was both current and universal. At the same time, he largely dispensed with his breathless, gossamer sentences, which often teetered on the brink of preciousness and whimsy, and ushered in a style that was much leaner and more sinewy: "Dick! Smooth. Smart . . . Christ, it was incredible how he could 'con a guy'." This was a new Capote – surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled.

He had cut his non-fiction teeth on two extended pieces, both written in the mid-1950s. "The Muses Are Heard", published in the New Yorker in 1956, chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union by the Everyman Opera, which was touring with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and showcased razor-sharp observation and a tone of voice that ranged from the playful to the acidic. In "The Duke in His Domain", published the following year, and still considered a milestone in the history of celebrity profiles, Capote interviewed Marlon Brando on location in Kyoto. Here, too, Capote displayed uncanny journalistic skills, capturing even the most languid and enigmatic of subjects – Brando in his pomp – and eliciting the kinds of confidences that left the actor reflecting ruefully on his "unutterable foolishness". Capote saw journalism as a horizontal form, skimming over the surface of things, topical but ultimately throwaway, while fiction could move horizontally and vertically at the same time, the narrative momentum constantly enhanced and enriched by an incisive, in-depth plumbing of context and character. In treating a real-life situation as a novelist might, Capote aimed to combine the best of both literary worlds to devastating effect.

He found his subject quite by chance, buried deep in the New York Times. A family of four – the Clutters – had been shot to death in an isolated Midwestern farmhouse in the early hours of 15 November 1959. Though the crime in itself did not interest Capote especially ("the subject matter", he said, "was purely incidental") he instinctively understood that the killings had a mythical or universal quality, and that "murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time". William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, agreed to back the project in return for first-publication rights, and Capote and his friend Harper Lee left for Holcomb, Kansas, three days later, arriving in time for the funeral.

The village of Holcomb is located in the exact middle of the United States, as far from the sophisticated east and west coasts as it is possible to be. Capote's jackdaw eye gathered precise, jewelled, almost hyper-real detail – from the easterly wind stirring the elm trees on the track leading to the Clutters' farmhouse to the corpses lying in the Phillips' Funeral Home in Garden City, their heads encased in sparkling white cotton, and swollen to twice the size of blown-up balloons – while his ear rapidly tuned in to local speech patterns, alive to every nuance, every rhythm. But there was another crucial factor. Like the yellow Santa Fe express that regularly thundered past Holcomb, "drama had never stopped there", as Capote put it.

Within days of the murders, both Nancy Clutter's boyfriend, Bobby, and Alfred Stoecklein, the Clutters' hired man, had been cleared as suspects, but as Capote blithely told Alvin Dewey, the supervising investigator, "It really doesn't make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not." His intention was to produce a tightly controlled forensic piece that examined the effects of a savage, senseless killing on an obscure community, and what interested him at the outset was the climate of wariness and suspicion, the insomnia, the loss of faith, the dread. In the words of Nancy's best friend, Susan Kidwell, he was watching the locals discover that "life isn't one long basketball game". All the same, it seems naive to suppose that one could carry out such an examination without considering people's desire for justice and retribution, and only a few weeks after Capote's arrival in Kansas, the arrest of two small-time crooks, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and their subsequent confessions, radically altered both the angle and the scale of his undertaking.

More here.

Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954)


Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Daniel Defoe (novel),
Stars: Dan O'Herlihy, Jaime Fernández, Felipe de Alba


Aventuras de Robinson Crusoe, is a film by director Luis Buñuel, based on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
Lead actor Dan O'Herlihy, playing Crusoe, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Exiled from his Spanish homeland, director Luis Bunuel set up shop in Mexico. Here he made his only American-financed film, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. This is a reasonably reliable version of the Daniel Defoe's novel about a 17th century shipwreck victim (Dan O'Herlihy) and his "Man Friday" (James Fernandez). Bunuel cannot resist tossing in his occasional barbs against the smugness of Society--though not so many as to scare away customers.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Adam and Eve, 1533

German painter and printmaker, one of the major representatives of the northern Renaissance. Lucas the Elder was the father of Hans and Lucas Cranach the Younger, also painters.

Cranach was the eldest of nine children. His father, Hans Maler, a painter himself, must have given him his first lessons. Lucas adopted the name Cranach when he was already over 30. It refers to his place of birth, the current town Kronach.

He moved to Vienna in 1501, and to Wittenberg in 1505, after he had been appointed to the court of Frederic III, elector of Saxony.

Experts often see a breach of styles after the move to Wittenberg. His Vienna works were full of expression and very dynamic. After the move, his style became more static.

In Wittenberg Cranach met the reformer Martin Luther, whom he portrayed many times. Besides being a painter Cranach also sold medicines and paper, ran a wine pub and printed books. In 1522 he printed the first editions of Luther's German translation of the New Testament.

In 1524 Cranach met Albrecht Dürer, the other great German renaissance artist. Dürer made a portrait of Cranach at that occasion.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

EM Forster and his 'wondrous muddle'

For 40 years, EM Forster and the policeman Bob Buckingham were in a loving relationship. Buckingham was 28, Forster 51, when the two met. They shared holidays, friends, interests, and – on many weekends – a domestic and sexual life in Forster's Brunswick Square flat. But this was a relationship in which there were three people. In his memoir My Father and Myself, Forster's great friend JR Ackerley wrote that the problem of the girlfriend was "all too liable to be found in the lives of normal boys … Since women could not be excluded they had to be admitted ... the Ideal Friend could have a girl or wife if he wished, so long as she did not interfere with me. No wife ever failed to interfere with me." The same was true for Forster, but the wife who "interfered" in his life – Buckingham's wife, May – also became his friend and nursemaid. Perhaps this is not so surprising for the writer who valued personal relationships above all else, and for whom the motto "only connect" applied as much to his private life as to his novels. Who else but Forster could end up becoming firm friends with his lover's wife, and godparent to her child?

It's easy to see why Buckingham's vigour and toughness were attractive qualities for Forster. As a child, he was cast in the role of the "delicate" boy, always wrapped up and fussed over by his mother Lily, and always with half an eye on the farm boys next door. At Tonbridge Prep School, where the motto was "Perish every laggard, and let us all be men", Forster was, predictably, badly bullied. Even at Cambridge, where he discovered real camaraderie and love between men, Lytton Strachey christened him "the Taupe". A "real" man, bluff, beefy and beautiful, was evidently irresistible to this mole, both as lover and protector.

His relationship with Buckingham was not his first with a policeman: he'd already enjoyed a brief dalliance with Harry Daley, who was, for the Bloomsbury set of the 1920s and 30s, something of a celebrity young tough. Daley regularly entertained Ackerley, Duncan Grant and Forster at the Hammersmith Section House, treating them to bacon and eggs and boxing matches. Forster also had a fling with a bus driver named Arthur, which ended after Arthur's wife kicked up a stink. Forster wrote to Ackerley: "It is not my policy, even were it within my power, to break up homes." Of the affair, he noted in his diary: "Coarseness and tenderness have kissed one another, but imaginative passion, love, doesn't exist with the lower classes."

So when the novelist met Buckingham at a party given by Ackerley on the day of the 1930 Oxford v Cambridge boat race, he already had his ideal of the working-class boy firmly in place. Influenced by Edward Carpenter's ideas, he'd long fantasised about living in a rural idyll "looked after by the robust and grateful lower classes". It was a fantasy in which he, as an educated, moneyed novelist, had the upper hand. But his relationship with Buckingham was to challenge his assumptions in more ways than one.

Buckingham was a large, good-humoured man, with a nose flattened in the boxing ring, a wide smile and a deep, loud laugh. On the day they met, he impressed Forster with his knowledge of the Thames and told him he was reading Dostoevsky. Forster invited Buckingham to his flat, and soon the two became close, with Forster taking over Buckingham's reading list, and Buckingham thrilled to become something of a highbrow. Soon Forster was in a position to write of Buckingham's falling "violently in liking" with him. To his friend Sebastian Sprott, Forster wrote with rather old-maidish coyness that the "spiritual feeling" between him and Buckingham had now "extended to my physique".

During these early years of their relationship, Forster seems to have at last found happiness. In his Commonplace Book, he reported that "From 51 to 53 I have been happy, and would like to remind others that their turn can come too." This was in spite of Buckingham finding a girlfriend – May Hockey, a nurse – not long after he'd met Forster. In 1932 Buckingham announced that he was to marry May; the register-office wedding took place in August, with Forster as witness. Once Buckingham was married, Forster's worst fears seemed to come true – Buckingham became rather unreliable about their meetings, and Forster panicked, calling his rival "domineering, sly and knowing" and wondering if he should break with his lover and go abroad to escape the situation. Buckingham, ever the voice of calm sense, wrote that the two of them simply had "to go without pleasure for a bit".

More here.

Monday, 17 September 2012

William Makepeace Thackeray: Essay On Jonathan Swift

[Footnote 1: From 'The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century.']

In treating of the English humourists of the past age, it is of the men and of their lives, rather than of their books, that I ask permission to speak to you; and in doing so, you are aware that I cannot hope to entertain you with a merely humorous or facetious story. Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin - a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask or disguise or uniform he presents it to the public. And as all of you here must needs be grave when you think of your own past and present, you will not look to find, in the histories of those whose lives and feelings I am going to try and describe to you, a story that is otherwise than serious, and often very sad. If Humour only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humorous writers than about the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned, who possesses in common with these the power of making you laugh. But the men regarding whose lives and stories your kind presence here shows that you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness - your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture - your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life almost. He takes upon himself to be himself to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accordingly, as he finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best we regard him, esteem him - sometimes love him. And, as his business is to mark other people`s lives and peculiarities, we moralize upon his life when he is gone - and yesterday`s preacher becomes the text for to - day`s sermon.
Of English parents, and of a good English family of clergymen, Swift was born in Dublin in 1667, seven months after the death of his father, who had come to practise there as a lawyer. The boy went to school at Kilkenny, and afterwards to Trinity College, Dublin, where he got a degree with difficulty, and was wild, and witty, and poor. In 1688, by the recommendation of his mother, Swift was received into the family of Sir William Temple, who had known Mrs. Swift in Ireland. He left his patron in 1694, and the next year took orders in Dublin. But he threw up the small Irish preferment which he got and returned to Temple, in whose family he remained until Sir William`s death in 1699. His hopes of advancement in England failing, Swift returned to Ireland, and took the living of Laracor. Hither he invited Hester Johnson, Temple`s natural daughter, with whom he had contracted a tender friendship, while they were both dependants of Temple`s. And with an occasional visit to England, Swift now passed nine years at home.

In 1709 he came to England, and, with a brief visit to Ireland, during which he took possession of his deanery of St. Patrick, he now passed five years in England, taking the most distinguished part in the political transactions which terminated with the death of Queen Anne. After her death, his party disgraced, and his hopes of ambition over, Swift returned to Dublin, where he remained twelve years. In this time he wrote the famous 'Drapier`s Letters' and 'Gulliver`s Travels.' He married Hester Johnson, Stella, and buried Esther Vanhomrigh, Vanessa, who had followed him to Ireland from London, where she had contracted a violent passion for him. In 1726 and 1727 Swift was in England, which he quitted for the last time on hearing of his wife`s illness. Stella died in January, 1728, and Swift not until 1745, having passed the last five of the seventy-eight years of his life with an impaired intellect and keepers to watch him.

You know, of course, that Swift has had many biographers; his life has been told by the kindest and most good-natured of men, Scott, who admires but can`t bring himself to love him; and by stout old Johnson, who, forced to admit him into the company of poets, receives the famous Irishman, and takes off his hat to him with a bow of surly recognition, scans him from head to foot, and passes over to the other side of the street. Dr. Wilde of Dublin, who has written a most interesting volume on the closing years of Swift`s life, calls Johnson 'the most malignant of his biographers': it is not easy for an English critic to please Irishmen - perhaps to try and please them. And yet Johnson truly admires Swift: Johnson does not quarrel with Swift`s change of politics, or doubt his sincerity of religion: about the famous Stella and Vanessa controversy the Doctor does not bear very hardly on Swift. But he could not give the Dean that honest hand of his; the stout old man puts it into his breast, and moves off from him.

Would we have liked to live with him? That is a question which, in dealing with these people`s works, and thinking of their lives and peculiarities, every reader of biographies must put to himself. Would you have liked to be a friend of the great Dean? I should like to have been Shakespeare`s shoeblack - just to have lived in his house, just to have worshipped him - to have run on his errands, and seen that sweet serene face. I should like, as a young man, to have lived on Fielding`s staircase in the Temple, and after helping him up to bed perhaps, and opening his door with his latch-key, to have shaken hands with him in the morning, and heard him talk and crack jokes over his breakfast and his mug of small beer. Who would not give something to pass a night at the club with Johnson, and Goldsmith, and James Boswell, Esq., of Auchinleck? The charm of Addison`s companionship and conversation has passed to us by fond tradition - but Swift? If you had been his inferior in parts (and that, with a great respect for all persons present, I fear is only very likely), his equal in mere social station, he would have bullied, scorned, and insulted you; if, undeterred by his great reputation, you had met him like a man, he would have quailed before you, and not had the pluck to reply, and gone home, and years after written a foul epigram about you - watched for you in a sewer, and come out to assail you with a coward`s blow and a dirty bludgeon. If you had been a lord with a blue riband, who flattered his vanity, or could help his ambition, he would have been the most delightful company in the world. He would have been so manly, so sarcastic, so bright, odd, and original, that you might think he had no object in view but the indulgence of his humour and that he was the most reckless, simple creature in the world. How he would have torn your enemies to pieces for you! and made fun of the Opposition! His servility was so boisterous that it looked like independence; he would have done your errands, but with the air of patronizing you, and after fighting your battles, masked, in the street or the press, would have kept on his hat before your wife and daughters in the drawing-room, content to take that sort of pay for his tremendous services as a bravo.

He says as much himself in one of his letters to Bolingbroke: - 'All my endeavours to distinguish myself were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts; whether right or wrong is no great matter. And so the reputation of wit and great learning does the office of a blue riband or a coach and six.'

Could there be a greater candour? It is an outlaw, who says, 'These are my brains; with these I`ll win titles and compete with fortune. These are my bullets; these I`ll turn into gold'; and he hears the sound of coaches and six, takes the road like Macheath, and makes society stand and deliver. They are all on their knees before him. Down go my lord bishop`s apron, and his Grace`s blue riband, and my lady`s brocade petticoat in the mud. He eases the one of a living, the other of a patent place, the third of a little snug post about the Court, and gives them over to followers of his own. The great prize has not come yet. The coach with the mitre and crosier in it, which he intends to have for his share, has been delayed on the way from St. James`; and he waits and waits until nightfall, when his runners come and tell him that the coach has taken a different road, and escaped him. So he fires his pistols into the air with a curse, and rides away into his own country. ...

Lisztomania, Trailer

Director: Ken Russell
Writer: Ken Russell
Stars: Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas


Although the films of Ken Russell have always exhibited a strong penchant for the cinefantastique- from his earliest short subjects for the BBC and through the subsequent theatrical features- the deliberate use of fantasy as an integral facet of Russell’s cinematic vocabulary and style has become increasingly overt until, with films like Tommy and Lisztomania (and to a certain degree, the earlier Mahler), all barriers between the realistic and the fantastic modes have virtually ceased to exist.

At its most obvious Lisztomania is a wildly free-form biography of the nineteenth-century piano virtuoso and composer, Franz Liszt (1811- 1886). As such the film is a direct descendent of Russell’s BBC biographies Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), Song of Summer (1968), a chronicle of the last years of Frederick Delius, of the explosively controversial treatment of Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), and of such feature-length films as The Music Lovers (1970), a delirious version of Tchaikowsky’s life, and Mahler (1974).

The earliest of these endeavors was incredibly well received. Elgar being one of the most popular films ever aired by British television. However, beginning with the Strauss film (significantly, the one which most anticipates the style of Russell’s theatrical features), Russell’s energetic departure from a strict ”realism” and his ever-increasing emphasis on an imaginative restructuring of historical fact, began to regularly confound his critics. This confusion was in large part the inevitable result of many critics’ dogged insistence on evaluating works like The Music Lovers, Mahler and most recently Lisztomania, by the criteria of ”straight” biography. Far from being the screen’s equivalent of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, Ken Russell is an intuitive symbolist and fantasist, a total film-maker who orchestrates his subjects in much the same manner that a composer might transcribe a musical composition from one interpretive medium into another (as, for example, Liszt himself did with certain works by Wagner and Berlioz and other composers of the period) or as an instrumentalist might improvise variations on a given theme: Lisztomania, based on Russell’s own brief 57-page screenplay, was mostly shot, as is the director’s custom, ”in the head,” making the improvisational analogy that much more tenable. Shooting commenced on Feb. 3, 1975 at England’s Shepperton Studio Center, and was completed a quick fourteen weeks later.

Possessed of an uncanny instinct for correlating music, image and symbol, Russell is one of the few contemporary film-makers to appreciate the high-voltage potential of fantasy for use in ”legitimate” (i.e., non-horror, non-science fiction) films and thereby also to advance the neglected art of blending cinematic with musical techniques, music being the ideal adjunct for the realization of cinematic flights of fantasy. Deftly merging the two highly compatible areas of endeavor with an eye and ear unmatched since the early Disney, Russell has almost single-handedly forged a unique new genre, one which might be described as the ”documentary musical fantasy.”

A glance into the music dictionary provides some surprising insights into Russellian interpretation. Films like Mahler and Lisztomania exist not as conventional narratives drawn from cold, documented fact, but rather as ”fantasias” on the lives of the composers under consideration. A “fantasia” is described (in Elson’s Pocket version) as ”a species of musical form in which the composer yields to his imagination and gives free scope to his ideas, with little regard to restrictions in form; fancy, an imaginative caprice.”

To provide the raw material for his particular type of ”caprice,” Russell turns not to the biographer’s text, but to the music itself. At the conclusion of Lisztomania, Marie d’Agoult comments to Liszt: ”The bad is dead and gone. The best of us lives, enshrined in the music for everyone to share.” It is from this ”best”- all, finally, that concretely remains of the transient, often turbulent life of a creative artist- that Russell derives his inspiration. As John Baxter notes in his excellent book, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell: ”Russell shows that the truth is found less in the events of an artist’s life than in his music and its effect on listeners.” Of Lisztomania the director himself said: ”Music for me is the most incredible event in the history of the human race. It comes from nowhere. You can’t expect the composer to fit into the usual idea of normal behaviour patterns. My film isn’t biography. It comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.” Within the superb synthesis of music, feeling, effect, and image, ”with little regard to restrictions in form,” do Russell’s best moments reveal their dynamic power.

More here.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

William Butler Yeats: Synge And The Ireland Of His Time

 J. M. Synge
At times during Synge's last illness, Lady Gregory and I would speak of his work and always find some pleasure in the thought that unlike ourselves, who had made our experiments in public, he would leave to the world nothing to be wished away--nothing that was not beautiful or powerful in itself, or necessary as an expression of his life and thought. When he died we were in much anxiety, for a letter written
before his last illness, and printed in the selection of his poems published at the Cuala Press, had shown that he was anxious about the fate of his manuscripts and scattered writings. On the evening of the night he died he had asked that I might come to him the next day; and my diary of the days following his death shows how great was our anxiety. Presently however, all seemed to have come right, for the Executors sent me the following letter that had been found among his papers, and
promised to carry out his wishes.

'May 4th, 1908

'Dear Yeats,

'This is only to go to you if anything should go wrong with me under the operation or after it. I am a little bothered about my 'papers.' I have a certain amount of verse that I think would be worth preserving, possibly also the 1st and 3rd acts of 'Deirdre,' and then I have a lot of Kerry and Wicklow articles that would go together into a book. The other early stuff I wrote I have kept as a sort of curiosity, but I am anxious that it should not get into print. I wonder could you get someone--say ... who is now in Dublin to go through them for you and do whatever you and Lady Gregory think desirable. It is rather a hard thing to ask you but I do not want my good things destroyed or my bad things printed rashly--
especially a morbid thing about a mad fiddler in Paris which I hate. Do what you can--Good luck.

'J.M. Synge'

In the summer of 1909, the Executors sent me a large bundle of papers,cuttings from newspapers and magazines, manuscript and typewritten proseand verse, put together and annotated by Synge himself before his last illness. I spent a portion of each day for weeks reading and re-reading early dramatic writing, poems, essays, and so forth, and with the exception of ninety pages which have been published without my consent, made consulting Lady Gregory from time to time the Selection of his work
published by Messrs. Maunsel. It is because of these ninety pages, that neither Lady Gregory's name nor mine appears in any of the books, and that the Introduction which I now publish, was withdrawn by me after it had been advertised by the publishers. Before the publication of the books the Executors discovered a scrap of paper with a sentence by J.M. Synge saying that Selections might be taken from his Essays on the Congested Districts. I do not know if this was written before his letter to me, which made no mention of them, or contained his final directions.
The matter is unimportant, for the publishers decided to ignore my offer to select as well as my original decision to reject, and for this act of theirs they have given me no reasons except reasons of convenience, whichneither Lady Gregory nor I could accept.

W.B. Yeats.

* * * * *


On Saturday, January 26th, 1907, I was lecturing in Aberdeen, and when my
lecture was over I was given a telegram which said, 'Play great success.'
It had been sent from Dublin after the second Act of 'The Playboy of the
Western World,' then being performed for the first time. After one in the
morning, my host brought to my bedroom this second telegram, 'Audience
broke up in disorder at the word shift.' I knew no more until I got the
Dublin papers on my way from Belfast to Dublin on Tuesday morning. On the
Monday night no word of the play had been heard. About forty young men
had sat on the front seats of the pit, and stamped and shouted and blown
trumpets from the rise to the fall of the curtain. On the Tuesday night
also the forty young men were there. They wished to silence what they
considered a slander upon Ireland's womanhood. Irish women would never
sleep under the same roof with a young man without a chaperon, nor admire
a murderer, nor use a word like 'shift;' nor could anyone recognise the
country men and women of Davis and Kickham in these poetical, violent,
grotesque persons, who used the name of God so freely, and spoke of all
things that hit their fancy.

A patriotic journalism which had seen in Synge's capricious imagination
the enemy of all it would have young men believe, had for years prepared
for this hour, by that which is at once the greatest and most ignoble
power of journalism, the art of repeating a name again and again with
some ridiculous or evil association. The preparation had begun after the
first performance of 'The Shadow of the Glen,' Synge's first play, with
an assertion made in ignorance but repeated in dishonesty, that he had
taken his fable and his characters, not from his own mind nor that
profound knowledge of cot and curragh he was admitted to possess, but
'from a writer of the Roman decadence.' Some spontaneous dislike had been
but natural, for genius like his can but slowly, amid what it has of
harsh and strange, set forth the nobility of its beauty, and the depth of
its compassion; but the frenzy that would have silenced his master-work
was, like most violent things artificial, the defence of virtue by those
that have but little, which is the pomp and gallantry of journalism and
its right to govern the world.

As I stood there watching, knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a
school of patriotism that held sway over my youth, Synge came and stood
beside me, and said, 'A young doctor has just told me that he can hardly
keep himself from jumping on to a seat, and pointing out in that howling
mob those whom he is treating for venereal disease.' ...

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The life of Ford Madox Ford

This year’s television adaptation of Parade’s End has led to an extraordinary surge of interest in Ford Madox Ford. The ingenious adaptation by Sir Tom Stoppard; the stellar cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alan Howard, Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, Roger Allam; the flawlessly intelligent direction by award-winning Susanna White, have not only created a critical success, but reached Ford’s widest audience for perhaps fifty years. BBC2 drama doubled its share of the viewing figures. Reviewers have repeatedly described Parade’s End as a masterpiece and Ford as a neglected Modernist master. Those involved in the production found him a ‘revelation’, and White and Hall are reported as saying that they were embarrassed that their Oxbridge educations had left them unaware of Ford’s work. After this autumn, fewer people interested in literature and modernism and the First World War are likely to ask the question posed by the title of Alan Yentob’s ‘Culture Show’ investigation into Ford’s life and work on September 1st: “Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford?”

It’s a good question, though. Ford has to be one of the most mercurial, protean figures in literary history, capable of producing violent reactions of love, admiration, ridicule or anger in those who knew him, and also in those who read him. Many of those who knew him were themselves writers — often writers he’d helped, which made some (like Graham Greene) grateful, and others (like Hemingway) resentful, and some (like Jean Rhys) both. So they all felt the need to write about him — whether in their memoirs, or by including Fordian characters in their fiction. Ford himself thought that Henry James had based a character on him when young (Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove). Joseph Conrad too, who collaborated with Ford for a decade, is thought to have based several characters and traits on him.

I’d spent several years trying to work out an answer that satisfied me to the question of who on earth Ford was. The earlier, fairly factual biographies by Douglas Goldring and Frank MacShane had been supplanted by more psycho-analytic studies by Arthur Mizener and Thomas C. Moser. Mizener took the subtitle of Ford’s best-known novel, The Good Soldier, as the title of his biography: The Saddest Story. He presented Ford as a damaged psyche whose fiction-writing stemmed from a sad inability to face the realities of his own nature. Of course all fiction has an autobiographical dimension. A novelist’s best way of understanding characters is to look into his or her own self. But there is an element of absurdity in diagnosing an author’s obtuseness from the problems of fictional characters. This is because if writers can make us see what’s wrong with their characters, that means they understand not only those characters, but themselves (or at least the traits they share with those characters). John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier, appears at times hopelessly inept at understanding his predicament. His friend, the good soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham, is a hopeless philanderer. If Ford saw elements of himself in both types, he had to be more knowing than them in order to show them to us. And anyway, they’re diametrically opposed as types.

More here.

Charles Lamb: Detached Thoughts on Books And Reading

Charles Lamb

To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one's self with the forced product of another man's brain. Now I think a man of quality and breeding may be much amused with the natural sprouts of his own.
-- Lord Foppington in the Relapse.

AN ingenious acquaintance of my own was so much struck with this bright sally of his Lordship, that he has left off reading altogether, to the great improvement of his originality. At the hazard of losing some credit on this head, I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people's thoughts. I dream away my life in others' speculations. I love to lose myself in other men's minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.

In this catalogue of books which are no books -- biblia a-biblia -- I reckon Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket Books, Draught Boards bound and lettered at the back, Scientific Treatises, Almanacks, Statutes at Large; the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and, generally, all those volumes which 'no gentleman's library should be without :' the Histories of Flavius Josephus (that learned Jew), and Paley's Moral Philosophy. With these exceptions, I can read almost any thing. I bless my stars for a taste so catholic, so unexcluding.

I confess that it moves my spleen to see these things in books' clothing perched upon shelves, like false saints, usurpers of true shrines, intruders into the sanctuary, thrusting out the legitimate occupants. To reach down a well-bound semblance of a volume, and hope it is some kind-hearted play-book, then, opening what 'seem its leaves,' to come bolt upon a withering Population Essay. To expect a Steele, or a Farquhar, and find -- Adam smith. To view a well-arranged assortment of blockheaded Encyclopaedias (Anglicanas or Metropolitanas) set out in an array of Russia, or Morocco, when a tithe of that good leather would comfortably re-clothe my shivering folios; would renovate Paracelsus himself, and enable old Raymund Lully to look like himself again in the world. I never see these impostors, but I long to strip them, to warm my ragged veterans in their spoils.

To be strong-backed and neat-bound is the desideratum of a volume. Magnificence comes after. This, when it can be afforded, is not to be lavished upon all kinds of books indiscriminately. I would not dress a set of Magazines, for instance, in full suit. The dishabille, or half-binding (with Russia backs ever) is our costume. A Shakespeare, or a Milton (unless the first editions), it were mere foppery to trick out in gay apparel. The possession of them confers no distinction. The exterior of them (the things themselves being so common), strange to say, raises no sweet emotions, no tickling sense of property in the owner. Thomson's Seasons, again, looks best (I maintain it) a little torn, and dog's-eared. How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance, nay, the very odour (beyond Russia), if we would not forget kind feelings in fastidiousness, of an old "Circulating Library" Tom Jones, or Vicar of Wakefield! How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight! -- of the lone sempstress, whom they may have cheered (milliner, or harder-working mantuamaker) after her long day's needle-toil, running far into midnight, when she has snatched an hour, ill spared from sleep, to steep her cares, as in some Lethean cup, in spelling out their enchanting contents! Who would have them a whit less soiled? What better condition could we desire to see them in?

In some respects the better a book is, the less it demands from binding. Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, and all that class of perpetually self-reproductive volumes -- Great Nature's Stereotypes -- we see them individually perish with less regret, because we know the copies of them to be "eterne." But where a book is at once both good and rare -- where the individual is almost the species, and when that perishes,

We know not where is that Promethean torch
That can its light relumine" --

such a book, for instance, as the Life of the Duke of Newcastle, by his Duchess -- no casket is rich enough, no casing sufficiently durable, to honour and keep safe such a jewel. ...

Friday, 14 September 2012

Paul Cezanne: Portrait of Chocquet

"VICTOR CHOCQUET WAS A FRIEND of the Impressionists who has become a historical figure through his pure devotion to contemporary art. A minor government employee, without great means, he was caught by the beauty of Renoir's and Cézanne's works and collected these while they were still ridiculed by the critics and public. Both artists painted his portrait several times.

"In Renoir's portraits, Chocquet appears a soft receptive nature, perfectly relaxed; he gazes gently at the observer. In Cézanne's painting, the features are no less sensitive, but there is in the bearing of the head, turned sharply to the side and culminating in the high mane of hair, an accent of grandeur, a reminiscence of the near-romantic portraits of the Napoleonic age. Such idealization is foreign to Impressionist portraiture; but we have seen before in the portrait of Boyer how Cézanne endows a friend with a romantic aura. Chocquet is conceived as a lean Quixotic type. The lengthening of the head is like the attenuation of El Greco's figures; here the cult of art replaces a religious dedication, with a similar selflessness and purity of spirit. It is a homage to a noble devotee, a man of independent conviction. In the portrait of his admirer, Cézanne speaks also of himself.

"The head is seen in a curious perspective, as if through a glass that narrows the face and sharply foreshortens the sides. The features are extremely contracted, and the turn of the eyes, by reducing the force of their axis, also brings out the vertical of the face, which is prolonged further by the angularities of the upper brow and the similar opening of the collar. "Compared to the portrait of Boyer, it is an advance in luminosity and freshness of color, like Cézanne's new landscapes. Outdoor tones replace the blacks and neutralized shades of the earlier portrait. And as in the landscapes, we follow the action of the brush everywhere, spirited and frank and creating a thick fleshy paste of pigment, rich in flicker, direction, and tone. The stroke is intense and direct throughout--in the background as in the head, in the hair as in the delicate features--but with a distinct movement in each part. It is nicely proportioned to the whole: small enough to permit subtle modeling, large enough to be perfectly visible as a constructive element of the whole. A few tiny red touches, capering and chaotic, liven the nose and cheek; and darker strokes, together with the edges of hair and beard, make an interesting, unstressed rhythm of curved lines. It is all built up without obvious trace of plan or guiding structural lines, as if from the spontaneous play of the brush in direct response to the man. Most remarkable of all--what we return to again and again--is the largeness of effect, the powerful possession of the space."

Text from "Cezanne", by Meyer Schapiro

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve: What Is a Classic?

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve 
A DELICATE question, to which somewhat diverse solutions might be given according to times and seasons. An intelligent man suggests it to me, and I intend to try, if not to solve it, at least to examine and discuss it face to face with my readers, were it only to persuade them to answer it for themselves, and, if I can, to make their opinion and mine on the point clear. And why, in criticism, should we not, from time to time, venture to treat some of those subjects which are not personal, in which we no longer speak of some one but of some thing? Our neighbours, the English, have well succeeded in making of it a special division of literature under the modest title of “Essays.” It is true that in writing of such subjects, always slightly abstract and moral, it is advisable to speak of them in a season of quiet, to make sure of our own attention and of that of others, to seize one of those moments of calm moderation and leisure seldom granted our amiable France; even when she is desirous of being wise and is not making revolutions, her brilliant genius can scarcely tolerate them.

A classic, according to the usual definition, is an old author canonised by admiration, and an authority in his particular style. The word classic was first used in this sense by the Romans. With them not all the citizens of the different classes were properly called classici, but only those of the chief class, those who possessed an income of a certain fixed sum. Those who possessed a smaller income were described by the term infra classem, below the pre-eminent class. The word classicus was used in a figurative sense by Aulus Gellius, and applied to writers: a writer of worth and distinction, classicus assiduusque scriptor, a writer who is of account, has real property, and is not lost in the proletariate crowd. Such an expression implies an age sufficiently advanced to have already made some sort of valuation and classification of literature.

At first the only true classics for the moderns were the ancients. The Greeks, by peculiar good fortune and natural enlightenment of mind, had no classics but themselves. They were at first the only classical authors for the Romans, who strove and contrived to imitate them. After the great periods of Roman literature, after Cicero and Virgil, the Romans in their turn had their classics, who became almost exclusively the classical authors of the centuries which followed. The middle ages, which were less ignorant of Latin antiquity than is believed, but which lacked proportion and taste, confused the ranks and orders. Ovid was placed above Homer, and Boetius seemed a classic equal to Plato. The revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries helped to bring this long chaos to order, and then only was admiration rightly proportioned. Thenceforth the true classical authors of Greek and Latin antiquity stood out in a luminous background, and were harmoniously grouped on their two heights. ...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Bittersweet symphonies

Clara Schumann 

In 1855 Johannes Brahms wrote the pianist Clara Schumann a naked cry of frustration: "I can do nothing but think of you... What have you done to me? Can't you remove the spell you have cast over me?" The situation between them at the time was messy - very messy. Clara was 35, Brahms 21, she famous, he rather more infamous. She was married to the composer Robert Schumann, and the pair had seven young children. On the other hand, for more than a year, Clara's husband had been in an asylum and Clara had not been allowed to see him. When Robert fell off the edge, Brahms had hastened to her side.

Now Brahms, Robert's protege and discovery, was helplessly in love with Robert's wife. They had not expected it, didn't want it, and so on. Brahms loved and admired Robert. Shortly before jumping in the Rhine to escape the demonic oratorios in his head, Robert had made the name Brahms known across Europe, declaring this student from Hamburg the coming saviour of German music.

Robert and Clara Schumann

Brahms, meanwhile, was living with Clara and the children - his bedroom on a separate floor, to be sure, but spending most of his time consoling her, helping with the children, and going nearly out of his mind with yearning.

In those years Brahms was slim, beardless and drop-dead handsome. Gossip was sizzling in musical circles. Clara was yearning mightily, too, but as with Brahms her feelings were tangled up with anxiety and guilt. Robert and Clara had been, after all, the supreme musical romance of the Romantic period. Clara was the love of Robert's life, his prime musical champion, the heroic force that had held together his splintering mind longer than anyone could have imagined.

After a protracted decline, Robert died in 1856, whereupon Brahms and Clara were free to declare their passion, to marry. The couple went on holiday to Switzerland to sort it all out. Exactly what he said to her we will never know, but it amounted to this: Cheerio. I'm off to Hamburg. Write if you get work.

Clara put him on the train, staggered home, and told her journal: "I felt as if I were returning from a funeral." Daughter Eugenie later said that Clara could never understand why Brahms so ruthlessly turned away. Clara took up her performing career with a vengeance; it was her solace and, she would tell Brahms, "the very breath of my body".

There are more ironies in this first and greatest, if not precisely last, love of Brahms's life. If he would not marry Clara, neither would he marry anybody else - in his heart he could never leave Clara, nor she him. For the rest of their lives they would maintain their strange but inescapable connection. They spent holidays together. They hugged and kissed.

Johannes Brahms

Their love may never have been consummated. This may seem absurd. But these were different times: no birth control, lots of disease. Proper women shunned affairs. In later years Brahms told an acquaintance that he had never compromised a respectable woman, and for him the definition of a respectable woman was Clara. He once described the aged Clara to a friend thus: "Virginal as ever."

It is hardly a question of Brahms or Clara being sexless. Brahms was famously devoted to prostitutes; for his purposes, he seemed to relegate sex to the professional variety. During their marriage Clara and Robert had maintained a kind of shorthand sexual diary, for medical reasons, which revealed that they were startlingly active throughout. Recall the seven children. And some years later Clara had a brief, unhappy affair with Theodor Kirchner, one of Brahms's best friends. The latter business did not emerge until recent years, and as far as we know Brahms never suspected. At one point he wrote to Clara that Kirchner was talking about killing himself. Never mind, Clara replied, he says that all the time. We may presume this was after the affair.

In short, it was all a splendid mess. What seems to have motivated the rest of Brahms's life, romantic and otherwise, was no more mess. He kept to a life of composing and performing, fought with his friends, tried with imperfect success to keep women at bay, and fled real-life drama whenever it appeared. But the real mess, and a big one, lay inside Brahms himself, in his relations to women and to emotional life in general.

The chaos, the divided nature, likely started at a vulnerable time. At age 13, Brahms was already a phenomenon, with his teachers predicting great things. His parents were supportive, but they were also limited and naive. At some point money was short, so the boy was sent to earn his keep playing piano in some waterfront establishments where his father had worked in his own youth. Maybe these places had been something of a lark to the father. They were not to Brahms.

Popular with sailors, these joints combined the services of bar, restaurant, dance hall and brothel. Brahms was delicately pretty and bad things happened to him in the bars. Mostly he only hinted at what they were (to Clara among others), but for the rest of his life he talked about it, with rage and anguish and sometimes with a fierce pride, for having survived. It steeled him, he said. And this is true. Brahms reached maturity tough as nails.

More here.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Henry James's great, humane masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), the story of a young, spirited American woman "affronting her destiny", is many readers' favourite of his books. All his critics and biographers put it at the centre of his life and work. It is his turning-point. From being a popular and promising author specialising in Americans in Europe (Daisy Miller, The Europeans, The American), he became an important, renowned figure, acknowledged as a "master" of consciousness, cultural perceptions, humour, subtlety and depth. But Portrait can also be seen as a point of no return. After that came the harsh, unpopular novels of social analysis (The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima), the ill-fated involvement with the theatre, the awkward, darkly complex novels of the 1890s (What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age), the epic, inward-looking subtleties of the mighty late works, and the financial catastrophe of the New York edition. Isabel Archer starts out full of hope, independence and ambition, and becomes "ground in the mill", entrapped and disillusioned. James's life-story could also be read as an ebullient comedy which turns to tragic sadness.

James's biographers always compare Isabel and her novel to his own life. Everyone notes that the early death of his lively, clever cousin Minny Temple, in 1870, when she was 24 and he was 27, was the great blow that provoked the invention of Isabel. As Michael Gorra says, "her unlived future goes on in his head". Leon Edel says James puts his own childhood and his own desire for freedom in Europe into Isabel, but also that the chilling and conventional expatriate Gilbert Osmond (whom Isabel makes the terrible mistake of marrying) is a portrait of what James would have become "if he had allowed snobbery to prevail over humanity". The real subjects of the novel are "egotism and power". Fred Kaplan thinks that Isabel's novel is a "nightmare": "Behind the sophisticated portrayal of mores and personality … the world of Portrait is a threatening, often deathly world of repression and annihilation, where no one is happy, no one is saved."

In a crowded field of biographical interpretation, Gorra argues that Portrait is "a critique of American exceptionalism". The historical paradox for Americans is that they believe in a republican egalitarianism – all are created equal – and in the freedom to pursue, competitively, individual happiness. Isabel (leaving America, turning down a nice English lord and a determined Bostonian, choosing Osmond because she thinks he is a free agent) insists that she must be free to write her own plot. She will not be measured by what surrounds her – clothes, houses, money, traditions. She believes "in her own autonomy, her own enabling isolation: a belief, and a dream, that all her later experience will challenge". As the sinister and subtle Madame Merle suggests to her, in a conversation about the limits of the self, complete "self-sufficiency" is impossible. In Europe Isabel "learns that her own life" has already "been determined". She finds that for her, as for America, there is no such thing as a "fresh start" or a "city on a hill" or a "new world". Other ways of reading Isabel – as a young woman afraid of sexual experience, as an innocent fallen into corrupt hands, as an enactment of James's passion for Europe, as a characterisation of solitude – take second place to this political interpretation.

Even if this reading could be argued with, Gorra comes at it in a highly interesting way. James said of Portrait that a "single small corner-stone" grew into a "large building", large enough in form for him to "make an ado" about Isabel Archer. Gorra, following that cue, has organised "an ado" around James's making of his novel, so as to tell us "not only what happens in the book itself but also the story of how James came to write it". It is a biography of a novel as a means to writing about the novelist.

Gorra is wary, though, about the dangers of matching life and art too neatly. Why track an author's journey through his places? Why try to fit characters on to real people? Because, he says acutely, the difference between origins and inventions "can stand as a guide to artistic practice".

Places matter very much in this novel, and Gorra tracks them devotedly, through Paris, London, Florence, Venice and Rome, pursuing the settings where James wrote Portrait, and possible models, as for the English house where the novel begins, or for the Osmonds' gloomy Roman villa. He shows well how the early chapters at Gardencourt give off a sense of "cultivated leisure", or how Isabel's desire for freedom is acted out when she walks alone through the foggy wet streets of a November London, or how she identifies with the "splendid sadness" of Rome.

He is most absorbed by the novel's treatment of consciousness. James radically alters what fiction can do by giving us, not just a story of a young woman with a high sense of herself who makes a disastrous mistake, but an illustration of how "the life within has a drama of its own". As fiction readers we are used to this now, but James is one of the writers who made us used to it. In the famous chapter when Isabel sits by the fire and thinks back over her marriage, he "changed our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction". That fictional daring, paradoxically, goes alongside his indirectness, his sexual reticence, his "peculiar mix of repression and sublimation". "Moments of refusal, events that don't happen", gaps in time, things not said, are what fire his imagination.

We get a clear sense of how that imagination develops, as Gorra outlines James's "incoherent" childhood education, his competitive relationship with his brother William, his choice of Europe's "thickened air", his reaction to his parents' deaths, his sexuality, his decision not to marry and his growing reputation. None of this is new, but it is strongly handled. Gorra is especially interesting on the relation of Portrait to other literature – to Hawthorne, to George Eliot, to the French novelists, to Turgenev – and he deals well with the publishing, the reception and James's later revising of the novel.

More here. By Michael Gorra

Georges Braque: Violin and Candlestick, 1910

Violin and Candlestick

This work embodies the dynamic and energetic qualities of Analytic Cubism, a revolutionary artistic style pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso to depict three-dimensional objects on a flat canvas without the use of traditional Renaissance perspective. In this conceptual approach to painting, perceived forms are broken down, fractured, flattened, and then reconstructed in multiple-point perspective within a shallow space. Braque described this kind of fragmentation as "a technique for getting closer to the object."

Here, still-life props (some recognizable and some impossible to identify) are clustered toward the center of a gridlike armature. Braque united the objects and the background by opening up and covering over the boundaries of the black-outlined objects, and by using the same earth-toned colors for the entire painting. He transformed volumes in the still life to accommodate their multiple surfaces on a flat plane, thereby allowing the viewer to see more of the form than would be possible from a single vantage point.

Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Anna Karenina, Suicide Scene, Film with Greta Garbo (1935)

Director: Clarence Brown
Writers: Leo Tolstoy (from the novel by), Clemence Dane (screen play),
 Stars: Greta Garbo, Fredric March,Freddie Bartholomew


Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Chapter 30

“Yes, I’m very much worried, and that’s what reason was given me for, to escape; so then one must escape: why not put out the light when there’s nothing more to look at, when it’s sickening to look at it all? But how?

“No, I won’t let you make me miserable,” she thought menacingly, addressing not him, not herself, but the power that made her suffer, and she walked along the platform.“

She quickened her pace and walked away from them to the edge of the platform. A luggage train was coming in. The platform began to sway, and she fancied she was in the train again.

And all at once she thought of the man crushed by the train the day she had first met Vronsky, and she knew what she had to do. With a rapid, light step she went down the steps that led from the tank to the rails and stopped quite near the approaching train.

She looked at the lower part of the carriages, at the screws and chains and the tall cast-iron wheel of the first carriage slowly moving up, and trying to measure the middle between the front and back wheels, and the very minute when that middle point would be opposite her.

“There,” she said to herself, looking into the shadow of the carriage, at the sand and coal dust which covered the sleepers — “there, in the very middle, and I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.”

A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Why we don’t understand Kafka

On September 23 it will be 100 years exactly since Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgement”. We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be. These books help to show us why.

Eighteen months earlier, on March 26, 1911, Kafka noted in his diary: “Theosophical lectures by Dr Rudolf Steiner, Berlin”. After commenting on Steiner’s rhetorical strategy of giving full weight to the views of his opponents, so that “the listener now considers any refutation to be completely impossible and is more than satisfied with a cursory description of the possibility of a defence”, he goes on:

“Continual looking at the palm of the extended hand. – Omission of the period. In general, the spoken sentence starts off from the speaker with its initial capital letter, curves in its course, as far as it can, out to the audience, and returns with the period to the speaker. But if the period is omitted then the sentence, no longer held in check, falls upon the listener immediately with full force.”

Only Kafka could experience language with such intensity and express his response in such a strange and striking way. Two days later he comes back to Steiner in his diary, either to another or to the same lecture, which he proceeds to paraphrase in deadpan fashion, interspersing this with comments about his neighbour:

“Dr Steiner is so very much taken up with his absent disciples. At the lecture the dead press so about him. Hunger for knowledge? But do they really need it? . . . Löwy Simon, soap dealer on Quai Moncey, Paris, got the best business advice from him . . . . The wife of the Hofrat therefore has in her notebook, How does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? At S. Löwy’s in Paris.”

(How Does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? was the tantalizing title of one of Steiner’s books.) Yet Kafka is sufficiently impressed to make an appointment to see Steiner in his hotel. “In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by seeking out a ridiculous place for my hat. I lay it down on a small wooden stand for lacing boots.” Steiner is gracious, however, and tries to put the young man at his ease by asking if he has been interested in theosophy long. Kafka pushes on with his prepared speech: A great part of his being seems to be striving towards theosophy, while at the same time he greatly fears it. “I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) which in my opinion correspond very closely to the clairvoyant states described by you, Herr Doktor.” However, he is also aware that in those states he did not write at his best, and since “my happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field”, he is terribly torn.

We never hear how Steiner responds to what Kafka has told him. Instead, this:

“He listened very attentively without apparently looking at me at all, entirely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strict concentration. At first a quiet head cold disturbed him, his nose ran, he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril.”

More here.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Natalia Nikolaevna Pushkina-Lanskaya (née Goncharova), wife of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

File:Natalia Pushkina.jpg
Portrait byAlexander Brullov, 1831. 

File:Ivan Makarov - Natalia Nikolaevna Pushkina-Lanskaya 1849.jpg
 Painting by Ivan Makarov (1849).

Natalie (as she was familiarly known) met Alexander Pushkin at the age of 16, when she was one of the most talked-about beauties of Moscow. After many hesitations, Natalya eventually accepted Pushkin's proposal in April 1830, but not before she received assurances that the tsarist government had no intentions to persecute the libertine poet. They were officially engaged on 6 May 1830, and sent out wedding invitations. Due to the outbreak of cholera and other circumstances, the wedding was delayed for a year. The ceremony took place on 18 February 1831 (Old Style) in the Great Ascension Church on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover (Portrait of Suzanne Valadon)

French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was an artist's model before becoming a respected painter herself. Part of a circle of artists living and working in Paris's Montmartre neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century, Valadon was one of the most notable female artists of the period. Valadon is also remembered for her many love affairs and as the mother of prominent French painter Maurice Utrillo.

The Life of George Eliot

By John Morley

The illustrious woman who is the subject of these volumes makes a remark to her publisher which is at least as relevant now as it was then. Can nothing be done, she asks, by dispassionate criticism towards the reform of our national habits in the matter of literary biography? 'Is it anything short of odious that as soon as a man is dead his desk should be raked, and every insignificant memorandum which he never meant for the public be printed for the gossiping amusement of people too idle to reread his books?' Autobiography, she says, at least saves a man or a woman that the world is curious about, from the publication of a string of mistakes called Memoirs. Even to autobiography, however, she confesses her deep repugnance unless it can be written so as to involve neither self-glorification nor impeachment of others—a condition, by the way, with which hardly any, save Mill's, can be said to comply. 'I like,' she proceeds, 'that He being dead yet speaketh should have quite another meaning than that' (iii. 226, 297, 307). She shows the same fastidious apprehension still more clearly in another way. 'I have destroyed almost all my friends' letters to me,' she says, 'because they were only intended for my eyes, and could only fall into the hands of persons who knew little of the writers if I allowed them to remain till after my death. In proportion as I love every form of piety—which is venerating love—I hate hard curiosity; and, unhappily, my experience has impressed me with the sense that hard curiosity is the more common temper of mind' (ii. 286). There is probably little difference among us in respect of such experience as that.

 [1] George Eliot's Life. By J.W. Cross. Three volumes. Blackwood and Sons. 1885.

 Much biography, perhaps we might say most, is hardly above the level of that 'personal talk,' to which Wordsworth sagely preferred long barren silence, the flapping of the flame of his cottage fire, and the under-song of the kettle on the hob. It would not, then, have much surprised us if George Eliot had insisted that her works should remain the only commemoration of her life. There be some who think that those who have enriched the world with great thoughts and fine creations, might best be content to rest unmarked 'where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,' leaving as little work to the literary executor, except of the purely crematory sort, as did Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, and some others whose names the world will not willingly let die. But this is a stoic's doctrine; the objector may easily retort that if it had been sternly acted on, we should have known very very little about Dr. Johnson, and nothing about Socrates.

This is but an ungracious prelude to some remarks upon a book, which must be pronounced a striking success. There will be very little dispute as to the fact that the editor of these memorials of George Eliot has done his work with excellent taste, judgment, and sense. He found no autobiography nor fragment of one, but he has skilfully shaped a kind of autobiography by a plan which, so far as we know, he is justified in calling new, and which leaves her life to write itself in extracts from her letters and journals. With the least possible obtrusion from the biographer, the original pieces are formed into a connected whole 'that combines a narrative of day-to-day life with the play of light and shade which only letters written in serious moods can give.' The idea is a good one, and Mr. Cross deserves great credit for it. We may hope that its success will encourage imitators. Certainly there are drawbacks. We miss the animation of mixed narrative. There is, too, a touch of monotony in listening for so long to the voice of a single speaker addressing others who are silent behind a screen. But Mr. Cross could not, we think, have devised a better way of dealing with his material: it is simple, modest, and effective.

George Eliot, after all, led the life of a studious recluse, with none of the bustle, variety, motion, and large communication with the outer world, that justified Lockhart and Moore in making a long story of the lives of Scott and Byron. Even here, among men of letters, who were also men of action and of great sociability, are not all biographies too long? Let any sensible reader turn to the shelf where his Lives repose; we shall be surprised if he does not find that nearly every one of them, taking the present century alone, and including such splendid and attractive subjects as Goethe, Hume, Romilly, Mackintosh, Horner, Chalmers, Arnold, Southey, Cowper, would not have been all the better for judicious curtailment. Lockhart, who wrote the longest, wrote also the shortest, the Life of Burns; and the shortest is the best, in spite of defects which would only have been worse if the book had been bigger. It is to be feared that, conscientious and honourable as his self-denial has been, even Mr. Cross has not wholly resisted the natural and besetting error of the biographer. Most people will think that the hundred pages of the Italian tour (vol. ii.), and some other not very remarkable impressions of travel, might as well or better have been left out.

As a mere letter-writer, George Eliot will not rank among the famous masters of what is usually considered especially a woman's art. She was too busy in serious work to have leisure for that most delightful way of wasting time. Besides that, she had by nature none of that fluency, rapidity, abandonment, pleasant volubility, which make letters amusing, captivating, or piquant. What Mr. Cross says of her as the mistress of a salon, is true of her for the most part as a correspondent:—'Playing around many disconnected subjects, in talk, neither interested nor amused her much. She took things too seriously, and seldom found the effort of entertaining compensated by the gain' (iii. 335). There is the outpouring of ardent feeling for her friends, sobering down, as life goes on, into a crooning kindliness, affectionate and honest, but often tinged with considerable self-consciousness. It was said of some one that his epigrams did honour to his heart; in the reverse direction we occasionally feel that George Eliot's effusive playfulness does honour to her head. It lacks simplicity and verve. Even in an invitation to dinner, the words imply a grave sense of responsibility on both sides, and sense of responsibility is fatal to the charm of familiar correspondence.

As was inevitable in one whose mind was so habitually turned to the deeper elements of life, she lets fall the pearls of wise speech even in short notes. Here are one or two:—

'My own experience and development deepen every day my conviction that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathise with individual suffering and individual joy.'

'If there is one attitude more odious to me than any other of the many attitudes of "knowingness," it is that air of lofty superiority to the vulgar. She will soon find out that I am a very commonplace woman.'

'It so often happens that others are measuring us by our past self while we are looking back on that self with a mixture of disgust and sorrow.'

The following is one of the best examples, one of the few examples, of her best manner:—
I have been made rather unhappy by my husband's impulsive proposal about Christmas. We are dull old persons, and your two sweet young ones ought to find each Christmas a new bright bead to string on their memory, whereas to spend the time with us would be to string on a dark shrivelled berry. They ought to have a group of young creatures to be joyful with. Our own children always spend their Christmas with Gertrude's family; and we have usually taken our sober merry-making with friends out of town. Illness among these will break our custom this year; and thus mein Mann, feeling that our Christmas was free, considered how very much he liked being with you, omitting the other side of the question—namely, our total lack of means to make a suitably joyous meeting, a real festival, for Phil and Margaret. I was conscious of this lack in the very moment of the proposal, and the consciousness has been pressing on me more and more painfully ever since. Even my husband's affectionate hopefulness cannot withstand my melancholy demonstration. So pray consider the kill-joy proposition as entirely retracted, and give us something of yourselves only on simple black-letter days, when the Herald Angels have not been raising expectations early in the morning.
This is very pleasant, but such pieces are rare, and the infirmity of human nature has sometimes made us sigh over these pages at the recollection of the cordial cheeriness of Scott's letters, the high spirits of Macaulay, the graceful levity of Voltaire, the rattling dare-devilry of Byron. Epistolary stilts among men of letters went out of fashion with Pope, who, as was said, thought that unless every period finished with a conceit, the letter was not worth the postage. Poor spirits cannot be the explanation of the stiffness in George Eliot's case, for no letters in the English language are so full of playfulness and charm as those of Cowper, and he was habitually sunk in gulfs deeper and blacker than George Eliot's own. It was sometimes observed of her, that in her conversation, elle s'écoutait quand elle parlait—she seemed to be listening to her own voice while she spoke. It must be allowed that we are not always free from an impression of self-listening, even in the most caressing of the letters before us.

This is not much better, however, than trifling. I daresay that if a lively Frenchman could have watched the inspired Pythia on the sublime tripod, he would have cried, Elle s'écoute quand elle parle. When everything of that kind has been said, we have the profound satisfaction, which is not quite a matter of course in the history of literature, of finding after all that the woman and the writer were one. The life does not belie the books, nor private conduct stultify public profession. We close the third volume of the biography, as we have so often closed the third volume of her novels, feeling to the very core that in spite of a style that the French call alambiqué, in spite of tiresome double and treble distillations of phraseology, in spite of fatiguing moralities, gravities, and ponderosities, we have still been in communion with a high and commanding intellect and a great nature. We are vexed by pedantries that recall the précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet, but we know that she had the soul of the most heroic women in history. We crave more of the Olympian serenity that makes action natural and repose refreshing, but we cannot miss the edification of a life marked by indefatigable labour after generous purposes, by an unsparing struggle for duty, and by steadfast and devout fellowship with lofty thoughts.

William Hazlitt: On genius and common sense

We hear it maintained by people of more gravity than understanding, that genius and taste are strictly reducible to rules, and that there is a rule for everything. So far is it from being true that the finest breath of fancy is a definable thing, that the plainest common sense is only what Mr. Locke would have called a mixed mode —, subject to a particular sort of acquired and an definable tact. It is asked, “If you do not know the rule by which a thing is done, how can you be sure of doing it a second time?” And the answer is, “If you do not know the muscles by the help of which you walk, how is to you do not fall down at every step you take?” In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason; that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind, which impression is true and well founded, though you may not be able to analyze or account for it in the several particulars. In a gesture you use, in a look you see, in a tone you hear, you judge of the expression, propriety, and meaning from habit, not from reason or rules; that is to say, from innumerable instances of like gestures, looks, and tones, in innumerable other circumstances, variously modified, which are too many and too refined to be all distinctly recollected, but which do not therefore operate the less powerfully upon the mind and eye of taste.

Shall we say that these impressions (the immediate stamp of nature) do not operate in a given manner till they are classified and reduced to rules, or is not the rule itself grounded, upon the truth and certainty of that natural operation? How then can the distinction of the understanding as to the manner on which they operated be necessary to their producing their due and uniform effect upon the mind? If certain effects did not regularly arise out of certain causes in mind as well as matter, there could be no rule given for them: nature does not follow the rule, but suggests it.

Reason is the interpreter and critic of nature and genius, not their law-giver and judge. He must be a poor creature indeed whose practical convictions do not in almost all cases outrun his deliberate understanding, or does not feel and know much more than he can give reason for. Hence the distinction between eloquence and wisdom, between ingenuity and common sense. A man may be dexterous and able in explaining the grounds of his opinions, and yet may be a mere sophist, because be only sees one half of a subject. Another may feel the whole weight of a question, nothing relating to it may be lost upon him, and yet he may be able to give no account of the manner in which it affects him, or to drag his reasons from their silent lurking places. The last will be a wise man, though neither a logician nor rhetorician. Goldsmith was a fool to Dr. Johnson in argument; that is in assigning the specific grounds of his opinions: Dr. Johnson was a fool to Goldsmith in the fine tact, the airy, intuitive faculty with which he skimmed the surfaces of things, and unconsciously formed his opinions. Common sense is the just result of the sum total of such unconscious impressions in the ordinary occurrences of life, as they are treasured up in the memory, and called out by the occasion. Genius and taste depend much upon the same principal exercised on loftier ground and in more unusual combinations.

I am glad to shelter myself from the charge of affectation or singularity in this view of an often debated but ill-understood point, by quoting a passage from Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, which is full, and, I think, conclusive to the purpose. He says:

I observe, as a fundamental ground common to all the Arts with which we have any concern in this Discourse, that they address themselves only on two faculties of the mind, its imagination and its sensibility.

All theories which attempt to direct or to control the Art, upon any principles falsely called rational, which we reason to be the end or means of Art, independent on the known first effect produced by objects on the imagination, must be false and delusive. For though it may appear bold to say it, the imagination be affected, the conclusion is fairly drawn; if it not be affected, the reasoning is erroneous, because the end is not obtained; the effect itself being the test, and the only test, of the truth and efficacy of the means.

“There is in the commerce of life, as in Art, a sagacity which is far from being contradictory to the right reason, and is superior to any occasional exercise of that faculty which supersedes it, and does not wait for the slow progress of deduction, but goes at once, by what appears a kind of intuition, to the conclusion. A man endowed with this faculty feels and acknowledges the truth, though it is not always in his power, perhaps, to give a reason for it; because he cannot recollect and bring before him all the materials that gave birth to his opinion; for very many and very intricate considerations may unite to the principle, even of small and minute parts, involved in, or dependent on, a great system of things: though these in process of time are forgotten, the right impression still remains fixed in his mind.

“This impression is the result of the accumulated experience of our whole life, and has been collected, we do not always know how, or when. But this mass of collective observation, however acquired, ought to prevail over that reason, which however powerfully exerted on any particular occasion, will probably comprehend but a partial view of the subject; and our conduct in life, as well as in the arts, is or ought to be generally governed by this habitual reason: it is our happiness that we are enabled to draw on such funds. If we were obliged to enter into a theoretical deliberation on every occasion before we act, life would be at a stand, and Art would be impracticable.

“It appears to me therefore” (continues Sir Joshua) “that our first thoughts, that is, the effect which any thing produces on our minds, on its first appearance, is never to be forgotten; and it demands for that reason, because it is the first, to be laid up with care. If this be not done, the artist may happen to impose on himself by partial reasoning; by a cold consideration of those animated thoughts which proceed, not perhaps from caprice or rashness (as he may afterwards conceit), but from the fulness of his mind, enriched with the copious stores of all the various inventions which he had ever seen, or had ever passed in his mind. Those ideas are infused into his design, without any conscious effort; but if he be not on his guard, he may reconsider and correct them, till the whole matter is reduced to a commonplace invention.

“This is sometimes the effect of what I mean to caution you against; that is to say, an unfounded distrust of the imagination and feeling, in favour of narrow, partial, confined, argumentative theories, and of principles that seen to apply to the design in hand; without considering those general impressions on the fancy in which real principles of sound reason, and of much more weight and importance, are involved, and, as it were, lie hid under the appearance of a sort of vulgar sentiment. Reason, without doubt, must ultimately determine everything; at this minute it is required to inform as when that very reason is to give way to feeling.” ...