Friday, 28 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, divorced from time: an apolitical person in a period of great political upheaval; a barely educated wanderer who’s garnered the posthumous reputation of a hermit genius; a literary mystic miscast as blindly mad, when he in fact was all too aware of his own complicated demons. Walser, who wrote in German, moved constantly, spending time in Berlin and Munich, and in dozens of different boarding houses and hotels throughout his native Switzerland. In one year, he moved twelve times. Suspicious of neighbors who sometimes thought him more crazy than eccentric, he was a restless soul who, in the Swiss tradition, enjoyed long walks, feeling that contact with the environment was healthy.

Walking was also a method of travel: in 1920, he journeyed more than seventy miles on foot from Biel to Zurich to give a reading with a literary group. After a rehearsal with Walser, the organization forced him to allow Hans Trog, a magazine editor, to read while the author watched from the crowd. The event represented one of many disappointments Walser would suffer at the hands of fellow writers, and it likely contributed to his eventual withdrawal from literary circles.

Because of his family’s worsening finances, Walser left school at fourteen. He briefly attempted to be an actor but gave up after a disastrous audition. Later, he found work in a brewery and as a butler in a chateau. His fallback profession was that of clerk or copyist, and he occupied such roles in a number of banks and offices. He published his first poems and prose in the last years of the nineteenth century. He spent 1905 to 1913 in Berlin, during which time he was enormously productive, publishing three novels, The Tanners, The Assistant, and Jakob von Guten, as well as collections of poetry and short prose. Many of his short pieces appeared in German-language newspapers and magazines. His work earned him the admiration and, occasionally, the professional assistance of Robert Musil, Christian Morgenstern, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Walter Benjamin.

In 1913, his publishing fortunes waning and frustrated with Berlin’s stuffy intellectual scene (meeting Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Walser asked the Austrian writer, “Can’t you forget for a bit that you’re famous?”), Walser returned, defeated, to Switzerland, whose provincial environs he preferred. Then the troubles began. His father died in 1914. (His mother, whose depression and lack of affection were formative influences, had died in 1894.) That, of course, is also the year in which the cataclysm of World War I engulfed Europe, and Walser spent several weeks a year for the duration of the war in military service. In 1916, his brother Ernst, who had been in Waldau Mental Hospital since 1898, died; his brother Hermann took his own life three years later. Walser entered a period of financial hardship and perpetual wandering, interrupted by stays in various rooming houses and a hospitalization for sciatica in 1924. (Later that year, he walked from Berne to Geneva, a distance of ninety miles.) Publishers rejected his novel Theodor; no copies of the manuscript remain, nor of another novel, a sort of sequel to The Tanners, that Walser destroyed. He wrote prolifically: feuilletons, fables, reconstituted myths, fairy tales, short stories, poems, dramolettes (brief plays), and other manner of literary sketches. But he found less and less of an audience for his work—popular tastes had changed in the post-war period, and Walser’s writing, despite his melancholy, had become too fanciful and playful. He began to drink excessively and attempted suicide.

After claiming that he heard voices and suffering a nervous breakdown in 1929, Walser voluntarily checked himself in to the Waldau sanatorium in Berne, the same facility that had housed his brother, Ernst. A diagnosis of schizophrenia followed, though the finding has since been heavily debated. In the early years of his hospitalization, he still wrote frequently and published some short prose. In 1933, he was transferred, legally but against his wishes, to a facility in Herisau, where he remained until his death in 1956. Allowed to take long walks, he always returned to the facility, where he also performed menial chores.

More here.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

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 theology such as The Problem of Pain (1940) and The Screwtape Letters (1942). During the war, he achieved national fame through a series of talks as “The Voice of Faith” on the BBC. These addresses were collected in the volume Mere Christianity (1952), widely regarded as his most successful venture into Christian apologetics.

Lewis also wrote three works of science fiction during the 1940s, and after his last major theological work, Miracles, had been critically mauled in 1948, he devoted more and more attention to the writing of novels for children – a then unfashionable genre which he helped to make respectable. He created the imaginative world of Narnia, introduced by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, and further explored in six succeeding novels. In 1955, after being long denied a chair at Oxford, Lewis became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, with a fellowship at Magdalene College.

As an Oxford don, Lewis lived in a house in Headington, The Kilns, with his brother Warnie, and with Jane Moore, the mother of Paddy Moore, a student contemporary killed in the First World War. Sometime after Mrs Moore’s death in 1951, Lewis entered into a complicated relationship with an American writer, Joy Davidman, whom he eventually married twice, once in a register office in 1956 and once in a bedside religious ceremony in 1957. Joy helped him with his penultimate book, The Four Loves (1960), and her death in 1960 brought forth a poignant expression of mourning in A Grief Observed (1961). Lewis himself died of prostate cancer in 1963.

In this diligently researched, densely footnoted, helpfully illustrated and solemnly crafted biography, Alister McGrath has seen it as his task to supplement and correct the work of previous biographers. Some of his revisions of the received narrative will interest only devotees of Lewis who are familiar with earlier biographies. Such, for instance, are the claims that it was in 1930 rather than 1929 that Lewis began to believe in God, and that he came to belief in Christ while being driven to Whipsnade zoo by car in 1932, rather than when riding to the zoo in a motorbike sidecar in 1931. Such, too, is the discussion of the correct order in which to read the Narnia novels. Other novelties are of more general interest, such as the discovery that in 1961 Lewis nominated J. R. R. Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of the most attractive features of the book, in fact, is its careful delineation of the rise and decline of the friendship between the two Oxford writers.

More here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

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 very much on his mind, said Helen Melody, curator of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library.

Auden's famous poem, September 1, 1939, opens "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade". On the same day in 1939 the poet wrote in his diary of how he "woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C [Chester Kallman, the American poet] was unfaithful. Paper reports German attack on Poland … 6.0pm."

He tells of how Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears came to lunch, how "Peter sang B's new settings of Les Illuminations and some H Wolf … which made me cry. B played some of Tristan which seems particularly apposite today. Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war … 10.30 Went to the Dizzy Club. A whiff of the old sad life. I want. I want. Je ne m'occupe plus de cela. Stopped to listen to the news coming out of an expensive limousine."

More here.

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 it runs into Ernest Hemingway’s slightly more self-consciously crooning and acidic one. It isn’t the least of Stein’s virtues, or importance, that Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style that she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso’s famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and Hemingway did it pretty. But, prettified or not, Hemingway’s style was the most influential in American prose for more than fifty years, and this makes Stein’s style less an outcropping than a bedrock of modern American writing.

I hope, too, it suggests the kinds of truths that Stein’s peculiar style supports. All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple. (E. B. White and Robert Frost were neither of them the simple Yankees their styles liked to intimate, but both were more like simple Yankees than Stein was ever like a simple San Franciscan, or a simple anything.) Stein’s style is to writing what sushi is to cooking—not so much an example as a repudiation of the whole idea that still manages to serve the original function.

In truth, though, her style is more coherent and “ordinary” than it can seem, in part because a lot of its effect is achieved by the ridiculously straightforward device of removing normal punctuation. In writing, our sensitivity to small sounds is such that a minute alteration in decorum can have a very big effect on tone. The New Yorker reporter-poet Joseph Mitchell, for instance, searching for a plain style, often eliminated the normal contractions we use in English, so that every “It’s” became an “It is” and every “He’s” a “He is,” and suddenly a note of somber gravity exuded from his most basic declarative sentences. Stein achieves a similarly large and uncanny effect just by omitting commas—there are maybe a dozen in the whole of “Paris France.” As a result, any sentence, no matter how many qualifications it contains, is almost always written by Stein in commaless, undivided form. This makes her thoughts seem plain even when they are very fancy. Reading Stein is a bit like reading Emily Dickinson before punctuation got imposed on her: both claim, in every sense, our undivided attention. Many of Stein’s sentences can even be made to look normal just by punctuating them normally. “It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.” Simply inserting a period after the first five words and a dash after the next six makes the writing seem much less eccentric: “It is nice in France. They adapt themselves to everything slowly—they change completely but, all the time, they know that they are as they were.” And then there is also the monosyllabic vocabulary—“I like words of one syllable,” she tells us, but has no need to tell us—and the lovable weakness for ordinary American idioms, as in her famous assignment of Paris as her “home town.”

More here.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

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 "memory and desire."

Words, let us simply admit it, were always slippery; and the problem is only exacerbated when shoddy speech becomes the norm. At a time when we are surrounded by the bromides of advertisements and editorials, when language has an increasingly difficult time competing with the power of visual images, and perhaps most of all, when the case for clear writing raises scholarly eyebrows, the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is a useful occasion to ruminate about the long-term prospects for mounting clear, unequivocal prose against our continual cultural ruin.

Long before efforts to destabilize language became a cottage industry and then a staple of academic politics, Orwell worried about the social implications of wretched speech. "All issues are political issues," he declared with the same no-nonsense clarity that characterized nearly every paragraph, every sentence, indeed, every word he wrote. He then went on to finish the sentence by making it clear just how debased most political writing had become: "and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." Orwell had recently completed Animal Farm and was hard at work on 1984 when he wrote these words. He had had a bellyful of the worst that willful obfuscation could offer and set about cataloguing the sins of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction. Those who wrote on automatic pilot, which is to say most writers then and now, never had a chance. At its most benign, their ham-fisted efforts generated fog rather than light; at its worst, they produced the Newspeak that 1984 held up for scathing critique: "WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH and 2 + 2 turns out to be any number the government says it is."

Political speech and writing, Orwell insisted, were largely "the defense of the indefensible." The result was cloudy constructions such as transfer of population or elimination of unreliable elements rather than the blunt sentence that says what it means: "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Politicians across the political spectrum knew full well that blood-thirsty utterances of this sort would be, let us say, problematic, so they learned to cover their tracks with verbal grease. If it is true, as Eugene Genovese once observed, that all political movements include idealists, careerists, and thugs, it is equally true that it is the "thugs"—that is, the propagandists, professional obscurantists, and spin-doctors—who do most of the writing.

Looking back at Orwell's essay from the vantage point of a half century, one quickly realizes how it is possible to be simultaneously prescient and short-sighted, for Orwell could feel the intimations that would lead to our current conviction that "everything is political" without being able to fully imagine the pretentiousness and tin-eared jargon that such reductiveness would unleash.

What Orwell's essay championed was nothing more or less than writing committed to plain sense, a process he described as "picking words for their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer." Unfortunately, those who should know better, and more important, whose responsibility it is to pass along a healthy respect for language are often the same people who take a special delight in giving "Politics and the English Language" the scholarly raspberries. That Orwell has a hard time passing muster among the composition theory crowd is now a matter of record, but I had a preview of the hammering-to-come during the late 1970's, when my college's director of freshman writing treated the English department to an impromptu stump speech about just how pernicious, and badly written, Orwell's essays were. I can't remember the bill of particulars—probably because my shock and her certainty were on a collision course—but I do recall pointing out that if people couldn't recognize the intrinsic greatness of an essay like "Politics and the English Language," they wouldn't know a first-rate piece of writing if it bit them on the ass. In those benighted days, when talk about literary values wouldn't get you hooted out of the room, knowing why a work mattered mattered. And while I am not particularly proud of my intemperate outburst, I do take some small measure of satisfaction in remembering that my colleagues nodded in agreement, and that the Orwell-knocker in our midst was soon sacked.

Much has changed in the decades that followed. For example, I am not entirely sure how my colleagues would respond to a similar attack on "Politics and the English Language" were it to be delivered by somebody at composition theory's cutting edge. If recent experience is a guide, I suspect we would be much divided as a department, and that, this time around, I would be neither shocked nor surprised. Where is there an English department, pray tell, that does not serve up daily reminders of the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times!" But that said, who would really prefer a world where syllabi were set in granite and all manner of ideas, writers, and works (some good, some decidedly less so) were not constantly vying for our attention, and ultimately our official approval? In these contentious matters I find what solace is possible from writers who have earned my trust—not because they know the latest critical fashion, but because the imagination pushes them toward deeper truths. Even better, what such writers reveal about one set of specific, wholly imagined circumstances can often be applied to radically different situations—say, the current squabbles about what good writing is and how best it should be taught. No doubt that is why I found myself highlighting this passage from John Updike's recent novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies:
"Everything passes," his father said, huskily. This, too, shall pass away' are words more comforting than any I ever found in the Bible. Abraham Lincoln said them, in a speech before the War between the States. He was referring to a story about an Eastern potentate who asked his wise men for a sentence that would be good for all occasions, and that's what they came up with. This, too, shall pass away.' It's good when you're high, and good when you're low . . ."
My hunch is that the assault on everything that Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" stands for will also pass away. Indeed, I am so convinced about this that I no longer worry about the intellectual sky falling when some linguist tries to convince me that the word "dog" has no intrinsic meaning and that even "My dog Spot" is not much help so far as establishing meaning goes. True enough, I confess to be taken aback when the same linguist begins to widen the range to include words—once commonly used and widely agreed upon—such as "intellectual standards," "excellence," and perhaps most problematic of all, "pursuit of truth." Like poor Sweeney, I wonder how we can talk (much less debate) with each other if we don't use words—and use them with a reasonable hope that they have shared meanings. Besides, I have yet to meet a linguist on a faculty payroll who feels the same way about the word "salary," or who would especially welcome a dean giving him or her a quick lesson in deconstruction when the rent is due and a piece of blank paper showed where there had once been a pay slip.

More here.

Monday, 24 June 2013

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 their hearts as the standardbearer of a sentimental nostalgia for vanished American values. It is an appropriation at odds with the harshness, violence, and cold truthfulness that run like dark steel through the calm, lyric simplicity of her writing.

In 2002, Laura Bush hosted a White House symposium on the legacy of women in the American West, in which Willa Cather was a prominent figure. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, founded in 1955 in Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska (where many of her letters are housed), was awarded a large National Endowment of the Humanities grant in 2006 to develop its work, which includes maintaining a slice of Nebraskan prairie as “Catherland,” curating the Cather childhood home, holding Cather conferences, and publishing a Cather newsletter.

Some hagiographical reverence colors these activities, and sustains the legend of an essentially Nebraskan Cather, rather than a Cather who belongs to the international modern world. Pitched against the Cather “legacy” industry has been the feminist critical approach to Cather that started with Sharon O’Brien’s influential biography of her early years, published in 1987, identifying Cather as a lesbian artist writing a story of desire in her fiction that had to remain coded and covert. That “outing” of a queer Cather in the late 1980s, a literary movement very much of its time, was followed by an interest in Cather as a writer more concerned with politics, economics, race, modern life, and multiculturalism than her traditional admirers have allowed.

It began to seem as if Cather’s fate was to embody the rifts in the American academy between theory (or “political correctness”) and humanist aestheticism (or “conservatism”). If this is lowering to the spirits of the nonspecialist, nonacademic reader of Cather, it is also a mark of her status. Sixty-six years after her death, Cather has become, once again, after a period in the doldrums, a central figure in the American literary pantheon.

Now, Cather’s posthumous life is being transformed again by a publication that, for all Cather scholars and biographers, has been a very long time coming. In the will she made in 1943, Cather embargoed the publication of her letters—and the dramatization and adaptation of any of her work “whether for the purpose of spoken stage presentation or otherwise, motion picture, radio broadcasting, television and rights of mechanical reproduction, whether by means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered or perfected.” As, in old age, she became more famous and sought-after, and at the same time more alienated from the postwar world, she frequently “begged” her friends to “destroy all her letters,” and not to show them to anyone. When the great love of her life, Isabelle McClung, died in 1938, Cather had her letters returned and burned them. She deployed evasive action with fans and journalists. She frequently insisted that it was for her work she wanted to be known, not for her life story, and made great efforts to preserve her privacy.

More here.

Friday, 21 June 2013

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 same pantheon as Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Mallarmé, and other artists who have radically altered contemporary understanding of the world.

Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”

As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.” Whatever these precautions may have been, they were inadequate, for the works of Franz Kafka—apart perhaps only from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare—may be the most relentlessly interpreted, if not overinterpreted, in the modern world.

The September 7, 2012, issue of The Times Literary Supplement ran a review by Gabriel Josipovici of several recent books on Kafka. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedländer, is another strong entry in the derby. Friedländer is by trade not a literary critic but a historian. His affinity for Kafka is historical and personal. Like Kafka’s, his family, German-speaking and Jewish, originated in Prague. His father went to the same university Kafka did, though some 15 years later. As Kafka lost his three sisters, so did Friedländer lose his parents in Nazi camps.

More here.

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.

Thursday, 20 June 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 editors' 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 the dates 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. The evolution reflects his efforts to organize the Kronos material. One concession in this premiere edition is the need to adapt and transcribe the original hundred handwritten sheets into conventional paragraphs. Another, which the reader must consent to, is the absence of Gombrowicz’s vital, infectious tone.

Running editorial commentary adorns the bottom of pages, as a system to let the array of facts he compiled for decades 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 books including Gra w Gombrowicza / Games with Gombrowicz (1982) are crucial studies. 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 section, and wrote the Introduction for Kronos. Photos illustrate each phase, and a selection from the manuscript’s pages supplement the transcription with its painstaking notes. Those manuscript reproductions display his method and occasional drawings, and the publisher plans 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 and most ambitious of these is the two-volume Norwegian edition of that inventive, argumentative opus, which will include a painstaking index and extensive annotations about people and topics he wrote about over the course of that 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, stylized, 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.

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 addressed in Irish. The familiar pencilled translation into English of Irish addresses was absent. The postmarks too were in Irish. Puzzled, he picked up a copy of An Claidheamh Soluis from the bundle. It was larger than usual. Every word was in Irish. Advertisements and all! An Claidheamh was now a daily broadsheet. The issue in his hand was dated August 4th, 2006. Fearing this was a dream he wasted no time in gleaning as much about twenty-first century Ireland as possible.

One article announced the opening of the Oireachtas (Parliament) by the Ard-Rí (High King) at a ceremony to be attended by the Emperor of the French and the President of the Russian Republic. There would be a royal procession from the Palace of the Nation ‑ dignitaries followed by detachments of the National Guard (Fianna Éireann in Irish) and the Boy-Corps of the Palace down Sráid Dhomhnaill Uí Chonnail (Daniel O’Connell Street) and across O’Connell Bridge. The ministries and other public buildings along the route would be decorated. There was no mention of the General Post Office. Dignitaries in the procession would include the president and officers of the Gaelic League, the adjudicator and officials of the Oireachtas, members of the Irish Academy and the Bards in their robes. When the procession reached the Hyde monument in Plas an Chraoibhín the Herald of Ireland would proclaim the Peace of the Gaels. The Bard of Ireland would invoke the spirit of Gaelic Thought and Imagination and the Ard Rí would declare Oireachtas in session. The National Hymn would be intoned.

Another article described dramatic changes in climate and to the environment:
It must be remembered that ‑ as a result of the draining of the bogs and the re-forestation of the country – the temperature of Ireland has risen several degrees within the last century; which explains why it is now possible for us to hold nearly all our gatherings, whether for business or for pleasure, in the open air. We who are used to a Baile Atha Cliath of shady boulevards and open-air cafes can hardly realise that our city had neither boulevards nor cafes in 1906. People then paraded sun-baked streets in summer and ploughed their way through sludge in winter; whilst they resorted for “refreshment” to evil-smelling dens known as “public-houses”, which no decent woman would enter

Pearse then turned to the parliamentary column, which reported a debate about a Bill for the compulsory teaching of Japanese as a second language in seaport towns and cities. This reflected the growing importance of Japanese as a commercial world language. The Minister of Education opposed the Bill, recalling that it was once maintained that English would become the dominant world language when it was now only spoken by a few peasants in Somersetshire. How had this come about? The conquest of England by the Russian republic and the splitting up of the British Empire into independent kingdoms and republics soon destroyed the commercial value of English. It had never been a valuable language in intellectual terms. An Claidheamh Soluis described the language policy of the Irish state as based on two longstanding principles. Every child had a right to be taught its own mother tongue. Every child ought to learn in addition at least one other language:

Almost the first act of the Revolutionary Government of 19-- (the figure was unfortunately blotted) had been to establish a national education system embodying the two principles he had referred to. Under that system Irish was regarded as the vernacular or “first language” over one-third of the total area of the country, English being regarded as the vernacular over the remaining two-thirds. In the first-named area English, French, or German was taught as a “second language”; in the other, Irish was the “second language” almost universally adopted, though a few schools, chiefly in the northeast, adhered to French or German for a few years. Irish, as they were aware, rapidly extended its vernacular area, with the result that, in a generation and a half, it completely ousted English as “first language”.

See more here.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

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 minute now. There is great fear in the land Yeats has created—fear borne not of the inescapability of change but of the uncertainty of exactly what that change will be. Yeats ends with this immortal image:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats has reached all the way to the birth of Christ for much of the poem’s visual power. The title and double repetitions of the phrase “The Second Coming,” the references to “twenty centuries” and “Bethlehem” recall the Book of Revelation and the coming of the apocalypse. The apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ are of course another fulcrum where one eon is ending, another about to begin. But as any believer will tell you, “the future” of the Christian Second Coming is not uncertain at all. You just have to go through hell to get there. The phrases “widening gyre” and “beast” complicate what kind of future we are to expect even more. Will the era to come be governed by beasts? A “widening gyre” is a spiral getting bigger and further away from center, never to return to its point of origin, what it once was and knew.

More here.

Friday, 14 June 2013

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 not to make a faux pas in the ‘best’ company. His reading, his entertainment and his recreational activities are carefully considered. His tastes are middlebrow, and that is exactly what the accelerating new media set out to satisfy. Yet, he has no time for a farce; he would attend a Shakespeare performance or the latest serious play in town, but low comedy was beyond his cultural boundary.

In contrast, we have Mr Leonard Bast, in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Here is a man of that same class of clerks – descendants of Bob Cratchit but with an enriched lifestyle and some leisure time. Bast is inspired by Ruskin and wants to improve through study. His disposition is to analyse and discuss, to read widely and absorb anything considered to be ‘high’ culture. The crusade to educate the working class, from the 1870 Forster Education Act and later legislation on elementary education, had given the writers and performers of the page and stage a new and enthusiastic audience, eager for the kind of enlightenment their ‘betters’ had always had by birthright. In chapter XIV of Howard’s End, Bast is eager to express his thoughts about books and ideas, and his gushing enthusiasm fails to impress the Schlegel sisters. After Bast’s talk about three different books in half a minute, Forster adds this:
Tibby, who preferred his comedy undiluted, slipped from the room. He knew that this fellow would never attain to poetry…2
The Basts of the new world of the class of clerks and commuters wanted their entertainment, but with more than a dash of high culture. The dichotomy of popular and highbrow entertainment was to persist through this period. In Max Wall’s autobiography, Fool on the Hill, he describes the musical entertainment in which his parents (music hall acts) worked around 1900: ‘ The music hall was then predominant in the world of entertainment. There were plenty of “legit” theatres where the great star actors like Irving, Harvey and Tree could parade their talents, but for the common run of humanity the music hall was the thing.’3

THE CONTRAST BETWEEN the two literary characters of Pooter and Bast presents an interesting dichotomy: Pooter cultivates a social self, making friendships and sharing experience; there is a place for popular entertainment in his life, despite his choosiness. On the other hand, Bast turns in on himself, yearning for scholarship and depth of knowledge, longing for the acquisition of cultural knowledge and accomplishments which are in categories very much in contradistinction to anything for the crowd, for the masses. Each wants a certain sensibility, but Pooter’s is sufficient merely as a thin patina, something which is part of his appearance, whereas Bast wants to be the peer of Oxbridge men, to read and discuss philosophy and literature with a proper acquisition of the bedrock of learning such involvement requires.

In the two we have glimpses of the extremes of the vast spectrum of entertainment available to people in the late Victorian and Georgian years. Yet of course, the performers and writers who worked hard to meet these new needs and pleasures of the expanding audience were from very mixed backgrounds; many of them could pass from one very low level to more respectable ones, as was the case with the noted actress Adelaide Nielson, who was commented on by Colonel Frederick Wellesley (nephew of the Duke of Wellington) when he ‘slummed it’ in a drinking house in 1860, a place known then as a ‘night house’ as he explains:
… they were most of them situated in streets near the Haymarket. One that I remember was called Kate Hamilton’s and another Coney’s. The first was a very large room studded with small round tables… It is said that it was serving here as a barmaid that Miss Adelaide Nielson, who subsequently became a great actress, was first seen in London.4
There was always going to be a struggle to try to add a little ‘culture’ and refinement to the popular entertainments of London. The challenge may be seen in the early history of the Old Vic. The Victoria Hall, as it was in the nineteenth century, reopened in 1880 after having a first life as a place for rough entertainment and drunken brawls. Lilian Baylis’s aunt, Emma Cons, took over, and as Richard Findlater explains, Cons had to work with the London County Council in order to broaden her entertainment offerings, catering for more ‘civilised’ customers:
Emma Cons and the Council did not want to deter, by too much uplift and Education, the possible family audience in search of good, clean music hall fun. So they presented variety ‘purged of innuendo in words and action’ (as far, that Is, as Miss Cons could tell). The clearest indications of her intentions were Signalled by the programme, which carried in the first two years improving Quotations from Shakespeare…’5
IN THE YEARS between c. 1870 and 1900 there was a stunning amount of variety available, and the different audiences, with very varied needs in terms of the social use of their experience ad of reader reception, had a multiplicity of choices for a night out. An illustration in The Daily Graphic newspaper in 1890 supports this view, and depicts the sheer diversity involved: there is the Ballet Cecile offering The Dancing Lesson; Dan Leno as The Railway Guard; the Selbini Troupe of Bicyclists; negro minstrel Chirgwin, and comic sketches by the Brothers Poluski. We may add to this dozens of advertisements for classical recitals, so say nothing of amateur productions such as an entertainment given at the Kensington Town Hall in aid of the Metropolitan Police Orphanage and Relief Fund.6

More here.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

'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 published until decades later) called "The Ruined Maid," which satirizes his society's deeming a woman who lost her virginity before marriage as "ruined" (the Victorians' version of "damaged goods"). The poem is a dialogue between two rustic girls who meet up after the long absence of one of the girls. The first girl hardly recognizes her friend, Amelia, who is now dressed in finery and putting on airs:

"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —

Amelia responds:

"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

The jealous friend continues to admire Amelia's improved state and finally laments,

"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"

To which Amelia proudly replies in the closing lines of the poem,

"My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.

Hardy's point is that in a culture that commodifies virginity as his did, the market value of virginity depends on the price it can fetch. In the case of the rustic girl who will never marry out of her class, her virginity will fetch far less than what Amelia gets in being "ruined." More broadly, the poem satirizes the valuation of virginity apart from a holistic view of the person who possesses it. Thus a person is not "ruined" by the loss of virginity per se, but by the society that views her as such as a result. This idea forms the central theme in Hardy's later masterpiece, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

More here.

Rabindranath Tagore - By Ezra Pound.

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 to such an anthem. I have heard his “Golden Bengal,” with its music, and it is wholly Eastern, yet it has a curious power, a power to move the crowd. It is “minor” and subjective, yet it has all the properties of action.

I name this only in passing, to show that he has sung of all the three things which Dante thought “fitting to be sung of, in the noblest possible manner,” to wit, love, war and holiness. The next resemblance to mediaeval conditions is that “Mr. Tagore” teaches his songs and music to his jongleurs, who sing them throughout Bengal. He can boast with the best of the troubadours, “I made it, the words and the notes.” Also, he sings them himself, I know, for I have heard him. The “forms” of this poetry as they stand in the original Bengali are somewhere between the forms of Provençal canzoni and the roundels and “odes” of the Pleiade. The rhythm arrangements are different, and they have rhymes in four syllables, something, that is, beyond the “leonine.”

Their metres are more comparable to the latest development of vers libre than to anything else Western.

The language itself is a daughter of Sanscrit. It sounds like good Greek than any language I know of.

It is an inflected language, and therefore easy to rhyme in. You may couple words together as you do in Greek or German. Mr. Tagore tells me that there is scarcely a poem where you do not make some word combination.

I write this to show that it is an ideal language for poets; it is fluid, and the order is flexible, and all this makes for precision. Thus, you may invert in an inflected language, for this will not cause any confusion as to your meaning.

It makes for precision, since you can have a specific word for everything. For example, one of Mr. Tagore’s friends was singing to me and translating informally, and he came to a word which a careless lexicographer might have translated simply “scarf,” but no! It seems they wear a certain kind of scarf in a certain manner, and there is a special name for the little tip that hangs back over the shoulder and catches in the wind. This is the word that was used.

More here.

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 had been greatly influenced by Hemingway and American realism; they were followed by a generation that included Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, to name only the most prominent—most of whom make appearances in this consistently absorbing and suggestive selection of Calvino’s letters, chosen by Michael Wood from the several thousand pages of his literary correspondence published in Italy.

These writers portrayed a still near-feudal society emerging into industrialization; their various achievements were inflected by cold war politics in an American client state with an independent, competent, and popular Communist Party in active opposition to the ruling Christian Democratic coalition, where left- and right-wing values competed day in and day out on every front. In his own way, Calvino exemplified these tensions in Italian cultural life, even perhaps in his nonideological response to them.

Calvino was born in Cuba, where his botanist parents were working at an experimental station outside Havana, but he grew up in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. He set out to be an agronomist, and his early letters to his boyhood friend Eugenio Scalfari, later one of Italy’s most important newspapermen, are alive with youthful enthusiasm for literature, philosophy, and girls. But after fighting with the partisans in the civil war that followed the fall of Mussolini, an experience that provided the material for his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), Calvino emerged as a committed Communist at the end of the war. He resigned from the Party in 1957 in protest against its hard-line conformism, writing that he “had hoped that the Italian Communist Party would put itself at the head of an international renewal of Communism, condemning ways of exercising power which have been shown to be a failure and deeply unpopular.” Still, he came to feel that Italian Communists had displayed “a little bit more intelligence here than in other countries,” and, as he wrote the editor of The New York Review, he remained faithful to an idea of the Italian Party as “a very disciplined and efficient organization vitally interested in the defense and development of democracy.”

Authentic solidarity with workers was not all that easy, for him, however—an ambition perhaps more than an achieved reality. In 1950 we find him writing that “for four days I managed to feel very closely tied up with and in a certain sense essential to the working-class struggle, something that has not happened for some time now.” In 1951, he protests, perhaps a bit too much, to a fellow writer that “the writer is someone who tears himself to pieces in order to liberate his neighbor.”

More here.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

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?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

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 theatre, but was hissed off the stage, and shortly thereafter left London for Rye, which was cheaper.)

James wrote “Washington Square” to complete a trilogy, for Cornhill Magazine, which began with “Daisy Miller,” and its blithe accessibility no doubt partially explains why the book is so often assigned in courses. But I’d venture that it’s the passion of James’s excavation that sustains our interest. Reading this hundred-and-thirty-year-old book, we still feel the intensity of James circling an obsession. His great subject, beneath, between, and everywhere around his characters’ complicated tricks and liaisons is the terrible condition of being unable to love.

We don’t read James for his stories. Despite their formal symmetries, they feel jerry-rigged. He borrows from melodrama, but lops off that genre’s gratifications, going realist on us at exactly the wrong moment. If Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending, Henry James delivers something more like a comedy with a haunting close.

We don’t return to James for his characters, either. It’s not quite possible to love them the way one may love Leopold Bloom or Mrs. Dalloway or even Lily Briscoe. They don’t feel real, exactly, though they’re the opposite of cardboard—a term suggesting characters made of appearances. James’s characters are all soul; they’re closer to ideas than to bodies. We know their sensibilities but not their details. One would have a hard time describing what any of the central characters in “Washington Square” look like, despite how much is made of Catherine’s clumsy lack of beauty. James has already strayed from classical realism, which depends on a belief in an ordered and materially stable world. In a narrative about attraction, looks, and charm, those qualities are never definite. They waver. As internal as the narratives of “Ulysses” and “To the Lighthouse” feel, there’s no doubt as to the vibrancy of the characters in those modernist masterpieces of the generation that followed James. We believe in their characters more than we believe in real people. In James, we believe in the characters a little less. While you could venture a guess as to what Mrs. Ramsay would eat for breakfast, (a jam sandwich, standing up) one can hardly imagine John Marcher eating at all.

We read James not for his stories or for his characters but for the one thing that can’t be adapted: his mind. We know it, in its arguments with itself, its endlessly refining discernment, its flickering shifts and glints of wisdom. We know those details the way we know Bloom’s love of organ meats and Mrs. Ramsay’s tendency to slough off her beauty with haphazard clothes.

No one else has given such fine attention to personal life as it’s thought, that wave and flutter in consciousness. Our stray wishes, our abiding hopes, our shame and constant fears—James attends to all the component parts of what we loosely call love, if only to show his characters coming up against their limitations.

More here.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

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 ‘Kubla Khan’, still quipped at the opening of Don Juan that Coleridge had been:
Explaining Metaphysics to the nationI wish he would explain his Explanation.
So much for Biographia Literaria, then. There is also the question of fragmentariness. We have changed our tune on this one, and that alteration has permitted a shift in our perception of Coleridge’s achievement. It is no longer simply accepted that ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ were never finished because STC was a self-indulgent druggie, forever plannng schemes he never got around to completing. We now tend to value the authentic fragment above the over-synchronised whole, and we no longer expect poetry to round itself out and trim its margins simply to fill out the full page of our expectations. Charles Lamb’s precocity here was extraordinary: ‘We know not whether the fragmental beauty that it now possesses can be advantageously exchanged for the wholeness of a finished narrative.’

This was in 1816, and is very well put. The fragmentariness of ‘Kubla Khan’ is now vastly more valued than the finish of Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the heroic personal quality of the latter perhaps no longer appears quite so conclusively superior to the vacillations and self-doubts of his balladeering companion. The very phrases Coleridge used to describe Wordsworth’s great endeavour – a philosophical poem ‘containing views of Man, Nature and Society’ – are now likely to fill the reader’s soul with a certain dread. The fragmentary we have come to accept as one of the parameters of authentic speech, the only possible mode, sometimes, of what Coleridge called ‘the lords of utterance’. The poet says precisely what can be said without compromising the vitality of the poem’s language, or inflating it with the spuriously holistic. There is a parallel in the visual arts: the edges of some of Rembrandt’s paintings appear either unfinished or half-abandoned, and it is impossible to say whether many of Cézanne’s watercolours are unfinished or, in the sense employed here, necessarily fragmentary. In either case we have come to regard those blank spaces as a token of genuine artistic endeavour, not a symptom of delinquency. Paul Celan’s poetry is almost entirely a poetry of the luminous fragment.

We have ended up (for the moment anyway) with three great Coleridgean texts: ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. For a long time ‘Love’, alternatively known as ‘Genevieve’, was said to form a quaternity with them. It was ‘Love’ that Millais illustrated in a popular painting, which was to become an even more popular Victorian woodcut. The poem shares a certain Gothic winsomeness with ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, but it seems now to show us a Coleridge in fancy-dress mode, where the much more unexpectedly Gothic quality of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ do something very different indeed. It is a tribute to the lasting power of Coleridge’s imagery that he has attracted so many illustrators of genius. Not only Doré, but Mervyn Peake and David Jones all produced sets of illustrations for ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and all are worth a great deal of attention. ‘Christabel’ has attracted much erotic speculation, both visual and otherwise, and we might recall that Sara Coleridge wouldn’t let her daughter Edith anywhere near her father’s verse, because it was ‘so sensuous and impassioned’. Her italics tremble here with their own quivering ambivalence.

More here.