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Showing posts from July, 2014

Hans Christian Andersen’s painful fairy-tale life

Hans Christian Andersen has introduced generations of children to the pleasures of an unhappy ending. The loyalty of the steadfast tin soldier doesn’t save him from the fire; the little mermaid will never be married to the prince; Karen’s taste for fancy footwear in “The Red Shoes” is her undoing. Few literary moments can have generated more infant tears than the death of the little match girl. Children now rarely come across the unrelieved darkness of Andersen’s imagination. Disney, who finally staged a wedding for the little mermaid in a 1989 film, have recently produced Frozen, a hugely popular adaptation of “The Snow Queen”. Its calculated brightness is a long way from Andersen’s story of Gerda’s arduous redemption of Kay. Andersen’s religiosity has also been edited out of the picture. Firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul, he swept many of his oppressed characters into heaven in the final paragraphs of his tales. Modern sensibilities prefer more earthly forms of salvati…

Christa Wolf - What Remains

Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late—too late—realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain. One of Christa Wolf’s books, Patterns of Childhood, responds to that imperative, exposing her successive immersions in brown-shirted dictatorship and the doctrines of Stalinism. False paths credulously followed, stirrings of doubt and resistance to authoritarian constraints and beyond that, the recognition of one’s own participation in a system that was crushing the utopian ideals of Socialism—those are hallmarks of the five-decades of writing that established Wolf’s reputation, a journey that leads book by book from The Divided Sky (1963) to her final work, Stadt der Engel(“City of Angels,” 2010); and the books remain. To pick one out: “What Remains” is the title of a story published in June 19…

Hilary Mantel’s imagination

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror: a violation of an implicit contrac…

Biography and Fiction: Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage

Familiarity with the life of an author enriches the experience of reading his or her work. It not only influences the way fiction is understood, it also boosts enjoyment. The text remains the same, its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same; what changes is the reception. Additional layers of interpretation open themselves up, the reader is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn't replace close reading, but it provides alternate possibilities, new, otherwise inconceivable modes of appreciation. One particularly enjoyable game is to compare and contrast the real life with the fictional. Somerset Maugham provides a good example. He had an affair with Gwendolyn Maud Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, got her pregnant, did the 'right' thing, married her, went through a messy divorce 10 years later, and hated her for the rest of his life. I have fond memories of reading A Writer's Notebook some 25 years ago. Great work, I thought at the time, pity about all the misogyny. I…

Last exit to nowhere: the lost world of Stefan Zweig

In his memoir The World of Yesterday, which he finished revising not long before he took his own life, Stefan Zweig described the Europe that he and his generation had lost:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency, and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability . . . In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed) another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, of revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason. Born in 1881 into a prosperous Jewish family and becoming one of the most successful writers of his time, …

An interview with Amit Chaudhuri on Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was India's most famous modern poet and is one of its greatest cultural icons. Born in 1861, Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, which brought him international fame. But while the Western world forgot Tagore soon after the Nobel, his reputation continued to grow in India and in Bangladesh, which was once part of his native state of Bengal.

Tagore was born into a large, unorthodox Hindu Bengali family composed of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists—he was the youngest of 13 surviving children. Rabindranath's father, Debendranath, was a religious reformer, and one of the founding members of the Hindu reformist movement the Brahmo Samaj. Rabindranath Tagore was a polymath, prolific across many artistic and intellectual forms: a poet, composer of songs, essayist, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and, later in his life, a painter. He travelled widely and met and corresponded with artists, intellectuals,…

Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy

These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy. That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways. One of them is expressed very beautifully in “Mrs. Dalloway,” in a famous scene early in the book. It’s a flashback, from when Clarissa was a teen-ager. One night, she goes out for a walk with some friends: two annoying boys, Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf, and a girl, Sally Seton. Sally is sexy, smart, Bohemian—possessed of “a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything.” The boys drift ahead, lost in a boring conversation about Wagner, while the girls are left behind. “Then came the mos…

Anita Brookner has never shied from terrible truths

The Booker prize longlist is soon to be revealed. Doubtless it will be attended by the usual controversies, and these will probably be magnified when the winner is eventually announced. Controversy is the breath of life to literary prizes. Thirty years ago, for instance, a minor ruckus occurred when Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac stole the crown from J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Ballard’s book is certainly magnificent. Hotel du Lac is far more limited in obvious scope, being the concisely told tale of a lonely woman’s brief sojourn in a Swiss hotel. It can easily be damned with faint praise, described as clear-eyed, intelligent, exquisitely wrought: all the slightly dull literary virtues. Nevertheless, I would contend that it is one of the few Booker winners that will endure. Indeed, Anita Brookner, who turns 86 next week, is to my mind the last great novelist of the 20th century (and, technically, the first of this century; her 25th novel, At the Hairdresser’s, was published i…

Girl Trouble - Edna O'Brien

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In her recent memoir, Edna O’Brien recalls an early, pre-publication response to her first novel, 

The Open Marriage of True Minds - The extraordinary life of Simone de Beauvoir

On the introduction to this massive book, Deirdre Bair says that her aim is to help future societies assess the real contribution of Simone de Beauvoir, determine why she matters. Beauvoir's personal fame still rests on her connection with Jean-Paul Sartre, although her international fame as a writer is based almost wholly on her prophetic work, The Second Sex, which was published in 1949, well before the current phase of feminism began. Besides that, she was the author of seven novels, a play, two books of philosophy, four volumes of memoirs, and about five other volumes of serious essays, apart from numerous introductions to the works of others, and many articles for periodicals. Her own view of the way she mattered was entirely as a writer, not as a lady-friend or as a feminist. She laid great stress on this, and disliked being remembered only as the author of a feminist document—the book, she said, that "anyone could have written."

Significantly enough, Bair does not …

Suffering, Elemental as Night - V.S. Naipaul

In an age of mandatory multi-culturalism and groupthink --where well-intentioned but stale pieties stand in for close scrutiny on the left, and shrill but defensive assertions parade as rigorous criticism on the right -- it is altogether beneficial to have a writer such as V.S. Naipaul in our midst. Throughout his long and prolific career, Naipaul, who was knighted in 1990 and awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001 (in a rare instance of merit triumphing over politics,) has never bothered to check the cultural pulse before offering his blunt, often incendiary opinions. Although he has won the Booker Prize as well as numerous other British prizes and has lived in England since the age of eighteen, he continues to see himself as an outsider. ''I could not have done this writing in any other country,'' he explained in a recent interview.'' ''To that extent, I am a British writer.'' Naipaul's position is that of someone in a permanent sta…

The hectic career of Stephen Crane

In  Stephen Crane’s novel “Maggie” (1893), it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when the title character is first set on the path to prostitution. Maybe it happens when her brother’s friend Pete tells her that her figure is “outa sight.” Maybe it happens a little later, when her job making shirt collars on an assembly line begins to seem dreary. Is it a mistake when she lets Pete take her to a music hall? What about when she lets him spirit her away from her rage-filled mother, who has collapsed on the kitchen floor after a bender? Women in the neighborhood gossip, and a practiced flirt steals Pete away—perhaps they are instrumental. Or maybe the end is determined from the beginning, when the girl has the misfortune to be born into poverty with attractive looks and an alcoholic parent. Crane tells Maggie’s story in a way that resists a simple answer. If he had cast her as a traditional heroine, he could have praised her resourcefulness or faulted her vice. Instead, his novel acknowle…