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Showing posts from November, 2013

C.P. Cavafy: Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it last…

Laughter and humor in Pride and Prejudice

Jane lies in Winchester—blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!
And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain,
Glory, love, and honour unto England’s Jane!
—Rudyard Kipling, “The Janeites”

The cathedral of Winchester where Jane Austen is buried and Milsom Street in Bath where she shopped do in fact still remain. If anything, the glory, love, and honor that Kipling called down upon her head soon after the First World War are greater now. It has been an occasion for general rejoicing that Pride and Prejudice is this year celebrating its two hundredth anniversary. Few books of that age attract not only scholars, but also attentive common readers whose love overflows into movies, fan fiction, beach towels, and knitting patterns. With every passing year, Austen inspires great pleasure, even almost religious devotion.

It seems an act of Providence that, two hundred years ago last January, when the novel was published, Jane Austen was briefly …

Aldous Huxley: the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia

On 22 November 1963 the world was too preoccupied with the Kennedy assassination to pay much attention to the passing of two writers from the other side of the Atlantic: CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Fifty years on, Lewis is being honoured with a plaque in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, to be unveiled in a ceremony on Friday. The fanfare for Huxley has been more muted.

There are various reasons for this: The Chronicles of Narnia propelled their author into the Tolkien league; Shadowlands, the film about his life starring Anthony Hopkins, moved millions; and his writings on religious topics made him a global figure in more spiritual circles.

There is a CS Lewis Society of California, for example; plus a CS Lewis Review and a Centre for the Study of CS Lewis & Friends at a university in Indiana.

Aldous Huxley never attracted that kind of attention. And yet there are good reasons for regarding him as the more visionary of the two. For one of the ironies of history is that visions…

My Dear Governess: the Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann

Around 1908, Henry James wrote to a young man he knew: “You have made friends with Edith Wharton. I congratulate you. You may find her difficult, but you will never find her stupid and you will never find her mean.” This quotation appears in most Wharton biographies and many of James and now returns in this volume of letters edited by Irene Goldman-Price. (Goldman-Price somewhat surprisingly chooses to quote from Percy Lubbock’s ­version of the letter in his Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947), which changes the final clause to: “You will find nothing stupid in her and nothing small” – Lubbock was presumably quoting from memory.)

Readers interested in Wharton’s very interesting life do not lack for opportunities to learn about her: she wrote an autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934; she has been the subject of three major biographies in the past 40 years; and a selection of her voluminous correspondence appeared in 1989. Wharton led an increasingly public existence as the grande dame …

Doris Lessing dies aged 94

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Doris Lessing, the Nobel prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing, among more than 50 other novels ranging from political to science fiction, has died aged 94.

Twitter reacted quickly to the news, a shock to many despite her great age. The author and critic Lisa Jardine described it as "a huge loss"; the agent Carole Blake described her as an "amazing writer and woman"; and the writer Lisa Appignanesi wrote: "One of our very greatest writers has left us this past night, RIP."

The writer Bidisha tweeted: "Doris Lessing: prolific multi-genre genius dies in sleep after writing world-changing novels and winning Nobel. Not bad at all."

Born in Iran, brought up in the African bush in Zimbabwe – where her 1950 first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was set – Lessing had been a London resident for more than half a century. In 2007 she arrived back to West Hampstead, north London, by taxi, carrying heavy bags of shopping, to find the…

Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est

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Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene …

D. H. Lawrence possessed

I t is so manifestly an excellent thing to have Lawrence’s many poems brought together, edited by so punctilious and expert a scholar – and to have them presented in handsome volumes that do such credit to their publisher – that it feels the keener ingratitude to admit that the experience of reading them all through is, well, a bit of a slog. Mildly reassuring, then, to learn that D. J. Enright felt a similar mixture of gratitude and weariness when he reviewed the edition of Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (1964) which these volumes now triumphantly supplant. “It must be granted”, Enright wrote on that occasion, “that this Complete Poems – however grateful many of us will be to have it – makes for oppressive, confusing and blunted reading.” Enright hoped that “a critical selection”, judiciously done, might make of Lawrence-as-poet something more acceptable. It is a sensible enough suggestion, and it is a shame Enright did not take on the job himself, as he was an anthologist o…

Elizabeth Bowen: the Sleuth Who Bugged Tea Cups

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Elizabeth Bowen must have felt off duty when having her picture taken. For some of them she even dispensed with a cigarette, the smoke screen that customarily veiled her disabused eyes. Book jacket portraits vouch for the most widely displayed of her personae, a high-spirited, mondaine London hostess primed for tea at Harrods. That calculatedly outsize jewelry probably distracted companions while she fed morsels to her memory. A longer peek at the lean profile, not comely in the fashion magazine sense yet serenely riveting, conjures up a dressing room: she might be rehearsing fresh bits of gesture or intonation for Macbeth. If one does not break cover, a new surmise edges closer: now one faces no West End actress but a close cousin—a superbly practiced undercover agent.

Her habitual duty station was dinner parties where stylish married couples, civil servants, debutantes between rival beaux, an Oxford don or two could be observed and queried. Despite her myopia, the spurning of glasses…

Tomorrowland - Julian Barnes: 'England, England'

The first part of Julian Barnes's new novel is a child's memory of an England gumming the last sweet crumbs of its past. The second part, a balloony satire, is England as a trendy dystopia of the near future. The last part (the child, Martha Cochrane, is now an old woman) somberly rejects the dystopia. The rejection is paid for at a bleak price by a stubborn human rear guard, or perhaps advance guard. Absurdly paid, no doubt -- but sometimes, Barnes hazards, there may be no choice but to jump from the frying pan into an antecedent fire, if only out of self-respect.

''Hazards'' is not a word usually associated with the ebulliently inventive author of ''Flaubert's Parrot.'' (Also the author of ''Staring at the Sun,'' ''A History of the World in 10* Chapters'' and ''Cross Channel,'' all of which joust for the mind's gaiety and melancholy; and of the neater, more confined novels of erotics and a…

Jonathan Swift: man of mystery

When Harold Bloom got busy defining the Western canon for us some twenty years ago, his short list of the main men and women in literature included only one figure from the high eighteenth century. That was Samuel Johnson, whom Bloom later admitted he read all the time “because he is my great hero as a literary critic and I have tried to model myself upon him all my life.” No Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau. No Defoe, Fielding, or Sterne. And no Swift. But the ship has sailed, and now even Johnson can do little more than cling on to canonical status in the place where it really matters most—the corpus of student texts. Like Pope, he didn’t write anything deemed worthy of admission to the Norton Critical Editions—a publishing decision no doubt based on canny sales forecasts. Only Swift holds secure, thanks mainly to Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. These remain living classics, influential on writers and readers alike. Gulliver morphs easily into popular culture and science fic…

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

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How It All Began begins in uncharacteristically violent fashion: "The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek." Charlotte, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, finds that she has been mugged and relieved of her house keys, bank cards and £60 in cash. As a reader, you share her sense of shock and bewilderment – after all, one might expect to be reasonably safe from street crime in a Penelope Lively novel; though the book introduces a number of elements you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find, including East European immigrants, chocolate cream frappuccinos and errant text messages used as a plot device.

Lively still draws the line at Kindle owners, whom she recently dismissed as "bloodless nerds". But these innovations aside, the novel is mostly preoccupied with the themes of recollection and consciousness which run through her fiction as a continuous thread. One of the principal protagonists is a…