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Showing posts from June, 2013

A Gentle and Angry Instrument: Robert Walser’s Short Fiction

Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, the writer Robert Walser lived until the age of seventy-eight, and through his work, letters, and personal associations came into contact with some of the major literary figures of his age, but the story of his life remains fragmentary, peppered with lacunae. Living in near-poverty and dressed in natty but threadbare suits, he cultivated few personal attachments and owned almost nothing. He courted several women and corresponded with others but never married. Like the rest of his siblings, he produced no children. In the last three decades of his life, confined to an asylum, he didn’t publish a word, if he even wrote at all. Yet despite this lack—what could be called an anti-legacy—Walser left behind a large body of work that uniquely fused the Romantics’ exultation in nature and search for the sublime with the early Modernists’ sense of play and intertextuality. But while the author was innovative in his work, Walser himself was an ethereal figure,…

Mere C. S. Lewis

The basic story of C. S. Lewis’s life has often been told. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was sent to school at Malvern College, which he hated. Joining University College, Oxford, in 1917, he began his studies there in earnest two years later, having served meanwhile as an infantry officer in France, where he was wounded and then invalided home in May 1918. He gained a double First in classics, followed by a further first-class degree in English. For the greater part of his life, from 1925 to 1954, he was Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford.

During this time Lewis was a spectacularly popular lecturer on medieval and Renaissance literature, filling the largest halls week after week. He also published a number of scholarly academic works culminating with his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954), which won him election to the British Academy. In the early 1930s, he converted from atheism to Christianity, and went on to publish lively works of popular t…

Unseen WH Auden diary sheds light on famous poem and personal life

"Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war," wrote WH Auden on 1 September 1939 in an unpublished diary that sheds light on the composition of one of his most famous poems.

The journal was one of just three kept by the British poet. It had been in private hands since Auden's death in 1973, but was recently unearthed and sold earlier this month at Christie's in London to the British Library for £47,475. Christie's called it "the most substantial and significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction", and said it offered "an incomparable insight into the poet's activities and reflections at the turning point in his life".

Auden wrote the journal between August and November 1939, shortly after he left England for America with the novelist Christopher Isherwood – a move heavily criticised as unpatriotic by the British media. But Auden's journal shows that, despite his absence, events in Europe were …

Undersending Steinese

Gertrude Stein’s “Paris France” is a book about Paris that tells many true things about the French but also gives a picture of Gertrude and her times that is about who Americans are and what Americans think when they are not in Paris at all. It is a picture of Paris by an American who thinks as Americans think, and we see America in the picture when she thinks she is showing us France. Yet because she is a fine and true writer she knows that she is showing us both things, and many truths about the French come out even though they are written the way an American must write them. This is because the writing is clear and the ideas are based on things seen rather than on what she has read about in books about Paris written by an old aunt or a magazine writer who has lived there for a few years and is excited to think he now understands it all.

And there—if I did that little pastiche with any aplomb—is a demonstration not just of how infectious Gertrude Stein’s style is but also of how much…

Musing About Orwell’s "Politics and The English Language"

"I've gotta use words when I talk to you," Apeneck Sweeney tells his girlfriend Doris as he tries to explain how it is that "death is life and life is death." Though he dwells near the bottom of the cultural food chain, T.S. Eliot's protagonist nonetheless identifies a problem that has high-brow implications, and the 20th-century jitters, written all over it. For even a consciousness as coarse as Sweeney's has intimations about how fragile words, in fact, are. And it is surely among Eliot's intentions that those more sophisticated than Sweeney Agonistes should also "wrestle" with one of the central questions of our age—namely, how making coherent sense becomes increasingly problematic. Think of Prufock, worrying himself into night sweats because his allusion to Lazarus might be misunderstood ("That is not what I meant at all, / That is not it at all."); or of nearly any character in The Waste Land dangling uneasily between "…

Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice

About twenty-five years ago I read many of these letters, in libraries and archives, for a book on Willa Cather published by the British imprint Virago, dedicated to breathing new life into classic, neglected, or forgotten women writers. Cather wasn’t exactly neglected in Britain in the 1980s, but like many notable twentieth-century American women writers (Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Glasgow, Jean Stafford) she did not have the status she deserved. I wrote my book in the hopes of attracting more British readers to her work.

In the quarter of a century since then, there have been dramatic shifts in Cather’s reputation. Fierce Cather wars have raged in the American literary and scholarly world, not entirely unlike the battles that are fought over Jane Austen’s legacy. The celebration of Cather as an American pastoralist, a kind of midwestern Robert Frost, which greeted her books when they were published, still continues. Since her death in 1947, many readers still take her to …

Is Franz Kafka Overrated

Edmund Wilson claimed that the only book he could not read while eating his breakfast was by the Marquis de Sade. I, for different reasons, have been having a difficult time reading Franz Kafka with my morning tea and toast. So much torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set out against a background of utter hopelessness. Distinctly not a jolly way to start the day. Kafka doesn’t make for very comforting reading at bedtime, either.

Hypochondriac, insomniac, food faddist, cripplingly indecisive, terrified by life, obsessed with death, Franz Kafka turned, as best he was able, his neuroses into art. As a character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” says, Kafka was “Homo sapiens in his highest degree of self-torture.” Still, the consensus remains that Franz Kafka is a modern master—a master, more specifically, in the modernist tradition, housed in the s…

Siegfried Sassoon: How to Die

Dark clouds are smouldering into red
 While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.

You'd think, to hear some people talk,
That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they've been taught the way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
With due regard for decent taste.

Kronos – the Strange New Case of Gombrowicz

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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 …

Patrick Pearse Predicts the Future

On August 4th, 1906, in An Claidheamh Soluis, which translates as the sword of light (or light sabre), Patrick Pearse wrote a piece in English imagining the Ireland of 2006. He was dozing one evening in his garden when the postman arrived, laid a bundle of letters and papers on the table and saluted him. “You have Irish?” Pearse replied. He had not known that any of the local post office staff spoke Irish. “To be sure I have, Sir,” the postman replied with a note of surprise in his voice. “If I hadn’t it’s a small chance I’d have of my present job.” This was the first sign that there was something was amiss, or all too right. Pearse took the postman’s remark as a piece of sarcasm but then he noticed the man’s uniform. It was a very neat dark green. On the collar in small letters of white metal was the cryptic inscription P na hE. It stood for Post na hÉireann, the postman explained with a note of surprise as he departed.

The narrator turned to his bundle of post. Every item was address…

Four Different Ways of Looking at How “Things Fall Apart”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
 The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

These four lines are half of the opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming.” Composed of twenty-two lines in two stanzas, “The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’s most beloved and often-read works. Written in 1919 and published the following year, the poem is commonly thought to be an interpretation of the savagery of World War I and the apocalyptic moment Europe had reached immediately following it. Earlier versions (several of which survive) are more specific, as though Yeats had national instead of continental or worldwide upheaval in mind. Literary critic Harold Bloom has submitted that the poem refers to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Either way, it is quite clear that “The Second Coming” is about a moment in history when the past has been obliterated and the future is unknown but arriving any dark…

Entertaining Mr Pooter - The late Victorian stage and its audiences.

GEORGE GROSSMITH’S MR Pooter, in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), enjoys a pipe, a trip to a guildhall ball and the occasional séance; his world of entertainment is based on a culture of aspiration and this is created by a range of acceptable leisure activities. These have their limits, and one of the unacceptable activities is having the kind of fun his son, Lupin, enjoys:
Lupin informs me, to my disgust, that he has been persuaded to take part in the forthcoming performance of the “Holloway Comedians.” He says he is to play Bob Britches in the farce, Gone to My Uncle’s; Frank Mutlar is going to play Old Musty. I told Lupin pretty plainly that I was not in the least Degree interested in the matter…’1 Pooter just wants to be an acceptable member of the new middle class – those who were at the time living in the London suburbs and travelling into the city to work, generally pushing pens. This new class hungered for self-improvement. Pooter is anxious to do the right thing, and desperate …

'You Ain't Ruined': How Thomas Hardy Took On Victorian-Era Purity Culture

Last week at The Atlantic, Abigail Rine described a backlash by some evangelical Christians against equating a woman's worth to her sexual purity, and against the common use of the "damaged goods" metaphor by abstinence advocates to describe a woman who loses her virginity outside of marriage.

Despite the poignant and compelling points made by some of these young women in the article, I'd argue that the case they're making is not new. A century and a half ago, the late-Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy questioned the connection between virginity and virtue in a way that's still fresh and relevant to today's discussion. Hardy challenged a number of his society's failings. In particular, he attacked the hypocritical sexual double standard that came to characterize Victorian morality and which unflinchingly equated a woman's moral character with her virgin status.

The first such challenge appears in a wicked little poem Hardy wrote in 1866 (not …

Rabindranath Tagore - By Ezra Pound.

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THE APPEARANCE OF “The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore”1 is, to my mind, very important. I am by no means sure that I can convince the reader of this importance. For proof I must refer him to the text. He must read it quietly. He would do well to read it aloud, for this apparently simple English translation has been made by a great musician, by a great artist who is familiar with a music much subtler than our own.

It is a little over a month since I went to Mr. Yeats’ rooms and found him much excited over the advent of a great poet, someone “greater than any of us.”

It is hard to tell where to begin.

BENGAL IS A nation of fifty million people. Superficially it would seem to be beset with phonographs and railways. Beneath this there would seem to subsist a culture not wholly unlike that of twelfth-century Provençe.

Mr. Tagore is their great poet and their great musician as well. He has made them their national song, their Marseillaise, if an Oriental nation can be said to have an equivalent t…

The Dreams of Italo Calvino

If you don’t count Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino (1923–1985) is the postwar Italian prose writer who has had the largest and most enduring impact outside his own country. (As a sign of this, it’s worth noting that this is the tenth consideration of his work to appear in these pages since 1970.) Calvino’s refined, gently pessimistic, humane irony rode the wave of the deconstruction of realistic fiction the way the more programmatic French nouveau roman and OULIPO writers could not, gently unmasking narratorial trade secrets and reminding readers of the self-reflexive nature of the fictional game, while continuing to deliver appetizing fabulist delights.

Postwar Italian fiction offered an embarrassment of riches as substantial as that of any other European country, starting with Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s magisterial, posthumously published The Leopard (1958)—though it might arguably be considered the last great novel of the old school. Before the war, Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese h…

Nizar Qabbani: A Brief Love Letter

My darling, I have much to say
Where o precious one shall I begin ?
All that is in you is princely
O you who makes of my words through their meaning
Cocoons of silk
These are my songs and this is me
This short book contains us
Tomorrow when I return its pages
A lamp will lament
A bed will sing
Its letters from longing will turn green
Its commas be on the verge of flight
Do not say: why did this youth
Speak of me to the winding road and the stream
The almond tree and the tulip
So that the world escorts me wherever I go ?
Why did he sing these songs ?
Now there is no star
That is not perfumed with my fragrance
Tomorrow people will see me in his verse
A mouth the taste of wine, close-cropped hair
Ignore what people say
You will be great only through my great love
What would the world have been if we had not been
If your eyes had not been, what would the world have been?

On “Washington Square” - Henry James

Henry James’s “Washington Square” wasn’t a particular favorite of its author. James called the short novel “poorish” and, in a letter to his daunting older brother, William, wrote, “The only good thing in the story is the girl.” Near the end of his life, when he selected work to revise for his culminating New York Edition, he didn’t pick “Washington Square,” dismissing it as one of his “unhappy accidents.”

But we pick it, again and again. Among posthumous readers, “Washington Square” is a pronounced favorite, both with James connoisseurs, (who don’t often return to “Daisy Miller,” James’s most popular book during his lifetime) and the wider public. “Washington Square” has inspired many adaptations. (The playbill of the recent “The Heiress” attributed the play to Ruth and Augustus Goetz, with no mention of “Washington Square.” There’s a Jamesian irony to this omission: in the eighteen-nineties, the writer had hoped to revive his reputation and replenish his income by writing for the the…

Coleridge and the ‘space of writing’

IT IS TOO often forgotten that Coleridge was a remarkable poetic experimentalist. Not only did he re-invent the ballad form as a narrative and allegorical structure, he also rediscovered the old principle of stress-driven verse. And in ‘Kubla Khan’ he found a way of exploring the poetic imagination which no one has since quite matched.

This study, by J.C.C. Mays – the distinguished Coleridge editor who is also responsible for the Princeton Poetical Works of 2001 – begins with a fascinating account of the reception history, not only of Coleridge’s work, but of the figure of Coleridge the poet, Coleridge the theologian, and Coleridge the metaphysician, the trinity of enigmas that made up STC. The interweaving of these three personae has changed radically over the years. For many decades it was thought that the early poet of such vivid promise had largely lost himself in those abstruse musings to which he was altogether too prone. Even Byron, an admirer who facilitated the publication of…