Thursday, 25 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 immigrants—manners understood in the broadest sense. He was curious to see if their move to a democratic and predominantly commercial country had changed them in any way. Having traveled extensively in Italy, James was especially interested in Italians in America. His first encounter with Italian immigrants took place while he was walking in a town on the New Jersey shore, where he was staying for two days as the guest of his American publisher. Seeing Italian immigrants who were working as landscape gardeners, James hoped to chat with them, but they ignored him completely: “It was as if contact were out of the question.” If he had met similar workers in Italy, there would have been a conversation “founded on old familiarities and heredities.” These Italian gardeners were not interested in idle chatter. They were busy working and making money.

A week or two later, James met an immigrant when he was visiting his brother William in New Hampshire. Walking by himself in the countryside, James lost his way, so he asked directions from a man who had just emerged from the woods. Because the man did not reply, James thought he might be French-Canadian, so he addressed him in French. The man remained silent, so he addressed him in Italian. No reply again. James said in English: “What are you then?” This question finally “loosened in him the faculty of speech. ‘I’m an Armenian,’ he replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a wage-earning youth in the heart of New England to be [Armenian].” James is amazed that the man mentions his ethnic identity so matter-of-factly, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about an Armenian walking in the New England woods.

The encounters with the Italian gardeners and the Armenian constitute evidence for James of “the ubiquity of the alien.” This characteristic was especially obvious to James in New York. Riding in an “electric car” (a streetcar), he saw “a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed.”

According to James, “the great fact about his companions [on the streetcar] was that foreign as they might be . . . they were at home, really more at home, at the end of their few weeks or months or their year or two than they had ever in their lives been before.” The immigrants are at home because the U.S. is a “cauldron” of immigrants from different countries. The country was and still is a “a prodigious amalgam . . . a hotch-potch of racial ingredients.”

The immigrants feel at home in New York, but James doesn’t. He feels dispossessed. “This sense of dispossession . . . haunted me . . . in the New York streets and in the packed trajectiles [the streetcars] to which one clingingly appeals from the streets.” But, quite in contrast to the picture Empire City’s editors would paint, he doesn’t recoil from the immigrants. Indeed, he says native-born New Yorkers “must make the surrender and accept the orientation. We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them.”

It is easy to misunderstand what James means by “dispossessed.” He is not saying that these new immigrants are ruining the American character. He completely dismisses the notion of an American character that is based on Anglo-Saxon or Nordic stock: “Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first under the jealous eye of history?—peopled, that is, by migrations at once extremely recent, perfectly traceable and urgently required. . . . Which is the American, by these scant measures?—which is not the alien, over a large part of the country?”

In his remarks on immigration, James is taking issue with the views of many of his friends, who feared that the new immigrants could not be assimilated. In 1895 Thomas Bailey Aldrich, an acquaintance of James who succeeded William Dean Howells as the editor of The Atlantic, published his poem “The Unguarded Gates,” which begins: “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,/ And through them presses a wild motley throng.” In his History of the American People (1902), Woodrow Wilson said the new immigrants were “men of [the] lowest class from the south of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” In 1911 William Williams, the Ellis Island Commissioner, said: “The new immigrants, unlike that of the earlier years, proceed in part from the poorer elements of the countries of southern and eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants.” This was also the view of the Dillingham Commission, which presented a lengthy report to Congress in 1910 and 1911. The New York Times reported that the commission had shown that “aliens are not being [assimilated], and cannot be assimilated—cannot be, that is, unless some check is placed upon their continued influx.”

During the second decade of the twentieth century, the opponents of Eastern and Southern Europe immigration often cast their argument in racial terms. In The Passing of the Great Race in America (1916), Madison Grant called for the exclusion of inferior Alpine, Mediterranean, and Jewish breeds as the only means of preserving America’s old Nordic stock. In 1922 the Saturday Evening Post published several articles about “race” by the novelist Kenneth Roberts, who warned that “a mixture of Nordic with Alpine and Mediterranean stocks would produce only a worthless race of hybrids.”

James disagreed with the immigration doomsayers. He thought the “wild motley throng,” as Aldrich puts it, would easily be assimilated. “The machinery [of assimilation] is colossal—nothing is more characteristic of the country than the development of this machinery, in the form of the political and social habit, the common school and the newspaper.” Visiting Ellis Island, he is struck by “the ceaseless process of the recruiting of our race, of the plenishing of our huge national pot au feu, of the introduction of fresh—of perpetually fresh so far it isn’t perpetually stale—foreign matter into our heterogeneous system.” James, in effect, says that anyone can become a member of “our race”—i.e., anyone can become an American.

More here.

Monday, 22 July 2013

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 jointly by the author and the poet Robert Hass. Although no translation can duplicate its original, Milosz’s ability to elucidate his poetic purposes and Hass’s familiarity with English poetic conventions combine to powerful effect.

In the boldest formal experiment of Provinces, Milosz appends to certain poems a second poem, a “Commentary,” which takes apart and contradicts, in dialectical fashion, its twin, reflecting it in a mirror that reveals the unconscious but fundamental distortion of truth in the first (indeed in any) aesthetic formulation. What the left hand gives, the right takes away. In “Gathering Apricots,” for instance, the poet represents himself happily reaching for a fruit; suddenly he remembers a woman, now dead:

I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence
And put aside the basket and say: “It’s a pity
That you died and cannot see these apricots,
While I celebrate this undeserved life.”

On the same page, the “Commentary” repudiates the way the poet had originally formulated the experience. He had not forgotten the woman; he did not “suddenly” remember her and feel her presence. No: the experience was different:

Alas, I did not say what I should have.
I submitted fog and chaos to distillation.
That other kingdom of being or non-being
Is always with me and makes itself heard
With thousands of calls, screams, complaints,
And she, the one to whom I turned,
Is perhaps but a leader of a chorus
. What happened only once does not stay in words.
Countries disappeared and towns and circumstances.
Nobody will be able to see her face.
And form itself as always is a betrayal.

If we wished, we could imagine yet another “Commentary” appended dialectically to the first “Commentary,” and perhaps beginning,

And is it not a kind of self-regard, this self-torment,
And is not tolerance of chaos a greater betrayal than form?

That is, the mere presence of a “Commentary” denies the historical self-sufficiency of lyric; the poet turns on the form he has made, and then on form itself. Form is thus revealed as a Möbius strip rather than a stable enclosing circle or equilateral triangle. As we watch, form generates its own asymmetrical contradiction in language.

More here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Susan Sontag: Fascinating Fascism

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 holding a camera), and each of them shows some version of an ideal presence, a kind of imperishable beauty, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's, that only gets gayer and more metallic and healthier‑looking with old age. And here is a biographical sketch of Riefen­stahl on the dust jacket, and an introduction (unsigned) entitled "How Leni Riefenstahl came to study the Mesakin Nuba of Kordofain"—full of disquieting lies.

The introduction, which gives a detailed account of Riefenstahl's pilgrimage to the Sudan (inspired, we are told, by reading Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa “one sleepless night in the mid‑1950s”), laconically identifies the photographer as "something of a mythical figure as a film‑maker before the war, half‑forgotten by a nation which chose to wipe from its memory an era of its history." Who (one hopes) but Riefenstahl herself could have thought up this fable about what is mistily referred to as "a nation" which for some unnamed reason "chose" to per­form the deplorable act of cowardice of forgetting "an era"—tactfully left unspecified—"of its history"? Pre­sumably, at least some readers will be startled by this coy allusion to Germany and the Third Reich.

Compared with the introduction, the jacket of the book is positively expansive on the subject of the photographer's career, parroting misinformation that Riefenstahl has been dispensing for the last twenty years.

It was during Germany's blighted and momentous 1930s that Leni Riefenstahl sprang to international fame as a film director. She was born in 1902, and her first devotion was to creative dancing. This led to her participation in silent films, and soon she was herself making—and starring in—her own talkies, such as The Mountain (1929). These tensely romantic productions were widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler who, having attained power in 1933, commissioned Riefenstahl to make a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934.

It takes a certain originality to describe the Nazi era as "Germany's blighted and momentous 1930s," to sum­marize the events of 1933 as Hitler's "having attained power," and to assert that Riefenstahl, most of whose work was in its own decade correctly identified as Nazi propa­ganda, enjoyed "international fame as a film director," ostensibly like her contemporaries Renoir, Lubitsch, and Flaherty. (Could the publishers have let LR write the jacket copy herself? One hesitates to entertain so unkind a thought, although "her first devotion was to creative danc­ing" is a phrase few native speakers of English would be capable of.)

The facts are, of course, inaccurate or invented. Not only did Riefenstahl not make—or star in—a talkie called The Mountain (1929). No such film exists. More gener­ally: Riefenstahl did not first simply participate in silent films and then, when sound came in, begin directing and starring in her own films. In all nine films she ever acted in, Riefenstahl was the star; and seven of these she did not direct. These seven films were: The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg, 1926), The Big Jump (Der grosse Sprung, 1927), The Fate of the House of Habsburg (Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg, 1929), The White Hell of Pitz Palü (Die weisse Hölle von Piz Palü, 1929)—all silents—followed by Avalanche (Stürme über dem Montblanc, 1930), White Frenzy (Der weisse Rausch, 1931), and S.O.S. Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg, 1932‑1933). All but one were directed by Arnold Fanck, auteur of hugely successful Alpine epics since 1919, who made only two more films, both flops, after Riefenstahl left him to strike out on her own as a director in 1932. (The film not directed by Fanck is The Fate of the House of Habsburg, a royalist weepie made in Austria in which Riefenstahl played Marie Vet­sera, Crown Prince Rudolf's companion at Mayerling. No print seems to have survived.)

Fanck's pop‑Wagnerian vehicles for Riefenstahl were not just "tensely romantic." No doubt thought of as apolitical when they were made, these films now seem in retrospect, as Siegfried Kracauer has pointed out, to be an anthology of proto‑Nazi sentiments. Mountain climbing in Fanck's films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlim­ited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer‑worship. The character that Riefenstahl generally played was that of a wild girl who dares to scale the peak that others, the "valley pigs," shrink from. In her first role, in the silent The Holy Mountain (1926), that of a young dancer named Diotima, she is wooed by an ardent climber who converts her to the healthy ecstasies of Alpinism. This character underwent a steady aggrandizement. In her first sound film, Avalanche (1930), Riefenstahl is a mountain­-possessed girl in love with a young meteorologist, whom she rescues when a storm strands him in his observatory on Mont Blanc.

Riefenstahl herself directed six films, the first of which, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932), was another mountain film. Starring in it as well, Riefenstahl played a role similar to the ones in Fanck's films for which she had been so "widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler," but allegorizing the dark themes of longing, purity, and death that Fanck had treated rather scoutishly. As usual, the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful and dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self—into the brother­hood of courage and into death. The role Riefenstahl de­vised for herself is that of a primitive creature who has a unique relation to a destructive power: only Junta, the rag­-clad outcast girl of the village, is able to reach the myste­rious blue light radiating from the peak of Mount Cristallo, while other young villagers, lured by the light, try to climb the mountain and fall to their deaths. What eventually causes the girl's death is not the impossibility of the goal symbolized by the mountain but the materialist, prosaic spirit of envious villagers and the blind rationalism of her lover, a well‑meaning visitor from the city.

More here.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

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 hardly the sort of thing you would expect of the fellow who wrote The Trial or The Castle or 'In the Penal Settlement' (one of the most horrific short texts ever to have sneaked its way into the literary canon), and it is poignant as well as charming, not least because in our own climate of nervy erotic suspicion a middle-aged male writer who attempted such kindliness would have the social services or police on him like a shot. But the story of Kafka and the Lost Doll is instructive as well as surprising.

It explains to the neophyte what an unusually kind and thoughtful man he could be, even when he was drawing his shallow breaths in sharp pain. Some of his fans think that - again like Beckett - he bordered on the saintly. But it also hints at Kafka's knowledge of the power that lies in stories, his own stories in particular. Stories can cure the sadness of small girls. They can also frighten, console, give courage. They can help even a sick and dying writer make some sense of what remains of his short life. Kafka seems often to have thought of writing as a curse or (to borrow a term from the literature of shamanism) a sickness vocation. And yet the thing that makes you ill may also, from time to time, make you powerful.

Some of Kafka's greatness is due to the fact that his work belongs as much to the very long history of storytelling as to the relatively short history of Western literature. On the whole it is plain, simple, direct and tantalisingly cryptic. His stories worm their way under your skin and stay there until you itch. They make some people itch so badly that they have to start telling their own stories about K. In the years when his reputation first began to take off, after the Second World War, he was mainly revered as Kafka the prophet, the man who had read the entrails of his age and foreseen, first, the rise of totalitarianism, secondly the cancer-like proliferation of faceless officialdom, thirdly 'alienation' and finally, especially, the death camps in which most of his close family and lots of his friends were murdered.

That story of dark prophecies is still being passed around, despite its many and increasingly evident flaws. In the last few decades, though, it has had no shortage of competition. Despite the curious fact that Kafka's body of fictional work is slender - three unfinished novels, a clutch of short stories, some prose fragments - it has generated such a gigantic industry of comment that only an eternal graduate student could possibly keep up with the output. Among the regiment of Kafkas now stalking the world, we have Kafka the Christian mystic (though he wasn't a Christian), Kafka the Jewish mystic (he had bafflingly complicated views about Jewish identity and religion), Kafka the Zionist, Kafka the sexual inadequate, Kafka the wicked capitalist (he co-ran an asbestos factory), Kafka the vegetarian, Kafka the socialist, Kafka the social butterfly and laugh riot, and, in Saul Friedländer's new essay - a very good and sane little book, which may safely be put into the hands of newcomers - Kafka the poet of shame and guilt. Having noted how often Kafka writes about canine encounters, I am myself tempted to write a monograph entitled Wie ein Hund: Kafka and Dogs. But it's a fair bet that someone will have beaten me to it.

More here.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

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 Kandinsky; viâ cubism and expressionism. One does not complain of neo-impressionism or of accelerated impressionism and “simultaneity,” but one is not wholly satisfied by them. One has perhaps other needs.

IT IS VERY DIFFICULT to make generalities about three arts at once. I shall be, perhaps, more lucid if I give, briefly, the history of the vorticist art with which I am most intimately connected, that is to say, vorticist poetry. Vorticism has been announced as including such and such painting and sculpture and “Imagisme” in verse. I shall explain “Imagisme,” and then proceed to show its inner relation to certain modern paintings and sculpture.

Imagisme, in so far as it has been known at all, has been known chiefly as a stylistic movement, as a movement of criticism rather than of creation. This is natural, for, despite all possible celerity of publication, the public is always, and of necessity, some years behind the artists’ actual thought. Nearly anyone is ready to accept “Imagisme” as a department of poetry, just as one accepts “lyricism” as a department of poetry.

There is a sort of poetry where music, sheer melody, seems as if it were just bursting into speech.

There is another sort of poetry where painting or sculpture seems as if it were “just coming over into speech.”

The first sort of poetry has long been called “lyric.” One is accustomed to distinguish easily between “lyric” and “epic “ and “didactic.” One is capable of finding the “lyric” passages hi a drama or in a long poem not otherwise “lyric.” This division is in the grammars and school books, and one has been brought up to it.

The other sort of poetry is as old as the lyric and as honourable, but, until recently, no one had named it. Ibycus and Liu Ch’e presented the “Image.” Dante is a great poet by reason of this faculty, and Milton is a wind-bag because of his lack of it. The “image” is the furthest possible remove from rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being. So much for the general category. Even Aristotle distinguishes between rhetoric, “which is persuasion,” and the analytical examination of truth. As a “critical ” movement, the “Imagisme” of 1912 to ’14 set out “to bring poetry up to the level of prose.” No one is so quixotic as to believe that contemporary poetry holds any such position. . . . Stendhal formulated the need in his De l’Amour:–
La poésie avec ses comparaisons obligées, sa mythologie que ne croit pas le poeté, sa dignité de style à la Louis XIV et tout l’attirail de ses ornements appelés poétique, est bien au dessous de la prose dès qu’il s’agit de donner une idée claire et précise des mouvements de coeur, or dans ce genre on n’émeut que par la clarté.
Flaubert and De Maupassant lifted prose to the rank of a finer art, and one has no patience with contemporary poets who escape from all the difficulties of the infinitely difficult art of good prose by pouring themselves into loose verses.

More here.

Friday, 12 July 2013

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 home the hopes and love of a soldier already killed in action. In The Mayor of Casterbridge love letters from Lucetta to the wife-selling Henchard prove volatile catalysts of social disruption, ending up in Mixen Lane (where they inspire the murderous skimmity ride); most famously, Tess’s letter of confession, hastily pushed not just under the door but under the carpet too, remains unread by the priggish Angel Clare, as Hardy delivers his most powerful attack on the Victorian sexual double standard. Hardy’s own letters were places for quiet reflection and deepening emotional ties, for occasional advice, details to visitors of the times of the Waterloo trains, and for public protests on the iniquity (and absurdity) of war and against cruelty to animals (“helplessness breeds tyranny”). They ensured regular contact with his friends and the publishing world, contained correctives to readings of his work and, as he became increasingly famous, they came to include his polite regulation refusal to an ever more voracious army of autograph-hunters (who were likely to sell his signature).

More than any other form, letters provide insight into Hardy’s many-sidedness. Writing in 1907 to the poet Elspeth Grahame (whose husband was then composing The Wind in the Willows in letters to their seven-year-old son), he expressed admiration, and not a little surprise, that she had written verses on the top of an omnibus “where my attention is always too distracted by the young women around me in fluffy blouses to be able to concentrate on inner things”. Commiserating with one of his American admirers, Rebekah Owen, for having to get in a plumber, he suggested that she take up plumbing herself: “A London physician told me he learnt, & saves pounds annually now – plumbers being the most expensive workmen of any”. (Hardy’s female characters often do the work of men; we might recall Bathsheba as a farmer; or Marty South as an accomplished spar-maker.) Such solid practical advice exists alongside Hardy the natural modernist, writing to tell Arthur Symons that he liked his poem “Haschisch” (the world is “the phantom of a haschisch dream”), discussing timeless reality and the nature of matter at the drop of a hat; and Hardy the critic (in his own words “a most unsafe” one).

More here.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

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, religious tolerance, cultural openness, the rule of law, and an artistic renaissance: the half-century-long reign of one of the most remarkable rulers the world has ever known, Jalal al-Din Muhammad, known as “Akbar,” the Grand Mughal, called jahanpanah, the wonder of the world.

The second half of the sixteenth century was one of those exceptional periods, not unlike our own, when the whole world seemed to be changing rapidly, a “hinge moment” in history. The sixteenth century, perhaps unlike our own times, was also a hinge moment in the arts. Akbar’s reign coincided almost exactly with that of Queen Elizabeth I of England; he ascended to the throne a year and a bit before her and lived a couple of years longer. In Italy this was the time of the High Renaissance, of Michelangelo and Titian and the poetry of Ariosto. In Spain it was the time of Cervantes and the two parts of Don Quixote, and in Elizabethan England, of course, it was the age of Shakespeare. What else of world-changing note? Yes: sometime in the 1560s, the graphite pencil was invented, and was used, originally, for the marking of British sheep.

In the poetry of the Renaissance—in, for example, the great narrative verse-epic Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto and in its precursor, Orlando Innamorato by Ariosto’s fellow Ferraran Matteo Boiardo—the world of the East is sketchily known, at best, but fantasy happily makes up for ignorance. A prince can be described by Ariosto as the “ruler of India and Cathay,” and it is assumed by the poet that such nonsense will make enough sense to his readers to be plausible. Verisimilitude is unnecessary, and perhaps not even considered as an option, not even by Shakespeare. Othello, himself a Moor, a man of the East, speaks of meeting on his travels not only “Cannibals that each other eat,/The Anthropophagi,” but also “men whose heads/do grow beneath their shoulders.” Across Europe, until as late as the seventeenth century, the legend of Prester John, a mighty Christian king whose lost kingdom, home of the Fountain of Youth, existed somewhere amid the Muslims and pagans of the East, was so widely believed that it had almost ceased to be fictional; except of course that no such king ever existed.

More here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

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 it destroyed along with certain other papers. He felt that it was too tragic a record of a mind in disintegration. I think he felt, too, that the passages hardly constituted a literary work. Miss Bosanquet, who took the dictation directly on the typewriter (as was James's custom), told me that the sound of the familiar machine, and the ability to ease his mind, had helped soothe the novelist in his feverish moments. It had been my intention to use this material in its relevant place in the Life of Henry James, which I am now completing. But I have learned that a certain writer in England, who gained access to Miss Bosanquet's papers, found copies of some of this dictation and is planning to make use of it in a forthcoming book along with other materials long ago made available to me by Miss Bosanquet, and reserved for my use. I have decided accordingly, in the interest of the record and of accuracy, to make this document public, there being no objection now from the James descendants. If I am to be anticipated, it seems to me, I may as well anticipate my own book. It must be noted that Miss Bosanquet did not have the complete document; certain sentences were set down during her absence, were dictated to James's niece, Peggy James, daughter of William James. Peggy, with her mother, the widow of William, had braved the submarine menace of the First World War and crossed the Atlantic to be with Henry James during his last days.

Return to Flashback: Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly

The final dictation is at points an incoherent document. Yet it is less incoherent than one might suppose; and far from mirroring the collapse of a great intellect, it dramatizes its struggle and its power. The grandeur, the majestic rhythm of the great style remain; the vivid phrases are minted as at the very threshold of death. "I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility," James had written to Henry Adams. And as Proust redictated the death scene of the writer Bergotte in his novel, a few hours before his own death, so James, in his last days, insisted on performing what he called "an act of life."

The facts, briefly, are these:

On the evening of December 1, 1915, Henry James wrote a letter to his niece, then in America. He spoke of renewed heart trouble, of his long sleepless nights, of the constant ache of the war: "One feels very abject . . . in the midst of the huge tremendous thing . . . to have disqualifying personal and physical troubles." He told her his manservant, Burgess Noakes, who had worked for him since boyhood, had been given a "renewable leave" from the army, and that "his devotion is boundless and most touching." He gave Peggy other news, and then wearily ended, "The pen drops from my hand! Your all-affectionate old Uncle, Henry James."

The pen literally dropped from his hand. The next morning, December 2, James's servants in his flat in Carlyle Mansions, Chelsea, heard him calling. It was 8:30 A.M. and James's left leg had given way under him as he was dressing. He was a very heavy man, and with difficulty Burgess and the maid got him into bed. The novelist was fully conscious. He was reported later to have told his friend Howard Sturgis that his thought as he collapsed was, "So here it is at last, the distinguished thing." But he held "the distinguished thing" at bay. Miss Bosanquet, arriving, found him propped up in bed. He announced to her he had had a stroke "in the most approved fashion." And he dictated a cable to his nephew, in New York: "Had slight stroke this morning. No serious symptoms. Perfect care. No suffering. Wrote Peg yesterday." On the next day he hunted in a thesaurus to find a word describing his condition -- the word "paralytic ' did not satisfy him. He continued in this way for several days, with some confusion of mind.

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Monday, 8 July 2013

The Unbearable - Sylvia Plath

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 impaling by the tram rail. 

Yet however unsavory, the ongoing interest in Plath’s story—Otto the bogeyman “Daddy” and smother-mother Aurelia; the precocity and self-destructiveness; the breakdowns and electroshocks; Cambridge and poetry and the tumultuous marriage to Hughes; the mental illness and scarifying death (she gassed herself one bitter London winter morning, her two small children asleep in the next room)—may reflect something rather more than mere readerly voyeurism. Five decades after her death Plath continues to provoke inflaming conflict and scandal—and no more corrosively than among those who care most intensely about her. Nothing about her life or legacy seems wholesome or resolved.

The world of Plath biography is an especially crowded and rancorous one, having been distinguished since the 1970s by fractured friendships, vicious public feuds between members of the Plath and Hughes families, accusations of censorship and arguments over withheld papers, and enough free-spouting venom and spleen to scar anybody so foolish as to offer an opinion on any of it. In 1994 Janet Malcolm published a brief, charmingly deadpan book—The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes—on the various legal and personal battles then raging between rival Plath biographers and their backers.

Yet so much new Plath-related material has appeared since 1994 that Malcolm would have to write another book simply to update the first. There is not just Birthday Letters—the muddled and wandering book of confessional poems by Hughes addressed to Plath before he died in 1998—but also a trove of papers from Hughes’s personal archive. Then there is Karen V. Kukil’s meticulous collection of Plath’s unexpurgated journals (2000) and Elaine Feinstein’s 2001 biography of Hughes. Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson and American Isis by Carl Rollyson demand attention, not least for drawing on much of this previously unpublished and neglected Plath material. (Rollyson, it should be said, offers a nice quick-and-nasty summary of the strife among biographers in the last chapter and appendices of American Isis.)

Perhaps inevitably, given the central and irredeemable moral horror of the poet’s suicide, the core struggle has taken the form of a Manichaean and disturbingly personal propaganda war. On the one side are the myriad supporters of Plath, who characterize her as a mentally frail woman-genius, cruelly deserted by her philandering Bluebeard-husband. (Hughes, it is true, had been unfaithful to Plath multiple times during their marriage, and late in 1962—just a few months before Plath’s suicide—had abandoned her and their two children for the young German-Jewish-Russian writer Assia Wevill. Wevill, whom he subsequently married, would also gas herself to death, in 1969.)

More here.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

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 bled like a pig.”

It was the first line of Chapter Three, however, that brought mythic status to Mary McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Group. “Get yourself a pessary,” Dick says the next morning, walking Dottie to the door. The chapter proceeds to offer a tutorial on the etiquette, economics, semiotics, and symbolism of this particular form of contraception, circa 1933. Diaphragm, ring, plug—call it what you will—when The Group was published, in 1963, the subject was still shocking. Sidney Lumet’s movie of The Group—released three years later, smack in the middle of the sexual revolution—included Dottie’s deflowering and subsequent trip to a gynecologist but substituted euphemisms for McCarthy’s blunt language. Instead, Dick Brown says, “The right lady doctor could make us a lot happier.”

Critics of The Group would call it Mary McCarthy’s “lady-writer’s novel” and “lady-book,” insults meant to suggest it was a falling-off from her previous work. And it was different from what she’d done before. Up until The Group, McCarthy was feared and revered in the smart, tight, testy, and frequently backstabbing world of midcentury literary quarterlies and political reviews. Her critical assessments of theater and literature were scathing, and no one was too high to be brought low. Arthur Miller, J. D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams—the greats of the day—all came in for vivisection, McCarthy’s own Theater of Cruelty on the page. (“Torn animals,” poet Randall Jarrell wrote of a character based on McCarthy, “were removed at sunset from that smile.”) Her early novels read like moral chess matches where everyone is a pawn. And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear in the hearts of male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.

But The Group—a novel that followed eight Vassar roommates from commencement in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940—was her Mount Olympus and her Achilles’ heel, a monster international success that brought world fame yet failed to impress the peers who mattered most.

“Women’s secrets again,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote to a friend, “told in clinical detail.”

“No one in the know likes the book,” poet Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.

“Mary tried for something very big,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote to historian Nicola Chiaromonte, “but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”

All true, and all beside the point. Published on August 28, 1963, with a whopping first printing of 75,000, The Group was a sensation. By September 8 it was No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list for adult fiction, with booksellers ordering 5,000 copies a day. By October 6 it had dethroned Morris L. West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman to become No. 1, where it would stay for the next five months. By the end of 1964, nearly 300,000 copies had been sold, though now and then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich had to refund the price of a book. Women’s secrets “told in clinical detail” were, for some, tantamount to pornography. The book was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland.

Countless novels have topped the best-seller list for months. Mention them now—The Shoes of the Fisherman, for instance—and people go blank. Not so with The Group. While its plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil, the secrets of these Vassar girls were chinked in stone and the racy one-liners etched in memory. As Helen Downes Light, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s, told Frances Kiernan, the author of the biography Seeing Mary Plain, “I used to keep seventy-five dollars of mad money in a book. We had The Group on the shelf in our guest room and I thought, I’ll remember where it is if I put it in there. Every guest we had would come down the next morning and say, ‘Did you know you had money in that book?’ ”

Money in that book! Avon paid $100,000 for the paperback rights. Movie rights sold to producer-agent Charles Feldman for $162,500. The Group made Mary McCarthy a very rich intellectual, one of America’s first highbrows to receive gargantuan sums, thus changing the financial expectations of serious writers and the scale on which their work could be judged.

More here.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

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 a little weary of the conventionally novelistic sections of these books – one remembers them in terms of randy doctors Benny Hillishly chasing nurses in their panties – but with Testaments Betrayed Kundera dispensed with characters, stories and situations while retaining his signature technique of "meditative interrogation" to construct a book entirely of novelistic essays. To say he became an influence (in the way that Martin Amis is influential) is to understate matters. Kundera's distinctive, pioneering software became available for download and has been used by, among others, Adam Thirlwell (precociously) in Politics and Craig Raine (bit lame at his age) in Heartbreak.

The man himself, meanwhile, had switched from Czech to French (pretty amazing in itself), producing three shortish novels and another stimulating essay in the form of variations, The Curtain. The opposite of a curtain-raiser, Encounter is a curtain lowerer or encore: a linked collection of pieces originally written in French, some from 20 years ago, modestly offering themselves as "reflections and recollections" on "old themes (existential and aesthetic) and… old loves".

It is a tribute to Kundera's ability to weave his essayistic spell that my interest was undiminished by the fact that I am either wholly ignorant of many of the composers and writers discussed (Iannis Xenakis, Marek Bienczyk, Gudbergur Bergsson) correct or am familiar with them only through Kundera's earlier books. In any case, Kundera's subjects are mirrors, offering variously distorted reflections on his own work and situation. As he says with reference to a remark by Francis Bacon about Beckett: "When one artist is talking about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what's valuable in his judgment."

More here.