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Showing posts from May, 2013

Henry Fielding: Of the Remedy of Affliction for the Loss of our Friends

IT would be a strange consideration (saith Cicero) that while so many excellent remedies have been discovered for the several diseases of the human body, the mind should be left, without any assistance to alleviate and repel the disorders which befal it. The contrary of this he asserts to be true, and prescribes philosophy to us, as a certain and infallible method to assuage and remove all those perturbations which are liable to affect this nobler part of man.

Of the same opinion were all those wise and illustrious ancients, whose writings and sayings on this subject have been transmitted to us. And when Seneca tells us, that virtue is sufficient to subdue all our passions, he means no other (as he explains it in many parts of his works) than that exalted divine philosophy, which consisted not in vain pomp, or useless curiosity, nor even in the search of more profitable knowledge, but in acquiring solid lasting habits of virtue, and ingrafting them into our character. It was not the ba…

Canon Fodder: Denouncing The Classics

In an essay in a 1933 issue of the magazine Scrutiny, the critic F. R. Leavis delivered a vicious hatchet job on one poor, unsuspecting poet:
To say that [his] verse is magniloquent … is to say that it is not doing as much as its impressive pomp and volume seem to be asserting; that mere orotundity is a disproportionate part of the whole effect; and that it demands more deference than it merits … His strength is of the kind we indicate when, distinguishing between intelligence and character, we lay the stress on the latter; it is a strength, that is, involving sad disabilities. He has “character,” moral grandeur, moral force; but he is, for the purposes of his undertaking, disastrously single-minded and simple-minded.Such savagings are common enough among critics, and there’s a rationale to the rough handling. Critics see themselves as the gatekeepers to literary posterity, so when unworthy aspirants approach they need to be forcibly barred from the premises. But there’s something ad…

Sons and Lovers: a century on

'I tell you I've written a great book," DH Lawrence informed his publisher Edward Garnett, after sending him the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in November 1912. "Read my novel – it's a great novel." Lawrence's immodesty is forgivable: the book had been through four drafts, and after two years of struggle he was hugely relieved to have it finished. The sense of elation didn't last long. He worried about the title (he had originally called the book "Paul Morel"). He worried whether it might benefit from a foreword (and belatedly posted one to Garnett). He worried about the dust jacket, and arranged for a friend, Ernest Collings, to design one (like the foreword, it wasn't used). Beneath these worries lay a deeper worry, about the text itself: "I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it's new, but after a while I'm not so gone on it," he admitted. He was already on to the next thing (a draft of what would become The Ra…

The dire offences of Alexander Pope

There’s never been a shortage of readers to love and admire Alexander Pope. But if you think you don’t, or wouldn’t, like his poetry, you’re in good company there too. Ever since his own day, detractors have stuck their oar in, some blasting the work and some determined to write off the writer. A noted poet and anthologist, James Reeves, wrote an entire book in 1976 to assail Pope’s achievement and influence. But it has never succeeded; Pope, a combative as well as a marvellously skilled author, keeps coming back for more. He produced more first-rate poems than anyone else in the eighteenth century, as we might guess from his fame across Europe and his huge appeal in America before and after the Revolution.

In truth, much of the hostility he faced in his lifetime had to with fear of his scathing wit. “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God, afraid of me,” he wrote late in his career. The stark clarity with which he states the idea must have made quite a few co…

Charles Kingsley: Thoughts on Shelley and Byron

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The poets, who forty years ago proclaimed their intention of working a revolution in English literature, and who have succeeded in their purpose, recommended especially a more simple and truthful view of nature. The established canons of poetry were to be discarded as artificial; as to the matter, the poet was to represent mere nature as he saw her; as to form, he was to be his own law. Freedom and nature were to be his watchwords.

No theory could be more in harmony with the spirit of the age, and the impulse which had been given to it by the burning words of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The school which arose expressed fairly the unrest and unruliness of the time, its weariness of artificial restraint and unmeaning laws, its craving after a nobler and a more earnest life, its sense of a glory and mystery in the physical universe, hidden from the poets of the two preceding centuries, and now revealed by science. So far all was hopeful. But it soon became apparent, that each poet's practi…

Kronos – the Strange New Case of Gombrowicz

The book of his intimate records arrives as Gombrowicz’s swansong, years after his death in 1969. As with swans, it’s attractive to consider from a distance, but be advised that swans don’t let you pass unnoticed - just ask Leda.

The writer’s final extensive work - the companion piece to his famous Diary, as curt as the Diary is lush and harsh - is published in Polish on the 23rd of May by Wydawnictwo Literackie (WL) in Kraków. The fact that it’s his last book was attested to at the publisher’s press conference in Warsaw on the 8th of May by Rita Gombrowicz, the author’s widow. She had kept the manuscript after Yale University purchased his archive in 1989 for their Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. "This is the integral text", Madame Gombrowicz stated, when asked if other completed material exists, "and I tell you there is absolutely nothing more to come".

The new book lays out Gombrowicz’s meticulous monthly tabulation of concerns – his erotic ventures as …

Simple Songs: Virginia Woolf and Music

As Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries amply record, music was a central part of her social life as it was for many of her contemporaries and she was at her best as a humorist writing about these occasions. She records with glee the various mishaps that befall musicians and audiences – a prima donna throwing down her music in a rage; a button popping off the plump Clive Bell’s waistcoat during the slow movement of a piano sonata; an elderly man crashing loudly but astonishingly unhurt down the stairs at Covent Garden. The social conventions, artifice and pretensions governing these performances intrigue her and allow her to sharpen her wit, but music wasn’t only an occasion for slapstick humour or social satire. It played a central part in the political vision of Woolf’s writing, shaping her understanding and representations of feminism and sexuality, pacifism and cosmopolitanism, social class and anti-Semitism. And it informed, too, the formal experiments of her prose. Woolf learned…

What we learn when we read Italo Calvino’s letters

Italo Calvino was discreet about his life and the lives of others, and sceptical about the uses of biography. He understood that much of the world we inhabit is made up of signs, and that signs may speak more eloquently than facts. Was he born in San Remo, Liguria? No, he was born in Santiago de las Vegas, in Cuba, but since “an exotic birthplace on its own is not informative of anything,” he allowed the phrase “born in San Remo” to appear repeatedly in biographical notes about him. Unlike the truth, he suggested, this falsehood said something about who he was as a writer, about his “creative world”.

This is to say that the best biography may be a considered fiction, and Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. “For the critic, the author does not exist,” he writes, “only a certain number of writin…

Maupassant day to day

In 1883, Guy de Maupassant published the first of his six novels, Une Vie. Asking psychological and formal questions about how to represent a life, the story spans almost thirty years in the existence of Jeanne de Lamare, whose experiences offer a brutal education in the gulf between reality and romantic fiction. Economy is a key characteristic in the presentation of Jeanne’s dreary life. Paragraphs are short, sentences are laconic, patterns of repetition and circularity are evoked by means of symbolic shorthand. The passage of time is evoked through recurrent glimpses of calendars, watches and Jeanne’s beehive-shaped clock, which poignantly summarizes a capacity for productivity that is never realized. If Une Vie offers an example of Maupassant’s skill in concision, there is something ironic in the publication of a sprawling new biography devoted to Maupassant’s own forty-two-year existence, its account of a life anything but economical. Marlo Johnston’s 1,336-page work is a densely …

I still love Kierkegaard

I fell for Søren Kierkegaard as a teenager, and he has accompanied me on my intellectual travels ever since, not so much side by side as always a few steps ahead or lurking out of sight just behind me. Perhaps that’s because he does not mix well with the other companions I’ve kept. I studied in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of philosophy, where the literary flourishes and wilful paradoxes of continental existentialists are viewed with anything from suspicion to outright disdain. In Paris, Roland Barthes might have proclaimed the death of the author, but in London the philosopher had been lifeless for years, as anonymous as possible so that the arguments could speak for themselves.

Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard's birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It's a strange word to use for a t…

On Sylvia Plath

In Sylvia Plath’s work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons. Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament?

Certain frames for her destructiveness have been suggested by critics. Perhaps being born a woman is part of the exceptional rasp of her nature, a woman whose stack of duties was laid over the ground of genius, ambition, and grave mental instability. Or is it the 1950s, when she was going to college, growing up—is there something of that here? Perhaps; but I feel in her a special lack of national and local roots, feel it particularly in her poetry, and this I would trace to her foreign…

Julian Barnes and the work of grief

“ How do you turn catastrophe into art?” This bold question, posed by Julian Barnes in a fabulist exegesis of Géricault’s great painting “The Raft of the Medusa”, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), might be said to be answered by his new book, Levels of Life, a memoir of his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, who died of a brain tumour in 2008. With few of the playful stratagems and indirections of style typical of his fiction, but with something of the baffled elegiac tone of his Booker Prize-winning short novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), Levels of Life conveys an air of stunned candour: “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart”. The end came swiftly and terribly: “Thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death”. The resulting memoir, a precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, “fabulation”, and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehens…