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Showing posts from April, 2013

The Republic of Dreams

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Schulz says clearly: the unreal is whatever people cannot share with one another. Whatever falls out of that sharing falls beyond the circle of human affairs, beyond the boundaries of the human theater, beyond literature.

The trouble with Bruno Schulz is the following: everybody knows he’s a genius, everybody talks about his tremendous influence, but when push comes to shove it’s all restricted to banalities, as if the measure of a writer’s greatness were to be this community of popular judgments. On the other hand, this comes as no surprise.

Schulz assaults the reader from the very first page and never allows him to rest, never allows him to gather his thoughts. His perfidy lies in the fact that he resists all translation, but encourages us to imitate, to paraphrase and to counterfeit. It’s easier to speak in Schulz’s language than to speak about Schulz. After reading a single paragraph we know at once that it’s Schulz, though we don’t at once know what to say about the paragraph.

The g…

Writers in love with other art forms

In the last summer of his life Norman Mailer felt he had the face he deserved and the solitude he craved. He was living alone in a house in Provincetown not far from the one he’d rented when he came out of the army in 1946, the little cabin where he began writing The Naked and the Dead (1948). In 2007 I went to Cape Cod and spent two days interviewing him for the Writers at Work series in The Paris Review. When I came to the kitchen table on the second morning, he was drawing faces on oyster shells, the faces of Greek gods. I’ve got one beside me now as I write: the face of Zeus traced out on a bumpy shell.

I asked him which of the other art forms he thought being a novelist was closest to. “Acting,” he said.

Why? “Because it’s the same work. A novelist and an actor have to know how to inhabit characters.”

So, which actor do you admire most? “Warren Beatty,” he said. “And not for the obvious reasons.”

The exchange stuck in my head because of what it says about Mailer’s humour and a noveli…

C Day-Lewis and the Fickle Business of Literary Reputation

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The car is coming slowly and cautiously down the steep hill from the Iron Age fort into Musbury on a sunny winter’s morning. The narrow lane is lined with high green hedges which direct the eyes forward to the Axe Valley, spread out before us, and beyond it the blue of the sea. Sean Day-Lewis, retired newspaperman, is at the wheel, pointing out the landmarks of his father’s – and his own - life.

We stop on a bend. Just ahead of us is the house his parents called Brimclose when they bought it in 1938. Soon after his father died, Sean’s mother, Mary, sold up, finally knowing that there was no longer even the remotest chance of her ex-husband coming home to her. The new owners renamed it Woodhayes and have since extended it and painted it sky blue and white, remodelling over the years the garden Mary spent 35 years tending.

The details have changed but the landscape that so inspired Day-Lewis has not. To our right, Sean points out a wooden bench, concreted in position and with a plaqu…

How Muriel Spark rescued Mary Shelley

In 1950 the thirty-two-year-old tyro poet Muriel Spark drew up a proposal for a “Critical Biography” of Mary Shelley. The project was never going to be easy to sell to publishers. Spark was virtually unknown outside the London poetry scene and, in any case, there was little interest in female novelists of the nineteenth century. Mary Shelley was remembered mostly for having run away with Percy Bysshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. Although Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s first novel, had subsequently become familiar through its many theatre and film adaptations, as a piece of literature it was considered a freakish fairy tale written by an eighteen-year-old who scarcely knew what she was doing. As for the novels Mary Shelley went on to write following Percy’s death in 1822, it was probably best to draw a veil.

Nonetheless, Muriel Spark’s determination to rescue Mary Shelley from cultural amnesia and condescension was sufficiently persuasive to win her a commission f…

Rainer Maria Rilke: Silent Hour

Whoever weeps somewhere out in the world
Weeps without cause in the world
Weeps over me.

Whoever laughs somewhere out in the night
Laughs without cause in the night
Laughs at me.

Whoever wanders somewhere in the world
Wanders in vain in the world
Wanders to me.

Whoever dies somewhere in the world
Dies without cause in the world
Looks at me.

D.H. Lawrence as an Enemy of Joyce

You know that I need to go away, away, away: yes, yes, I can’t go on here anymore. You know there are always the angels and the archangels, thrones, powers, cherubims, seraphims--the whole choir there. But here these baptised beasts always make themselves heard, these and nothing else. I’m going away from here. Walking one arrives: if not to the grave, at least a little bit outside this human, too human world. (Letters IV, 185)D.H. Lawrence wrote these words on the second of February 1922, when he was preparing to pack up his home in Sicily, turn his back on Europe, and sail around the world. I think they are a good entry into the question of why Lawrence and Joyce must be counted among the great pairs of literary enemies; for what divides them, finally, is their differing attitudes to “this human, too human world” below, and to “the angels and the archangels” above.

A few notes, first, on how much these adversaries knew about each other’s work. Joyce was certainly prejudiced against L…

G. K. Chesterton: Thomas Carlyle

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There are two main moral necessities for the work of a great man: the first is that he should believe in the truth of his message; the second is that he should believe in the acceptability of his message. It was the whole tragedy of Carlyle that he had the first and not the second. The ordinary capital, however, which is made out of Carlyle's alleged gloom is a very paltry matter. Carlyle had his faults, both as a man and as a writer, but the attempt to explain his gospel in terms of his "liver" is merely pitiful. If indigestion invariably resulted in a "Sartor Resartus," it would be a vastly more tolerable thing than it is. Diseases do not turn into poems; even the decadent really writes with the healthy part of his organism. If Carlyle's private faults and literary virtues ran somewhat in the same line, he is only in the situation of every man; for every one of us it is surely very difficult to say precisely where our honest opinions end and our personal p…

Wisława Szymborska: Moment

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children’s illustration.
The misty sky’s already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there’d never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn’t pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It’s nine-thirty local time.
Everything’s in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

—translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

Scenes of Charlotte Bronte's Life in Brussels

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We had "done" Brussels after the approved fashion,—had faithfully visited the churches, palaces, museums, theatres, galleries, monuments, and boulevards, had duly admired the beautiful windows and the exquisite wood-carvings of the grand old cathedral of St. Gudule, the tower and tapestry and frescos and façade of the magnificent Hôtel-de-Ville, the stately halls and the gilded dome of the immense new Courts of Justice, and the consummate beauty of the Bourse, had diligently sought out the naïve boy-fountain, and had made the usual excursion to Waterloo.

This delightful task being conscientiously discharged, we proposed to devote our last day in the beautiful Belgian capital to the accomplishment of one of the cherished projects of our lives,—the searching out of the localities associated with Charlotte Bronté's unhappy school-life here, which she has so graphically portrayed. For our purpose no guide was available, or needful, for the topography and local coloring of &qu…

Lord Byron: Euthanasia

When Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o'er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevelled hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a tear.

Yet Love, if Love in such an hour
Could nobly check its useless sighs,
Might then exert its latest power
In her who lives, and him who dies.

'Twere sweet, my Psyche! to the last
Thy features still serene to see:
Forgetful of its struggles past,
E'en Pain itself should smile on thee.

But vain the wish?for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And women's tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.

Then lonely be my latest hour,
Without regret, without a groan;
For thousands Death hath ceas'd to lower,
And pain been transien…

Poet of Loss

Oh, for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy.

So wrote the author of “Sleep and Poetry,” composed in late 1816. Alas, John Keats was allowed only half that time, dying at the age of 25 in 1821.

Is there any more affecting story than his in the annals of English literature? Orphaned at a young age, barely five feet tall (and sensitive about it), and raggedly educated, Keats was nonetheless naturally gregarious and fond of “women, wine, and snuff.” A Londoner through and through, he loved the theater, enjoyed watching boxing matches, and once spent an evening cutting cards for half guineas. This sometimes overidealized poet—so sensitive! so ethereal!—even seems to have been treated for a venereal disease, possibly syphilis. He fell in love at least twice before he met Fanny Brawne, to whom he became engaged. When they were apart or quarrelling, he suffered horribly from jealousy.

For a couple of years, the young Keats was also absorbed with medical studies and nearly became …

Resistance, Rebellion, and Writing

“People expect too much of writers,” Albert Camus lamented in the late 1950s. At the time Camus was writing, the Algerian rebellion had grown into a full-scale guerrilla war for independence, and while his initial sympathy for the uprising led the French Right and the French Algerian settlers to denounce him as a traitor, he also came in for frequent polemical attacks from the French Left for not energetically and unequivocally supporting the insurgents. Criticism also came from the Algerian militants themselves. Frantz Fanon, the best-known Algerian writer, derided him as a “sweet sister.” Sartre, formerly his close friend, mocked Camus’s “beautiful soul.”

Camus’s complaint does him credit. He agonized over his political pronouncements in a way that the more brilliant, mercurial, doctrinaire Sartre never had to. In 1957, as the war ground on and positions hardened on both sides, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despairing of the Algerian situation but determined to an…

Three Presences

On April 2nd, 1916, one of Yeats’s plays for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, received its first performance in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, London before an invited audience. Michio Ito danced the guardian of the well. The guests included Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. For all I know, this may have been the only afternoon on which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were together in the same room. Many years later, Samuel Beckett wrote a play, like At the Hawk’s Well, about waiting; waiting for someone who is supposed to arrive but doesn’t, a variant of waiting for a transforming flow of water which is never received because the guardian of the well distracts those who are longing for it. In Happy Days, Winnie utters the first line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind”, one of many literary allusions that she recalls – or rather, that Beckett recalls on her behalf. I draw a loose connection between these occasions to suggest a literary context for the relations …

Denis Diderot: On Genius

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In men of genius: poets, philosophers, painters, orators, musicians, there is some particular, secret, indefinable quality of the soul without which they can execute nothing great or beautiful. Is it imagination? No. I’ve seen good and strong imaginations that promised much but that came to nothing, or very little. Is it judgment? No. There is nothing more common than men of great judgment whose productions are flabby, soft, and cold. Is it wit? No. Wit says pretty things but only does small ones. Is it warmth, vivacity, impetuosity? No. Warm people do much and produce nothing of worth. Is it sensibility? No. I’ve seen some whose souls were quickly and profoundly touched, who can’t hear an elevated tale without being lifted out of themselves, transported, drunk, mad: it’s a pathetic trait and, without shedding tears, they stammer like children when they speak or when they write. Is it taste? No. Taste effaces defects more than it produces beauty: it’s a gift that we more or less acqui…

Michel de Montaigne: Of Age

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I cannot allow of the way in which we settle for ourselves the duration of our life. I see that the sages contract it very much in comparison of the common opinion: "What," said the younger Cato to those who would stay his hand from killing himself, "am I now of an age to be reproached that I go out of the world too soon?" And yet he was but eight-and-forty years old. He thought that to be a mature and advanced age, considering how few arrive unto it. And such as, soothing their thoughts with I know not what course of nature, promise to themselves some years beyond it, could they be privileged from the infinite number of accidents to which we are by a natural subjection exposed, they might have some reason so to do. What an idle conceit is it to expect to die of a decay of strength, which is the effect of extremest age, and to propose to ourselves no shorter lease of life than that, considering it is a kind of death of all others the most rare and very seldom seen?…

Aldous Huxley: Culture and the Individual

BETWEEN CULTURE and the individual the relationship is, and always has been, strangely ambivalent. We are at once the beneficiaries of our culture and its victims. Without culture, and without that precondition of all culture, language, man would be no more than another species of baboon. It is to language and culture that we owe our humanity. And "What a piece of work is a man!" says Hamlet: "How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! ... in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!" But, alas, in the intervals of being noble, rational and potentially infinite,
man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he is most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.    Genius and angry ape, player of fantastic tricks and godlike reasoner—in all these roles individuals are the products of a language and a culture. Working on the twelve or thirteen bill…