Friday, 29 March 2013

On James Baldwin

I had no idea why I was so absorbed in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, but everyone else in the car knew. My father had been driving for so long he gripped the wheel with paper towels. It was 1967 and we were days from Indianapolis on our way to Disney Land. We were actually on Route 66 and I didn’t care. I was thirteen years old and I wasn’t causing trouble, sitting between my two sisters with Baldwin’s novel about a man’s love for another man in my face. I remember my mother glancing back at me. We’d driven through a dust storm a while ago, but I’d missed it.

Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head. Soon enough I had Another Country, Baldwin’s best seller, stashed away with what I considered porn. I’d not read his essays, because I knew that they were about race, a matter I was determined to put off for as long as I could. But the subject of race would not wait and in 1971 a teacher who understood showed me Baldwin’s “Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” in The New York Review of Books. “The enormous revolution in black consciousness that has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America.” I come from preachers. I recognized that speaker.

Away and on my own at last, drinking and cruising, I read in my dorm room what I’d refused to at home. I fell under the spell of Baldwin’s voice. No other black writer I’d read was as literary as Baldwin in his early essays, not even Ralph Ellison. There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin’s sentences and the cool of his tone, something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem. I can see the scratches in the desk in my room where I was reading “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin’s memoir of his hated father’s death the day his father’s last child was born in 1943, one day before Harlem erupted into the deadliest race riot in its history. I can feel the effects of this essay within me still.

However, there was a problem as new works by James Baldwin came out in the 1970s. They showed a falling off in his writing. His exhortations to the nation came across as perfunctory. Baldwin’s loss of his cool was a subject I thought I’d thought a lot about when in 1979 Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein suggested that I try to write about what would be his last novel.

Just Above My Head is a sprawling saga about a black gay gospel singer and his family. I am embarrassed more than three decades later by the knowingness of that review, from the typewriter of Mr. Little Shit. I was young, Baldwin was young no longer, and therefore I had his number. I eased scorn on what I saw as his sentimental portrayal of a gay couple. Because the two men in Baldwin’s novel consider themselves married, I accused him of having them imitate heterosexual behavior. He’d given up on sexual liberation, I said. Mary McCarthy advises that a good way to get started as a writer is to publish reviews. I was going about the business of trying to become a writer, willing to do so at the expense of this tender, brave, and brilliant soul.

A few years later at a party for Baldwin after he read his blues poems at the 92nd Street Y, I, drunk, asked—yes, asked—if he’d seen that review. He graciously said no and I’m afraid I can’t pretend that I did not in a seizure of self-importance rehearse some of my arguments against his book right there, in the middle of a cocktail party for him, this adored figure. His smile was all forbearance and understanding. He had my number. Then I was alone in the bedroom of Grace Schulman, the head of the Y’s poetry reading series. I heard a guy coming, Baldwin’s secretary, and simply stepped into Grace’s closet. Baldwin’s secretary sat on the bed and picked up the white phone. It was too late to say I was there, hiding among dresses with organdy sleeves. Minutes went by and after the secretary put out his cigarette, I went off into the unsteady dark.

More here.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Flaubert's muse

Familiar to admirers of Gustave Flaubert as the writer with whom he had a tempestuous affair, Louise Colet has not—until fairly recently—enjoyed a good press. Yet it was to her that Flaubert addressed the now celebrated letters on his art that make the genesis of Madame Bovary one of the best-charted in fiction. Fifty years ago, one leading Flaubert scholar could just bring himself to say of this poet and woman of letters that a novel of hers was “not without talent” and that she herself was “not without genuine grievances.” However, the wave of feminism since the 1970s has swept Louise Colet, known variously to her contemporaries as “the Muse,” “Penserosa,” “Sappho,” along with it. Julian Barnes had her argue her own case persuasively in a chapter of his amusing Flaubert’s Parrot. There have been at least two French biographies of this independent spirit (one by Micheline Bood and Serge Grand, the other by Jean-Paul Clébert) in the last decade. Now a fluent American biography, by Francine du Plessix Gray, is to be welcomed. 

Born in Provence in 1810, Louise Révoil was famously endowed with a “southern” temperament, i.e., she was passionate and impetuous. She belonged with the generation of French high Romanticism, with its literature of personal confession and its generous humanitarian sympathies. Studious, ambitious, and totally without means, she married Hippolyte Colet, an equally impecunious (and as it turned out, unsuccessful) musician. By early 1835 they were settled in Paris, her aim being to take the capital by storm. One element in her favor: she was extremely beautiful (and knew it). Still, life was hard, as she made the rounds of indifferent or gross editors, or utilized tenuous contacts forged by unsolicited visits to the great in order to establish her name. A few noncommittal phrases in a reply from the lofty novelist and statesman François-René de Chateaubriand served as the preface to her first collection of verses. A poem on a theme set by the Académie Française carried off the prize and its monetary reward (she was to win the competition four times in all, a considerable feat). The eminent eclectic philosopher and liberal politician Victor Cousin (“Plato”) fell in love with her and became her protector, the leading light of her literary and political salon, and—along with Hippolyte Colet —the putative father of her daughter, Henriette. Louise and her husband would go their separate ways until his death in 1851. Wags had it that Cousin had maneuvered her first success with the Académie Française, though her new biographer shows that this was not the case. All the same, Louise Colet acquired the reputation for being pushy and on the make. Yet she needed money to live: she was an early professional woman writer, following in the wake of George Sand (née Aurore Dupin), who had begun her Parisian journalistic career in 1831. The satirist Alphonse Karr published a scabrous allusion to Louise Colet’s liaison with Victor Cousin. Though pregnant with Henriette, she rushed to Karr’s home to take revenge by stabbing him (to little effect) with her kitchen knife, “in the back” as he liked jokingly to maintain. This act of folly would never be forgotten. By 1846, the year Flaubert met the ravishing Louise Colet in the studio of James Pradier (“Phidias”), where she was posing for the well-known sculptor, she was an established “femme artiste”—that is, a woman writer living a free life like George Sand or Hortense Allart and (as she would insist) not to be confused with a courtesan or a kept woman. She would not be setting up house with any of her numerous literary or political lovers: obscure Polish patriots, radical députés, famous poets such as Alfred de Musset and Alfred de Vigny. The kind of artistic Bohemia she inhabited was distinct from that lowlier version described by Henri Murger (and popularized by Puccini). Flaubert had been advised by Pradier to take a mistress. Tall, good-looking, some eleven years younger than Louise Colet, a native of Normandy and therefore cautious where she was rash, Flaubert had so far published nothing. She would read his manuscripts and, unlike his friend Maxime du Camp, she recognized his genius long before the world did so. Their relationship, which falls into two parts, 1846–48 and 1851–54, with a conclusive break in 1855, has been portrayed as Flaubert’s one serious love affair. Sartre (in an interview in 1979 in L’Arc) would have none of this: all he would concede was that Flaubert “must have rather enjoyed making love to Louise for a short while, but that is all. He greatly preferred writing letters.” From the beginning Flaubert lucidly foresaw the end. True, he swore an oath to be devoted to Louise and her daughter for life—but then, he would not keep it. Rendezvous with Louise in Paris or Mantes were rare once he had his masturbatory souvenirs: the bloodstained handkerchief, the silk slippers that would finally go on the fire with her letters at the end of his life, in the hours of destruction he spent with Maupassant. The present feminist biographer sees this conflagration as yet another typical dastardly act against womankind, although there is scarcely a writer of repute whose literary remains have not suffered some degree of mutilation—see Ian Hamilton’s entertaining Keepers of the Flame.

More here.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Hand of the Master

Hemingway at his best is not a maker of metaphors. He resists the notion that anything can overtly be compared to anything else. While his images almost always function on two levels—the literal and the figurative— Hemingway refuses to help his reader bridge the gap between the two realms by in any way suggesting that his language might be two-dimensional. The pervasive sense that an overwhelming symbolic logic lurks just beneath the level of the literal is precisely the sense of the uncanny which Hemingway at once wishes to exploit and deny. From the perspective of rhetorical decorum, the "uncanny" acquires a stylistic as well as a psychological definition, since the tenor of every vehicle is just "that which ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light." Once Hemingway begins to take his metaphors as metaphors, his writing collapses the tension between the literal and the figurative which had lent it such an air of suspicious calm. The novels from 1940 on can be read as a debate over the uses of self-consciously metaphoric language. At the heart of this debate is the metaphor of the hand.

The "thing of the hand" haunts For Whom the Bell Tolls, where it refers to reading the future from one's palm. Like most of Hemingway's heroes, Robert Jordan spends his time ""looking into the future in English."" At first he is open to Anselmo's question, ""Can you read in the palm of the hand?""
"No," Robert Jordan said and he dipped another cup of wine.
"But if thou canst I wish thee would read in the palm of my hand and tell me what is going to pass in the next three days."

Anselmo recommends Pilar, she reads the palm, and, correctly forseeing Robert's doom, refuses to speak of what she sees. While its ending has effectively been given away, the novel settles into a debate over whether a man truly carries his fortune in his hand. This debate expands to cover all forms of divination and culminates in Chapter 19. To the question ""Do you believe in the possibility of a man seeing ahead what is to happen to him?"" Robert replies that such forebodings are ""evil visions,"" projections of what one fears, and therefore need not be accepted: ""Seeing bad signs, one, with fear, imagines an end for himself and one thinks that imagining comes by divination."" While Pilar marshals counter examples, she will, under pressure of the attack, finally renounce them: ""In regard to that thing of the hand. That is all gypsy nonsense."" Skepticism has apparently triumphed over superstition.

Fortune-telling is a business of the hand. So is suicide. Once Robert Jordan has rehearsed his family history, it becomes imperative for him to renounce as "crap" the business about "Pilar and the hand." Robert's father, like his author's, has killed himself with a hand gun. In both cases, the gun had been handed on to the son. Robert threw his Smith and Wesson into the deepest lake he could find; Ernest received his in the mail from his mother, along with a moldy chocolate cake, for a keepsake. In disposing of the gun, Robert has a premonition that he will repeat his father's act: "he climbed out on a rock and leaned over and saw his face in the still water, and saw himself holding the gun." It is especially this "evil vision" against which all Robert's resistance to divination is meant to defend. And the novel upholds him in his resolve. Lying wounded at the end, Robert refuses "to do that business that my father did." On the contrary: Robert's last act is to touch "the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay." He uses his hand to extend his life. The novel literalizes the metaphor of the hand as fortune in order to reject it.

More here.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Derrida: The Excluded Favorite

In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy. “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure,” the examiner wrote, encapsulating a sentiment about Derrida’s work that has since become a commonplace:
An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy….Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.
In America, Derrida, who died in 2004, left as big a mark on humanities departments as any single thinker of the past forty years—according to a recent survey, only works by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are cited more often. But in France, the gatekeepers of higher learning regarded him with ambivalence and, to his devastation, kept him at arm’s length for much of his career. According to a new biography by Benoît Peeters, Derrida, a French Jew from Algiers ill-prepared for the intellectual grind and noxious food of Parisian student life, may even have “contemplated” suicide after his first attempt to get into the École Normale. He finally gained admission on his third try, despite a disastrous performance in his orals. Asked to comment on a passage from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he later recounted:
I decided that this text was a trap…that everything about it, in its form, was ambiguous, implied, convoluted, complicated, suggested, murmured….I deployed all my resources to uncover a range of meanings fanning out from each sentence, each word.
The jurors were unimpressed. “Look, this text is quite simple,” one complained. “You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.”

It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable: that the so-called father of deconstruction was already hatching his apostasy while just barely out of his teens, or that the undertaking involved so much suffering. Peeters’ Derrida is a nervous wreck: “a fragile and tormented man,” prone to nausea, insomnia, exhaustion, and despair. By the summer of 1960, after failing to get a promised post as a maître assistant at the Sorbonne and having spent the year teaching in a provincial capital instead, he was on Anafranil, one of the original anti-depressants, which had just appeared on the market. During another bout of the blues, he wrote to a friend from his infirmary bed, “I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”

That’s not a bad description of deconstruction, an exercise in which unraveling—of meaning and coherence, of the kind of binary logic that tends to populate philosophical texts—is the path to illumination. In Derrida’s reading, Western philosophers’ preoccupation with first principles, a determination to capture reality, truth, “presence,”—what he called in reference to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl “the thing itself”—was doomed. He traced this impulse in thinkers from Aristotle to Heidegger, famously arguing, for example, that a tendency to favor the immediacy of speech over the remoteness of writing was untenable. (Aristotle’s formulation: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.”) Through a series of deft and delicate maneuvers, Derrida sought to show that speech is inextricable from writing, no more or less authentic. The difference between the two depends, as all differences do, on a process of enforced absence or repression: a is a only because it is not b, and thus b is never entirely out of the picture.

With the tenacity of a gumshoe, he haunted texts by Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Marx, and Hegel, among dozens of others, exposing the ways in which the subjugated or banished half of a crucial pair—inside/outside, man/woman, reason/madness, signifier/signified—continued to plague its partner. His close readings were at once highly specific and abstract, but lent themselves to extrapolation. As the scholar Mark C. Taylor neatly put it: “The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure—be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious—that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion.” And what is excluded “does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems.”

Acts of exclusion, it turns out, were central to Derrida’s perception of himself—the triggers, as he saw it, for his depression. Foremost among these was his expulsion from his Algerian lycée in 1942, when Vichy French officials lowered the Jewish student quota from 14 to 7 percent. “No trauma, for me, perhaps, which is not linked on some level with the experience of racism and/or anti-Semitism,” he wrote in a notebook in 1976—a statement complicated by his controversial defense, twelve years later, of his friend and ally, the Yale scholar Paul de Man, who was posthumously revealed to have published anti-Semitic newspaper articles in Nazi-occupied Belgium. (Referring to the most egregious of the pieces, Derrida admitted, “Nothing in what I am about to say…will heal over the wound I right away felt, when, my breath taken away, I perceived in it…an anti-Semitism that would have come close to urging exclusions, even the most sinister deportations.”)

More here.

Monday, 25 March 2013

No Way, Madame Bovary

The first thing to say about Madame Bovary is that it's a terrific story. Other comparably great and famous novels aren't, but it is. Everyone should read it. Everyone would read it, given a free taste. The plot fairly belts along from the first page. Young Charles Bovary clumps into school to be laughed at by the other kids for his awkwardness. In no time he is a medical student, and then a doctor. The beautiful Emma Rouault is his second wife. He wins the right to her hand after setting her father's broken leg. It's a simple job but it gets him a reputation for competence. Fatally, he believes this too. Stuck with him in the depths of nowhere, Emma gradually realizes that she has married a chump. Longing for excitement and a classier way of life, she falls for a charming poseur called Leon. Their incipient affair is a standoff. But with an upmarket louse called Rodolphe she finds sexual fulfillment and plans a future. Sharing no such plans, Rodolphe dumps her. She collapses. Nursed back to health by the unsuspecting Charles, she hooks up again with Leon. This time it really happens. But the extravagance of her double life, financed by money stolen from Charles, gets her into ruinous debt. The loan shark closes in, Leon backs out, and Emma has only one way to go. On a shelf in the pharmacist's shop nearby is a bottle of … but I won't say how it comes out, because some of you might not yet have read the book.

Some purists would say you can't. They would say that Flaubert's prose style is the essence of his art, and too near perfection to survive being translated. But we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the word "style." Undoubtedly there is a rhythm and a cadence to Flaubert's prose that only a fluent reader of French can appreciate, although the fluent reader of French had better be French. We are always better judges of tone in our first language than in a second or third. To turn things around for a moment, late-nineteenth-century French critics were under the impression that Edgar Allan Poe was not only a spellbinding tale-teller but also a great master of English prose; and in the twentieth century it was widely assumed in the French literary world that the leading stylist of the English literary world was Charles Morgan, a dim bulb now long extinguished. If we are learning a foreign language, we tend to admire writers in it who are easy to read. One of the early bonuses attached to learning Russian, for example, is that all the standard European fairy tales were rewritten from the ground up by great writers. So within a few weeks you are reading Tolstoy, whose name is on the title page of The Three Bears. It isn't all that long a step to reading Anna Karenina, because Tolstoy's sentences are never very tricky, however high the level of exposition. The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

It can safely be assumed that Flaubert's prose makes music. More important, however, is that it would be impressive even if it didn't. This is where the second, and richer, meaning of the word "style" comes in. You need only rudimentary French to spot that Flaubert never wastes a word. Every word is to the point, especially in the descriptive passages. In his landscapes trees are sometimes just trees and leaves leaves; but when it matters, he can give everything a specific name. Within four walls he gives every object a pinpoint particularity. If he is looking at things through Emma's eyes, he adds his analytical power to her naive hunger. Emma's wishes may have been blurred by her addiction to sentimental novels, but her creator, never sentimental for a second, keeps her perceptions sharp. Early in the story there is a ball at a grand house—an episode that awakes in Emma a dangerous taste for the high life. In a few paragraphs, using Emma's vision as a camera, Flaubert captures the sumptuous glamour with a photographic scope that makes us think of those lavish get-togethers in War and Peace, in Proust, or in The Leopard. Dickens could lay out a scene like that too, but he would spend thousands of words on it.

Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made. Martin Amis's War Against Cliché is nothing beside that of Flaubert, who waged his with nuclear weapons. (He died waging it: his last book, Bouvard et Pecuchet, was about no other subject.) Any translator must be unusually alert to what is alive or dead about his own use of language or else he will do an injury to Flaubert's style far more serious than merely failing to reproduce its pulse and lilt. When Flaubert seems to be saying that Charles's off-putting first wife is long in the tooth, the translator had better be careful about calling her long in the tooth, which in English means "old": Flaubert is just saying that her teeth are long. Unfortunately, evidence continues to accumulate that we are now past the time when more than a few jobbing writers knew how to keep an eye on their own prose. In the second-to-last stage of our language's decay it was enough to write correctly in order to gain a reputation for writing well. Now we are in the last stage, when almost nobody knows what it means to write correctly. Among ordinary pens for hire it is no longer common to write without solecisms; even those who can are likely to bolt phrases together with no real attention to their derivation; and in too many cases the language is utterly emptied of the history that brought it into being. This is a very depleted gene pool in which to go fishing for a translator of any foreign writer at all, let alone Flaubert. One can only salute the boldness of a publishing house still willing to give it a try. It might be wise, however, not to let the salute progress far above the shoulder until we have made sure that what we are acknowledging is a real contribution.

More here.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Poshlost Highway: In Praise of Dubravka Ugresic

The Russian word poshlost, according to a seminal essay by Vladimir Nabokov, has a number of possible definitions — “cheap,” “inferior, “scurvy,” “tawdry” — but is perhaps best grasped by example. He cites a character from a story told by Gogol. A German tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce a young girl who sits each evening on her balcony along a lake. At wit’s end, he decides at last to go swimming in the lake each evening with a pair of swans, prepared by him specially for that purpose. He succeeds in embracing both swans while swimming. The ritual repeats itself for a few successive evenings. The girl resists at first, but finally, in Gogol’s telling, “the lady’s heart was conquered.”

Poshlost, then, is the generation of sentiment in the hope that it will elicit someone else’s favor. Or, as Nabokov puts it, a form of sentimentalism “so cleverly painted over with protective tints that its presence often escapes attention.” It is an imitation of values that “are considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the highest level of art, thought or emotion.” An imitation, in other words, that is not recognized as such. Had the girl in Gogol’s story thought, This poor man who embraces his swans evening after evening beneath my balcony is in dire need of help, then we could not speak of poshlost. And had the German, in the event of a film version, been played by Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, or Mr. Bean, then we might find ourselves in the realm of slapstick. But because the gambit is effective — because the girl surrenders to the seduction, to the machinery of sentiment, (and because, in his perseverance, the German is a bit heroic after all, isn’t he?) — this is poshlost.

Poshlost grants primacy to the sentiment, but, as Nabokov himself emphasizes, it is an imitation. Poshlost is a burlesque of tradition (the swans, the lake, the girl on the balcony) without wanting to be aware of that itself. The quintessence of door-to-door sales, that is poshlost: sentimental through and through, but also cynical through and through. Seduction being the means, sales the end. Seduction is one of the great themes of the Croation writer Dubravka Ugresic’s essays…but not – or only rarely – the seduction that takes place between two lovers. She is far more interested in the seductive tactics of generals, intellectuals, wartime profiteers, academics, and businessmen (the latter category being one in which she also places publishers). Seduction, she suggests, is not only the lead-up to the conquest of a lover, but also the lead-up to war, ethnic cleansing, and the rewriting of history. No ideology, no sales, no religion, no democracy, and no dictatorship without seduction.

The bitter truth behind all seduction does not escape Ugresic’s notice, either: the seducee is merely an obstacle. The seducer conquers like a supreme commander, without worrying too much about the collateral damage, focusing solely on efficiency, on the result. Poshlost, Ugresic observes, is an inevitable byproduct.

Indeed, poshlost is one of Ugresic’s favorite words, cropping up all over her five collections of essays. For her, it is linked inextricably to Nabokov’s earlier essay, and is often deployed alongside her own formulation: “a gingerbread heart.” But what continues to amaze and agitate her in these essays is that the imitation, the gingerbread, turns out to be so seductive. Indeed, it is the lie that seduces us, that makes our hearts skip a beat. Two swans embraced by a German in a lake at dusk — how could one ever resist that?

More here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Ovid: The Poet’s Gift

Like the woman carried by the ships from Eurotas
to Troy, the cause of war between two husbands:
like Leda to whom the adulterous god made love,
craftily hidden, disguised in white plumage:
like Amymome wandering through arid fields,
with a water-pot on top of her head –
such were you: I feared eagles and bulls, for you,
and whatever else great Jupiter might make love as.
Now all fear’s gone, my mind is healed of error,
now your beauty can’t captivate my eyes.
Why am I changed, you ask? Because you want gifts.
That’s the cause that stops you from pleasing me.
Once you were innocent, I loved you body and soul:
now your beauty’s flawed by this defect of mind.
Love is a child and naked: without the shabbiness of age
and without clothing, so he’s all openness.
Why tell Venus’s son to sell himself for cash?
Where can he keep cash, he’s got no clothes!
Neither Venus nor Venus’s son carry arms –
unwarlike gods don’t merit soldier’s pay.
Even the whore who’s buyable for money,
and seeks alas to command wealth with her body:
nevertheless curses a grasping pimp’s orders,
and is forced to do, what you do by choice.
Think about unreasoning creatures for example:
it’s a disgrace, if the beasts are better natured than you.
Mares don’t ask gifts of stallions, cows of bulls:
rams don’t capture pleasing ewes with gifts.
Only a woman delights in taking spoils from her mate,
only she hires out her nights, comes for a price,
and sells what this one demands, what that one seeks,
or gives it as a gift, to please herself.
When making love pleases both partners alike,
why should she sell and the other buy?
When a man and a woman perform a joint act
why should the pleasure hurt me and profit you?
It’s wrong for witnesses to perjure themselves for gain,
it’s wrong to open the purse of the chosen judges.
It’s a disgrace to defend the accused with a bought tongue:
a disgraceful court makes itself wealthy:
it’s wrong to swell family wealth with the bed’s proceeds,
or prostitute your good looks for money.
un-purchased, things deserve our thanks, on merit:
no thanks for the evil of a bought bed.
The buyer loosens all bonds: freed by payment
he no longer remains a debtor in your service.
Beware, you beauties, bargaining gifts for a night:
you’ll have no good outcome from sordid presents.
Sabine bracelets weren’t worth so much
when weapons pressed down on the sacred virgin’s head:
and Eriphyle died, her son’s sword through her body,
a necklace the reason for her punishment.
Still there’s nothing unworthy in asking gifts of the rich:
those who can give have presents demanded of them.
Pick your grapes from the most loaded vines:
Alcinous’s fruitful orchard offers its apples!
Count on a poor man for duty, loyalty, devotion:
what a man has, let him gather it all for his lady.
My gift then’s to celebrate worthy girls in my song:
those that I wish, are made famous by my art.
dresses crumble, gold and gems are worn down:
but the tribute of song brings eternal fame.
It’s not giving, it’s being asked for a gift I loathe and scorn:
Stop wanting what I refuse to supply, and I’ll give!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Enlightened: Schiller at the Hohe Carlsschule

In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”

These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.

Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning. What distinguished the Hohe Carlsschule from other European military academies was its founder’s deep fascination with the progressive pedagogical ideas of the French Enlightenment. From a young age, the students learned Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, and were set on a professional path as doctors, lawyers, or civil servants—all extremely enviable positions. They studied rhetoric and contemporary literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry. The teachers were scarcely older than the students, and instead of lecturing held informal chats in which the students were invited to participate. The Carlsschulers were encouraged to look on them as their friends and confidants, to whom closely guarded secrets could be trusted. Schiller enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jakob Friedrich Abel, a philosophy teacher only seven years his senior. He credited Abel with the deep moral and aesthetic convictions that would run through his plays and his poetry, even as Abel reported on Schiller to the duke.

Despite the school’s professional emphasis, Carl-Eugen stressed that students’ primary area of study was the knowledge of man, the most cherished of Enlightenment values. To that end, classes were given regular essay assignments like “Which student among you has the worst moral character?” Time was set aside for the students to write detailed studies of another’s characters and habits. The first existing piece of Schiller’s writing is one such essay, written when the poet was fifteen years old. Asked to analyze an older student named Karl Kempff, the young Schiller pulls no punches. With an astonishing mix of eloquence, astuteness, and coldness for a fifteen-year-old, Schiller accuses Kempff of mediocrity, egotism, crudeness, envy, malice, and false modesty. Schiller’s brutal honesty is particularly shocking in light of the fact that students could be punished for infractions revealed in the studies. Practically, the reports had the effect of undermining the students’ sense that they were victims of authority by turning them into co-perpetrators. The duke would stand by as the essays were read aloud and chide the students if he felt that they were being insufficiently specific.

More here.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The restless spirit of Arthur Koestler

When Hardwick built the great arch which leads to Euston Station, he named it “the Gateway to the North”. On every great Continental railway station should have been inscribed: “The Gateway to Utopia”. Did not Robert Owen describe his co-operative system as “the railway which would take men to universal happiness”? The metaphor had point: until Iron Curtains descended, railways offered men escape – from one country, one way of life, to another. And of Hungary, above all, was this true. Paris and Western civilisation were at one end of the line; Constantinople and the Orient at the other. Budapest was a gloried gypsy-encampment; Hungarians never forgot their nomadic origin. Intellectual life in Budapest was intense but intellectuals had to be European or nothing; and they took advantage of their railway. Budapest provided Europe with musicians, film stars, playwrights, economists – all travellers by train.

Arthur Koestler is the most complete example of this destiny. He describes his autobiography – the second volume of which has just been published – as “the typical casehistory of a member of the Central European educated middle classes, born in the first years of our century”. He is the man without roots, the man whose mind is his only fortune, the man who is always in search of perfection. By the middle of the century, he has become the man who knows that perfection can never be found and so concludes that nothing can be found. Here, too, the disillusioned intellectual is typical of his age. We should perhaps quarrel with one word of the description. His case-history is “typical” only in being extreme. Koestler has gone further than others in quest of Utopia and has been correspondingly more disillusioned. Most men have few roots; Koestler is untypical in that he has none at all. And of course the claim to be typical reveals a false modesty quite out of tune. His transcendent abilities make him far from typical. Many men have had Koestler’s experiences, or some of them. No one else could have transformed them into perhaps the most remarkable autobiography since the Confessions of Rousseau. Whether we admire or dislike him, learn from him or repudiate his instruction, there is no denying his literary gifts. Koestler is typical only in the way that Bernard Shaw claimed to be normal.

And yet, if we can tear ourselves away from Koestler’s magic and look again at the record, we may wonder if his case-history is so representative after all. No doubt many intellectuals ran after Utopias between the wars; and no doubt all were somewhat disappointed. But did any run as hard as Koestler or end up in such complete disillusionment? Indeed, how many ran at all seriously? “Parlour Bolshevism” was the most popular game of the Thirties; Koestler never played it. His present fate bears witness to this. Other intellectuals have dabbled in Communism at one time or another. They have sloughed it off, and the flirtation might as well never have been. But Koestler is still obsessed by it. Though he may be without roots, he has put out tentacles and now cannot detach them. He himself asks – why do men write autobiographies? and he answers – as a cautionary tale. But this is not always the true answer, certainly not true in his case. Men also write autobiographies in order to relive the past, to experience again their triumphs or, it may be, their failures. The interwar years were, for everyone, years of folly and disaster – for Koestler more than for most. One might imagine that he would like to turn his back on them. On the contrary, he writes of nothing else, just as Dickens could never get the boot-blacking factory out of his mind.

More here.

Friday, 15 March 2013

J. M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer

J. M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer is a wonderful book that explodes more than a few myths. One myth that I used to day dream about entailed a breakfast meeting between Jorge Luis Borges and Coetzee during their time at the University of Texas, Austin (unfortunately, for my imagination, the years do not line up). It’s a blistering hot day and beads of sweat form along Borges’ bald patch that glisten beneath the hot sun. A young Coetzee has to help him find his table and then reads aloud the entire menu. Borges decides on a cowboy’s breakfast (chili beans, eggs, and toast with coffee), Coetzee gets pancakes and coffee. Coetzee sits in awe of the accomplished writer before him. My day dream continued as I saw these two provincials who found a new way out of the stultified tradition of high modernism (a stultification that Coetzee captures so well in Youth). After their food arrives they start to discuss the use of footnotes in Gibbon’s histories, the banalities of living in a police state, far from any cultured metropole and, finally, breaking out in laughter over the absurdity of the word realism.

The other myth that can now be dismissed is Coetzee as a recalcitrant recluse: Kannemeyer shows us a writer who is deeply engaged with society and with the people around him. Yet in choosing to show us this Coetzee, Kannemeyer’s challenge is sizable. On the one hand Coetzee is a writer who believes that the “stories finally have to tell themselves, that the hands that holds the pen is only the conduit of a signifying process.” But then again, he has written a series of novels about a character named John whose story closely follows Coetzee’s own life (Boyhood, Youth, Summertime) and one about an elderly writer living in Australia who once published a book called Waiting for the Barbarians. So where do the biographical details of Coetzee become important, and when do the stories become so strong that they start to tell themselves through Coetzee? Often it is both at the same time. Kannemeyer’s achievement is to chart the way that Coetzee’s creativity swings back and forth between his own storehouse of personal history and the entire discourse of literature, history, politics, and culture that he has mastered through his own passionate reading and subsequent academic career.

Kannemeyer starts his biography of Coetzee well before the subject is born. The opening chapters familiarize readers (especially helpful for U.S. readers, where South African and British Colonial history is not widely known) with the early colonization of South Africa and Coetzee’s ancestors. As a professor of Afrikaans, Kannemeyer is particularly suited to this task; in fact, his reputation as a stickler for the faces and intimate knowledge of South Africa in general and the Western Cape in particular is what may have convinced the subject to allow him access to extensive interviews and private papers. Kannemeyer shows just how important roots are and how the lingering effects of historical violence can seep into the contemporary age. The figure of J. M. Coetzee then catches up with his own biography and is finally born in Chapter Two. We read about his student days in Cape Town, self-imposed exile to London, Ph. D. at Texas, and teaching at SUNY Buffalo. Like many great writers in the past, Coetzee continually struggled to find “home” and was always trying to see if a new location would fit. These chapters reveal an especially precocious young man, but nothing that would signal the great talent that was to emerge as he started to write (not until his 30th birthday). As London quickly became tedious, he decided to try the energetic United States. He was awarded a Fulbright to study at the University of Texas, Austin, and was awarded a Ph. D. for his troubles. His time in America was mostly happy, as he fully committed himself to research and teaching. He was popular with staff and students and everything seemed to line up for a healthy academic career. That is until the specter of the Vietnam War loomed over campuses. Coetzee participated in an on-campus demonstration at SUNY Buffalo (he and other members of the faculty wanted to meet with the college president to discuss how unrest on campus was making teaching impossible—hardly civil disobedience). The president called the cops. Coetzee’s record was now “tarnished.” A subsequent visa application was denied, so it became time to head home.

More here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Drugs and Words - The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey
In a gesture of admiration, Charles Baudelaire devoted half of his Artificial Paradises to a translation of Thomas De Quincey’s memoirs. “The work on opium has been written,” he explained, “and in a manner so dazzling, medical and poetic all at once, that I would not dare add anything to it.” Would-be biographers have perhaps shared these reservations: of all the Romantics, De Quincey has received the least attention from the “life-writing” industry. He wrote so voluminously of his own experience, of the traumas of his past as well as the “shadowy world” of his opium dreams, that there is little room to speculate on his inner life. The biographer is largely consigned to rehashing De Quincey’s version of events in a saner, scientific manner, or to parodying him.

 Robert Morrison’s biography somewhat daringly, then, takes its title from De Quincey’s most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. While he draws on De Quincey’s reminiscences and self-analysis, Morrison also shows what De Quincey’s life looked like from the outside. In an opening vignette, we meet not the introspective sybarite of the Confessions but a down-at-heel, elderly magazine writer, who has walked eight miles to hand in his copy. Indeed, De Quincey’s tendency to bring hardship upon himself (and others) permeates the rest of the book. Born in 1785 into a wealthy family with aristocratic pretensions (hence the ‘De’), he ran away from Manchester Grammar School at 16, choosing to live alone and penniless in London. He began to dissipate his inheritance long before he was legally entitled to it by living determinedly beyond his means. He was, for most of his life, pursued by creditors, whom he eluded with gusto, although he was imprisoned for debt once and publicly humiliated on several occasions. His long-suffering daughter Florence described leaving the debtors’ sanctuary where they spent seven years as “one of the most lively foretastes of Paradise I have had in my life.”

By tracing De Quincey’s public persona as “The Opium Eater” through to old age, Morrison avoids reducing his subject to The Man Who Wrote The Confessions. Soon after he was identified as the author of the hugely successful (and originally anonymous) memoir, which was one of his first published works, he was able to trade on “the magic prefix ‘by the Opium Eater.’” It was the name under which he published his Gothic novel Klosterheim: or the Masque, the signature on many of his London Magazine articles, and the name used against him in gossip columns.

To some extent, the persona took on a life of its own, adding to the myths around the man, even when he was doing nothing at all. De Quincey never defended himself against accusations, for example, that the “stories about celestial dreams, and similar nonsense” in his Confessions had caused an increase in opium-related deaths, but such was his notoriety that he did appear in fictionalized form in a sketch in Blackwood’s Magazine, which broached the subject. Questioned on the “fifty unintentional suicides,” the caricature responds cagily: “I have read of six only, and they rested on no solid foundation.” Meanwhile, his celebrity as a profligate and a sage was laughable to the literary Lake District circle. Noting his indulgence in drugged solitude, Mary Wordsworth jibed, “The Seer continues in close retirement”.

If De Quincey scarcely reflected on the tribulations of his everyday life in print, it is because he believed that his opium-induced visions revealed deeper truths. The faculty for dreaming, he proposed, was impaired by a “too intense life of the social instincts.” But when properly nurtured “the dreaming organ … throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of that mysterious camera obscura—the sleeping mind.” However he tried to dodge charges of mysticism, he found symbols everywhere: the industrial city of Liverpool represented a world aloof from suffering; Coleridge was a risen phoenix condemned to feed on carrion; the unfinished stairs in Piranesi’s Dreams, which De Quincey had never actually seen, suggested the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction.”

This “purely aerial” world, he acknowledged, had always had a stronger hold on him than the “real world of flesh and blood.” Very little would be known about the shape of De Quincey’s worldly existence if we had to rely solely on his own records. He was typically “flustered at the thought” of filling out his household’s 1851 census forms. At a loss for what to write under “Occupation,” he settled for “writer to the magazines,” which the enumerator doubted, amending it to “annuitant.” His description of the endless work done by his daughters was merely fanciful: “These are like the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin.” De Quincey is the rare case of an eccentric subject who demands a conventional biography. The headings “life at college, marriage, career” that Virginia Woolf thought “very arbitrary and artificial distinctions” offer, in this instance, much-needed reference points for his phantasmagorical autobiography.

De Quincey understood as well as anyone the literary devotee’s desire to know the man behind the work. Long before he appointed himself Pope of the “true church on the subject of opium,” he made a cult of Wordsworth and Coleridge. “The bowers of Paradise,” he told Wordsworth, on being invited to his house, “could hold out no such allurement.” While he plucked up the courage to visit, he gleaned as much as he could from mutual friends, whom he invariably considered “traitors” to the great men, when they did not prove as fanatical as he was. Their lives gradually became intertwined, to De Quincey’s initial delight. He edited Wordsworth’s pamphlet The Convention of Cintra, became tutor to his son and paid Coleridge’s debts out of his own pocket. Best of all, he took out a six-year lease on Dove Cottage, whose rooms had been “hallowed” by Wordsworth, the previous tenant.

The adage “never meet your heroes” accounts for the subsequent cooling of relations between them. Or as De Quincey put it stiffly: “Men of extraordinary genius and force of mind are far better as objects of admiration than as daily companions.” Sometimes he was only mildly disappointed. He had hoped, for instance, that ten-year-old Hartley Coleridge would be able to repeat some of Wordsworth’s table talk after their trip through Uxbridge. Yet the best the child could produce was Wordsworth’s gripe that, instead of buttered toast, he had been served “dry toast dipped in hot water.” In later life, when he began to write short biographies of his friends, De Quincey made extravagant criticisms: “never describe Wordsworth as equal in pride to Lucifer; no, but if you have occasion to write a life of Lucifer, set down that … he might be some type of Wordsworth.”

Morrison’s biography contains plenty of anecdotes of the buttered toast variety. The Opium Eater loses some of his carefully cultivated air of mystery in the encounters compiled here; those who met him often saw through his self-deceptions, only to be left wondering whether the old man was not in on the joke. Hill Burton’s description of De Quincey, then in his 60s, wearing a boy’s duffle coat, and nothing else but “inner linen garments dyed with black ink” to pass for trousers—so that he seemed fully dressed at a glance—would not be out of place in a Dickens novel. Even when faced with extreme poverty, he emerges as a comic figure whose imagination allowed him to brazen out various indignities.

Dickens himself counted De Quincey’s works among his “especial favourites,” but the feeling was not mutual. The suggestion that De Quincey saw something of himself in Dickens’s darker comic characters—like the irresponsible Romantic Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, who was based on his contemporary and fellow magazine grandee Leigh Hunt—is a tempting one. There is a child-like, excessive side of De Quincey that Morrison captures in descriptions of his less glamorous habits. Compulsive book-buying, for example, forced De Quincey and his family to leave the hallowed Dove Cottage, which was now overflowing with books, and rent a second property nearby in the winter of 1820. Although he could not really afford it, he reasoned blithely that “there is such a thing as buying a thing and yet not paying for it.” According to Morrison, this was no one-off: when the books began to pile up in the numerous apartments he rented away from home, De Quincey “often simply locked the door and turned elsewhere.” ...

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Interview


How do you feel about using the tape recorder?


The problem is that the moment you know the interview is being taped, your attitude changes. In my case I immediately take a defensive attitude. As a journalist, I feel that we still haven’t learned how to use a tape recorder to do an interview. The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed. Another useful method is to take notes and then interpret them with a certain loyalty to the person interviewed. What ticks you off about the tape recording everything is that it is not loyal to the person who is being interviewed, because it even records and remembers when you make an ass of yourself. That’s why when there is a tape recorder, I am conscious that I’m being interviewed; when there isn’t a tape recorder, I talk in an unconscious and completely natural way.


Well, you make me feel a little guilty using it, but I think for this kind of an interview we probably need it.


Anyway, the whole purpose of what I just said was to put you on the defensive. INTERVIEWER

So you have never used a tape recorder yourself for an interview?


As a journalist, I never use it. I have a very good tape recorder, but I just use it to listen to music. But then as a journalist I’ve never done an interview. I’ve done reports, but never an interview with questions and answers.


I heard about one famous interview with a sailor who had been shipwrecked.


It wasn’t questions and answers. The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing. When the work was published as a serial in a newspaper, one part each day for two weeks, it was signed by the sailor, not by me. It wasn’t until twenty years later that it was re-published and people found out I had written it. No editor realized that it was good until after I had written One Hundred Years of Solitude.


Since we’ve started talking about journalism, how does it feel being a journalist again, after having written novels for so long? Do you do it with a different feel or a different eye?


I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist. What I didn’t like about journalism before were the working conditions. Besides, I had to condition my thoughts and ideas to the interests of the newspaper. Now, after having worked as a novelist, and having achieved financial independence as a novelist, I can really choose the themes that interest me and correspond to my ideas. In any case, I always very much enjoy the chance of doing a great piece of journalism.


What is a great piece of journalism for you?


Hiroshima by John Hersey was an exceptional piece.


Is there a story today that you would especially like to do?


There are many, and several I have in fact written. I have written about Portugal, Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam. I would very much like to write on Poland. I think if I could describe exactly what is now going on, it would be a very important story. But it’s too cold now in Poland; I’m a journalist who likes his comforts.


Do you think the novel can do certain things that journalism can’t?


Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same. The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is a great novel and Hiroshima is a great work of journalism.

More here.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Jane Austen’s Material World

The dust-jacket is duck-egg blue. It is scattered with jaunty sketches of Regency ephemera and tableaux, including a barouche, a cheque, and two ladies in empire-line dresses. The title is embossed in ornate and spidery script. This is a cover more typical of candy-covered chick-lit than serious lit crit.

Never judge a book by its cover, so the axiom goes. It’s one that’s hard to observe after reading The Real Jane Austen, which revolutionizes biography by foregrounding objects instead of the human subject. Byrne’s innovative retelling of Austen’s life and times is a bricolage of things, many of which once belonged to Austen or her family. My opening paragraph imitates the beginnings of the chapters. Each uses an object to contemplate a different aspect of the experiences and cultural contexts that inform Austen’s works. A card of lace and a bathing machine are just two more items that feature in Byrne’s quirky compendium.

If this all sounds too whimsical, Byrne’s prologue explains the theory behind her method. Sir Walter Scott wrote that Austen was the first novelist to portray “the current of ordinary life” and compared her talent for detail with Dutch realist painting. Byrne runs with the analogy. Just as Vermeer used a pearl earring to convey reality so, she argues, in Austen’s novels “the intense emotions associated with love and death are often refracted through objects.” Austen’s description of the East Room in Mansfield Park (1814) is a case in point. The contents of this small room tell us much about the novel’s heroine Fanny Price: prints of landscapes reveal her romantic sensibility; family profiles testify her domestic values; and a sketch of her brother’s ship speaks to her sisterly feeling while linking her to the world beyond her uncle’s estate. Byrne mirrors this technique to retell Austen’s life. The card of lace is unravelled to show how Austen family endured an aunt’s conviction for shop-lifting and the bathing machine transports Austen out of the country village and into the island nation.

Elsewhere in Mansfield Park, the cad Henry Crawford tries to catch Fanny’s attention by holding forth on spiritual matters and praising the “eloquence of the pulpit”. Crawford’s emphasis on style over substance fails to impress the principled Fanny. Byrne’s more expert readers may be similarly unmoved by stylistic showmanship. After Austen’s death in 1817 aged only 41, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her letters and pruned those which she permitted to survive. Her brother and literary executor Henry wrote a biographical notice for the 1818 posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Since then, Austen’s short life has been the subject of numerous biographies. Is experimentation with biographical technique justification enough for yet another?

Byrne’s first object does not bode well. It is the 1783 silhouette of Austen’s brother Edward being presented for adoption to wealthy cousins, the Knights of Kent. The silhouette and its significance are well known to Austen devotees: Edward took his patrons’ name, inherited their estates at Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire, and later bestowed Chawton Cottage on Austen, her mother, and sister , from which Austen published her novels. But instead of rehashing the story of Edward’s good fortune and its consequences, Byrne unfolds it into a wider one of childhood displacements and dislocations. Another Austen brother also grew up away from the family home of Steventon Rectory: this was George, who was fostered out to a parish clerk because he was mentally infirm. As some of the young Austens left the Rectory, so it became a temporary home for the boys that Austen’s father took in to school. Austen and her sister Cassandra, meanwhile, left home for boarding school aged only nine and twelve.

Byrne’s ingenuity lies in reassembling the known facts to modernise Austen’s popular image. Her Austen is cosmopolitan and well-travelled. Byrne bundles her readers into the barouche on the cover and gallops them through the novelist’s peregrinations. By the time Austen was ten, she had lived in Reading, Oxford, and Southampton. She dropped in and out of city life and as an adult regularly visited her Kentish relatives. She was not above roughing it by stage-coach, in an age when highwaymen were on the loose. She was, in short, anything but a sequestered country spinster. Other objects in Byrne’s selection place the author on a global stage. An East-Indian shawl connects her, through her vivacious cousin and later sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide, to revolutionary Paris and imperial India. A portrait by Johann Zoffany’s of William Murray, 1st Earl Mansfield’s daughters, one of whom was known to Austen, draws her into the slave trade and plantation economy, again through her extended family. The topaz crosses that Austen’s sailor brother Charles bought for his sisters become mementos of her knowledge of and interest in the navy, complete with its scandalous stories of sodomy and mutiny. None of these colourful details will be revelations for Austen scholars, but The Real Jane Austen has not been written with a scholarly readership in mind.

Henry Austen’s 1818 biographical notice presented his sister as a paragon of virtue and an accidental authoress. Byrne’s Austen is a savvy professional writer. The vellum notebooks in which she wrote her juvenilia hold puckish satires of 18th century literary conventions. Her portable writing box gives the lie to the established image of the author perched at a small table in the dining room and shuffling away her papers at the creak of the door. It tells instead of a determined and adaptable writer, who disciplined herself to continue writing through the ruptures in her life. A royalty cheque is a salutary reminder that Austen was hard-headed enough to negotiate with publishers—and to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent against her personal instincts.

In 2011, a BBC2 documentary followed Byrne’s efforts to authenticate a Regency sketch of a woman holding a pen. The portrait is labelled “Miss Jane Austin” and Byrne is sure that it depicts Austen, whose name was often spelled this way by contemporaries (the payee of the royalty cheque is a Miss Jane Austin). If Byrne is right, her interpretation of Austen as a self-identified professional writer is vindicated. But positive identification has yet to be made and the book’s treatment of the portrait is, as a consequence, confined to the penultimate chapter (although it does get a front cover cameo). The book concludes instead with the only identified portrait of Austen, an 1804 watercolour by Cassandra, in which the author sits by a hedgerow, her back to the artist. For Byrne this portrait is emblematic of how elusive Austen remains to her biographers, yet she succumbs to the siren call of speculation and asks us to infer from fluttering bonnet strings that Austen must be looking out to sea. It is a curiously fey closing request and one that jars with her evidence-based approach to the author’s life.

More here.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

George Eliot and ‘the Jewish question’

Mary Ann Evans, who later would become known as the novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), announced at the age of 22 that she would no longer be attending church. The evangelical flame of her adolescence had burned down to agnosticism; as she explained in a letter to her heartsick father, “while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life and drawn as to its materials from Jewish notions to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.”

She became only more critical as time went on, remarking elsewhere that Judaism is estimable only insofar as Christ “transcended” it, and Christianity insofar as it transcended Christ, “like turtle soup without turtle.” Yet her final novel, “Daniel Deronda” (1876), sympathetically features the quest of its title character, unknowingly born a Jew, to discover and embrace his birthright and seek a political destiny for his people in Palestine.

Eliot, a leading female intellectual who opposed women’s suffrage and an archmoralist who lived openly with a married man for decades, was a mass of such apparent contradictions. She also was a writer of disarming clarity, as is her latest interpreter, Gertrude Himmelfarb. Miss Himmelfarb, in characteristically diamond-cutting prose, takes up the riddle of Eliot’s special interest in Jewish renewal and nationhood long before Zionism even had a name. “The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot” is a masterful and many-faceted account of Eliot’s influences, sources, historical surroundings, changing views and latter-day defense of Judaism.

Miss Himmelfarb has done more to redeem the Victorians in modern eyes than any other historian, though Eliot needs little redemption. But while “the Jewish question” engaged Eliot, she mainly failed to make it interesting to non-Jewish readers. “Daniel Deronda” was met with disappointment at the time and has been neglected ever since, with most critics balking at “the strong Jew element.” A secondary, gentile protagonist, the spirited and spoiled Gwendolen Harleth, has captured most of the attention; her costly development of a “moral imagination” (to borrow a favorite phrase of Miss Himmelfarb’s) is Eliot in fine form - “a consummate expert in the pathology of conscience,” as Lord Acton called her. F.R. Leavis even set about to “liberate” the English half and publish it as Harleth, though at the last moment, the publisher thought better of it.

Conversely, soon after “Daniel Deronda’s” publication, a Hebrew translation was produced “without the Gwendolen distraction,” and a selection of just the philosophical discussions was passed around enthusiastically in Lemberg.

“I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else,” Eliot rebuked the cherry-pickers. Miss Himmelfarb hints at some crossover themes, but one only wishes she had made a more determined inquiry into these relationships. “Daniel Deronda” is a study in subjection: chosen and forced, stifling and sublime, in human bonds and in adherence to the demands of a larger calling. It is at the level of the bonds between individual characters - bonds that by necessity involve an element of service - that Eliot, the exquisite psychologist, lays the foundation for the relation of individuals to their religious and national identity.

Her final essay (“The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” collected in “Impressions of Theophrastus Such”), also an argument for Jewish statehood, reveals this point of philosophical communion: “Our dignity and rectitude are proportioned to our sense of relationship with something great, admirable, pregnant with high possibilities, worthy of sacrifice, a continual inspiration to self-repression and discipline by the presentation of aims larger and more attractive to our generous part than the securing of personal ease or prosperity.”

This beckoning to moral elevation through subjection to “something great” was her perennial concern and the animating principle of her famous philanthropic failure, Dorothea Brooke of “Middlemarch” (1874) - Daniel Deronda’s immediate predecessor as a hero. Dorothea’s aimless aspirations never find a proper port; and ardent though they are, many of Eliot’s characters’ reflections on “being good” or “becoming better” are impossibly vague. It may be that the specificity of Jewish laws and customs, the very esoterica she found repugnant earlier in life, offered themselves to her sympathy as a welcome foil for this sort of wandering.

Read more here.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Ruth Rendell: a life in writing

Ruth Rendell's most famous creation, Chief Inspector Wexford, has retired, and at the age of 83, with more than 70 books under her belt and a Labour life peerage, she'd be forgiven if her thoughts were beginning to drift towards a gentle exit from the world of letters. After all, the 79-year-old Philip Roth, after a similarly half-century-spanning career, told the world he was "done" with writing last year, and hasn't looked back.

When I ask if this is the case, Rendell, resplendent and formidable in a red velvet cardigan, leans forward on the sofa in her bright Maida Vale house and looks horrified. "I couldn't do that. It's what I do and I love doing it," she says. "It's absolutely essential to my life. I don't know what I would do if I didn't write."

That's a no, then. Even Wexford, who has been solving murders and easing injustices since he made his debut in Rendell's own debut, From Doon with Death, back in 1964, isn't taking it easy. Despite having left the police force, he solved a decades-old crime in 2011's The Vault, and Rendell reveals she's just finished a new Wexford novel in which the retired inspector becomes involved in another investigation.

Perhaps it's her books, and the terrifying hold they exert on her readers, or the bucketloads of awards she's been given, but Rendell has a reputation for being intimidating. In person, she is cool, detached, fiercely intelligent – rather like some of her female heroines. She considers everything she is asked, looking faintly disgusted if she disagrees or is unimpressed, a small but infectious smile spreading across her face if she's interested.

Unlike Conan Doyle with Holmes, "I don't get sick of him because he's me. He's very much me," she says of Wexford. "He doesn't look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that's me. So I think you don't get tired of yourself."

Wexford's endless war against clichés is hers, she admits. "He likes to read what I like to read" – on her coffee table today is Tennyson and Anne Tyler and John Banville – "and he likes the music I like, all that sort of thing. It's not absolute. But it's pretty close, so of course I don't have to think too deeply about what he'll say next because I know him so well."

Returning to Wexford is not easy, though. "I don't find writing easy," she admits surprisingly, given her prolific output. "That is because I do take great care, I rewrite a lot," she says. "If anything is sort of clumsy and not possible to read aloud to oneself, which I think one should do … it doesn't work."

Would-be authors send her their manuscripts, she tells me, then breaks off for a short, barking laugh. "Mind you, on the whole I don't read them too much. The things they write, it's as if writing dialogue is just a matter of he said, she said, thank you, yes, how are you and so on, all this superfluous stuff nobody needs. It's as if they don't look at it and say, 'Do people talk like that?'"

More here.