Showing posts from August, 2013

Seamus Heaney - Interview - Seamus Heaney died aged 74.

Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since Yeats, has died aged 74.

Born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, Seamus Heaney was the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After receiving a degree in English from Queen's University in 1961, Heaney worked as a school teacher, then for several years as a freelancer. In 1975, he was appointed to a position in the English department at a college of education in Dublin, where he trained student teachers until 1981. Harvard University invited him for one term in 1979 and soon after, a part-time arrangement was proposed, allowing Heaney to teach the spring semester then return to Ireland and his family. In 1984 he was elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. As well, from 1989 to 1994 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney resigned from the Boylston Chair, but will still be affiliated with Harvard as a v…

Hamlet: A Love Story

Around 1905 or 1906, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay, unpublished in his lifetime, called “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage.” The essay addressed the question of what we, as spectators, get out of watching people go crazy. Freud’s theory was that we’re fascinated by crazy characters because they help us express our own repressed impulses. Drama, of course, can’t express our fantasies too literally; when that happens, we call it pornography and walk out of the theatre. Instead, a good playwright maneuvers our desires into the light using a mixture of titillation and censure, fantasy and irony, obscenity and euphemism, daring and reproach. A good play, Freud wrote, provokes “not merely an enjoyment of the liberation but a resistance to it as well.” That resistance is key. It lets us enjoy our desires without quite admitting that they’re ours. 

“Hamlet,” Freud thought, best exemplified the appeal of managed self-expression. Watching “Hamlet,” we think that it’s about revenge—a familiar,…

The last days of Jean-Paul Sartre

In the third volume of her memoirs, The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she did not perceive death as a physical reality until 1954, when word reached her of Sartre’s having been hospitalized, for unstated reasons, during a trip to the Soviet Union. Something “irrevocable” had happened, she declared. “Death had closed its hand around me; it was no longer a metaphysical scandal, it was a quality of our arteries, it was no longer a sheath of night around us, it was an intimate presence penetrating my life, changing the taste of things, the quality of the light, my memories, the things I wanted to do: everything.” Although the German Occupation and the liberation of Paris had made violence commonplace, her quasi-symbiotic relationship with Sartre conferred upon her—or so this account might suggest—a sense of invulnerability that vanished the moment her intellectual mate began to falter.

Arteries are very much an issue in La cérémonie des adieux,[1] for this short work…

The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia

IN THE GENERAL RARE BOOKS COLLECTION at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.

Captain Ahab, that vengeful seeker puffed with "fatal pride," simply could not have been imagined without Milton's Satan, paragon of seditiousness and the heroic sublime. Both tragic heroes are solipsists and madmen who believe…

On Jonathan Swift's Poetry

Jonathan Swift arrives on our bookshelves in disguise, and for most readers he stays that way. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a book for children, a tale of wonder and adventure, with shipwrecks and talking animals, worthy to stand with Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, which are also children’s books. Generations of teachers and librarians have given Lemuel Gulliver their imprimatur of wholesomeness. Let’s remind them of the scene in Lilliput when the emperor commands Gulliver to stand in a field with his legs wide apart while the emperor’s army rides through the giant’s arch:
His Majesty gave Orders, upon pain of Death, that every Soldier in his March should observe the strictest Decency with regard to my Person; which, however, could not prevent some of the younger Officers from turning up their Eyes as they passed under me. And, to confess the Truth, my Breeches were at that time in so ill a Condition, that they afforded some Opportunities for Laughter and Admiration.That may stand as…

George Orwell: A Life in Letters

George Orwell toiled in poverty for many years, but after writing Animal Farm he had to start turning down invitations. In August 1947 the literary magazine The Strand asked him to write something for its pages and to give an account of his life. A prolific essayist and book critic, Orwell was at the time struggling with what would become his other masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. ("This bloody book," he called it, as illness slowed his progress.) He declined the magazine's invitation in, explaining that he was cutting back on hack work in order to complete his novel. Neither party, of course, could know that Orwell, who would die of tuberculosis in 1950, had only about a month of decent health left in his life.

Curiously, Orwell's reply letter nevertheless contains the requested biographical note. It has just been published for the first time, in George Orwell: A Life in Letters. Orwell mentions his formative experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma, tramping …

The path of least resistance - Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin/Every Man Dies Alone

Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.

Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Fallada was…

From Elfriede Jelinek: A Portrait

When Elfriede Jelinek practiced the piano as a student, the apartment windows stood wide open. It was noisy outside. Every few minutes in the 8th District a streetcar rumbled down the slope of Laudongasse. The building across the street housed a dubious cafe, where men came and went for the purpose of making the acquaintance of ladies via table telephones. An exhaust fan blew smoke and kitchen fumes out into the street, and the odors drifted up to the piano student on the second floor. In the evening, clusters of people moved past her building, laughing and making noise as they headed for the revue theatre at the next intersection. But the windows were not closed—the neighbors in the apartment building and the people on the street were supposed to hear the child making music. Elfriede’s mother wanted it that way, referring to it as “giving a concert.” And so the girl sat inside at the grand piano, hour after hour, playing against the sounds from outside.

Art numbers among the first thi…

Two New Books About "Borges"

Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.

 In his memorable prose piece “Borges and I,” he addresses a deeply felt distinction between himself and “the other one, the one called Borges.” “I like hourglasses,” he writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” He recognizes almost nothing of himself in the eminent liter…

Excerpted from: Pornografia, Witold Gombrowicz

The carriage moved on. Karol sat on the driver’s seat, next to the coachman. She, in the front—and where her little head ended, there he began above her as if placed on an upper story, his back toward us, a slim contour, visible yet featureless—while his shirt billowed in the wind—and the combination of her face with the absence of his face, the complement of her seeing face with his unseeing back struck me with a dark, hot duality. . . . They were not unusually good-looking—neither he nor she—only as much as is appropriate for their age—but they were a beauty in their closed circle, in their mutual desire and rapture—something in which practically no one else had any right to take part. They were unto them-selves—it was strictly between them. And especially because they were so (young). So I was not allowed to watch, I tried not to see it, but, with Fryderyk in front of me and sitting next to her on the small seat, I was again persistently asking myself: Had he seen this? Did he know…

D H Lawrence: A Letter from Germany

We are going back to Paris to-morrow, so this is the last moment to write a letter from Germany. Only from the fringe of Germany, too.

It is a miserable journey from Paris to Nancy, through that Marne country, where the country still seems to have had the soul blasted out of it, though the dreary fields are ploughed and level, and the pale wire trees stand up. But it is all void and null. And in the villages, the smashed houses in the street rows, like rotten teeth between good teeth. You come to Strasbourg, and the people still talk Alsatian German, as ever, in spite of French shop-signs. The place feels dead. And full of cotton goods, white goods, from Mülhausen, from the factories that once were German. Such cheap white cotton goods, in a glut.

The cathedral front rearing up high and flat and fanciful, a sort of darkness in the dark, with round rose windows and long, long prisons of stone. Queer that men should have ever wanted to put stone upon faithful stone to such a height withou…

Among the Immortals - Robert Schumann

What are we to make of Robert Schumann? Living in a century of unbalanced geniuses—Poe, Nietzsche, Maupassant, van Gogh—Schumann ranks as one of the most complex. Airing his bipolar nature publicly in the form of the fictional figures Florestan, the extroverted idealist, and Eusebius, the introverted dreamer, and writing music heavily coded with people and events, Schumann lived his art to such a degree that his anxious personal life and his mercurial compositions became one and the same. Bravely balancing domestic tranquility with inner torment, he wrote works that have become staples of the Western repertoire. At the same time, he composed pieces that continue to produce universal head-scratching. Schumann fought for the cause of good music, but what was truly at stake, it seems, was his own sanity: He eventually threw himself into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt and ended up in a straitjacket in an asylum. Here is a figure troubled enough for the 21st century!

Schumann’s life …

Of Time and the Patriarch - Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

GABRIEL Garcia-Marquez addresses himself, unerringly, to the great subjects of our age. One Hundred Years of Solitude used a town, Macondo, and a family, the Buendias, in which to approach individuals solitary in a stream of time. His new book, The Autumn of the Patriarch, takes a nameless dictator of an unidentified Latin American country and nails down the subject of power. But one subject does not exclude the other. Power here is seen essentially as an attempt to annul time, so that we are again involved in a view of time itself. In this respect, Garcia-Marquez is not unique. He belongs in a distinguished line of technical experimenters in the novel form: Proust, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf. All these writers had rejected the traditional view of time as chronology before Garcia began his own view of those One Hundred Years. His method is not completely new; yet his voice is so distinctly his own, his feats of sleight of hand so sure and so dazzling, that we must recognize him at once …