Friday, 29 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 lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Thursday, 28 November 2013

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 separated from her sister and confidante Cassandra—providential, because her letters from that time preserve her initial reaction to her second published novel. She looked on her work and found it, well, pretty good: “Upon the whole . . . I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough.” Faint praise, we might think, but to Cassandra she also called the book “my own darling Child.” Her child had a long gestation. She had first written a complete version of it in 1796, when she was twenty—the same age as her protagonist—but had only revised it after many unhappy upheavals in her life, including the death of her sympathetic clergyman father and several moves to places she found mostly uncongenial. Austen was particularly pleased with her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. “I must confess,” she wrote to Cassandra, “that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

Elizabeth Bennet’s charm is unmistakable—even her obtuse suitor Mr. Collins is pleased by her “wit and vivacity.” Her figure is “light and pleasing”; matching it is her “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous”; her manners are “easy and unaffected” with “a mixture of sweetness and archness.” Above all, it is “her temper to be happy.” No wonder Mr. Darcy finds himself “bewitched” and alert to some “danger” he feels she holds for him. The whole novel is crammed with entertaining characters, amusing conversations, wittily choreographed situations, clever plotting—Who couldn’t wholeheartedly love Pride and Prejudice?

More here.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

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 of our networked future can be bracketed by the imaginative nightmares of Huxley and his fellow Etonian George Orwell. Orwell feared that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – the state surveillance apparatus so vividly evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley's nightmare, set out in Brave New World, his great dystopian novel, was that we would be undone by the things that delight us.

Huxley was a child of England's intellectual aristocracy. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian biologist who was the most effective evangelist for Darwin's theory of evolution. (He was colloquially known as "Darwin's Bulldog".) His mother was Matthew Arnold's niece. His brother, Julian and half-brother Andrew both became distinguished biologists. In the circumstances it's not surprising that Aldous turned out to be a writer who ranged far beyond the usual preoccupations of literary folk – into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism and psychic exploration. His biographer wrote: "He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: Aún aprendo. I am still learning." He was, in that sense, a modern Voltaire.

Brave New World was published in 1932. The title comes from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, / That has such people in't."

It is set in the London of the distant future – AD 2540 – and describes a fictional society inspired by two things: Huxley's imaginative extrapolation of scientific and social trends; and his first visit to the US, in which he was struck by how a population could apparently be rendered docile by advertising and retail therapy. As an intellectual who was fascinated by science, he guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that scientific advances would eventually give humans powers that had hitherto been regarded as the exclusive preserve of the gods. And his encounters with industrialists like Alfred Mond led him to think that societies would eventually be run on lines inspired by the managerial rationalism of mass production ("Fordism") – which is why the year 2540 AD in the novel is "the Year of Our Ford 632".

In the novel Huxley describes the mass production of children by what we would now call in vitro fertilisation; interference in the development process of infants to produce a number of "castes" with carefully modulated levels of capacities to enable them to fit without complaining into the various societal and industrial roles assigned to them; and Pavlovian conditioning of children from birth.

In this world nobody falls ill, everyone has the same lifespan, there is no warfare, and institutions and marriage and sexual fidelity are dispensed with. Huxley's dystopia is a totalitarian society, ruled by a supposedly benevolent dictatorship whose subjects have been programmed to enjoy their subjugation through conditioning and the use of a narcotic drug – soma – that is less damaging and more pleasurable than any narcotic known to us. The rulers of Brave New World have solved the problem of making people love their servitude.

Which brings us back to the two Etonian bookends of our future. On the Orwellian front, we are doing rather well – as the revelations of Edward Snowden have recently underlined. We have constructed an architecture of state surveillance that would make Orwell gasp. And indeed for a long time, for those of us who worry about such things, it was the internet's capability to facilitate such comprehensive surveillance that attracted most attention.

More here.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

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 of American letters in the first half of the 20th century but documentation of her early years has been patchy. To a great extent, biographers have had to rely on A Backward Glance, in which she describes growing up in the “old New York” of the 1870s and 1880s.

Then, in 2009, an unexpected treasure trove appeared at auction: Anna Catherine Bahl­mann, who became Wharton’s governess in 1874 and was her companion and secretary until Bahlmann’s death in 1916, had kept all 135 of Wharton’s letters to her over 40 years. No one else knew of the letters’ existence and the archive is of real significance to Wharton scholarship. The majority of the Bahlmann correspondence was written before 1900, the year that Wharton’s first novel was published.

Biographers have had to fill in the gaps of the first 30 years of Wharton’s life with conjecture and inference; the Bahlmann correspondence corrects or reframes several long-standing assumptions about her upbringing and family life and even a few factual errors. Edith Newbold Jones was born into an aristocratic, wealthy New York family and raised to be a debutante; the standard story, first told by Wharton in A Backward Glance, is that the Jones familyalternated between indifference and outright hostility to her literary interests. Her mother, in particular, is the villain of the tale; Lucretia Jones is portrayed as a cold, unimaginative and rigidly conventional mother, who forbade the reading of novels and did her best to denyher daughter an education. Wharton’s portrait of the artist as a young woman suggests a heroic struggle in the tradition of the Künstlerroman, or artist’s novel – a tradition, it turns out, in which Bahlmann was carefully tutoring the young Edith Jones.

The German-speaking Bahlmann was initially hired as a language tutor but soon was instructing her 12-year-old charge in German literature. In their letters, they discuss novels freely, as Edith passes on affectionate messages from her mother urging Bahlmann to visit them at Newport over the summers – far from the aggressive philistinism of Wharton’s account. Together, Bahlmann and her charge translate not only Goethe (correcting Hermione Lee’s claim that Bahlmann thought Goethe not “suitable reading” for a young lady) and other German classics but also English, French and Italian literature; they discuss poetry, art, architecture and mythology. In a moment of wonderfully adolescent hubris, the 16-year-old Edith writes to her governess over the summer that she has finished reading Julius Caesar and doesn’t think much of it: “I cannot say that it left a very glowing impression on me. It was too much like my own earliest attempts at tragedy to move me in the least.”

The Bahlmann correspondence corrects three important biographical misapprehensions. First, the letters show that an engagement to a rich young man named Harry Stevens in August 1882 was not broken as early as biographers have thought; the gossip magazine Town Topics reported in October that “an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride” had caused the engagement to be broken off but in March 1883 Wharton writes to Bahlmann of the pretty pearl ring that “Mr Stevens” gave her as an Easter present.

The most important adjustments of our view of Wharton, however, are, as Goldman-Price notes, “numerous hints in the letters of a closer mother-daughter relationship than biographers have portrayed”– although she might have added that the daughter’s portrait of her mother was largely to blame. Edith often writes to her governess of her concerns over “Mama’s” health and spirits (her father died in 1882; this is not mentioned, but she would not have discussed such private matters with a servant, however fondly regarded) and many of the letters chattily describe what “we” have been doing. A later family dispute over her brother Frederic’s contumacious divorce and the questions about inheritance that it provoked, long thought to have been the final blow between mother and daughter, seems to have been the first blow, as well.

More here

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Doris Lessing dies aged 94

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 doorstep besieged by reporters and camera crews. "Oh Christ," she said, on learning that their excitement was because at 88 she had just become the oldest author to win the Nobel prize in literature. Only the 11th woman to win the honour, she had beaten that year's favourite, the American author Philip Roth.

Pausing rather crossly on her front path, she said "one can get more excited", and went on to observe that since she had already won all the other prizes in Europe, this was "a royal flush".

More here

Interview with Doris Lessing here.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est

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 as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

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 of great genius; but, in his stead, Keith Sagar and, more recently, James Fenton each made an excellent Selected Poems for Penguin, and both books can certainly be recommended.

Then again, perhaps there is something about concentrating on Lawrence at his best that does him an odd sort of injustice. It may well be that taking the poet all in all plays an important part in our coming to see the very odd sort of writer of verse that he was: the extraordinary unevenness, the repeated lapses of judgement, the readiness to bang on, the uncontained profuseness, all these come to seem not incidental deficiencies, but, rather, key elements in the full Lawrence effect. These poems do not come across as particular undertakings that have been finished off well or not so well, as poems by Thomas Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins do, but more as parts of a potentially unending series of provisional reports back from what it was to be Lawrence. T. S. Eliot’s view was that “he never succeeded in making a work of art”; but many of his most sympathetic readers have also intuited something like this. He wrote “poetry rather than poems”, is how Graham Hough puts it in The Dark Sun (1956), still one of the best accounts: “a body of work poetically felt and conceived whose individual units rarely reach perfection or self-subsistence”. And in his remarkable D. H. Lawrence and “Difference” (2003), the novelist Amit Chaudhuri is thinking along the same lines, though in a more up-to-date idiom, when he describes a Lawrence poem as “part of a specific Lawrentian poetic discourse”, something to be read “both as itself and as an instance of that discourse” – rather as Chesterton once said we should appreciate the novels of Dickens, not as individual works but as “lengths cut from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens” (any length of which, as Chesterton went on to remark, “will be certain to contain a given proportion of brilliant and of bad stuff”).

Hough and Chaudhuri are both responding to Lawrence’s own view of the matter. In the preface to the American edition of New Poems (1920), he contrasted the “measured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats” with the sort of verse he preferred, “the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present”, a poetry of “living plasm” with “no plasmic finality, nothing crystal, permanent”, “the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present”. “The Wild Common”, the poem that Lawrence placed first in his Collected Poems (1928), announces the master-theme of his poetic career: it is a description of a tussocky landscape, depicted in a breathless, brilliantly confusing present-tense of jubilation.
“But how splendid it is to be substance, here! My shadow is neither here nor there; but I, I am royally here! I am here! I am here! screams the pee-wit; the may-blobs burst out in a laugh as they hear!”
The language looks as though it is drawing on some religious reasons for excitement; but if this reminds us a little of Hopkins, it is a Hopkins without the theodicy (which is to say, it is nothing much like Hopkins). In fact, it is difficult to say quite what is being celebrated, other than something wonderful but conceptually elusive such as a thereness which won’t stand still. Analogously, a Lawrence poem appears to make itself up as it goes along, claiming for itself the unanswerable quality of merely being possessed by the life-forms that it repeatedly celebrates: “It does not want to get anywhere”, Lawrence said of the verse he wanted to write; “It just takes place”. It is a poetry, in Sandra Gilbert’s well-chosen word, of “planlessness”, which nominates at once a purposeful artistic decision and the lack of something, as though the poet were required to place his trust in some invisible hand that will makes things come right. “And therein lies the charm”, as Lawrence wrote in the preface to a volume of Harry Crosby’s poems, with barely disguised self-reference: “It is a glimpse of chaos not reduced to order”. That is, intently, a bracingly counter-cultural kind of “charm” – a good example of the “nicely bloody-minded” quality that Richard Hoggart admired in him. Poets, thought Coleridge, were “gods of love that tame the chaos”, a lovely way of putting something with which most thinkers about poetics from Jonathan Swift to Wallace Stevens would, in their different ways, thoroughly concur. Lawrence runs a whole tradition of poetics in reverse, celebrating not the triumphs of form, but rather what he calls the “multiform”: “what are you, oh multiform?”, he enquires, rapt, in an early poem, “Transformations”.

More here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Elizabeth Bowen: the Sleuth Who Bugged Tea Cups

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 was a choice, no crutch. What she drew from the subtext in a neighbor's voice supplied all the data she needed. She sent no traitors to the Old Bailey: her patria transcended national boundaries. She served that unarmed, if loquacious, commonwealth we designate as high art during decades when she watched terror mount from midnight ambushes on the back roads of her native Ireland to air raids that pummeled major cities.

The first County Cork Bowen, one of Cromwell's colonels, had come over from Wales. Covetous of land, he was duly rewarded. Two and a half centuries later his more altruistic descendant praised a number of co-workers on behalf of her other more peaceable commonwealth, among them Henry James and E.M. Forster. Yet her most impassioned fealty was reserved for a Norman Frenchman. What drew her was Flaubert's wrestling with projects that for others might have seemed banal (Madame Bovary) or cripplingly esoteric (Salammbo), his monastic zeal in welding style with subject, most of all his pride in the vocation of storyteller. In an essay that gives off a whiff of incense she sums up: "Live and write?—the two were synonymous. A sin against art, for him, was a mortal sin" (Collected Impressions). She might have been reciting her own credo.

Her undercover work was not exclusively in the service of her craft. During the Second World War she eavesdropped in Eire for the British Ministry of Information. Such stints could be coordinated with furloughs at Bowen's Court, her ancestral estate. Candid, often witty, her reports gauged reactions in the republic to the mortal threat then menacing England: she advised Whitehall to keep hands off. Yet this temporary phase entailed no major shift: it gave official status to what had already become ingrained habit. Nowhere can this investigative bent be traced with more compactness, more revealingly, than in her short fiction.

Her early habitat discouraged questions. Born in Dublin as Victoria's tightly lidded matriarchy dozed to its close, growing up among the Anglo-Irish landed gentry during Edward VII's naughty interlude, shuttling back and forth across the Irish Sea for school and visits to kin, she lived in a maze of contradictions that would have crazed any gardener. Over the years in her nonfiction—personal essays, her history of Bowen's Court, book reviews—she set down what now read like a sheaf of aide-mémoires. Sometimes clan pride wins out. "They had begun as conquerors," she concedes about her Cromwellian forebears, "and were not disposed to let that tradition lapse" (The Mulberry Tree). Elsewhere she sympathizes with the Anglo-Irish self-image as guarantors of civilized living, setters of standards. To the end of her life words like "demesne" would preserve the hallowed status of Mecca for a Moslem. At moments, though, she sounds adrift between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead, acknowledging the Crown as potent symbol while too honest to stifle a doubt as to how far from Buckingham Palace its sway should reach. Then her phrasing apes the stammer that sometimes besets her. "The security that they had, by the eighteenth century, however ignobly gained, they did not use quite ignobly. They began to feel, and exert, the European idea—to seek what was humanistic, classic and disciplined" (TMT). Such dispatches—to herself as much as to readers—attest to the strain of reconciling a legacy at once supportive yet suspect with the candor she demanded of herself. She was as much shadowed by her past as William Faulkner. At first she paddled in a lily pond, pretending to swim. The Millicents, Esmées, and Penelopes who dawdle through her apprentice work waste whole afternoons sniffing heliotrope as they muse, limply lyrical, over tea cups. They move like student performers in some parents' night entertainment. Their flurried stops and starts grow nerve-racking; drooping shoulders imply a disenchantment not yet earned. One waits for a member of the audience—a drowsy father whose firm makes fire extinguishers—to leap on the stage and spray the wall of their bewitched garden, proving it was gauze all along. As she grew braver she ventured from pond to seashore: salt water proved energizing, if bitter to the tongue. Early on genuine hazards began to trample her neatly mowed lawns. While still in her twenties she set down (in "Recent Photograph") one of the most hair-raising sentences in 20th-century fiction: "One spring evening Mr. Brindley, returning from business, cut his wife's throat with a razor, and afterwards turned in for the night with his head inside the gas oven, having mitigated the inside's iron inclemency with two frilly cushions" (Collected Stories). In time she would learn that the most insidious peril need not depend on gore: it strikes at the heart, not the jugular vein, yet leaves no trace of blood.

One of her little boys watches the outside world with "a passion of observation" (Stories). A similar compulsion quickens her own accounts of a face or landscape that subtly coalesce, rousing us by cryptic hints, not frontal explanation. Sometimes we have to squint, as when reading on a beach suffused by sunlight. But the diligence exacted pays off. She warrants the approach of a critic such as Cyril Connolly when he said: "I stay very close to the text—no soaring eagle, but a low-swung basset who hunts by scent and keeps his nose to the ground" (Pritchett). Yet her range of people remained modest: children whose relation to their elders is commonly that of escapees to pursuers, girls like apprentice subversives, mature men and women writhing to give asylum to their clandestine needs without jettisoning the safeguards of public decorum. As if admonishing herself, two of her best performances from the 1930's weigh the cost of entrapment by one's elders or, worse yet, by oneself. In "Reduced" we enter a suburban English scene. The Carburys have managed to attract a manifestly superior governess for their two daughters. Given the atmosphere of their home, their coup is remarkable. Already Bowen's rapt attention to place carries special weight. Their dim (in several senses) dwelling betrays Mr. Carbury's failure to mask his stinginess. "The house looked dedicated to a perpetual January. . ." (Stories). Indoors, oil lamps affect the picturesque: the owner balks at having electricity installed. A nosy woman guest ferrets out the governess' past from her timid hostess. Henrietta Post, as she then was, had been the accused in a lurid trial, charged with killing her aging, lecherous employer. Acquitted for lack of evidence, she was persuaded to relocate where she would not be traced. When the visitor whispers about possibly baleful influences, Mrs. Carbury panics.

Our attention ultimately fixes on the children. Another guest, an obtuse young man, ventures upstairs where Miss Rice, as she now calls herself, supervises her charges: the girls have to skip rope to keep warm. Having overheard the downstairs whispering without grasping its real significance, the intruder seeks further details. With suppressed terror Miss Rice summarizes the case as if drawing on newspaper accounts, then speaks her choked appeal: "". . .she disappeared, hoping to be forgotten."" We have already recognized the youngsters' readiness for insurrection. "What they thought of being alive their parents would never know; their characters were like batteries storing something up." As they watch the two adults, a conjecture chillier than the temperature in the room immobilizes them. "They sat stone-still, clasped hands thrust down between their knees; you could not possibly tell what was going on in their heads, which were both turned intently away from their governess." Those clasped hands, those averted eyes, as of one unable to face another's pain, tell all we need to know. When their mother discloses that Miss Rice will be dismissed, they react with icy composure: they, too, will leave. Whether or not they make good their unlikely escape, they have become orphans twice over.

In "Look at All Those Roses" plants traditionally prized as symbols of devotion, arbors of safety, assume an unexpected role: they burn like warning lights. Here nature breathes on events like a mute, sardonic chorus, unwilling to tell what it knows. Two young lovers are driving back to London from a querulous rural weekend. When their little car stalls they seek help at a nearby cottage. In the front yard mammoth clusters of roses beckon as to a shrine. Lou pauses while her companion hunts down a garage. She feels ill-at-ease lest he be planning to rejoin his wife. Lou carries no school girl's burden: hers is sexual jealousy. ". . .her idea of love was adhesiveness. . ." (Stories).

Mrs. Mather, a large, rough-hewn woman, dispenses tea. Lou distracts herself with the daughter of the house, a cripple. Stealing glances at her wristwatch, she learns about the teenager's accident, caused six years earlier by her own father. Afterward, so the child claims, he ran away. Against her will, Lou becomes absorbed by thoughts of the absentee parent, why he took himself off. Affecting a self-command her past behavior has not verified, she reminds herself that "men dread obstinacy, of love, of grief." Later she lies on the grass, with her mystifying mentor nearby on a portable stretcher. Apparently what Lou has been told has stirred a more objective view of her own problem. "No wonder I've been tired, only half getting what I don't really want." On his return her lover insists that they get away. In town he has learned that the child's mother may have exacted a fierce revenge, By now a reader knows better why those flowers, unnaturally robust, earlier "glared at the strangers, frighteningly bright." Yet the text ends with no comfortable moment of knowledge reinforced, selfhood shored up. What lurks longest in the mind are misgivings. Lou's passion always to be in control will probably strike again. The oracle's voice in a child's body may have spoken obliquely, even disingenuously, but for an adult listener to react in kind, even to herself, foreshadows grim possibilities. As she leaves Delphi, Lou remains at risk.

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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

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 autocracy, respectively: ''Talking It Over'' and ''The Porcupine.'') In fact, Barnes has always dealt uncertainty. It is just that he deals it in paradoxical high spirits -- a troubadour jangling at a window behind which the twitching shadow may as likely be a curtain as a princess. In ''England, England,'' the jangling, though often as spry as ever, flags at times. Perhaps it is a curtain after all.

The three parts of the novel are told in contrasting tones. Although Martha figures in all three, she is different in each. In the first she looks out with the child's keen and fertilely mistaken eye; in the last, with the worn, aridly exact eye of age. Both these Marthas are inveterately human; at his best Barnes wrestles his characters skyward while letting them keep a foot on the ground.

In the middle and by far the longest section, on the other hand, human Martha is stretched into a cartoon. This is deliberate, and plays out the author's message: Until recently, we conceived life as a tangible reality. The post-modern world -- Barnes blends in everything from deconstruction to the manipulation of entertainment and imagery to electronic communication -- is edging us into a virtual reality. The price will be paid. Reality will reassert itself on a mortally injured retreat.

And so the titles of each of the parts: ''England'' for Martha's tangibly recalled childhood and ''England, England'' for her adulthood among the simu-lacra of a lampooned near future. ''Anglia'' is her old-age withdrawal into a counterpart English remnant: rural, cut off from the world, technologically stripped, uncomfortable, devoid of ambition or modern conveniences and very far from utopian. All that can be said for it is that it may be the only human alternative (very different from a solution) to what awaits us. It may be the bottom line -- bog-house connotations and all -- of the bottom line.

To begin with the smart and accomplished ''England, England'' section. Running four-fifths of the whole, it is the book's heart, though perhaps not the author's (or mine). It plays out a lavish satire on Britain today extrapolated into a day or two after tomorrow. Its protagonist, Sir Jack Pitman, is a publishing megabeast with traces of Lord Coppers (in Waugh's ''Scoop'') and the late Robert Maxwell (hulking frame and faint East European accent). Mostly, of course, he is Rupert Murdoch, with his communications empire and unwalled expansiveness, though carried here to kinky extremes. (Sir Jack patronizes a brothel where he gets his kicks as a diapered baby.)

Determined upon a last feat of personal empire, and after considerable reflection -- his excesses are coupled with some shrewd insight -- Sir Jack buys the Isle of Wight. He hires the inhabitants and gets the local councilors to set up a parliament, declare independence and ask to join the European Union. His aim is a Disney World carried to its ultimate conclusion. Having taken a poll to determine the things that visitors most associate with Britain (among them the royal family, thatched cottages, Shakespeare, bowler hats, breakfast and double-decker buses), he reproduces them all, apart from a few he finds insulting (not washing/bad underwear).

He hires a Samuel Johnson to be witty to visitors at a Cheshire Cheese, contracts an R.A.F. squadron to spout Battle of Britain slang while waiting to scramble, and builds a half-size Buckingham Palace. Inside he places the genuine King (a wonderfully parodied Prince Charles), whom he has compensated lavishly for abandoning Britain (big pay, no boring dignitaries and, since Sir Jack owns and has relocated The Times of London, no bothersome press).

Among his experts, Sir Jack brings in a late-model Derrida to do Theory. The modern world prefers the simulacrum to the real thing, the Frenchman explains. Barnes, whose simulacrum of a French intellectual is far funnier than the real thing, quotes:
''We prefer the reproduction of the work of art to the work of art itself, the perfect sound and solitude of the compact disk to the symphony concert in the company of a thousand victims of throat complaints. . . . To understand this, we must understand and confront our insecurity, our existential indecision, the profound atavistic fear we experience when we are face to face with the original.''
Modernity has won. ''It is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the 'original.' We must demand the replica, since the reality, the truth, the authenticity of the replica is the one we can possess, colonize, reorder.'' This is satire at its best, and there is much in the ''England, England'' section that is ingenious, funny or both. There is much else, though. Both the planning and the functioning of Sir Jack's utopia are developed in a protracted and insistent detail that tends to turn mechanical. Some of the parody is familiar: the Godzilla-tycoon -- tyranny, diapers and all -- and of course the already scraped-to-the-bone royal family. You are surprised not that Barnes (like the dog walking on its hind legs) does it well but perhaps, given his particular genius, that he does it at all.

Even in its best moments this middle section is not Barnes at his best. He is not a pure satirist. His vessels sail under flags of irony and parody, to be sure, but what makes them remarkable are the stowaways: the human gesture, the idiosyncrasy that deflects the arrow of wit and flies it the other way, the attentiveness that remains after the wit is flown.

More here.

Monday, 4 November 2013

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 fiction. And Swift sometimes manages to rate among the British authors on whom graduates are writing the most dissertations, not too far behind Shakespeare and Angela Carter. He’s almost become Swift Our Contemporary.

As a result, scholars and devoted readers, as well as marketing people, can see there is room for a good new biography. Luckily, the gap has been filled by Leo Damrosch in a book that is more than good—it is masterly in its control of the material, its neat formal organization, and its deft unbuttoned style.1 To understand just what Damrosch has achieved, we need to explore the biographic context a little. He isn’t a professed Swiftian like some of his predecessors, although he has written excellent books on subjects such as Blake, Hume, Johnson, Pope, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. Understandably, he shows some impatience here with the hitters designated by Swift’s academic team, accusing them of closing their minds to the work of independent scholars and “amateur” researchers. But there is a more prominent, if cumbrous, elephant in the room, and in almost every chapter of the new life the author has to confront the issues that arise.

Long domiciled at Harvard, Damrosch spent the earlier part of his career teaching at the University of Virginia. His span there coincided with the major production of a senior colleague, Irvin Ehrenpreis, at that time engaged in a monumental triptych of volumes devoted to Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, published between 1962 and 1983. Damrosch has waited until now to deliver his opinions on the version of Swift that emerges from this set of doorstoppers (Ehrenpreis died from a fall in 1985, while teaching at the University of Münster, a powerhouse for research into the Dean of St. Patrick’s). The critical verdict on Ehrenpreis’s work is distinctly negative. Among “the very real limitations” that according to Damrosch impair its claims to authoritative status is “a now very dated Freudian interpretation of personality.” This charge is irrefutable: The work buries amidst an impressive body of hard research a rather crude psychobiography. It might be added that Ehrenpreis didn’t have much gift for narrative and wrote undistinguished prose. Forty years ago a writer (me, as it happens) foolishly wrote that a measure of dullness is respectable in a standard life, like sobriety in a banker. The analogy looks bizarrely inapt today, but it remains true that some classic biographical enquiries suffer from turgid expression. Damrosch tells a pacier tale, with chapters on particular topics, such as Dublin life, cleverly integrated into the chronological account. And he writes with far more verve, contriving to blend informality with solid argumentation.

The book prompts questions about what kind of biographer a given subject requires, and about the kind of evidence that needs to be deployed. Most people these days lead an open life, especially on social media, with their capacity to circulate rumors and untruths in a nanosecond. But it wasn’t like that in the past, and some individuals made a virtue of their caginess. Does Swift fall into this category? Early on, Damrosch admits that “hidden though he wanted his inner life to be, he was anything but a recluse.” Near the end, he quotes Johnson’s remark that Pope “hardly drank tea without a stratagem,” and adds a comment by Swift’s friend Lord Orrery that the Dean, for all his ironical teasing, “was undisguised and perfectly sincere.” In between, Damrosch has been forced to trawl through a mass of stories about his subject, some reliable, some highly implausible. He gives them all a decent hearing, even down to the yarn of an aged bell-ringer that Swift had a son by his great friend Esther Johnson (always known as Stella). While he accuses Ehrenpreis of overconfidence in pushing psychoanalytic speculations, he thinks his former colleague was too skeptical with regard to many of these rumors. It is true that, just as one in a hundred conspiracy theories may have something behind it, so occasionally tall tales will warrant a fresh look. With men and women who lived in earlier centuries, you can hardly make biographic bricks without anecdotal straw.

More here.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively at home
The author at her home in north London. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
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 an ageing historian (there's often an ageing historian), while Charlotte is presented less as a character than a complex composite of previous states of being: "Charlotte viewed her younger selves with a certain detachment. They are herself, but other incarnations, innocents going about half-forgotten business." It is a distinctive device which has recurred in almost every one of Lively's novels since 1987's Moon Tiger, in which Claudia (an ageing historian) reflects that she is "composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water".

Having suffered a broken hip in the attack, Charlotte is left to consider what has hit her: "This faceless person with whom she has been in a transitory, intimate relationship. Him. Or possibly her. Women muggers now, no doubt; this is the age of equal opportunities." It soon becomes apparent that being knocked down has a knock-on effect. Charlotte is forced to move in with her daughter Rose while she recuperates, which means that Rose is unable to accompany her employer, Lord Peters, to receive an honorary doctorate in Manchester. His Lordship's niece, an interior designer named Marion, goes with her uncle instead, though a text explaining her absence is intercepted by the wife of her lover, thus hastening the demise of their marriage. It all unfolds with the inescapable logic of a well-oiled farce, though every so often Lively's authorial voice intrudes to comment on the domino-toppling effect: "Thus have various lives collided, the human version of a motorway shunt, and the rogue white van that slammed on the brakes is miles away, offstage, impervious."

More here.