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Showing posts from 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-mout…

Flaubert's muse

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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 Fra…

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 …

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, o…

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 co…

Poshlost Highway: In Praise of Dubravka Ugresic

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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 wr…

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 wit…

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 intere…

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 au…

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

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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 livi…

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

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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…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Interview

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about using the tape recorder?

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

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 recor…

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 …

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 a…

Ruth Rendell: a life in writing

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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, …