Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney - Interview - Seamus Heaney died aged 74.

Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since Yeats, has died aged 74.

Seamus Heaney

Born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, Seamus Heaney was the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After receiving a degree in English from Queen's University in 1961, Heaney worked as a school teacher, then for several years as a freelancer. In 1975, he was appointed to a position in the English department at a college of education in Dublin, where he trained student teachers until 1981. Harvard University invited him for one term in 1979 and soon after, a part-time arrangement was proposed, allowing Heaney to teach the spring semester then return to Ireland and his family. In 1984 he was elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. As well, from 1989 to 1994 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney resigned from the Boylston Chair, but will still be affiliated with Harvard as a visiting poet-in-residence. He now lives in Dublin with his wife, Marie, with whom he has three children.
Heaney is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), Sweeney Astray (1984), Station Island (1985), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996). His prose has been collected in three books: Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1989) and The Redress of Poetry (1995). His works also include a version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (1990) and a translation, with Stanislaw Baranczak, of Jan Kochanowski's Laments (1995).
This interview took place over three mornings in mid-May of 1994 in Heaney's rooms at Harvard's Adams House. (It was briefly updated after Heaney received the Nobel.) A crabapple tree was in full blossom outside his living-room window. At the end of the month, Heaney would return to Ireland. Throughout our conversation, student voices and laughter drifted from the corridor. The phone rang steadily, until it was unplugged. Tea was served with Pepperidge Farm cookies. A coffee table and two large oak desks were covered with neat piles of correspondence, manuscripts, committee paperwork, literary magazines, books, et cetera. Heaney sat on the sofa in the glow of a lamp. A comfortable mix of tidiness and clutter made it easy for us to begin. A bouquet of lilacs drooped in a vase nearby. On the mantel there were family snapshots: his sons at the Wicklow cottage, all three children in Dublin with their mother, his good friend Bernard McCabe leaping joyfully into the air in Italy. Also, there was a Spode plate with an image of Tintern Abbey reproduced on it and a framed print called “The Tub of Diogenes,” both cherished birthday presents—Heaney had recently turned fifty-five. And there was a postcard of Henri Rousseau's painting The Muse and the Poet. At each session, Heaney wore a suit, pressed white shirt and tie. His Doc Martens were polished. His white hair, though neatly shorn, was tousled. He had traveled extensively in recent weeks, and though his brown eyes were heavy-lidded, his mind was alert and mischievous. After each session, we had a glass of Jack Daniels.

As you end your twelfth year at Harvard, what are your impressions of American students?
When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, there's a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, there's a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.
Do you feel that teaching all these years has affected your writing?
Well, it's bound to have affected my energy levels! I remember Robert Fitzgerald warning me, or at least worrying for me, on that score. But for better or worse—I now feel for worse, earlier on I felt for better—I believed that poetry would come as a grace and would force itself through whenever it needed to come. My sense of the world, of what was laid out for me in my life, always included having a job. This simply has to do with my generation, my formation, my background—the scholarship boy coming from the farm. The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas's Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen's University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. Then in November of 1962 I began to write in earnest, and sort of hopefully. As an undergraduate I had contributed poems to the English Society magazine. I had been part of a class that included, among other people, Seamus Deane, who was very much the star of the group, and George McWhirter, now a poet at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. And there were others with writerly ambitions around Queen's at the time—Stewart Parker, for example, who eventually became a dramatist—so I was one of that crowd. But I didn't have any sense of election or purpose or ambition. My pseudonym at Queen's, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes's Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph— not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were.
You grew up in a family where the men were nonverbal. And you've acknowledged that the idea of rhyme first came to you as a pleasure via your mother. Can you speak a little bit about your home life as a child?
My father was a creature of the archaic world, really. He would have been entirely at home in a Gaelic hill-fort. His side of the family, and the houses I associate with his side of the family, belonged to a traditional rural Ireland. Also, nowadays, I am more and more conscious of him as somebody who was orphaned early on in life. His own father had died suddenly when he was quite young. His mother died of breast cancer. So he and his siblings were then fostered out and reared by aunts and uncles. My father grew up with three bachelor uncles, men who were in the cattle trade in a fairly substantial way, traveling back and forward to markets in the north of England, and it was from them that he learned the cattle trade. So the house where he spent his formative years was a place where there were no women, a place where the style was undemonstrative and stoical. All that affected him and, of course, it came through to us in his presence and his personality.
What about your mother?
Well, my mother was more a creature of modernity. Her people lived in the village of Castledawson, which was in some respects a mill village. Many of the people there worked in Clarke's linen factory. One of her uncles was a stoker in the factory, one of her brothers worked there too, another drove a bread van—held the franchise, as it were, for a Belfast bakery in that Castledawson area. One of her sisters trained as a nurse, another went off to England and was there during the war, married eventually to a miner from Northumberland. I suppose you could say my father's world was Thomas Hardy and my mother's D.H. Lawrence. Castledawson was that kind of terrace-house village, spic-and-span working class. And there was a nice social punctilio about the McCanns—that was my mother's family name; it came out in their concern with dress codes and table manners and things like that. They liked you to have your shoes polished and your hair combed. They had a little allotment garden out at the back and a washhouse with a set of wringers. And I suppose I would call the McCanns democrats. They had a strong sense of justice and civil rights and they were great argufiers. They genuinely and self-consciously relished their own gifts for contention and censoriousness.  ...

Monday, 26 August 2013

Hamlet: A Love Story

Around 1905 or 1906, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay, unpublished in his lifetime, called “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage.” The essay addressed the question of what we, as spectators, get out of watching people go crazy. Freud’s theory was that we’re fascinated by crazy characters because they help us express our own repressed impulses. Drama, of course, can’t express our fantasies too literally; when that happens, we call it pornography and walk out of the theatre. Instead, a good playwright maneuvers our desires into the light using a mixture of titillation and censure, fantasy and irony, obscenity and euphemism, daring and reproach. A good play, Freud wrote, provokes “not merely an enjoyment of the liberation but a resistance to it as well.” That resistance is key. It lets us enjoy our desires without quite admitting that they’re ours. 

“Hamlet,” Freud thought, best exemplified the appeal of managed self-expression. Watching “Hamlet,” we think that it’s about revenge—a familiar, safe subject. In fact, “Hamlet” is about desire. The real engine of the play is Oedipal. Caught up in Hamlet’s quest to kill Claudius—and reassured by his self-censure—we can safely, and perhaps unconsciously, explore those desires. Freud thought that prudery and denial had for centuries prevented critics from acknowledging the play’s propulsive undercurrent, which, he believed, the new psychoanalytic vocabulary made it possible to acknowledge. “The conflict in ‘Hamlet’ is so effectively concealed,” he wrote, “that it was left to me to unearth it.”

Freud’s hilarious (and no doubt self-conscious) boast is doubly resonant in “Stay, Illusion!,” the thoughtful, fascinating, and difficult new book about “Hamlet,” by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster. Critchley, a philosopher at the New School, and Webster, a psychoanalyst, can’t help but thrill to Freud’s “delightfully arrogant assertion”: they are, after all, writing a book about “Hamlet,” and you only do that if you believe that nearly every great thinker in Western literature has gotten it wrong. At the same time, they resist the idea that “the Oedipus complex provides the definitive interpretation of ‘Hamlet.’ ” Critchley and Webster, a married couple, have clearly been conducting a long-running two-person seminar on “Hamlet.” They call their book the “late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession.” Their book convenes a sort of literary-philosophical-psychoanalytic roundtable—featuring Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Joyce, and Lacan, among others—to question Freud’s interpretation.

Desire and its repression, they conclude, might be too small a frame for “Hamlet.” It’s better to think about the play in terms of love and its internal contradictions. They argue that we tell the story wrong when we say that Freud used the idea of the Oedipus complex to understand “Hamlet.” In fact, it was the other way around: “Hamlet” helped Freud understand, and perhaps even invent, psychoanalysis. The Oedipus complex is a misnomer. It should be called the Hamlet complex.

Critchley and Webster are proud as well as nervous about the fact that they’re “outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism.” “What is staged in ‘Hamlet,’ ” they write, “touches very close to the experience of being a psychoanalyst, that is, someone who has to listen to patients day after day, hour after hour.” Rather than get caught up in the “game of scholarship and interpretation,” their plan is to “cup [their] ear”—that is, to attend to and elaborate on the themes that the play obsesses about. Nothingness is one of those themes; it comes up over and over in the text of the play. (Ophelia to Hamlet: “You are naught, you are naught.” Hamlet to himself: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”) Is “Hamlet,” they wonder, “a nihilist drama”? Love or, more accurately, the failure to love is also a theme. Shame is another. (“For us,” they write, “at its deepest, this is a play about shame.”)

More here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The last days of Jean-Paul Sartre

In the third volume of her memoirs, The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she did not perceive death as a physical reality until 1954, when word reached her of Sartre’s having been hospitalized, for unstated reasons, during a trip to the Soviet Union. Something “irrevocable” had happened, she declared. “Death had closed its hand around me; it was no longer a metaphysical scandal, it was a quality of our arteries, it was no longer a sheath of night around us, it was an intimate presence penetrating my life, changing the taste of things, the quality of the light, my memories, the things I wanted to do: everything.” Although the German Occupation and the liberation of Paris had made violence commonplace, her quasi-symbiotic relationship with Sartre conferred upon her—or so this account might suggest—a sense of invulnerability that vanished the moment her intellectual mate began to falter.

Arteries are very much an issue in La cérémonie des adieux,[1] for this short work chronicles year by year the deterioration of Sartre’s mind and body after 1970. The vertigo he experienced in Moscow was the first of many danger signals that went unheeded during the late Fifties and Sixties. To produce The Critique of Dialectical Reason and his 2800-page opus on Flaubert, The Family Idiot (where “falls” govern the whole interpretative scheme), Sartre often labored thirty hours at a stretch, popping amphetamines and smoking several packs of Boyard cigarettes a day. Why he drove himself so mercilessly is open to conjecture, but it may be worth recalling what de Beauvoir wrote about him as a young man in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, that in his view the literary work was “an absolute end” that carried within itself “its raison d’être, its creator’s, and even perhaps . . . the entire universe’s.” Absolute ends do not promote personal hygiene. Bound up with the fantasy of omnipotence and self-sacrifice, writing remained for Sartre a romantic vocation whose glory lay in its power to consume the writer. Consume him it did. By 1970,when he was sixty-five, his vascular system was a shambles.

De Beauvoir’s memoir commences in September of that year. After he had drunk a quantity of vodka at dinner one Saturday evening, Sartre began dozing and let his cigarette fall from his lips. The next day he was sufficiently recovered to leave de Beauvoir’s apartment for his own, but when they met several hours later, she found him unsteady on his feet: he bumped into furniture, reeled as they left a restaurant, and pitched forward while getting out of a cab. The dozen or so medical examinations he underwent during the next month brought to light a circulatory problem in the left hemisphere of his brain, and a general narrowing of the blood vessels.

In the next two years, there were other such episodes during which his mind would wander, and on one occasion he fell down, badly bruising himself about the head. It seems odd that a physician whom he consulted, in what soon became an excruciating round of consultations at the Salpêtrière hospital, should have given him a clean bill of health after reading his encephalogram, since just to walk cost him considerable pain, and the spells of drowsiness to which he was subject visited him more frequently. But this memoir contains much that is odd. Sartre himself showed no disposition to question diagnoses that flew in the face of evidence. His ideal doctor would have assured him that he need not forego the consolation he derived from whisky and tobacco, that his health was proof against his enemies, including above all himself, who could destroy it with impunity.

More here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia

IN THE GENERAL RARE BOOKS COLLECTION at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.

Captain Ahab, that vengeful seeker puffed with "fatal pride," simply could not have been imagined without Milton's Satan, paragon of seditiousness and the heroic sublime. Both tragic heroes are solipsists and madmen who believe that God is an ill-mannered lunatic undeserving of his reign, and yet both evoke our best sympathy in their epic struggles. Ahab knows he is as "proud as Lucifer" and "damned in the midst of Paradise," and he shares Satan's mytho-maniacal poeticism: "I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass."

Like Shelley and Blake, Melville was charmed by the individualism and heroic striving of Milton's Satan, and he imbued Ahab with the same sense of outsized self-mythologizing. His rereading of Paradise Lost during the composition of Moby Dick significantly altered the novel's meaning and mythic scope. The extraordinary fact is that as late as 1849 (Moby Dick was published in 1851), Melville had yet to conceive of Captain Ahab and was focused instead on the non-epic bildungsroman of a shipmate called Ishmael. Take Milton’s Satan away from Melville and you can forget about the earthshaking achievement of Moby Dick.

In his biography of Melville, Andrew Delbanco contends that Melville's "immersion” in great writers at this time “lifted him to a new level of epic ambition." Delbanco gives particular attention not only to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but to Dryden's seminal translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which Melville also reread during the writing of Moby Dick. After that "encounter" with the Aeneid, Delbanco writes, Melville "found himself recapitulating Virgil's story of a haunted mariner voyaging out to avenge a grievous loss." In other words: a vigorous rereading of epics vivified his creation of the most compelling quester in the American canon.

Delbanco's use of "recapitulate" stresses the reality that Moby Dick was not born in a vacuum, that Melville's genius, his far-reaching metaphysical vision, required the verbal and allegorical acumen of the great books. He was incapable of reading one classic without relating it to another — in his edition of Chapman's Homer he scrawled lines he preferred from Pope's Homer — or else contemplating how he himself would render the same material. Immersed in Virgil, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton, he recreated those myths and human truths for 19th century America, and in doing so, made them his own. As Hershel Parker emphasizes in his meticulous two-volume biography, "Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake," but rather, "his evident purpose in reading epics of Western civilization was to learn how to write."

Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.

More here.

Monday, 19 August 2013

On Jonathan Swift's Poetry

Jonathan Swift arrives on our bookshelves in disguise, and for most readers he stays that way. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a book for children, a tale of wonder and adventure, with shipwrecks and talking animals, worthy to stand with Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, which are also children’s books. Generations of teachers and librarians have given Lemuel Gulliver their imprimatur of wholesomeness. Let’s remind them of the scene in Lilliput when the emperor commands Gulliver to stand in a field with his legs wide apart while the emperor’s army rides through the giant’s arch:
His Majesty gave Orders, upon pain of Death, that every Soldier in his March should observe the strictest Decency with regard to my Person; which, however, could not prevent some of the younger Officers from turning up their Eyes as they passed under me. And, to confess the Truth, my Breeches were at that time in so ill a Condition, that they afforded some Opportunities for Laughter and Admiration.
That may stand as my favorite phrase in Swift, the arch-coiner of memorable phrases: “Laughter and Admiration”—rooted, of course, in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and a joyous sense of smutty-mindedness. Because of such bawdy, Gulliver’s Travels is surely among the most frequently bowdlerized of classics, and most readers probably have never read Gulliver’s description of a Brobdinagian woman’s breast as she nurses:
It stood prominent six Foot, and could not be less than sixteen in Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples, and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous.
Beyond Gulliver’s Travels, what do common readers know of Swift’s work? “A Modest Proposal,” perhaps, and the venturesome may have dabbled in A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. But who reads Journal to Stella or The Drapier’s Letters, the latter credited by one of Swift’s contemporaries with “breathing into [the Irish] something of his own lofty and defiant spirit.” Swift was a pamphleteer of genius, a savage polemicist and satirical master of the plain style. He told a correspondent in a letter penned in 1719: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definitions of a style.” Listen to the rhythm of those words, and know the poet.

No, in the popular mind Swift remains a one-book author, and even ambitious readers may be unaware he wrote poetry. Scholars have identified roughly 280 poems in English and a handful in Latin. Like most of Swift’s work, nearly all were published anonymously for reasons both prudent and pathological. Even so great a critic as Samuel Johnson, in The Lives of the English Poets, devotes only two paragraphs to the poems and blandly says they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” At least Johnson got the humorous part right.

More here.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

George Orwell: A Life in Letters

George Orwell toiled in poverty for many years, but after writing Animal Farm he had to start turning down invitations. In August 1947 the literary magazine The Strand asked him to write something for its pages and to give an account of his life. A prolific essayist and book critic, Orwell was at the time struggling with what would become his other masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. ("This bloody book," he called it, as illness slowed his progress.) He declined the magazine's invitation in, explaining that he was cutting back on hack work in order to complete his novel. Neither party, of course, could know that Orwell, who would die of tuberculosis in 1950, had only about a month of decent health left in his life.

Curiously, Orwell's reply letter nevertheless contains the requested biographical note. It has just been published for the first time, in George Orwell: A Life in Letters. Orwell mentions his formative experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma, tramping in London and Paris, investigating industrial poverty in northern England, and fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War. "As to politics," it reads, "I was always more or less 'left' " and "came to the conclusion that it is a duty to work for socialism even if one is not emotionally drawn to it, because the continuance of present conditions is simply not tolerable." On the other hand, Orwell declares his "horror of totalitarianism," finding communists to be little better than fascists. Squaring the circle, he concludes: "I have never belonged to a political party, and I believe that even politically I am more valuable if I record what I believe to be true and refuse to toe a party line."

This remarkable document tells you more or less everything you need to know about George Orwell. It is written in the clear, direct language that he considered the best antidote to insincerity and evasion. It reminds the Left and the Right -- both of which need reminding -- of his chief convictions: against totalitarianism and for socialism. It confirms that Orwell was indeed fallible, for, as editor Peter Davison notes, he either forgot about or elided his brief membership in the Independent Labor Party. At the same time, the manner in which that membership ended demonstrates his priorities: Orwell left the ILP at the beginning of World War Two because it remained pacifist in the face of German atrocities and aggression. Above all, the letter convinces us that Orwell is the rare public figure we can trust to write his own epitaph.

Even at 560 pages, A Life in Letters is a mere sampling of Orwell's entire correspondence. Davison is well placed to make the selections. As the editor of last year's George Orwell: Diaries, as well as the twenty-volume Complete Works, he has done more than any other scholar to illuminate Orwell's life and works. Here in the letters we have an Orwell whose guard is down: a man rather than a saint, conducting his business affairs, plodding through Henry James, exchanging news with friends, and saying of Nineteen Eighty-Four, "I ballsed it up rather." The letters reveal that if Orwell was awkward, parsimonious, and reserved, he could also be mischievous, expansive, and very kind. As biographer Bernard Crick reports, one friend described him as gentle and "almost excessively mild." Another said, "He had a slow disarming sort of smile which made us feel that he was interested in us yet amused by us in a detached impersonal sort of way."

No volume can resolve the contradiction between Orwell's genial nature in person and his penchant for ferocity on the page -- his impatience with fellow travelers and liars, and his over-fondness for broad, raking fire. He attempted his own explanation in a 1938 letter to the poet Stephen Spender:
[W]hen you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labor M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes and are lost forever more.
Orwell was a study in class confusion. No Eton graduate derived more pleasure from goat farming or carpentry. He learned to drop his aitches among the tramps and defied convention by wearing shabby and casual clothing -- only partly from necessity. (Crick recounts the way he once asked a housekeeper to economize and "dye his khaki Home Guard shirts and beret black and the overcoat brown -- despite her protests that it would make him look like a fascist. It did. He had no color sense at all.") Orwell spent his later years on the Scottish island of Jura and wanted very much to blend in with the local farmers. But they always thought of him as a visiting gentleman.

More here.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The path of least resistance - Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin/Every Man Dies Alone

Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.

Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Fallada was embraced by the new East German literary authorities. In 1947, he published with Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein ("Each dies only for himself") which is here called Alone in Berlin. It was the first novel by a German author to take as its theme the small-scale domestic resistance to the National Socialists. The same year, weakened by years of alcoholism and drug-taking, Fallada died of a heart attack.

Traces of this unruly life are scattered through Alone in Berlin: brawling, delirium tremens, clinics and drying-out establishments, country idylls, theft, blackmail, morphine, and a vivid world of sub-proletarian swindling that exploits and is exploited by the Nazis. It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion.

Otto and Anna Quangel are a Berlin working couple, laborious, unsociable, thrifty to the point of stinginess, and originally not hostile to the National Socialists. That changes in 1940 when their beloved son, Ottochen, is killed while fighting in France. Otto, a foreman in a furniture factory that soon will be turned over to making coffins, is provoked into resistance. He spends his Sundays writing anonymous postcards against the regime and dropping them in the stairwells of city buildings. "Mother Don't give to the Winter Relief Fund! - Work as slowly as you can! - Put sand in the machines! - Every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!"

According to the forward to the first German edition, the novel follows "in its broad lines" the Gestapo files on the illegal activities of an actual Berlin working-class couple, Otto and Elise Hampel. Originally Nazi supporters, on the death of their son in France in 1940 they began to deposit postcards and some 200 written leaflets in post-boxes and stairwells around their home district, Berlin-Wedding. They were betrayed, arrested on 20 October 1942, sentenced to death by the People's Court and executed in Plötzensee prison the following April. To bring life to these facts, Fallada assembles a staff of vivid low-life characters, stoolies, thieves and whores, Nazi veterans in a haze of drink, as well as ordinary working-people trying to put food on the table. Here is the resistance of the small man, perilous, disorganised, irresponsible, perverse, brave and almost wholly futile. As the Gestapo Inspector Escherich muses: "There were more urgent and important cases. A madman ... did nothing but send Minister Goebbels daily letters that were crude, and often pornographic in nature. Well, Inspector Escherich was in luck, he had managed to solve the 'Filth' case within three months."

In the foreword, Fallada (or his editor) defends the brutality of the book on the grounds that it takes place "among opponents of the regime and their persecutors, where quite a few came to grief". This dialectic of persecutor and persecuted is Fallada's most profound contribution. Of the 276 postcards and eight letters deposited by the Quangels over two years, all but 18 are handed straight in to the Gestapo where they destroy one life and two careers and sow chaos in an arbitrary and unamanageable organisation.

More here.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

From Elfriede Jelinek: A Portrait

When Elfriede Jelinek practiced the piano as a student, the apartment windows stood wide open. It was noisy outside. Every few minutes in the 8th District a streetcar rumbled down the slope of Laudongasse. The building across the street housed a dubious cafe, where men came and went for the purpose of making the acquaintance of ladies via table telephones. An exhaust fan blew smoke and kitchen fumes out into the street, and the odors drifted up to the piano student on the second floor. In the evening, clusters of people moved past her building, laughing and making noise as they headed for the revue theatre at the next intersection. But the windows were not closed—the neighbors in the apartment building and the people on the street were supposed to hear the child making music. Elfriede’s mother wanted it that way, referring to it as “giving a concert.” And so the girl sat inside at the grand piano, hour after hour, playing against the sounds from outside.

Art numbers among the first things that Elfriede Jelinek learned about in life. As a small child she was sent to a private dance school for ballet lessons. Then came the instruments. At age six, Elfriede began with piano. She learned quickly. It was followed by recorder and violin, when she turned nine. Even as an elementary student she had a schedule like a professional musician. In the morning she rose at six o’clock, practiced for an hour, then went off to school. In the afternoons she attended music school or ballet, or she practiced, and in the evenings she still had her homework to do. Even during vacation she did not pause. The family usually spent their summers at the home of Elfriede’s grandmother, in a house perched high above a small village in Styria. In the winter it was snowed in, and even in the summertime it was difficult to reach. Other than a few cottages scattered around it there was nothing but woods and meadows. At almost 1,000 meters above sea level, the farmstead lacked almost every comfort. But it had a piano. At the behest of Elfriede’s mother, the villagers had hauled a grand piano up the steep path.

While summer vacationers hiked past and the village youth splashed down by the river, Elfriede sat with her instruments. She didn’t enjoy it, but played her pieces until the clock showed that practice time was up. Her mother kept a strict eye on her because she wanted the child to become a famous musician. It was the mother who set the tone in the family. Even at the foot of the Alps, the windows had to be open when Elfriede practiced.

* * *

Elfriede Jelinek, born on October 20, 1946, was the only child of a quiet, solitary man and a capable, ambitious mother. If she had grown up somewhere else, a mother like Ilona Jelinek would probably have put her on a tennis court or an ice skating rink. But the Jelineks were from Vienna, and Vienna is the city of music.

In Vienna, music has always served as a path to achieve distinction. The city erected an opulent monument to waltz composer Johann Strauss: a gilded statue of the musician with a violin under his chin. Any Viennese family with a good opinion of itself has a piano at home—a pianino for those of lesser means, or a grand by the Vienna-based Bösendorfer company for the upper bourgeoisie. To this day, piano lessons are a status symbol for a certain class, and subscriptions to the Vienna State Opera or the Philharmonic of great significance. Frequently passed from generation to generation, these season tickets represent something like the insignia of social status. Some wait in line all night and still only get tickets for the “Juchhe,” as the highest tier is called in Vienna; others have always been booked into their traditional seats.

Vienna, with its century-old courtly and Catholic traditions, tends to gauge its fellow citizens by where they stand, rather than by their abilities or possessions. For the self-image of the Viennese bourgeoisie, origins matter. As a consequence, labeling someone “nouveau riche” is one of the most disrespectful things you can call someone who attends the annual Opera Ball. But in another respect, this implies that one is always perceived as a member of the social class of one’s birth—unless one becomes an artist, preferably a musician.

Elfriede Jelinek’s parents lived the life of the petty bourgeoisie. Born in 1900, Friedrich Jelinek came from a typical, blue-collar Viennese family. His father hailed from Bohemia and held a job as a warehouse keeper. Ilona Jelinek’s father was a butcher by training who traveled the countries of the Danube Monarchy as a meat buyer, and later worked for the postal service. But Ilona Jelinek had an idea of what a good home should be like. Her grandfather, Wenzel Buchner, was a silk manufacturer. In the heyday of the Viennese silk industry he had become extremely wealthy, and he owned a fortune in securities in addition to several houses.

Our father was a building owner and a silk producer, runs a line in a traditional Viennese song. The combination of textile manufacturing and real estate ownership appears to fit the Viennese archetype of wealth and prestige. He lived with his family in a villa in Kalksburg on the outskirts of Vienna. Servants took care of everything. His sons had tutors from France, and grew up with the idea that money didn’t matter. Ilona, who was born in 1904, spent a lot of time as a child with her grandparents at the villa in Kalksburg. The family fortune was lost in war bonds and the inflation following the First World War, but Ilona Jelinek had nevertheless developed a feeling for an upper class lifestyle. Although she herself could no longer go back, she intended for her daughter to make the leap.

Elfriede Jelinek was trained to become a musician and be something better. The girl had hardly mastered the “Flea Waltz” when she was given a Steinway concert grand. Ilona Jelinek had gone into a music store in nearby Alser Strasse one day and wheedled the instrument out of a temporary employee, far below its value. Later, the store’s owner tried in vain to buy it back. This grand piano—it stands in Elfriede Jelinek’s reception room today—was probably the most expensive object in the antiquated apartment building. Most of the tenants didn’t even have a toilet to themselves. Curiously, Ilona Jelinek didn’t know a great deal about music, although she did have a “beautiful natural voice,” as the family recalls from attending church. For her the most fascinating thing about music was actually the musicians themselves—the sight of people accomplishing something on an instrument. The tragedy for Elfriede Jelinek during these years lay in her musicality; she had the ability to meet the demands her mother imposed, generally without rhyme or reason.

More here.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Two New Books About "Borges"

Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.

 In his memorable prose piece “Borges and I,” he addresses a deeply felt distinction between himself and “the other one, the one called Borges.” “I like hourglasses,” he writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” He recognizes almost nothing of himself in the eminent literary personage with whom he shares a name, a face, and certain other superficial qualities. “I do not know which of us has written this page,” he concludes.

This haunting, teasing fragment is reproduced in its entirety in “Borges at Eighty: Conversations,” a collection of interviews from his 1980 trip to the U.S., which has been published in a new edition by New Directions. It’s an instructively ironic context for the piece to turn up in—a transcript of a public event at Indiana University in which a number of Borges’s poems and prose pieces were read aloud in English, followed by a short extemporaneous commentary by the author. When he addresses the audience, he seems to be speaking for the “I,” but it is surely “Borges” who is doing the talking:
Borges stands for all the things I hate. He stands for publicity, for being photographed, for having interviews, for politics, for opinions—all opinions are despicable I should say. He also stands for those two nonentities, those two impostors failure and success […] He deals in those things. While I, let us say, since the name of the paper is “Borges and I”, I stands not for the public man but for the private self, for reality, since these other things are unreal to me.
For someone who hated being interviewed, Borges was a prolific and garrulous interviewee (although it was perhaps “Borges” who handled that side of things). And yet, to point this out is to risk missing the substance of what he is saying here, which is not simply that he feels himself at odds with his own public persona but that he feels himself profoundly at odds with how little he is at odds with it. (Such paradoxes are an occupational hazard in any encounter with Borges.) One of the collection’s most interesting aspects is the interaction of these incompatible elements: the obvious pleasure Borges takes in the opportunity to present himself for public consumption, and his reflexive skepticism about the necessary fraudulence of the writer as personality.

There’s something fascinatingly Borgesian about the way in which the self-awareness of the performance is itself highly performative. This preoccupation with the divided self veers close to a sort of ontological double act, a one-man odd-couple routine. “Everyone sitting in this audience wants to know Jorge Luis Borges,” begins the interviewer, in the first of this book’s conversations. Borges replies, “I wish I did. I am sick and tired of him.” For a writer, he was not greatly exercised by the topic of himself. He was interested in his interests and not the contingent fact that it was he, Borges, who was interested in them. Being himself was never much more than drudgery. “When I wake up,” he tells one of his interviewees, “I always feel I’m being let down. Because, well, here I am. Here’s the same old stupid game going on. I have to be somebody. I have to be exactly that somebody. I have certain commitments. One of the commitments is to live through the whole day.”

Borges never wrote a work of fiction longer than fourteen pages. “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one,” he wrote in 1941, “the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.” But I think, perhaps, that the real reason he never wrote a novel was that the form is largely dependent on character, and Borges had no real interest in, or facility for, the creation of psychologically vivid people. (Try relating Leopold Bloom orally in five minutes, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Anna Karenina. Their greatness as characters arises out of their irreducibility to the facts about themselves.) He wasn’t much for fleshing out, and he was not the kind of writer whose characters ever had a chance of “taking over” from their creator. His most indelible creations—Funes the Memorious, say, or Pierre Menard—are memorable not for the contents of their invented souls but for the situations that he placed them in, the ingenious conceits that worked their way into narrative through the idea of their particular madness. His characters—including the one called Borges, the recurring protagonist of so many of his fictions—tended to be ciphers. They were fictions made from fiction, drawn from reading, not from life. And he himself, the character who he happened to be in the framing narrative called reality, was not much different. “Why on earth,” he asks in another of these conversations, “should I worry what happens to Borges? After all, Borges is nothing, a mere fiction.”

The man we see in these eleven interviews is a person made of books, a librarian who often remarked that his idea of paradise was an endless library—a sort of eternal busman’s holiday. He speaks of himself as a reader first and a writer only secondarily. That this self-conception emerges out of his scrupulous humility and instinct for self-effacement doesn’t make it any less accurate or revealing. Borges’s writing was always, to some degree, a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts. He was a man of letters in the nineteenth-century mode, possessed of a type of encyclopedic erudition that seems not to exist anymore. And this brings us to one of the structural paradoxes at the heart of Borges’s work. He was deeply invested in the past, in the idea of a living and evolving literary tradition. “I think of myself as not being a modern writer,” he says here. “I don’t think of myself as a contemporary of surrealism, or dadaism, or imagism, or the other respected tomfooleries of literature, no? I think of literature in terms of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. I am a lover of Bernard Shaw, Henry James.” And yet this strangely totalizing conservatism was the basis of Borges’s radical legacy, a new way of thinking about fiction and its relationship to the world.

That extent to which he was steeped in tradition can also be seen in another new book published by New Directions, “Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.” The book collects the transcripts of a lecture course on the history of English literature that Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. It’s both shamelessly comprehensive and entirely idiosyncratic, launching with the Anglo-Saxons and coming to rest, twenty-five lectures later, on Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer especially beloved of Borges. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for particularly gripping reading. His approach to most of the works that he’s lecturing on is largely descriptive, so that we get a fairly exhaustive rundown of what happens in “Beowulf,” say, or some of the more interesting aspects of Boswell’s Johnson, but not nearly the insight into either you’d expect from a great literary mind.

The “Borges” who is revealed, or perhaps performed, in these two books seems like the Platonic ideal of the man of letters: a man who taught himself German because he wanted to read Schopenhauer in the original, and learned it, moreover, by reading the poetry of Heine; a man who taught himself Icelandic in order to pursue his interest in Norse sagas. His loss of sight seems strangely appropriate; in the interviews, he speaks of the “luminous mist” of his blindness as though it were a kind of blessing, a removal of all distraction from what was most important, most real—the life of the mind. (And there was never any shortage of people willing to read to the great writer in his old age.)

More here.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Excerpted from: Pornografia, Witold Gombrowicz

The carriage moved on. Karol sat on the driver’s seat, next to the coachman. She, in the front—and where her little head ended, there he began above her as if placed on an upper story, his back toward us, a slim contour, visible yet featureless—while his shirt billowed in the wind—and the combination of her face with the absence of his face, the complement of her seeing face with his unseeing back struck me with a dark, hot duality. . . . They were not unusually good-looking—neither he nor she—only as much as is appropriate for their age—but they were a beauty in their closed circle, in their mutual desire and rapture—something in which practically no one else had any right to take part. They were unto them-selves—it was strictly between them. And especially because they were so (young). So I was not allowed to watch, I tried not to see it, but, with Fryderyk in front of me and sitting next to her on the small seat, I was again persistently asking myself: Had he seen this? Did he know anything? And I was lying in wait to see a single glance of his, one of those supposedly indifferent ones yet sliding by surreptitiously, greedily.

And the others? What did they know? It would be hard, however, to believe that something hitting you in the eye like this would have eluded the young girl’s parents—so after lunch when I went with Hipolit to the cows, I brought the conversation around to Karol. However, I found it difficult to ask about (the boy) who, having driven me into such excitement, became my shame, while as far as Hipolit was concerned, he probably didn’t think the subject worthy of his attention. Well, indeed, Karol, yes, not a bad lad, the steward’s son, he served in the Underground, they sent him somewhere near Lublin, he got into some mischief there… eee, it was really stupid, he stole something, took a shot at someone, a colleague, or his commander, whatever, devil only knows, yah, nonsense, he beat it home from there, but since he, the rascal, is at odds with his father, they’re at each other’s throat, I took him into my place—he knows machines, makes for more people in the house, just in case. . . . “Just in case,” he took delight in repeating it to himself, as he crushed dirt clods with the tip of his boot. And all of a sudden he began to talk about something else. Did the sixteen-year-old biography not carry sufficient weight as far as he was concerned? Or perhaps there was nothing to do but make light of those boyish pranks, so they wouldn’t become too oppressive. Did he merely shoot, or shoot dead? I wondered. If he had shot dead, one could find him not guilty by reason of his being of an age that erases everything—and I asked whether Karol and Henia had known each other for long. “Since childhood,” he replied slapping a cow’s rump, and noted: “It’s a Holstein! High milk yield! It’s sick, goddamn it!” That was all I found out. And it appeared that both he and his wife had noticed nothing—nothing serious enough to have awakened their parental vigilance. How was it possible? And I thought, if the matter were more grown-up—less juvenile—if it were less boy-girl . . . but the matter was drowned in the insufficiency of their years.

Fryderyk? What had Fryderyk noticed? After church, after that butchering, strangling of the Mass, I had to know whether he knew anything about them—I could hardly bear his ignorance! It was terrible, that I could in no way unite the two states of spirit into one entity—the black one that had originated from him, from Fryderyk, and the fresh, passionate one that came from them—and these two states were separate, nonconfronted! Yet, if there was nothing between the two teenagers, what could Fryderyk have noticed?. . . And I thought it astounding, absurd, that they behaved as if there were no seduction between them! I waited in vain for them to finally give themselves away. Unbelievable indifference! I watched Karol during lunch. A child and a cad. An amiable murderer. A smiling slave. A young soldier. Hard softness. Cruel and even bloody fun and games. This child, still laughing, or rather still smiling, had already had his “shoulder put to the wheel” by grown men—he had the sternness and tranquility of a youngster whom men had taken in at an early age, who had been thrown into war, brought up by the army—and, when he was buttering his bread, when he was eating, there was a noticeably peculiar restraint that hunger had taught him. His voice darkened at times, became flat. It had something in common with iron. With a leather strap and with a tree freshly felled. At first glance totally ordinary, calm and friendly, obedient, and eager as well. Torn between child and man (which made him at the same time innocently naive and relentlessly experienced), he was, nevertheless, neither one nor the other, he was a third possibility, namely, he was youth, inwardly violent, harsh youth that was handing him over to cruelty, to brute force and obedience, condemning him to slavery and degradation. He was second-rate because young. Inferior because young. Sensuous because young. Carnal because young. Destructive because young. And in this youth of his—contemptible. But the most interesting thing was his smile, his most refined attribute, that actually connected him with degradation, because this child could not defend himself, disarmed by his own readiness to laugh. So then all this threw him onto Henia, as if onto a bitch, he was hot for her, and, indeed, this was not “love” at all but merely something brutally humiliating that was happening at his level—it was a “boyish” love in its total degradation. At the same time it was not love at all—and he really treated her like a young miss one knows “from childhood,” their conversation was carefree and intimate. “What happened to your hand?” “I cut it opening a can.” “Do you know that Mr. Roblecki is in Warsaw?” And nothing more, not even a gaze, nothing, just that—who, on this basis, could have accused them of even the most lighthearted love affair? As far as she was concerned, under his pressure (if I may express it this way), she was raped a priori (if this expression means anything at all) and, losing none of her virginity, indeed strengthening it even in the arms of his immaturity, she was actually mated with him in the darkness of his not quite yet masculine brute force. And one couldn’t say about her that she “knows men” (the way one talks about dissolute young women), but only that she “knows the boy”—which was both more innocent and more licentious. That’s what it looked like to me when they were eating their noodles. They ate those noodles like a couple who have known each other from childhood, who are used to each other, perhaps even bored with each other. Well then? How could I expect Fryderyk to see anything in this, wasn’t it just an embarrassing illusion of mine? Thus the day passed. Dusk. Supper was served. We assembled again at the table bathed in the meager light of a single oil lamp, shutters closed, doors barricaded, we ate curdled milk and potatoes, Madame Maria touched the napkin rings with the tips of her fingers, Hipolit stuck his edematous face into the lamp. It was quiet—although beyond the walls that protected us the garden began, full of unfamiliar rustles and breezes, while farther on there were fields gone to weed because of the war—the conversation fell silent, and we were looking at the lamp, a moth was beating at it. Karol, in a corner where it was rather dark, was taking apart and cleaning a stable lamp. Suddenly Henia bent down to cut a thread with her teeth, she was sewing a blouse—and this sudden bending and clenching of her teeth was enough for Karol, sitting in the corner, to blossom and turn hot, though he didn’t even budge. While she, putting the blouse aside, placed her hand on the table, and now this hand lay in the open, above reproach, decent in all respects, a schoolgirl’s hand actually, still mommy’s and daddy’s property—and yet, at the same time, it was a hand laid bare and totally naked, naked with the nakedness not of a hand but of a knee emerging from under a dress . . . and actually barefoot . . . and with this licentiously schoolgirl hand she was teasing him, teasing him in a manner “stupidly young” (it’s hard to call it anything else) yet brutal as well. And this brutality was accompanied by a low, wonderful chant that glowed somewhere within them or around them. Karol was cleaning the lamp. She was sitting. Fryderyk was arranging pellets of bread.

The doors to the porch barricaded—the shutters reinforced by iron bars—our coziness by the lamp, at the table, intensified by the threat of the unbridled expanse outside—objects, clock, wardrobe, shelf, seemed to live their own life—in this silence and warmth, their precocious carnality was also growing stronger, swollen with instinct and the night’s business, creating its own atmosphere of excitement, a closed circle. It even seemed they yearned to attract the darkness of that other, the outdoor fury circling the fields, they needed it . . . even though they were calm, maybe even sleepy. Fryderyk was slowly putting out his cigarette on the saucer of an unfinished cup of tea, and he was taking a long time putting it out, unhurriedly, but when a dog barked somewhere in the barn—then his hand squashed the cigarette butt. With her slender fingers Madame Maria was enclosing the slim, delicate fingers of her other hand as one encloses an autumnal leaf, as one smells a wilted flower, Henia stirred . . . Karol also happened to stir . . . this motion, binding them together, burst forth, raged imperceptibly, and her white knees threw (the boy) onto his dark, dark, dark knees, his immobile knees in the corner. Hipolit’s reddish-brown paws, thick with flesh, the paws that cast one back into antediluvian times, were also on the tablecloth, and he had to endure them because they were his.

“Let’s get some sleep,” he yawned. And he whispered: “Let’s get some sleep.”

Well, this was unbearable! Nothing, nothing! Nothing but my own pornography preying on them! And my fury at their bottomless stupidity—the kid, stupid as an ass, she an idiot goose! Because only stupidity could explain this nothing, nothing, nothing! . . . Oh, if only they were a few years older!

More here.

D H Lawrence: A Letter from Germany

We are going back to Paris to-morrow, so this is the last moment to write a letter from Germany. Only from the fringe of Germany, too.

It is a miserable journey from Paris to Nancy, through that Marne country, where the country still seems to have had the soul blasted out of it, though the dreary fields are ploughed and level, and the pale wire trees stand up. But it is all void and null. And in the villages, the smashed houses in the street rows, like rotten teeth between good teeth. You come to Strasbourg, and the people still talk Alsatian German, as ever, in spite of French shop-signs. The place feels dead. And full of cotton goods, white goods, from Mülhausen, from the factories that once were German. Such cheap white cotton goods, in a glut.

The cathedral front rearing up high and flat and fanciful, a sort of darkness in the dark, with round rose windows and long, long prisons of stone. Queer that men should have ever wanted to put stone upon faithful stone to such a height without having it fall down. The gothic! I was always glad when my cardcastle fell but these goths and alemans seemed to have a craze for peaky heights.

The Rhine is still the Rhine, the great divider. You feel it as you cross. The flat, frozen, watery places. Then the cold and curving river. Then the other side, seeming so forsaken. The train stands and steams fiercely. Then it draws through the flat Rhine plain, past frozen pools of flood-water, and frozen fields, in the emptiness of this bit of occupied territory.

Immediately you are over the Rhine, the spirit of place has changed. There is no more attempt at the bluff of geniality. The marshy places are frozen. The fields are vacant. There seems nobody in the world.

It is as if the life had retreated eastwards. As if the Germanic life were slowly ebbing away from contact with western Europe, ebbing to the deserts of the east. And there stand the heavy, ponderous round hills of the Black Forest, black with an inky blackness of Germanic trees, and patched with a whiteness of snow. They are like a series of huge, involved black mounds, obstructing the vision eastwards. You look at them from the Rhine plain, and you know that you stand on an actual border, up against something.

The moment you are in Germany, you know. It feels empty, and, somehow, menacing. So must the Roman soldiers have watched those black, massive round hills: with a certain fear, and with the knowledge that they were at their own limit. A fear of the invisible natives. A fear of the invisible life lurking among the woods. A fear of their own opposite.

So it is with the French: this almost mystic fear. But one should not insult even one’s fears. Germany, this bit of Germany, is very different from what it was two and a half years ago, when I was here. Then it was still open to Europe. Then it still looked to western Europe for a reunion, for a sort of reconciliation. Now that is over. The inevitable, mysterious barrier has fallen again, and the great leaning of the Germanic spirit is once more eastwards towards Russia, towards Tartary. The strange vortex of Tartary has become the positive centre again, the positivity of western Europe is broken. The positivity of our civilisation has broken. The influences that come, come invisibly out of Tartary. So that all Germany reads Men, Beasts and Gods with a kind of fascination. Returning again to the fascination of the destructive East, that produced Attila.

So it is at night. Baden-Baden is a quiet place. No more Turgenevs or Dostoevskys or Grand Dukes or King Edwards coming to drink the waters. All the outward effect of a world-famous watering-place. But empty now, a mere Black Forest village with the wagon-loads of timber going through, to the French.

More here.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Among the Immortals - Robert Schumann

What are we to make of Robert Schumann? Living in a century of unbalanced geniuses—Poe, Nietzsche, Maupassant, van Gogh—Schumann ranks as one of the most complex. Airing his bipolar nature publicly in the form of the fictional figures Florestan, the extroverted idealist, and Eusebius, the introverted dreamer, and writing music heavily coded with people and events, Schumann lived his art to such a degree that his anxious personal life and his mercurial compositions became one and the same. Bravely balancing domestic tranquility with inner torment, he wrote works that have become staples of the Western repertoire. At the same time, he composed pieces that continue to produce universal head-scratching. Schumann fought for the cause of good music, but what was truly at stake, it seems, was his own sanity: He eventually threw himself into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt and ended up in a straitjacket in an asylum. Here is a figure troubled enough for the 21st century!

Schumann’s life and work receive close scrutiny in this new biography by a senior German music scholar and author of more than a dozen books, including a widely admired study of Bach. Presented here in a deft, finely nuanced translation, Martin Geck’s volume first appeared in German three years ago as part of the bicentennial celebration of Schumann’s birth. The timing was propitious, for a host of new documents and insights made a reappraisal of Schumann’s complicated career most appropriate.

Geck takes the unusual approach of supplementing the 12 chapters of his book with 9 short intermezzi. The chapters cover the obligatory biographical bases and take the reader through Schumann’s life phase-by-phase. In the intermezzi, Geck pauses to explore special aspects of the composer and his work, such as the influence of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre (The Awkward Age, from which Schumann claimed to have learned more counterpoint than anywhere else); Genoveva (Schumann’s well-intentioned but ill-fated opera); and the magic of allusions, or narrative elements, in Schumann’s music. The succinct, whimsical intermezzi are not unlike the flittering digressions in Schumann’s works, where forward motion is commonly interrupted by episodic detours. In addition, Geck analyzes Schumann’s music more by metaphor than by traditional theory. This allows him to address individual pieces on their own psychological terms.

Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, a small town some 50 miles south of Leipzig. His father published and sold books, and Schumann demonstrated both literary and musical gifts at an early age. From adolescence onward, he consciously strove to become an “artist of genius,” writing his first curriculum vitae at age 14 and starting the lifelong habit of documenting the intimate details of his day-to-day activities through journals, travel logs, housekeeping books, marriage diaries, and hundreds of letters. (As an adult, Schumann even noted intercourse on his personal calendar.)

In high school, he formed a literary society with his school chums that fostered heady discussions of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Jean Paul, and other Romantic writers. As Geck points out, the young Schumann was deeply impressed by Flegeljahre’s contrasting twins Vult and Walt, who would become models for his own soon-to-be-born characters. It is hard to imagine Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven indulging in such literary fantasies. The suicide of Schumann’s older sister Emilie in 1825 foreshadowed dark things to come.

Following the death of his father, in 1826, Schumann enrolled at the university in Leipzig. Pushed by his mother to pursue law, he focused instead on literature. In his spare time, he drank and smoked with his fellow students and studied piano with the well-known pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, whose 12-year-old daughter Clara, a budding piano prodigy, would later become Schumann’s wife. In his 20th year, Schumann presented a magnificent piano recital, but shortly thereafter wrote in his diary of finger problems, which soon became full-blown paralysis. Splints, alcohol baths, and herbal treatments provided no relief, and for the rest of his life Schumann avoided the use of the index finger in his right hand when playing the piano. This precluded the life of a virtuoso, leaving writing and composing as his best alternatives.

Two years later, Schumann experienced his first serious bouts of “melancholia.” He chose to fight off depression by immersing himself in work, in this case launching a semiweekly music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), filled with reviews, essays, chronicles, and reports from correspondents. This allowed him to create his own imaginary world, reporting the latest developments in music through the characters of Florestan, Eusebius, Master Raro (a thinly veiled portrait of Friedrich Wieck), and Zilia-Chiara-Chiarina (a composite portrait of Clara Wieck) from the “League of David”—a fictional band of solders engaged in battle with musical philistines.

The Neue Zeitschrift was a remarkable undertaking for a 23-year-old, and for the next 12 years Schumann ran it mostly as a one-man show, singlehandedly ushering in a “new poetic age” through the imaginative magic of his pen. As Geck nicely expresses it, Schumann succeeded by fusing reality and fiction, poetry and politics, public and private reports, artistic ideals and self-promotion. He wrote more than 2,500 letters to correspondents and fielded more than 5,500 in return. The Neue Zeitschrift became the musical forum for tracking the development of German Romanticism. Its passionate, highly personal accounts still make for lively reading today.

At the same time, Schumann began to publish the piano pieces that made him famous, suites of vividly painted character pieces that appeared in steady succession after 1831: the Abegg Variations, Papillons, Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival Prank from Vienna”), Carnaval, Kinderscenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), and Kreisleriana (Hoffmann’s tales of the mad Kapellmeister Kreisler). Written in a narrative style, the works dwell on memories and thoughts without following traditional models. Masquerade balls, carnival pranks, and youthful memories fly by in whimsical processions. When listening to the pieces, one has the impression of Schumann improvising on the piano in his parlor, brandy and cigar in hand. As he wrote in his diary: “Notes in themselves cannot really paint what the emotions have not already portrayed.”

More here.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Of Time and the Patriarch - Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

GABRIEL Garcia-Marquez addresses himself, unerringly, to the great subjects of our age. One Hundred Years of Solitude used a town, Macondo, and a family, the Buendias, in which to approach individuals solitary in a stream of time. His new book, The Autumn of the Patriarch, takes a nameless dictator of an unidentified Latin American country and nails down the subject of power. But one subject does not exclude the other. Power here is seen essentially as an attempt to annul time, so that we are again involved in a view of time itself. In this respect, Garcia-Marquez is not unique. He belongs in a distinguished line of technical experimenters in the novel form: Proust, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf. All these writers had rejected the traditional view of time as chronology before Garcia began his own view of those One Hundred Years. His method is not completely new; yet his voice is so distinctly his own, his feats of sleight of hand so sure and so dazzling, that we must recognize him at once as an original talent. As a boy, Garcia-Marquez grew up in the home of his grandparents in the small town of Aracataca, Colombia, which we Norte Americanos used to describe, to our shame, as a banana republic. For some years Garcia lived by journalism, producing short fiction until he had mastered that tightly disciplined art. The stories collected in No One Ever Writes to the Colonel would surely have excited the admiration of Chekov. Then one day he took his wife to Mexico, shut himself in a back room for from eight to ten hours a day, and wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Time is the subject. The vehicle, the flesh, if one likes, is the Buendia family, six generations in the town of Macondo, which is Aracataca sub specie aeternitatis. The legendary history of the Buendias springs from an original fount: the tales told Garcia as a boy by his grandmother. Succeeding generations of the Buendias are caught in an irresistible stream of prose; they are individuals, yes, but none stand alone, After a while, one is transported into a fluid world, moved by fantasy. Yet all is perfectly clear, calm, and composed. Here time has been released from its conventional straight jacket, its power and mystery restored.

When Garcia-Marquez emerged from his labors in the back room he asked his wife what had happened while he had been away. Nothing, she said, nothing. We are all well, we owe $12.000 in bills.

Since then, Garcia has been living in Spain, a fugitive from fame. He has not been able to turn his face to the wall, to hide from the iniquities of politics in his native land, from which he has long been a political exile. He has issued occasional political statements, but no major work of fiction has appeared, until the current novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

The Patriarch is not as long, and perhaps not quite as mesmerizing as Solitude. It is divided into sections which may stand alone. This is not to say that it too does not have a tremendous flow; we are swept along on torrents of prose. In the end, it becomes apparent that each section has contributed to an organic whole. The time-vehicle now is not the generations of a family, but the life span of a single man, the nameless dictator, referred to only as He. His life covers something between 107 and 232 years. We are never told, his people cannot imagine, his true age. Every section starts at his death and rushes furiously back through time, revealing the increasing horror, the sadness and sterility of power.

To maintain this power, time must be unarmed, drowned in the quicksands of illusion, Illusion, that is the dictator's stock in trade. The people thirst for it, it is the secret spring on which his power depends. They have created him out of nothing; this surrogate God born without a known father of a wandering woman, a painter of birds in illusory colors, to sell to the credulous at country fairs. It is the people who have made him, "invulnerable to plague and hurricane, invulnerable to the tricks of (women), invulnerable to time, dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure, for he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny. . . ." He is their creature, not a man as others are. Not for nothing are his palms innocent of the lines of human character, the blank palms which are the mark of a King.

Even on a throne of illusions there are problems. For example, the case of the children. They told him, general sir, about the thousands of children held in custody because they had been used to draw the winning numbers and knew the trick behind the national lottery. More than two thousand children! What an embarrassment! We would not have bothered you, general sir, but the parents are complaining.

He cannot shut out the sound of the children. "It was a chorus of such adulant and distant voices that he could not have gone to sleep with the illusion that the stars were singing, but he got up irate, that's enough, God damn it, he shouted, either them or me, he shouted, and it was them, because before dawn he ordered them to put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of the territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer as they kept on singing, and when the three officers who carried out the crime came to attention before him with news general sir that his order had been carried out, he promoted them two grades and decorated them with the medal of loyalty, but then he had them shot without honors as common criminals because there were orders that can be given but which cannot be carried out, God damn it, poor children."

If this episode wakes an echo in the secret vulnerabilities of our own hearts, it does not stand alone. Garcia-Marquez inserts a thin knife, quietly, between the ribs of his North American readers: ". . .he had accepted the occupation of the marines, mother, not to fight yellow fever as Ambassador Thompson had written in the official communique, nor to protect him from public unrest, as the exiled politicians said, but to show our military men how to be decent people, and that's how it was, mother, to each his own, they taught them to walk with shoes on, to wipe themselves with paper, to use condoms, they were the ones who taught me the secret of maintaining parallel services to stir up distractive rivalries among the military, they invented for me the office of state security, the general investigation agency, the national department of public order. . . ."

More here.