Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Great Elizabeth Taylor - writer

In 1948, at the age of thirty-six, Elizabeth Taylor penned a letter to the writer Robert Liddell after she had read his novel The Last Enchantments. She was already the author of three novels, and had been championed by many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, among them. According to Liddell, who had left England for Egypt, and later settled in Greece, she didn’t say much in her letter, other than that “the book might have been written for her, and that she had laughed and cried in all the right places.” For Taylor, who lived in a village in Buckinghamshire, with her husband and two kids, and kept literary life in London largely at bay, the letter was the beginning of a twenty-two-year correspondence, one of her most intimate friendships. To the great disappointment of her readers and biographers, Liddell destroyed nearly all her letters, respecting Taylor’s wishes “most scrupulously” after her death. “And yet she was (I think) the best letter-writer of the century.”
Many elements of this literary friendship emerge in Taylor’s 1969 story “The Letter-Writers,” which was first published in The New Yorker and is now collected in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There, the third of her works to be re-released by NYRB Classics, following the novels A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel. The story is about Emily Fairchild, a bookish, cripplingly sensitive woman, as she prepares for the arrival of Edmund Fabry, a famous novelist, to her home in the country. “She stood before an alarming crisis, one that she had hoped to avoid for as long as ever she lived; the crisis of meeting for the first time the person whom she knew best in the world.” In the story, Taylor is sympathetic to Emily’s anxiety, and evokes it in her every movement and in the movements of the village. As she heads into town for lobsters for their lunch, the heat unsteadies the air; the flag on the church tower, waving in the breeze, appears “as if it were flapping under water. The sun seemed to touch her bones—her spine, her shoulderblades, her skull. In her thoughts, she walked nakedly, picking her way, over dry-as-dust cow-dung, along the lane.”
Like Liddell, Edmund has come to England from abroad—Rome, in this case— their distance having encouraged an intimacy that she fears will burden their meeting rather than lighten it. “‘What will he be like?’ did not worry her. She knew what he was like. If he turned out differently, it would be a mistake.” Taylor is too intelligent a writer to spare Emily the injury of meeting Edmund. Even before he arrives, we are prepared for disaster as Emily drinks herself tipsy. She becomes awkward and clumsy, and arrives at the door bleeding from her cheek, the result of an injury sustained while scolding her cat. As conversation between Emily and Edmund inevitably falters, she cannot allow herself any relief. She sees in Edmund’s kindness and understanding only polite shades of pity and embarrassment. Having proven herself right, she scolds herself for believing that the two planes of their friendship could ever have existed comfortably side by side. The truth of their letters is the truth of fiction, whereas the truth of their meeting can be nothing other than what it is. “It was like seeing a ghost in reverse—the insubstantial suddenly solidifying into a patchy and shabby reality.”
The story is arguably the best in the collection; throughout her writing, Taylor is consistently remarkable in her evocation of character and place, but here she turns inward with such uncompromising intensity that the reader encounters the sort of sustained feeling one does in Virginia Woolf, stretched and made taut and always threatening to break. “It is something done quickly,” Taylor wrote to a friend on the art of the short story, “all in one atmosphere & mood like a Van Gogh painting. And is very much akin to poetry (well, lyric poetry) for that reason. And is an expression of urgent inspiration.” She later references impressionist painting, again, likening it to fiction; in impressionism’s experiments with line and form, Taylor must have seen an attempt less to distort reality than to distill it. But there is something not quite right about her comparison: she is a deeply realistic writer, with a sharp eye for the comedy and pathos of interwar and post-war English life. She is less formally radical than Virginia Woolf, whom she counted among her influences. Though she was eager to express her distaste for the rigid mechanisms of plot, her stories still fit within a conventional narrative frame. It is most clear in the collection the debt she owes to Austen and Chekhov, and with You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There, Taylor reveals herself to be one of the English language’s best practitioners of the form.
Elizabeth Taylor was born Betty Coles, in 1912, in Reading, England. She married John Taylor, a candy manufacturer and son of the mayor of High Wycombe, when she was twenty-three. She and John met at the High Wycombe Theater Club, and in the week following their wedding they both starred in a three-run performance of The Case of the Frightened Lady by Edgar Wallace. A local paper noted, “Elizabeth Taylor revealed unsuspected histrionic ability in her simulation of terror as the ‘frightened lady.’ . . . John Taylor, playing appropriately enough opposite his bride of a week ago, gave a natural performance.” Politically active, Taylor also belonged to the local branch of the Communist Party in High Wycombe, and there, in 1938, met Raymond Russell—Ray, in their letters—an aspiring painter who remained her friend and on-and-off lover for the next ten years.
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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington

In 1739, a diminutive woman, identified as "an ingenious Lady" from Dublin, took up lodgings directly opposite White's Chocolate House in London. As a female, Laetitia Pilkington was, naturally, not permitted to join the exclusive club that met there, particularly as she had recently been notoriously cast off by her husband on the grounds of adultery. But as a renowned poet, raconteur and wit, as well as a figure of scandal and gossip, she was almost as much of an attraction to the fashionable gentlemen who frequented White's as was the club itself. Her latest satirical poems were discussed there, whereupon the men would visit her or admire her at her window. As Norma Clarke comments, despite Mrs Pilkington's apparent exclusion from literary society, she "became part of the conversation".
The complexity of Laetitia Pilkington's situation depicted here is typical of the colourful yet deeply troubled life presented in Clarke's new biography of the poet. Pilkington was married to a clergyman, yet he appeared to prostitute his wife for favours from friends and, ultimately, as a means of ending their marriage. The story of "the duel between the cassock and the petticoat", as Clarke terms it, became widely known; according to the actor, playwright and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, Mrs Pilkington's career was a "frolicksome Farce of Fortune", lurching from the top of fortune's wheel to the bottom and back again.
Her life began with enormous promise - the precocious five-year-old Laetitia was apparently able to recite the whole of Dryden's Alexander's Feast - but later she was to find, as her contemporary Mary Barber also discovered, that poetry's "mighty Empire" produces a "Revenue" that is "wondrous small". Though she wrote memoirs, poems, petitions, plays, billets-doux and even sermons, much of this was ghost-writing for her male associates, and the living she earned was so precarious that at one point the debtors' prison became her less-than-fashionable lodging. Virginia Woolf rightly observed that Mrs Pilkington was "a very extraordinary cross between ... a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement".
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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Lady Chatterly's Lover

This fine novel of D. H. Lawrence’s has been privately printed in Florence, and it is difficult and expensive to buy. This is a pity, because it is probably one of Lawrence’s best books. About the erotic and unconventional aspects of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which have made it impossible for the book to be circulated except in this subterranean fashion, I shall have something to say in a moment. But “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is far more than the story of a love affair: it is a parable of post-war England.

Lady Chatterley is the daughter of a Scotch R. A., a robust and intelligent girl, who has married an English landowner from the Midlands coal-mining country. Sir Clifford is crippled in the War, and returns to his family estate, amid the decay and unemployment of the Industrial towns. At first, he occupies himself with literature, mixes with the London literary people, and publishes short stories, “clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless”; then later, he applies himself feverishly to an attempt to retrieve his coal mines by the application of modem methods: “once you started a sort of research in the field of coal-mining, a study of methods and means, a study of by-products and the chemical possibilities of coal, it was astounding the ingenuity and the almost uncanny cleverness of the modem technical mind, as if really the devil himself had lent a fiend’s wits to the technical scientists of industry. It was far more interesting than art, than literature, poor emotional half-witted stuff, was this technical science of industry.”

But Sir Clifford, as a result of his semi-paralytic condition is in the same unhappy situation as the hero of “The Sun Also Rises”; and Lady Chatterley, in the meantime, has been carrying on a love affair with the gamekeeper— himself a child of the collieries, but an educated man, who has risen to a lieutenancy during the War, and then, through disillusion and inertia, relapsed into his former status. There has been an understanding between Sir Clifford and his wife that, since he is unable to give her a child himself, he will accept an illegitimate child as his heir. But Connie has finally reached a point where she feels that she can no longer stand Sir Clifford, with his invalidism, his arid intelligence and his obstinate class consciousness: she has fallen in love with the gamekeeper; and when she finally discovers that she is going to have a child she leaves her husband and demands a divorce. We are left with the prospect of the lady and the gamekeeper going away to Canada together.

Now Lawrence’s treatment of this subject is not without its aspects of melodrama. It is not entirely free from his bad habit of nagging and jeering at the characters whom he doesn’t like. Poor Sir Clifford, after all, for example, no matter how disagreeable he may have become, was a man in a most unfortunate situation, for which he was in no way to blame. And, on the other hand, Mellors, the gamekeeper, has his moments of romantic bathos. Yet the characters have a certain heroic dignity, a certain symbolical importance, which enable them to carry off all this.

Lawrence’s theme is a high one: the self-affirmation and triumph of life in the teeth of all the destructive and sterilizing forces—industrialism, physical depletion, dissipation, careerism and cynicism—of modern England; and in general, he has given a noble account of it. The drama which he has set in movement, against the double background of the collieries and the English forests, possesses both solid reality and poetic grandeur. It is the most inspiriting book I have seen which has come out of England for a long time; and—in spite of Lawrence’s occasional repetitiousness and sometimes overdone slapdash tone—one of the best written. D. H. Lawrence is indestructible: censored, exiled, snubbed, he still has more life in him than almost anybody else. And this one of his books which has been published under the most unpromising conditions and which he must have written with full knowledge of its fate—which can, indeed, hardly be said to have seen the light at all—is one of his most vigorous and brilliant. ...

A review  by Edmund Wilson

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell on crime writing after Agatha Christie

JAMES: I suppose the question we get asked most often by other people is ‘Why crime?’, and in a way that ties up with when we began writing. Was your first book crime? You wrote some short stories before you were published, didn’t you?

RENDELL: You remember correctly. I wrote a lot of short stories, and I sent them to magazines and they were not accepted. Then I began to write full-length fiction. Some I didn’t finish, some I did. I wrote three, one of which – after some years of this – I sent to a publisher. It was not  a crime novel – it wasn’t even particularly suspenseful: I suppose you would call it a comedy of matters. They did not take it, but they quite liked it, and they asked me if I’d done anything else, and I had: I’d done the first Wexford. I’d done it without any serious intent – and I just thought well, I want to see if I can do this, for fun. I’d read a lot of crime fiction, and I had an idea which I think was very daring for the time, and they took it and it was published in 1964. I think that was nearly the same year as your first book.

JAMES: Very close: ’62. They accepted it in ’60, but they had too many books on the fiction list, so they postponed it for a year, which seemed an eternity, but actually was in some ways quite lucky for me, because it meant I could get on with number two in the certainty they would publish number one.

RENDELL: There’s a good story about it came to be published.

JAMES: I was spending a weekend with friends, and met an actor called Miles Malleson, and he gave me the name of his agent, Elaine Greene, who took me on. She went to dinner at All Souls and sat next to Charles Monteith, who was a director of Faber & Faber. Their crime writer had just died – he was Cyril Hare, who wrote very elegant detective stories set in the world of the law, which I still very much enjoy – and Charles Monteith said, ‘We shall be looking for another one.’ So Elaine replied, ‘I’ve found one.’  She sent him the manuscript – and he accepted it, so I was very lucky. I have a huge admiration for people who continue to write after rejection. I think that takes a lot of courage. You must have known in the end you were going to be accepted – you knew you could do it, presumably.

RENDELL: I didn’t, actually. I don’t think I wrote with that in view – I wrote because I wanted to write so much. But with you, I think your first novel was a very accomplished piece of work: I think it would have been very surprising if it had been rejected. Cover Her Face – a very good title: The Duchess of Malfi. And while you were waiting for that to be published you were writing your second – which one was that?

JAMES: A Mind to Murder. I was then working in the health service, in charge of five psychiatric units. It’s set in a psychiatric outpatient department. I couldn’t have done it without the knowledge I gained in my job.

So for both of us the first published novel was a detective story, and though you have branched out into a very different form of fiction, you still write them. Why do we enjoy writing that form, rather than what people describe for some reason or other as ‘mainstream fiction’?

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Gods and monsters - P.D. James

Editor's Note, 27 November 2014: PD James has died aged 94. This article first appeared in the New Statesman in July 2013.

What makes us human is the brain which enables us to ask just this question. We are aware how much we share with the animal kingdom and how close our DNA is to that of the higher mammals. We increasingly hear how much we all have in common with animals. Animals often show at least an equal concern with looking after their young. We know that elephants can grieve, that chimpanzees and other apes learn to use tools and even to share them, so there is the beginning of what we think of as unselfish sharing for mutual benefit. But animals, even those whose DNA is closest to ours, cannot make or control fire.
One wonders how this powerful tool was first discovered, perhaps by primitive man constantly rubbing two dry sticks together in a moment of boredom and producing a spark that lighted a pile of dry leaves. With this apparent miracle a significant step in the long rise to humanity was taken. Fire could be used to frighten away predators, provided the warmth which enabled early man to survive extreme cold and gave him the ability to cook meat and render it more digestible and life-sustaining. The making of fire was one of the most important discoveries which set human beings on the path to domination.
But most people, when faced with the question of what makes us human, give thought to a wider dimension than the difference between Homo sapiens and the animal kingdom, a dimension which includes ethics and morality and the recognition of responsibility for other than the immediate family or species. An animal has no concept of reality outside its own life and that of its young, and its place in the herd. Because we have the capacity to imagine and sympathise with the emotions including the pain of others, surely that implies a responsibility to alleviate suffering and promote well-being among all sentient creatures, including the animals of which we make use for our sustenance, convenience and pleasure.
To describe a person as acting like an animal is an insult, while the expression, “crime against humanity”, implies that there is some behaviour regarded as so appalling that the perpetrator is offending against a recognised code of what is acceptable from human beings. If the offence is committed by a single individual he is commonly labelled a psychopath, a diagnosis which it is seldom possible to follow with effective treatment. If the outrage is committed by a country, as with genocide, international opprobrium and a system of reparation, where this is possible, usually follow. We have the ability, both internationally and at home, to militate against behaviour we view as unacceptable and to make it illegal and punishable by law. We set up complicated legal and social contrivances designed to enable us to live together in peace and safety and which, in all civilised societies, are accepted and incorporated in words. The extent and richness of a country’s language is among the most important measures of its civilisation, and it is primarily language which makes us human.
When we think about what it means to be human, often we are considering what personal preoccupations, ambitions and conduct to others make us unique creatures on the planet. Unlike animals, human beings occupy their minds with concerns outside the compulsions of sex, food, shelter and the herd: the creation of our universe, the possibilities that other planets might sustain life and that eventually we shall make contact with other intelligent beings and communicate with them. We create gods ranging from tribal images in wood and stone to complicated theological arguments, and set up organisations to accommodate these deities and define the obligations of belief and worship.
But in the end the simple difference remains. Over millions of years the Darwinian process of evolution which has given us a Newton, a Shakespeare and a Mozart, has resulted in the human capacity to think, to wonder, to create and to invent. The capacity which enables us to use science to destroy each other in wars is also used to conquer disease, with the risk that we reproduce in numbers which inevitably outstrip the natural resources on which we depend. Unlike animals, we have the means to destroy Planet Earth by our greed, or to make it a safer place in which all living creatures can live.

How should we relate to each other? How do we deal with those aggressive impulses which seem to be in our nature? How do we tolerate people who are different, especially when they come to live among us? How should we educate our young? Is the nuclear family the only right pattern for marriage and parenthood? How can we save the planet which we alone among living creatures have the power to destroy? This is the ultimate question which faces us as humans and it is one of which the animal kingdom is oblivious. It is our responsibility, and it is this responsibility that makes us human.

How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope

One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

 If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the product of his dawning sense that nobody, not even the priest, could possibly take the church service seriously. There seems to be a straight line, if not a short one, from Hardy’s “consternation” to the madness of the stranger who, in Nietzsche’s famous parable, barges into churches to sing a requiem: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

In another country, or with another temperament, the boy who laughed in church might have developed into a prophet who, like his German contemporary, went sneeringly without honor. But Thomas Hardy managed to spend a lifetime attacking and deriding the established values of Victorian England, only to end up as the establishment’s favorite writer. In 1895, when he published his great novel “Jude the Obscure,” with its punishing assault on conventional views of marriage, sex, and class, the newspapers reacted almost as furiously as they had to the trial of Oscar Wilde a few months earlier. “HARDY THE DEGENERATE,” ran the headline in the World; the Pall Mall Gazette went with the inevitable “JUDE THE OBSCENE.” Yet when he died, thirty-three years later—after embarking on a second career as a poet, and creating a body of work at least as important as his fiction—all was more than forgiven. Contrary to his own wishes, he was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, where his ten pallbearers included the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the heads of Cambridge and Oxford colleges, as well as Rudyard Kipling and A. E. Housman. But even then Hardy managed to elude the clutches of the great and the good: his body had already been cremated, and the coffin carried with such pomp contained nothing but a handful of ashes.

Not everyone was blind to the doubtful taste of giving such an outspoken atheist a Christian burial. Claire Tomalin, in the epilogue to her new biography, “Thomas Hardy” (Penguin; $35), quotes a letter that the beleaguered Dean of Westminster wrote to Hardy’s local vicar, R. G. Bartelot, after receiving “furious protests” against the burial, “on the ground that his teaching was antichristian.” Could Bartelot reassure the Dean of Hardy’s “essential Christianity”? He could. “At heart,” the vicar replied, he was “a Christian and a Churchman.” It makes you wonder whether either of these clergymen had ever opened one of Hardy’s books—for instance, his 1909 collection of poems, “Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses,” with its ode “To Sincerity”:

Life may be sad past saying, Its greens for ever graying, Its faiths to dust decaying; And youth may have foreknown it, And riper seasons shown it, But custom cries: “Disown it: “Say ye rejoice, though grieving, Believe, while unbelieving, Behold, without perceiving!”

Hardy knew his countrymen’s capacity for respectable self-delusion, for the kind of mendacity that considers God’s foe “essentially Christian.” Indeed, he was not so much interested in persuading honest believers to abandon their beliefs as in shaming an already agnostic century into admitting the depths of its uncertainty. His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him.

No one who knew Hardy as a child in the tiny village of Higher Bockhampton suspected that he would grow up to be a writer, much less a great writer. For one thing, he did not belong to the class that almost always produced great writers in England—the professional or clerical middle class, which could afford to send its sons to university. According to tradition, the family name had been the more aristocratic “le Hardy” centuries before, and Hardys had once been notable landowners in Dorset. But, like the ancient d’Urbervilles, in “Tess,” who have degenerated into poor Durbeyfields, the Hardys had come down in the world. Hardy always took care to point out that his father and grandfather were not laborers but master masons, skilled craftsmen with employees of their own. Still, his father did business in a very small way, and his mother, Jemima, had been a domestic servant before she got pregnant and married in a hurry—the wedding took place just over five months before Thomas was born, on June 2, 1840. The Hardys were the kind of people that Jane Austen would never have allowed into her parlor.

Given this background, Hardy’s career could easily be read as a great Victorian success story, a parable of self-help in a functioning meritocracy. It is a story that Tomalin tells briskly and accessibly, though, as she acknowledges, it has been told many times before—most comprehensively by Michael Millgate, whose standard biography was reissued in an expanded edition in 2004. (It will be told again next month, when Yale publishes “Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life,” by Ralph Pite—a more literary alternative to Tomalin, who uses Hardy’s work mainly to illustrate his life.) The story was first told by Hardy himself, in two autobiographical volumes that were edited by his second wife, Florence, and published under her name. For most of the events of his early life, it is Hardy’s version that all biographers have to follow.

Tomalin, like Hardy, sees his mother as the most important influence on the withdrawn and bookish boy. Thanks to Jemima, who dominated her charming, unambitious, music-loving husband, Thomas was sent to the best school in the neighborhood, in the nearby county town of Dorchester. By the age of sixteen, he had received a grounding in Latin and mathematics—if not quite enough to qualify for admission to Oxford or Cambridge, which the family could not have afforded in any case. Instead, Jemima arranged to have her son apprenticed to a local architect. If she had her way, he would be not a mere builder, like his father, but a professional man.

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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stefan Zweig: the tragedy of a great bad writer

Stefan Zweig wasn’t, to be honest, a very good writer. This delicious fact was hugged to themselves by most of the intellectuals of the German speaking world during the decades before 1940, in which Zweig gathered a colossal and adoring public both in German and in multiple translations. It was like a password among the sophisticated. Zweig might please the simple reader; but a true intellectual would recognise his own peers by a shared contempt for this middlebrow bestseller. The novelist Kurt Tucholsky has a devastating sketch of a German equivalent of E.F. Benson’s Lucia:
Mrs Steiner was from Frankfurt, not terribly young, alone and with black hair. She wore a different dress each night and sat quietly to read cultured books. She was a devoted follower of Stefan Zweig. With that, everything has been said.
Some modern-day readers might find themselves agreeing with Zweig’s sniggering colleagues. His prose is apt to sink into the embarrassing commonplace. In his autobiography about the outbreak of war, he writes that the room
was suddenly deathly quiet…carefree birdsong came in from outside…and the trees swayed in the golden light…Our ancient Mother Nature, as usual, knew nothing of her children’s troubles.
Elsewhere, ‘the soft, silken blue sky was like God’s blessing over us; once again warm sunlight shone on the woods and meadows’. The odd thing was that, despite his immense success among readers who couldn’t hear enough about golden light in gardens and Mother Nature and silken skies like God’s blessing, Zweig was under no misapprehension about his own merits.
Talking about his art, Zweig had always denigrated it in a way much more like masochism than the sort of self-deprecation that invites contradictory praise. At the outset of his career, he had admitted that ‘at best my talent is a small one’. He was very much like Max Beerbohm’s Walter Ledgett: a bustling, friendly operator in the world of letters. His engagement with brilliant, original writers from the apparently safe standpoint of his luxurious schloss in Salzburg is untiring, despite their open jeering at their patron and host.
His relationship with the great, difficult writer Joseph Roth is a perfect example: there were almost no insults that Roth didn’t offer Zweig in exchange for his charitable support. Michael Hofmann, in his edition of Roth’s letters, says that ‘Eventually there is nothing that Roth will not write; a letter, in his hands, is an instrument of necessary terror.’ And Zweig took it all. He was heartbreakingly proud that when the Nazis burnt books in the Bebelplatz in 1933, he had the honour to be
permitted to share this fate of the complete destruction of literary existence in German with such eminent contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel and many others whose work I consider incomparably more important than my own.
 In other circumstances, he would have been a comic figure, all mouth and trousers, in love with the orotund paragraph.With some amusement Carl Zuckmayer said that Zweig ‘loved women, revered women, liked talking about women, but he rather avoided them in the flesh’. But for a Jewish writer in Austria in the 1930s, the possibilities of remaining a comic figure were few.
The flight from Austria that followed, and Zweig’s painful attempts to make sense of his own fate, are the subjects of George Prochnik’s study. The photograph on the cover (reproduced above) sets the tone: Zweig, the product of Viennese ‘Jewish bourgeoisie of the first rank throughout’, is exquisitely dressed and groomed, and looks simply terrified: he had received an uncompromising rejoinder to his plea that ‘all we ask is that we may not be bothered by politics’.
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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Dubliners at one hundred

It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of  Transition Year, in June 1991.

Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke to us like we were his friends. Even though the retreat consisted for the most part of the usual list of prohibitions—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex—his gravelly voice and inner-city accent gave him a convincing authenticity. Then, for reasons I still can’t quite understand—modernist literature was not at that point high on our list of temptations—he started talking about James Joyce. According to the Singing Priest, Joyce was one of the greatest hoaxes ever to be perpetrated on the Irish people. Far from being a genius, he was a charlatan, a phony, a false prophet. Furthermore, the priest continued, nobody in the world had actually read his famous novel Ulysses, and anyone who claimed otherwise was a liar.
Well, this came as a surprise. My father was a professor of Irish literature at Joyce’s alma mater, University College Dublin; in his study at home he had multiple copies of Joyce’s books, including Ulysses, as well as innumerable books about Joyce’s books. Had he been pulling the wool over our eyes for all these years?

That night, I went home and told my dad what the Singing Priest had said. My dad assured me that he had, in fact, read Ulysses; so had a lot of people, he said. I was relieved to hear that he had not been practicing a deception on us. Still, I remained confused. Back in 1991, the idea that a priest would lie was genuinely shocking. Even stranger, though, was that he would lie about this.

Up until then, I had had little interest in Joyce. I knew who he was, of course: in Dublin he was inescapable. He popped up as a statue on North Earl Street, in paintings on the walls of pubs, in an unflattering green hue on the old ten-pound note; once a year the city was taken over by gangs of bizarrely-attired middle-aged men, wearing straw hats and blazers and spouting reams of gibberish apparently in homage to the author. There was a bridge named after him, designed by a famous architect, and a dark and rather threatening street. He had always seemed completely irrelevant to me and my life in the suburbs—a historical artifact, like the Viking settlements uncovered on the quays, which my parents had dragged me in to see before they were demolished.

But now, thanks to the Singing Priest—whose own secret hypocrisies would emerge in the years that followed—I began to wonder. Why would a writer elicit that kind of hatred? What kind of threat did he pose? I asked my dad if I could borrow a copy ofUlysses, went to my room and began to read. An hour later I came back downstairs. Is there an easier one? I asked. That’s when he gave me Dubliners.

Two weeks later, I took the book with me on a French exchange. I didn’t get all of it, or even most of it. And yet, while I read it, I felt my agonizing homesickness abate, and I realized the city he presented was one that I knew. There were some cosmetic differences (shillings and half crowns, trams instead of cars) but the characters themselves—the machinating mother, the pitiful daydreamer, the two ironically named gallants, the slithering, monstrous “old josser”—I had encountered before. And the pervading sense of frustration and entrapment, that was familiar, too. This was a book about people who felt just like I did, in my teenaged disenchantment—that nothing of significance could ever happen in a second-rate city, that love, heroism, any kind of self-definition was impossible on its pokey, crowded stage. Joyce’s Dubliners wished they were somewhere, anywhere, else—the Wild West, London, Argentina; they squandered their time in illusions and alcohol and other doomed efforts to escape. Paralyzed by homesickness, hiding out in the spare bedroom of that little house in Paris, it was very clear to me how misguided these efforts were.

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Defoe As Novelist

Defoe was nearly sixty when his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, appeared. He had been known to his contemporaries as a journalist and pamphleteer, however, long before he took overtly to fiction. The first work which brought him fame was The True-Born Englishman (1701), probably the most influential verse satire in English after Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. It was a defence of William III against those who thought that it was intolerable for a Dutch king to govern 'true-born Englishmen'. Defoe retorted that there was no such thing:
We have been Europe's sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.
He was no poet, although his crude vigour was undeniable. It is further evidenced in such couplets as:
But English gratitude is always such
To hate the hand which doth oblige too much,
and the famous opening:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there:
And 'twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
Defoe knew his poetic limitations full well. He wrote in poetic form because that, since Dryden, was the favoured mode for public polemic; but Defoe's real aim was not literary greatness, but immediate effect. So in his Preface he anticipated the critics very jocularly:
'Without being taken for a conjuror, I may venture to foretell, that I shall be cavilled at about my mean style, rough verse, and incorrect language, things I indeed might have taken more care in. But the book is printed; and though I see some faults, it is too late to mend them. And this is all I think needful to say...'
He could be cavalier because his main audience cared little for such niceties; they were not the cultivated patrons to whom so much of previous literature had been primarily addressed, but plain middleclass folk, who constituted an important new force in the reading public, and were strongly asserting their independence, cultural as well as political. They felt, and Defoe agreed, that
Fate has but small distinction set
Betwixt the counter and the coronet,
and that the tastes of those who worked behind the counter must also be served.
So if the great Augustans, Swift and Pope, sneered at him as an outsider, Defoe took little notice. He had more than his share of the truculent self-reliance of the trading classes and he was less an artist than a literary tradesman himself, producing, in a career that was as much devoted to business and politics as to literature, some four hundred separate works, as well as a vast amount of journalism, including the whole of his thrice-weekly newspaper, The Review, which ran for nine years from 1704 to 1713.
His novels —which are certainly the works that interest us most today —were among the greatest concessions he made to the tastes of the reading public. His own literary preference seems to have been for something more factual — for the political, economic, social, and moral improvement of his countrymen. But he had learned as editor of The Review that his readers often needed to be 'wheedled ... in to the knowledge of the world'; and, to 'carry out this honest cheat and bring people to read with delight', he had made an important journalistic innovation. To the usual contents of his paper, an essay-like editorial on a political topic, he had added a lighter section, 'Advice from the Scandalous Club', which dealt humorously with controversial aspects of the social life of the day. This innovation was very successful, and paved the way to The Tatler's more polished presentation of similar matter; it also taught Defoe much about this side of the public's interests and gave him practice in catering to them.
In any case, he was a professional writer, and always ready to supply whatever the printing press could use. Pope might attack what he called Grub Street and the Dunces that wrote for it; but Defoe saw Grub Street as merely an application of commercial principles to the manufacture of literary goods. As he wrote in a letter signed 'Anti-Pope', published in the popular Applebee's Journal in 1725:
'Writing, you know, Mr Applebee, is become a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. ... The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-writers, and all other Operators with pen and ink are the workmen employed by the said Master Manufacturers.'
He was true to his understanding of his proper role, then, in writing fiction, whatever his personal inclinations.
He was also true to himself in imposing on what he wrote so much of his own personality and outlook that it became something quite different from anything that the world had seen before; and thus almost accidentally created a form of prose narrative which, if it was not quite the novel in our sense, undoubtedly led to the rise of the novel proper. It is, incidentally, highly appropriate that the rise of the novel — then regarded as a sub-literary form — should begin with a sub-literary figure like Defoe, responsive to the greatly enlarged reading public and independent of patronage and the critical standards of the literati.
 Defoe's most important innovation in fiction was his unprecedentedly complete narrative realism. There is little doubt that it springs directly out of his long practice of journalism. Leslie Stephen has described how his early pamphlet, the famous A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next day after her death, to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705, contains all the hallmarks of Defoe's later narrative style, including 'the manufacturing of corroborative evidence' and the deflection of attention from weak links in the chain of evidence. Stephen thought that it was a work of fiction, but it has since been discovered that Defoe was merely reporting a popular news item of the day in his own characteristic manner. He was to use exactly the same technique when he came to write fiction, and even there we are never quite sure how much is pure invention. Robinson Crusoe itself was widely regarded as authentic at the time of publication, and it is still not certain to what extent some of Defoe's works, such as the Memoirs of a Cavalier and the Carleton Memoirs, are fictitious or genuine.
It was certainly Defoe's overriding intention that readers should be gulled into thinking his fictions true. If he did not know already that the illusion of authenticity was his forte, he could have learned it from one of his journalist rivals who wrote in 1718 of 'the little art he is truly master of, of forging a story, and imposing it on the world for truth'. Defoe never admitted that he wrote fiction; and typically prefaced his greatest success, Robinson Crusoe, published the next year, with the statement that he, writing merely as 'Editor',
'believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it'.
This, of course, is not literally true. For, although Defoe had read about Alexander Selkirk and other castaways, the story and the character are very largely of Defoe's invention. But they are described with so much circumstantial detail, whose only justification would seem to be that things actually happened in just that way, that we do not think of the book as fiction but accord it at least a semi-historical status. Consider for example the way in which the famous finding of the green barley sprouts is told:
In the middle of all my labours it happened, that rummaging my things, I found a little bag, which, as I hinted before, had been filled with corn for the feeding of poultry, not for this voyage, but before, as I suppose, when the ship came from Lisbon. What little remainder of the corn had been in the bag was all devoured with the rats, and I saw nothing in the bag but husks and dust; and being willing to have the bag for some other use, I think it was to put powder in, when I divided it for fear of the lightning, or some such use, I shook the husks of corn out of it on one side of my fortification, under the rock. It was a little before the great rains, just now mentioned, that I threw this stuff away, taking no notice of anything, and not so much as remembering that I had thrown anything there; when, about a month after, or thereabout, I saw some few stalks of something green shooting out of the ground, which I fancied might be some plant I had not seen; but I was surprised, and perfectly astonished, when, after a little longer time, I saw about ten or twelve ears come out, which were perfect green barley of the same kind as our European, nay, as our English barley.
The main aim of the writing is clearly to keep as close as possible to the consciousness of the narrator as he struggles to make the situation clear to himself and to us. Nothing but the exclusive pursuit of this aim, we feel, would have brought about such abrupt dislocations of rhythm and syntax as are found in the first sentence; no other reason could explain the repetitions, the parentheses, the stumblings. And the upshot is that the little bag takes its place with all the other objects of Crusoe's life that have fastened themselves on our imaginations — the first clay pot, the climatically inept fur garments, the umbrella, the boat, the grindstone.
For Defoe's style obeys more fully than ever before the purpose of language as Locke redefined it: 'to convey knowledge of things'. Defoe concentrates his description on the primary qualities of objects as Locke saw them: especially solidity, extension, and number; and he gives them in the simplest language — Defoe's prose contains a higher percentage of words of Anglo-Saxon origin than that of any other well-known writer, except Bunyan. His sentences, it is true, are often very long and rambling, but he somehow makes this a part of his air of authenticity. The lack of strong pauses within the sentence gives his style an urgent, immediate, breathless quality; at the same time, his units of meaning are so small, and their relatedness is made so clear by frequent repetition and recapitulation, that he nevertheless gives the impression of perfectly simple lucidity.
Defoe had been exposed to all the influences which were making prose more prosaic in the seventeenth century: to the Lockian conception of language; to the Royal Society's wish for a language which would help its scientific and technological aims by keeping close to the speech of 'artisans, countrymen, and merchants': and to the plain unadorned style of later seventeenth-century preaching which obtained its effects by repetition rather than by imagery or structural elaboration. Most important of all, his twenty years of journalism had taught him that it was impossible to be too explicit for the audience of 'honest meaning ignorant persons' he kept continually in mind. As a result, his natural prose style is not only an admirable narrative vehicle in itself: it is also much closer to the vernacular of the ordinary person than any previous writer's, and thus admirably adapted to the tongues of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and his other characters.
But the effect of the passage quoted does not depend only on its style: there is behind it Defoe's emphatic pressure forcing us to attend to the matter. Every relevant detail of the occurrence is made explicit: and after Crusoe has evidenced his scrupulous honesty by admitting that he cannot be absolutely certain about all of them — when the bag had originally been filled with corn, or what he had wanted the bag for later — we are in no mood to take seriously the objection that, as Crusoe admits, 'the climate ... was not proper for corn': for fiction has long before been accepted as established fact. So, wholly convinced, we rejoice with Crusoe at this miracle of divine Providence.
The Puritans saw the whole world, and every incident of their experience, as alive with secret indications of divine intervention or intention; and Crusoe follows the tradition in looking for signs of Grace or Reprobation in this, and in a11 else that happens to him. Robinson Crusoe is not just a travel story; it is also, in intention at least, one of Defoe's 'honest cheats', a sincere attempt to convert a godless form of literature to the purposes of religion and morality: Crusoe's story is supposed to demonstrate how God's Providence saves an outcast who has sinned against the divine will by leaving his family and forgetting his religious training, out of a 'secret burning lust of ambition for great things'. ...

by Ian Watt Dean of School of English Studies, at the university of East Anglia (1960)

Monday, 24 November 2014

Virginia Woolf: The Movies and Reality

People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how, for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed, naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangor a foretaste of the music of Mozart.

The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savors seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up, and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet, at first sight, the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the King shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism, which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its surprise, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, “Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.” Together they look at the King, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life. They have become not more beautiful, in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The King will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation—this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not. Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the Abbey—they are now mothers; ushers are ardent—they are now silent; mothers are tearful; guests are joyful; this has been won and that has been lost, and it is over and done with. The War sprung its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance, but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded up to the very end.

But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own—naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well known characters, and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says: “Here is Anna Karenina.” A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: “That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.” For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind—her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then “Anna falls in love with Vronsky”—that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene—like the gardener mowing the lawn—what the cinema might do if it were left to its own devices. ...

This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on August 4, 1926.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

How Toni Morrison fostered a generation of black writers

No. 2245 Elyria Avenue in Lorain, Ohio, is a two-story frame house surrounded by look-alikes. Its small front porch is littered with the discards of former tenants: a banged-up bicycle wheel, a plastic patio chair, a garden hose. Most of its windows are boarded up. Behind the house, which is painted lettuce green, there’s a patch of weedy earth and a heap of rusting car parts. Seventy-two years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison was born here, in this small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, which most citydwellers would consider “out there.” The air is redolent of nearby Lake Erie and new-mown grass.

From Morrison’s birthplace it’s a couple of miles to Broadway, where there’s a pizzeria, a bar with sagging seats, and a brown building that sells dingy and dilapidated secondhand furniture. This is the building Morrison imagined when she described the house of the doomed Breedlove family in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio,” she wrote. “It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy. Visitors who drive to this tiny town wonder why it has not been torn down, while pedestrians, who are residents of the neighborhood, simply look away when they pass it.”

Love and disaster and all the other forms of human incident accumulate in Morrison’s fictional houses. In the boarding house where the heroine of Morrison’s second novel, “Sula,” lives, “there were rooms that had three doors, others that opened on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom.” This is the gothic, dreamlike structure in whose front yard Sula’s mother burns to death, “gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box,” while Sula stands by watching, “not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

Morrison’s houses don’t just shelter human dramas; they have dramas of their own. “124 was spiteful,” she writes in the opening lines of “Beloved” (1987). “Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way.” Living and dead ghosts ramble through No. 124, chained to a history that claims its inhabitants. At the center of Morrison’s new novel, “Love,” is a deserted seaside hotel—a resort where, in happier times, blacks danced and socialized and swam without any white people complaining that they would contaminate the water—built by Bill Cosey, a legendary black entrepreneur, and haunted by his memory.

Morrison spends about half her time in a converted boathouse that overlooks the Hudson in Rockland County. The boathouse is a long, narrow, blue structure with white trim and large windows. A decade ago, when Morrison was in Princeton, where she teaches, it burned to the ground. Because it was a very cold winter, the water the firefighters used froze several important artifacts, including Morrison’s manuscripts. “But what they can’t save are little things that mean a lot, like your children’s report cards,” she told me, her eyes filling with tears. She shook her head and said, “Let’s not go there.”

We were in the third-floor parlor, furnished with overstuffed chairs covered in crisp gray linen, where we talked over the course of two days last summer. Sun streamed through the windows and a beautiful blue-toned abstract painting by the younger of her two sons, Slade, hung on the wall. As we chatted, Morrison wasn’t in the least distracted by the telephone ringing or the activities of her housekeeper or her secretary. She is known for her powers of concentration. When she is not writing or teaching, she likes to watch “Law & Order” and “Waking the Dead”—crime shows that offer what she described as “mild engagement with a satisfying structure of redemption.” She reads and rereads novels by Ruth Rendell and Martha Grimes.

Morrison had on a white shirt over a black leotard, black trousers, and a pair of high-heeled alligator sandals. Her long silver dreadlocks cascaded down her back and were gathered at the end by a silver clip. When she was mock-amazed by an insight, she flushed. Her light-brown eyes, with their perpetually listening or amused expression, are the eyes of a watcher—and of someone who is used to being watched. But if she is asked a question she doesn’t appreciate, a veil descends over her eyes, discontinuing the conversation. (When I tried to elicit her opinion about the novels of one of her contemporaries, she said, “I hear the movie is fab,” and turned away.) Morrison’s conversation, like her fiction, is conducted in high style. She underlines important points by making showy arabesques with her fingers in the air, and when she is amused she lets out a cry that’s followed by a fusillade of laughter.

“You know, my sister Lois was just here taking care of me,” she said. “I had a cataract removed in one eye. Suddenly, the world was so bright. And I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered, Who is that woman? When did she get to be that age? My doctor said, ‘You have been looking at yourself through the lens that they shoot Elizabeth Taylor through.’ I couldn’t stop wondering how I got to be this age.”

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Virginia Woolf: Life Itself

One could wish that the psychoanalysts would go into the question of diary-keeping. For often it is the one mysterious fact in a life otherwise as clear as the sky and as candid as the dawn. Parson Woodforde is a case in pointhis diary is the only mystery about him. For forty-three years he sat down almost daily to record what he did on Monday and what he had for dinner on Tuesday, but for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say. He does not unburden his soul in his diary; yet it is no mere record of engagements and expenses. As for literary fame, there is no sign that he even thought of it, and, finally, though the man himself is peaceable above all things, there are little indiscretions and criticisms which would have got him into trouble and hurt the feelings of his friends had they read them. What purpose, then, did the sixty-eight little books fulfill? Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his little manuscript books, he entered into conversation with a second James Woodforde who was not quite the same as the reverend gentleman who visited the poor and preached in the church. These two friends said much that all the world might hear; but they had a few secrets which they shared with each other only. It was a great comfort, for example, that Christmas when Nancy, Betsy, and Mr. Walker seemed to be in conspiracy against him, to exclaim in the diary, “The treatment I meet with for my Civility this Christmas is to me abominable.” The second James Woodforde sympathized and agreed. Again, when a stranger abused his hospitality, it was a relief to inform the other self who lived in the little book that he had put him to sleep in the attic story and “treated him as one that would be too free if treated kindly.” It is easy to understand why, in the quiet life of a country parish, these two bachelor friends became in time inseparable. An essential part of him would have died had he been forbidden to keep his diary. And as we readif reading is the word for itwe seem to be listening to someone who is murmuring over the events of the day to himself in the quiet space which precedes sleep. It is not writing, and, to speak the truth, it is not reading. It is slipping through half a dozen pages and strolling to the window and looking out. It is going on thinking about the Woodfordes while we watch the people in the street below. It is taking a walk and making up the life and character of James Woodforde as we make up our friends’ characters, turning over something they have said, pondering the meaning of something they have done, remembering how they looked one day when they thought themselves unobserved. It is not reading, it is ruminating.

James Woodforde, then, was one of those smoothcheeked, steady-eyed men, demure to look at, whom we can never imagine except in the prime of life. He was of an equable temper, with only such acerbities and touchinesses as are generally to be found in those who have had a love affair in their youth and remained, as they fancy, unwed because of it. The Parson’s love affair, however, was nothing very tremendous. Once, when he was a young man in Somerset, he liked to walk over to Shepton and to visit a certain “sweet tempered” Betsy White who lived there. He had a great mind “to make a bold stroke” and ask her to marry him. He went so far, indeed, as to propose marriage “when opportunity served” and Betsy was willing. But he delayed; time passed; four years passed indeed, and Betsy went to Devonshire, met a Mr. Webster who had five hundred pounds a year and married him. When James Woodforde met them in the Turnpike Road he could say little, “being shy,” but to his diary he remarkedand this, no doubt, was his private version of the affair ever after“she has proved herself to me a mere jilt.”

But he was a young man then, and as time went on we cannot help suspecting that he was glad to consider the question of “bold strokes” and marriage shelved for once and for all, so that he might settle down with his niece, Nancy, at Weston Longueville, and give himself simply and solely every day and all day to the great business of living. What else to call it we do not know. James Woodforde was nothing in particular. Life had it all her own way with him. He had no special gift; he had no oddity or infirmity. It is idle to pretend that he was a zealous priest. God in Heaven was the same to him as King George upon the thronea kindly Monarch, that is to say, whose festivals one kept by preaching a sermon on Sunday, much as one kept the royal birthday by firing a blunderbuss and drinking a toast at dinner. Should anything untoward happen, like the death of a boy who was dragged and killed by a horse, he would instantly but rather perfunctorily exclaim, “I hope to God the Poor Boy is happy” and add “We all came home singing”; just as when Justice Creed’s peacock spread its tail“and most noble it is”he would exclaim “How wonderful are Thy Ways, O God, in everything!” But there was no fanaticism, no enthusiasm, no lyric impulse about James Woodforde. In all these pages indeed, each so neatly divided into compartments and each of those again filled, as the days themselves were, so quietly and so fully, in a hand like the pacing of a well tempered nag, one can only call to mind a single poetic phrase about the transit of Venus, how “It appeared as a black patch upon a fair Lady’s face.” The words themselves are mild enough, but they hang over the undulating expanse of the Parson’s prose with the resplendence of the star itself. Less effects have been achieved with greater efforts. So, in the fen country, a barn or a tree appears twice its natural size against the surrounding flats. But what led him to this palpable excess, that summer’s night, we do not know. It cannot have been that he was drunk. He spoke out too roundly against such failings in his brother Jack to have been guilty himself. Jack drank at the Catherine Wheel. Jack came home and had the impudence to defend suicide to his old father. Jack himself drank his pint of port, but he was a man who liked his meat. When we think of the Woodfordes, uncle and niece, we think of them, as often as not, waiting with some impatience for their dinner. They gravely watch the joint set upon the table; they swiftly get their knives and forks to work upon the succulent leg or loin, and, without much comment, unless a word is passed about the gravy or the stuffing, go on eating. They munch day after day, year after year, until they have devoured herds of sheep and oxen, flocks of poultry, an odd dozen or so of swans and cygnets, bushels of apples and plums, while the pastries and the jellies crumble and squash beneath their spoons in mountains, in pyramids, in pagodas. Never was there a book so stuffed with food as this one is. To read the bill of fare, respectfully set forth almost every day, gives one a sense of repletion. It is as if one had lunched at Simpson’s daily for a week. Trout and chicken, mutton and peas, pork and apple sauceso the joints succeed each other at dinner, and there is supper, with more joints to come, all, no doubt, home grown and of the juiciest and sweetest; all cooked, often by the mistress herself, in the plainest English way, save when the dinner was at Weston Hall and Mrs. Custance, for whom James Woodforde had a chivalrous devotion, would play the “Sticcardo Pastorale” and make “very soft music indeed”; or would get out her work box and show them how neatly contrived it was, unless, indeed, Mrs. Custance were giving birth to another child upstairs, whom the Parson would baptize, and, very frequently, bury. The Parson had a deep respect for the Custances. They were all the country gentry should bea little given to the habit of keeping mistresses, perhaps, but that peccadillo could be forgiven them in view of their generosity to the poor, the kindness they showed to Nancy, and their condescension in asking the Parson to dinner when they had great people staying with them. Yet great people were not much to James’ liking. Deeply though he respected the nobility, “one must confess,” he said “that being with our equals is much more agreeable.” ....

August 27, 1927.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love

James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.

The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective volumes with a health warning in capital letters pointing out what should have been obvious: that Larkin talked that way only in his private life; that he believed his letters to be part of his private life, too; and that in his public life he was courteous and charming to anyone he met, of whatever gender or racial background.

Plainly they hadn’t thought it necessary. It shouldn’t have been. But there were dunces waiting, who relished the chance to diminish him. A depressing number of British literary figures averred that it was no longer necessary to read Larkin’s small body of work (he produced barely a hundred pages of poetry), and a few were dumb enough to say that it had never been any good in the first place.

This reversal of estimation was too wild to stick. There were too many people — on both sides of the Atlantic, and anywhere else English is read and spoken — who simply loved Larkin’s poems. In the last two decades that opinion has managed to reassert itself: an encouraging example of error wearing out its welcome. The chief virtue of Booth’s new book, then, is not to advance a new opinion, but to sensibly demonstrate why the original remains the opinion that matters.

Booth — a colleague of Larkin’s for 17 years at the University of Hull and literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society — is an excellent guide to just why a Larkin poem can merit being called great. He points out its features with the proud care of a well-suited senior BMW executive taking a turn in the salesroom. Sometimes he overdoes the enthusiasm. Discussing the mighty poem “The Whitsun Weddings,” for instance, in which the narrator’s train encounters wedding party after wedding party along its journey to London — “A dozen marriages got under way” — he notes the “unmistakable sexual implication” in the imagery (“there swelled / A sense of falling”). If the sexual implication were really unmistakable it wouldn’t be worth any special notice. Speaking for myself, however, I can only say that it’s so mistakable it never occurred to me. In those last lines of the poem Larkin isn’t talking about sex, he’s talking, with incomparable eloquence, about the present day flying onward to become the future.

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