Showing posts from February, 2013

Czeslaw Milosz - Interview

A loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressive to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all. Even more, to express the existential situation of modern man, one must live in exile of some sort.
—Czeslaw Milosz “On Exile”

Though Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz considers himself a Polish poet because he writes in that “native mother tongue,” he was not born in Poland, nor has he lived there for over half a century. Nonetheless, the poems of this sensuous mystic are inscribed on monuments in Gdansk as well as printed on posters in the New York City transit system.

He was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the impoverished estate of his grandfather, a gentleman farmer. Milosz remembers the rural Lithuania of that time as a “country of myth and poetry.” His childhood world was broken by World War I when his father, Alexander, a road engineer…

Ford Madox Ford and unfilmable Modernism

One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires repeated metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another — audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, different technologies and different markets encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.

Cinema is notoriously hungry for adaptations of literary works. The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me lately is the BBC/HBO version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by Ford Madox Ford. Ford w…

De Quincey’s wicked book

In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant gives the standard eighteenth-century line on opium. Its “dreamy euphoria,” he declares, makes one “taciturn, withdrawn, and uncommunicative,” and it is “therefore… permitted only as a medicine.” Eighty-five years later, in The Gay Science (1882), Friedrich Nietzsche too discusses drugs, but he has a very different story to tell. “Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica?” he asks pointedly. “It is almost the history of ‘culture’, of so-called high culture.” What caused this seismic shift in attitude? How did opium, in less than a century, pass from a drug understood primarily as a medicine to a drug used and abused recreationally, not just in “high culture”, but across the social strata?

The short answer is Thomas De Quincey. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking…

Erich Fromm : Alienation

The concept of the active, productive man who grasps and embraces the objective world with his own powers cannot be fully understood without the concept of the negation of productivity: alienation. For Marx the history of mankind is a history of the increasing development of man, and at the same time of increasing alienation. His concept of socialism is the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization.

Alienation (or "estrangement") means, for Marx, that man does not experience himself as the acting agent in his grasp of the world, but that the world (nature, others, and he himself) remain alien to him. They stand above and against him as objects, even though they may be objects of his own creation. Alienation is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively, as the subject separated from the object.

The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry.…

The Tragicomic Vision in the Novels of Carson McCullers

The fiction of Carson McCullers has variously been described as gothic, grotesque, and bizarre. Many critics prefer to dwell on her ostensible preoccupation with morbidity and in so doing overlook her immense capacity for humor. But the fact is that humor plays as vital a role in Mrs. McCullers’ work as it does in the fiction of Twain and Faulkner. Moreover, its recognition is essential to a proper understanding and appreciation of her fiction and to the mixed vision of reality that colors it.

Although the gothic elements frequently cited in her fiction are considered vestiges of her Southern literary heritage, it is equally true that the particular type of humor which emerges from a reading of her works similarly evolves from peculiarly Southern conditions. Within her fiction she is able to reconcile successfully horror with humor, so that what is repeatedly asserted is the writer’s tragicomic vision of life. Interestingly enough, Mrs. McCullers was acutely aware that this mixed vis…

Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen - Interview

It was, in a sense, typecasting, when a few years ago a film was planned that would have shown us Garbo playing the role of Isak Dinesen in a screen version of Out of Africa . . . for the writer is, like the actress, a Mysterious Creature of the North. Isak Dinesen is really the Danish Baroness Karen Christentze Blixen-Finecke and is the daughter of Wilhelm Dinesen, author of a classic nineteenth-century work, Boganis’ Jagtbreve (Letters from the Hunt). Baroness Blixen has published under different names in various countries: usually Isak Dinesen, but also Tania Blixen and Karen Blixen. Old friends call her Tanne, Tanya, and Tania. Then there is a delightful novel she preferred not to acknowledge for a while, though any reader with half an eye could guess the baroness hiding behind the second pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. Literary circles have buzzed with legends about her: She is really a man, he is really a woman, “Isak Dinesen” is really a brother-and-sister collaboration, “Isak Dine…

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

In 1882, three eminent Victorians attempted to conquer America. One was a Channel Islander who had lost favour with her lover, the Prince of Wales, after dropping ice cream down his neck. The second was a seven-ton Sudanese who received 700 emotional letters on his departure, many enclosing buns. The third was a young Irish poet whose lectures on interior design and Gothic art formed an elaborate publicity stunt for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. All three have a claim on the cultural memory, but only one has guest-starred on The Simpsons.

Lillie Langtry played to full houses, but failed to convince anyone she was an actor; Jumbo the elephant was killed by a freight train and cut into profitable chunks by PT Barnum. Oscar Wilde made landfall an object of sceptical curiosity – a specimen of British aestheticism, shipped first-class across the Atlantic to cue up the punchlines of Patience. He paid obeisance to Langtry, denied being offered £200 to ride Jumbo down Broadway with a sunflo…

The Harvest In - Seamus Heaney

With the thousands of reviews, articles, interviews and full-scale studies that Seamus Heaney’s work has already attracted, it is hardly necessary here either to introduce Heaney or to use Stepping Stones as a mere stepping stone back to the familiar squabbles over his poetic territory – whether the land is over-grazed or over-green, whether he should have moved out of the area entirely, whether a diploma in experimental farming techniques might not have been advisable at some stage, whether he is drawing attention away from other worthy neighbours, whether he has reinforced the traditional confinement of women’s work to home and farmyard, whether he is merely walking the fields out of habit …

Most newspaper reviews of the book contented themselves with describing the nature of the enterprise: Dennis O’Driscoll’s proposing the idea of a volume of interviews; Heaney’s agreeing but asking that matters should be conducted in writing; Heaney’s responding to a selection of the many possible…

Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1918-1920

More than twenty years ago, Suzette Henke challenged what was then the reigning view of Virginia Woolf’s response to James Joyce’s Ulysses. To judge this response by Woolf’s most damning comments on the book and its author, Henke argued, is to overlook what she said about it in her reading notes on Ulysses, which--together with her final comment on Joyce at the time of his death--show that “she had always regarded [him] as a kind of artistic ‘double,’ a male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism.”[1] But some convictions--or prejudices-- die hard. Though Henke’s transcription of Woolf’s reading notes was published in 1990, and though she and several other scholars have marshalled extensive evidence for the influence of Ulysses on the composition of Mrs. Dalloway, Henke herself has recently reported that in conference presentations at least, scholars still cite Woolf’s letters and diaries “to prove her animosity toward Joyce.”[2] Students of modern British fiction c…

Colette, Essay by Angela Carter

Colette is possibly the only well-known woman writer of modern times who is universally referred to simply by her surname, tout court. Woolf hasn’t made it, even after all these years; Rhys without the Jean is incognito; Nin without the Anais looks like a typo. Colette, Madame Colette, remains, in this as much else, unique.

Colette did not acquire this distinction because she terrorised respect language out of her peers, alas: by a happy accident, her father’s name doubles as a girlish handle – and a very ducky one, too. One could posit ‘Bonny’ or ‘Rosie’ as English equivalents. It was by a probably perfectly unconscious sleight-of-hand that Colette appropriated for herself the form of address of both masculine respect and masculine intimacy of her period – a fact that, in a small way, reflects the message of her whole career. This is: if you can’t win, change the rules of the game.

Her career was a profoundly strange one and necessarily full of contradictions, of which her uncompromisi…

Brendan Behan: I remember in September

I remember in September,
When the final stumps were drawn,
And the shouts of crowds now silent
And the boys to tea were gone.
Let us, oh Lord above us,
Still remember simple things,
When all are dead who love us,
Oh the Captains and the Kings,
When all are dead who love us,
Oh the Captains and the Kings.
Far away in dear old Cyprus,
Or in Kenya’s dusty land,
Where all bear the white man’s burden
In many a strange land.
As we look across our shoulder
In West Belfast the school bell rings,
And we sigh for dear old England,
And the Captains and the Kings.
I wandered in a nightmare
All around Great Windsor Park,
And what did you think I found there
As I stumbled in the dark?
It was an apple half-bitten,
And sweetest of all things,
Five baby teeth had written
Of the Captains and the Kings.

Amy Lowell: The Letter

Little cramped words scrawling all over the paper
Like draggled fly's legs,
What can you tell of the flaring moon
Through the oak leaves?
Or of my uncertain window and thebare floor
Spattered with moonlight?
Your silly quirks and twists have nothing in them
Of blossoming hawthorns,
And this paper is dull, crisp, smooth, virgin of loveliness
Beneath my hand.

I am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart against
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon.

'Absolute Hell' - Dame Judi Dench - BBC Drama 1991.

Directed by Anthony Page
Writen by Rodney Ackland

Living memories: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's early career set a modern benchmark for precocious literary success. Born in 1954, in 1982 he won the Winifred Holtby award for the best expression of a sense of place, for his debut novel A Pale View of Hills . In 1983, he was included in the seminal Granta best of young British writers list, alongside Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and Pat Barker. Three years later his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, picked up the Whitbread book of the year and in 1989 his third, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker. David Lodge, chair of the judges, praised the depiction of a between-the-wars country-house butler's self-deception as a "cunningly structured and beautifully paced performance", which succeeds in rendering with "humour and pathos a memorable character and explores the large, vexed theme of class, tradition and duty". At 34, Ishiguro's place in the literary firmament was…

John Strevens: A winter afternoon in the Champs Elysées

A winter afternoon in the Champs Elysées, a photo by sofi01 on Flickr.

John Strevens (1902–1990) was a London born British artist who regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the Paris Salon. (Wikipedia)

William Shakespeare: All the world's a stage

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Back, Back, Down the Old Ways of Time: D. H. Lawrence in Italy

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, hot in the grip of the spiritual renovation Italy works on so many visitors, especially artists; “That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don’t know. We know too much. No, we only think we know such a lot.” Lawrence lived on the shores of Lake Garda from September 1912 to April 1913, then again from 1919 to 1922, mostly in Taormina, Sicily, and then a third time in the Florence area, from 1925 to 1929. In Italy he finished Sons and Lovers, started The Rainbow, and wrote Women in Love, Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places, The Lost Girl, Revelation, and a book of poems. In July 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was printed privately in Florence in a first edition of 1,000 copies.

And yet, he hadn’t foreseen it. In early April 1912, Lawrence was teaching at an English private school and sought the advice of…

The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer emigrated to the United States in 1935, which was the year of his first novel Satan in Goray. Since then, he has written more or less exclusively about the Jewish world of pre-war Poland, or more exactly—it’s a relevant qualification—about the Hasidic world of pre-war Poland, into which he was born, the son of a rabbi, in 1904. So not only does he write in Yiddish, but his chosen subject is even further confined in place, and culture, and now to the past. Nevertheless, his work has been lucky with its translators, and he has to be considered among the really great living writers, on several counts.

He’s produced three more novels, that have been translated, and three volumes of short stories. Looking over his novels in their chronological order (the stories are written in and among, but they belong with the novels) the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision. Vision seems to be the right word for what Singer is …

When Flaubert took wing

One evening in 1983, I was having a drink with Kingsley Amis. He made the mistake of asking me what I was working on. I made the mistake of telling him. I made the further mistake of not looking across at him, in order the better to concentrate. My account would have involved words such as "Flaubert" and "parrot" and perhaps, as an indicator of generic category, the phrase "an upside-down sort of novel". As I was nearing the end of my preliminary outline - still with some way to go - I glanced up, and was confronted with an expression poised between belligerent outrage and apoplectic boredom. It was the sort of look pioneered by Evelyn Waugh and now more or less extinct in literary society.

I managed not to let this frank display of doubt affect my subsequent work on the book. This was less because of an adamantine confidence in what I was up to than because I had relatively few expectations. My first two novels had sold 1,000 or so copies in hardback and …