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Showing posts from August, 2014

The pathos of Stefan Zweig and his overdue revival

The careers of Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin offer a contrast so perfect as to become almost a parable. The two writers were contemporaries—Benjamin was born in 1892, Zweig in 1881—and both operated in the same German literary ecosystem, though Benjamin was from Berlin and Zweig from Vienna. Both reached their height of productivity and reputation during the Weimar Republic, and as Jews both were forbidden from publishing in Germany once Hitler took power. And both ended darkly as suicides: Benjamin took his life in 1940 while trying to flee from France to Spain, and Zweig died a year and a half later in Brazil, where he sought refuge after unhappy sojourns in England and America.Yet the similarities end with their biographies. As writers, they could not have been more different, and their literary destinies were exact opposites. Zweig flourished during his lifetime, enjoying huge sales of his psychologically charged novels and his popular historical biographies. Born with a fortun…

Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance

Those who continue to harp on the inevitable decline of the novel ought to hold off for a while. The unique task of the genre, after all, is truthfulness to human experience in all its variety, and thanks to the great migrations of population in our time, human variety is to be found in replenished abundance all around us. The displacements, comminglings and clashings of peoples and cultures have released new energies, strange pollens; indeed, the harvest has barely begun.Consider Rohinton Mistry, a Parsi, born in Bombay in 1952, who has lived in Canada since 1975. His first book was a widely praised collection of stories, "Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag." It was followed by the novel "Such a Long Journey," which received the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book of 1991. His third book, "A Fine Balance," defies easy categorization. Calling it a domestic novel would not be altogether amiss, provided one added: a domestic novel th…

Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway wrote the first letter in this collection when he was twenty-three, the last when he was twenty-six. In these three years, living mostly in Paris, he fathered his first child, grew disenchanted with his first wife and took up with his second, quit his first job as a reporter, published his first three collections of stories and poems, wrote his first two novels, saw his first bullfight, and began transforming himself from a writer who conveyed inward experience in all its anxious detachment “so that…you actually experience the thing” into an aficionado who praised strength and bravery in “people that by their actual physical conduct gave you a real feeling of admiration.” He also began inviting that kind of admiration for himself. By the end of the book, the avant-garde disciple of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, collecting rejection slips from little magazines, was already remaking himself as Papa Hemingway, celebrated everywhere for plain-style toughness.This volume,…

Poetic License - Vikram Seth

Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth talks fast, thinks fast and moves fast. His conversation is a machine-gun spray of energy and velocity: one moment he's interrupting his own sentences; the next he's contradicting himself or going back to something he said earlier. It's an infinite play of distraction and digression and diversion .His third novel is about to go to press, and Seth is in the harried, final push to make last-minute corrections and revisions. That amplifies the pressure in his high-rise, light-filled London flat, which, in the current rush, has the curious feel of an encampment. The occasional mess spills over on a table or chair, but the rooms appear oddly unoccupied. The phone rings incessantly.On the floor, stargazer lilies, red and pink mums, small white blossoms and purple poppylike blooms overflow the edges of a vase. An elegant handwritten note is attached: "Sorry for the misunderstanding -- Stella.""I don't know any Stellas, and I…

EM Forster: 'But for Masood, I might never have gone to India'

Most writers battle with periods of being blocked; it's almost an occupational hazard. But in the writing of his last and greatest novel, A Passage to India, EM Forster got stuck for nine years. Now that is unusual. The book took him 11 years in total to complete, which means the actual physical work – setting the words down on the page – lasted two years. All the rest was hesitation.

What tripped him up so badly? We may never know. There were two areas of his life, physical intimacy and writing, which Forster kept highly private. For the rest, his diaries and letters are full of self-examination, giving the impression of somebody free with his emotions. But he shared his sexual secrets with very few people, and in his journals he usually recorded such matters in a very oblique way. His writing he hardly mentions at all.At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1…

Robert Graves: Peace

When that glad day shall break to match“Before-the-War” with “Since-the-Peace”,And up I climb to twist new thatchAcross my cottage roof, while geeseStand stiffly there below and vexThe yard with hissing from long necks,In that immense release,That shining day, shall we hear said:“New wars to-morrow, more men dead”?When peace time comes and horror’s over,Despair and darkness like a dream,When fields are ripe with corn and clover,The cool white dairy full of cream,Shall we work happily in the sun,And think “It’s over now and done”,Or suddenly shall we seemTo watch a second bristling shadowOf armed men move across the meadow?Will it be over once for all,With no more killed and no more maimed;Shall we be safe from terror’s thrall,The eagle caged, the lion tamed;Or will the young of that vile brood,The young ones also, suck up bloodUnconquered, unashamed,Rising again with lust and thirst?Better we all had died at first,Better that killed before our prime We rotted deep in earthy slime.This…

Bohumil Hrabal’s forest chronicles

These first English translations, based on original manuscripts, of two books by Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) mark the hundredth anniversary of the Czech master’s birth. Both date from the years of so-called normalization that followed the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Two freshly printed Hrabal titles were destroyed in 1970, he was banned from publishing anything new, and his latest works were circulated only in samizdat form. Then, in January 1975, Hrabal expressed what was widely interpreted as his support for the regime in an interview for the official cultural weekly Tvorba. The dissidents called him a whore and some burnt his books, but he achieved his aim of getting new books published. Many of the stories now translated in Rambling On: An apprentice’s guide to the gift of the gab first appeared in Slavnosti snéženek (1978; The Snowdrop Festival), while Harlekýnovy milióny(Harlequin’s Millions) was published in 1981. 

Both texts were brought before Czech readers in co…

A hero for our times - Albert Camus

La Peste, Albert Camus's fable of the coming of the plague to the North African city of Oran, was published in 1947, when Camus was 33. It was an immediate triumph. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages, with many more to come. It has never been out of print and was established as a classic of world literature even before its author's untimely death in a car accident in January 1960. More ambitious than L'Etranger, the first novel that established his reputation, and more accessible than his later writings, The Plague (La Peste) is the book by which Camus is known to millions of readers.Today, The Plague takes on fresh significance. Camus's insistence on placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our own age. His definition of heroism - ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency - rings truer than we might once have acknowledged.His depiction of instan…