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Showing posts from September, 2013

Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains

"BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD," ran the headline on the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital's orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was schedule to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell. 

The particular - and almost eerie - significance of the fifth floor in Hrabal's life and work prompts speculation as to whether his death truly was an accident and not suicide. His Prague apartment was located on the fifth floor, and his fear of falling from this floor was known. Moreover, the motive to commit suicide by jumping from a fifth floor reoccurs several times in his writings. Ultimately, his exit made an appropriate ending point for an exceptionally vital and po…

Why W H Auden still matters

He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.

My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That m…

Stefan Zweig's World Of Yesterday

Some months before the suicide of Stefan Zweig in February 1942, Klaus Mann bumped into him on Fifth Avenue. Zweig, whom Mann referred to as “the tireless promoter of striving talents,” held a special place in Mann’s imagination since his early youth. On the publication of Mann’s first books, Zweig’s was “the most heartening and hearty” voice enjoining him to courage. “Go ahead, young man!” Zweig urged in a congratulatory note. “There may be prejudices against you because of your famous parentage. Never mind. Do your work! Say what you have to say!—it’s quite a lot if I’m not mistaken.” Zweig’s high expectations proved inspirational, and Mann, like many other fledgling authors, came to see Zweig as an exemplary patron with a maternally solicitous streak. He heartened the anxious by cajoling them to self-expression and quietly deployed his ample bank account to dissolve logistical obstacles confronting the impecunious. Yet now, in the middle of New York City in 1941, Zweig looked bizar…

Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski

Almost a quarter-century after the collapse of communism, and four years after his own death at the age of 81, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski remains a prisoner of the Cold War. He has been lionized in the West for Main Currents of Marxism, the indispensable three-volume history of Marxist ideas first published in Paris (in Polish) in 1976, and also for the essays he wrote a decade earlier that inspired advocates of “socialism with a human face.” Yet travel across the old Iron Curtain to Warsaw or Wroclaw, and one will encounter a different Kolakowski: not the Marxologist or dissident socialist, but the religious thinker and elusive cultural critic who found wisdom and solace in the works of Spinoza, Erasmus, the Dutch heretics and the Catholic skeptic Blaise Pascal. Highly esteemed in Polish Catholic circles, Kolakowski was a frequent guest of John Paul II’s at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. But even in Poland, opinion about this other Kolakowski is mixed. Mar…