Showing posts from 2013

Rediscovering The Intricate Verse Of Federico Garcia Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish surrealist, wasn't just any writer. The poet and playwright was also a revolutionary who penned some of the most intricate and arresting verse of the twentieth century. Out now from New Directions, Selected Poems is perhaps the best introduction to the poet's oeuvre — and one of the foremost works of poetry in translation released this year. This edition, featuring a host of translators from Langston Hughes to Ben Belitt and W. S. Merwin, should have a place in any growing library.

I first stumbled upon Garcia Lorca years ago while working for my high school literary magazine. In addition to editing duties, I was charged with finding the most fitting epigraph for the next issue. After sifting through poem after poem, making note of dozens of possible, and worthy, choices, I came across this, from Garcia Lorca's "New York": "Set in place the lovers who will afterwards be photographs." The line spoke of mortality, and, to…

Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of the…

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was engaged in a dialogue with violence. Speaking to an interviewer about his childhood in what was then the outlying barrio of Palermo, in Buenos Aires, he said, “To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing…the kind of thing he couldn’t stand.” According to his biographer, Edwin Williamson,1 Borges’s father handed him a dagger when he was a boy, with instructions to overcome his poor eyesight and “generally defeated” demeanor and let the boys who were bullying him know that he was a man.

Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic …

Pox and the City: the complex life of Jonathan Swift

Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a novel as “a small tale, generally of love”. It was when Johnson was writing, in the mid-18th century, that the novel emerged as the dominant form of prose literature. Thanks especially to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, coming of age and falling in love became the defining characteristics of the genre, which Fanny Burney and Jane Austen would then bring to perfection.

A generation earlier, the most widely read works of “modern” prose fiction were John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All three of these titles became household names (The Pilgrim’s Progress remained the most reprinted book in English, other than the Bible, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries). All three share with Shakespeare the special distinction of having been rewritten and simplified as tales for children. Even today, people who never pick up a book will have heard of Crusoe’s island and of Gulli…

The Letter That Changed the Course of Modern Fiction

A hundred years ago, Ezra Pound wrote a letter to the struggling and largely unpublished James Joyce offering to help him—and set in motion a literary revolution. Can a single piece of unsolicited mail change the course of literature? In my opinion, only one letter justifies such a bold claim—a query sent a hundred years ago this month, on December 15, 1913, when Ezra Pound, searching for new talent, reached out to a struggling Irish author living in Trieste.

James Joyce, thirty years old, had faced rejection after rejection during the previous decade. He had completed his collection of short stories, Dubliners, eight years before Pound contacted him—but Joyce still hadn’t found a publisher willing to issue the book. Every time he came close to seeing this work in print, new objections and obstacles arose, and even Joyce’s offer to make changes and censor controversial passages failed to remove the roadblocks.

Joyce had even fewer prospects to publish his novel A Portrait of the Artist …

Heidegger in France: Nazism and philosophy

One of the distinctive features of French intellectual life in the post-war period has been the influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger’s standing among French philosophers, especially those working in the phenomenological tradition (who are more numerous in France than anywhere else in Europe, let alone the Anglophone world), contrasts dramatically with his reputation in the country of his birth, where his legacy is tainted irredeemably by his political compromises with National Socialism in the 1930s. 

The precise nature and extent of those compromises remain a matter of controversy—not least in France, where the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade. Last week, Nicolas Weill, a journalist at Le Monde, wrote on his blog that the latest volume of Heidegger’s complete works (the Gesamtausgabe), which will be published in Germany in March next year, promises a definitive answer to t…

Miguel de Unamuno - The Philosophy of Death

Miguel de Unamuno’s earliest memory was of a bomb landing on the roof of his neighbor’s house during Spain’s final Carlist War. The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy.

Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in 1897, tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. Just a few months earlier, Unamuno’s infant son Raimundo had contracted meningitis. Raimundo’s illness disabled him physically and mentally. He was not expected to live long. Miguel de Unamuno believed that this tragedy was his fault, divine punishment for turning away from his childhood faith and embracing scientific rationalism. That night in 1897, Unamuno’s wife Concha found her husband sobbing. She held him and called out, “My child!” Years later, Unamuno wrote of this experience and the lasting effect of those two words.
In a mo…

Hannah Arendt's Failures of Imagination

Hannah Arendt is back in the news, in anticipation of the release of the book “Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations,” on Tuesday, and of Claude Lanzmann’s film “The Last of the Unjust,” which played at the New York Film Festival and opens on February 7th. The new book includes four interviews with Arendt. The first two, by Günter Gaus and Joachim Fest, respectively, appeared in 1964, the year after the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (a version of which was published, in serialized form, in this magazine), and they deal with that book in detail. The two others are by Adelbert Reif, from 1970, and the French journalist Roger Errera, from 1973. Lanzmann’s new film is centered on his 1975 interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, who, as a rabbi in Vienna and then as the last “elder of the Jews” at Theresienstadt, the so-called model concentration camp, had the misfortune to take orders from Eichmann. The movie contradicts two of …

Umberto Eco and why we still dream of utopia

Places that have never existed except in the human imagination may find an incongruous afterlife in the everyday world. Umberto Eco tells of how an attempt to commemorate the brownstone New York home of Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s orchid-loving fictional detective, runs up against the resistance of fact. Wolfe’s house cannot be identified because Stout “always talked of a brownstone at a certain number on West 35th Street, but in the course of his novels he mentioned at least ten different street numbers – and what is more, there are no brownstones on 35th Street”. Using Eco’s typology, a fiction has been transmuted into a legend: “Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are in effect a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.”

Because they involve the belief that they existed, exist or can be made to exist – whether in the past,…

Optimism Outlasted a Lifetime of Horrors - Ivan Klima

The Czech writer Ivan Klima’s new book, a memoir, is called “My Crazy Century.” It begins in 1941, when together with his family Mr. Klima, who until then hadn’t even been aware that he was Jewish, was imprisoned in the Nazi camp at Terezin, and it concludes with the Velvet Revolution of 1989, ending years of dictatorship and repression. “Sometimes, it was funny crazy,” Mr. Klima said last week, while visiting New York. “But mostly, it was crazy crazy.”

Mr. Klima is now 82, and his Beatles haircut, which his friend Philip Roth once said reminded him of a “highly intellectually evolved Ringo Starr,” has grown thinner and grayer. His conversation is like his writing: direct, plain-spoken, quietly humorous, but uninflected by irony or exaggeration. Talking about his years at Terezin, he pointed out that his family was much luckier than many. “I was very active,” he said. “I was not at all depressed. That was perhaps my age — I was only 10 — but probably my character as well. I’m rather op…

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

The questions that cannot be answered about Jonathan Swift number so many that I wonder how his biographers keep their spirits up. Just to begin with, essential and insoluble mysteries surround his parentage, his marital status, and the nature of his relationships with "Stella" and "Vanessa," the two great loves of his life. There are complete gaps, too, sequences of years during which there is no evidence at all as to what Swift was up to. Even his writing is an exercise in sustained ambiguity: What precisely is the meaning of A Tale of a Tub? What really is the message of Gulliver's fourth journey? And what, in the name of all that is euphemistic, did this man of the cloth mean by the expression "coffee" in his letters to Vanessa? (It was something, it would seem, to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.)

Leo Damrosch begins with some of these questions in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, a fine biography that is also a running engagem…

Margaret Atwood on the show-stopping Isak Dinesen

On the Danish 50-kroner banknote there's a portrait of Isak Dinesen. It's signed Karen Blixen, which is how she is known in Denmark. She's shown at the age of 60 or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a fur collar, and looking very glamorous indeed.

I first saw Dinesen when I was 10, in a photo shoot in Life magazine. My experience then was similar to that of Sara Stambaugh, one of her bio-critics: "I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs. I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning dramatically from a window, striking, turbaned, and emaciated."

To my young eyes, this person in the pictures was like a magical creature from a fairytale: an impossibly aged woman, a thousand years old at least. Her outfits were striking and the makeup of the era…

C.P. Cavafy: Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it last…

Laughter and humor in Pride and Prejudice

Jane lies in Winchester—blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!
And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain,
Glory, love, and honour unto England’s Jane!
—Rudyard Kipling, “The Janeites”

The cathedral of Winchester where Jane Austen is buried and Milsom Street in Bath where she shopped do in fact still remain. If anything, the glory, love, and honor that Kipling called down upon her head soon after the First World War are greater now. It has been an occasion for general rejoicing that Pride and Prejudice is this year celebrating its two hundredth anniversary. Few books of that age attract not only scholars, but also attentive common readers whose love overflows into movies, fan fiction, beach towels, and knitting patterns. With every passing year, Austen inspires great pleasure, even almost religious devotion.

It seems an act of Providence that, two hundred years ago last January, when the novel was published, Jane Austen was briefly …

Aldous Huxley: the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia

On 22 November 1963 the world was too preoccupied with the Kennedy assassination to pay much attention to the passing of two writers from the other side of the Atlantic: CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Fifty years on, Lewis is being honoured with a plaque in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, to be unveiled in a ceremony on Friday. The fanfare for Huxley has been more muted.

There are various reasons for this: The Chronicles of Narnia propelled their author into the Tolkien league; Shadowlands, the film about his life starring Anthony Hopkins, moved millions; and his writings on religious topics made him a global figure in more spiritual circles.

There is a CS Lewis Society of California, for example; plus a CS Lewis Review and a Centre for the Study of CS Lewis & Friends at a university in Indiana.

Aldous Huxley never attracted that kind of attention. And yet there are good reasons for regarding him as the more visionary of the two. For one of the ironies of history is that visions…

My Dear Governess: the Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann

Around 1908, Henry James wrote to a young man he knew: “You have made friends with Edith Wharton. I congratulate you. You may find her difficult, but you will never find her stupid and you will never find her mean.” This quotation appears in most Wharton biographies and many of James and now returns in this volume of letters edited by Irene Goldman-Price. (Goldman-Price somewhat surprisingly chooses to quote from Percy Lubbock’s ­version of the letter in his Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947), which changes the final clause to: “You will find nothing stupid in her and nothing small” – Lubbock was presumably quoting from memory.)

Readers interested in Wharton’s very interesting life do not lack for opportunities to learn about her: she wrote an autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934; she has been the subject of three major biographies in the past 40 years; and a selection of her voluminous correspondence appeared in 1989. Wharton led an increasingly public existence as the grande dame …

Doris Lessing dies aged 94

Doris Lessing, the Nobel prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing, among more than 50 other novels ranging from political to science fiction, has died aged 94.

Twitter reacted quickly to the news, a shock to many despite her great age. The author and critic Lisa Jardine described it as "a huge loss"; the agent Carole Blake described her as an "amazing writer and woman"; and the writer Lisa Appignanesi wrote: "One of our very greatest writers has left us this past night, RIP."

The writer Bidisha tweeted: "Doris Lessing: prolific multi-genre genius dies in sleep after writing world-changing novels and winning Nobel. Not bad at all."

Born in Iran, brought up in the African bush in Zimbabwe – where her 1950 first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was set – Lessing had been a London resident for more than half a century. In 2007 she arrived back to West Hampstead, north London, by taxi, carrying heavy bags of shopping, to find the…

Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene …

D. H. Lawrence possessed

I t is so manifestly an excellent thing to have Lawrence’s many poems brought together, edited by so punctilious and expert a scholar – and to have them presented in handsome volumes that do such credit to their publisher – that it feels the keener ingratitude to admit that the experience of reading them all through is, well, a bit of a slog. Mildly reassuring, then, to learn that D. J. Enright felt a similar mixture of gratitude and weariness when he reviewed the edition of Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (1964) which these volumes now triumphantly supplant. “It must be granted”, Enright wrote on that occasion, “that this Complete Poems – however grateful many of us will be to have it – makes for oppressive, confusing and blunted reading.” Enright hoped that “a critical selection”, judiciously done, might make of Lawrence-as-poet something more acceptable. It is a sensible enough suggestion, and it is a shame Enright did not take on the job himself, as he was an anthologist o…

Elizabeth Bowen: the Sleuth Who Bugged Tea Cups

Elizabeth Bowen must have felt off duty when having her picture taken. For some of them she even dispensed with a cigarette, the smoke screen that customarily veiled her disabused eyes. Book jacket portraits vouch for the most widely displayed of her personae, a high-spirited, mondaine London hostess primed for tea at Harrods. That calculatedly outsize jewelry probably distracted companions while she fed morsels to her memory. A longer peek at the lean profile, not comely in the fashion magazine sense yet serenely riveting, conjures up a dressing room: she might be rehearsing fresh bits of gesture or intonation for Macbeth. If one does not break cover, a new surmise edges closer: now one faces no West End actress but a close cousin—a superbly practiced undercover agent.

Her habitual duty station was dinner parties where stylish married couples, civil servants, debutantes between rival beaux, an Oxford don or two could be observed and queried. Despite her myopia, the spurning of glasses…