Thursday, 31 October 2013

Patrick White: Within a Budding Grove

Patrick White is, on most counts, the greatest writer Australia has produced, though the sense in which that country produced him needs at once to be qualified—he had his schooling in England, studied at Cambridge University, spent his twenties as a young man about town in London, and during World War II served with the British armed forces. What Australia did provide him with was fortune, in the form of an early inheritance—the White family were wealthy graziers—substantial enough for him to live an independent life.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny and granted a talent—not necessarily a welcome one—that it is death to hide, that talent consisting in the power to see, intermittently, flashes of the truth behind appearances.

The life arc of the kind of artist White felt himself to be is most clearly shown forth in Voss (1957), the novel that made his reputation. Johann Ulrich Voss sets off with a miscellaneous band of followers on a journey of exploration into the vast Australian outback. Most of the party die, including Voss himself; but in the course of their long march Voss makes discoveries about the human spirit in extremis that, by a kind of spiritual telepathy, he transmits to the beloved he has left behind in Sydney, and through her to us.

White’s sense of being special was closely tied to his homosexuality. He did not contest the verdict of the Australia of his day that homosexuality was “deviant,” but took his deviance as a blessing as much as a curse:
I see myself not so much a homosexual as a mind possessed by the spirit of man or woman according to actual situations or [sic] the characters I become in my writing…. Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female.
The award of the Nobel Prize in 1973 took many by surprise, particularly in Australia, where White was looked on as a difficult writer with a mannered, unnecessarily complex prose style. From a European perspective the award made more sense. White stood out from his Anglophone contemporaries in his familiarity with European Modernism (his Cambridge degree was in French and German). His language, and indeed his vision of the world, were indelibly marked by an early immersion in Expressionism, both literary and pictorial. His sensibility was always strongly visual. As a young man he moved among artists rather than among writers (he was an habitué of the studio of his close contemporary Francis Bacon), and often remarked that he wished he could have been a painter.

More here.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Zadie Smith: Love in the Gardens

Boboli, Florence
When my father was old and I was still young, I came into some money. Though it was money “earned” for work done, it seemed, both to my father and me, no different than a win on the lottery. We looked at the contract more than once, checking and rechecking it, just like a lottery ticket, to ensure no mistake had been made. No mistake had been made. I was to be paid for writing a book. For a long time, neither of us could work out what to do about this new reality. My father kept on with his habit of tucking a ten- or twenty-pound note inside his letters to me. I took the rest of my family (my parents having separated long before) to a “resort” back in the “old country” (the Caribbean) where we rode around bored in golf carts, argued violently, and lined up in grim silence to receive a preposterous amount of glistening fruit, the only black folk in line for the buffet.

It took a period of reflection before I realized that the money—though it may have arrived somewhat prematurely for me—had come at the right time for my father. A working life launched when he was thirteen, which had ended in penury, old age, and divorce, might now, finally, find a soft landing. To this end, I moved Harvey from his shabby London flat to a cottage by the sea, and when the late spring came we thought not of Cornwall or Devon or the Lake District but of Europe.

Outrageous thought! Though not without precedent. The summer before I went to college, my father, in his scrupulous way, had worked out a budget that would allow the two of us to spend four days in Paris. Off we went. But it is not easy for a white man of almost seventy and a black girl of seventeen to go on a mini-break to Europe together; the smirks of strangers follow you everywhere. We did not like to linger in restaurants or in the breakfast room of our tiny hotel. Instead, on that first, exploratory trip, we found our pleasure in walking. Through the streets, through museums—but more than anywhere else, through gardens. No money has to be spent in a garden, and no awkward foreign conversation need be made, and no one thinks you odd or provincial if you consult your guidebook in front of a statue or a lake.

In public parks it is a little easier to feel you belong. I felt this instinctively as a teenager (and, thinking back, as a child on Hampstead Heath). Over the next few years, in college, I found myself attracted once more to gardens, this time intellectually. I wrote my final thesis on “English Garden Poetry 1600–1900,” putting special emphasis on the many ways in which “work” and “workers” are obscured in an English garden. Look at how the ha-ha replaces the fence or wall. See that solitary poetic hermit in his grotto, symbolic replacement for all those unpoetic men who dug the hole that created the artificial lake in the first place. The English lord looks out on his creation and sees just that—“creation”—unspoiled by workers’ cottages or beasts of burden. With a great deal of art he has made his garden imitate nature. The window from his Surrey bedroom reveals a view straight out of a classical pastoral, apparently untouched and yet exquisite, not unlike the hills of Tuscany he spied while on his Grand Tour.

Writing that essay, I became very interested in the notion of “The Grand Tour.” I read the diaries of English men of means, accounts of their travels in Italy or Germany, and followed them as they looked at and acquired paintings and statues, walked through elaborate gardens, marveled at all the marble, stood at the base of great ruins mulling the sublime futility of existence, and so on. Nice work if you can get it. During the Michaelmas break, I visited Harvey in his one-bedroom Kilburn box and thought: Why shouldn’t my old man get a Grand Tour too?

But when the opportunity arrived, I discovered that my father’s interests lay more in France than Italy. He liked the food and the cities and the look of the women. We wrangled a little, and I won: like all twenty-three-year-olds I was skilled at aligning any good deeds with my own pleasures (although we later went back to France). We booked for Florence. The hotel was called Porta Rossa. I understand it has recently undergone a transformation and now looks much like any other chic boutique hotel on the Continent, but when I went with Harvey it was a true pensione, unchanged since the nineteenth century.

Air came through windows—which we were under strict instructions to open only at night—and keys were heavy, key-shaped, and attached to giant velvet tassels. The rooms themselves were wondrously large though almost entirely empty, featuring one uncomfortable bed with scratchy sheets, one creaking wardrobe, one wicker chair, and a floor of dark red tile. No television, no minibar, no food. But you had only to look up at the ceiling, at the casually preserved remnant of some anonymous fresco, to feel what a stain it would be upon your person and nation to even think of walking down to the bellhop (no phone) to complain. True, like E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett we did not have a room with a view—unless a patch of twelfth-century wall is a view—but I was at that point in life at which sharing a situation, albeit a poor one, even with a fictional character was pleasure enough for me.

More here.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Why All the Fuss About Proust?

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Marcel Proust's six-volume masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time." The novel is about a man compelled by a sudden surge of memory to revisit his past and, in the process, to draw meaning out of his seemingly uneventful life. Its unfolding is prompted, famously, by the narrator's dunking of a madeleine in a cup of herbal tea.

Untold universities have planned at least one reading or roundtable dedicated to Proust. Every self-respecting bookstore will hold its own Proustathon, with authors, actors and book lovers reading snippets from his epic novel. The Center for Fiction in New York has scheduled a Proust evening, and the French embassy is organizing its own Proust occasion. There are Proust T-shirts, Proust coffee mugs, Proust watches, Proust comic series, Proust tote bags, Proust fountain pens, and Proust paraphernalia of all stripes.

Still, for all the brouhaha, many modern readers still find themselves in agreement with the two French publishers who turned down Proust's manuscript in 1912. A third agreed to publish it, provided that Proust himself cover the expenses. As one early reader declared: "At the end of this 712-page manuscript…one has no notion of…what it is about. What is it all for? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading to?" The writer André Gide is said to have avoided even reading the manuscript on grounds that the author was a renowned socialite snob. What could a wealthy, delicate fop like Proust possibly have to tell anyone?

A great deal, it turns out.

Proust's novel is so unusually ambitious, so accomplished, so masterful in cadence and invention that it is impossible to compare it with anyone else's. He is unabashedly literary and so unapologetic in his encyclopedic range that he remains an exemplar of what literature can be: at once timeless and time bound, universal and elitist, a mix of uncompromising high seriousness with moments of undiminished slapstick. Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Proust—not exactly authors one expects to whiz through or take lightly, but like all works of genius, they are meant to be read out loud and loved.

Nothing would have shocked Proust more than to hear that his work was perceived as difficult or inaccessibly rarefied. For years I have taught Proust to students at Bard High School in New York City, and I often find that after two or three hours with the novel, they are hooked.

After all, the story couldn't be simpler. It's about a young man of an unspecified age who enjoys reading, who is shy and introspective, but not necessarily awkward or antisocial, who likes his mother, who wants to travel to Venice but, because of poor health, never quite manages to do so until later in life. Marcel, the hero of Proust's autobiographical novel, loves nature, music, restaurants, hotels, beaches, churches, art, theater, Paris, fantasizes about friendships and girls, dissects the grown-ups around him with no less unforgiving irony and acuity than when he studies himself, and ultimately worships the good and beautiful things of life, hoping one day to craft the story of his maturation as a human being and as an artist.

More here.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Amy Lowell Anew

In the late 1990s, while writing an encyclopedia of twentieth-century American literature, I checked the competition to see how entries on authors were composed and what secondary sources were included. I knew very little of Amy Lowell (1874–1925)—not much more than her signature poem, “Patterns,” and Ezra Pound’s denunciation of her for appropriating the new, astringent poetry he called Imagism, and reformulating it as “Amygism,” a flaccid version of his effort to strip contemporary poetry of excessive rhetoric and make the image itself the poem’s organizing principle. I was also aware of T. S. Eliot’s slighting reference to Lowell as the “demon saleswoman” of modern poetry. The indictment was clear: Through her public lectures and spectacular platform performances, she had perverted the serious thrust of literary modernism, which rejected hucksterism and any diversion of high art to the precincts of popular taste and publicity. Implicit in Eliot’s dismissal is 
the suggestion that Amy Lowell might have been more 
than a little mad.

Two of the most up-to-date encyclopedia entries I consulted, both written by women, came to identical conclusions: A new biography of Amy Lowell was badly needed. Both Lowell and her place in literary history required reevaluation. This call for a new narrative coincided not only with demands by feminist scholars for a more inclusive literary canon acknowledging the achievements of women writers, but also, specifically, with new scholarly interpretations of Lowell’s life and career. As the contributors to Amy Lowell: American Modern (2004) argue, both the breadth and depth of Lowell’s work deserve recognition for precisely what led the Pound-Eliot axis to disparage her: a fundamental loyalty to her homeland, a desire to expand the audience for poetry, and a commitment to a conception of modernism that was both patriotic and provincial in the best sense of these words—the sense William Faulkner employed when speaking of his “postage stamp of native soil.”

At this point, I confess, my biographer’s blood was up. I already had a beef with the Pound-Eliot brand of modernism that Rebecca West—another of my biographical subjects—attacked. For West, as for Lowell, there was something distinctly inhumane, rigid, and ahistorical about a modernism that developed theories of impersonality, as T. S. Eliot did in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” He attacked the Romantic idea of poetry as self-expression and insisted that the poet became entirely absorbed in his work and wrote himself out of existence, so to speak. Eliot and his legion of followers neglected to account for persons, places, and the era in which great literature came to life. In her book Six French Poets (1915), Lowell explored both the lives and literary work of her subjects, much as West did in The Strange Necessity (1928).

But what most drew me to Lowell’s biography was the irony inherent in the modernist rejection of her on extra­literary grounds. There was nothing impersonal about it. Lowell came from a powerful and wealthy New England family, and that background was enough to excite the scorn and ridicule of artists who lived hand to mouth, and even that of a high church modernist like Eliot, who worked first in a bank and then for a publisher. Lowell had an establishment: her ancestral home, Sevenels, complete with a large staff, a maroon Pierce-Arrow with a chauffeur, and the largesse to dole out to struggling poets and poetry publications. Her generosity engendered not gratitude, but gripes about her manorial sense of entitlement. She seemed a throwback to the eighteenth century. Even her habit of smoking cigars was interpreted not as an avant-garde gesture, but rather the eccentricity of a spoiled Boston Brahmin. And she was obese, with a five-foot frame carrying 250 pounds. The poet Witter Byner, one of her rivals, called her the “hippopoetess”—and the joke stuck. Even her lesbianism failed to garner any cachet among the outré modernists; she observed the conventions, always referring publicly to her lover as her companion, Mrs. Russell. And Lowell never made an effort to meet Gertrude Stein, despite both women’s obvious affinities with the French. Stein got points for leaving America—a sign of her internationalist modernism—but Lowell ventured out mainly on her native ground and mainly to give lectures, many of them sponsored by women’s clubs, then considered the realm of amateurs and dilettantes by male modernists. I knew otherwise, having followed Rebecca West into those clubs and watched as she reacted to women who had read and reflected on her work. That some of these clubs included fools and what might be called literary tourists is almost beside the point; the avant-garde behaved no better.

So why read Amy Lowell? And, if we read her work, what should be read? How is she an American modern whose stock should be reevaluated upward? For my part, I favor her lyrics such as “Absence,” “Carrefour,” and “Venus Transiens”—not as the only worthy examples of her work, but as exemplars of her highest achievement. To assess her significance, I have to call on biography to reveal the passionate woman and poet, whom D. H. Lawrence—alone among his fellow male modernists—recognized as an equal, even if he could not always approve of her subjects or 
her methods.

More here.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Any Other Name - Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s memoir provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man who, haunted for a decade by the death sentence that hovered over his head, struggled to cobble together something resembling a quotidian existence. The event that was splashed across the pages of the national press is now recounted by the man who lived through it in bare, reflective, thought-provoking prose; Joseph Anton: A Memoir recounts the ten years Rushdie spent living under a fatwa.

The publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 enraged Muslims across the world, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who soon publicly demanded his execution. Throughout the decade of the fatwa, pronounced in 1988 and eventually lifted in 1998, Rushdie lived under an assumed identity, adopting the pseudonym Joseph Anton in a personal homage to the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. While Rushdie’s choice to adopt a pseudonym was clearly a practical one, his use of this name for the protagonist of his memoir, recounted in the third person, leaves the reader with the distinct sense that Rushdie is telling somebody else’s tale. Perhaps this grammatical stepping-back, removing himself from the position of the first-person narrator, is the only way for Rushdie to understand and make sense of what happened to him. This retrospective distance enables him, calmly and perceptively, to analyse events that must have seemed nightmarish, monstrous, unbelievable, as if they were happening to somebody else.

This memoir feels like an exercise on the part of the author not only to recount, but also to understand, what has happened to him, drawing meaning from the tumultuous events of his past life. Indeed, he meditates on the meaning of human existence throughout this work: ”Human life was rarely shapely, only intermittently meaningful, its clumsiness the inevitable consequence of the victory of content over form, of what and when over how and why.”

This large book is not strictly-speaking a memoir: the use of the third-person pronoun separates the author from the eponymous protagonist, splitting Salman from Joseph, Rushdie from Anton. It distances the reader from the author’s account and blurs the boundaries between autobiography, literary memoir, and fiction. The account is clearly based on true events, but the reader is left uncertain as to whether it has been fleshed out with fictional detail. Have aspects been changed and added or is it in fact impossible for the author himself to discern exactly what falls into the categories of truth and fiction? Rushdie looks back on events in the past, reflecting on this time in his life. Surely the trauma must have impacted upon his memory and experience in various ways. The writing of a novel that bears any resemblance to an author’s life almost invariably raises questions regarding its veracity, as readers attempt to decipher whether or not the author has based his fictional tale on his (or her) own life, and if so, how closely the events in the pages of the novel mirror the author’s own experiences.

Autobiography, or literary memoir, should by definition be a straightforward factual account. However, in the case of Joseph Anton, things do not seem so clear. Rushdie’s various musings on the nature of truth, the role of storytelling in the lives of human beings, and the constructed nature of human identity suggest that this memoir is perhaps not intended to be an entirely straightforward recounting of the truth. If indeed, as Joseph Anton’s narrator explores, there is such a thing as truth:
To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no “real” genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.
The blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality becomes increasingly intricate when living authors are referred to by name. Ian McEwan, for example, is cited as one of Rushdie’s literary contemporaries who was part of the unwavering circle of support that helped sustain him throughout his continuing period of “imprisonment”. Rushdie writes not of his own interactions with these literary men, but of Joseph Anton’s interaction with them. He writes:
Enough of invisibility, silence, timidity, defensiveness, guilt! An invisible, silenced man was an empty space into which others could pour their prejudices, their agendas, their wrath. The fight against fanaticism needed visible faces, audible voices. He would be quiet no longer. He would try to become a loud and visible man.
Yet the continued use of the third-person pronoun throughout this memoir suggests that Rushdie still welcomes the veil of mysteriousness, the thin cloak of invisibility shrouding his words that keeps both the reader and the author himself removed from the experiences of the decade of the fatwa. His battle against fanaticism still rages on, displaced into one of Rushdie’s characters, into his fictional ‘other’. McEwan and others retain their factual identity while Rushdie (or Rushdie’s character) remains Joseph, trapped in this fictional identity just as he is trapped in the nightmarish reality of the narrative’s present. In this way, the use of the pseudonym throughout the memoir also underlines the isolation Rushdie must have felt throughout this period; it highlights the author’s constant feeling of being forced to live in a different world to that of his friends.

More here.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Praises and Criticisms of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Ever since its publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has served as a firestorm for controversy and debate. Critics have argued the moral issues raised by the book and the context in which it is presented. Some have argued that Salinger's tale of the human condition is fascinating and enlightening, yet incredibly depressing. The psychological battles of the novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, serve as the basis for critical argument. Caulfield's self-destruction over a period of days forces one to contemplate society's attitude toward the human condition. Salinger's portrayal of Holden, which includes incidents of depression, nervous breakdown, impulsive spending, sexual exploration, vulgarity, and other erratic behavior, have all attributed to the controversial nature of the novel. Yet the novel is not without its sharp advocates, who argue that it is a critical look at the problems facing American youth during the 1950's. When developing a comprehensive opinion of the novel, it is important to consider the praises and criticisms of The Catcher in the Rye.

When studying a piece of literature, it is meaningful to note the historical background of the piece and the time at which it was written. Two J.D. Salinger short stories, "I'm Crazy" and "Slight Rebellion off Madison," were published in periodicals during the 1940's, and introduced Holden Caulfield, the main character of The Catcher in the Rye. Both short stories were revised for later inclusion in Salinger's novel. The Catcher in the Rye was written in a literary style similar to prose, which was enhanced by the teenage slang of the 1950's. It is a widespread belief that much of Holden Caulfield's candid outlook on life reflects issues relevant to the youth of today, and thus the novel continues to be used as an educational resource in high schools throughout the nation (Davis 317-18).

The first step in reviewing criticism of The Catcher in the Rye is to study the author himself. Before his novel, J.D. Salinger was of basic non-literary status, having written for years without notice from critics or the general public. The Catcher in the Rye was his first step onto the literary playing field. This initial status left Salinger, as a serious writer, almost unique as a sort of free agent, not bound to one or more schools of critics, like many of his contemporaries were. This ability to write freely, his status as a nobody in the literary world, was Salinger's greatest asset. Rather than to scope inside Salinger's mind and create a grea tness for him, we are content instead to note him for what he is: "a beautifully deft, professional performer who gives us a chance to catch quick, half-amused, half-frightened glimpses of ourselves and our contemporaries, as he confronts us with his brilliant mirror images" (Stevenson 217).

Much of Salinger's reputation, which he acquired after publication of The Catcher in the Rye, is derived from thoughtful and sympathetic insights into both adolescence and adulthood, his use of symbolism, and his idiomatic style, which helped to re-introduce the common idiom to American literature. While the young protagonists of Salinger's stories (such as Holden Caulfield) have made him a longtime favorite of high school and university audiences, establishing Salinger as "the spokesman for the goals and values for a generation of youth during the 1950's" (qtd. in Davis 317), The Catcher in the Rye has been banned continually from schools, libraries, and bookstores due to its profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of some traditional American ideals. Robert Coles reflected general critical opinion of the author when he called Salinger "an original and gifted writer, a marvelous entertainer, a man free of the slogans and clichés the rest of us fall prey to" (qtd. in Davis 317).

Obviously, the bulk of praise and criticism regarding any novel or piece of literature will come from published critical reviews. When a novel or any piece of literature is published in the United States, critics from newspapers, magazines, and various other sources flock to interpret the book and critique its style. The same was true for Salinger's novel. Noted book reviewers from across America critiqued The Catcher in the Rye, bestowing both praise and criticism at different levels. Each reviewer commented on different parts of the novel, from Holden's cynicism to the apparently homosexual Mr. Antolini. The novel, like any other, was devoured and picked apart piece by piece. It is the role of the researcher, therefore, to analyze the various reviews and develop a clear understanding of the novel.

More here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The good German - Thomas Mann

In Phaedrus, which inspired Death in Venice, Plato writes that when the lover “beholds a god-like face or a physical form which truly reflects ideal beauty, he first of all shivers and experiences something of the dread which the vision itself inspired; next he gazes upon it and worships it as if it were a god, and, if he were not afraid of being thought an utter madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a divinity.” This passage, charged with powerful tensions, contrasts the vision of an ideal beauty, a godlike face and body, a divine and beloved image, worthy of worship, to the shattering effect it has on the lover who perceives it: shivers, dread, fear, madness, self-abasement and self-sacrifice.

Plato’s thought also explains a great deal about Mann’s homoerotic life. As an adolescent and adult he fell in love with several handsome boys and men, but never had sexual relations with any of them. His bisexual Sehnsucht gave him penetrating insight into human nature and enabled him to create some of the most interesting characters in modern literature. He transformed his idealized longing for young men into Hans Hansen in “Tonio Kröger,” Pribislav Hippe in The Magic Mountain, Rudi Schwerdtfeger in Doctor Faustus, and the eponymous hero of Felix Krull. In 1981 Richard Winston noted the pattern of sexual displacement in Mann’s life and art. Tonio’s attachment to Hans Hansen is soon transmuted into his love for Ingeborg Holm. Hans Castorp’s memories of Pribislav are changed into his infatuation for Clavdia Chauchat. Adrian Leverkühn’s relationship with Rudi is followed by his decision to marry Marie Godeau.

Hermann Kurzke, who never mentions Plato (the only index reference is to a blank page), has an obsessive, even prurient interest in Mann’s suppressed passion and celibate homoeroticism. He identifies the real models for Mann’s fictional characters, nails everything down to biographical fact, and tries to “out” Mann with what he concedes are “biographically unreliable” novels. In Death in Venice Mann warned that a knowledge of the sources of inspiration undermines the effect of art. Kurzke’s reductive method demeans the power of Mann’s imagination and diminishes his struggle to sublimate the forbidden desires that were essential to his fiction. Mann gloried in the irony of his own self-abasement before the beautiful and beloved but shallow and selfish creatures. In the doomed love of the suspect and anti-social pederast, Gustave von Aschenbach, Mann found the perfect pattern for the artist’s desperate struggle to recapture the ideal form of sensual beauty, to unite passion with thought, grace with wisdom, the real with the ideal.

Kurzke’s Teutonic, pedantic, long-winded and heavy-handed study, moving from work to work and theme to theme in short, discrete feuilletons (with ponderous titles and sudden transitions), is literary criticism dressed up as biography. The Chronicle at the head of each section provides the skeleton of biographical facts, which is not fleshed out in the text. The chronology is chaotic: Mann’s move to Switzerland in 1952 is mentioned just after his birth in 1875 and “The Path to Marriage” comes after he’s actually married. Kurzke introduces important characters—the childhood friend Otto Grautoff, the poet Ernst Bertram, the critic Paul Amman, and Agnes Meyer, whose husband was the publisher of the Washington Post, as well as “Cynthia” and “Franzl” without explaining who they are. He claims that Mann “had no real friends,” but ignores his vital friendships with Hesse, Freud, Einstein, the conductor Bruno Walter, the philosopher Erich Kahler, and the classicist Karl Karényi. Kurzke does not describe how Erika Mann rescued the manuscript of the Joseph novels after her father’s house in Munich had been seized by the Gestapo, nor Mann’s dangerous operation for lung cancer in 1946, which tested his characteristic “sympathy for death” while he was writing Doctor Faustus.

More here.

Monday, 14 October 2013

What can WH Auden do for you?

When Auden died in 1973, forty years ago last week, it would have been hard to imagine how popular he would become in the ensuing decades. Morose and solitary, he described himself, in a poem of the early 1960s, as a “sulky 56,” who had “grown far too crotchety” and found a “change of meal-time utter hell.” In those later years, Auden seemed a shadow of his former self: his reputation had been tainted by some rather unforgiving reviews. Philip Larkin, for one, had dismissed his “rambling intellectual stew;” Randall Jarrell painted a sorry picture of a man “turned into a rhetoric mill, grinding away at the bottom of Limbo.” Jilted by his handsome younger lover, Chester Kallman, Auden took leave of all worldly pleasures, living out his last few years in a small town near Vienna. The obituaries of the enfant terrible of poetry were detailed but rarely strayed from reflecting on his much-anthologised poems of the 1930s, “As I walked out one evening” and “Lullaby.”

Auden has always seemed ripe for quotation. One of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ads included the signature line “We must love one another or die” from Auden’s poem “September I, 1939.” Two decades later, Auden’s lyric “Stop all the clocks” became the signature elegy of the AIDS era, and later made a cameo appearance in the 1994 romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. Faber and Faber immediately cashed in with Tell me the truth about love, a pamphlet which sold a reputed 275,000 copies. Auden’s lines are quoted, misquoted, appropriated, parodied, often without any attribution to the poet himself. Our language is peppered with his neologisms, not least the “Age of Anxiety,” defined in the OED as “a catch-phrase of any period characterised by anxiety or danger.”

In 2001, on the cusp of another “low, dishonest decade,” to use one of Auden’s terms for the 1930s, Auden was seen again as an indispensable poet of the age. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, poetry—the most concentrated of verbal art forms—once again emerged as a vital, commemorative form. But none of the poems written in the ensuing decade caught the prevailing mood so much as the one Auden wrote six decades earlier in response to a different crisis—that of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse

The lines are eerily prophetic; but beyond the sense of history repeating itself, what distinguished Auden’s poem is its sheer virtuosity of registers and the poetic “I” sitting in exile in a bar in the midst of it all. There’s a kind of toughness to the first two lines, as if Auden were putting on his American leather jacket to blend in with the St. Marks crowd, that is candidly shrugged off in the third. The poem that is at once about imminent disaster is also about a poet trying to naturalise his identity. Civilisation might be on the brink of collapse, but, as Brodsky argued in his essay on Auden, the poem shows that the resourcefulness and adaptability of language can save a culture from the “unmentionable odour of death.”

More here.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Enameled Lady - How Katherine Anne Porter perfected herself.

New York, after the war. A young writer—more of a hustler, really—named P. B. Jones attends a publishing party full of artists and literary types. There he meets an older, established author he has long admired named Alice Lee Langman; he eventually becomes her lover for a time. Langman, says Jones, who narrates Truman Capote’s underrated, unfinished final novel, “Answered Prayers,” is “a perfected presence, an enameled lady.”
When I met Miss Langman, and I never called her anything else, she was far into her late fifties, yet she looked eerily unaltered from her long-ago Genthe portrait. The author of Wild Asparagus and Five Black Guitars had eyes the color of Anatolian waters, and her hair, a sleek silvery blue, was brushed straight back, fitting her erect head like an airy cap. . . .
She said, that first night at Boaty’s: “Would you see me home? I hear thunder, and I’m afraid of it.”
She was not afraid of thunder, nor of anything else—except unreturned love and commercial success. Miss Langman’s exquisite renown, while justified, was founded on one novel and three short-story collections, none of them much bought or read outside academia and the pastures of the cognoscenti. Like the value of diamonds, her prestige depended upon a controlled and limited output; and, in those terms, she was a royal success, the queen of the writer-in-residence swindle, the prizes racket, the high-honorarium con, the grants-in-aid-to-struggling-artists shit. Everybody, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Council on the Arts, the Library of Congress, et al., was hell-bound to gorge her with tax-free greenery, and Miss Langman, like those circus midgets who lose their living if they grow an inch or two, was ever aware her prestige would collapse if the ordinary public began to read and reward her.
Capote’s portrait of Langman is a vivid vivisection of the writer Katherine Anne Porter, whom Capote first met at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, in the nineteen-forties, when he was in his early twenties and she was in her fifties. By then, Porter had published three critically acclaimed story collections but had little popular appeal.

She did eventually attain commercial success. Her first and only novel, “Ship of Fools,” published in 1962, when she was seventy-one years old, was the best-selling novel in America that year, and movie rights sold to the producer and director Stanley Kramer for four hundred thousand dollars—granting Porter financial, if not emotional, security in her old age. She had worked on the book for nearly twenty years, and had talked about it every step of the way. The novel’s intended publishers died before it appeared. When it did come out, it was criticized, in some circles, for being too superficial. A thick book remarkable for its concision—the many plot points move along at a good clip—“Ship of Fools” is less a masterwork than a piece of cinema, a detailed script about the lost and the damned and the tragedy of history that no man can escape. The book is set aboard the Vera, a passenger freighter, as it makes a twenty-seven-day journey from Veracruz to Germany in the summer of 1931. On board, Germans, Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans, ranging from the peasant class to the drug-addicted aristocracy, bicker, fight, love, and philosophize. In a trenchant review of the book in this magazine, Howard Moss wrote that “Ship of Fools” is “a novel of character rather than of action.” What draws our interest isn’t political or moral action but Porter’s characters’ inability to access either; the protagonists, like those of Porter’s short fiction, are caught between solipsism and avarice—their emotional rock and a hard place—while the undertow of poverty, politics, and history threatens to pull them down and silence them forever.

Although “Ship of Fools” is not part of the Library of America’s handsome recent edition “Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings,” edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue ($40), it’s interesting to read it alongside her other work, if only because it confirms Porter’s superiority as a writer in the short form. (Her last volume, “The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter,” won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.) As Moss noted, “ ‘Ship of Fools’ differs from her extraordinary stories and novellas in that it lacks a particular magic she has attained so many times on a smaller scale. The missing ingredient is impulse. . . . The stories read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream.” In fact many of Porter’s stories were written on the run—from the fiscal burdens, romantic hardships, and unfinished work that she could never put behind her.

Born in central Texas in 1890, Porter was the first modern white woman writer to turn Southern racism and machismo and their ramifications into art. She had an enormously liberating influence on the generation of Southern writers that followed hers: one can often hear her voice in the works of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Unlike them, though, Porter wasn’t a particularly regional writer; she could write equally comfortably about Louisiana or Mexico, Texas or Germany—to name just four of the places she lived. And from the time she started publishing fiction, in 1922, she was determined to avoid the pitfalls of autobiography. “It is the intention of the writer to write fiction, after all—real fiction, not a roman à clef, or a thinly disguised personal confession which better belongs to the psychoanalyst’s séance,” she once wrote. Still, despite this overreaching comment, Porter’s most vibrant work springs from her own life. She was at her most assured when she was writing about the poverty and the dust, the casual racism and the surreal violence of her native state.

More here.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Changeling - Edith Wharton

The life of Edith Wharton is not an inspiriting rags-to-riches saga, nor is it a cautionary tale of riches to rags—riches to riches, rather. Born Edith Newbold Jones, in January of 1862, into one of the leading families of New York—the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have originated with reference to her great-aunts Mary and Rebecca Jones, who shocked the rest of their staid society by building a mansion north of Fifty-seventh Street, unthinkably uptown in the nineteenth century—the author maintained multiple establishments and travelled in the highest style, with a host of servants, augmenting her several inheritances by writing best-selling fiction. In the Depression year of 1936, when two thousand dollars was a good annual income, her writing earned her a hundred and thirty thousand, much of it from plays adapted from her works. Yet her well-padded, auspiciously sponsored life was not an easy one. The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans, whereas Edith was an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer, teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, née Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander—a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith’s fiction to the end. She felt like a changeling, writing, in a last, unfinished effort of autobiography, “Life and I,” that her parents “were beginning to regard me with fear, like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with ‘the little people.’

”In truth, some of her imaginative activity was alarming, as she describes it; from the age of four or five she would march up and down the house with a book in hand, pretending to read aloud words that she concocted in an “ ‘ecstasy’ of invention.” In “Life and I,” she writes of “the rapture of finding myself again in my own rich world of dreams” and of “the ecstasy which transported my little body.” Her mother disapproved and attempted to distract her with suitable playmates; her father’s library was the site of her reading pleasure, as she lay stretched out on the rug. George Frederic Jones had graduated from Columbia College, sat on charitable boards, and had inherited enough money to keep up (just barely) with his wife’s expenditures. Thrift and a dip in the family fortune prompted him to move the family to Italy and France, with their dollar-friendly economies, between 1866 and 1872; Edith returned, at the age of ten, knowing French, Italian, and German, and with a lifelong love of Europe.

In 1881, the family went again to Europe, this time for the father’s health; he and Edith saw sights in Italy with Ruskin’s writing as their guide. But George Frederic Jones died the following year, in Cannes, at the age of sixty-one, when Edith was twenty. She gave him credit for her bookish, culturally voracious side, though in her memoir “A Backward Glance” she credits her mother with arranging the private printing of her first book, “Verses,” when Edith was sixteen. Others remembered it as her father’s idea, and on her deathbed she assigned her father credit. In 1905, when “The House of Mirth” was published, to great success and acclaim, she wrote to a friend, “I often think of Papa, and wish he could have been here to encourage me with my work.” Yet had he lived, her unhappy married life, and her eventual blooming into one of the twentieth century’s finest American writers, might well have taken other turns, to posterity’s loss. The upper crust builds thick inhibitions around its would-be writers; a live father and a more compatible husband might have kept Wharton’s rather dour, frequently satiric genius sealed in a carapace of good manners and amateurish diffidence.

As Wharton’s reputation gradually emerged, after her death, in 1937, from under the cloud of her late, commercially successful but critically denigrated novels and the impression they reinforced of a facile, popular “lady novelist,” she has not lacked for biographical and critical attention. Her literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, a conservative Cambridge historian, sold her manuscripts and letters to Yale, embargoing “anything of a biographical sort” for thirty years. However, in the mid-nineteen-forties he invited Percy Lubbock, another Cambridge scholar whom Wharton had met through Henry James, to compose a memoir of her, which to some other of her acquaintances seemed a poor caricature. The embargo was lifted in 1968, and Louis Auchincloss’s friendly, elegantly illustrated brief biography, “Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time,” followed, in 1971. As early as 1966, a number of eminent American writers, including Edmund Wilson, Leon Edel, and Alfred Kazin, had been considered by the custodians of the Wharton lode for the authorized biography; the Yale professor R. W. B. Lewis was chosen. His “Edith Wharton: A Biography” came out in 1975, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and it remains, more than thirty years later, the gold standard—the Wharton biography that most people have read. Now an equally long and territorially similar biography, simply titled “Edith Wharton” (Knopf; $35), has been produced by Hermione Lee, the first female Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford and the author of book-length studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, and Philip Roth, and of a greatly admired, nearly nine-hundred-page biography of Virginia Woolf. The reader peruses her biography of Wharton, watchful for the ways in which it differs from, and improves on, Lewis’s.

Lee tells us that her Wharton “makes use of the recent publication of her letters to Léon Bélugou and Louis Bromfield, draws on a large scatter of unpublished letters . . . and follows her trail more closely in France, Italy, and England.” These are real additions to the record, but nothing on the sensational order of the revelations that Lewis’s biography contained: an account of Wharton’s passionate affair, from 1908 to 1910, with the hitherto obscure journalist Morton Fullerton; the publication, in an appendix, of an enthusiastically pornographic fragment of an unfinished story titled “Beatrice Palmato”; and the inclusion, complete, in Lewis’s text of a long, long-lined poem, “Terminus,” addressed to Fullerton in the hot wake of his embraces in the Charing Cross Hotel.

More here.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Alice Munro: an appreciation by Margaret Atwood

Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. She's been accorded armfuls of super-superlatives by critics in both North America and Britain, she's won many awards, and she has a devoted international readership. Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones. She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said - no matter how well known she becomes - that she ought to be better known.

None of this happened overnight. Munro has been writing since the 1960s, and her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, appeared in 1968. To date - and including her latest, the rapturously received Runaway (2004) - she has published 10 collections, averaging nine or 10 stories each. Though her fiction has been a regular feature of the New Yorker since the 1970s, her recent elevation to international literary sainthood took as long as it did partly because of the form in which she writes. She is a writer of stories - "short stories", as they used to be called, or "short fiction", which is now more common. Though many American and British and Canadian writers of the first rank have practised this form, there is still a widespread but false tendency to equate length with importance.

Thus Munro has been among those writers subject to periodic rediscovery, at least outside Canada. It's as if she jumps out of a cake - Surprise! - and then has to jump out of it again, and then again. Readers don't see her name in lights on every billboard. They come across her as if by accident or fate, and are drawn in, and then there is an outbreak of wonder and excitement, and incredulity - Where did Alice Munro come from? Why didn't anybody tell me? How can such excellence have sprung from nowhere?

But Munro did not spring from nowhere. She sprang - though it's a verb her characters would find overly sprightly, and indeed pretentious - from Huron County, in south-western Ontario. Ontario is the large province of Canada that stretches from the Ottawa River to the western end of Lake Superior. This is a huge and varied space, but south-western Ontario is a distinct part of it. It was named Sowesto by the painter Greg Curnoe, a name that has stuck. Curnoe's view was that Sowesto was an area of considerable interest, but also of considerable psychic murkiness and oddity, a view shared by many. Robertson Davies, also from Sowesto, used to say "I know the dark folk-ways of my people", and Munro knows them, too. You are likely to run into quite a few signs in Sowesto wheat fields telling you to be prepared to meet your God, or else your doom - felt to be much the same thing.

Lake Huron lies at the western edge of Sowesto, Lake Erie to the south. The country is mostly flat farmland, cut by several wide, winding rivers prone to flooding, and along the rivers - because of the available boat transport and the power provided by water-driven mills - a number of smaller and larger towns grew up in the 19th century. Each has its red-brick town hall (usually with a tower), its post-office building and handful of churches of various denominations, its main street and residential section of gracious homes, and its other residential section on the wrong side of the tracks. Each has its families with long memories and stashes of bones in the closets.

Sowesto contains the site of the Donnelly massacre of the 19th century, when a large family were slaughtered and their home burnt as a result of political resentments carried over from Ireland. Lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours - these are never far away in Munro's Sowesto, partly because all have been provided by the real life of the region.

When Munro was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, the idea of a person from Canada - but especially one from small-town south-western Ontario - thinking she could be a writer to be taken seriously in the world at large was laughable. Even by the 50s and 60s there were very few publishers in Canada, and these were mostly textbook publishers that imported whatever so-called literature was to be had from Britain and the United States. There might have been some amateur theatre - high-school performances, Little Theatre groups. There was, however, the radio, and in the 60s Munro got her start through a CBC programme called Anthology, produced by Robert Weaver.

But very few Canadian writers of any sort were known to an international readership, and it was taken for granted that if you had hankerings of that kind - hankerings about which you would feel defensive and ashamed, because art was not something a grown-up, morally credible person would fool around with - it would be best for you if you left the country. Everyone knew that writing was not a thing from which you could ever expect to make a living.

It might be marginally acceptable to dabble around the edges of water-colour painting or poetry if you were a certain kind of man, described by Munro in "The Turkey Season": "There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister's widow's fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums." Or you could do art as a hobby, if you were a woman with time on your hands, or you could scrape out a living at some poorly paid quasi-artistic job. Munro's stories are sprinkled with women like this. They go in for piano playing or write chatty newspaper columns. Or - more tragically - they have a real though small talent, like Almeda Roth in "Meneseteung", who produces one volume of minor verse called Offerings, but there is no context for them.

If you moved to a larger Canadian city, you might at least find a few others of your ilk, but in the small towns of Sowesto you'd be on your own. Nevertheless, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Graeme Gibson and James Reaney all came out of Sowesto; and Munro - after a spell on the west coast - moved back there, and lives at present not far from Wingham, the prototype of the various Jubilees and Walleys and Dalgleishes and Hanrattys in her stories.

Through Munro's fiction, Sowesto's Huron County has joined Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County as a slice of land made legendary by the excellence of the writer who has celebrated it, though in both cases "celebrated" is not quite the right word. "Anatomised" might be closer to what goes on in the work of Munro, though even that term is too clinical. What should we call the combination of obsessive scrutiny, archaeological unearthing, precise and detailed recollection, the wallowing in the seamier and meaner and more vengeful undersides of human nature, the telling of erotic secrets, the nostalgia for vanished miseries, and rejoicing in the fullness and variety of life, stirred all together?

At the end of Munro's Lives of Girls and Women (1971), her only novel and a bildungsroman - a portrait of the artist as a young girl - there's a telling passage. Del Jordan of Jubilee, who has by now (true to her surname) crossed over into the promised land of womanhood and also of writerhood, says of her adolescence:
'It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. Voracious and misguided as Uncle Craig out at Jenkin's Bend, writing his history, I would want to write things down.
'I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the cemetery and any inscriptions underneath ...
'The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.
'And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together - radiant, everlasting.'
As a programme for a life's work, this is daunting. But it's a programme Munro was to follow over the next 35 years with remarkable fidelity.

Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931, which means that she was a small child during the depression. She was eight in 1939, the year Canada entered the second world war, and she attended university - the University of Western Ontario - in the postwar years. She was 25 and a young mother when Elvis Presley first became famous, and 38 at the time of the flower-child revolution and the advent of the women's movement in 1968-69, when her first book was published. In 1981 she was 50. Her stories are set mainly over these years - the 30s to the 80s - or even before then, in the time of ancestral memory.

Her own ancestry was partly Scottish Presbyterian: she can trace her family back to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, friend of Robert Burns and the Edinburgh literati of the late 18th century, and author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which could itself be a Munro title. On the other side of the family there were Anglicans, for whom the worst sin is said to consist of using the wrong fork at dinner. Munro's acute consciousness of social class, and of the minutiae and sneers separating one level from the next, is honestly come by, as is - from the Presbyterians - her characters' habit of rigorously examining their own deeds, emotions, motives and consciences, and finding them wanting. In a traditional Protestant culture, such as that of small-town Sowesto, forgiveness is not easily come by, punishments are frequent and harsh, potential humiliation and shame lurk around every corner, and nobody gets away with much.

But this tradition also contains the doctrine of justification by faith alone: grace descends upon us without any action on our part. In Munro's work, grace abounds, but it is strangely disguised: nothing can be predicted. Emotions erupt. Preconceptions crumble. Surprises proliferate. Astonishments leap out. Malicious acts can have positive consequences. Salvation arrives when least expected, and in peculiar forms.

More here.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Demon and Craftsman: On D.H. Lawrence

On November 13, 1915, following a hearing at London’s Bow Street magistrates’ court, D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The magistrate, Sir John Dickinson, ordered that the 1,011 copies of the novel seized from the publisher be destroyed. Speaking for the prosecution, Herbert Muskett expressed “the most profound regret that it should have been necessary…to bring this disgusting, detestable and pernicious work under the notice of the Court.” The publisher was ordered to pay court costs of £10, 10s.

By the time The Rainbow was pulped, its 30-year-old author had published four novels, a play, a book of short stories and a volume of poems. Undaunted by the novel’s suppression, David Herbert Lawrence would in the next decade alone publish another play; two more books of stories; two travel books about Italy; two translations of the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga; a groundbreaking work of criticism about a national literature of which not only most Englishmen but many Americans were unaware (Studies in Classic American Literature); two works of speculative psychology (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious); five novels, including his greatest, a sequel to The Rainbow called Women in Love; and five books of poems, including one of the most brilliant books written by an English-language poet in the twentieth century, Birds, Beasts and Flowers.

“For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,” says Lawrence in “Pomegranate,” the opening poem in the volume. The poem itself is broken, careening with seductive abandon from confrontation—“You tell me I am wrong. / Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?”—to reverie—“Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure”—and back again:
Do you mean to tell me there should be no fissure? No glittering, compact drops of dawn? Do you mean it is wrong, the gold-filmed skin, integument, shown ruptured?
This concatenation of wildly divergent tones dramatizes a mind in motion. Lawrence seems simultaneously naïve and jaded in the face of elemental questions, and he is himself our greatest poet of the interrogative mode: his questions often begin by seeming inconsequential, even coy (“Would you like to throw a stone at me?”), but they unearth unexpected profundities of observation and thought. This process of discovery, not the profundities as such, is what makes the poems so gripping, and it takes place both within the poems and between them. First published in 1923, Birds, Beasts and Flowers stands with other groundbreaking books published in the 1920s—T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, Marianne Moore’s Observations, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, W.B. Yeats’s The Tower—and it ought to be read, as those books are, as part of a crucial episode in twentieth-century poetry, an episode whose implications we are still grappling with to this day.

It’s easy to admire someone who does one thing very well. Such a person is a professional, a specialist, and if he is an artist, he has cleaved to his achievement with the passionate intensity that perfection demands. Recently, only a few writers have matched Lawrence’s versatility, but one would be hard-pressed to make a case for the poetry of John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates. In the generations immediately preceding Lawrence’s, a refusal to specialize was far more common (think of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy), but by the time Lawrence was writing, the association of literary achievement with professionalization had already eclipsed the charisma of the Victorian man or woman of letters. The artist must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work,” said Yeats, and by “work” Yeats did not mean the kind of apparently scattershot career that Lawrence maintained. For someone of Yeats’s inclination, even a successful poet with a happy marriage might seem insufficiently serious: that’s one achievement too many.

Though marriage was not among them, Lawrence did several things well. Had he written only Studies in Classic American Literature, he would be remembered as one of the first literary critics ever to conceive of the then-unknown Herman Melville as a major writer. He stands among the greatest poets of his time not, as his most prescient contemporary understood, in spite of his achievement in prose but because of it: “Mr. Lawrence, almost alone among the younger poets, has realized that contemporary poetry must be as good as contemporary prose if it is to justify its publication,” said Ezra Pound in his 1913 review of Love Poems and Others, Lawrence’s first book of poems. 

More here.

Monday, 7 October 2013

A Different Kafka

What are we to make of Kafka? Not, surely, what he made of himself, or at least what he would have us believe he made of himself. In a letter to his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer he declared: “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” This was a constant theme of his mature years, and one that he expanded on in a highly significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”

Of course, Kafka is not the first writer, nor will he be the last, to figure himself as a martyr to his art—think of Flaubert, think of Joyce—but he is remarkable for the single-mindedness with which he conceived of his role. Who else could have invented the torture machine at the center of his frightful story “In the Penal Colony,” which executes miscreants by graving their sentence—le mot juste!—with a metal stylus into their very flesh?

His conception of himself as tormented artist is allied closely to his view of his predicament as a man struggling to maintain his health and sanity in the face of an unrelentingly inhospitable world. In the annals of lamentation, from Job and Jeremiah to Beckett’s Unnamable, surely no one has devoted himself to the sustained moan with such dedication, energy, and exquisite finesse as the author of the “The Judgment” and the “Letter to His Father,” of the diaries, and of the correspondence with Felice Bauer and his lover Milena Jesenská, as well as his friend Max Brod.1

There are moments, numerous moments, when this supreme ironist seemed to recognize the comical aspect of his endless complaining, and the wintry, self-mocking smile that flashes out at us on these occasions is peculiarly irresistible. We think too of that famous incident when Kafka was reading aloud the opening pages of The Trial before a group of Prague friends but laughed so much that he had to stop at intervals, while his listeners also laughed “uncontrollably,” despite what Brod described as “the terrible gravity of this chapter.” That must have been quite an evening.

Despite the particularity of Kafka’s work—and what other writer has fashioned a literary landscape as instantly recognizable as his?—as an artist he is generally taken for a tabula rasa. In his short study, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, Saul Friedländer quotes the German-American critic Erich Heller’s description of Kafka as “the creator of the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature,” and goes on to note how the opacity of Kafka’s texts has allowed him to be regarded as
a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more….
It is notable how few critics and commentators have seen Kafka as essentially a product of his time and milieu—early-twentieth-century Mitteleuropa—and it is to Friedländer’s credit that he notes “the ongoing influence of Expressionism” and contemporary works of fantastic literature such as Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem on Kafka’s literary sensibility. The fact is, Kafka was a son of Prague to his phthisic fingertips. As a young man he remarked ruefully that the city had claws, and would not let go. He knew well both himself and his birthplace.

Reiner Stach, in his ongoing biography of Kafka, strives for a similarly intimate knowledge of his subject, and of the time and place in which he lived and worked. Stach is at once highly ambitious and admirably unassuming. He wishes, he tells us, to experience “what it was like to be Franz Kafka,” yet suggests that the effort even to get “just a little bit closer” is illusory:
Methodological snares are of no use; the cages of knowledge remain empty. So what do we achieve for all our efforts? The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible. This modesty is not false, but it is misplaced. So far, two volumes of this latest Kafka biography have been published. The Decisive Years and The Years of Insight are volumes two and three; volume one, dealing with the life up to 1910, was held up while Stach waited in hope—vain hope, it would seem—that an important archive of Max Brod’s papers, at present held in Israel, would be released; however, the book is now due for publication in 2014.
On the evidence of the two volumes that we already have, this is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. Indeed, in this work Stach has achieved something truly original.2 By a combination of tireless scholarship, uncanny empathy, and writing that might best be described as passionately fluent,3 he does truly give a sense of “what it was like to be Franz Kafka.” He has set himself the Proustian task of summoning up, and summing up, an entire world, and has performed that task with remarkable success. The result is an eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.

Part of Stach’s method is a point-by-point mapping of the biographical evidence against the autobiographical evidence within the work—and Kafka is everywhere autobiographical, though he seeks to cover his tracks with finical care. Stach is in sympathy with Kafka’s dismissal of psychology, and maintains an epistemological approach to his task, cleaving to the facts as he knows them—and he knows a great many—and never indulging in the kind of fanciful speculation that so many biographers permit themselves.4

On occasion he will take a deliberate step back in order to present a broad view of this or that aspect of Kafka’s life and work. See, for instance, in volume three, his brilliant exegesis on the prose fragment “The Great Wall of China.” The piece focuses not on the emperor on whose orders the wall was constructed, but on the construction itself, which was built “not as a single entity but rather in individual sections far apart from one another,” the same method, Stach points out, that Kafka brought to the assembling of his novels, The Trial in particular. Of the Great Wall, Stach writes:
no one apart from those in the top command can say with any certainty how far the construction has progressed; it is not even clear whether the wall will really have all the gaps filled in when the work is done. It is never completed, and remains a fragment made up of fragments.
In this way the Wall matches the “meta-structure that has been characterized as ‘Kafka’s world’ or ‘Kafka’s universe.’”

Volume two, The Decisive Years, begins, excitingly, in May 1910, with the approach of Halley’s Comet. “For months, newspaper reports had been warning of a possible collision, gigantic explosions, firestorm, and tidal waves, the end of the world.” On May 18, the day when the comet would either smash into the earth or miss it, excited crowds thronged the streets and cafés of Prague, among them “a thin, sinewy man…a head taller than everyone around him.” One wonders how much heed Kafka paid to the threatened celestial collision. If we are to take the diaries and the letters at face value, he regarded the momentous events of his time with weary indifference. Consider his infamous diary entry for August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming in the afternoon.” In this matter Stach takes a characteristically subtle approach:
One of the primary reasons that Kafka has come to be regarded as oblivious to reality and politically remote is that he focused less on great losses themselves—even when they were catastrophic—than on the larger significance of these losses, and the way they laid bare the essence of the era as a whole. The decline of a great symbol, the end of a tradition, the tip of the pyramid chopped off [e.g., the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the subsequent destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire]—like most of his contemporaries, he experienced these events as signs of an irreversible dissolution.
Kafka was twenty-seven the year of Halley’s Comet, and as Stach notes, with muted wryness, “the fifteen pages he had published already showed every indication that he would go far.” This was not apparent to everyone, and the long litany of Kafka’s publishing woes makes for dispiriting reading—however, it should be said in defense of his publishers that Kafka must have been impossible to deal with. Yet although he was both diffident and difficult, this does not mean he was also indifferent. “The notion that he was not concerned about public resonance,” Stach writes, “that he was immune to both praise and criticism, is false.” Indeed, it seems that during World War I he engaged a clippings agency so that he would not miss even the most fleeting public reference to his work. All the same, he had no illusions about the possibility of worldly success and fame. He remarked with melancholy humor of his first book, a slim volume entitled Meditation, “Eleven books were sold at André’s store. I bought ten of them myself. I would love to know who has the eleventh.”

More here.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Map of Minds and Imagination: An Interview With Eudora Welty

In 1929, my grandparents Eugene and Martha Ferris moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and bought a home on Laurel Street. The Welty family lived three blocks away with their children Walter, Edward, and Eudora. My grandmother often told me about the Weltys, who were among her close friends in Jackson.

At the age of twelve, I remember seeing Eudora Welty and a group of her friends when they visited our farm to picnic and sketch the landscape. They sat on a hillside below our home, and after they left, my mother told me that one of the group was an important writer.

I first read Welty’s work at Brooks School, and in my senior year at Davidson College, I invited her to be our book-​of-​the-​year speaker. Much to the amazement of our faculty in the English department, she accepted. I borrowed a school car and met her when she arrived by train one evening at the Charlotte depot. The next morning she read “A Worn Path” before the student assembly in her soft voice, and during the afternoon we walked around the campus where wisteria vines were in full bloom.

Four years later I was working in the folklore collections at the Mississippi state archives when Charlotte Capers, the director, showed me unpublished photographs that Welty had taken for the Works Progress Administration. In these photographs, Welty captured the faces and landscapes of Mississippi with a power and honesty that became a standard for my research as a folklorist.

During the summer of 1975, I visited Welty at her home on Pinehurst Street, and we spoke about those photographs and her writing. Over the years that followed, I visited her regularly and recorded other interviews, film, and videotape with her. Each time we visited, I brought a large bottle of Maker’s Mark that we opened and shared together. Welty’s wit was always unexpected and refreshingly on point. One day I phoned her and asked, “Eudora, I wondered if we might get together on Saturday.” She replied, “That would be fine. What time would suit you?”

“Would ten thirty be all right?”

“Did you say seven thirty?”

“No. Ten thirty.”

“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought you were testing our friendship.”

We visited many times over the years. She came to Yale twice, the first time to speak to my students and the second to receive an honorary degree. Later at the University of Mississippi she read from “Why I Live at the P.O.” when the William Faulkner postage stamp was issued. She visited our farm and had dinner there with Cleanth Brooks, Tinkham Brooks, and Charlotte Capers.

Our visits in her home were always memorable, intimate moments as we sat in her living room and spoke about friends and ideas. Welty kept a framed note from Bill Clinton on her mantle, and her oil portrait hung on the wall across from it. When I left, she always walked me to the front door and stood inside the screen door until I walked to my car and drove away.

Welty’s voice reminded me of my grandmother Martha Ferris. Its familiar, nurturing sound assured me I was with a friend who understood all that I knew and would ever be.

Eudora Welty

As for Jackson, I have always liked being here. My family—​my father and mother—​were both from away, and they came here when they married. It was kind of adventurous for them. They were making a new life. And my father—​he was a businessman—​had decided that Mississippi was a place with a future. He was interested in civilized life. I was the firstborn of the first generation in Jackson. He was from Ohio, and my mother from West Virginia. I always felt very lucky—​and they did, too—​that they had come here.

When I was growing up, Jackson had much more of an identity than now because it was smaller. It was so small that one knew everybody, practically. It was a very free and easy life. Children could go out by themselves in the after-noon and play in the park, go to the picture show, and move about the city on their bicycles, just as if it were their own front yard. There was no sense of danger happening in town. That was a nice way to grow up. The town was easier to know, all of which is gone now, of course, because Jackson is a city.

We had wonderful school principals and teachers that I still remember with great affection and awe. I am sure I was ignorant of all kinds of things. I had no political knowledge. My father was a Republican in Jackson. I do not think anybody but the Pullman porter was a Republican—​he was a black man. You know, there were not any Republicans extant around here. My mother was a Democrat. And of course they argued politically at the breakfast table. I early got an idea that there were complications about our system down here.

I met Robert Penn Warren [known to his friends as “Red”] and Cleanth Brooks in Baton Rouge, and our friendship was certainly warm and long lasting. They were so good to me from the beginning. When I was totally unknown, they encouraged me and helped me in every way. I was indebted to both of them. You did not meet people like them, at least in my world. It was a long time before I got to meet them, either one. But when I did go down to Baton Rouge and met them, we had a grand time. I felt so picked out, so favored. They published me in the Southern Review. They were the first people to publish my work anywhere. I was very close to them, even though we did not meet very often.

Then Red came and did a lecture at Belhaven College, across the street from my house in Jackson. I told him about Governor Ross Barnett, and he laughed so hard I thought he was going to strangle. He just loved all those political tales from Mississippi. He said, “Every time I think about that night I still laugh till my ribs hurt.” He loved choice things like that.

I remember going out after programs at the National Institute of Arts and Letters when the Warrens were living in Connecticut. They invited me to come home with them, and that was lots of fun. I always had such a good time with Red, in particular, because his sense of humor was laid right around here, you know, Mississippi and our politics and everything.

More here.