Showing posts from January, 2013

The history woman - Antonia Fraser

If you are passing through a British airport this summer the chances are you will see Antonia Fraser's latest book, a biography of Marie Antoinette, prominently displayed in the bookshops. It is part of an extensive price-cutting promotion that includes Anne Robinson's memoirs and a particularly salacious biography of Madonna. The presence of Fraser's scholarly and critically lauded book in this company is another indicator of just how far-reaching is the current explosion of interest in history in Britain.

David Starkey got better viewing figures than Ali G for his latest television series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Simon Schama has picked up £3m in a deal with the BBC, and Antony Beevor's books continue to fly off the shelves. But it is not just fashion that has propelled Antonia Fraser into the mass market. Her first bestseller came in 1969 with her biography of Mary Queen of Scots and she has been a regular on the bestseller lists ever since.

"I've seen s…

Robert Penn Warren: Man Coming of Age

So settles on a dying face
After the retch and spasm, grace
(A grace like that did not belong
In the room of no-love, fret, and wrong:
The watchers sat heavy, night was long.)
Now standing on his own doorsill
He views the woods that crest the hill
And asks: “Was it I who roamed to prove
My heart beneath the unwhispering grove
In season greener and of more love?”
in the mood to receive love?”
And was it he? Now let him stride
With cramped knee that slant hillside,
Pondering what paths he used to know
Seeking under the snowy bough
That frail deceitful alter ego
Wanderer in woods that bear no leaf
Climber of rocks assume your grief
And go! Lest he, before you tread
That ground once sweetly tenanted
Like mist down the glassy glooms be fled

Romain Rolland, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1915

The following account of the work of Romain Rolland is by Sven Söderman, Swedish Critic

Romain Rolland was born on January 29, 1866, in the district of Nièvre. He studied literature, music, and philosophy, and in 1895 he published two doctoral theses: Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne, an erudite and penetrating work which was awarded a prize by the French Academy, and a Latin thesis, Cur ars picturae apud Italos XVI saeculi deciderit, a study of the decline of Italian painting in the sixteenth century. After several tiresome years as a schoolmaster, he was appointed to the École Normale as maître de conférences and thereafter (1903) to the Sorbonne, where until 1910 he gave a remarkable course on the history of music. In addition to his duties at the university, he devoted himself to music criticism during these years and acquired a wide reputation not only in France but all over Europe when he published his articles and reviews in book form under the titles Musiciens d'au…

A Portrait of Arthur Miller

In the 1970's I wrote two literary biographies, one on Katherine Mansfield, a short-story writer from New Zealand who died early at the peak of her career; the other on Wyndham Lewis, an original novelist, great painter and incurable outsider who died blind and neglected in 1957. As I began to consider a new subject, my biographer's antennae quivered at the thought of Arthur Miller. His opposition to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950's had earned him lasting political prestige. His plays were a staple of the American theater repertory, and he'd also written classic film-scripts of his own work. Though his normal, commonsensical, intellectual life rarely made headlines, in the late 1950's he had been married to Marilyn Monroe, a conjunction that made heads spin at the time and now seemed the stuff of myth. I was full of respect for him, and curiosity as well.

In September 1980 I wrote to sound him out. I couldn't help noting i…

Paul Valery: The Crisis of the Mind (1919)

We later civilizations . . . we too know that we are mortal.

We had long heard tell of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics. . . . We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.

Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia...these too would be beautif…

Emily Dickinson: High on Life

I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling—through endless summer days—
From inns of molten Blue—

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door—
When Butterflies—renounce their “drams”—
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints—to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the—Sun!

Robert Burns: A Man's A Man For A' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave—we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that;
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man'…

Virginia Woolf: The Novels of Thomas Hardy

When we say that the death of Thomas Hardy leaves English fiction without a leader, we mean that there is no other writer whose supremacy would be generally accepted, none to whom it seems so fitting and natural to pay homage. Nobody of course claimed it less. The unworldly and simple old man would have been painfully embarrassed by the rhetoric that flourishes on such occasions as this. Yet it is no less than the truth to say that while he lived there was one novelist at all events who made the art of fiction seem an honourable calling; while Hardy lived there was no excuse for thinking meanly of the art he practised. Nor was this solely the result of his peculiar genius. Something of it sprang from his character in its modesty and integrity, from his life, lived simply down in Dorsetshire without self-seeking or self-advertisement. For both reasons, because of his genius and because of the dignity with which his gift was used, it was impossible not to honour him as an artist and to …

The Lady and the Tiger: Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser

By Alfred Kazin

The society into which Edith Wharton was born was still, in the 1860's, the predominant American aristocracy. Established in New York behind its plaster-cast of Washington, its Gibbon and its Hoppner, its Stuart and its Washington Irving, it was a snug and gracious world of gentlewomen and lawyers who stemmed in a direct line from the colonial aristocracy. Though it was republican by habit where its eighteenth century grandfathers had been revolutionary by necessity, it was still a colonial society, a society superbly indifferent to the tumultuous life of the frontier, supercilious in its breeding, complacent in its inherited wealth. It was a society so eminently contented with itself that it had long since become nerveless, for with its pictures, its "gentlemen's libraries," its possession of Fifth Avenue and Beacon Hill, its elaborate manners, its fine contempt for trade, it found authority in its own history and the meaning of life in its own conven…

Iris Murdoch - Interview

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919 and grew up in London. She was educated at Badminton School in Bristol and studied classics at Somerville College, Oxford from 1938 until 1942, receiving first-class honors. She was assistant principal in the treasury from 1942 to 1944 and an administrative officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in England, Belgium, and Austria during the years 1944 to 1946. She held a Sarah Smithson Studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1947–1948, and became a fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and a university lecturer in philosophy the following year. She published her first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, in 1953 and her first novel,Under the Net, the next year. Since then she has published twenty-four formal, traditional novels, including The Sandcastle (1957), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), A Word Child (1975), The Sea, The Sea (1978), which w…

J. Middleton Murry: The Function of Criticism

It is curious and interesting to find our younger men of letters actively concerned with the present condition of literary criticism. This is a novel preoccupation for them and one which is, we believe, symptomatic of a general hesitancy and expectation. In the world of letters everything is a little up in the air, volatile and uncrystallised. It is a world of rejections and velleities; in spite of outward similarities, a strangely different world from that of half a dozen years ago. Then one had a tolerable certainty that the new star, if the new star was to appear, would burst upon our vision in the shape of a novel. To-day we feel it might be anything. The cloud no bigger than a man's hand might even be, like Trigorin's in 'The Sea-gull,' like a piano; it has no predetermined form.

This sense of incalculability, which has been aroused by the prodigious literary efflorescence of late years, reacts upon its cause; and the reaction tends by many different paths to expre…

Salman Rushdie: rereading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

"I was very consciously trying to write for an international audience," Kazuo Ishiguro says of The Remains of the Day in his Paris Review interview ("The Art of Fiction," No. 196). "One of the ways I thought I could do this was to take a myth of England that was known internationally – in this case, the English butler."

"Jeeves was a big influence." This is a necessary genuflection. No literary butler can ever quite escape the gravitational field of Wodehouse's shimmering Reginald, gentleman's gentleman par excellence, saviour, so often, of Bertie Wooster's imperilled bacon. But, even in the Wodehousian canon, Jeeves does not stand alone. Behind him can be seen the rather more louche figure of the Earl of Emsworth's man, Sebastian Beach, enjoying a quiet tipple in the butler's pantry at Blandings Castle. And other butlers – Meadowes, Maple, Mulready, Purvis – float in and out of Wodehouse's world, not all of them pillars o…

W. H. Auden: Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Study the Panther! - John Banville on R. M. Rilke

For Rainer Maria Rilke the year 1903 did not begin auspiciously. He and his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, were living in Paris, where the poet had come in order to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. The Rilkes were not exactly dazzled by the City of Light. In a letter to his friend the artist Otto Modersohn, dated New Year’s Eve 1902, the poet spoke of Paris as a “difficult, difficult, anxious city” whose beauty could not compensate “for what one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people and things.” A few lines later he compares the French capital to those cities “of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and to shatter them.”

As one may gather, Rilke did not tend toward understatement, particularly when speaking of his physical and emotional health. In Paris he suffered a more or less serious nervous collapse, which no doubt clouded his view of the city. Writing from Germany in…

John Dos Passos: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene

John Dos Passos, born in 1896, was one of a remarkable group of Americans who came of literary age during the decade after World War I. The group included Scott Fitzgerald, born the same year, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson, all of whom had close contact with Dos Passos at one time or another during his life, which ended in 1970.

One hundred years after his birth, Dos Passos is an anomaly: his fictions of the 1920's and 1930's, Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930—1936, 1937) are acknowledged to be important works in American literary history. He is regularly anthologized; but rarely is he eulogized, a far cry from his situation in 1936, when he was featured on the cover of the August 10th issue of Time magazine to mark the publication of The Big Money, the third volume of U.S.A. Two years later Jean-Paul Sartre acclaimed him "the greatest living writer of our time." By the…