Thursday, 30 January 2014

What She Was and What She Felt Like - Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter died at the age of 90. She had one of those very long lives the sickly, with their bronchial troubles and early threats of tuberculosis, achieve as a surprise to us and perhaps to themselves. It was just two years ago, in September 1980, that she died and now we have a biography devoted to this long life.

Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict and make in this way a sort of completed picturepuzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together. They also make a consistent fiction, the fiction being the arrangement, artful or clumsy, of the documents.

Biography cast a chill over the late years of some writers and, perhaps from their reading the lives of those they had known in the toosolid flesh, provoked the insistent wish that no life be written. Among those who wished for no life after life were W.H. Auden, George Orwell and T.S. Eliot. The result has been two lives already of Auden and Orwell, and Eliot's life is in the making, waiting to be lived again by way of the flowing bloodstream of documentation.

Sometimes very fine writers and scholars undertake biographies, and their productions have at least some claim to equity between the subject and the person putting on the shoes. Others hope to establish credentials previously lacking by hard work on the abounding materials left by a creative life. In any case, a biography appears to be thought of as a good project, one that can at the very least be accomplished by industry. And if there is a lot of busy work in it - many visits to libraries, a store of taped interviews and, of course, the ''evidence'' of the writer's work itself (the last rather a difficulty since it is not precisely to be understood by research) - the book gets written and the ''life of'' is, so to speak, born. In her 86th year Katherine Anne Porter appointed Joan Givner to undertake the re-creation of her many decades. The biographer might be thought to be in luck since Miss Porter advised her to ''get at the truth,'' an always murky command when ordered on one's own behalf. The real luck about the truth turned out to be that the distinguished writer was unusually inclined to fabrication about her past. These fabrications, dashing often and scarcely news and only mildly discrediting, seem to be the driving engine behind Joan Givner's accumulation of the facts of life.

How certain human beings are able to create works of art is a mystery, and why they should wish to do so, at great cost to themselves usually, is another mystery. Works are not created by one's life; every life is rich in material. By the nature of the enterprise, the contemporary biographer with his surf of Xerox papers is doing something smaller and yet strikingly more detailed than the great Victorian laborers in the form. Our power of documentation has a monstrous life of its own, a greater vivacity than any lived existence. It makes form out of particles and finds attitude in a remembered drunken remark as easily as in a long contemplation of experience, more easily in fact. It creates out of paper a heavy, obdurate permanency. Threats to its permanency will only come by way of other bits of paper, a footnote coup d'etat. No matter, a territory once colonized in this way has had its indigenous landscape and culture put to the heel.

In Joan Givner's book the root biographical facts have the effect of a crushing army. Everything is under the foot. Each character and each scene of Miss Porter's fiction is looked upon as a factuality honored by its provenance as autobiography. And separate fictions are mashed together as bits of the life recur or are suggested in different works. Miss Porter, in a manner impertinently thought of as dilatory, did not often translate experience in a sequential fashion. So she is writing ''Hacienda'' while she is ''living'' ''The Leaning Tower.'' She is boarding the ship of fools before the Mexican stories have been accomplished. It is something of a tangle to get this particular life and its laggard production into time slots, and the result is an incoherence in regard to the work. Information about when each story was actually completed, when published and where, is lost in the anecdote of days and nights. No doubt the information is somewhere among the pages, but it is a slogging task to dig it out.

The life - some scandal and a considerable amount of folly. Katherine Anne Porter was born in a log cabin in Texas and grew up in hardship without a really good education. She knew a genuine struggle to provide for herself and slowly to define herself. Gradually, along the way, after her stories became known, she slipped into being a Southern belle and into being to some extent a Southern writer after ''Flowering Judas.'' The role was there for the choosing since to be a belle and to be a Southern writer is a decision, not a fate. (Poe, for instance, was a Southerner but not a Southern writer.) Perhaps under the influence of the very talented Southern Agrarians - Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and others - she began to appropriate a rather frantic genealogy of Daniel Boone and certain Southern statesmen; in addition, she developed some soothing memories of plantation dining rooms, ''several Negro servants, among them two aged former slaves,'' and so on. In this way she filled in the gap between what she was and what she felt like.

She was handy too in disposing of the traces of her various mismatings, the first a marriage at 16. ''I have no hidden husbands,'' she once said. ''They just slipped my mind.'' She was beautiful, a spendthrift, an alert coquette and, since she lived long, a good many of her lovers and three of her husbands were younger than she was. She lopped off a few years here and there. The book goes into a determined sorting out and the husbands are lined up, the years restored.

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Monday, 27 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi interview: 'Every 10 years you become someone else'

The first time I met Hanif Kureishi it was the mid-80s, and we talked about writing fiction for Faber and Faber whose list I was directing. Kureishi came into my office like a rock star and I remember thinking that he did not seem in need of a career move. He was already riding high on the international success of his screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette.

In fact, Kureishi was cannily pondering his next step. He was on the lookout for a means of self-expression that might sustain a way of life and over which he could have some control. Movies, he said, were chancy, a gold-rush business. There was money in novels and a mood of great expectations as a new generation of writers, especially from the Commonwealth, came through. I had just published Caryl Phillips's first novel, The Final Passage, and Kureishi expressed a quite competitive desire to outdo his Caribbean rival. Four years later, he completed The Buddha of Suburbia in which, as a sly nod to my role in its gestation, I got a walk-on part – as a policeman.

Today, with Kureishi's latest novel, The Last Word, due for publication, it's a good moment to review his record. To the New York Times, he's "a kind of post-colonial Philip Roth"; for the Times, he is one of "50 greatest British writers since 1945". Approaching 60, he has reached the age of honours: a CBE in 2008, plus a characteristic barb ("If it's good enough for Kylie Minogue, it's good enough for Hanif Kureishi"); the PEN/Pinter award in 2010. Like Pinter, he has just sold his manuscripts to the British Library.

Unlike some, he hasn't left for America and still lives in Shepherd's Bush, west London, where he continues to write fiction and screenplays. Le Week-End, directed by Roger Michell, starring Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, was an acclaimed cinema release in the autumn of 2013. The Last Word comes out on Tuesday. Not many contemporary writers pull off that double, especially after 30 years. But that's the thing about Kureishi: he has always performed in many dimensions (short stories, essays, screenplays), projecting a mischievous air of jeopardy and transgression.

When I visited him at home in west London just before Christmas we began to explore his overlapping lives. From a career of thinking and talking about himself, the public Kureishi has morphed into someone he can happily discuss as a kind of alter ego. In the past, he has said that he gives "at least one interview a week. Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life." Exactly so.

You might say that he's been playing a double game since the day he was born in Bromley to an English mother and a Pakistani father on 5 December 1954. As a "child of empire", the young Kureishi grew up in two worlds, western and eastern. Originally from India and later Pakistan, his father's family are what he calls "upper-middle-class". He continues: "My grandfather, an army doctor, was a colonel in the Indian army. Big family. Servants. Tennis court. Cricket. Everything. My father went to the Cathedral school that Salman Rushdie went to. Later, in Pakistan, my family were close to the Bhuttos. My uncle Omar was a newspaper columnist and the manager of the Pakistan cricket team."

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Friday, 24 January 2014

Chick noir: a thoroughly modern Victorian marriage thriller

The "marriage thriller" is taking over the world, sprawling across bookshop tables and muscling into the multiplex. But maybe our new-found love of "chick noir" is not so new after all. The darker side of matrimony has been fuelling powerful plots of passion and betrayal since the dawn of time – from Othello to Bluebeard and from Medea to Ford Madox Ford's modernist masterpiece The Good Soldier – but in this era of austerity the new wave of domestic thrillers looks back to the golden age of marriage noir: the 19th century.

Sensation fiction exploded on to the mid-Victorian literary scene after the huge success of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859), credited by Henry James with "having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors". The Victorians were fascinated by the notion of hypocrisy amongst the new middle class, a fascination which sensation fiction answered by domesticating the conventions of 18-century Gothic and the Newgate novel of the 1830s – murder, insanity, the doppelganger – while subtly shifting the site of criminality to the elegant facades of the new boulevards and squares across London.

Of course, The Woman in White has a happy ending, with the drawing master turned amateur detective Walter Hartright free to marry Laura after solving the mystery. But its focus on the fundamental unknowability of marriage, and in particular on the plight of the wife, set the pattern for a decade in which novels put marriage under scrutiny as never before.

Novels of the 1860s are full of dangerously deceptive and desiring women: Magdalen Vanstone in Collins's No Name (1862), Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866), and Lady Isabel Carlyle in Ellen Wood's bestselling East Lynne (1861), to name the most obvious. The ultimate femme fatale, however, must be the eponymous heroine of Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Mary Elizabeth Braddon's murderess broke new fictional ground: pushing husband number one down a well, almost poisoning husband number two and attempting to incinerate her son-in-law, Lucy is almost pathologically evil and yet she somehow remains sympathetic.

An 1863 article on "our sensation novelists" in the Living Age called it "one of the most noxious books of modern times", protesting that "Lady Audley is at once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel." Her greatest threat is her anonymity, her fundamental unknowability, both for the characters and the reader. As she passes through that "great chaos of humanity", the burgeoning metropolis of imperial London, shedding Helen Talboys to become Lucy Graham, she incarnates the ultimate "woman with a past" – a past that turns out to be horrifyingly present. We never quite know what to make of her; behind Helen Talboys lurks Helen Maldon, and the question of "who she really is" dissolves into whether there is any intrinsic identity behind her shifting social surface. Like the thrillers of today, the act of betrayal or transgression is of less significance than the fear that the "other" in a relationship must, regardless of proximity or familiarity, always remain separate and incomprehensible; that even in our most private and intimate spaces we may still project a public persona.

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Monday, 20 January 2014

Privileged or Imprisoned in the Anglo-Irish Big House?

The Anglo-Irish Big House is a historical structure that has been employed for various purposes in the literature of a variety of Irish authors. In reality, an Anglo-Irish Big House was big only in comparison to the peasant cottages and hovels dotting the Irish countryside; a Big House was a far cry from a castle or a palace, for example. And yet the Big House represented in a very concrete way the comparative wealth and power of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy as a class as they spraddled the chasm between the colonized, impoverished, predominantly Catholic, Gaelic Irish and their colonizers, the imperialistic English. Due, no doubt, to the fascinating identity conflicts and unique social predicaments of the figurative space the Anglo-Irish occupied in Ireland, Irish authors have long been interested in depicting the literal space, the Big House, within which the Anglo-Irish lived. Perhaps the most intriguing conflicts and predicaments in both the historical and the literary Big Houses involve the uncertain opportunities for females dwelling within Anglo-Irish Ascendancy homes. Three novels dealing with the relative advantages and disadvantages of the women living within Anglo-Irish Big Houses at pivotal points in Irish history are Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth, A Drama in Muslin by George Moore, and The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen.

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth was first published in 1800 at the time of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. This book is generally acknowledged to be the first Anglo-Irish novel and is thus the logical starting point for a brief, chronological look at female characters in the Big House. The Big House in Castle Rackrent is not really a castle, but more of a once-grand country manor house which has degenerated a bit further under the ‘management’ of each successive heir of the Rackrent family. In the novel, the men of the family occupy center stage while the females are marginalized, which is revealing in and of itself, especially as the author is a female! What mention the narrator, Thady Quirk, longtime family Rackrent servant, makes of the females is sketchy and often descends into stereotypes. The first Rackrent female Thady mentions is the wife of Sir Murtagh Rackrent. This Rackrent wife was from the Skinflint family, and, according to how Thady describes her, she lived up to the family nomen! Thady makes it clear he did not care for this mean, stingy, tightfisted woman and that Sir Murtagh only married her for her money. In doing so, Thady says Sir Murtagh made a bad bargain for she outlived him. Thady rather racistly comments of his lady Rackrent that "...I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; anything else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family" (Edgeworth 68). She is unpopular with Thady and others for such actions as stopping the tradition of providing whiskey to the tenants on rent day. Lady Murtagh Rackrent, it would seem, made the most of her residency in Castle Rackrent; she had poor children spinning for her for free, she collected duty yarn and household linen from the tenants, and she extorted "presents" of food (fowl, eggs, honey, butter, meal, fish, game, bacon, and ham) from the tenants. In addition, she "had her privy purse - and she had her weed ashes, and her sealing money upon the signing of all the leases, with something to buy gloves besides; and besides again often took in money from the tenants, if offered properly, to speak for them to Sir Murtagh about abatements and renewals" (Edgeworth 71). After Murtagh Rackrent dies as a result of an argument with Lady Rackrent over which of the two of them had the right to the abatement money, a generous jointure is settled upon her, and she departs Castle Rackrent a much wealthier woman than when she arrived. Indeed, she made sure to take all her acquired possessions with her: "...for my late lady Rackrent had sent all the featherbeds off before her, and blankets and household linen, down to the very knife cloths" (Edgeworth 72). Clearly, Big House living agreed with her! She, as a materialistic and motivated person, found great opportunities as a woman to acquire greater wealth while dwelling in Castle Rackrent. Sir Murtagh’s heir is his younger brother, Sir Kit Rackrent. Sir Kit wastes what money he has available to him, and decides to marry an heiress to replenish his cash flow. He writes home that "he was going to be married in a fortnight to the grandest heiress in England" (Edgeworth 75). The new Lady Rackrent arrives at Castle Rackrent "a stranger in a foreign country" (Edgeworth 76) only to be greeted with xenophobia and bigotry. Thady refers to his new mistress as a "heretic blackamoor" and mocks her ignorance of such commonplace (in Ireland) Irish things as turf and bogs. Sir Kit does not mind her ignorance of Irish ways nor her Jewish heritage, but he is livid when she refuses to turn over to him her diamonds as she evidently had promised to do before their marriage. In retaliation, Sir Kit requires the cook to have "always sausages, or bacon, or pig meat in some shape or other" (Edgeworth 79) upon the table, blatantly disrespecting kosher prohibitions against pork. As a result, "my lady shut herself up in her own room, and my master said she might stay there, with an oath: and to make sure of her, he turned the key in the door, and kept it ever after in his pocket. We none of us ever saw or heard her speak for seven years after that" (Edgeworth 79). Sir Kit confines his wife to her chambers and then conducts himself as if he were a bachelor again, having frequent parties and dances at Castle Rackrent. The people of the countryside knew of her incarceration but did not speak up for her for fear of having to duel with the notoriously hot-blooded Sir Kit. "Jew Lady Rackrent", as Thady calls this mistress, took ill whilst under lock and key, and Sir Kit, anxious to marry more money, spread the word around that his present wife was near death. Amazingly, he had three heiresses vying for the honor of being the next Lady Rackrent, notwithstanding their knowledge of his vile treatment of the present Lady Rackrent! As a result of the rivalry amongst the three prospective next Lady Rackrents, Sir Kit was mortally wounded in a duel with one of their male relatives. Thus was this Lady Rackrent freed from the - for her - extremely oppressive life she led in Castle Rackrent.

Sir Kit’s heir was Sir Condy Rackrent. Sir Condy has strong feelings for Thady’s grandniece, Judy McQuirk, but marries an heiress, Isabella Moneygawls, primarily because her father’s refusal to consent to the match piques Sir Condy’s familial pride. Her father is so opposed to the match that he locks Isabella up in her room, which has the effect of convincing her to elope with Sir Condy. Isabella Rackrent is the first of the Rackrent wives to be given a proper name. She is an amateur actress and, after quoting Shakespeare, is taken by Thady to be quite mad! She lavishes her limited personal fortune on Castle Rackrent, and she and Sir Condy lead a very fancy existence at first. Once they have wasted all her money on extravagant living and also gone through everything that Sir Condy can borrow, Lady Isabella is no longer happy being mistress of Castle Rackrent. For her, the Big House and the aristocratic name mean nothing without the high style of living to which she is accustomed. In the end, she resolves to return to her father’s house; fate, however, does not allow this, as she is gruesomely dragged to death in a freak roadside accident on her way home. For her, Castle Rackrent was a hollow opportunity that became trap-like once she discovered things were not what they originally appeared. She accuses Sir Condy of obtaining her hand in matrimony under false pretenses when she says, "And did not you use me basely...not to tell me you were ruined before I married you?" (Edgeworth 102). Evidently the illusion of wealth is a less forgivable fraud than the illusion of love he perpetrated to win her!

More here.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

It only makes sense that a novelist of such long tenure, one so preoccupied with the slippery nature of time, should actually write a novel on the subject of “prolepsis”—the anticipation of future events. Drabble uses the adjectival form of the word frequently in her new novel, beginning with the first sentence: “What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.” When one notices its insistent reuse, by a writer of such verbal precision, consulting the dictionary seems a good idea.

It turns out that prolepsis has several meanings, a cluster of meanings, some of them overlapping, which form a suggestive arrangement of ideas. As well as “anticipatory,” proleptic can also mean (in an apparent reversal of the first meaning) “anachronistic.” In rhetoric, prolepsis occurs when one preemptively raises objections to one’s own argument and then refutes them. Used in a medical context, it may refer to a series of “proleptic seizures,” in which the interval of time between each seizure becomes successively briefer.

It does seem that Drabble’s frequent use of “proleptic” to describe events and feelings in The Pure Gold Baby has been planted by her as a clue to what her novel is, thematically, brooding over. The narrator, and the main character whose story she is telling, her best friend Jess, wonder a lot about what they knew and when they knew it, and whether or not it would have made any difference if they had known earlier, or never learned, what they have come to know about their lives. Mostly, they find themselves looking back over the years to the 1970s, when Jess gave birth to her “pure gold baby,” Anna, who was born beautiful, blond, and sweet-natured—and, as became clear in the first few years of her life, mentally slow.

The children for whom Jess is said to have felt a “proleptic tenderness” were African; Jess was a student of anthropology conducting research in the 1960s when she encountered the curiously deformed “lobster-claw” children of a particular tribe where the genetic disposition, to what is called “ectrodactyly,” was pronounced. In Scotland, where this particular division and fusing of the fingers of the hand and the toes of the foot into “claws” is also genetically common, these children are called (in a dialect version of “clipped” and with reference to their supposed ancestor, Constable Bell) the “Cleppie Bells.” Images of the African children and the Cleppie Bells float through the pages of this novel, always invoked with affection. As Drabble carefully spells it out again: “They [the African children] were proleptic, but they were also prophetic.”

Jess’s daughter will not be born with this same problem of the body, but with an analogous problem of the mind; she will function, but with some difficulty; she will be beautiful, but different, and hampered. The care with which the narrator and Jess find themselves not naming Anna’s exact problem—the old labels of “handicapped” or “retarded” are avoided; but so are the newer labels of “differently abled” or “learning disabled”—contributes to a curious mood of baffled delicacy in the novel as a whole.

To name the child’s problem would be to restrict, to medicalize, to label the child herself. It would be to offer a proleptic version of her destiny—which Drabble is unwilling to do. It is a testament to the intensity and skill of Drabble’s writing that part of this novel’s suspense has to do with our waiting for definitions, diagnoses, and certainties that are never offered; and that part of our satisfaction lies in our acceptance that they cannot be.

The narrator, who is herself never named and who exhibits an intense, preoccupied attachment to her friend Jess (“Jess’s stories have become my stories and some of mine have become hers”), has her own children and husband and work but tells us only the bare minimum about all that, choosing instead to tell things from what she imagines to be Jess’s perspective—about Anna’s conception, birth, and upbringing to the present day.

There is no plot in the usual sense. There is story: Anna is born, Anna grows up. There is her mother’s parallel story: Jess has a baby; the baby is “pure gold” and a delight, but also a heavy burden, as gold can be; Jess worries that she will soon be too old to care for her daughter. And as I have suggested already, there is in addition the story of how much the narrator will, and will not, tell us about herself; and how much of what she tells us about Jess is from direct knowledge, and how much is speculation.

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Friday, 17 January 2014

Anne Brontë: the unsung sister, who turned the gaze on men

She's part of a literary dynasty that has dominated English literature for nearly 200 years, her sisters' books are on the national curriculum and hardly a Christmas goes by without a Brontë adaption. So why has Anne Brontë been forgotten? I know, I know, you haven't forgotten her, you read her all the time, you've got Agnes Grey in your hand right now. But in comparison to her sisters, Anne is not read. Her books aren't on the curriculum, she only shows up in must-read lists in combination with her famous siblings and most people would struggle to name her other book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

The problem with Anne was that she refused to glamorise violent, oppressive men. While Charlotte and Emily were embracing the concept of the brooding, abusive byronic hero, Anne preferred quiet, supportive men. Her heroes are curates and farmers, men who look after their mothers and resist the temptation to imprison or exile unwanted wives..

The contrast between Anne and her sisters is perfectly summarised by comics artist Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant fame. In Dude Watchin' With the Brontës Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë are checking out some hunks as their younger sister, Anne, watches with growing frustration. "What about that one?" purrs the author of Jane Eyre, as a Mr Rochester figure skulks past. "The guy was an asshole," observes Anne. "What about that one?" simpers the author of Wuthering Heights, as a Heathcliff lookalike lurches into view. "If you like alcoholic dickbags," Anne retorts. "You are so inappropriate … no wonder nobody buys your books," snap her sisters..

The comic will elicit sniggers of recognition from anyone who's suffered through the vitriolic alcoholics in Charlotte and Emily Brontë's novels. The hero in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sits in sharp contrast to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights: Gilbert Markham helps Helen flee from her abusive husband, while Heathcliff abuses his pregnant wife to the point that she runs away. Markham reluctantly accepts Helen's decision not to marry him; Heathcliff takes out a 20-year-long revenge policy when Cathy does them same..

Charlotte and Emily were undoubtedly feminist in their views and the way they felt about their writing; Charlotte frequently had to be restrained by her publishers from writing to critics who reviewed her gender rather than her books. But for the most part they kept their feminism off the page, focusing upon brutal male characters whose main appeal tended to be their potential for redemption. Anne, however, was far more explicit about her feminism, and she wrote about men who expressed their love in words, rather than by dominating the women in their lives..

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Thursday, 16 January 2014

What Is It About Middlemarch?

The most scathing piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read is an essay, published in 1856, called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” It begins like this:
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these—a composite order of feminine fatuity—that produces the largest class.
The author then describes the many literary offenses these fatuous females commit. They are incompetent at verisimilitude: “Their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” They are as unoriginal, stylewise, as teenage girls cozily wearing one another’s clothes: “The lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow.” They have the audacity to pronounce on important matters, as if “an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions.” Such allegations continue apace, until, eventually, the author provides a Silly Lady Novel recipe: “Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.”

Ladies, lady novelists, all of you: Put down your hackles. This formidable piece of criticism, which makes modern arguments about women and fiction sound like pillow talk; which BuzzFeed and its positive-reviews-only policy would not touch with a 27,000-foot pole; which, placed on one side of a seesaw, would send its opposite number Smarm into the stratosphere—this essay on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists was written by one Mary Ann Evans, better known to the world by her Serious Gentleman Novelist name, George Eliot.

Like much of Eliot’s work, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once. Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal. In hindsight, however, perhaps the most interesting thing Eliot does here is trace out, in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel. Such a novel would represent human beings, in their inner and outer worlds, with nuance and fidelity. Its prose would be bespoke and cleansed of cliché. It would approach life’s knotty moral questions with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. It could not be fatuous, frothy, prosy, pious, or pedantic. It would have to be rich and filling when served hot; it would also have to keep. Fifteen years later, Eliot sat down and wrote it. As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective “best,” which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written. That’s how I felt last month, when, for the third time in my life but the first in more than a decade, I read Middlemarch.

Now that it’s back on the shelf, I won’t stake any claims here about the exact degree of Middlemarch’s greatness. Instead, I want to talk about its goodness. I don’t subscribe to the moral argument for fiction—the idea that great books make us better people. (For one thing, I’m reluctant to defend literature by appeals to its putative ends. For another, the data doesn’t look good. Plenty of reprehensible people love books.) Similarly, fiction that is a moral argument makes me wary, not for any prima facie reason but because it tends to be terrible.

And yet, on both fronts, Eliot hushes me. Middlemarch is forever waxing on about how to be good, and it was written with the explicit goal of making us a little better. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings,” Eliot wrote in an 1859 letter, “is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.”

Harold Bloom, speaking of people who differ from ourselves, was right to note the weirdness of this part of Eliot’s ­project—or rather, the weirdness of it working. She was, he wrote, the only “major novelist, before or since, whose overt ­moralizings constitute an aesthetic virtue rather than a disaster.” Which raises a question: How does she get away with it? And, beyond the basic exhortation to be good, what exactly is it that she wants us to do?

I owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Mead, whose new book, My Life in ­Middlemarch, inspired me to revisit Eliot’s masterpiece. Mead first read ­Middlemarch when she was 17 and found a foothold in it. Eventually, she would climb it through college and coming to New York, through love and its loss, ­thorough parenting and stepparenting, through all the life-stuff that sloshes outside of and into those stages: ambition, frustration, ­loneliness, desire, arguments, intellectual life, aging. Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up ­people.” For Mead, it also turned out to be a book to grow up with. In My Life in Middlemarch, she weaves the story of that private relationship together with biography and literary criticism; the whole, gracefully executed, makes a pleasing aperitif or digestif to Eliot.

As to the main course: The soul of ­Middlemarch belongs to Dorothea Brooke, the intellectually eager, spiritually sincere young woman who marries the much older Edward Casaubon, a vicar forever at work on his unfinished anthropological-theological omnibus, The Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea believes his mind to be similarly omnibus-y, only to learn too late that she has committed her life to a scholar manqué—to, in fact, an everything manqué. “Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame,” Eliot writes, “and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: … it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” Along with Madame Bovary and Medea, Dorothea suffers one of the greatest dreadful marriages in literature.

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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Jerk Reaction - Walter Benjamin

It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.

This quality of compelling elusiveness seems to have existed in Walter Benjamin the person as much as it did in Benjamin the writer. Benjamin’s lifelong friend, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, once wrote the following in his diary:
Basically, [Benjamin is] entirely invisible … He does not communicate himself; he demands that each person see him, although he hides himself. His method is completely unique … it is really the method of revelation … Surely no one since Lao-Tzu has lived this way … There is something in Walter that is boundless, surpassing all order, something that, by expending all its force, aims to order his work. This is in fact the completely anonymous quality [das völlig Namenlos] legitimizing Walter’s work.
There is a mystery in every great writer. What is it that made the writer, a mere human being like the rest of us, into a cipher for something greater? As Scholem wrote, “There is something in Walter that is boundless.” Can we track that boundlessness down? Did it appear in his actual life, in the relationships and experiences that shaped him? Can we touch it, can we wrap our arms around it, this boundless quality, surpassing all order, this completely anonymous quality that legitimized his work?

The desire to answer this question is what will drive the people who love the writings of Walter Benjamin to read the new biography published by Harvard University Press, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. The biography was written by two men, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. They were the men for the job, both having been involved in editing the definitive four-volume English-language edition of Benjamin’s Selected Essays from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Howard Eiland was also the co-translator of Benjamin’s lifelong unfinished poetic-fragmentary history of the birth of Modernity, The Arcades Project. These men know something of Walter Benjamin. They know his thinking. There is no point in writing about the life of Walter Benjamin unless you have labored to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin. And there is no way to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin unless you’ve immersed yourself in his work over long years. Which brings us back to Gershom Scholem’s quote. Can Jennings and Eiland bring Benjamin out of hiding? Can they track down the boundlessness?

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Monday, 13 January 2014

A singular woman - Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner, who is 80, came late to writing. She was 53, a teacher at the Courtauld Institute with a distinguished academic career, when she published her first book, in 1981, the aptly titled A Start in Life. Three years later she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Hotel du Lac. For a long time afterwards Brookner produced a novel a year with clockwork regularity – the first glimmer of summer, a new Brookner – the fruits of what she wrily calls 'displacement activity'. But in recent years her productivity has slowed. Her new novel, Strangers, is the first in four years. Friends, lunch companions, see less of her. There is the unspoken sense that she is withdrawing. Brookner, who once described her ambition as 'to be unnoticed', rarely gives interviews – has not given one, as far as I can tell, for some 12 years.

Everything I had heard about her made her sound formidable. An old acquaintance talked about her intense privacy, and her 'fierce intelligence'. Her habit of abbreviating social engagements is legendary. Appearances at parties were always described as 'fleeting'. Someone who lunched with her from time to time reported that no matter how early they arrived Brookner would be waiting. Lunch would be short. Brookner lives in a mansion block in Kensington; a milieu that is familiar from many of her novels. I was told to present myself at 2.30 'promptly', and after circling the block twice, rang the doorbell at 2.25. There was no answer, nor from her telephone. I waited, unsure what to do. At length, the door cracked open, and Brookner appeared, small, fragile and watchful. How long, I asked, as we ascended in the lift to the first floor, have you lived here?

She sighed. 'Too long.'

Brookner lives alone. She has never married, and the preponderance of disappointed spinsters in her books has inevitably tended to give rise to the assumption that she is that person. 'I feel I could get into The Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,' she remarked in the year she won the Booker. It is only when you meet her that you can hear the dry, amused, worldly tone that must have informed that sentence as she said it.

Her rooms have an elegant, almost austere simplicity. A sofa, an armchair, a coffee table. Along one wall stands a row of bookshelves, lined with well-thumbed volumes of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Proust, a biography of Henry James. Eighteenth-century prints hang on the pale walls. There is an antique television set on spindly legs that looks as if it might pre-date the introduction of colour, never mind digital. There is no sign of any personal imprimatur – photographs, nostalgic bric-a-brac. The abiding impression is of stillness, silence and serious-mindedness. You sense the absence of visitors. She offers coffee from a cafetiere, and seats herself on the sofa: immaculately dressed; perfectly contained in her movements, a woman of impeccable manners and propriety.

'You will find yourself babbling,' Julian Barnes, an old friend of Brookner's, cautioned me before I met her. 'One of the most remarkable things about her is that her conversation has perfect punctuation, so that you hear every colon and semi-colon; and this makes you aware that your own grammar in spoken English is very sloppy. It's not a deliberate trick to make you feel uneasy; it's simply how she is.' And Barnes is right. Brookner answers questions with the utmost precision and, often, the utmost brevity, with nothing more than a word or sentence or two. In her bearing, her manner and her conversation there is nothing about her that is superfluous.

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Saturday, 11 January 2014

The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

The desk at which Hilary Mantel writes is pushed up against a window with a view out to sea. The sea isn’t in the distance, spotted between hills. It’s there, almost at her doorstep, the shingle beach just across the road. To write, she sits at her computer facing the large window and the sea can fill her vision. It’s the kind of view that swallows time. There is no sign of human life; nothing except waves and clouds. On her computer desktop, Mantel has put an image: a photograph of the view from her window. “It reminds me to actually look up from the screen,” she says.

Every summer, there is a music festival in Bud­leigh Salterton, Devon. From the flat where she lives with her husband, Gerald McEwen, Mantel can walk along the beach into town in ten minutes or so. Last year, once she’d realised that she was writing not one, not two, but three books about Thomas Cromwell, once she’d realised that the second was going to end with Anne Boleyn’s beheading, once the title – Bring Up the Bodies – had struck her as she wrote the words (it echoes the Tower of London order to bring the accused to trial), once she had told her publishers that they’d have a second instalment sooner than they’d thought (you can imagine their fists punching the air), once they had told her that they wanted to publish in the spring of 2012, Mantel began to write.

This was not writing that can be identified as writing in the ordinary sense: spasmodic, agonised, write-delete-write-delete. These were eight-, ten-, 12-hour days, marathons of prose, a 400-page book written in five months, between May and September 2011. (Don’t be encouraged. The words spilled only because Mantel had done long, professorial research into her subject. She first had the idea for a book about Thomas Cromwell in her mid-twenties; she had read everything – all the books, all the books about the books and all the original sources; she filled red Chinese chests with meticulous notes and cards and folders of information. She checked every fact, every source, every date, every letter, every name. Her Cromwell books are a combination of wild imagining and unimpeachable accuracy.)

One of her few distractions from writing was going to concerts at the music festival or going for walks along the beach: “I wasn’t really listening to the music, but listening to what was going on in my head and walking along the seafront home with my head feeling as if it was wobbling with the weight of ideas and voices inside it and then coming and sitting down at my desk to catch it all down.”

Budleigh Salterton: population 5,000, mostly elderly. It’s a town of gift shops and mobility scooters. For Mantel, perfection. On a walk through the town she stops to pet a pug and tells its owner about the pugs she once had, how much she loves the breed. At a restaurant, a man comes to the table to tell her how an article she wrote has resonated with him. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she says, smiling. The people are congenial here, she says. No one has the vulgarity to ask her how the next book is going.

Mantel first saw Budleigh’s roofs from a cliff­top when she was 16. She was escaping at the time. Along the coast, in Exmouth, her family was on holiday in a caravan, cooped up and crabby. She went for a walk along the coastal path and saw the town below her, houses falling down the hillside, and it imprinted itself on her mind as the place where she would live if she could live anywhere in the world. It became her idea of exotic, of Europe, the white houses by the sea. “I remember when I went back to school that year, telling people about it – they were all very sniffy because they were much more moneyed and sophisticated girls. They said, when you’ve been abroad you won’t think anything of a place like this. But even when I’d been abroad very extensively, it was still in my head and actually I can see why now, because” – she points through the living-room window, perhaps to where she stood as a teenager – “if you are up on the cliffs there looking at the view you’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful spot anywhere.”

Mantel, born the eldest of three in 1952, spent her early years living in the village of Hadfield, in northern Derbyshire, surrounded by grandparents, parents, great-aunts, cousins. The first jolt was a move to a modern house, up the hill in Brosscroft. The second was more disruptive. One day when she was six, a man called Jack Mantel moved in. Her father, Henry, a clerk, didn’t leave. The family lived like that, an awkward, unspoken configuration of three children and three adults, until the shunning of the villagers moved them on to a small town in Cheshire, leaving behind all those relations and Henry, who she never saw again. She even took Jack’s surname.

Mantel was desperate to grow up and get out (her principal recollection of childhood is about how little it suited her). In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she recalls a pair of curtains from the family home. Their pattern was, self-referentially, windows, but not the kind of windows she knew from Hadfield or Brosscroft. They were Mediterranean windows, with colourful blinds and pots of flowers, windows that were used to the sun shining through them, warming the house. Many years later, Mantel told her mother about how she often fantasised about living behind those windows. “My mother turned away, so that I couldn’t see her face. She whispered, and I, oh so did I.”

It took a long time for Mantel to return to Budleigh, to this town of her dreams on the south coast of Devon, to a top-floor flat with windows looking out to sea. At last, she is here. “I don’t think I’ll ever want to move on from here, because what could replace it?”

This is a strange, suspended moment. Two books of a trilogy down, one to go. Mantel can’t wait to write it, but such is the success of the first two books that the demands on her time are overwhelming. There is no possibility of immersion, those sucked-under days or head-wobbling beach walks. For years, says her agent Bill Hamilton, Mantel said yes to every invitation to speak, every festival, every opportunity to promote one of her books, but the books never quite took off. Her subjects were odd and unpredictable: an 18th-century Irish giant, moor-dwelling nuns, a suburban social worker, performing psychics, Norfolk missionaries, 800 pages on the French Revolution. It took Henry VIII to usher her into the light.

She is aware – how could she not be – of how her readers have swollen in number. Before the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, she says, she could stand by a pile of her own books at a signing and go unrecognised. Now new readers write to her – after Wolf Hall many complained: it was confusing, ambiguous; why was the protagonist referred to as “he”? The novelist Amanda Craig wrote in this magazine that it was “one of those novels you either loved or hated. I belonged to the latter camp.” Craig, though a fan of both Mantel’s earlier work and Bring Up the Bodies, says now that she found Wolf Hall “attention-seeking . . . the combination of the historic present and the lack of clarity, the word ‘he’ – it gets in the way”. (Craig also says that she felt like a lone voice when she expressed her reservations, and was rounded on by friends in the literary world though many readers support her views. “People would just not say anything bad about this book; there was a great push for her to win.”)

Mantel wondered if she was being too demanding. But then she thought that to adjust her style in any way would be not only a loss, but patronising (“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”). Some will be lost along the way, but she doesn’t mind. “It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.”

She can sound arrogant, Mantel, assured of her abilities and candid about them in a way that seems peculiarly un-English. But even the arrogance is purposeful. It is one of her pieces of advice to young authors: cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities. She was patronised for years by male critics who deemed her work domestic and provincial (one, writing about A Place of Greater Safety – the French 800-pager – dwelt on a brief mention of wallpaper). So she makes no apologies for her self-belief.

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Notes from Underground - Ivan Klima

Ivan Klíma, the prolific and irrepressible Czech novelist, essayist, and playwright, belongs to the remarkable cohort of Czech writers and artists who came to the world’s attention in the 1960s and went on to produce some of their best work in the following two decades, either in exile or in conditions of heavy repression at home. They included people of formidable talent but wildly different temperaments, among them Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and many others not as well known abroad but of no less importance in the revival of culture and politics they helped to bring about.

In retrospect, there is something improbable and even astonishing about the very existence of this group. Its appearance coincided with the brutal imposition on Czechoslovakia of Soviet communism, a system not known for encouraging free expression in the arts or anywhere else. Yet in the first two decades of communism, from 1948 to 1968, they managed to find their feet as artists and establish reputations at home, while mostly eluding the regime’s strenuous efforts to bind them to its cause. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, their work began to appear in print and on the stage and screen. The growing excitement they created eventually found political expression in the reforms of the Prague Spring of 1968, but by that summer, the pressure for change was beginning to undermine the authority of the Communist Party and the Soviets moved in with tanks and troops to stop it.

That invasion was the beginning of another two decades of repression, euphemistically referred to as “normalization.” Almost all of the main figures in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s were treated as nonpersons and their works were suppressed. Some of them, like Škvorecký, Kundera, Kohout, and Forman, emigrated to the West. Others, like Havel, Vaculík, and Klíma, remained behind and, despite constant harassment and, for some, imprisonment, found the inner strength to keep working. In doing so, they once again created an epicenter of change.

Ivan Klíma’s My Crazy Century is the most extensive autobiography of a member of this extraordinary generation yet to appear in English. (Havel’s presidential memoirs, To the Castle and Back, and his earlier book-length interview, Disturbing the Peace, cover only portions of his life.) First published in two volumes running to almost a thousand pages in Czech and somewhat abridged in Craig Cravens’s precise and elegant translation, the book chronicles Klíma’s life and times, from his first childhood memories (he was born in Prague in 1931) through his early adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp, his youthful struggles to become a writer in the Stalinist 1950s and the post-Stalinist 1960s, his work as an editor in several important literary magazines, his engagement in the Prague Spring, his sojourns abroad, in England, Israel, and the US, his voluntary return into the long night of normalization, and his activities as a dissident writer in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the return of political freedom to Czechoslovakia.

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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Doris Lessing's London diary

An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive out past him at a couple of yards’ distance, but none of them ever recognised him: they simply didn’t see him because he was wearing different clothes. And it was the same with the workmen who saw him every day in his capacity as boss. One of them did once remark that he could swear he “knew his face from somewhere”. My friend, torn apart by this Jekyll and Hyde existence, tried to explain, but the man would not believe him.

***

The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau – he fits her much better than those boys she used to pick up at the Palais. She tried out seven applicants before she found one to suit. But marriage bureaux work in more devious ways than perhaps they know.

I once lived in the next room to a girl, waitress at Lyons, who was in love with the manager of the restaurant across the street. He had been playing her up, so she decided to make him jealous. She visited the bureau demanding “a handsome dark man, aged 25, five foot ten”. The lady at the bureau was distressed at Betty’s frivolous attitude, even came to visit her at home so as to explain that happy wedlock did not depend on good looks. Betty was tolerant about this, conceding that she meant well. Meanwhile, handsome dark young men came to tea with Betty on those afternoons when Steven the manager was due to pass by. Everyone’s plans miscarried. Steven was jealous, but too much so: Betty turned him down because she couldn’t be happy with a man as unreasonable as all that. Two of the bureau’s candidates took to her, but she couldn’t fully take to men who had to go through an office to find themselves girls. She married a boy she had known since childhood – tall, dark and extremely handsome, but because, she said, she was “used to him”.

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Monday, 6 January 2014

The reluctant patriot: how George Orwell reconciled himself with England

Since whoever we are (save for a few sad Leninists) we all agree with George Orwell, it usually follows that Orwell must agree with us. Whatever our 21st-century predilections, Tory or leftist, conservative or progressive, we discover blessings and endorsements somewhere in Orwell’s words. We grab him for ourselves.

In English Rebel, Professor Robert Colls grabs Orwell for an idea of national affiliation. Colls offsets his attempt by disclaiming any such ambition. “There is no ‘key’ to Orwell,” he writes at the end of his introduction, “any more than he is a ‘box’ to open. His Englishness, though, is worth following through.” A modest grab, then – and, as we shall see, a good grab. But a grab nonetheless.

George Orwell was, argues Colls, “deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.

Except, eventually, to England – not Brit­ain, says Colls, which was too abstract an identity, but England. Between coming back from Burma in the late 1920s and the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, Orwell came to understand, and wanted to defend, the peculiar virtues of Englishness as understood and practised by “ordinary” English people. Bluff wisdom resided in the folk of England – whose gentleness and stoicism presumably distinguished them from alien intellectuals and alien peoples. The socialism of Orwell can be moot, Colls suggests, but his Englishness is the most real part of him.

There are several ways in which – quite apart from the success or otherwise of Colls’s thesis – this book is a kind of Orwellian triumph. Colls is a lovely writer, who is fearless in a way that academics too often are not. He is happy to subvert clichés, make little speeches and is willing to permit useful generalisations. A sentence such as the following, concerning Orwell’s class, takes a lot of risks for a good return: “The English class system, home or away, was an exercise in fine weights and measures which only a haunted class like the middle class could understand.”

Colls is full of learning and insight, and is happy to borrow (with attribution) from the wisdom of others. So he endorses Ross McKibbin’s idea that the true beginning of the short triumph of British (and therefore English) “popular left politicisation” was not in 1944 0r 1945, but in 1940 when Winston Churchill proclaimed the republic of blood, toil, sweat and tears.

Before the Second World War altered the world for Orwell, he had returned from exile in Burma, been down and out in the two capitals, written a bad novel and taken himself off to the north of England – where he discovered the working classes. The first part of The Road to Wigan Pier is the travelogue of a southern writer in the northern land, the middle-class boy in the proletarian world.

This might have been an exercise in slumming it (Harry Pollitt, the Communist Party leader and himself a working-class boy, accused Orwell of just that) but it was one for which very few other writers volunteered. “Unlike nearly every London journalist there is (and has been)”, Colls writes, Orwell understood what back-to-back housing was. All I can say is: “Guilty” – perhaps because generations of us could not understand how anyone could build anything so stupid or wicked.

Colls credits Orwell for the effort but, just as Orwell later does for Dickens, not always for the result. Orwell’s workers, he points out, have no pleasures, no organisations, no spokespeople, heroes or political parties.

Orwell finished The Road to Wigan Pier with some thoughts about socialism; and then, nine months after coming back from the north, he left for Spain. Why he did so is rather beyond Colls’s scope, as is almost anything to do with Orwell and Abroad – save for Spain, where Orwell discovers how bloody Abroad can be and how ideology can make people suffer. But, more importantly, he realises that there are great lies being told and obfuscations being made, mostly by the Stalinists. After that (this is me, not Colls), lies and obfuscation become the real enemy. Without them, something may be done. With them, nothing good can happen.

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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Julian Barnes on the late, great Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald liked to begin her late novels with quiet acts of indirection. The first sentence of The Blue Flower contains a disrupting double negative; The Beginning of Spring opens with a character leaving the very city where most of the book's action is going to take place. We are being put on our guard, politely warned not to take things for granted. But neither of these novels begins in as apparently wrong-footing a way as Innocence. Though the novel is to be set in Florence in 1955, its first chapter plants us back in mid-16th-century Italy, at the Villa Ricordanza, inhabited by the Ridolfis, a family of aristocratic midgets. The Ridolfis dote on their young daughter, and so practise many kindly deceptions to convince her that her genetic condition, far from being a handicap, is not even an aberration. She is surrounded only by those the same size as herself, and is never allowed to leave the villa to discover the truths of the outside world. She is also provided with a female companion, Gemma, a dwarf (as opposed to a midget), whom she pities, and then pities the more when a sudden spurt of growth occurs. Poor girl, about to become a giantess, a freak, and to have to face this fact … and so the daughter, who has "a compassionate heart", comes up with a solution for Gemma, as well-meaning in its intent as it is ghoulishly cruel in its actuality.

After these first four pages, we suddenly jump four centuries to the modern world, by which time the descendants of that Ridolfi family have become normal-sized and are nowadays eccentric only in socially acceptable ways. So were we just being presented with a colourful backstory, an attention-grabbing anecdote from the guide book? Not at all. That genetic aberration of the Ridolfis may have been fixed over the succeeding centuries, but there are other family characteristics, less physical than moral, that have survived:

"No more midgets among them now. Still a tendency towards rash decisions, perhaps, always intended to ensure other people's happiness, once and for all. It seems an odd characteristic to survive for so many years. Perhaps it won't do so for much longer."

Innocence is a book about the law of unintended consequences; about bad outcomes of good intentions; about the unexpected power of the guileless; about the pursuit of happiness, and our assumption that happiness might be the natural, indeed deserved, result of love. It is also about the strange manner in which love may arise, the inconvenient ways it may express itself, and its often awkward repercussions. These are large and meaty themes, though it is characteristic of Fitzgerald that their presence grows on our awareness slowly, even furtively. Just as she thought it bad literary manners to overburden the reader with too much information or research, so the real heart and purpose of her fiction are often camouflaged. Note, for instance, the double use of "perhaps" in the quotation above, as if the author were saying: perhaps I've got it wrong and this isn't the case at all, and anyway, perhaps you are the better judge of my story than I am.

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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy Birthday, “O Pioneers!” - Willa Cather

In the old days, women writers tended to start their careers late, and I’ll bet that, on average, they still do. When I was young, people trying to encourage us held up the example of George Eliot, whose first novel, “Adam Bede,” was published when she was almost forty. Later, we learned a more amazing story, that of Penelope Fitzgerald, who started publishing fiction at the age of nearly sixty and, before dying at eighty-three, brought out nine novels and had a brilliant career. She won the Man Booker Prize.

Another member of this group was Willa Cather (1873-1947), from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the daughter of a small-time insurance agent with five children and no money. Somehow Cather managed to go to college, and to become a writer, of small things: reviews, stories. By her thirties, she had acquired a very good job, as the managing editor of McClure’s, an important New York magazine. She got to go to Europe and meet famous writers. But secretly she herself wanted to be a writer. She was sure she could not be. The most honored novelist of that time, the nineteen-tens, was Henry James: refined, complicated, urban. Cather, meanwhile, was still kicking the dust of Red Cloud off her shoes. Finally, at thirty-seven, in what must have been a wrenching act of courage, she took a leave from McClure’s and wrote a novel, “Alexander’s Bridge.” It was in the manner of James, and it was a dud, as she knew from the moment it was published.

A crucial difference, I think, between successful and unsuccessful artists is the ability to survive disappointment. Logically, after the failure of “Alexander’s Bridge,” Cather should have given up. She had always figured she couldn’t make it as a novelist. Here, apparently, was the proof. But for some reason that no one has ever been able to explain, she immediately sat down and wrote a second novel, “O Pioneers!,” which obeyed the fiction-writing-workshop dictum “Write what you know.” The subjects of “Alexander’s Bridge”—fashionable people drinking tea and committing adultery—were matters of which Cather knew nothing. She had made it all up, out of books. What she knew was European peasants, in soiled clothes, moving to the Great Plains via the Homestead Act and trying to establish farms on land covered with tall, fibrous, seemingly ineradicable prairie grass.

“O Pioneers!” concerns Swedish immigrants. We see their plight in the very first words of the novel:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.… The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.
The wind blew under the houses. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz.” As the first chapter opens, a five-year-old boy, Emil Bergson, is crying his eyes out. He and his older sister—Alexandra, twenty years old—have come into town to get supplies. Alexandra dotes on Emil, and she let him bring his kitten with him. Now, a dog has chased the kitten up a telegraph pole, where she is freezing, but she won’t come down. A friend of Alexandra’s, Carl Linstrum, hikes up the pole and rescues the kitten. Other animals in “O Pioneers!” are not so lucky, nor are the human beings.

Soon after the beginning of the novel, Alexandra’s father, age forty-six, dies. His struggle with his homestead had been brutal: one year, he lost his pigs to cholera. The next year, his cattle froze to death in a blizzard. Two sons died. What remained to him were three boys and Alexandra. He wished that she, too, had been a boy, because she seemed to him the only one smart enough to save the farm. (One of the boys, Oscar, is a blockhead; another, Lou, is flighty; the third, Emil, the one with the kitten, is a child.) Alexandra does not feel up to the task. Watching her father die, she wishes in her heart that the whole family could die with him, and “let the grass grow back over everything.” But by the end of the novel, she has domesticated, and enlarged, the property. In the process, she has lost her gaiety and her femininity. Oscar and Lou resent the fact that she, a female, is the one who runs the farm, and they chide her for being unwomanly. (We should give a thought, here, to what must have been the ambivalence that Cather, a manly woman, felt about how well she managed McClure’s.) Alexandra is stung by her brothers’ remarks: “I certainly didn’t choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take a vine and cut it back and back again, it grows hard, like a tree.”

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