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Showing posts from July, 2013

Henry James's America

Henry James is widely regarded as a writer who was deeply disturbed by the new immigrants who came to America after 1890—mainly Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians from Southern Italy and Sicily. James wrote about the new immigrants in The American Scene (1907), an account of his visit to the U.S. in 1904–1905 after an absence of two decades. In their introduction to a selection from The American Scene (1907), the editors of Empire City: New York Through the Centuries (2005) say, “James, revealing the patrician sensibility of his class, . . . recoiled at the sight of masses of immigrants.” James did not recoil at the sight of masses of immigrants. He went out of his way to see immigrants and talk to them. He not only visited Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, but he also walked in the Italian and Jewish sections of New York. He went to restaurants frequented by immigrants, and he observed immigrants chatting and strolling in Central Park. 

James was interested in the manners of imm…

Tireless Messenger - Czeslaw Milosz

The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was born in Lithuania in 1911 and has lived in California since 1960, is now writing, he tells us, from “a new province,” that of old age:

The course of my dying seems to me amusing.
Weakness of legs, the heart pounding, hard to go uphill.
Myself beside my refractory body.
In the clarity of my mind, as in a mountain nest.
And yet humiliated by difficulty in breathing,
Vanquished by the loss of my hair and teeth.

Still, by calling his commanding new book Provinces, he adjures us to remember that the new province of old age is only one of his subjects among others that are both real and metaphysical. We revisit in this collection many of Milosz’s central themes—including the strangeness of human life (where in the blink of an eye absurdity can turn to bravery, or tranquillity to war), exile, sensuality, memory, Platonic idealism, and iron disbelief. The poems have great immediacy, in part because of the idiomatic fluency of the translation, done jointl…

Susan Sontag: Fascinating Fascism

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First Exhibit. Here is a book of 126 splendid color photographs by Leni Riefenstahl, certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years. In the intractable mountains of the southern Sudan live about eight thousand aloof, godlike Nuba, emblems of physical perfection, with large, well‑shaped, partly shaven heads, expressive faces, and muscular bodies that are depilated and decorated with scars; smeared with sacred gray-white ash, the men prance, squat, brood, wrestle on the arid slopes. And here is a fascinating layout of twelve black-and‑white photographs of Riefenstahl on the back cover of The Last of the Nuba, also ravishing, a chronological sequence of expressions (from sultry inwardness to the grin of a Texas matron on safari) vanquishing the intractable march of aging. The first photograph was taken in 1927 when she was twenty‑five and already a movie star, the most recent are dated 1969 (she is cuddling a naked Afri­can baby) and 1972 (she is hol…

Lost in Transformation

Someone must have been telling lies about K., for the popular image of him as the great Gloomy Gus of 20th-century letters (close rivals: Beckett, Cioran, maybe Céline) does not bear very much scrutiny. Consider this incident, which took place as he was dying of tuberculosis, and knew it. One day, when he was walking in a Berlin park, Kafka saw a little girl crying. He asked her why she was sad and she told him that she had lost her doll. Oh no, Kafka said, her doll was not lost - the toy was simply off on an exciting adventure. Understandably sceptical, the girl asked for proof. So Kafka went home and wrote a long, detailed letter from the doll, and gave it to the little girl the following day. Then, every day for the next three weeks, he gave her an additional letter. It seems that the doll had met a boy doll, and become engaged, and then married. By the end of the three weeks, the doll was setting up her marital home and the little girl no longer missed her mute companion.

This is h…

Ezra Pound on Vorticism

It is no more ridiculous that a person should receive or convey an emotion by means of an arrangement of shapes, or planes, or colours, than that they should receive or convey such emotion by an arrangement of musical notes.

I SUPPOSE THIS PROPOSITION is self-evident. Whistler said as much, some years ago, and Pater proclaimed that “All arts approach the conditions of music.”

Whenever I say this I am greeted with a storm of “Yes, but”…s. “But why isn’t this art futurism?” “Why isn’t?” “Why don’t?” and above all: “What, in Heaven’s name, has it got to do with your Imagiste poetry ?”

Let me explain at leisure, and in nice, orderly, old-fashioned prose.

We are all futurists to the extent of believing with Guillaume Appollonaire that “On ne peut pas porter partout avec soi le cadavre de son pere.” But “futurism,” when it gets into art, is, for the most part, a descendant of impressionism. It is a sort of accelerated impressionism.

There is another artistic descent viâ Picasso and Kandin…

The many-sided Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was a prolific writer of letters. By the 1920s the Royal Mail had installed a post box in the outside wall of his Dorchester home, Max Gate, which he was particularly glad to use during bad weather. (Though it was bricked up after his death, the outline is still visible.) When the telephone came to Max Gate (43 Dorchester), also in the 1920s, it had little effect on the volume of letters Hardy wrote and received, and not only because, as he pointed out in a letter to Edmund Gosse, he couldn’t hear anyone who rang. The letter was the form of communication that best served this quiet, extraordinarily sympathetic, and most intently observant of Victorians, who was born in 1840, the year the Uniform Penny Post was introduced, and lived almost three decades into the twentieth century.

In Hardy’s fiction and poetry, letters are ready sources of excitement and suspense, harbingers of loss and disappointment. They go missing, fall into the wrong hands, or arrive too late, bringing…

The Composite Artist

Essay by Salman Rushdie

India, in the mid-sixteenth century. Just thirty-one years have passed since a fierce Timurid warlord, Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and possessor of a surprising literary gift, was unhoused from his native land, and swept down to establish, by force of arms, a new kingdom in Delhi. Just sixteen years have passed since that warlord’s less puissant son Humayun was deposed and fled into ignominious Persian exile, abandoning his infant son to be raised by an Afghan uncle. Just one year has elapsed since the fugitive’s victorious return and the reestablishment of his dynasty, and just one month since the returned monarch fell down a flight of steps and died in a moment of bathetic slapstick, leaving his thirteen-year-old son, the son who barely knew him, to ascend his father’s precarious throne. What follows this period of near-perpetual upheaval, almost impossibly, is a time of political stability, economic prosperity, reli…

The Deathbed Notes of Henry James

by Leon Edel

IT has long been known that during his last illness, in the midst of the 19l4-19l8 war, and when he was in delirium, Henry James called his secretary, the late Theodora Bosanquet, and dictated certain passages that dealt with the Napoleonic legend. The text of the dictation has never been published, although Miss Bosanquet once read an excerpt during a BBC broadcast devoted to the novelist; and in 1927 it was mentioned briefly in Pelham Edgar's Henry James: Man and Author as a "Napoleonic Fragment." I found the document in 1937 when James's nephew and executor gave me access to his posthumous papers. It struck me as curious -- a kind of stream of consciousness of a fading mind still in possession of its verbal power and the grandeur of its style and I took a copy of it, feeling it to be a significant biographical document. Later, when the James family papers were given to Harvard, this manuscript was not included. I learned that the executor had ordered …

The Unbearable - Sylvia Plath

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies (including the two reviewed here) are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impa…

Vassar Unzipped - The Group, Mary McCarthy

Everyone loved Chapter Two. Straitlaced Dottie Renfrew—Vassar class of 1933 and a virgin—has gone home with the handsome but dissipated Dick Brown. He undresses her slowly, so that she “was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls.” Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some “rubbing and stroking,” and then some “pushing and stabbing,” she starts to get the hang of things. “All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups … ” No hearts and flowers here, simply a female orgasm described by a female writer who was as empirical and precise as the male writers of her day—perhaps more so—yet always attuned to the social niceties imprinted upon a certain class of female mind. Dick removes the towel, impressed by the minute stain, and in a remark that pulled the romantic veil from the usual novelistic pillow talk, says of his ex-wife, “Betty ble…

Encounter: Essays by Milan Kundera

It is just about conceivable that writers can continue to amaze at an advanced age, even up until they die. It's much more common for one of two things to happen: after a certain point, either they disappoint – because there is an obvious falling off or because we realise we are getting fed more and more of the same – or they are taken for granted.

Occasionally, both can happen, in which case (Philip Roth's, for example) we take our disappointment for granted and just wait for him or her to shut up. Milan Kundera is an extreme case in that we take our amazement for granted. Think back to whenever it was that you first read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or The Unbearable Lightness of Being and remember how exciting these "novels in the form of variations" seemed in terms of conception, content and orchestration. It wasn't just a question of technical novelty: the idea of fiction was recalibrated to create forms of new knowledge.

We may subsequently have become…