Thursday, 28 February 2013

Czeslaw Milosz - Interview

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

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

He was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the impoverished estate of his grandfather, a gentleman farmer. Milosz remembers the rural Lithuania of that time as a “country of myth and poetry.” His childhood world was broken by World War I when his father, Alexander, a road engineer, was recruited by the Czar’s army. Milosz and his mother accompanied his father on dangerous bridge-building expeditions near Russian battle zones.

The family returned to Lithuania in 1918. For several years Milosz enjoyed youthful solitude before beginning a rigorous formal education in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time. Three Winters, his second volume, appeared in 1936. Milosz received a law degree from the university in Vilnius and spent a year in Paris on a scholarship, where he met his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, the French poet who became his mentor.

The Soviet regime in Vilnius eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the socialist resistance. Milosz’s anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song, was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote “The World (A Naive Poem)” and the cycle Voices of Poor People. After the destruction of Warsaw he lived for a while outside of Krakow. The state publishing house brought out his collected poems in a volume entitled Rescue.

The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attaché of the Polish Communist government, serving in both New York and Washington over a period of years. He broke with the Polish government in 1951 and sought political asylum in France, even though it meant virtual disconnection from Polish readers. His ten years in France found him at odds with the strongly prosocialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley, as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind, a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. An exponent of Simone Weil, he translated her essays into Polish. He also wrote two volumes of poetry and an intellectual autobiography, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. Banned in Poland, Milosz’s poetry was published in Paris by the Instytut Literacki.

Milosz moved yet further west when in 1961, at age fifty, he began a new career as a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Though an unknown member of a small department, he eventually became popular for his courses on Dostoyevsky, and to those outside the university, as a translator of the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Milosz’s Selected Poems were not published in English until 1973. In 1978 his collection Bells in Winter appeared, and Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1981 he visited Poland for the first time in thirty years and in 1992 saw his native Lithuania again after a fifty-two year absence.

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Milosz has published many volumes of prose and poetry. His prose collections include Visions from San Francisco Bay, Beginning with My Streets, The Land of Ulro, and his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry. His Collected Poems appeared in 1988 and included portions of Unattainable Earth. It was followed most recently by another collection, Provinces. A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 and another volume of poetry, Facing the River, is due out in 1995. Milosz resides in Berkeley most of the year but spends portions of his summers in Cracow.

This interview was conducted primarily at Milosz’s home in the Berkeley hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and a cat named Tiny. Other portions were recorded before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YMHA in New York. The first part of the conversation in Berkeley lasted four hours without interruption, until the poet looked at his watch and then, somewhat sympathetically, at his exhausted interlocutor to ask, “It is six o’clock, time for a little vodka?”


You returned to Lithuania recently for the first time in fifty-two years. How was it?


It was a moving experience. I was received very cordially as a native son. I was given an honorary degree at the University of Kaunas. Then I visited my county, where I was greeted by a border delegation in peasant costumes—quite a big event in the region. I was made an honorary citizen and attended a mass in the wooden church where I was baptized. But many villages have disappeared. I have to presume enormous numbers of their inhabitants were deported to Siberia. Instead there are neat little red-brick towns. I visited the place where I was born, but there was no house, only the bare remnants of a park, and the river is polluted.


What literature shaped your imagination as you grew up in Lithuania?


Imagine a world without radio, without television, and without film. That was my childhood in a provincial part of Europe. At that time, the impact of books was much greater than it is now, and I profited from the library of my grandfather, which was largely composed of books from the nineteenth century. The only atlas was so outdated that it had a big white spot in the middle of Africa. The mystery of time was revealed to me not by Marcel Proust but by James Fenimore Cooper. Authors like Fenimore Cooper were very popular at the time in abridged and somewhat garbled versions for children. For instance, all the volumes of the epic The Deerslayer were condensed into one. Still, it made a tremendous impression upon me, because it was really the story of a young hunter gradually changing into maturity and then into an old man as he slowly moved from the East to West. His tragedy was that he was an exile, but could not escape civilization. I also read authors who have never been heard of in the United States, like Thomas Mayne Reid. He was an Irishman, who spent some time in America as a hunter, teacher, and who then made a career as an author of children’s books while living in London. His books were filled with all kinds of plants, animals, and birds—each identified with a Latin name. That was crucial for me, for at the time I wanted to become an ornithologist. I knew all the names for birds and their Latin equivalents. I also read Karl May, who was beloved by little boys all over Europe and translated into all European languages but unknown in America. He was a German who wrote novels of adventure sitting in a debtor’s prison.

Later, when I lived in Vilnius, I saw films. My education in this respect was like that of contemporary American children. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and later Greta Garbo, all made an impression on me. It’s very difficult to draw a line between childhood reading and the beginning of reading more mature books. But because of my rural and provincial childhood and because of those books from the library of the nineteenth century, I was always entranced by books on nature, especially those with illustrations and colored woodcuts—Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and so on. These books defined my attitude toward nature. ...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Ford Madox Ford and unfilmable Modernism

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

Cinema is notoriously hungry for adaptations of literary works. The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me lately is the BBC/HBO version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by Ford Madox Ford. Ford was British, but an unusually cosmopolitan and bohemian kind of Brit. His father was a German émigré, a musicologist who ended up as music critic for the London Times. His mother was an artist, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Ford was educated trilingually, in French and German as well as English. When he was introduced to Joseph Conrad at the turn of the century, they decided to collaborate on a novel, and went on over a decade to produce three collaborative books. He also got to know Henry James and Stephen Crane at this time — the two Americans were also living nearby, on the Southeast coast of England. Americans were to prove increasingly important in Ford’s life. He moved to London in 1907, and soon set up the literary magazine that helped define pre-war modernism: the English Review. He had a gift for discovering new talent, and was soon publishing D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis alongside James and Conrad. But it was Ezra Pound, who he also met and published at this time, who was to become his most important literary friend after Conrad.

Ford served in the First World War, getting injured and suffering from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme. He moved to France after the war, where he soon joined forces with Pound again, to form another influential modernist magazine, the transatlantic review, which published Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Rhys. Ford took on another young American, Ernest Hemingway, as his sub-editor. Ford held regular soirees, either in a working class dance-hall with a bar that he’d commandeered, or in the studio he lived in with his partner, the Australian painter Stella Bowen. He found himself at the centre of the (largely American) expatriate artist community in the Paris of the 20s. And it was there, and in Provence in the winters, and partly in New York, that he wrote the four novels of Parade’s End, that made him a celebrity in the US. He spent an increasing amount of time in the US through the 20s and 30s, based on Fifth Avenue in New York, becoming a writer in residence in the small liberal arts Olivet College in Michigan, spending time with writer-friends like Theodore Dreiser and William Carlos Williams, and among the younger generation, Robert Lowell and e. e. cummings.

More here.

Friday, 22 February 2013

De Quincey’s wicked book

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

The short answer is Thomas De Quincey. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.

The Confessions warned some early readers off opium, as De Quincey claimed he intended. “Better, a thousand times better, die than have anything to do with such a Devil’s own drug!” Thomas Carlyle commented after reading the work, while De Quincey’s erstwhile friend and fellow opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge insisted that he read the Confessions with “unutterable sorrow…The writer with morbid vanity, makes a boast of what was my misfortune.” But for many other readers, De Quincey’s account of opium was an invitation to experimentation — his drugged highs almost irresistible, and the gothic gloom of his lows even more so. Within months of publication, John Wilson, De Quincey’s closest friend and the lead writer for the powerful Blackwood’s Magazine, heard alarming reports of people recklessly attempting to emulate De Quincey’s drug experiences. “Pray, is it true…that your Confessions have caused about fifty unintentional suicides?” he inquires in a flamboyant Blackwood’s sketch. “I should think not,” the Opium Eater replies indignantly. “I have read of six only; and they rested on no solid foundation.”

More here.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Erich Fromm : Alienation

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

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

The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry.[59] The essence of what the prophets call "idolatry" is not that man worships many gods instead of only one. It is that the idols are the work of man's own hands -- they are things, and man bows down and worships things; worships that which he has created himself. In doing so he transforms himself into a thing. He transfers to the things of his creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by the worship of the idol. He has become estranged from his own life forces, from the wealth of his own potentialties, and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols. [60]The deadness and emptiness of the idol is expressed in the Old Testament: "Eyes they have and they do not see, ears they have and they do not hear," etc. The more man transfers his own powers to the idols, the poorer he himself becomes, and the more dependent on the idols, so that they permit him to redeem a small part of what was originally his. The idols can be a godlike figure, the state, the church, a person, possessions. Idolatry changes its objects; it is by no means to be found only in those forms in which the idol has a socalled religious meaning. Idolatry is always the worship of something into which man has put his own creative powers, and to which he now submits, instead of experiencing himself in his creative act. Among the many forms of alienation, the most frequent one is alienation in language. If I express a feeling with a word, let us say, if I say "I love you," the word is meant to be an indication of the reality which exists within myself, the power of my loving. The word "love" is meant to be a symbol of the fact love, but as soon as it is spoken it tends to assume a life of its own, it becomes a reality. I am under the illusion that the saying of the word is the equivalent of the experience, and soon I say the word and feel nothing, except the thought of love which the word expresses. The alienation of language shows the whole complexity of alienation. Language is one of the most precious human achievements; to avoid alienation by not speaking would be foolish -- yet one must be always aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience. The same holds true for all other achievements of man; ideas, art, any kind of man-made objects. They are man's creations; they are valuable aids for life, yet each one of them is also a trap, a temptation to confuse life with things, experience with artifacts, feeling with surrender and submission.

The thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries criticized their age for its increasing rigidity, emptiness, and deadness. In Goethe's thinking the very same concept of productivity that is central in Spinoza as well as in Hegel and Marx, was a cornerstone. "The divine," he says, "is effective in that which is alive, but not in that which is dead. It is in that which is becoming and evolving, but not in that which is completed and rigid. That is why reason, in its tendency toward the divine, deals only with that which is becoming, and which is alive, while the intellect deals with that which is completed and rigid, in order to use it." [61]

We find similar criticisms in Schiller and Fichte, and then in Hegel and in Marx, who makes a general criticism that in his time "truth is without passion, and passion is without truth." [62]

Essentially the whole existentialist philosophy, from Kierkegaard on, is, as Paul Tillich puts it, "an over onehundred-years-old movement of rebellion against the dehumanization of man in industrial society." Actually, the concept of alienation is, in nontheistic language, the equivalent of what in theistic language would be called "sin": man's relinquishment of himself, of God within himself. The thinker who coined the concept of alienation was Hegel. To him the history of man was at the same time the history of man's alienation (Entfremdung). "What the mind really strives for," he wrote in The Philosophy of History, "is the realization of its notion; but in doing so it hides that goal from its own vision and is proud and well satisfied in this alienation from its own essence." [63] For Marx, as for Hegel, the concept of alienation is based on the distinction between existence and essence, on the fact that man's existence is alienated from his essence, that in reality he is not what he potentially is, or, to put it differently, that he is not what he ought to be, and that he ought to be that which he could be.

For Marx the process of alienation is expressed in work and in the division of labor. Work is for him the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself. (Intellectual activity is of course, for Marx, always work, like manual or artistic activity.) But as private property and the division of labor develop, labor loses its character of being an expression of man's powers; labor and its products assume an existence separate from man, his will and his planning. "The object produced by labor, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object and turned into a physical thing; this product is an objectification of labor." [64] Labor is alienated because the work has ceased to be a part of the worker's nature and "consequently, he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless." [65] Thus, in the act of production the relationship of the worker to his own activity is experienced "as something alien and not belonging to him, activity as suffering (passivity), strength as powerlessness, creation as emasculation." [66] While man thus becomes alienated from himself, the product of labor becomes "an alien object which dominates him. This relationship is at the same time the relationship to the sensuous external world, to natural objects, as an alien and hostile world." [67] Marx stresses two points: 1) in the process of work, and especially of work under the conditions of capitalism, man is estranged from his own creative powers, and 2) the .objects of his own work become alien beings, and eventually rule over him, become powers independent of the producer. "The laborer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the laborer." [68] ...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Tragicomic Vision in the Novels of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers, ©Louise Dahl Wolfe. Vintage print

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

Although the gothic elements frequently cited in her fiction are considered vestiges of her Southern literary heritage, it is equally true that the particular type of humor which emerges from a reading of her works similarly evolves from peculiarly Southern conditions. Within her fiction she is able to reconcile successfully horror with humor, so that what is repeatedly asserted is the writer’s tragicomic vision of life. Interestingly enough, Mrs. McCullers was acutely aware that this mixed vision of reality pervades Southern writing. In a discerning essay entitled "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature," she finds affinities between Russian and Southern writing, both of which manifest this tragicomic view, and attempts to account for this outlook as inherent within these two remarkably similar cultures.’

She deplores the labeling of Southern writing of Faulkner’s and later her own generation as gothic in the sense that it is supernatural or escapist literature generally removed from everyday reality. Instead she dwells on the realism of Southern writing and finds it more indebted to 19th century Russian realism than to the gothic tale. As prime movers in the Russian school, she cites Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, two of her personal favorites whose influence on her own work is apparent in many ways, most notably in the tragicomic vision she shares with them. She notes that both Russian and Southern literature had their earliest origins in similar social and economic conditions, a controlling aristocracy and an oppressed peasant or slave class. In each case the dominant attitude which emerged as a result of this cultural phenomenon was, in her words, "the cheapness of human life."

According to Mrs. McCullers, the cruelty and suffering which pervade Southern writing are the results of this attitude. She is quick to point out, however, that it is not so much the use of these themes that proves so provocative and shocking to readers as it is the method of presentation which Russian and Southern writers share in common, a technique that essentially reflects their approach to life itself: "The technique briefly is this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail."

To demonstrate the technique, she cites a comparison between Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in which the awesomeness and horror of death is juxtaposed to mundane, selfish concerns: "In both there is a fusion of anguish and farce that acts on the reader with an almost physical force. Marveladov’s violent death, Katerina Ivanovna’s agitation about the supper, the details of the food served, the clerk ‘who had not a word to say for himself and smelt abominably’—on the surface the whole situation would seem to be a hopeless emotional rag-bag. In the face of agony and starvation the reader suddenly finds himself laughing at the absurdities between Katerina Ivanovna and the landlady, or smiling at the antics of the little Pole."

Similarly, in As I Lay Dying, the funeral journey of the Bundrens takes on absurdist proportions as it is marked by a series of unmitigated domestic disasters—the loss of their mule, one son’s injured leg, the other son’s madness, the daughter’s seduction, all accompanied by the stench of the decomposing body. Yet despite these calamities Anse manages to remain single-mindedly preoccupied with the anticipated purchase of his new false teeth, the daughter with the cake she plans to sell, and the injured son with the carpenter’s tools he fears will be lost en route.

In citing these two parallel treatments of death interspersed with comic relief, Mrs. McCullers acknowledges that the writer’s use of such a technique is often regarded as peculiar or even tasteless: "Farce and tragedy have always been used as foils for each other. But it is rare, except in the works of the Russians and the Southerners, that they are superimposed one upon the other so that their effects are experienced simultaneously. It is this emotional composite that has brought about the accusations of ‘cruelty.’"

Such criticism of this particular use of humor is not only unfortunate, but a trifle unrealistic. A comic treatment of death is not necessarily irreverent and may in fact be humane, for death itself need not be all gloom and morbidity, although our culture has conditioned us to think and respond in these terms. Perhaps a more realistic attitude is the conviction that death has its light and frivolous moments, an attitude readily apparent in the fiction of other contemporary Southern women.

Katherine Anne Porter’s treatment of death in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and more recently Eudora Welty’s treatment in The Optimist’s Daughter are not only humane and compassionate but amusing as well.

Not surprisingly the attitude expressed by Mrs. McCullers in her essay is consistent with the tragicomic vision which surfaces in her novels. She presents us with two of the most effective examples of this comic aspect of death in Clock without Hands, a novel which in many ways adheres more closely to the prototype of the Southern novel than any of her other works. As the novel opens, J. T. Malone, the town druggist, learns that he is dying from leukemia. Seeking to enlist the sympathy and moral support of his friend Judge Fox Clane, a Southern aristocrat verging on senility, he solemnly informs him that he is dying of a rare blood disease to which the Judge replies in utter disbelief, "‘A blood disease! Why, that’s ridiculous—you have some of the best blood in this state. I well remember your father who had his wholesale pharmacy on the corner of Twelfth and Mulberry in Macon. And your mother I remember, too—she was a Wheelwright. You have the best blood in this state in your veins, J. T., and never forget that.’" Oddly enough, the Judge’s outrageous diatribe on Malone’s superior bloodlines, rather than dismaying the dying man, fills him with pride and offers him the briefest respite.

In this type of "juxtaposition of the immense with the trivial," particularly in the face of impending death, Mrs. McCullers reaches her forte. A similar situation occurs at the conclusion of the novel when Jester, the Judge’s grandson, warns Sherman Pew, the orphaned mulatto "amanuensis" of the Judge, that his life is endangered as a consequence of his brazen move into a white neighborhood. Confronted with death, Sherman, like Faulkner’s Bundren family, exhibits a greater concern for the material than the spiritual. Even at the cost of his life, he refuses to forsake his newly acquired possessions—his "bought-on-time baby grand piano, bought-on-time genuine antique sofa and two chairs," the "bedroom suit, with the pink sheets and boudoir pillows," and the "four brand new Hart, Schaffner & Marx suits."

Although Clock without Hands in its treatment of death presents us with these two superb examples of the technique described by Mrs. McCullers in her essay, it is by no means the only novel in which the tragicomic vision of the author is manifested. There are countless examples of scenes and situations throughout her work in which violence is mitigated by humor. The Ballad of the Sad Café, despite its forlorn theme of unrequited love, is strongly infused with backwoods folk humor superimposed on violence. The murderous wrath of Miss Amelia against her prodigal husband, Marvin Macy, is undercut by humorous blunderings as she bungles several attempts to murder him, the most humiliating of which occurs when she accidentally receives the poisoned plate of food intended for him. Humorous brutality sets the tone for much of the ensuing action. Miss Amelia’s reputation as an expert pugilist has made her a legendary figure in the backwoods and swamps, and the popular story goes that she once pulverized a shyster lawyer who dared to cheat her in business dealings. ...

Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen - Interview

It was, in a sense, typecasting, when a few years ago a film was planned that would have shown us Garbo playing the role of Isak Dinesen in a screen version of Out of Africa . . . for the writer is, like the actress, a Mysterious Creature of the North. Isak Dinesen is really the Danish Baroness Karen Christentze Blixen-Finecke and is the daughter of Wilhelm Dinesen, author of a classic nineteenth-century work, Boganis’ Jagtbreve (Letters from the Hunt). Baroness Blixen has published under different names in various countries: usually Isak Dinesen, but also Tania Blixen and Karen Blixen. Old friends call her Tanne, Tanya, and Tania. Then there is a delightful novel she preferred not to acknowledge for a while, though any reader with half an eye could guess the baroness hiding behind the second pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. Literary circles have buzzed with legends about her: She is really a man, he is really a woman, “Isak Dinesen” is really a brother-and-sister collaboration, “Isak Dinesen” came to America in the 1870s, she is really a Parisienne, he lives at Elsinore, she stays mostly in London, she is a nun, he is very hospitable and receives young writers, she is difficult to see and lives a recluse, she writes in French; no, in English; no, in Danish; she is really—and so the buzzing never stopped.

In 1934 the house of Haas & Smith (later absorbed by Random House) brought out a book called Seven Gothic Tales which Mr. Haas had accepted on first reading. It became a best-seller. A favorite among writers and painters, the book was discussed from first appearance as of some permanence.

Outside the canon of modern literature, like an oriole outside a cage of moulting linnets, “Isak Dinesen” offers to her readers the unending satisfaction of the tale told: “And then what happened? . . . Well, then . . .” Her storyteller's, or ballad maker's, instinct, coupled with an individual style of well-ornamented clarity, led Hemingway, accepting the Nobel Prize, to protest it should have gone to Dinesen.


Rome, Early Summer, 1956. The first dialogue takes place in a sidewalk restaurant in the Piazza Navona, that long space, once flooded, where mock naval battles raged. The twilight is darkening the sky to an iris color; against it the obelisk that stands amidst Bernini's figures seems pale and weightless. At a café table sit Baroness Blixen, her secretary-traveling companion, Clara Svendsen, and the Interviewer. The Baroness is like a personage from one of her own tales. Slim, straight, chic, she is dressed in black, with long black gloves and a black Parisian hat that comes forward to shadow her remarkable eyes that are lighter in color at the top than at the bottom. Her face is slender and distinguished; around her mouth and eyes play the faint ghosts of smiles, changing constantly. Her voice is pleasing, being soft but with enough force and timbre for one to hear at once that this is a lady with opinions of both grave profundity and of most enchanting frivolity. Her companion, Miss Svendsen, is a fresh-faced young person with a charming smile.


Interview? Oh, dear . . . . Well, yes, I suppose so . . . but not a list of questions or a third degree, I hope. . . . . I was interviewed a short time ago . . . . Terrible . . . .


Yes, there was a man who came for a documentary film . . . . It was like a catechism lesson . . . .


Couldn't we just talk together as we've been doing, you could write down what you like?


Yes, then you could scratch out some things and scribble in others.


Yes. I ought not to undertake too much. I've been ill for over a year and in a nursing home. I really thought I should die. I planned to die, that is, I made preparations. I expected to.


The doctor in Copenhagen told me: “Tania Blixen is very clever, but the cleverest thing she's ever done is to survive these two operations.”


I even planned a last radio talk . . . . I have made a number of radio talks on all kinds of subjects, in Denmark . . . . They seem to enjoy me as a radio speaker there . . . . I planned a talk on how easy it was to die . . . . Not a morbid message, I don't mean that, but a message of, well, cheer . . . that it was a great and lovely experience to die. But I was too ill, you know, to get it done. Now, after being so long in the nursing home and so ill, I don't feel I do really belong to this life. I am hovering like a seagull. I feel that the world is happy and splendid and goes on but that I'm not part of it. I've come to Rome to try and get into the world again. Oh, look at the sky now!

More here.

Out of Africa - Trailer

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

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

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

He arrived with his most celebrated aphorism: "I have nothing to declare but my genius." Say it today on passing through customs, and they'd shred your suitcase and snap on the surgical gloves. Roy Morris's account of Wilde's 260-day, 1,500-mile and 140-gig tour contains comparable scenes of humiliation. In Boston, 60 Harvard students minced down the aisle in black stockings and shoulder-length wigs. In Racine, Wisconsin, the thin, sniggering audience defeated him: Wilde cut short his lecture and went off for a fag. In Leadville, Colorado, however, he was a surprise hit with the miners, who lowered him down No 3 shaft in a rubber overall and plied him with whiskey cocktails. "I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause," he crowed. Declaring His Genius, unfortunately, merits no such response.

Morris is the editor of Military Heritage magazine. As you read his account of Wilde's campaign, it's easy to imagine the author using a croupier's rake to push a little Oscar across a map of the continent. Skirmish after skirmish is reported; background notes on the combatants are supplied, some untested for relevance; fact after fact is logged, and anything that looks too much like an idea is briskly avoided.

More here.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Harvest In - Seamus Heaney

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

Most newspaper reviews of the book contented themselves with describing the nature of the enterprise: Dennis O’Driscoll’s proposing the idea of a volume of interviews; Heaney’s agreeing but asking that matters should be conducted in writing; Heaney’s responding to a selection of the many possible questions forwarded by O’Driscoll; and the careful crafting of answers that this allowed. Most reviews were positive, though a few emphasised that the book was for the devotee rather than for the casual reader. Some offered a juicy plum or two (a subtle jab to the ribs here; a sketch of a literary legend there) as if to assure us that the pie had been fully inspected. Some commented wonderingly on the fact that, in a period obsessed with the lives of the famous, Heaney had managed to avoid becoming the victim of a biographer. This is indeed a remarkable feat; it may at least partly be put down to the fact that Heaney has inspired a degree of loyalty among friends that would be the despair of any scandal-sniffing biographer, compounded by the fact that there seems to be so little scandal to sniff out in the first place.

There is an implicit valuation of his wife, Marie’s, judgement in the way Heaney speaks of the process of making and keeping friends but, beyond some emblematic moments, she and the children figure almost exclusively insofar as they intersect with the writing life. As O’Driscoll says, Heaney has every right to keep the details of his personal or family life to himself; this stance is also consistent with the autobiographical, but ultimately non-confessional, impulse in his poetry.

A short-lived, rather arty Irish magazine of the 1980s once carried an interview with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. As question followed question, the reader could observe with a kind of awe the poet’s gathering realisation that the interviewer knew absolutely nothing about him or his work. This is not the kind of thing that Dennis O’Driscoll is going to be accused of. We may assume that, at the outset, he already knew man and work intimately, but the sheer mass and detail of the questions and promptings suggest an additional thoroughness of research. Thus, if we are not entirely surprised at some of what O’Driscoll knows – Wasn’t there a phone call from Czeslaw Milosz during that party? – we have to doff our caps when he casually drops this kind of thing: But you were skilful enough to play for the Castledawson minors, and you even received a trial for the Derry county team. O’Driscoll would not, we suspect, be a regular visitor to Semple Stadium in his home town of Thurles. Though his name figures prominently on the cover of Stepping Stones, as it deserves to, his performance as interviewer is, on the whole, an admirably self-effacing one....

This essay, a review of Dennis O’Driscoll’s book of interviews with Seamus Heaney was first published in Spring 2009. Dennis O’Driscoll died in December 2012.

Monday, 11 February 2013

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

More than twenty years ago, Suzette Henke challenged what was then the reigning view of Virginia Woolf’s response to James Joyce’s Ulysses. To judge this response by Woolf’s most damning comments on the book and its author, Henke argued, is to overlook what she said about it in her reading notes on Ulysses, which--together with her final comment on Joyce at the time of his death--show that “she had always regarded [him] as a kind of artistic ‘double,’ a male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism.”[1] But some convictions--or prejudices-- die hard. Though Henke’s transcription of Woolf’s reading notes was published in 1990, and though she and several other scholars have marshalled extensive evidence for the influence of Ulysses on the composition of Mrs. Dalloway, Henke herself has recently reported that in conference presentations at least, scholars still cite Woolf’s letters and diaries “to prove her animosity toward Joyce.”[2] Students of modern British fiction clearly owe a debt to Henke for publicizing Woolf’s reading notes as well as for her untiring efforts to correct a widespread misunderstanding of Woolf’s views about Joyce. But in spite of her efforts, no one--to my knowledge-- has yet attempted to tell the full story of Woolf’s response to Joyce and his book. That is what I propose to do here.

Let us start in media's res. In early October 1922, more than four years after her first exposure to Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf wrote the following to the art critic and philosopher Roger Fry:
My great adventure is really Proust. Well-- what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped--and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical--like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished-- My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.[3]
This passage clearly suggests that Woolf not only read all of Ulysses but loathed it quite as much as she adored A La Recherche. But the truth is much more complicated-- and just about as fascinating as any episode of literary history can be.

Setting aside A La Recherche, which unequivocally captivated her, the long trail of references that Woolf made to Joyce and his novel in her letters, diaries, essays, and reading notes--up to 1922 and beyond-- leave no doubt that the thought of his novel stalked her for years and made her feel acutely ambivalent. She was probably urged to read it by T.S. Eliot, who admired it as soon as its opening chapters began to appear in the Little Review in March 1918 and who by the following November had told her that Joyce was a great genius (L 2: 296).[4]

Well before then, on April 14, 1918, Harriet Weaver brought her and Leonard the first four chapters of Ulysses in the hopes that their Hogarth Press might publish it.[5] But shortly after Miss Weaver gave them the chapters, Woolf balked. It was not only far too long for their small press to manage--an “insuperable difficulty” for them, as she told Miss Weaver (L 2: 243); it was also--as she told others-- indecent and boring. After reading the chapters in about ten days, she told Lytton Strachey, “First there’s a dog that p’s--then there’s man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject” (L 2: 234). The next day she sounded just a little less damning in a letter to Roger Fry. “Its interesting as an experiment;” she writes; “he leaves out the narrative, and tries to give the thoughts, but I don’t know that he’s got anything very interesting to say, and after all the p-ing of a dog isn’t very different from the p-ing of a man. Three hundred pages of it might be boring” (L 2: 234).

To say the least, this is a startling reaction to the first four chapters of Ulysses, where Joyce makes the dog pee in precisely eight words buried deep in chapter three (“lifting again his hindleg, pissed against [a rock]”),[6] and where-- in chapter four--he narrates Bloom’s defecation (if that is what Woolf means by “a man that forths”) without using a single indecent word, representing an act that is perfectly decent and private as well as quintessentially quotidian: reading a newspaper as his bowels move in his own outhouse. It is particularly startling to compare Woolf’s sole comment on chapter three with what Margaret Anderson wrote about its opening words when the chapter was submitted to her for publication in the Little Review: “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives."[7] Was Woolf simply blind to such passages? In the magnificent garden of Joyce’s prose, could she see no more than a few noxious weeds?

To be fair, the answer is no. Even in writing to Fry she admits that Joyce is making an “interesting” experiment by replacing narrative with a stream of thoughts. About a year later, when she made notes on the first seven chapters of Ulysses in preparation for an essay on “Modern Novels” that appeared in TLS (April 10, 1919), she wrote much more about the value of Joyce’s work in progress, some of which she was re-reading.[8] Re-reading chapter one, for instance, she notes
the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases. It is an attempt to get thinking into literature--hence the jumble. Told in episodes. The repetition of words like rosewood and wetted ashes. (Woolf, MNJ 642).
She is beginning to hear the music of Joyce’s phrasing, to feel the power of his artful repetitions (the words “rosewood” and “wetted ashes” repeatedly evoke the ghost of Stephen’s mother), and to see that he is trying to re-create the unpredictable fluidity of a mind in the act of thinking. She has now much more to say about the virtues of Ulysses. Joyce, she sees, is “attempting to do away with the machinery”--the deadening conventions of what she will call in her essay “materialist” fiction housed in a “first-class railway carriage”--and “extract the marrow.”[9] Like Sterne, he is trying “to be more psychological--get more things into fiction” (MNJ 643). The “Hades” chapter seemed to her “perhaps the best thing” (MNJ 643), but she was also struck by Joyce’s manipulation of sight, sound, and sense in “Aeolus.” Comparing the chapter to a slow-motion film of a jumping horse, she says that “all pictures were a little made up before,” and also that “here is thought made phonetic--taken to bits” (MNJ 643), possibly referring to the passage in which Bloom translates the “sllt” of the printing press and the creaking of a door: “Almost human the way it sllt to call attention, asking to be shut. Doing its level best to speak. That door too is creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way” (U 7. 177-79).[10]

More here.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Colette, Essay by Angela Carter

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

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

Her career was a profoundly strange one and necessarily full of contradictions, of which her uncompromising zeal for self-exploitation is one. Madame Colette, though never quite Madame Colette de l’Académie Française – one game she couldn’t crack – was accorded a state funeral by the French government: this was the woman who was dismissed by her second husband’s aristocratic family as a cunning little striptease artist overeager for the title of baroness. As Madame Colette, she first appeared on pin-up pictures: ‘Our pretty actresses: Madame Colette of the Olympia’. And, in these pictures, taken in her late thirties, she is very beautiful and sexy indeed; she looks out at you with all the invitation of the stripper: ‘You can call me Colette.’

The artificial creation of a sense of intimacy with Colette herself is one of the qualities that gives her writing its seductiveness. She certainly wasn’t on the halls all those years for nothing, although the extent to which a wilful exhibitionism kept her on the boards (against the advice of the majority of her critics) well into her fifties may be connected with a capacity to embarrass which often frays the edges of her writing.

‘You can call me Colette’ isn’t a statement of the same order as ‘Call me Ishmael.’ The social limitations to experience in a woman’s life still preclude the unself-conscious picaresque adventuring that formed the artistic apprenticeships of Melville, Lowry, Conrad, while other socio-economic factors mean that those women who see most of the beastly backside of the world – prostitutes – are least in a position to utilise this invaluable experience as art. Norman Mailer has said that there won’t be a really great woman writer – one, you understand, con cojones and everything – until the first call-girl tells her story. Though it’s reasonable to assume that, when she does, Mailer won’t like it at all, the unpleasant truth in this put-down is that most women don’t have exposure to the breadth of experience that, when digested, produces great fiction. (Okay, so what about the Brontës? Well, as vicar’s daughters in a rural slum parish, peripatetic international governesses and terminal consumptives, they did have such a variety of experience. So.) But the life of Colette was as picaresque as a woman’s may be without putting herself in a state of hazard.

Her first novels, Claudine at School and its sequels, appeared with the husband’s name on the title-page. The peculiar Willy, one of the best-publicised bohemians of the Belle Epoque, ensured that the little Burgundian village girl, Colette’s favourite disguise, encountered at an impressionable age not only numerous whores of both sexes but alsoeverybody – Proust, Debussy, Ravel, you name them. When Willy left her, his wife found herself in the unusual position of having written a number of best-sellers for which she was unable to take any financial or artistic credit. To earn a living in the years before the First World War, she felt she had no alternative but to go on the halls. As she could neither sing nor dance, she performed as a sex-object and subject of scandal – and not a particularly upmarket sex-object, either. Since Willy had enjoyed sexually humiliating her, no doubt there was a special pleasure in exploiting her sexuality whilst herself secure and unavailable. After Willy, she took refuge in the bosom of the lesbian establishment of the period. Our pretty actress had an aristocratic protector, the Marquise de Mornay – nothing unusual about this, not even the sex of the Marquise, in those permissive times. Then came a Cinderella-esque marriage to (Baron) Henry de Jouvenal, editor of Le Matin, later a politician of considerable distinction. One thing about Colette interests me: when did she stop lying about her age? The voluptuous dancer was pushing 40 when she married De Jouvenal: ‘But the registry office has to know your age,’ she complained to a friend. There comes a time when a woman freely publicises her age so that people can say: ‘How young you look!’ It seems to have come later than most to Colette, but when it did, she gloried in it.

In tandem with this characteristically, if rather Hollywood, Edwardian career, two writers are growing within her. One writes, in 1910, La Vagabonde, a novel which is still one of the most truthful expositions of the dilemma of a free woman in a male-dominated society. Perhaps because Colette, having the triumphant myopia of a vain woman, refused to acknowledge her society as male-dominated, she sees no dilemma: there is no real choice: one is free. In the same year, the other writer, the one more nearly related to our pretty actress, began work as a journalist for Le Matin, which is how she met its editor. Renée Néré, music-hall artiste, prefers to go it alone in La Vagabonde, but Colette, Colette married and married well. Her marriage also sealed her fate as a journalist, which in turn sealed her fate as a novelist.

More here

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Brendan Behan: I remember in September

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

Amy Lowell: The Letter

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

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

Friday, 8 February 2013

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

Directed by Anthony Page
Writen by Rodney Ackland

Living memories: Kazuo Ishiguro

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

"And then I had this most alarming realisation. I looked at an encyclopaedia of literature and checked how old people were when they wrote their famous works. Pride and Prejudice was written by someone in her 20s. The Faulkner anyone remembers comes from his 30s. It goes on; Fitzgerald, Kafka, Chekhov; War and Peace, Ulysses. Dickens went on a bit longer, but his best work was when he was younger. Of course there are exceptions but often, like Conrad, who was a sailor, there is some reason why they missed out on time earlier in their lives."

He says the fact that great writers are often revered and rewarded with prizes in old age only masks the reality that time is running out. "There was this idea, which felt almost like a conspiracy, that a writer in his 30s was early in a writing life. But I realised you should think more in terms of the length and timing of a footballer's career. Your best chance of producing a decent book comes somewhere between 30 and 45 and I suddenly saw my life as a finite number of books."

For Ishiguro, now 50, his theory is understandably "a depressing thing to think about". The rewards have already come his way. He has an OBE and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. A portrait of him by Peter Edwards hung for a time in 10 Downing Street and when the Japanese emperor visited the UK, Ishiguro was invited to the state banquet. He remembers an impatient Lady Thatcher queuing behind him to meet the emperor. In literary terms, he responded by consciously ignoring considerations of what might be commercially successful and abjuring the many lucrative but time-consuming distractions that came his way; "Screenplays I didn't really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I just determined to write the books I had to write."

It is a sensible and high-minded strategy, but few people realised just how serious Ishiguro was about implementing it. In the 16 years since The Remains of the Day he has produced only three novels. And when The Unconsoled finally appeared in 1995, its 500-plus pages about the dream-like peregrinations of a concert pianist around a hazy Mitteleuropa left readers and reviewers baffled and occasionally angry. Critic James Wood went so far as to claim the book had "invented its own category of badness".

However, almost as soon as the critical storm broke, it abated. Anita Brookner, an early critic, asked to re-review the book and declared: "I can't see how he could have got it more right." And Wood, in reviewing Ishiguro's next book, When We Were Orphans (2000), about a British private detective in 1930s Shanghai, returned to his dismissal of The Unconsoled to note that if Ishiguro hadn't written it he might have been condemned to become a novelist whose work was "as similar as postage stamps". Wood then praised Orphans, claiming it "invents its own category of goodness".

Looking at Ishiguro's oeuvre, a series of clear and coherent themes emerge. Barry Lewis of Sunderland University has written a critical study of Ishiguro's work and notes that "notions of identity and how an individual sustains a sense of self as historical circumstances cast a new light on events is something he returns to time and again. It links to the sense of how memory might be used as a tool to keep your dignity and maintain a sense of self."

Ishiguro's latest novel, Never Let Me Go, is published next month and again reflects some of these preoccupations. It opens in a boarding school - the atmosphere conjured in his books is unmistakable - and we gradually learn that the children are clones bred to one day donate their organs for transplant. Ishiguro, who undertook some basic research into biotechnology, says he never intended to write a mystery with their clone status as the revelation. "If information does trickle gradually it's because the children themselves do not realise who they are. The reader is on a sort of parallel journey, but it is not a mystery story. My focus is elsewhere."

More here.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

John Strevens: A winter afternoon in the Champs Elysées

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

William Shakespeare: All the world's a stage

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

As You Like It

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

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

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

And yet, he hadn’t foreseen it. In early April 1912, Lawrence was teaching at an English private school and sought the advice of one of his former professors about obtaining a position of lecturer of English at a German university. Ernest Weekley, who taught at Freiburg University, invited Lawrence to lunch at his home in Nottingham. Helping with the hosting duties that day was Weekley’s wife and the mother of his three children, Frieda Von Richthofen (a distant cousin to the famous “Red Baron”).

She and Lawrence fell quickly in love and began an affair. By early May Lawrence had convinced her to abandon her family, leave England, and run away with him.

They went to Germany, where Frieda visited her parents in Metz, and by May 24, the two had settled in Munich. While Frieda missed her children, she apparently missed Lawrence more, and they decided to stick together and live at Icking in southern Bavaria, in a chalet apartment lent to them by Max Weber’s brother. On August 5, they left Germany, walking through Austria to Italy, arriving on the shores of Lake Garda, at Riva del Garda, on September 7,1912. From Riva they moved down the western side of the lake to Gargagno (later famous as the residence of Benito Mussolini, who stayed at the Villa Feltrinelli from 1943-45). First they stayed temporarily in a local hotel on the lake’s shores, moving then to a small villa, Villa Igea. Almost immediately, he began to feel the renewal he would later write about in Sea and Sardinia: “to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery – back, back down the old ways of time…Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal. She has found for me so much that was lost: like a restored Osiris.”

In the autumn of 1913 (after a brief return to England, where the couple met and befriended publisher and literary critic John Middleton Murry and his wife, writer Katherine Mansfield), the couple set up home in Fiaschiarino, a small fishing village in the Gulf of La Spezia on the Ligurian eastern Riviera, not far from Lerici, where in the 1820s the poet Shelley had lived and died. In May 1914, Professor Weekley obtained a divorce from Frieda, the two lovers returned to London, and were married on July 13, 1914. During his time back in England Lawrence met and worked with such figures as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and philosopher, editor, and feminist Dora Marsden.

He also started to have problems with the authorities. World War I had begun, and Lawrence’s literary anti-militarism, German wife, and charges of obscenity for his novel The Rainbow (prompting its suppression in England) caused both political and financial problems so severe that in March 1916 Lawrence decided to move to the small village of Zennor in Cornwall and lease a small isolated cottage for five pounds a year. Lawrence convinced Murry and Mansfield to move nearby. Mansfield hated it there, and soon she and Murry left.

In 1916-17, with the war devouring thousands of young men in the trenches of France, Lawrence and Frieda became the object of police suspicion and were investigated for spying on Germany’s behalf. The local people had denounced them to the authorities, saying that Freida was signaling secret messages to German submarines using the laundry placed to dry on a clothesline facing the sea! Their cottage was searched, and the authorities tried to induct the sickly Lawrence into the armed forces. Finally, on October 11, 1917, the Lawrences were ordered to leave their Cornwall home within three days under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. They were given no explanation for the order.

Unable to get passports to go abroad, the couple then moved to a string of villages where they could afford the rent until in 1919, the war over, they were issued travel documents and left for abroad. From then on, apart from two short visits to England, Lawrence remained abroad and lived in Italy, Sri Lanka, Australia, the United States, Mexico, and France.

More here.

The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer

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

He’s produced three more novels, that have been translated, and three volumes of short stories. Looking over his novels in their chronological order (the stories are written in and among, but they belong with the novels) the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision. Vision seems to be the right word for what Singer is conveying. The most important fact about him, that determines the basic strategy by which he deals with his subject, is that his imagination is poetic, and tends toward symbolic situations. Cool, analytical qualities are heavily present in everything he does, but organically subdued to a grasp that is finally visionary and redemptive. Without the genius, he might well have disintegrated as he evidently saw others disintegrate—between a nostalgic dream of ritual Hasidic piety on the one hand and cosmic dead-end despair on the other. But his creative demon (again, demon seems to be the right word) works deeper than either of these two extremes. It is what involves him so vehemently with both. It involves him with both because this demon is ultimately the voice of his nature, which requires at all costs satisfaction in life, full inheritance of its natural joy. It is what suffers the impossible problem and dreams up the supernormal solution. It is what in most men stares dumbly through the bars. At bottom it is amoral, as interested in destruction as in creation, but being in Singer’s case an intelligent spirit, it has gradually determined a calibration of degrees between good and evil, in discovering which activities embroil it in misery, pain, and emptiness, and conjure into itself cruel powers, and which ones concentrate it towards bliss, the fullest possession of its happiest energy. Singer’s writings are the account of this demon’s re-education through decades that have been—particularly for the Jews—a terrible school. They put the question: “How shall man live most truly as a human being?” from the center of gravity of human nature, not from any temporary civic center or speculative metaphysic or far-out neurotic bewilderment. And out of the pain and wisdom of Jewish history and tradition they answer it. His work is not discoursive, or even primarily documentary, but revelation—and we are forced to respect his findings because it so happens that he has the authority and power to force us to do so.

Up to 1945, this demon in Singer’s work shows itself overpowered. Satan in Goray and The Family Moskat give the story of its defeat. In some way these two books belong together, though they are ten years apart. Satan in Goray seems to me his weakest book—important, and with a stunning finish, but for the most part confusingly organized. Perhaps we wouldn’t notice this so much if we weren’t comparing it with his later works, where the inspired rightness of his technical inventions are a study in themselves. Satan in Goray recounts the effects of the Sabbatai Zevi Messianic hysteria on a small Hasidic community in seventeenth-century Poland. Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, who frequently appear in Singer’s stories, effectually apotheosized the Evil One. They proclaimed salvation through a sort of ecstasy of sinning, as if there were something purifying in the sheer intensity with which they surrendered to the forbidden, to the supercharged otherworld of disruptive powers and supernaturals which the Law, in its wandering history, had collided with and put under and thereafter had to hold under—a terrific population accumulating under the Cabala and on the Holy Fringes of everything, several entire religions and erstwhile creators screwed down under dots, letters, and ritual gestures. This isn’t altogether ancient history. Something of it has been dogmatized in modern psychology and avant-garde literature. One could argue that the whole of modern Western life is one vast scientifically programmed surrender to what was formerly unknown and forbidden, as if salvation lay that way. The Sabbatai Zevi psychic epidemic is an accurate metaphor for a cultural landslide that has destroyed all spiritual principles and dumped an entire age into a cynical materialism emptied of meaning. Which is why the sufferings of Netchele, the bride of the leader of the Sabbatai Zevi sect in Goray, in whose brain the general eruption of infernal license finally concentrates, belong to this century and not to the seventeenth. And why we can say her sufferings are perhaps an image of what Singer’s own muse, representative of the Polish Jews, has undergone.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

When Flaubert took wing

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

I managed not to let this frank display of doubt affect my subsequent work on the book. This was less because of an adamantine confidence in what I was up to than because I had relatively few expectations. My first two novels had sold 1,000 or so copies in hardback and had just about staggered into paperback - on separate lists, each of which had collapsed shortly afterwards. I suspected that Flaubert's Parrot might interest a few Flaubertians, and perhaps a smaller number of psittacophiles. There was no reason to write anything other than the (unAmisian) book I had always intended to.

I can identify exactly the moment at which the novel began - even if I didn't recognise it myself at the time. I had first read Madame Bovary at about 15; had done a special paper on Flaubert at university; and felt that at some point I would want to write about him. All I knew was the sort of book I didn't want to write - any kind of biography, for instance, or something in that charmingly illustrated Thames & Hudson series about writers and their worlds (not that I'd been asked).

In September 1981, on holiday in Normandy, I visited the three main Flaubert sites in Rouen. First, his statue in the intimate and leafy Place des Carmes, where the novelist (as I wrote in my travel notebook) is "looking loftily upwards, with a sticking-out moustache, disdaining the game of boules being played beneath him". Next, a walk down the Avenue Flaubert (past the Imprimerie Flaubert and a snack-bar called Le Flaubert) to the Flaubert museum at the Hôtel Dieu, where the novelist's father had been head surgeon. Here, I noted antique medical instruments and family memorabilia, and then "most memorably, the bright green, perky-eyed parrot which was lent to him when he was writing Un coeur simple, & which irritated him at the same time as giving him an inner sense of parrothood".

Finally, a day or two later, I went downstream from the city centre to Croisset and "the high point of the pilgrimage", the small, square pavilion which was all that remained of the Master's house. My four pages of notebook description of this one-room museum and its rather haphazard contents end like this:
"Then, crouched on top of one of the display cabinets, what did we see but Another Parrot. Also bright green, also, according to the gardienne & also a label hung on its perch, the authentic parrot borrowed by GF when he wrote UCS!! I ask the gardienne if I can take it down & photograph it. She concurs, even suggests I take off the glass case. I do, & it strikes me as slightly less authentic than the other one: mainly because it seems benign, & F wrote of how irritating the other one was to have on his desk. As I am looking for somewhere to photograph it, the sun comes out - this on a cloudy, grouchy, rainy morning - & slants across a display cabinet. I put it there & take 2 sunlit photos; then, as I pick the parrot up to replace it, the sun goes in. It felt like a benign intervention by GF - signalling thanks for my presence, or indicating that this was indeed the true parrot."
It had clearly made an impression, but of what sort - and with what consequences, if any? Was this just a Curious Fact? Half an anecdote? A small article for an academic journal? I didn't know, nor did I really ask. A year and more passed, whereupon the notion of the two-parrot encounter, and its implicit dilemma, taking place in a fictional context must have presented itself as a possibility (though I have no memory of the moment). What if someone - clearly not me, but someone sufficiently interested in Flaubert, someone whose life might have parallels and points of bouncing contact with Flaubert's work and perhaps life - were to have the same experience? It could be the opening - or perhaps clinching - moment in a story about life and art, about France and England, about the pursuit of the writer by the reader, and that moment of contact - practical yet mystical - between the two of them.

So I came up with my narrator: a retired English doctor, a widower and war veteran, returning to the Normandy beaches as well as to Rouen. I also shifted the inner narrative of the parrot encounters: the first makes the reader-pursuer feel warmly close to the writer-hero, while the second acts as a rebuking reply - Ha, don't be so sentimental, don't think you can get in touch with the artist as easily as that. I began writing what I intended as a freestanding short story, but then felt increasingly that I was on to something with this mix of fact and fiction, something which might be elastic and capacious. So: not a story but the beginning of a novel, one in which an at times attenuated fictional infrastructure would support a factual superstructure. Or (as I would have more likely put it to myself): my narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite is about to tell you a load of stuff about Flaubert because he is unable to tell you the real story he is loaded down by. It will be a novel about emotional blockage, about grief.

Obviously, it wasn't as clear as that at the start - it rarely is. But in the writing it became so. It also became a matter of urgency: I was already some way into a different novel, but laid it aside to write Flaubert's Parrot. I also found myself excitedly wondering how far I could push the constraints of traditional narrative: how far I could distort and fragment the narrative line while still keeping (I hoped) a continuous and rising expectation in the reader.

"The reader", indeed - at times I felt there might only be one of them, or at most a few hundred. Yet this apprehension was liberating rather than constricting; my only possible calculations were aesthetic. It never crossed my mind, for instance, that the novel would be translated into French, let alone read there by native Flaubertians. If I'd thought that, it might have had an inhibitory effect. Instead, I felt free to indulge my narrator's reflections on France and the French; I allowed him, for instance, full licence to show disrespect for Sartre. As it turned out, this unself-consciousness worked to the book's advantage - especially in France.

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Text by Julian Barnes