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Showing posts from December, 2013

Rediscovering The Intricate Verse Of Federico Garcia Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish surrealist, wasn't just any writer. The poet and playwright was also a revolutionary who penned some of the most intricate and arresting verse of the twentieth century. Out now from New Directions, Selected Poems is perhaps the best introduction to the poet's oeuvre — and one of the foremost works of poetry in translation released this year. This edition, featuring a host of translators from Langston Hughes to Ben Belitt and W. S. Merwin, should have a place in any growing library.

I first stumbled upon Garcia Lorca years ago while working for my high school literary magazine. In addition to editing duties, I was charged with finding the most fitting epigraph for the next issue. After sifting through poem after poem, making note of dozens of possible, and worthy, choices, I came across this, from Garcia Lorca's "New York": "Set in place the lovers who will afterwards be photographs." The line spoke of mortality, and, to…

Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of the…

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was engaged in a dialogue with violence. Speaking to an interviewer about his childhood in what was then the outlying barrio of Palermo, in Buenos Aires, he said, “To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing…the kind of thing he couldn’t stand.” According to his biographer, Edwin Williamson,1 Borges’s father handed him a dagger when he was a boy, with instructions to overcome his poor eyesight and “generally defeated” demeanor and let the boys who were bullying him know that he was a man.

Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic …

Pox and the City: the complex life of Jonathan Swift

Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a novel as “a small tale, generally of love”. It was when Johnson was writing, in the mid-18th century, that the novel emerged as the dominant form of prose literature. Thanks especially to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, coming of age and falling in love became the defining characteristics of the genre, which Fanny Burney and Jane Austen would then bring to perfection.

A generation earlier, the most widely read works of “modern” prose fiction were John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All three of these titles became household names (The Pilgrim’s Progress remained the most reprinted book in English, other than the Bible, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries). All three share with Shakespeare the special distinction of having been rewritten and simplified as tales for children. Even today, people who never pick up a book will have heard of Crusoe’s island and of Gulli…

The Letter That Changed the Course of Modern Fiction

A hundred years ago, Ezra Pound wrote a letter to the struggling and largely unpublished James Joyce offering to help him—and set in motion a literary revolution. Can a single piece of unsolicited mail change the course of literature? In my opinion, only one letter justifies such a bold claim—a query sent a hundred years ago this month, on December 15, 1913, when Ezra Pound, searching for new talent, reached out to a struggling Irish author living in Trieste.

James Joyce, thirty years old, had faced rejection after rejection during the previous decade. He had completed his collection of short stories, Dubliners, eight years before Pound contacted him—but Joyce still hadn’t found a publisher willing to issue the book. Every time he came close to seeing this work in print, new objections and obstacles arose, and even Joyce’s offer to make changes and censor controversial passages failed to remove the roadblocks.

Joyce had even fewer prospects to publish his novel A Portrait of the Artist …

Heidegger in France: Nazism and philosophy

One of the distinctive features of French intellectual life in the post-war period has been the influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger’s standing among French philosophers, especially those working in the phenomenological tradition (who are more numerous in France than anywhere else in Europe, let alone the Anglophone world), contrasts dramatically with his reputation in the country of his birth, where his legacy is tainted irredeemably by his political compromises with National Socialism in the 1930s. 

The precise nature and extent of those compromises remain a matter of controversy—not least in France, where the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade. Last week, Nicolas Weill, a journalist at Le Monde, wrote on his blog that the latest volume of Heidegger’s complete works (the Gesamtausgabe), which will be published in Germany in March next year, promises a definitive answer to t…

Miguel de Unamuno - The Philosophy of Death

Miguel de Unamuno’s earliest memory was of a bomb landing on the roof of his neighbor’s house during Spain’s final Carlist War. The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy.

Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in 1897, tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. Just a few months earlier, Unamuno’s infant son Raimundo had contracted meningitis. Raimundo’s illness disabled him physically and mentally. He was not expected to live long. Miguel de Unamuno believed that this tragedy was his fault, divine punishment for turning away from his childhood faith and embracing scientific rationalism. That night in 1897, Unamuno’s wife Concha found her husband sobbing. She held him and called out, “My child!” Years later, Unamuno wrote of this experience and the lasting effect of those two words.
In a mo…

Hannah Arendt's Failures of Imagination

Hannah Arendt is back in the news, in anticipation of the release of the book “Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations,” on Tuesday, and of Claude Lanzmann’s film “The Last of the Unjust,” which played at the New York Film Festival and opens on February 7th. The new book includes four interviews with Arendt. The first two, by Günter Gaus and Joachim Fest, respectively, appeared in 1964, the year after the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (a version of which was published, in serialized form, in this magazine), and they deal with that book in detail. The two others are by Adelbert Reif, from 1970, and the French journalist Roger Errera, from 1973. Lanzmann’s new film is centered on his 1975 interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, who, as a rabbi in Vienna and then as the last “elder of the Jews” at Theresienstadt, the so-called model concentration camp, had the misfortune to take orders from Eichmann. The movie contradicts two of …

Umberto Eco and why we still dream of utopia

Places that have never existed except in the human imagination may find an incongruous afterlife in the everyday world. Umberto Eco tells of how an attempt to commemorate the brownstone New York home of Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s orchid-loving fictional detective, runs up against the resistance of fact. Wolfe’s house cannot be identified because Stout “always talked of a brownstone at a certain number on West 35th Street, but in the course of his novels he mentioned at least ten different street numbers – and what is more, there are no brownstones on 35th Street”. Using Eco’s typology, a fiction has been transmuted into a legend: “Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are in effect a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.”

Because they involve the belief that they existed, exist or can be made to exist – whether in the past,…

Optimism Outlasted a Lifetime of Horrors - Ivan Klima

The Czech writer Ivan Klima’s new book, a memoir, is called “My Crazy Century.” It begins in 1941, when together with his family Mr. Klima, who until then hadn’t even been aware that he was Jewish, was imprisoned in the Nazi camp at Terezin, and it concludes with the Velvet Revolution of 1989, ending years of dictatorship and repression. “Sometimes, it was funny crazy,” Mr. Klima said last week, while visiting New York. “But mostly, it was crazy crazy.”

Mr. Klima is now 82, and his Beatles haircut, which his friend Philip Roth once said reminded him of a “highly intellectually evolved Ringo Starr,” has grown thinner and grayer. His conversation is like his writing: direct, plain-spoken, quietly humorous, but uninflected by irony or exaggeration. Talking about his years at Terezin, he pointed out that his family was much luckier than many. “I was very active,” he said. “I was not at all depressed. That was perhaps my age — I was only 10 — but probably my character as well. I’m rather op…

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

The questions that cannot be answered about Jonathan Swift number so many that I wonder how his biographers keep their spirits up. Just to begin with, essential and insoluble mysteries surround his parentage, his marital status, and the nature of his relationships with "Stella" and "Vanessa," the two great loves of his life. There are complete gaps, too, sequences of years during which there is no evidence at all as to what Swift was up to. Even his writing is an exercise in sustained ambiguity: What precisely is the meaning of A Tale of a Tub? What really is the message of Gulliver's fourth journey? And what, in the name of all that is euphemistic, did this man of the cloth mean by the expression "coffee" in his letters to Vanessa? (It was something, it would seem, to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.)

Leo Damrosch begins with some of these questions in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, a fine biography that is also a running engagem…

Margaret Atwood on the show-stopping Isak Dinesen

On the Danish 50-kroner banknote there's a portrait of Isak Dinesen. It's signed Karen Blixen, which is how she is known in Denmark. She's shown at the age of 60 or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a fur collar, and looking very glamorous indeed.

I first saw Dinesen when I was 10, in a photo shoot in Life magazine. My experience then was similar to that of Sara Stambaugh, one of her bio-critics: "I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs. I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning dramatically from a window, striking, turbaned, and emaciated."

To my young eyes, this person in the pictures was like a magical creature from a fairytale: an impossibly aged woman, a thousand years old at least. Her outfits were striking and the makeup of the era…