Thursday, 31 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 several booms and busts in the subject and for many years I didn't write 'fashionable' history just because I wrote biography," she explains. "But I was never tempted to change tack. I believe in the wheel of fortune, which was a 15th-century concept that Catherine of Aragon also believed in. Put crudely in modern terms, what goes up must come down and vice versa."

It is now nearly 50 years since Fraser, who is 70 next Tuesday, published her first history book, a retelling of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Amanda Foreman, whose 1998 life Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire established her in the front rank of a group of talented younger historians, says that the current crop of history superstars owe Fraser a debt of gratitude. "She deserves a place in the history of history because she kept the flame of narrative history alive when everyone else was trying to blow it out. At one point she seemed dated, but now narrative is firmly back in fashion and she has outlasted her critics."

Peter Furtado, editor of History Today, adds that, "over the years, Fraser has also done a terrific job of promoting history. Nowadays you might not think that history needs promoting, but until four or five years ago that wasn't the case at all and for a long time she was very good at being a figurehead."

Bob Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker, was Fraser's editor in America. He stresses the international reach of her reputation. "Starting with Mary Queen of Scots she has been very big news in America," he says. "She is critically well considered and well situated in the literary world. She knows everybody and is as well known in America as she is in England, which is something you can't say about too many writers."

The scale of her success has meant that Fraser's work has not gone unchallenged. As someone who has always operated outside the academy, she has suffered a certain amount of sniping from within it. Typical is a review of her 1986 book, The Gunpowder Plot, that grudgingly acknowledged a "compulsive quality" in her books and "an ultimate integrity, that make them fitfully compelling", but went on to complain, "while she spasmodically illuminates the subjects of her early modern biographies, she has yet to illuminate the age."

Foreman counters by saying that "Fraser brings a completely sure hand to everything she writes. A lot of historians have flair and panache but in the end it turns out that it wasn't 1810 it was 1812, and it wasn't the 5th tank brigade but the 11th. You never have that with Antonia Fraser. When she says Marie Antoinette wore green you know that she wore green." The biographer Michael Holroyd says Fraser typifies "the amateur tradition in the best sense. She was attacked by the distinguished Cambridge academic, and uncle of Ben, Sir Geoffrey Elton. He resented biography because it concentrated too much on the individual and he didn't like the idea of a non-professional trespassing on his patch. But when he tried to attack her, her scholarship was always good enough to withstand it. And in reality a lot of non-fiction written by outsiders actually revives genres, giving them life and vividness."

The vividness of her own life - lived out mostly at the junction where the political, social and intellectual establishments meet - has been a source of much fascination. From an aristocratic English background she was plucked, as a glamorous young writer, to be a regular on television book programmes; as a political and social activist she has promoted a series of progressive campaigns; as a socialite she was cast as a femme fatale with her 1970s affair with Harold Pinter, whom she married in 1980, precipitating a tabloid frenzy.

As one observer put it, "she has managed to live an 18th-century life in the 20th century, and she's done it without becoming an anachronism." Foreman describes her as "gracious and statuesque, but she is one of those women where there is a lot going on behind those eyes. She really has lived a life. I'm fascinated by people who are absolutely multi-layered. And she is definitely one of those."

Antonia Pakenham - pronounced Packenham not Paikenham - was born in London in 1932, the first of eight children of Frank Pakenham, later Lord Longford, and Elizabeth Harman, who as Elizabeth Longford went on to write several acclaimed historical biographies herself. Two of Antonia's siblings, Rachel Billington and Thomas Pakenham, are also distinguished authors, Anthony and Lady Violet Powell were her aunt and uncle and three of Antonia's own daughters are published writers. Bob Gottlieb, at one time editor to Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser and her daughter Flora, says, "I was sort of their court editor, and it is astonishing how many of that family write. More so how good they all are.

More here.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

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'autrefois (1908) [Some Musicians of Former Days] and Musiciens d'aujourd'hui (1908) [Musicians of Today]. They reveal him as a critic of great judgment, both fair and bold, without prejudices or allegiance to any one party, and as one always striving to reach through music the very sources of life. His biographies of Beethoven (1903) and Händel (1910), inspired as well as learned, are proof of his understanding of music. Besides these, he has written equally remarkable biographies of François Millet (1902), Michelangelo (1905-06), and Tolstoi (1911), in which he has stressed the heroic character of the lives and talents of these artists.

Rolland made his debut in pure literature in 1897 with a play in five acts, Saint-Louis, which he published together with Aërt (1898) and Le Triomphe de la raison (1899), under the common title Les Tragédies de la foi (1909) [Tragedies of Faith]. In these plays he sought to set forth, under the mask of historial events, the miseries that souls faithful to their ideals meet in their struggle with the world. He also wrote Théâtre de la révolution (1909), which includes Le 14 Juillet (1902), Danton (1900), Les Loups (1898) [The Wolves], and a pacifist drama about the war in the Transvaal, Le Temps viendra (1903) [The Time Will Come]. The plays about the Revolution were conceived during a period when Rolland dreamed of a dramatic reform. He wanted to create a new theatre, to free the art from the domination of a selfish clique, and to entrust it to the people. He had previously outlined his ideas in an essay called Le Théâtre du peuple (1900-03) [The People's Theatre]. He tried to make his own contribution to this new popular drama by describing the principal episodes of the French Revolution and by representing in a dramatic cycle the Iliad of the French nation. These dramas, which seek moral truth at the sacrifice of anecdotal color, reveal historical intuition, and their characters are fully alive. They are very interesting to read and deserve to be staged.

From 1904 to 1912 Rolland published his great novel Jean-Christophe, which is composed of a series of independent narratives: L'Aube, Le Matin, L'Adolescent, La Révolte, La Foire sur la place, Antoinette, Dans la maison, Les Amies, Le Buisson ardent, and La Nouvelle Journée [Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt, The Market Place, Antoinette, The House, Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn]. In 1910 he resigned from his duties at the University; since then he has devoted himself entirely to writing, living most of the time in Rome and Switzerland. During the war, he wrote a series of articles in Swiss newspapers; these were subsequently published in a volume called Au-dessus de la mêlée (1915) [Above the Battle]. In this, he maintains that the future of mankind is superior to the interests of nations. War for him is barbarous violence, and over the bloody struggles of nations which seek power he turns our eyes toward the cause of humanity. Rolland's recent works are a novel, Colas Breugnon (1918), a dramatic fantasy, Liluli (1919), and a study of Empedocles (1917).

Romain Rolland's masterpiece, for which he has received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1915, is Jean-Christophe. This powerful work describes the development of a character in whom we can recognize ourselves. It shows how an artistic temperament, by raising itself step by step, emerges like a genius above the level of humanity; how a powerful nature which has the noblest and most urgent desire for truth, moral health, and artistic purity, with an exuberant love of life, is forced to overcome obstacles that rise up ceaselessly before it; how it attains victory and independence; and how this character and this intelligence are significant enough to concentrate in themselves a complete image of the world. This book does not aim solely at describing the life of the principal hero and his environment. It seeks also to describe the causes of the tragedy of a whole generation; it gives a sweeping picture of the secret labour that goes on in the hidden depths and by which nations, little by little, are enlightened; it covers all the domains of life and art; it contains everything essential that has been discussed or attempted in the intellectual world during the last decades; it achieves a new musical aesthetic; it contains sociological, political and ethnological, biological, literary, and artistic discussions and judgments, often of the highest interest. The artistic personality which is revealed in Jean-Christophe is one of rare resoluteness and strong moral structure. In this work Rolland has not simply followed a literary impulse; he does not write to please or to delight. He has been compelled to write by his thirst for truth, his need for morality, and his love of humanity. For him the purpose of the aesthetic life consists not merely in the creation of beauty; it is an act of humanism. Jean-Christophe is a profession of faith and an example; it is a combination of thought and poetry, of reality and symbol, of life and dream, which attracts us, excites us, reveals us to ourselves, and possesses a liberating power because it is the expression of a great moral force.

More here.

Monday, 28 January 2013

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 in my letter the similarities between his early life and mine. We both came from Jewish families, grew up in New York, had a father in the coat business, were adored by our mothers (who slept late while the maid served breakfast), were taught by Irish spinsters in public schools, rebelled against piano lessons and Hebrew school, and graduated from the University of Michigan.

Not surprisingly, Miller didn't want to be distracted from his current work by contemplating the shape and pattern of his entire life. He did not want a sleuth to comb through his private papers for unwelcome revelations. Nor did he want to give away material and ideas he still might use in his own writing. But he replied courteously and, as I learned to expect, modestly: "I would be loath to begin a project such as you suggest for several reasons. I am really writing more now than ever in my life and I don't want to interrupt. I've never kept anything like an orderly file of all my correspondence, most of which, in any case, is hardly worth reading. And finally, I guess, I don't think I'm all that fascinating"—though he was about to write his own autobiography.

This last remark might seem disingenuous. Miller's life, lived at the center of American cultural history, had been a starring role, not a walk-on part. But he was making a distinction between the complex external events and his straightforward inner character. As an enormously successful playwright he must have had extraordinary ambition and drive, been innovative, even rebellious. He must have made personal sacrifices and taken infinite pains. Did he, in fact, retain the human sympathy and self-respect that had sparked his imagination and informed his greatest work? Was there a modest man, an ego under control, inside his creative personality? If so, he must be quite different, I thought, from the selfish, driven, often tragic artist that lies at the heart of most literary biographies. This distinction made him all the more interesting to me. My letter began our relationship. He asked me to send him my book on Mansfield and read it attentively. "Though I usually distrust biographies," he wrote, "to the point of avoiding them whenever possible, yours I believe. . . . She is one of those tragic persons launched on a short trajectory, the self-consuming rocket." He invited me to visit him in Connecticut, and in June 1981 I made the first of nine visits, extending over the next 17 years.

Arthur had bought this rustic house in 1956, a retreat from Manhattan and the theater, but close enough to New York to keep an eye on the city. Down a country lane, surrounded by 40 acres of woods and meadows, it was set on a rise above a swimming pond. He came out to meet us, six feet tall, as straight-backed as a soldier, his white hair crowning his tanned bald head and his Jeffersonian face, familiar from many press photographs. He was as unpretentious as his house, a comfortable place with oriental rugs on the floor, colorful sofas, books overflowing the bookcases and scattered around the rooms. He had a carpentry workshop and separate studios for himself and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath. As we walked through the grounds he pointed out the plants and vegetables in their garden, and moths laying eggs in the grass.

Arthur was a powerful physical presence. I was aware of his large capable hands, his denim workshirt, his shorts and muscular legs, his bare feet in moccasins. He mowed the huge lawn himself, replaced the cement on the patio and made his own furniture. He was proud of his new custom-built Finnish woodstove, made of soapstone; and had been using the left-over material to carve building blocks and had assembled them to look like miniature stage sets and a modern city filled with skyscrapers. He cut a lot of wood and for him trees had distinctive characters: he showed me his "wolf-tree," which dominated and devoured all the other trees around it. It had seeds that flourished only if they drifted far away.

Though he tried to "hide out" in Connecticut, many people came to see him, and he had some illustrious neighbors: Alexander Calder, Richard Widmark, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Roth, and William Styron (on whose court Arthur played tennis). Norman Mailer had once lived nearby. In this quiet, seemingly remote place he seemed more a countryman than a sophisticated New Yorker.(In 1984, when Arthur was in China, a fire from a defective oil burner destroyed the main house, along with his books and personal possessions. Fortunately , his studio was unharmed and his papers were safe. His insurance was excellent and, though it took six months to restore everything, the new house was much better than the old one. He called it "one of the best fires I ever had.") He probably earns more money from books and plays than any other serious writer. His plays, produced all over the world, are staged more frequently than those of any other dramatist save Shakespeare.(Though his agents, he told me, were lucky to collect half of what was owed in Asia and Africa, in Europe and South America he did well. He sometimes has five plays on in England in one year.) He had a new Mercedes and a Rabbit convertible in the garage, and we talked about driving into Manhattan. He was pleased to have found a cheap place to park, but liked it even more when he was chauffeured into town for a premiere and could sleep on the way back. He had one of the new wireless phones, run off a battery, which he carried around while he did the chores, and was delighted by the convenience when it rang and actually worked.

Rich he must be, but he didn't act rich, didn't seem in the least acquisitive or flashy. Fame, too, had a price. Ruefully, he told me his nice-guy reputation inspired ten to 20 letters a week from strangers, asking for, even demanding, large sums of money for all lands of needs—school tuition and medical expenses. Though his face is not so famous that he stands out in the crowd, he had recently been stopped in the street in New York by a man who recognized him and insisted that Arthur help him publicize a new theory about light refraction. The light in the man's own pale gray eyes was disquieting, and Arthur had gotten rid of him with difficulty.

The table was set for lunch out in the sunshine, and as we sat down Inge appeared, in a hurry to drive across the countryside to New Haven. She was taking a course in Chinese at Yale in preparation for their long trip—she to take photographs, he to direct Death of a Salesman in Beijing. Thin, birdlike, and dynamic, Inge welcomed us warmly, said goodbye to "Arr-toor" and departed in a cloud of energy. We had smoked salmon, a rich salad and home-made rye bread. Arthur's Austrian mother-in-law, round, placid, and charming, had baked a superb strudel.

Sitting across the table, Arthur looked strong and handsome. He'd injured his knee in a youthful football game and been rejected by the Army in World War II. Recently, he'd fallen off a ladder and broken his ankle.(With it still in a cast he'd sailed up the Nile in Sadruddin Khan's yacht to see the Pharaonic monuments.) Just before a trip to South America a tear in his retina almost blinded him. During a seven-hour emergency operation, performed the next day, the surgeon took the eyeball out of the socket and fastened a "buckle" around it to keep the tear from spreading. Though Arthur continued to be bothered by mist in his distant vision and had to rest his eyes in the afternoon, the operation saved his sight and gave him 20/20 vision with glasses. Apart from his ankle and his eyes, he was in remarkably good shape for a man of 66.

More here.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

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 beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers. That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally believed.

I shall cite but one example: the great virtues of the German peoples have begotten more evils, than idleness ever bred vices. With our own eyes, we have seen conscientious labor, the most solid learning, the most serious discipline and application adapted to appalling ends.

So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues. Doubtless, much science was needed to kill so many, to waste so much property, annihilate so many cities in so short a time; but moral qualities in like number were also needed. Are Knowledge and Duty, then, suspect?

So the Persepolis of the spirit is no less ravaged than the Susa of material fact. Everything has not been lost, but everything has sensed that it might perish.

An extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe. She felt in every nucleus of her mind that she was no longer the same, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness, a consciousness acquired through centuries of bearable calamities, by thousands of men of the first rank, from innumerable geographical, ethnic, and historical coincidences.

So -- as though in desperate defense of her own physiological being and resources -- all her memory confusedly returned. Her great men and her great books came back pell-mell. Never has so much been read, nor with such passion, as during the war: ask the booksellers. . . . Never have people prayed so much and so deeply: ask the priests. All the saviors, founders, protectors, martyrs, heroes, all the fathers of their country, the sacred heroines, the national poets were invoked. . . .

Paul Valery's "The Crisis of the Mind" (1919)

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!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

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's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Virginia Woolf: The Novels of Thomas Hardy

thomas hardy 2

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 feel respect and affection for the man. But it is of the work that we must speak, of the novels that were written so long ago that they seem as detached from the fiction of the moment as Hardy himself was remote from the stir of the present and its littleness.

We have to go back more than a generation if we are to trace the career of Hardy as a novelist. In the year 1871 he was a man of thirty-one; he had written a novel, Desperate Remedies, but he was by no means an assured craftsman. He “was feeling his way to a method”, he said himself; as if he were conscious that he possessed all sorts of gifts, yet did not know their nature, or how to use them to advantage. To read that first novel is to share in the perplexity of its author. The imagination of the writer is powerful and sardonic; he is book-learned in a home-made way; he can create characters but he cannot control them; he is obviously hampered by the difficulties of his technique and, what is more singular, he is driven by some sense that human beings are the sport of forces outside themselves, to make use of an extreme and even melodramatic use of coincidence. He is already possessed of the conviction that a novel is not a toy, nor an argument; it is a means of giving truthful if harsh and violent impressions of the lives of men and women. But perhaps the most remarkable quality in the book is the sound of a waterfall that echoes and booms through its pages. It is the first manifestation of the power that was to assume such vast proportions in the later books. He already proves himself a minute and skilled observer of Nature; the rain, he knows, falls differently as it falls upon roots or arable; he knows that the wind sounds differently as it passes through the branches of different trees. But he is aware in a larger sense of Nature as a force; he feels in it a spirit that can sympathize or mock or remain the indifferent spectator of human fortunes. Already that sense was his; and the crude story of Miss Aldclyffe and Cytherea is memorable because it is watched by the eyes of the gods, and worked out in the presence of Nature.

That he was a poet should have been obvious; that he was a novelist might still have been held uncertain. But the year after, when Under the Greenwood Tree appeared, it was clear that much of the effort of “feeling for a method” had been overcome. Something of the stubborn originality of the earlier book was lost. The second is accomplished, charming, idyllic compared with the first. The writer, it seems, may well develop into one of our English landscape painters, whose pictures are all of cottage gardens and old peasant women, who lingers to collect and preserve from oblivion the old-fashioned ways and words which are rapidly falling into disuse. And yet what kindly lover of antiquity, what naturalist with a microscope in his pocket, what scholar solicitous for the changing shapes of language, ever heard the cry of a small bird killed in the next wood by an owl with such intensity? The cry “passed into the silence without mingling with it”. Again we hear, very far away, like the sound of a gun out at sea on a calm summer’s morning, a strange and ominous echo. But as we read these early books there is a sense of waste. There is a feeling that Hardy’s genius was obstinate and perverse; first one gift would have its way with him and then another. They would not consent to run together easily in harness. Such indeed was likely to be the fate of a writer who was at once poet and realist, a faithful son of field and down, yet tormented by the doubts and despondencies bred of book-learning; a lover of old ways and plain countrymen, yet doomed to see the faith and flesh of his forefathers turn to thin and spectral transparencies before his eyes.

To this contradiction Nature had added another element likely to disorder a symmetrical development. Some writers are born conscious of everything; others are unconscious of many things. Some, like Henry James and Flaubert, are able not merely to make the best use of the spoil their gifts bring in, but control their genius in the act of creation; they are aware of all the possibilities of every situation, and are never taken by surprise. The unconscious writers, on the other hand, like Dickens and Scott, seem suddenly and without their own consent to be lifted up and swept onwards. The wave sinks and they cannot say what has happened or why. Among them — it is the source of his strength and of his weakness — we must place Hardy. His own word, “moments of vision”, exactly describes those passages of astonishing beauty and force which are to be found in every book that he wrote. With a sudden quickening of power which we cannot foretell, nor he, it seems, control, a single scene breaks off from the rest. We see, as if it existed alone and for all time, the wagon with Fanny’s dead body inside travelling along the road under the dripping trees; we see the bloated sheep struggling among the clover; we see Troy flashing his sword round Bathsheba where she stands motionless, cutting the lock off her head and spitting the caterpillar on her breast. Vivid to the eye, but not to the eye alone, for every sense participates, such scenes dawn upon us and their splendour remains. But the power goes as it comes. The moment of vision is succeeded by long stretches of plain daylight, nor can we believe that any craft or skill could have caught the wild power and turned it to a better use. The novels therefore are full of inequalities; they are lumpish and dull and inexpressive; but they are never arid; there is always about them a little blur of unconsciousness, that halo of freshness and margin of the unexpressed which often produce the most profound sense of satisfaction. It is as if Hardy himself were not quite aware of what he did, as if his consciousness held more than he could produce, and he left it for his readers to make out his full meaning and to supplement it from their own experience. ...

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

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 conventions.

To a writer's mind it was a museum world, delicately laid out on exhibition and impeccable in its sanctuary. To Edith Wharton that society gave a culture compounded equally of purity and snobbery. If no one soared above the conventions, only bounders sought to degrade them. Its gentility boasted no eagles of the spirit and suffered no fanatics. The young Edith Newbold Jones accepted it from the first, and admired its chivalry to the end. Its kindliness, its precision of taste, its amenability, were stamped on her. She was educated to a world where leisure ruled and good conversation was considered fundamental. Even in New York, a city already committed to a commercial destiny, ladies and gentlemen of the ancien regime gathered for elaborate luncheon parties. "Never talk about money," her mother taught her, "and think about it as little as possible." The acquisition of wealth had ceased to interest her class. They looked down not in fear, but with an amusement touched by repulsion, upon the bustling new world of frontiersmen who were grabbing the West, building its railroads, and bellowing down the stock exchange. The revolution in Edith Wharton's world, characteristically a revolution of manners, came when the vulgarians of the new capitalism moved in upon Fifth Avenue. For to the aristocracy of New York, still occupying the seats of splendor in the 'sixties and 'seventies, the quiet and shaded region just above Washington Square was the citadel of power. There one lived soundlessly and in impeccable taste, the years filtering through a thousand ceremonial dinners, whispering conspiracies, and mandarin gossip. One visited in one's circle; one left one's card; one read the works of Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Irving, Mr. Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Even as an old woman Edith Wharton was to fill her autobiography with the fondled memory of the great dishes eaten in her childhood, the exquisite tattle, the elaborate service, the births and marriages and deaths of slim , patrician uncles and aunts and cousins bestriding time.

It was the way of a people, as its not too rebellious daughter described it in "The Age of Innocence," "who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than 'scenes,' except the behavior of those who gave rise to them." There were standards: the word "standard," she confessed later, gave her the clue her writer's mind needed to the world in which she was bred. Bad manners were the supreme offense; it would have been bad manners to speak bad English, to nag servants. Edith Wharton's first literary effort, the work of her eleventh year, was a novel which began: " 'Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?' said Mrs. Tompkins. 'If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.'" Her mother returned it coldly, saying, "Drawing-rooms are always tidy."

Edith Wharton became a writer not because she revolted against her native society, but because she was bored with it; and that restlessness of the spirit was a primary achievement in such a world as hers. Whatever its graciousness, its ancien regime sense of the past, and its mildewed chivalry, the gentility which a colonial culture must always impose with exaggerated fervor and weight excluded women from every function save the cultivation of the home. Its distrust of the creative intelligence was as profound and significant as its devotion to the appurtenances of culture and the domestic elevation of library-sets and vellum manuscripts. It worshiped literature as it worshiped ancestors, for the politeness of society; and if it distrusted the passions of literature, this was not because its taste was conscious and superior. It had not even that generous contempt for literature so marked in the boorish patronage of the arts by the industrial tycoons of the Gilded Age; it rejected what it could not understand because the creative Sim affronted its chill, thin soul. It had already become a lifeless class, rigidly and bitterly conservative, filling its days with the desire to keep hold, to sit tight, to say nothing bold, to keep away from innovation and scandal and restless minds. There was no air in it, nothing to elevate an intellectual spirit; even its pleasures had become entirely ceremonial. To judge it in the light of the new world of industrial capitalism was to discriminate against it, for it offered no possibilities of growth.

By becoming a writer Edith Wharton did discriminate against it; but in the effort she liberated only her judgment, never her desire. She became a writer because she wanted to live; it was her liberation. But what it was she wanted to live for as a writer, she did not know. Unlike her master, Henry James, she did not begin with the conviction of a rattier, the sense of craftsmanship and art; she did not even begin with that artist's curiosity which mediates between cultures, that passionate interest in ideas and the world's experience which stimulates and nourishes the energy of art. She asked only to be a Writer, to adopt a career and enjoy a freedom; she offered nothing in exchange.

Even Edith Wharton's marriage, which might in other circumstances have liberated and matured her, tightened the shackles. Her husband, as she confessed with remarkable candor in her autobiography—and the intensity and poig-nance of that confession was itself significant in so formal and essentially trivial a record—was a conventional banker and sportsman of her own class, without the slightest interest in ideas and humiliatingly indifferent to her aspirations. Her greatest desire in youth had been to meet writers, not some particular master, but Writers; her marriage threw her into a life of impossible frivolity and dullness. It was a period in the middle 'eighties when the younger generation of American aristocracy challenged the vulgar nouveaux riches by emulating its pleasures, but soon came to admire them; the aspirant young novelist who had been married off at twenty-three in peremptory aristocratic fashion now found herself dreaming of literary conquests amidst a distracting and exasperating round of luncheons, parties, yachting trips, and ballroom dinners. "The people around me were so indifferent to everything I really cared for," she wrote in later life, "that complying with the tastes of others had become a habit, and it was only some years later, when I had written several books, that I finally rebelled, and pleaded for the right to something better." In her earliest years her family had discouraged her; her husband and his friends now ridiculed her. They never spoke to her of her work save to disparage it; and the young society woman had now to endure the crowning humiliation of pursuing even spasmodically a career which her immediate circle thought disgraceful and ridiculous. Then her husband became ill, and remained so for a good many years. It was not a pleasant illness, and it diverted her from literature. Significantly enough, it was not until she was able to arrange for his care by others that she moved to Paris—her true home, as she always thought of it —where she lived until her death.

More here

Monday, 21 January 2013

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 won the Booker Prize for that year, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985),The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), and The Message to the Planet (1989).

Murdoch married John Bayley, an Oxford don, in 1956, and for many years lived in Steeple Aston, a village near Oxfordshire. In 1963 she was named Honorary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, and for the next four years was a part-time lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London. She moved from Steeple Aston to Oxford in 1986. Though best known as a novelist, she has also published literary criticism, including the influential essay, “Against Dryness” (1961); a volume of poetry, A Year of Birds (1978); three dramatic adaptations (two of which were collaborations) of her novels, as well as two original plays; and an additional three books of philosophy: The Sovereignty of the Good(1970), The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) and Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1986).

Iris Murdoch has received many honors. In addition to the Booker Prize, she has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince and the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was named a companion of the British Empire in 1976 and a dame of the British Empire in 1987.

Murdoch and her husband live in a house in academic north Oxford. In its comfortably untidy rooms books overflow the shelves and are piled high on the floor. Even the bathroom is filled with volumes on language, including Dutch and Esperanto grammar books. Her paper-strewn second-floor study is decorated with oriental rugs and with paintings of horses and children. The first-floor sitting room, which leads out to the garden, has a well-stocked bar. There are paintings and tapestries of flowers, art books and records, pottery and old bottles, and embroidered cushions on the deep sofa.

Additional questions were proposed to Murdoch by James Atlas in front of an audience at the YMHA in New York last spring.

Do you think you could say something about your family?

My father went through the first war in the cavalry; it now seems extraordinary to think there was cavalry in World War I. This no doubt saved his life, because, of course, the horses were behind the lines, and in that sense he had a safer war. My parents met at that time. My father’s regiment was based at the Curragh near Dublin and my father was on leave. On his way to church he met my mother, who was going to the same church on the same tram. She sang in the choir. My mother had a very beautiful soprano voice; she was training to be an opera singer and could have been very good indeed, but she gave up her ambitions when she married. She continued singing all her life in an amateur way, but she never realized the potential of that great voice. She was a beautiful, lively, witty woman, with a happy temperament. My parents were very happy together. They loved each other dearly; they loved me and I loved them, so it was a most felicitous trinity.

When did you know you wanted to write?

I knew very early on that I wanted to be a writer. I mean, when I was a child I knew that. Obviously, the war disturbed all one’s feelings of the future very profoundly. When I finished my undergraduate career I was immediately conscripted because everyone was. Under ordinary circumstances, I would very much have wanted to stay on at Oxford, study for a Ph.D., and try to become a don. I was very anxious to go on learning. But one had to sacrifice one’s wishes to the war. I went into the civil service, into the Treasury where I spent a couple of years. Then after the war I went into UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, and worked with refugees in different parts of Europe.

You were a member of the Communist Party, weren’t you?

I was a member of the Communist Party for a short time when I was a student, about 1939. I went in, as a lot of people did, out of a sense which arose during the Spanish civil war that Europe was dangerously divided between left and right and we were jolly well going to be on the left. We had passionate feelings about social justice. We believed that socialism could, and fairly rapidly, produce just and good societies, without poverty and without strife. I lost those optimistic illusions fairly soon. So I left it. But it was just as well, in a way, to have seen the inside of Marxism because then one realizes how strong and how awful it is, certainly in its organized form. My association with it had its repercussions. Once I was offered a scholarship to come to Vassar. I was longing to go to America—such an adventure after being cooped up in England after the war. One did want to travel and see the world. I was prevented by the McCarren Act, and not given a visa. I may say there was a certain amount of to-do about this. Bertrand Russell got involved and Justice Felix Frankfurter, trying to say how ridiculous this was. But the McCarren Act is made of iron. It’s still here; I have to ask for a waiver if I want to come to the United States. ...

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 express itself finally in the ventilation of problems that hinge about criticism. There is a general feeling that the growth of the young plant has been too luxuriant; a desire to have it vigorously pruned by a capable gardener, in order that its strength may be gathered together to produce a more perfect fruit. There is also a sense that if the lusus naturæ, the writer of genius, were to appear, there ought to be a person or an organisation capable of recognising him, however unexpected his scent or the shape of his leaves. Both these tasks fall upon criticism. The younger generation looks round a little apprehensively to see if there is a gardener whom it can trust, and decides, perhaps a little prematurely, that there is none.

There is reviewing but no criticism, says one icy voice that we have learned to respect. There are pontiffs and potential pontiffs, but no critics, says another disrespectful young man. Oh, for some more Scotch Reviewers to settle the hash of our English bards, sighs a third. And the London Mercury, after whetting our appetite by announcing that it proposed to restore the standards of authoritative criticism, still leaves us a little in the dark as to what these standards are. Mr T.S. Eliot deals more kindly, if more frigidly, with us in the Monthly Chapbook. There are, he says, three kinds of criticism—the historical, the philosophic, and the purely literary.

'Every form of genuine criticism is directed towards creation. The historical or philosophic critic of poetry is criticising poetry in order to create a history or a philosophy; the poetic critic is criticising poetry in order to create poetry.'

These separate and distinct kinds, he considers, are but rarely found to-day, even in a fragmentary form; where they do exist, they are almost invariably mingled in an inextricable confusion.

Whether we agree or not with the general condemnation of reviewing implicit in this survey of the situation, or with the division of criticism itself, we have every reason to be grateful to Mr Eliot for disentangling the problem for us. The question of criticism has become rather like Glaucus the sea-god, encrusted with shells and hung with weed till his lineaments are hardly discernible. We have at least clear sight of him now, and we are able to decide whether we will accept Mr Eliot's description of him. Let us see.

We have no difficulty in agreeing that historical criticism of literature is a kind apart. The historical critic approaches literature as the manifestation of an evolutionary process in which all the phases are of equal value. Essentially, he has no concern with the greater or less literary excellence of the objects whose history he traces—their existence is alone sufficient for him; a bad book is as important as a good one, and much more important than a good one if it exercised, as bad books have a way of doing, a real influence on the course of literature. In practice, it is true, the historical critic generally fails of this ideal of unimpassioned objectivity. He either begins by making judgments of value for himself, or accepts those judgments which have been endorsed by tradition. He fastens upon a number of outstanding figures and more or less deliberately represents the process as from culmination to culmination; but in spite of this arbitrary foreshortening he is primarily concerned, in each one of the phases which he distinguishes, with that which is common to every member of the group of writers which it includes. The individuality, the quintessence, of a writer lies completely outside his view.

We may accept the isolation of the historical critic then, at least in theory, and conceive of him as a fragment of a social historian, as the author of a chapter in the history of the human spirit. But can we isolate the philosophic critic in the same way? And what exactly is a philosophic critic? Is he a critic with a philosophical scheme in which art and literature have their places, a critic who therefore approaches literature with a definite conception of it as one among many parallel manifestations of the human spirit, and with a system of values derived from his metaphysical scheme? Hegel and Croce are philosophical critics in this sense, and Aristotle is not, as far as we can judge from the Poetics, wherein he considers the literary work of Greece as an isolated phenomenon, and examines it in and for itself. But for the moment, and with the uneasy sense that we have not thoroughly laid the ghost of philosophic criticism, we will assume that we have isolated him, and pass to the consideration of the pure literary critic, if indeed we can find him.

What does he do? How shall we recognise him? Mr Eliot puts before us Coleridge and Aristotle and Dryden as literary critics par excellence arranged in an ascending scale of purity. The concatenation is curious, for these were men possessed of very different interests and faculties of mind; and it would occur to few to place Dryden, as a critic, at their head. The living centre of Aristotle's criticism is a conception of art as a means to a good life. As an activity, poetry 'is more philosophic than history,' a nearer approach to the universal truth in appearances; and as a more active influence, drama refines our spiritual being by a purgation of pity and terror. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the very pith and marrow of Aristotle's literary criticism is a system of moral values derived from his contemplation of life. It was necessary that this relation should exist, because for Aristotle literature was, essentially, an imitation of life though we must remember to understand imitation according to our final sense of the theme which is the golden, persistent thread throughout the Poetics. The imitation of life in literature was for Aristotle, the creative revelation of the ideal actively at work in human life. The tragic hero failed because his composition was less than ideal; but he could only be a tragic hero if the ideal was implicit in him and he visibly approximated to it. It is this constant reference to the ideal which makes of 'imitation' a truly creative principle and the one which, properly understood, is the most permanently valid and pregnant of all; it is also one which has been constantly misunderstood. Its importance is, nevertheless, so central that adequate recognition of it might conceivably be taken as the distinguishing mark of all fruitful criticism.

To his sympathetic understanding of this principle Coleridge owed a great debt. It is true that his efforts to refine upon it were not only unsuccessful, but a trifle ludicrous; his effort to graft the vague transcendentalism of Germany on to the rigour and clarity of Aristotle was, from the outset, unfortunately conceived. But the root of the matter was there, and in Coleridge's fertile mind the Aristotelian theory of imitation flowered into a magnificent conception of the validity and process of the poetic imagination. And partly because the foundation was truly Aristotelian, partly because Coleridge had known what it was to be a great poet, the reference to life pervades the whole of what is permanently valuable in Coleridge's criticism. In him, too, there is a strict and mutually fertilising relation between the moral and the æsthetic values. This is the firm ground beneath his feet when he—too seldom—proceeds to the free exercise of his exquisite æsthetic discrimination.

In Dryden, however, there was no such organic interpenetration. Dryden, too, had a fine sensibility, though less exquisite, by far, than that of Coleridge; but his theoretical system was not merely alien to him—it was in itself false and mistaken. Corruptio optimi pessima. He took over from France the sterilised and lifeless Aristotelianism which has been the plague of criticism for centuries; he used it no worse than his French exemplars, but he used it very little better than they. It was in his hands, as in theirs, a dead mechanical framework of rules about the unities. Dryden, we can see in his critical writing, was constantly chafed by it. He behaves like a fine horse with a bearing rein: he is continually tossing his head after a minute or two of 'good manners and action,' and saying, 'Shakespeare was the best of them, anyhow'; 'Chaucer beats Ovid to a standstill.' It is a gesture with which all decent people sympathise and when it is made in language so supple as Dryden's prose it has a lasting charm. Dryden's heart was in the right place, and he was not afraid of showing it; but that does not make him a critic, much less a critic to be set as a superior in the company of Aristotle and Coleridge.

Our search for the pure literary critic is likely to be arduous. We have seen that there is a sense in which Dryden is a purer literary critic than either Coleridge or Aristotle; but we have also seen that it is precisely by reason of the 'pureness' in him that he is to be relegated into a rank inferior to theirs. It looks as though we might have to pronounce that the true literary critic is the philosophic critic. Yet the pronouncement must not be prematurely made; for there is a real and vital difference between those for whom we have accepted the designation of philosophic critics, Hegel or Croce, and Aristotle or Coleridge. Yet three of these (and it might be wise to include Coleridge as a fourth) were professional philosophers. It is evidently not the philosophy as such that makes the difference.

The difference depends, we believe, upon the nature of the philosophy. The secret lies in Aristotle. The true literary critic must have a humanistic philosophy. His inquiries must be modulated, subject to an intimate, organic governance, by an ideal of the good life. He is not the mere investigator of facts; existence is never for him synonymous with value, and it is of the utmost importance that he should never be deluded into believing that it is. He will not accept from Hegel the thesis that all the events of human history, all man's spiritual activities, are equally authentic manifestations of Spirit; he will not even recognise the existence of Spirit. He may accept from Croce the thesis that art is the expression of intuitions, but he will not be extravagantly grateful, because his duty as a critic is to distinguish between intuitions and to decide that one is more significant than another. A philosophy of art that lends him no aid in this and affords no indication why the expression of one intuition should be preferred to the expression of another is of little value to him. He will incline to say that Hegel and Croce are the scientists of art rather than its philosophers.

Here, then, is the opposition: between the philosophy that borrows its values from science and the philosophy which shares its values with art. We may put it with more cogency and truth: the opposition lies between a philosophy without values and a philosophy based upon them. For values are human, anthropocentric. Shut them out once and you shut them out for ever. You do not get them back, as some believe, by declaring that such and such a thing is true. Nothing is precious because it is true save to a mind which has, consciously or unconsciously, decided that it is good to know the truth. And the making of that single decision is a most momentous judgment of value. If the scientist appeals to it, as indeed he invariably does, he too is at bottom, though he may deny it, a humanist. He would do better to confess it, and to confess that he too is in search of the good life. Then he might become aware that to search for the good life is in fact impossible, unless he has an ideal of it before his mind's eye.

An ideal of the good life, if it is to have the internal coherence and the organic force of a true ideal, must inevitably be æsthetic. There is no other power than our æsthetic intuition by which we can imagine or conceive it; we can express it only in æsthetic terms. We say, for instance, the good life is that in which man has achieved a harmony of the diverse elements in his soul. For the good life, we know instinctively, is one of our human absolutes. It is not good with reference to any end outside itself. A man does not live the good life because he is a good citizen; but he is a good citizen because he lives the good life. And here we touch the secret of the most magnificently human of all books that has ever been written—Plato's Republic. In the Republic the good life and the life of the good citizen are identified; but the citizenship is not of an earthly but of an ideal city, whose proportions, like the duties of its citizens, are determined by the æsthetic intuition. Plato's philosophy is æsthetic through and through, and because it is æsthetic it is the most human, the most permanently pregnant of all philosophies. Much labour has been spent on the examination of the identity which Plato established between the good and the beautiful. It is labour lost, for that identity is axiomatic, absolute, irreducible. The Greeks knew by instinct that it is so, and in their common speech the word for a gentleman was the kalos kagathos, the beautiful-good.

This is why we have to go back to the Greeks for the principles of art and criticism, and why only those critics who have returned to bathe themselves in the life-giving source have made enduring contributions to criticism. They alone are—let us not say philosophic critics but—critics indeed. Their approach to life and their approach to art are the same; to them, and to them alone, life and art are one. The interpenetration is complete; the standards by which life and art are judged the same. If we may use a metaphor, in the Greek view art is the consciousness of life. Poetry is more philosophic and more highly serious than history, just as the mind of a man is more significant than his outward gestures. To make those gestures significant the art of the actor must be called into play. So to make the outward event of history significant the poet's art is needed. Therefore a criticism which is based on the Greek view is impelled to assign to art a place, the place of sovereignty in its scheme of values. That Plato himself did not do this was due to his having misunderstood the nature of that process of 'imitation' in which art consists; but only the superficial readers of Plato—and a good many readers deserve no better name—will conclude from the fact that he rejected art that his attitude was not fundamentally æsthetic. Not only is the Republic itself one of the greatest 'imitations,' one of the most subtle and profound works of art ever created, but it would also be true to say that Plato cleared the way for a true conception of art. In reality he rejected not art, but false art; and it only remained for Aristotle to discern the nature of the relation between artistic 'imitation' and the ideal for the Platonic system to be complete and four-square, a perpetual inspiration and an everlasting foundation for art and the criticism of art. ...

Sunday, 20 January 2013

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 of probity.

The English butler, the shadow that speaks, is, like all good myths, multiple and contradictory. One can't help feeling that Gordon Jackson's portrayal of the stoic Hudson in the 1970s TV series Upstairs, Downstairs may have been as important to Ishiguro as Jeeves: the butler as liminal figure, standing on the border between the worlds of "upstairs" and "downstairs", Mr Hudson to the servants, plain Hudson to the gilded creatures he serves.

Now that the popularity of another television series, Downton Abbey, has introduced a new generation to the bizarreries of the English class system, Ishiguro's powerful, understated entry into that lost time to make, as he says, a portrait of a "wasted life" provides a salutary, disenchanted counterpoint to the less sceptical methods of Julian Fellowes's TV drama. The Remains of the Day, in its quiet, almost stealthy way, demolishes the value system of the whole upstairs-downstairs world.

(It should be said that Ishiguro's butler is, in his way, as complete a fiction as Jeeves. Just as Wodehouse made immortal a world that never existed except in his imagination, so also Ishiguro projects his imagination into a poorly documented zone. "I was surprised to find," he says, "how little there was about servants written by servants, given that a sizable proportion of people in this country were employed in service right up until the Second World War. It was amazing that so few of them had thought their lives worth recording. So most of the stuff in The Remains of the Day … was made up.")

The surface of The Remains of the Day is almost perfectly still. Stevens, a butler well past his prime, is on a week's motoring holiday in the West Country. He tootles around, taking in the sights and encountering a series of green-and-pleasant country folk who seem to have escaped from one of those English films of the 1950s in which the lower orders doff their caps and behave with respect towards a gent with properly creased trousers and flattened vowels. It is, in fact, July 1956 – the month in which Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal triggered the Suez Crisis – but such contemporaneities barely impinge upon the text. (Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was set in post-war Nagasaki but never mentioned the bomb. The Remains of the Day ignores Suez, even though that débâcle marked the end of the kind of Britain whose passing is a central subject of the novel.)

Nothing much happens. The high point of Mr Stevens's little outing is his visit to Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, the great house to which Stevens is still attached as "part of the package", even though ownership has passed from Lord Darlington to a jovial American named Farraday who has a disconcerting tendency to banter. Stevens hopes to persuade Miss Kenton to return to the hall. His hopes come to nothing. He makes his way home. Tiny events; but why, then, is the ageing manservant to be found, near the end of his holiday, weeping before a complete stranger on the pier at Weymouth? Why, when the stranger tells him that he ought to put his feet up and enjoy the evening of his life, is it so hard for Stevens to accept such sensible, if banal, advice? What has blighted the remains of his day?

Just below the understatement of the novel's surface is a turbulence as immense as it is slow; for The Remains of the Day is in fact a brilliant subversion of the fictional modes from which it seems at first to descend. Death, change, pain and evil invade the innocent Wodehouse-world. (In Wodehouse, even the Oswald Mosley-like Roderick Spode of the Black Shorts movement, as close to an evil character as that author ever created, is rendered comically pathetic by "swanking about," as Bertie says, "in footer bags.") The time-hallowed bonds between master and servant, and the codes by which both live, are no longer dependable absolutes but rather sources of ruinous self-deceptions; even the happy yokels Stevens meets on his travels turn out to stand for the post-war values of democracy and individual and collective rights which have turned Stevens and his kind into tragicomic anachronisms. "You can't have dignity if you're a slave," the butler is informed in a Devon cottage, but for Stevens, dignity has always meant the subjugation of the self to the job, and of his destiny to his master's. What then is our true relationship to power? Are we its servants or its possessors? It is the rare achievement of Ishiguro's novel to pose big questions – what is Englishness? What is greatness? What is dignity? – with a delicacy and humour that do not obscure the tough-mindedness beneath.

More here.

1993 movie with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Christopher Reeve.

Friday, 18 January 2013

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.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

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 the summer of 1903 to his friend and sometime lover Lou Andreas-Salomé, he compared his sojourn in Paris the previous year to his time at the junior military academy at St. Pölten, where his parents had sent him as a boy in need of toughening up: “For just as then a great fearful astonishment had seized me, so now I was gripped by terror at everything that, as if in some unspeakable confusion, is called life.”

His description, especially in the long, extraordinary letter to Lou dated July 18, of the horrors he witnessed and suffered, was later transferred, in expanded form, into the Paris sections of his 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The people he encountered in the streets, he told Lou, seemed to him “ruins of caryatids upon which an entire suffering still rested, an entire edifice of suffering, beneath which they lived slowly like tortoises.” Baudelaire himself could not have written with more disgust, fearfulness, and desperation.

From his earliest days Rilke had been of a nervous disposition, to say the least:
Long ago in my childhood, during the great fevers of my illnesses, huge indescribable fears arose, fears as of something too big, too hard, too close, deep unspeakable fears that I can still remember….
His troubles began at home. Writing in confessional mode in 1903 to the Swedish writer and pedagogue Ellen Key, he told of his early boyhood spent in “a cramped rented apartment in Prague” with parents—German-speaking, Catholic—whose marriage “was already faded when I was born” and who separated finally when he was nine. His mother had wanted a girl, and christened her son and only child René Maria. “I had to wear very beautiful clothes and went about until school years like a little girl; I believe my mother played with me as with a big doll.” No wonder he could write to Lou in 1903, when he was in his late twenties, “I am still in the kindergarten of life and find it difficult,” and confess that “I am, after all, a child in your presence, and I…talk to you as children talk in the night: my face pressed up against you and my eyes closed, feeling your nearness, your safety, your presence.” As to his actual mother, “I see her only occasionally, but—as you know well—every encounter is a sort of relapse.”

Throughout his life he provided himself with a series of mother-substitutes, beginning with the redoubtable Lou and, if he had been able to have his way, ending with her, too. In 1925, when he was already dying, he wrote to her in desperation—“Now I send you this shabby bank note of distress: give me a gold coin of concern in exchange for it!”—but her response was as briskly indifferent as that of Proust’s Mme de Guermantes to poor Swann when he tried to convince her that he was fatally ill.1 Yet perhaps we should not blame Lou for missing the mortal note in Rilke’s pleas, since he had cried wolf so often in the past. Exalted whining was the prevailing mode when he was writing to his many lovers, confidantes, and patronesses. Indeed, it is a tribute to the compelling force and, one must add, the sweetness of his personality that so many of them continued throughout his life to indulge his solipsism and lavish self-pity.

Rilke’s letters are not letters in the usually accepted sense.2 There is none of the chat, the gossip, the backbiting that add spice to the correspondence between even the loftiest of souls. The voice here is a rhapsodic drone, and there is much introversion—me, me, me, and more me—and windy expatiation on the joys and sorrows of composition. He lives in superlatives, in the grand Germanic tradition, so that one seizes on the occasional humble fact with the eagerness of a pig lighting on a truffle.3 On the other hand, one cannot but be impressed by the passionate dedication with which Rilke addressed the task of living—living as a poet, that is. He craved solitude—“I am my own circle, and a movement inward”—and was prepared to sacrifice much to secure it. Having dithered for a long time he finally married Clara Westhoff in 1901, but almost immediately realized that domesticity held little bliss for him, and quietly detached himself from wife and baby daughter.4 As he remarked to Lou, with devastating candor, “What are those close to me other than a guest who doesn’t want to leave?” Nor did he think he should be expected to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow: “The very feeling that there is a connection between my writing and the needs of the day is enough to make work [that is, writing] impossible for me.”

This, then, is the neurasthenic young poet who in the late autumn of 1902 received a letter from a nineteen-year-old military cadet named Franz Kappus, himself an aspiring writer, enclosing some of his poems and requesting guidance and advice on the literary life he was embarking upon. Conceive of his surprise and pleasure when a few months later, in February 1903, he received a long, earnest, and thoughtful reply, the first of a series of ten epistles—the Pauline echo is not inapt—that Rilke would send to the young man over the next five years. Letters to a Young Poet is one of Rilke’s most popular books—if we may call it his book, since it was assembled by Kappus after the poet’s death—well known to poets in their youth and an ideal handbook for beginning writers. Mark Harman’s burnished, elegant new translation is the fifth English version, and likely to become the standard one.

More here.

Monday, 14 January 2013

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 then, however, his literary reputation had already begun to decline because of the fierce political struggles which marked the 1930's. Dos Passos—always swimming in political currents whether along the left or the right bank—had in 1937 moved more publicly than before away from the far left after discovering that his close friend Jose Robles had been secretly executed in Spain, where he had returned to fight against Franco's rebels after leaving his teaching position at Johns Hopkins University. Dos Passos was lied to by leaders of the Republican government, and from what he learned he soon became convinced that Communists had been the instigators of Robles's death. One result of this episode was a bitter split with his close friend Hemingway. By 1939, with the publication of his partly autobiographical novel The Adventures of a Young Man, he was anathema to the likes of the Neiv Masses, where its reviewer, Samuel Sillen, wrote that the book was "almost inconceivably rotten," "a crude piece of Trotskyist agit-prop" that suffered from "sloppy writing, hollow characters, machine-made dialogue, [and] editorial rubber stamps." Malcolm Cowley, sympathetic with the Communists, criticized Dos Passos as severely as had Sillen, although with less vitriol. He blamed disillusionment for the flatness of the work and thought Dos Passos might become utterly cynical.

Dos Passos, principled, but in the eyes of his former friend Hemingway, foolish for writing against the liberal grain of the critics, continued his journey right, turning out historical portraits that lauded—simplistically, many historians would argue—America's Founding Fathers; blueprints for a Jeffersonian system of government, which meant in modern terms a conservative, agrarian program; and occasional fictions—"contemporary chronicles," he termed them, that viewed the nation through conservative lenses. By 1964 he was an ardent Goldwater Republican and behaved, a dismayed Edmund Wilson wrote him, like a kid in front of the Beatles. In 1970 he praised Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia as "the first rational military step taken in the whole [Vietnam] war"; but by then he was merely a sad footnote to the past in the eyes of the New Left, who received his scorn for their "rank criminal idiocy" and for "allowing] themselves to be led by their elders into this hysteria about Cambodia." He died on Sept. 28, 1970, a writer more honored abroad than in his own country, except in the opinions of William Buckley's National Review and others from that end of the political spectrum.

Yet no one loved the United States more than he. Because of a largely European upbringing until the age of 11, he had seen himself as "a man without a country" during his youth and early adulthood. Even in the first half of the 1930's, writing in an autobiographical Camera Eye toward the end of U.S.A., he characterized himself as "an unidentified stranger/ destination unknown/ hat pulled down over the has he any? face." The Spanish debacle of 1937 led him toward his true home, his Chosen Country as he called the United States in his 1951 novel by that name.

Today Dos Passes is at the least an intriguing figure: the author of the first significant anti-war novel to emerge from World War I, Three Soldiers, as well as of high modernist fiction, Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., and of American political writing at its most vibrant, U.S.A. He is an intriguing figure also because to the end of his days, long after the years of his best writing, he was intensely involved with the United States, a kind of wide-eyed observer peering in at the society, and from the perspective of 1996, he stands far closer to the center of the nation's cultural and political currents than he did in the 1960's and 1970's. Unlike others among his American literary and artistic contemporaries who during their expatriate days were for the most part only superficially assimilating European culture, Dos Passos was steeped in it. It played on his mind constantly and influenced his literary response to modern American culture. As he traveled and lived abroad for substantial lengths of time, he grasped at America because he hoped to find a sense of place—a sense of self, eventually—which Europe never could provide him. Numerous writers of the 1920's looked back at America from Europe and wrote more eloquently about it than if they had never left their native land. Dos Passos's experience was somewhat different: his early years abroad made him an outsider to the United States, and he spent his adult life trying to explain his native land. America, that is, was his response to Europe, An illegitimate child born in Chicago in 1896, he lived in Brussels and then London for the most part until entering Choate Preparatory School in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1907. By the spring of 1911 he had enough credits to graduate but was only 15, so with a "tutor" he spent much of the next academic year traveling throughout Europe and the Near East, then enrolled at Harvard in September 1912. Such experiences enabled him to feel at ease with European culture, but he still needed intellectual maturity. Harvard provided some of that. Dos Passos was a voracious reader, devouring almost everything he could get his hands on, and he wrote constantly.

Although during his years at Harvard he read among the European greats, read such new work as that by imagist poets, and saw the Russian Ballet and the Armory Show—the 1913 art exhibition that was mostly avant garde and mostly European—his writing during his senior year was hardly on any cutting edge. His poetry drew heavily on very usual imagery. One poem printed in the May 1916 Harvard Monthly begins, "Incessantly the long rain falls, / Slanting on black walls/ Which glisten where a street lamp shines." His prose is of the same sort—clean, but genteel and derivative. He sought a vision and a voice of his own; but he did not yet have experience enough to find them. His ideas, like his style, were borrowed, a bit from the aesthetes of the 1890's, a touch from Henry James, George Santayana, Van Wyck Brooks, and so forth. Hence, he wrote in the spirit of Brooks's 1915 harangue America's Coming-of-Age, where the author attacked the nation for being "a vast Sargasso Sea—a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by ground-swells of half-conscious emotion," an unhappy condition that was the result of Americans not comprehending how much they were in the grip of industrialism.

"Has not the world today somehow got itself enslaved by this immense machine, the Industrial system?" Dos Passos asked plaintively in a piece that appeared in the June 1916 issue of the Harvard Monthly. His answer, of course, was "yes." And he continued his derivative criticism in the first piece for which he was paid, "Against American Literature," which appeared in the Oct. 24, 1916 issue of the New Republic. Like the young James commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and like Brooks more recently, Dos Passos bemoaned the lack of depth and variety in American literature—in all its culture, for that matter. The whole thing was "wholesome rice-pudding fare. . ., a rootless product" that had little or none of what the literature and art of other countries had: "the earth-feeling, the jewelled accretions of the imagination of succeeding ages, so rich in old English writing," for instance. "We find ourselves floundering without rudder or compass, in the sea of modern life, vaguely lit by the phosphorescent gleam of our traditional optimism," he declared, drawing almost directly, it seems, out of Brooks's chapter on "The Sargasso Sea."

Dos Passes was primed to return to Europe after graduating from Harvard in June 1916. He wanted to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, but his father told him he could not until he was 21, so the younger Dos Passes traveled to Spain in October to study architecture. There he caught glimpses of the mounting horrors of World War I, but by and large Spain was sheltered from these, and his chief acquisition from his months in Madrid and traveling the countryside was an acute appreciation for the mellowness of Spanish life and the satiric spirit of Spain's writers and artists. Nothing affected him more than Don Quixote, whose scope and spirit certainly influenced what he later sought in U.S.A. On board a train to Cartagena in January 1917 he wrote his friend Rumsey Marvin that he was in the land of Don Quixote. Marvin should "abandon all else," and if he had not already read Cervantes's work, "read it." Dos Passes was admiring the countryside as he wrote, and to add to his pleasure he was reading "a volume of old Spanish romances of the Cid." He drew a sketch of the land and concluded, "Oh, it's so wonderful and strange, the very place for the mad ardors, and pathetic beauty of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance—the red and the blue & the grey—and the windmills perched like rabbits on all the hills and the gnarled olive trees climbing up the slopes." He was just beginning Don Quixote again, he said, this time in Spanish, "for about the 'n'th time," and it was "more joyful than ever." The horrors of war that he had gotten some sense of when passing through France the previous fall made more poignant the history and stark beauty of Spain. "I am mad about Spain," he wrote his friend Dudley Poore as he was about to return to Madrid, "the wonderful mellowness of life, the dignity, the layered ages." His romanticizing ended abruptly when on January 30th he received the news that his father had died in New York City of pneumonia. Stunned, he felt completely alone. As soon as he could he returned to the United States, ending his first exposure to Spain, one of the most affecting episodes in his life.

More here.