Thursday, 30 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 bare knowing the right way, but the constant and steady walking in it, which those glorious writers recommended and dignified by the august names of philosophy and virtue; which two words, if they did not always use in a synonymous sense, yet they all agreed in this, that virtue was the consummation of true philosophy.

Now that this supreme philosophy, this habit of virtue, which strengthened the mind of a Socrates, or a Brutus, is really superior to every evil which can attack us, I make no doubt; but in truth, this is to have a sound, not a sickly constitution. With all proper deference, therefore to such great authorities, they seem to me to assert no more than that health is a remedy against disease: for a soul once possessed of that degree of virtue which can without emotion look on poverty, pain, disgrace, and death, as things indifferent; a soul, as Horace expresses it,
Totus teres atque rotundus;
or, according to Seneca, which derives all its comfort from WITHIN, not from WITHOUT; which can look down on all the ruffling billows of fortune, as from a rock on shore, we survey a tempestuous sea with unconcern; such a soul is surely in a state of health which no vigour of bodily constitution can resemble.

And as this health of the mind exceeds that of the body in degree, so doth it in constancy or duration. In the latter, the transition from perfect health to sickness is easy, and often sudden; whereas the former, being once firmly established in the robust state above described, is never afterwards liable to be shocked by any accident or impulse of fortune.

It must be confessed indeed, that those great masters have pointed out the way to this philosophy, and have endeavoured to allure and persuade others into it; but as it is certain that few of their disciples have been able to arrive at its perfection; nay, as several of the masters themselves have done little honour to their precepts, by their examples, there seems still great occasion for a mental physician, who should consider the human mind (as is often the case of the body) in too weak and depraved a situation to be restored to firm vigour and sanity, and should propose rather to palliate and lessen its disorders, than absolutely to cure them.

To consider the whole catalogue of diseases, to which our minds are liable, and to prescribe proper remedies for them all, would require a much longer treatise than what I now intend; I shall confine myself therefore to one only, and to a particular species of that one, viz. to affliction for the death of our friends.

This is a malady to which the best and worthiest of men are chiefly liable. It is, like a fever, the distemper of a rich and generous constitution. Indeed, we may say of those base tempers which are totally incapable of being affected with it, what a witty physician of the last age said of a shattered and rotten carcass, that they are not worth preserving.

For this reason the calm demeanour of Stilpo the philosopher, who, when he had lost his children at the taking Megara by Demetrius, concluded, he had lost nothing, for that he carried all which was his own about him, hath no charms for me. I am more apt to impute such sudden tranquillity, at so great a loss, to ostentation or obduracy, than to consummate virtue. It is rather wanting the affection than conquering it. To overcome the affliction arising from the loss of our friends, is great and praiseworthy; but it requires some reason and time. This sudden unruffled composure is owing to mere insensibility; to a depravity of the heart, not goodness of the understanding.

But in a mind of a different cast, in one susceptible of a tender affection, fortune can make no other ravage equal to such a loss. It is tearing the heart, the soul from the body; not by a momentary operation, like that by which the most cruel tormentors of the body soon destroy the subject of their cruelty; but by a continued, tedious, though violent agitation; the soul having this double unfortunate superiority to the body, that its agonies, as they are more exquisite, so they are more lasting.

If however this calamity be not in a more humane disposition to be presently or totally removed, an attempt to lessen it is, however, worth our attention. He who could reduce the torments of the gout to one-half or a third of the pain, would, I apprehend, be a physician in much vogue and request; and surely, some palliative remedies are as much worth our seeking in the mental disorder; especially if this latter should (as appears to me who have felt both) exceed the former in its anguish a hundred fold.

I will proceed, therefore, without further apology, to present my reader with the best prescriptions I am capable of furnishing; many of which have this uncommon recommendation, that I have tried them upon myself with some success. And if Montaigne be right in his choice of a physician, who had himself had the disease which he undertook to cure, I shall at least have that pretension to some confidence and regard.

More here.

Monday, 27 May 2013

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 addedly provocative about the pillory quoted above: it was written about John Milton.

Milton’s name is inscribed on libraries. He has been traditionally spoken of in the same breath as Homer and Virgil. A reasonable, if naïve, person might assume that he had transcended a bitchy takedown like Leavis’s. And thereby hangs a question: After an author has passed through the gates and entered the Elysian pastures of canonization, is there any point in a critic rushing in and trying to drag him back out again? Once an author is a classic, can that status be revoked?

The impulse to try certainly seems irresistible, and there is something of a rite of passage in barbecuing sacred cows. Martin Amis had it out with Cervantes (“Reading ‘Don Quixote’ can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies”). Anthony Burgess vented his disgust with “Les Misérables” (“Are you unaware of the dullness, the irrelevancies, the preaching, the sentimentality, the improbabilities, the melodrama?”). For years, Jonathan Yardley has banged the drum against “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Catcher in the Rye” (“They are two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst”). David Shields recently announced his boredom with “Hamlet” (“I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice”). And in the past year, we have had Adelle Waldmann’s contrarian dissection of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (“didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations”); Ted Gioia’s two thumbs down to John Dos Passos’s “USA” (“soon we are back in the morass of sloganeering and bluster that make everything in this novel seem phony and calculated”); and Kathryn Schulz’s denunciation of “The Great Gatsby” (“aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent”) .

Because “The Great Gatsby” has yet again caught Hollywood’s wandering eye, this last piece has received the most attention and sparked the most debate. Apart from the fisticuffs among the groundlings in the comments box, Joyce Carol Oates remarked on Twitter that “Hating ‘The Great Gatsby’ (the novel) is like spitting into the Grand Canyon. It will not be going away anytime soon, but you will.”

If you had enjoyed a few cheap thrills disputing or nodding along with Schulz’s essay (I certainly did), you might have felt furtively ashamed of yourself reading Oates’s Olympian pronouncement. Maybe this article was nothing but lowest-common-denominator rabble-rousing—“clickbait,” to use the utterly damning new insult. Maybe, as Oates implies, there is something fundamentally base at work when critics kick mud at enshrined classics. Maybe it’s nothing but philistinism proudly calling itself insight.

Perhaps the real question here is what we mean when we use the word “classic,” and how much reverence it should command. There have been a number of attempts to give the word a definition. In an essay from 1850, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, sometimes considered the forefather of modern criticism, offered this charmingly exalted summation:
A true classic, as I should like it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.
Writing not quite a century later, T. S. Eliot set out his measurements of a classic as “maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language, and perfection of the common style.”

It’s easy to see that neither of these definitions will really suit our current understanding of the word. Eliot thought that a classic, in the strictest sense, was a work that apotheosized a great civilization at its zenith; so exacting (or, if you like, priggish) are his standards that literally the only writer to entirely fulfill them is Virgil. He thought Chaucer and Shakespeare were a little too rough around the edges, Goethe too provincial, Pope too mannered. Except for a passing mention of Henry James, he doesn’t even bother to mention the existence of American letters.

Sainte-Beuve is more flexible and encompassing, but he stipulates that a classic can only be truly distinguished by readers who have enjoyed a lifetime of learning and have staked out the leisure to devote themselves to their libraries. It exists as a concomitant to the salon and the ivory tower.

So if Eliot is imperialist and Sainte-Beuve is aristocratic, we need some idea of what makes a classic in a democracy. For that, we could do worse than to turn to Sainte-Beuve’s contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, who has always seemed to have the new world’s number. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville observed that Americans esteemed the arts and sciences more for their practical applications than for their abstract value—hence the popularity of newspapers, religious treatises, and self-help books. Reading itself was not done for the purposes of something as perversely theoretical as enlarging one’s soul; it needed to have some tangible function in the here and now: “Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature; but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves.”

A look through the Classics section of bookstores—in America or any of the Western democracies—bears out de Tocqueville’s instincts. The offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.

In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.

More here.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

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 Rainbow), and had "scarcely the patience" to correct the proofs. But he was proud when a finished copy reached him in Italy. And the word he used to Garnett recurred, in letters to friends. "It is quite a great novel"; "I remember you telling me, at the beginning, it would be great. I think it is so."

Lawrence was right. Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the "great tradition" of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as "England's greatest novelist" and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: "Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect." The perfection wasn't apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel's reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence's critical standing.

To anyone of my generation, that dip is a puzzle. In the early 1970s, when I was studying at Nottingham University, Lawrence was hot. (I can't pretend that my main reason for choosing to go to Nottingham was that Lawrence had been there before me, but I'd been a fan of his work since filching a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover from my mother's bedside cabinet at the age of 14.) Partly it was the films: Ken Russell's Women in Love appeared in 1969, Christopher Miles's The Virgin and the Gypsy in 1970. Partly it was his pertinence to feminism: Kate Millett's Sexual Politics put him at the centre of undergraduate debates about misogyny, patriarchy and the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Partly it was his politics: was he a hero of the sexual revolution or a fascist and colonialist? The attacks on him grew fiercer as the years went by, but to me the difficulties he posed were evidence that he mattered. From Nottingham I went on to write an MA thesis about him at McMaster University in Canada, which boasts a Lawrence archive. The thesis doesn't bear rereading, but the best of Lawrence, including his poetry, travel books and essays, remains as fresh as ever. Surely he cannot remain unfashionable for long.

For those new to his work, Sons and Lovers is the place to start. Though it came after The White Peacock and The Trespasser, it reads like a first novel. This isn't only because it's life writing, recreating scenes from the author's own experience. Nor is it because the story concerns childhood and adolescence and all that go with them, including fear, shame, self‑consciousness, emotional hypersensitivity, sexual awakening, and the hubristic certainty that (as Paul Morel puts it) one is "going to alter the face of the earth in some way". There's also the freshness and intensity with which Lawrence presents the Morel family – as if this was the only family in the world where the parents don't get on, the father drinks, the mother resents her son's girlfriends, money is short, art and literature become a refuge, and so on. At 27, Lawrence was well-educated and widely read, but the style of Sons and Lovers is wonderfully unknowing – no distancing English irony breaks the spell. Irony wasn't in Lawrence's nature, and at the time he wrote the book he didn't have the leisure for it anyway.

More here.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

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 contemporaries shuffle another step backwards.

It doesn’t take much more to enjoy Pope than a reasonably good ear and a feeling for language. To read his works carefully will give anyone a grounding in how lines sing, how to make words bend and let meanings fold into each other. It will spare you a whole module on the creative writing course. Sound and sense are delicately adjusted, rhyme and rhythm subtly integrated, wit and wisdom dispersed with the utmost economy.

The most single brilliant item is The Rape of the Lock, completed in 1714 when he was only twenty-five. On the surface this relates how a brutal upper-class twit attacks an airhead socialite. You can find the tale amusingly retold by Sophie Gee in her novel The Scandal of the Season (2007). Actually the ravishing of a beauty in this ravishingly beautiful poem amounts to cutting off just one of her curls, but the text constantly insists that a more serious violation has gone on.

What Pope does is imbue this episode with layers of submerged meaning. Though it is easy to follow the narrative, the events are just the excuse for a dazzling exercise in channelling literary sources, which makes the allusive structure of Finnegans Wake seem almost a doddle. The Rape supplies a ridiculously miniaturized version of classical epics like The Iliad, with heroic battles fought at a card-table; an appropriation of Paradise Lost; a reinvention of the fairy lore in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a subversion of fanciful occult systems such as that of the Rosicrucians; and a satire on court life under Queen Anne, as well as a dramatization of the limited marriage market for the gentry among Pope’s own Catholic community. It plays with arcane connections associated with the seasons and the times of day; makes fun of fashionable pseudo-medical ideas linking hysteria to women’s biology; and cruelly exposes the consumerism of a materially obsessed society, while rendering the texture and glitter of its luxury objects in enticing detail.

The main trick is to build up this critique from a phrase, a verse, a couplet, a paragraph, and a canto, all serving as fractals which contain within themselves the central paradox announced in the first two lines: “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs, / What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” The contrasting terms here form what we call antithesis, borrowing an expression originally used in classical rhetoric. Pope extends antithesis to his grammar, his versification, his metaphors, and his narrative.

More here.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Charles Kingsley: Thoughts on Shelley and Byron



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 practical success in carrying out the theory was, paradoxically enough, in inverse proportion to his belief in it; that those who like Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats, talked most about naturalness and freedom, and most openly reprobated the school of Pope, were, after all, least natural and least free; that the balance of those excellences inclined much more to those who, like Campbell, Rogers, Crabbe, and Moore, troubled their heads with no theories, but followed the best old models which they knew; and that the rightful sovereign of the new Parnassus, Lord Byron, protested against the new movement, while he followed it; upheld to the last the models which it was the fashion to decry, confessed to the last, in poetry as in morals, "Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor," and uttered again and again prophecies of the downfall of English poetry and English taste, which seem to be on the eve of realisation.

Now no one will, we presume, be silly enough to say that humanity has gained nothing by all the very beautiful poetry which has been poured out on it during the last thirty years in England. Nevertheless, when we see poetry dying down among us year by year, although the age is becoming year by year more marvellous and inspiring, we have a right to look for some false principle in a school which has had so little enduring vitality, which seems now to be able to perpetuate nothing of itself but its vices.

The answer so easy twenty years ago, that the new poetry was spoiled by an influx of German bad taste, will hardly hold good now, except with a very few very ignorant people. It is now known, of course, that whatsoever quarrel Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe may have had with Pope, it was not on account of his being too severe an artist, but too loose a one; not for being too classical, but not classical enough; that English poets borrowed from them nothing but their most boyish and immature types of thought, and that these were reproduced, and laughed at here, while the men themselves were writing works of a purity, and loftiness, and completeness, unknown to the world--except in the writings of Milton--for nearly two centuries. This feature, however, of the new German poetry, was exactly the one which no English poet deigned to imitate, save Byron alone; on whom, accordingly, Goethe always looked with admiration and affection. But the rest went their way unheeding; and if they have defects, those defects are their own; for when they did copy the German taste, they, for the most part, deliberately chose the evil, and refused the good; and have their reward in a fame which we believe will prove itself a very short-lived one. We cannot deny, however, that, in spite of all faults, these men had a strength. They have exercised an influence. And they have done so by virtue of seeing a fact which more complete, and in some cases more manly poets, did not see. Strangely enough, Shelley, the man who was the greatest sinner of them all against the canons of good taste, was the man who saw that new fact, if not most clearly, still most intensely, and who proclaimed it most boldly. His influence, therefore, is outliving that of his compeers, and growing and spreading, for good and for evil; and will grow and spread for years to come, as long as the present great unrest goes on smouldering in men's hearts, till the hollow settlement of 1815 is burst asunder anew, and men feel that they are no longer in the beginning of the end, but in the end itself, and that this long thirty years' prologue to the reconstruction of rotten Europe is played out at last, and the drama itself begun. ...

From Fraser's Magazine, November, 1853.

Friday, 17 May 2013

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 lists of partners’ first names, and his health and lack thereof, are the carnal, corporeal priorities. Finances, travel, meetings, invitations, exchanges of gifts and letters are listed. Code words are pointed out in footnotes: "commisariat" when his influential cousin or embassy contacts got him out of Argentine jails, likely for soliciting sex; "Durand" for the Buenos Aires hospital where he received injections to treat syphilis. In finding a form for his unrelenting self analysis, the new book gives the writer something of a last word on his life.

A key work that's been absent for decades – as a full biography of Gombrowicz remains conspicuously absent – publication of Kronos is a fixating coup de théâtre. The book opens with a facsimile of a page on which he listed 1903, the year before he was born, to 1939. Those dates are largely blank, a warning that anyone can envision such a memory project, but few dare undertake it. The original sheets shape-shift over the decades, from graphic notation - with vertical columns classifying sex partners or historical events - to consistent synopses in his concise scrawl. It's an evolution that reflects his efforts to organize material. One concession in this premiere edition is the need to adapt and transcribe those hundred handwritten sheets into conventional paragraphs. Another, which the reader must consent to, is the absence of Gombrowicz’s vital, infectious tone.

Running commentary adorns the bottom of pages, as a system to let the array of facts he compiled breathe and fill, rather than as an academic apparatus. Three main sections cover his life in Poland, in Argentina, where he elected to stay when the Second World War laid waste to Poland, then his European life on returning to the continent in 1963, with a Ford Foundation grant for a year’s stay in Berlin.

Footnotes for the early and late years are by Jerzy Jarzębski, the literary scholar whose Gra w Gombrowicza / Games with Gombrowicz (1982) is a crucial study. The quarter century in Argentina, where the writer transformed from exiled avant-gardist to a figure of international stature, is elucidated by Klementyna Suchanow, whose book Argentyńskie przygody Gombrowicza covers those years. Rita Gombrowicz provides commentary for the final Kronos section, and wrote the book’s introduction. Photos illustrate each phase, and a selection of the manuscript’s pages supplement the transcription and notes, displaying his method and occasional drawings, with plans underway for a full facsimile edition.

There are no announcements to date for translations of Kronos, though expectations are high. The Diary is already available in some two dozen languages. The newest of these, and most ambitious, is the two-volume Norwegian edition of that inventive, argumentative opus, which will include a painstaking index and extensive annotations about the people and topics in that remarkable work. The single-volume Yale University Press publication from 2012 elicited a five-page piece in New Yorker magazine. (Yale publishes a new translation of Trans-Atlantic in 2013, the pithy, provocative novel Gombrowicz completed in 1951.) WL’s new single-volume Polish edition of the Diary accompanies the publisher's edtion of Kronos, and the relation of the two works is illuminating and elusive.

More here.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

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 many of her astonishing literary innovations from music – adopting from Wagner’s operas, for example, the technique of shifting from one narrative perspective to another in order to represent the unspoken thoughts and feelings of her characters.

The short story ‘A Simple Melody’ (c.1925) encapsulates her acute interest in music and its resonant but discreet place in her work. In it, the principal character masks his discomfort at a formal party by studying a landscape painting hanging on the wall:
Mr Carslake, at least, thought it very beautiful because, as he stood in the corner where he could see it, it had the power to compose and tranquillize his mind. It seemed to him to bring the rest of his emotions – and how scattered and jumbled they were at a party like this! – into proportion. It was as if a fiddler were playing a perfectly quiet old English song while people gambled and tumbled and swore, picked pockets, rescued the drowning, and did astonishing – but quite unnecessary – feats of skill. He was unable to perform himself.
The difficulties of communication and the importance of the unspoken are central themes of Woolf’s brief sketch. This is a story about language, about communication. The inhibitions restricting the conversation among the party’s guests, and the difficulty of finding ‘pure new words’ in which to express his feelings, frustrate Mr Carslake. As he looks at the painting of a heath Mr Carslake imagines walking on it with a variety of companions, longing for the intimacy and social equality that he sees as characteristic of al fresco conversation in contrast to polite small talk:
Why, very likely they would talk about their own habits for a whole hour; and all in the freest, easiest way, so that suppose he, or Mabel Waring, or Stuart […] wanted to explain Einstein, or make a statement – something quite private perhaps – (he had known it happen) – it would come quite natural.
His association of the landscape with song suggests that music, like these imagined outdoor exchanges, represents a more direct or ideal form of communication than language, an idea that Woolf’s writing repeatedly explores. She was fascinated by, but wary of, the idea that music was a form of total expression, a model that writing could aspire to or imitate. Here, Mr Carslake’s comparison of the painting to an ‘old English song’ celebrates music’s expressivity and capacity to confer order on its listeners, but also evokes the extensive contemporary nationalist writing about English folk song, landscape and early music by the composers and teachers of the English Musical Renaissance. Mr Carslake remarks that he has recently attended the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, at which English folk songs and military marches were performed: he found it ‘very tiring’ and ‘believed it was not being a success’. These bathetic details undercut nationalist and military music, suggesting that he, like Woolf herself, was repelled by it. Yet Mr Carslake’s belief that music confers ‘proportion’ on the listener echoes the catchphrase used by the unfeeling doctors treating shell-shocked war veterans in her contemporary novel Mrs Dalloway, using music to suggest a more troubling aspect to his fantasies about communication: his ‘desire […] to be sure that all people were the same’ and ‘very simple underneath’ is both crudely reductive, as he partly recognises, and indicative of empathy and a wish for real connection with others.

More here.

Friday, 10 May 2013

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 writings exist.”

Such assertions begin to conjure up what came to be known as the death of the author, and in a lecture called “Cybernetics and Ghosts”, Calvino explored the notion with great theoretical panache. This was in 1967, a year before Roland Barthes made the theme notorious in France and the English-speaking world. “And so the author vanishes,” Calvino said, “that spoiled child of ignorance – to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.” We note that a machine replaces a myth, but a real (thoughtful) person replaces an unthinking illusion, and Calvino adds that we shall get a “poetic result . . . only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his society”.

This last sentence makes clear that Calvino is talking about a finished work and its life in the world, and not about some sort of unattainable impersonality: self and society may have become ghosts but they are essential. The death of the grandee author in no way implies the disappearance of the writing person, and any appearance of contradiction vanishes as soon as we understand that for Calvino and many others, writing is life. Books are unavoidably personal for Calvino but not confessional, and not only personal.

But then what are we to make of the letters of such a writer and what are we doing reading them? In part we are, I’m afraid, ignoring his warnings and careful distinctions; peeping into his privacy. What is striking is that the creative writer doesn’t dominate his correspondence as we might expect. There are interesting exceptions but on the whole the letters are not being used as practice for fiction or essays. Calvino does not have any sort of eye on posterity, as so many other modern letter-writers do. He is living in the present, not constructing a future monument.

This may offer something of a surprise to the reader who comes to the letters from the fiction and who may at first miss the expected intricacy and play. It’s not that there is no fun in the letters, but the sense of direct communication, of a man being as clear as he can about a host of matters, complex and simple, is quite different from that created by the artistic density of Calvino’s prose fiction. In his art, the wit and the irony are ways of reflecting the difficulties of the world while hanging on to his sanity – instruments of reason in a world of madness. “I am in favour,” Calvino says in one letter, “of a clown-like mimesis of contemporary reality.” Clowns are often sad and all too sane; but their relation to reality is oblique. Calvino’s writing is part of a great literary project of hinting and suggesting, making memorable shapes and images, rather than giving information or offering explanations. In his letters, Calvino tells rather than shows his correspondents what he means – with great and often moving success.

For this reason, although we invade Calvino’s privacy by the mere fact of looking at these letters, it is a very special privacy that appears: not the writer’s real self – why wouldn’t his writing represent this self, as he thought it did – but his plain self. We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity. Calvino’s clarifications cover many diverse topics but they often converge in their effect. We now understand what we half-understood before; we see that what looked like a quirk was a policy; we realise that our puzzlement and Calvino’s are one and the same.

More here.

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 packed compendium of detail about one of France’s most popular writers.

Maupassant’s life has long proved attractive to biographers. Johnston’s book is not the only account of his life to appear this year. A somewhat shorter volume was published by Frédéric Martinez in February. They describe a life of extremes: success, failure; creativity, morbidity; joie de vivre and jadedness. Maupassant was a writer who worked hard and played even harder. His career was characterized by a rapid rise to acclaim and fortune, but also by bouts of illness caused by the syphilis he contracted as a young man.

Born in Normandy in 1850, Guy was the elder son of the wealthy but feckless Gustave de Maupassant and the intelligent but febrile Laure Le Poittevin. The disharmony of his parents’ relationship became manifest in 1863, when they formally separated. Contact with literary figures during his adolescence proved memorable. As Johnston recounts, the teenage Maupassant saved the poet Swinburne from drowning while he was on holiday on the coast at Étretat; by way of thanks, he was invited to dine with Swinburne and his lover, George Powell, sampling spit-roast monkey and perusing gay pornography.

The Franco–Prussian war in 1870–71 saw Maupassant conscripted and, in the aftermath of the war, with the family finances overturned, he had to abandon his preparations for a legal career and became instead a minor civil servant, first in the Ministry for the Navy and later in the Ministry of Education. These experiences were formative: the tedium and penury of his time as a government pen-pusher compelled Maupassant to seek an alternative way of making money. Far from being inspired purely by literary ideals, he became a canny and productive writer, acutely aware that literary success could act as an emancipation from bureaucracy.

Maupassant first came to celebrity with the publication of his short story “Boule de Suif”, which appeared in the collection of Naturalist literature spearheaded by Émile Zola, Les Soirées de Médan (1880). The vivid tale of a generous-minded prostitute forced to flee her home during the war, it weaves together the personal humiliation of Boule de Suif, who sacrifices herself to the sexual demands of Prussian officers in order to secure the release of her hypocritical travelling companions, with the national humiliation experienced in the wake of military capitulation. After its success there followed a feverishly productive decade. Maupassant became known as a reporter and columnist; all six of his novels were published within seven years; he travelled widely and produced accounts of his journeys; he bought a yacht, engaged in numerous liaisons, and was celebrated for his parties.

In addition to the novels Maupassant was to publish more than 300 short stories, 200 articles, two plays and three works of travel writing. By the end of the 1880s he was earning around 120,000 francs a year (the equivalent of £275,000–£300,000 today); he had sold almost 350,000 copies of his works by the end of 1891. Such intense creativity was increasingly blighted, though, by the effects of syphilis. The migraines and poor eyesight associated with the disease made it particularly difficult to write, and for his later works, Maupassant did his plotting in his mind, rather than on paper. Productivity and success were accompanied by physical and mental decline, culminating in an attempted suicide on New Year’s Day 1892, when he slit his throat with a paper-knife. He died in a psychiatric clinic in July 1893.

Maupassant’s career stands out not only because of its heady success and dramatic demise. He was also one of the most famous literary apprentices in history: his “master”, Flaubert, was a childhood friend of Guy’s mother. Introduced to Flaubert as a young man, Maupassant was encouraged to write and to show Flaubert copies of his bawdy epic verse. An affectionate friendship developed between the two men, and Maupassant spent his Sunday afternoons at Flaubert’s literary gatherings. As the summary of Une Vie suggests, the style and content of Maupassant’s first novel owe a great deal to the rhythms and patterns of Madame Bovary.

More here.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

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 thinker who lived with a presentiment of his own death and didn't reach his 43rd birthday. Kierkegaard was the master of irony and paradox before both became debased by careless overuse. He was an existentialist a century before Jean-Paul Sarte, more rigorously post-modern than postmodernism, and a theist whose attacks on religion bit far deeper than many of those of today’s new atheists. Kierkegaard is not so much a thinker for our time but a timeless thinker, whose work is pertinent for all ages yet destined to be fully attuned to none.

It’s easy enough to see why I fell in love with Kierkegaard. Before years of academic training does its work of desiccation, young men and women are drawn to philosophy and the humanities by the excitement of ideas and new horizons of understanding. This youthful zeal, however, is often slapped down by mature sobriety. I remember dipping into the tiny philosophy section of my school library, for example, and finding Stephan Körner’s 1955 Pelican introduction to Kant. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Strangely, this did not put me off philosophy, the idea of which remained more alluring than the little bit of reality I had encountered.

Kierkegaard was not so much an oasis in this desert as a dramatic, torrential thunderstorm at the heart of it. Discovering him as a 17-year-old suddenly made philosophy and religion human and exciting, not arid and abstract. In part that’s because he was a complex personality with a tumultuous biography. Even his name emanates romantic darkness. ‘Søren’ is the Danish version of the Latin severus, meaning ‘severe’, ‘serious’ or ‘strict’, while ‘Kierkegaard’ means churchyard, with its traditional associations of the graveyard.

He knew intense love, and was engaged to Regine Olsen, whom he describes in his journals as ‘sovereign queen of my heart’. Yet in 1841, after four years of courtship, he called the engagement off, apparently because he did not believe he could give the marriage the commitment it deserved. He took love, God and philosophy so seriously that he did not see how he could allow himself all three.

He was a romantic iconoclast, who lived fast and died young, but on a rollercoaster of words and ideas rather than sex and booze. During the 1840s, books poured from his pen. In 1843 alone, he published three masterpieces, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition.

More here.

Monday, 6 May 2013

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 ancestors on both sides. They were given and she accepted them as a burden not as a gift; but there they were, somehow cutting her off from what they weren’t. Her father died when she was eight years old and this was serious, central. Yet this most interesting part of her history is so scorched by resentment and bitterness that it is only the special high burn of the bitterness that allows us to imagine it as a cutoff love.

For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses. She is spoken of as a “legend” or a “myth”—but what does that mean? Sylvia Plath was a luminous talent, self-destroyed at the age of thirty, likely to remain, it seems, one of the most interesting poets in American literature. As an event she stands with Hart Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, and Poe rather than with Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, or Elizabeth Bishop.

The outlines of her nature are odd, especially in her defiant and extensive capabilities, her sense of mastery, the craft and preparation she almost humbly and certainly industriously acquired as the foundation for an overwhelming ambition. She was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her mother’s parents were Austrian; her father was a German, born in Poland. He was a professor of biology, a specialist, among other interests, in bee-raising. (The ambiguous danger and sweetness of the beehive—totemic, emblematic for the daughter.) Her father died and the family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, to live with their grandparents. The mother became a teacher and the daughter went to public schools and later to Smith College. Sylvia Plath was a thorough success as a student and apparently was driven to try to master everything life offered—study, cooking, horseback riding, writing, being a mother, housekeeping. There seemed to have been no little patch kept for the slump, the incapacity, the refusal….

More here.

Friday, 3 May 2013

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 incomprehensible in a secular culture in which “we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern”.

Levels of Life is a not quite adequate title for this highly personal and at times richly detailed book, implying an air of lofty contemplation from which the vividness of actual life has departed. Barnes quotes E. M. Forster: “One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another” – yet Levels of Life suggests that a single death, if examined from a singular perspective, may throw a good deal of light on the universal experiences of loss, grief, mourning, and what Barnes calls “the question of loneliness”. “I already know that only the old words would do: death, grief, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak. Nothing modernly evasive or medicalising. Grief is a human, not a medical, condition.” The epiphany – or rather one of the epiphanies, for Levels of Life contains many striking, insightful aphorisms – towards which the memoir moves is the remark of a bereaved friend: “Nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain . . . . If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter”. In the more intimate passages here, Barnes would seem to be making the tacit point that the creation of art is inadequate to compensate for such loss.

“You put together two people who have not been put together before . . . . Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

Like Barnes’s characteristic works of fiction, Levels of Life is unorthodox in structure and perspective. That it is a widower’s memoir is not evident until page sixty-eight, in a section titled “Loss of Depth”, in which the author speaks for the first time of his grief for his deceased wife, which has scarcely lessened in the several years since her death. Preceding this section are two shorter, self-contained prose pieces evoking the ebullient era of hot-air ballooning that suggest, in retrospect, something of the airy elation, transcendence and terrible risk that falling in love entails.

More here.