Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Assistant by Robert Walser

“I contemplated pride and love. All this contemplativeness. When will I be free of it?”
—Robert Walser, 1926
Robert Walser is admired today mostly for his short prose pieces, which originally appeared as entertaining feuilleton in Swiss and German newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is said that Kafka would search the paper for Walser’s stories and read them aloud to friends. But Walser also wrote novels. Only four have survived, and until now just two, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber, have been available in English. So it is with considerable delight that Walser’s small but passionate readership will greet the arrival in English of The Assistant (Der Gehülfe).
Written in 1907 and based closely on Walser’s own experiences, The Assistant tells the story of a young man’s six-month stint as assistant to a fledgling inventor. Joseph Marti, 24 years of age, has spent an unhappy time living hand-to-mouth in the capital (unnamed, but presumably Zurich). When the employment bureau suggests a position in the technical offices of Carl Tobler, Joseph accepts.
Previously a factory worker, Tobler has used an inheritance to set himself up as an entrepreneurial inventor. Tobler is a mercurial, generous boss and welcomes Joseph into his little family circle; Joseph revels in his new position and in the comforts of the Tobler family home, located less than an hour outside of the capital.
But all is not well with the Tobler enterprise. Joseph isn’t being paid. Nor, soon enough, are the inventor’s suppliers, nor his gardener, nor his wife’s dressmaker, nor the power company, nor the town merchants. As beautiful summer turns to fall and then winter, Joseph’s responsibilities shift exclusively to responding to duns and fending off unwelcome visitors. The novel tracks Tobler’s decline from self-respecting citizen to desperate debtor and the impact of that decline on all the members of the Tobler household.
The Assistant is nearly twice as long as Jakob or Robber and in fact bears a surprising resemblance to the larger, fashionable tomes written by Walser’s more successful contemporaries such as Mann or Hamsun. (Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which also deals with the decline of a family business, appeared just seven years before The Assistant, and is probably a work Walser knew well.) The Assistant displays a distinctly Mannian eye for human weakness; take, for example, the case of Joseph’s predecessor, Wirsich, who was sacked for drunkenness. One afternoon after Joseph is installed at the villa, Wirsich returns, accompanied by his mother, to meet with Tobler and determine whether he might be reinstated. The awkwardness of the meeting, Wirsich’s attempts to save face, and the sadness of Wirsich and his mother as they depart for home are affectingly rendered. A few months later, Joseph encounters a reformed Wirsich, who proudly announces that he has found a new position. Together they repair together to an inn to celebrate with a glass of beer. A month later, Joseph learns that Wirsich has lost this new job, too.
Also worthy of Mann is Tobler’s daughter Silvi, an awkward creature who has never earned the love of her family. To Joseph’s horror, Silvi is routinely beaten and confined by the housekeeper, Pauline, while the family looks on unconcerned. “Wherever there are children,” Walser writes, “there will always be injustice.”
But while Walser’s second novel is more conventional than his later books, it also bears his unique stamp. The Assistant is enlivened with Walser’s characteristically florid descriptions of the natural and urban landscape:
What days these were, wet and stormy, and yet there was still something magical about them. All at once the living room became so melancholy and cozy. The damp and cold out of doors made the rooms more hospitable. They had already begun lighting the heating stoves. The yellow and red leaves burned and gleamed feverishly through the foggy gray of the landscape. The red of the cherry tree’s leaves had something incandescent and aching and raw about it, but at the same time it was beautiful and brought peace and cheer to those who saw it. Often the entire countryside of meadows and trees appeared to be wrapped in veils and damp cloths, above and below and in the distance and close at hand everything was gray and wet. You strode through all of this as if through a gloomy dream. And yet even this weather and this particular sort of world expressed a secret gaiety. You could smell the trees you were walking beneath, and hear ripe fruit dropping in the meadows and on the path. Everything seemed to have become doubly and triply quiet. All the sounds seemed to be sleeping, or afraid to ring out. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the slow exhalations of foghorns could be heard across the lake, exchanging warning signals off in the distance and announcing the presence of boats. They sounded like the plaintive cries of helpless animals.
Walser’s playfulness is also present, albeit in shadow. Tobler’s inventions, for example, range from the practical (a chair for invalids) to the preposterous (a vending machine that dispenses bullets). Tobler’s own favorite is called the “Advertising Clock,” a timepiece affixed with eagle wings on which paid advertisements can be displayed.1 The doomed contraption becomes a symbol of Tobler’s ill-fated venture, and, in Joseph’s mind, almost a living thing:
The Advertising Clock is sprawled on the ground in defeat, wailing for a bit of solvent capital. Go to it and give it your support so that it may gradually, one limb at a time, rise up again and successfully imprint itself on people’s opinions and judgments once and for all—a task that is worthy, if you will, of your mental abilities, and useful to boot.
Here also, although less evident than in his mature fictions, is the familiar self-undercutting narrator:
But why had Tobler moved here in the first place? What was it that had inspired him to choose this region as his domicile? The following somewhat unclear account seeks to address these questions.
In theme as well, the book reflects Walser’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between masters and workers. It would reemerge the following year in Jakob, his best-known and arguably most perfect novel, and again nearly twenty years later in his essay “Masters and Workers” (1926). As Walser knew, the master’s position depended paradoxically on the consent of the worker, for what is a master without a subordinate? What appears as social fact is in reality a delicate equilibrium only maintained by avoiding injury to the pride of either the ruler or the ruled. Pride also fuels Tobler’s ill-fated efforts, but it is a fragile quantity that wife and worker must labor to preserve. No doubt Walser enjoyed the irony in the fact that Joseph, working without a salary, serves as Tobler’s de facto benefactor.
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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Conversations with John le Carré

I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead, Britain, his books and films, my legal cases), reflecting on the state of the world and his appearance at the Hay Festival earlier this summer, where I had interviewed him. “I do think we live in most extraordinary period of history,” he says now. “The fact that we feel becalmed is the element that is most terrifying, the second-rate quality of leadership, the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour.”

The exceedingly rare public appearance at Hay (“my swansong”, he told a delighted audience, although I didn’t really believe it) had been preceded by two lengthy lunches, as he is meticulous in preparation. It coincided with the publication of his latest novel, A Delicate Truth , as well as the 50th anniversary of his third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which brought fame and liberation from a life in the British intelligence services. In the course of a relaxed performance – what Peter Florence, the festival’s director, described as “an extraordinary combination of gracious wit and political savagery” – the audience obtained an insight into the complexities and depth of the man described by The New York Times as one of “the finest writers alive”.

I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago, at my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. Our first conversation was coloured by the unfolding disaster in Iraq and allegations of detainee abuse. We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives. The relationship is forged on the anvil of those post-9/11 issues, events that reset the national debate on the relationship between the individual and the state. They are matters on which we share a strong interest. A central spine of le Carré’s work – reflected in 23 novels written over five decades – is the responsibility of the individual who faces a fork in the road, required to take a decision that will have morally dubious consequences. My own work, in which he shows considerable interest despite certain reservations (“I have a great distrust of lawyers,” he has repeatedly and pointedly told me), largely focuses on the flip side of his concerns, the rights of the individual.

Over the years, we have not lacked in matters to engage. This is the age of national security and liberty, a constant debate about balance that often turns around the role of the intelligence services. Our interest is mutually self-serving: he might ask me to review a draft that raises a legal point, I might seek his opinion on a matter that draws on his former life in “the secret world”, as he calls it, or on his life’s experience. He is wise and his life, I have come to appreciate, has been informed by a very particular past.

Le Carré believes that the credit balance of the writer is his childhood, citing Graham Greene. By this standard, le Carré was an early millionaire. He was born in 1931, in Dorset, to a family that he celebrates despite (or perhaps because of) its manifest dysfunctionality. With a largely absent mother, his father became the central figure in his early life. Ronnie Cornwell was “seriously bent”, volatile, a convicted fraudster, yet also “exotic, amusing” and lovable. He avoided military service during the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, an Independent Progressive. The postwar period offered Ronnie a goldmine of shady activity, allowing his son to enter maturity in an unpredictable environment populated by racehorses and Bentleys, passing from St Moritz to the Savoy Grill in the company his father kept, which included the Kray twins (“lovely boys”, his aunt called them).

For an observant son, Ronnie offered a rich seam from which to tap on matters of human weakness and moral complexity, or deceit and counter-play. You only need to read A Perfect Spy, published in 1986 and hailed by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war”, to understand the full extent of the interplay between life and art; a great number of the anecdotes he shared with the Hay audience as tales from his life feature in the novel.

He’s not starry-eyed about Ronnie, well aware of the dark side of a “brutalised” and violent man who did time under tough conditions (a thought that remains painful to le Carré), and whose behaviour caused his mother to leave the household and her five-year-old son and his older brother for good. This is a matter of lifelong regret (“a motherless household doesn’t seem like a childhood at all,” he says, “just immersion in life”). He recognises, too, that the circumstances of his childhood informed his view of women, often portrayed in his early works as “angels or whores, people who came and went, couldn’t be trusted”. The views about women have changed, he says, largely because of his “amazingly loyal wives”. First Ann, who he met on a jaunt to St Moritz with his father when he was 17. They married in 1954 and had three sons. The partnership, which didn’t thrill Ronnie, who’d have preferred a more subordinate woman (“although he would have had a dab at her himself if he could”), lasted until 1971. A year later he married Jane, intelligent, engaging and protective, and they have one son. He and Jane are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble.

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Friday, 24 October 2014

William Butler Yeats: The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Chetan Bhagat: Not the best but the bestselling writer

He admits he may not be in the same league as the literary greats of India when it comes to fiction, but he has revamped the concept of 'bestsellers'. This, says novelist Chetan Bhagat, is because his stories are written for Indians.

The 40-year-old was interacting with the alumni and students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi in the first 'Distinguished Alumni Lecture' series here Saturday evening.

During the hour-long lecture on 'From Institute to Bollywood', the author of the bestseller "Five Point Someone" that was adapted into the blockbuster movie "Three Idiots", spoke about how by listening to his inner self he embarked on a journey that changed the course of his life.

"When my first novel came in 2004, there was a different literary landscape in India. It was the time when many young people were learning to speak in English for better job prospects," said Bhagat.

"I know that I am not the best writer in India, but I am the bestselling writer because I write for the people of my country. I write in the language they understand and converse with them through this," he added.

The entire conversation turned out to be a light-hearted evening for the audience, which applauded, giggled and laughed at Bhagat's impeccable sense of humour. The audience could associate with Bhagat's nostalgic references to the culture, the girls' attitude towards IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) boys and the daring things he did during his stint at the institute.

He advised them to be more adaptive in life because "brilliance is not just enough to survive in this world".

"You have to realise that adapting is winning. Being smarter or intelligent is not enough in this world. How many times do we see a brilliant man heading a company? Then we look at them and wonder: 'Our fundas (basics) were better than his, but why aren't we there?' So, be more than what you are," said the author.

Bhagat, in his many interviews, has maintained that he isn't writing to win literary prizes but is using writing as a tool to teach English and make people read books written in simple English.

Even his latest novel "Half Girlfriend" is the love story of a non-English speaking Bihari boy and a Delhi girl. Through this 'language divide', he is not just narrating a tale, but reaching out to mofussil India that aspires to "speak flawless English" to find societal acceptance.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

How Stoical Was Seneca?

In AD 65, the elderly philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was forced to commit suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero. He had once been the emperor’s tutor and adviser, though he had withdrawn into retirement when the true character of Nero’s reign became clear, and he had recently become rather too closely involved with an unsuccessful coup (quite how closely, we shall never know). He must have been expecting the knock on the door.
The knock came from the captain of a troop of praetorian guardsmen who had stationed themselves around Seneca’s house, just outside Rome. Ironically, the captain himself was also involved in the planned coup, but had decided to follow the emperor’s orders in order to save his own skin (“he was now adding to the crimes he had conspired to avenge,” as the Roman historian Tacitus tersely put it). After a brief interrogation, Seneca was told to end his own life, which he did only with great difficulty. He severed his arteries, but he was so old and emaciated that the blood hardly escaped; so he asked for the hemlock that he had stashed away for just that purpose, but that had little effect either. He died only when his slaves carried him into a hot bath and he suffocated in the steam.
While all this was going on, he had been offering words of encouragement to the friends who happened to be dining with him when the praetorians arrived (he was bequeathing to them, he claimed, the only thing he had left, and the best: “the image of his own life,”imago vitae suae); and he had been dictating to his secretaries, for future circulation, some last philosophical thoughts. His final words were to offer a libation to “Jupiter the Liberator.”
So Tacitus—probably the most acute analyst ever of the autocratic rule of the Roman emperors—described the scene in his Annales, half a century or so later; he was no doubt relying on some hard evidence (a few modern critics have even suggested an eyewitness account), but inevitably recasting it in his own terms. One of Tacitus’s favorite themes in the Annales is death and its corruption; he repeatedly stresses the idea that autocracy disrupted not only the natural rhythms of life but the processes of dying too. People died for the wrong reasons, in the wrong places, and in the wrong order. Children killed their parents. Funeral pyres were prepared before the victim had even breathed his last. In fact, Tacitus opens his narrative of Nero’s reign with the bleak, and significant, phrase: “The first death under the new Emperor….” The suicide of Seneca, as Tacitus tells it, can be seen as a prime example of how even dying had been corrupted.
That is partly because, try as he might, applying all the usually reliable methods, death almost defeated Seneca. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death—as the title of James Romm’s new biography, Dying Every Day, hints—he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. It is also because he made such a histrionic display out of the act of dying. Seneca publicly embraced Stoic philosophy, which took an uncompromising view of the importance of “virtue” in both living and dying (it was, in fact, much more uncompromising than the popular modern term “stoical”—in the attenuated sense of “stiff upper lip”—would ever suggest).
But Seneca’s death was a frankly hubristic imitation of the death of Socrates: with his last thoughts being dictated (as in Plato’s Phaedo), the attempted resort to hemlock, and a final offering to the gods (though in this case it was a libation to Jupiter, not, as in Socrates’ last words, a sacrifice to Asklepios). Even so, his death ends up no more than a very poor imitation of its model. As Emily Wilson nicely summed it up in The Death of Socrates (2007):
It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.
To be fair, over the years, not all judgments on Tacitus’s account of Seneca’s suicide have been so negative. Some admirers of the philosopher have chosen to see the death as an example of fortitude, and of tremendous philosophical courage amid the corruption of Roman imperial society. Seneca, it is argued, was a man whom Tacitus saw as one of the few potentially good influences on Nero, and who might have prevented his reign from developing as catastrophically as it did.
In his suicide, fighting against the recalcitrant frailty of his own body, he met unwaveringly the death to which he has been cruelly sentenced; and he turned it into the ultimate lesson in how to die (not for mere show was he dictating his last philosophical thoughts on his long-drawn-out deathbed, but for the true edification and education of future generations). This is presumably the message of Rubens’s famous painting, which shows Seneca standing almost naked in his small bath, in a pose strikingly reminiscent of the suffering Jesus in many Ecce homo scenes from medieval and later art: so suggesting triumph over death, not defeat by it.
Yet as both Romm and Wilson in The Greatest Empire insist, it is impossible not to see some ambivalence, at the very least, in Tacitus’s version of Seneca’s last hours, and in his evaluation of the man more generally. Romm focuses in particular on that phraseimago vitae suae (“the image of his own life”), which was to be, as Tacitus put it, Seneca’s bequest to his followers. Roland Mayer has argued that we should detect here a reference to the kind of imago that was displayed in elite Roman houses: one of those series of ancestor portraits intended to spur on future generations to imitate the achievements of their great predecessors. That is very likely one resonance of the phrase: Seneca was offering a positive example to be followed in the future. But, as Romm rightly observes, “Imago is a multilayered word,” and like “image” in English, it also suggests “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming.”
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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro is widely recognized as being among the greatest living authors writing in English, and her latest volume of stories, just now being released in paperback, inspires, as the title suggests, almost Too Much Happiness—her thirteenth book in a nearly sixty-year career. The collection reads with the headlong rush of both a thriller and a romance. In ten stories, told with equal power and precision from male and female perspectives, Munro explores how people do and don’t move on with their lives after losing what they thought they couldn’t live without.

A master of psychological fiction, Munro champions the value and complexity of the lives of outwardly ordinary people. She examines the conflicts protagonists experience as they strive to reconcile their need for self-realization—which will differentiate them from those around them—with their desire for approval from peers. Her stories reveal that paradoxically, even community insiders are outsiders, and she frequently uses doppelgängers and “multigängers” to depict the psychological multiplicity characters may feel within themselves, or the connections that exist between different characters in a story.

Above all, Munro’s contribution to literature is her visceral sensibility. She translates the sensation of being alive onto the page. Having lived all her life in Canada, she writes compassionately but unsentimentally about characters who sometimes live in Vancouver or elsewhere, but are most often culturally grounded in small towns in Southwestern Ontario, or “Sowesto.” Yet they are so authentic and universally similar to her readers—regardless of where we hail from—that they seem to live and breathe through us, and we through them. We stand revealed as Munro unmasks ambivalent feelings between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, siblings, best friends and neighbors. And when these perfectly nice characters behave in ways that shock us, we shudder with self-recognition that leads to insight—and then relief. Munro’s stories show that we are all connected—even through our experiences of moral failure and isolation, which can lead to revelation and growth.

Psychological and physical violence, often enacted in domestic settings, are recurring features of Munro’s canon. The author examines both the pathology of patriarchal society, and the unpredictable ways that people, nature, and our best-made plans can cataclysmically erupt; reconfiguring the landscape of our lives before we can comprehend what has happened. In one story, “Wenlock Edge,” Munro intimately introduces readers to a sexual predator; and in another, “Child’s Play,” the memory of an incident of murderous bullying, among nice girls, torments and shapes the bullies for the rest of their lives.

In “Dimensions,” the opening story, when Munro pushes a character’s obsession with control over the edge, readers encounter major themes and techniques of this collection and in the author’s work as a whole. A father, Lloyd, murders his daughter and two sons in a vengeful rage against his wife, Doree. In Munro’s stories, constant tension exists between those who hold power—whether material or psychological—and those who need or want more of it; and when a less powerful character gains strength, she often pays a brutal price. Such is the fate of Doree, the protagonist.

Frequently in Munro’s stories, as in life, signs of trouble-to-come show up early, but protagonists deny them, or don’t act soon enough to avert disaster. Like Doree, they participate in bringing upon themselves the calamities that lead to their journeys toward self-discovery.

Doree, a 16-year-old high school student, is first befriended by Lloyd, a hospital “orderly”—Munro loves wordplay—during her visits to her ailing mother, whose condition is said to be “serious but not dangerous.” Lloyd is admired by patients for his jokiness and “authoritative” demeanor.

Although he is only slightly younger than Doree’s mother, he flatters the girl in the elevator, telling her that she is a “flower in the desert,” and steals a kiss. When Doree’s mother dies suddenly, she chooses to move in with Lloyd, rather than stay with any of her mother’s friends. No mention is made of her having friends her own age.

After she becomes pregnant at seventeen, they marry, and Lloyd moves her cross-country, isolating her in a rural location “they have picked from a name on the map: Mildmay.” By nineteen, Doree has three young children.

Doree’s circumstances recall the young Munro’s. When the author was entering adolescence and developing as a writer in the 1940’s, her mother developed Parkinson’s disease, and Munro became her caretaker. Her route out of her life in rural Wingham, Ontario, was a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she published her first story at nineteen in 1950. As her scholarship was expiring, in 1951, she married fellow student Jim Munro, and by twenty-six, she was the mother of two daughters, with another to follow. One of her babies died soon after birth, and a theme that runs through Munro’s stories is that of children in danger or getting lost or dying.

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Friday, 10 October 2014

Form follows function - Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee was born in 1970 in Kolkata (then Calcutta), West Bengal, three years after the State witnessed a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, which attracted many urban youth in its wake. The intervening years form the setting of Neel’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”, which has been shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014 (to be announced on October 14).
While the wait between the announcements of the longlist and the shortlist was a tense one, Neel is now at ease (even though bookies have him down as one of the favourites). With a number of events lined up, Neel doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker, “but it’s good that one doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker”, the London-based writer contends. “I think it’s just great to be on the shortlist because I’m only two books old. I am thrilled, delighted and I am shell-shocked. It’s like I’ve been hit in the back of my head and I’m still seeing the stars.”
“The Lives of Others” is, at a very simple level, the story of the private torment of the once-prosperous Ghoshes, written against the social ferment of the years between 1967-70.
The novel unfolds in episodes that take the point of view of each of these characters, as well as a series of letters from Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family, who has left unannounced to join the Naxal movement. The effect of this narrative movement is one of an edifice being built and chipped away at simultaneously.
“I start with theory rather than people,” he says of his craft. “I don’t like novels which have no theoretical or philosophical underpinning. I hate the contemporary novel where people just sit and talk to each other about their relationships. I feel it’s a free-floating form that will get swept away very soon.”
Neel sought to explode from within the form of the realist novel which, at its inception and for much of its evolution, has held up a mirror to the bourgeoisie, “to make the world either comprehensible or palatable to them.”
The theoretical core of this novel came from thinking about the writings of Georg Lukacs and Hayden White on the function of forms, as also the words of the writer M John Harrison – “start with a form, then ask what it's afraid of”. “I thought it could become the core of a writer’s project – asking of a genre what it is hiding, what it is colluding in, what it is not doing,” Neel explains. “I thought if one has to write a novel to lay bare the ideological foundations of the bourgeois realist novel, one has to do it dialectically. So therefore I thought it wouldn’t do just to write the story of a family, I would have to have an antithetical ideology.” The Naxal movement fell firmly into this design.
Although the writer grew up in close proximity to the period he describes, Naxalism was no more than a distant murmur, “a background noise” for him. It was something he grew to be interested in for the purpose of this novel.
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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Theodor Fontane:Effi Briest

Effi Briest (1895) is the greatest work of Prussian realism and certainly one of the best tragic novels of the 19th century. The story is simple enough and hardly unique: Geert von Innstetten, an ambitious nobleman and civil servant on the brink of middle age, makes an uncontroversial marriage to Effi von Briest, the 17-year-old daughter of a former flame. Innstetten takes her back to the town in Pomerania from which he runs the local administration. A daughter, Annie, is born, but Innstetten is keen to get on, and leaves his young wife on her own where she falls prey to a womaniser, Major von Crampas.
Effi never loves Crampas, and Innstetten is none the wiser. He is transferred to Berlin and the affair is forgotten until he discovers a packet of Crampas's letters to his wife. He challenges Crampas to a duel and kills him. Innstetten takes charge of his daughter and banishes his wife. Effi's health declines in her despair. Reconciled to her parents, she dies.
Theodor Fontane based the story on a case he had read about in the newspapers: Armand Léon von Ardenne had killed Emil Hartwich, a local magistrate who had been sleeping with the former's wife, Elisabeth von Plotho, whose family had been Slavic princes even before the Christians came to Brandenburg.
When I first picked up Effi Briest more than a dozen years ago I was interested in its description of Prussian manners at a time when the local nobles or Junkers were coming to terms with the new German Reich. Fontane was the supreme apologist for Prussian values and his heroes - and villains - are often drawn from the ranks of its modest but warlike squirearchy. Innstetten is another Prussian type: the altruistic bureaucrat. As an old lady from Hamburg once told me: "We hated the Prussians, but such a thing as a corrupt official would have been unthinkable then."
It is not just the nobility that Fontane portrays. Kessin is Swinemünde, where Fontane himself grew up, and the novelist presents an affectionate tableau of provincial life in a Prussian seaside town. The old apothecary, Gieshübler, is a portrait of Fontane's father.
Of course I was struck then - indeed moved to tears - by Effi's fate. Effi is simply too young, while Innstetten is too old, too busy ("I have no choice, I am in government service") and too trusting. Once he learns of the affair he is also too unbending. When Effi succeeds in seeing her daughter she is heartbroken to find she has become her father's girl. For the first and last time Effi curses them all, but in the end she is too much a part of the system herself: his code of honour is also hers, and it was she who broke the rules.
Rereading the novel I was even more struck by how cleverly Fontane presents this view. There is really no way out for Innstetten or Effi. Both blindly follow their destinies. Innstetten finds the letters through an unfortunate accident. Had he kept quiet he might have been able to forget the affair, which had ended six years before. He confesses that he loves his wife, and had no cause to suspect her. However, by confiding in his colleague Wüllersdorf he has started the process of making her infidelity public and laying himself open to ridicule. Wüllersdorf argues vainly for a statute of limitations: surely there is a time after which a duel is no longer necessary? Innstetten disagrees: "A tyrannical social something or other" dictates his course of action. "One is not just a solitary person but part of a whole." Innstetten has only one path - "Es muss sein". He must kill the seducer or die himself.
Effi herself had not wanted to yield to the cynical Crampas. A ghost, a Chinese servant who may or may not have died as a result of an illicit affair, appears at her moments of fear, egging her on to seek solace in the other; a metaphor for lust?
Innstetten is sympathetic. He is not a hypocrite. Fontane says he is "kind and good, but certainly no lover". In his final conversation with Wüllersdorf he is shown to be a man who can see no way out. He is a slave to his career; but the honours he receives bring him no happiness at all in a life of utter loneliness.
Prussian noble society also decides Effi's fate: she is not fit to bring up a child. She comes to accept the verdict as she prepares for death. At her side she has a faithful servant and fellow sinner, Roswitha - significantly a Thuringian Catholic - and a dog, Rollo, who is destined to pine away on her grave. Her parents have softened. They have begun to blame themselves: was she not just too young?
Fontane has been called the Prussian Zola, but the comparison is unhelpful. There is no thesis to his novels, such as that which imbues Zola's history of the Rougon-Macquart family, and almost all the figures are notable for their humanity. Even Crampas is not a stock villain: he reads Heine, produces plays and accepts his death with equanimity.
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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The vertiginous life and art of Tenessee Williams

Though she may have been a solipsistic spinster who confined herself to the Puritan isolation of Amherst, Massachusetts, the poet Emily Dickinson clearly understood the vagaries of her nation’s obsession with celebrity. Consider:
Fame is a bee.
It has a song —
It has a sting —
Ah, too, it has a wing.
American literary history is full of dark narratives about the writerlyTotentanz with “the bitch-goddess success” (to borrow a phrase from the philosopher William James). Gaze upon F Scott Fitzgerald, celebrated as the voice of his generation at the age of 23, who, less than a decade later, considered himself a washed-up dipsomaniac when his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, failed to gain commercial traction. Then there were Ernest Hemingway’s final years, when the pressure of living up to his über-macho public image – and a sense of encroaching creative sterility – fuelled the prodigious boozing and depression that ended in his suicide.
Add to this honour roll of great American alcoholic writers such disparate talents as Herman Melville, Hart Crane, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, John Berryman, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Carver and Richard Yates and you must begin to consider why the mercantile, “only the winner goes to dinner” ethos of American life can take such a high toll on so many of its creative giants.
One of the underlying truisms of literary biography is that the messier the personal narrative, the more interesting the read, which is one of many reasons why John Lahr’s massive, compulsive study of the vertiginous life and art of Tennessee Williams is such a page-turner. The playwright who redefined the American dramatic vernacular – and whose seminal work speaks volumes about the darker recesses of the human condition and the aching loneliness that haunts our existence – was also plagued by demons and excesses.
Williams’s life was a confluence of familial horrors, outcast isolation, sexual adventurism, ne plus ultra substance abuse, manic episodes and (amid all the dark woods within which he dwelled) a towering compassion and humanity that found such expressive voice in his extraordinary achievements as a playwright.
But what lifts Lahr’s book into the canon of biographical masterpieces (not a word I bandy about daily) is that, in chronicling the prurient excesses of Williams’s existence, he also explores, with critical and psychological acuity, the way in which great art emerged from such a profoundly unsettled and disquieting life.
His family was a testament to Southern Gothic dysfunction: a brutalising, absent father who called him “Miss Nancy” because of his perceived femininity; a mother who was a faded belle of the ball and
an Oedipal nightmare; a fragile, troubled sister who was unfairly institutionalised and then, monstrously, lobotomised with their mother’s approval. “What a dark and bewildering thing it is, this family group,” Williams wrote to a friend. “I can’t give them any help.”
Like so many of the progeny of damaged parental goods, he spent all his life searching for love and simultaneously engaging in the sort of emotional self-sabotage that ensured his ongoing personal chaos. The man who penned that now immortal line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” certainly knew a thing or two about transient sex with frequently violent undertones. Meanwhile, he spent debilitating time in the mid-1930s as a clerk in the International Shoe Company, a soul-destroying job that hisroman-à-clef personage Tom inhabits in the first of his many benchmark plays, The Glass Menagerie.
The theatre is one of the most vibrant and destructive neighbourhoods of the performing arts. Lahr’s biography is awash with wonderfully skewed backstage anecdotes from Williams’s career. The actress who first embodied his mother onstage – Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie – was the personification of such self-doubt and disorientation that she didn’t truly register the bravos that greeted her first-night performance. On the subject of the 23-year-old Marlon Brando, who made theatrical history as the brutal yet vulnerable Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Lahr notes: “Like Stanley, he was a ruthless
man-child with reservoirs of tenderness and violence.”
Lahr leads us through the psychotic complexities of Williams’s lover of the era, a frequently explosive and physically aggressive gentleman named Pancho Rodriguez, just as he shows us how this darkly belligerent relationship informed Streetcar. Citing Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’s great works (and later named names during the McCarthy witch-hunt), Lahr makes it clear that if Pancho was the aesthetically ignorant and violent Stanley, Williams was the embodiment of his best-known personage, Blanche DuBois: a morass of vulnerability and old-school pride.
Beyond the backstage gossip (Lahr’s account of the crazed Tallulah Bankhead in one of Williams’s many 1960s theatrical disasters, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, is a wild tale of theatrical egos in decline), what emerges from this critical biography is the absolute importance of Williams’s footprint on the landscape of 20th-century theatre.
After The Night of the Iguana in 1961, he never knew commercial success as a dramatist for the remaining 22 years of his life. These final two decades, in which Williams did some of his most intriguing, experimental work, make for unnerving reading: the demonic episodes, the excessive dependency on pharmaceuticals and booze, the ever-encroaching death wish that was fulfilled in February 1983 in his New York residence, the très louche Hotel Elysée, which Williams always referred to as the “Easy Lay”. When the cops broke into his room, they found 13 bottles of prescription pills on a table near his corpse. Fame is a bee . . . 
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Edna O'Brien: 'I had to grow old before they'd give me credit'

Where are the leaders who can inspire us? That's what Edna O'Brien would like to know. "The over-riding self-importance! I despair!" says the great Irish writer and social commentator, railing against modern politicians. "If you compare how they speak now with how Churchill and Disraeli spoke … language was used more carefully, more pertinently. Now everything is so …." She ponders what to say, a literary grande dame about to receive a lifetime achievement award at the age of 83 for the power and precision of her words. Having found the right one, she speaks slowly, in a low voice that shudders with disgust. "So … ordinary!"

That is the last word anyone would use to describe this remarkable novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright and force of nature, whose books were banned and burnt in Ireland in the Sixties but became hits everywhere else. She swung through London having dalliances with Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery once failed to stop her taking LSD. Paul McCartney sang her children to sleep.

She survived to become a serious public figure and a bit of a legend: Edna O'Brien the brilliant, forthright redhead standing up for the right of women everywhere to think and feel and say and write about it whatever they wanted to. After 20 works of fiction she has been hailed by Philip Roth as "the most gifted woman now writing in English". And O'Brien has just become the second winner of the Charleston-Chichester Award for a Lifetime's Excellence in Short Fiction. She is to receive it the morning after our meeting, at the Small Wonders literary festival at Charleston, East Sussex, spiritual home of the Bloomsbury group. The previous winner was William Trevor. "Ireland is creeping its way into Sussex," she says. "Or maybe marching."

O'Brien was a panellist on the first Question Time, in 1979. Having sparred with politicians all her working life, weren't they always shallow, vain attention-seekers? "The sense of self-promotion is far more evident now, but any cosmic or spiritual sense is absent. That is to do with the vulgarisation of our society."

The prospect of another war in Iraq disturbs her, having marched against the last one. "I met wonderful people. My feet were better then. I can't understand why Tony Blair doesn't say, 'I did wrong.' I think it would be his spiritual salvation." Again, the language disturbs her. "Shock and awe? How dare they use those words. That is for a musical on Broadway with chorus girls." Again, a pause before a tremulous pay-off. "Oh, they're bastards!"
Edna O'Brien is certainly entertaining company, even at the dying of the day in a quiet Sussex garden, where we take tea as the birds settle into the trees around us. She is tiny and elegant, in a long striped skirt and matching scarf. She runs her finger along her lips as she talks, like a question mark. Her low, deliberate voice is weirdly reminiscent of an Irish Margaret Thatcher, a comparison she would surely hate. Tired after being driven from her home in Knightsbridge, she is revived by a cup of Earl Grey.

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Heidegger in Black

In the autumn of 1931, the philosopher Martin Heidegger began to record his thoughts in small diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “black notebooks.” By the early 1970s he had filled no fewer than thirty-four volumes with his handwritten reflections. Several of these notebooks, composed over a ten-year span from 1931 to 1941, have now appeared in three successive volumes of the official German-language series of Heidegger’s collected works. Their name describes their black oilcloth covering, but one could be forgiven for thinking it described their content. They will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy.
Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi. During his brief term as rector at the University of Freiburg (1933–1934) he worked to advance the process of Gleichschaltung, or coordination, that brought the university into alignment with the official policies of the Third Reich. Apologists for Heidegger have occasionally sought to underplay the gravity of this political record. They note that he stepped down from his post after less than a year, and they add that many of his academic contemporaries, such as Ernst Krieck and Alfred Baeumler, were both more zealous and more effective in their collaboration. The difference, however, is that few today take those other men seriously as scholars. Heidegger, meanwhile, continues to be read, and his permanent place in the pantheon of Continental philosophy seems more or less secure.
How, then, can one study his philosophy without taking some cognizance of his ignominious past? One strategy for resolving the dilemma has been to insist on a neat distinction: Heidegger was good at philosophy but bad at politics. An elegant defense along these lines was developed by Hannah Arendt, his erstwhile student, whose essay “Martin Heidegger at Eighty” (published in these pages in 1971) compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient philosopher who grew so absorbed in contemplating the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.1
For those who value Heidegger’s philosophy, this interpretation holds an obvious appeal, since it casts the whole business of Heidegger and Nazism in the ennobling light of tragic error. Some called Arendt an apologist, though her criticism reached well beyond Heidegger and faulted the whole of the philosophical profession for its unworldliness.2 Nor should we forget that German academics in more practical fields (medicine, physics, and engineering, to take only three examples) debased their disciplines with far more lethal effects.
For Heidegger the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement lay in “the encounter between global technology and modern humanity” (a specification he secretly added to a 1935 lecture when it was published in 1953). These are not the words of a brutal realist; they belong to a philosopher whose “private National Socialism” proved ill-suited to the needs of the regime. But what is most disturbing in Heidegger’s case is not primarily what he did; it is what he thought about what he did. Hence the challenge of the black notebooks: even after the “error” of the rectorship it turns out that Heidegger did not awaken from his philosophical-political fantasies. They only grew more extreme.
When rumor began to spread across Europe last winter that the black notebooks would soon appear, it caused a minor scandal in faculties of philosophy. The outcry was especially notable in France, where a passionate if ever-shrinking coterie still regards Heidegger as a maître-penseur. Defenders announced that the publication of the notebooks was unremarkable and would change nothing in their philosophical esteem for the author. Detractors, many of whom had never much admired Heidegger in the first place, rushed to say they had known it all along. Reading the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur or Die Zeit last winter, you might have thought that Heidegger’s reputation was forever shattered.3
Such gestures of outrage have a manufactured quality. After all, this was hardly the first “Heidegger affair.” The philosopher’s complicity with the Nazis first became a topic of controversy in the pages of the Les Temps modernes shortly after the war, and then, in 1987, the storm clouds gathered once again when Victor Farias, a former student of Heidegger’s from Chile, published a vigorous denunciation, Heidegger et le nazisme. This second Heidegger affair drew volleys and counterattacks from a great many of the leading thinkers of the day. Such cycles of revelation and scandal are rarely edifying, and they seem always to end with the same unsurprising discovery that Heidegger was a Nazi.
Some believe that the damning evidence in the black notebooks will leave Heidegger’s philosophical reputation in ruins. But even before their publication, new evidence of his ideological commitment had come to light, especially the transcripts from a 1933–1934 seminar, “On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State.”4 One intemperate critic was even moved to announce that Heidegger’s works no longer deserved the title of philosophy at all and should instead be shelved in the libraries among other books on the history of the Third Reich. Such a verdict is surely rash. But the notebooks no doubt will, and should, transform the way Heidegger’s philosophy is read. In them—more than 1,200 pages have been published so far—he is revealed as a man who refused to abandon his political delusions.
To be sure, after 1934 Heidegger grew disenchanted with the Nazi movement, and devoted himself with greater energy to new philosophical concerns. But this was only because he felt that Nazism had betrayed its own promise, and had succumbed to the technological fate that afflicted the modern age overall. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitism turns out to have been far more pronounced than one might have imagined. None of this would necessarily modify our political judgments of the author, since we knew the basic contours of the story even before the black notebooks appeared. But the urgent question remains: What has all of this to do with Heidegger’s actual philosophy?
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Friday, 3 October 2014

Seamus Heaney’s last poem published in Irish gallery’s anthology

A poem Seamus Heaney finished 10 days before he died sees the Nobel laureate exploring the quiet beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte, where time is slowed “to a walking pace”, and “world stands still”.
Banks of a Canal will be published as part of a collection of essays, stories and poems by Irish writers inspired by paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland to celebrate the gallery’s 150th anniversary. The poem is, typically for Heaney, rooted in the landscape. “Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel/ Towing silence with it, slowing time/ To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam/ Of dwellings at the skyline./ World stands still,” writes Heaney, who died in August 2013, aged 74. “I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,” the author of Digging writes, “the grassy zest/ Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight/ Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.”
His poem sits alongside pieces by more than 50 Irish novelists, playwrights and poets, including a Roddy Doyle short story inspired by Jack B Yeats’s 1937 painting Morning in a City. Doyle imagines the life of a man in Yeats’s crowd, beginning: “It got harder every day. It got harder and harder to look at each day, to walk out into it as if it was new and he was glad to be walking into it.”
Colm Tóibín takes on Yeats’s 1900 portrait of Rosa Butt, writing of the painting that there “must have been times in the boarding house where [the artist] lodged in New York when the poise in her face, the sense of ease and wit and civility which he gave her in this portrait, came to him as a dream of a life he regretted not having”, while John Banville writes about Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, calling the artist the “painter of night, although his is a densely peopled darkness”.
The pieces will be published on 6 October in the anthology Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art, edited by Janet McLean, the gallery’s curator of European art 1850-1950, with each writer’s text illustrated with the painting that inspired it. “It’s been so interesting to see the different pieces come back, and the different approaches – the eccentricity of it works quite nicely; this is a book with personality,” said McLean, who is currently preparing for an exhibition of the paintings at the gallery, which will be opened next week by Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, himself a poet. “It’s been about seeing what people walk out of the gallery with, when they’ve a painting in mind.”
Heaney, she said, visited the gallery last February. “We had a cup of tea first. I’m from Northern Ireland as well, so it was very special to me,” she said. “Then I was going to let him walk through the gallery on his own, but when I went to meet him, he was talking to a lady who I thought was his assistant, but who was a member of the public. I thought he’d get people coming up to him all the time if he went alone, so I went with him.”
Heaney plumped for the 1872 Caillebotte painting, sending his poem back to McLean in less than a week. The pair corresponded again in August, with Heaney making a “few final changes” 10 days before he died. “It was such a privilege to see that it was OK for Seamus Heaney to change his mind – it was changing a word here and there, a line he wasn’t happy with,” said McLean. “I think people who knew him well were quite moved, reading the poem – they’ve said they could hear his voice, saying it. Caillebotte can make a painting out of nothing, and that’s what Heaney can do, too – that’s the lovely thing about it.”
Also included in the anthology is the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem Memo to a Painter, inspired by the 16th-century painting The Adoration of the Magi, which depicts the nativity in elegant surroundings, without the stable or its animals. “Why put so opulent a gloss on the picture/ when the unvarnished truth stares you in the face?” wrote O’Driscoll. “Is it not all a bit rich? Why not shame the devil,/ tell the story straight, stick to the honest-to-god facts?”
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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Kiran Desai - Interview

Kiran Desai: I grew up in India, so you have to learn a whole new way of doing clothes when you move to the west. Fashions don't carry over, so if you fly between places you will inevitably look wrong in the country you're going to. Definitely going to India you look bad if you go in your western clothes. Everyone comments on how awful you look right away. The sky is different, the street is different, the dust is different – only Indian clothes work.

Heidi Julavits: So do you have both of those wardrobes?
KD: No, I don't. I always look wrong when I go back to India. I feel ashamed of myself when I feel right in New York, because there's something wrong with this place. I'm always stunned when I walk into a party and I find all these women are really wearing little high heels, and girls are dressed in tiny clothes that look really horrible, in fact, and they're so miserable in the cold of winter, wearing tiny little high heels in the snow. These women have no pride.
HJ: Many people see saris as being more uniform, if they don't have an eye for where the differences lie, where personal flair comes in.
KD: That's right. It's in the way you tie them. But also, every tiny community and all the weaving families, they have a code of symbols, and the patterns can be handed down six, seven generations. They're so complex. The wedding sari will have its own special symbols – it's this huge code. They're beautiful. The plants and shells and creatures and birds … I miss that, because in America, you don't have animals all over your clothes. Well, you do sometimes, but I'm not a fan of leopard print.
HJ: Just actual leopards.
KD: I lament having to give up Indian clothing now that I'm here. It's one of the most fun things about being an Indian woman. But it's really time-consuming. All these people manage to have clothes like that because they have servants. With the saris, you wash these great lengths of fabric, then you hang them on huge lines or down your balcony. Then you starch them and then someone stands on one end and you stand on the other end and you pull it to make it tight and starchy. Then it's ironed. So it's a lot of work.
HJ: I never think of saris as being starched. I think of them as being more flowing.
KD: Well, the cotton ones are starched. Traditionally they're dipped in rice water and then starched, so you walk around so stiffly. Then gradually the humidity and sun get to them and they become really crumply.
HJ: They wilt.
KD: Starched clothes also sound so different. I once interviewed weavers in different parts of India, and they were telling me how important the sound of silk is. If two women are going through a door together, and they rub saris, they should make a kssshh. They complained that cheap Chinese silks are flooding the market. They don't have the right sound. It should be rustling.
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