Showing posts from January, 2015

Alice Munro’s Magic

The stories selected in Family Furnishings, a fine and timely follow-up to Alice Munro’s winning of the 2013 Nobel Prize, date (it says on the cover) from 1995 to 2014, thus making a sequel to the Selected Stories of 1996, which drew on the previous thirty years of Munro’s writing. But there is one exception to this dating in the new selection, the magnificent story “Home.” “Home” was first published in a collection of Canadian stories in 1974, so it was written when Munro was in her early forties. She then went on working on it for thirty years, revising, correcting, and changing its shape, and it was republished in much-altered form in 2006: so it appears here as a “late” story. That process of revisiting is fundamental to Munro’s methods. She constantly revises her work; she reuses her subject matter with the utmost concentration and attention; and her characters, like her (and often they are like her), compulsively return to their pasts. “Home” tells of a visit, in the first person…

The real Clarissa Dalloway

“What a lark! What a plunge.” Clarissa Dalloway’s words on leaving her house to buy flowers for her party that evening might have been those of Virginia Woolf, her creator, when in 1907 she had set up home with her brother Adrian at 29 Fitzroy Square – an event which proved seminal in the creation of the Bloomsbury Group.

Woolf’s model for Mrs Dalloway was her childhood friend Kitty Maxse, née Lushington. “Almost Kitty verbatim”, Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa concerning Mrs Dalloway; “what would happen if she guessed”. (In a letter to her sister Susan, Kitty summed up their childhood days with “What a lark it all was”.) Exactly how much Clarissa mirrored Kitty has been the subject of much speculation, however. The Lushington and the Stephen families had been friends for many years and Woolf later recalled how, at her childhood home, 22 Hyde Park Gate, “The tea-table however was also fertilized by a ravishing stream of female beauty – the three Miss Lushingtons, the three Miss St…

Self-Made Man - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance(1934), says nothing about these rumours, but it is easy to see how her own accounts of the past would have fuelled them. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls inThe Reef(1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’ Anna Leath’s memory of Old New York is scarcely distinguishable from her creator…

Byron: When We Two Parted

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken —hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this. The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame. They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long I shall rue thee,
Too deeply to tell. In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

Van Gogh: The Courage & the Cunning


The strange and brilliant fiction of Hilary Mantel

So the novel begins: “When Mrs Axon found out about her daughter’s condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed.” Mysteriously, Evelyn Axon’s daughter Muriel is pregnant, and “Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” Something is wrong with Muriel, but before we can work out what a visitor arrives, in dim autumnal light, at the Axons’ house in a suburban avenue of an English town. It is Mrs Sidney, who wishes to contact her dead husband. Evelyn, who is evidently a medium, offers her orange squash and the heat of a two-bar electric fire. Invited to talk about her husband, Mrs Sidney becomes distressed: “the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth”. Evelyn contemplates her growing symptoms of distress. “There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.”

This is the opening of Hilary Mantel’s f…

Mrs. Woolf, Uncommon Reader

Among the foremost stylists of the present day, Virginia Woolf is also among those whose words are more than ordinarily worth one's while to listen to. A keenly discerning critic of books and men, as proved by her first "Common Reader," her deserved reputation is enhanced by the second of these collections. "I rejoice to concur with the common reader," wrote Dr. Johnson. The common reader again has the opportunity to rejoice with Mrs. Woolf - and over Dr. Johnson, among others.
Not all of the papers in the collection at hand are new, and some of then first appeared in American periodicals. None has to do with any living author. The paper on Thomas Hardy cones nearest to the present day. Mrs. Woolf writes of Donne, Swift, Defoe, Sterne, Dorothy Wordsworth and Hazlitt among the ancients. There are some twenty or more papers within the covers of the volume, the last one of which bears the questioning title, "How Should One Read a Book?" The interrogation,…

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

London in the blitz influenced the creative lives of many important English writers, from Graham Greene to Rose Macaulay. But none captured wartime London as memorably as Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), an Anglo-Irish writer who first attracted critical attention with a collection of short-stories in 1923. Like The Death of the Heart, her prewar masterpiece, The Heat of the Day opens in Regent’s Park, on “the first Sunday of September 1942”, with the sinister figure of Harrison, a counterespionage agent posing as an airman, chatting up a woman at an open-air concert. He’s killing time till his evening “date” with Stella Rodney, the novel’s protagonist, an attractive, independent woman “on happy sensuous terms with life” who works for a government agency called XYD and is described as a “camper in rooms of draughty dismantled houses”. Stella is dispossessed, but she has in her lover Robert, a Dunkirk survivor, someone with whom she can share mutual passion and “the continuous narrative of l…

Edgar Lee Masters: Silence

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea, 
And the silence of the city when it pauses, 
And the silence of a man and a maid, 
And the silence of the sick 
When their eyes roam about the room. 
And I ask: For the depths, 
Of what use is language? 
A beast of the field moans a few times 
When death takes its young. 
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities -- 
We cannot speak. 

A curious boy asks an old soldier 
Sitting in front of the grocery store, 
"How did you lose your leg?" 
And the old soldier is struck with silence, 
Or his mind flies away 
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg. 
It comes back jocosely 
And he says, "A bear bit it off." 
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier 
Dumbly, feebly lives over 
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon, 
The shrieks of the slain, 
And himself lying on the ground, 
And the hospital surgeons, the knives, 
And the long days in bed. 
But if he could describe it all 
He would be an artist. 
But if he were an artist…

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet, No1

February 17, 1903
Dear Sir,

     Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

     With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, "My Soul." There, some thing of your own is trying to become word and melody.…

It Can Be Embarrassing to Love Dorothea

George Eliot’s Middlemarchhas been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but itisnine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.
I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man o…