Showing posts from March, 2015

The Meeting That Never Was

ONE DAY in February 1945, in Paris, George Orwell waited at the café Deux Magots, where he was to meet Albert Camus for the first time. But Camus, suffering from tuberculosis and exhaustion — because of which he was currently on leave from his editorship of the resistance newspaper Combat — didn’t show up. They would never again have the chance to meet each other. Five years later, Orwell died, in England — from an illness related to his own tuberculosis.

This may very well be one of the great missed opportunities in 20th-century European letters. But although Orwell and Camus were two of the most intriguing political and literary figures of their time, they are rarely considered in relation to each other, and when they are, it is usually not to any great depth. There are superficial similarities between them that tend to distract from looking for deeper affinities, albeit buried beneath significant antimonies. Although, politically and intellectually, they drew many of the same conclu…

Pulling back the curtain - Jean Rhys

When I first read Jean Rhys's short novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie in my early 20s, I felt a strong sense of empathy. It was the attraction of identification. I identified with the main character, Julia Martin. She was a tragic figure. She stayed in disreputable hotels and drank alone. "The landlady ... disapproved of Julia's habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes: a bottle no. That was the landlady's point of view."

Julia liked to go for long walks. She was a seeker of adventure at a time when women were expected to be demure. "[She] wanted to go away with just the same feeling a boy has when he wants to run away to sea ... Do you understand that a girl might have that feeling?"

She had known the heady pleasure of being desired, but her beauty was fading and so too was her power. "She had grown fatter in the last few months and [her coat] was now too tight and too short for her. She imagined that it gave her a ridiculous…

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

“A novel”, it says boldly on the front cover. The thing about Alice Munro is that she only writes short stories, so this is meant to be some sort of unique selling point; but the discrete chapters and the tone of the writing suggest a collection of interlinked short stories with the same narrator. Its form, however, is not the most interesting thing about it: that, of course, is the writing. This is Munro’s second book, published in 1971 and reprinted a few times since then, but it is clear that she already has complete tonal command of her material. Most of it is based on the small Canadian town of Jubilee, Ontario, a place of mildly stifling gentility which provides her with a rich soil in which she can grow her stories. The book opens about midway through the second world war, but there are only the scantest references to locate us in time. The point for Munro is to look at the everyday. There is a character called Uncle Craig who has been writing a history of the county and his fami…

Dylan Thomas: Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Visiting Gore Vidal

In the summer of 1980, at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, precursor of the present festival, I was introduced to Gore Vidal as the editor of the New Edinburgh Review. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Vidal asked as he took my hand, referring to the first editor (1803–29) of the Edinburgh Review. “The wide eyes were alive with humour and so was the smiling mouth”, in the words of the memoir by the Austrian aristocrat Cecilia Sternberg, quoted, along with other passages in praise of himself, in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I was suitably charmed. Interviewed onstage, he answered questions with the amusing acerbity expected of him. When I included in my report for the TLS a characteristic witticism about Anthony Burgess (also present at the conference) writing for “an imaginary readership”, Vidal wrote a letter without smiling mouth to the Editor to deny that he had said any such thing. “How could I? I am part of Burgess’s audience and although I am often grotesquely imagined, I am not imagi…

Beckett in Love

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.” In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. T…

Hermann Hesse: In the Fog

It's strange to wander in the fog!
A lonely bush, a lonely stone,
No tree can see the other one,
And one is all alone.

The world was full of friends back then,
As life was light to me;
But now the fog has come,
And no one can I see.

Truly, no one is wise,
Who does not know the dark
Which inevitably and silently
Does from others him part.

It's strange to wander in the fog!
Life is loneliness
No Man knows the other one,
And one is all alone.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf

Six volumes of real genius boiled down into 1,500 words of solid prose!" she spluttered in 1905 over the task of writing a review article about Jane Carlyle's letters. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, the editors of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume I," announce their intent to issue a total of six volumes of her letters in six years, at the end of which the reviewer will face a similarly impossible task, for Virginia Woolf bids fair to be remembered as a great letter-writer as well as a novelist and critic.

Not all, by any means, of the letters in the present volume are pure gold, but the wonderful ones she writes about her work, mostly to women friends, when in her twenties and beginning to be a professional writer, give us a new Virginia Woolf - not without tears (tragic family deaths and mental breakdowns fill these years) but without Bloomsbury.

To be exact, these are the letters of Virginia Stephen, literary spinster, in her first 30 years fro 1888 when…

A tale of two tongues - Hugo Hamilton's memoir The Speckled People

Anyone setting out to write about their Irish childhood should have in mind Roy Foster's gleefully ferocious attack on the Frank McCourt school of bestselling, cliché-ridden "miserable Irish-Catholic childhoods" written with "an utter lack of distinguished style". They will also be conscious of the glittering weight of more distinguished predecessors in Irish autobiography, from Yeats and Shaw to Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and Patrick Kavanagh.

Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People triumphantly avoids the Angela's Ashes style of sentimental nostalgia and victim claims, and stands up well in the mighty, unending competition for most memorable Irish life-story. It does not subtitle itself a memoir (though the blurb calls it one), and it's not a straightforward reminiscence. More like the early pages of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, it's shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a…

Dutch Courage: The letters of Vincent Van Gogh

"The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to avenge myself by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent." So wrote Vincent Van Gogh from Arles to his sister Willemien in September 1888, describing the exhilarating joy of painting sunflowers, the night sky, and the cottages and fishing boats of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

He had just painted a self-portrait "in ashy tones against a pale Veronese background", a subject chosen, he told his brother Theo, "for want of a model". He looks ill and ageing, his red hair receding, his face sunken (he had lost many teeth, probably through poor diet), his cheekbones gaunt and jutting, and his expression grim. Yet the brilliance of the colour and the intensity of the brushwork are vibrant with triumphant life. This portrait is but one example of the paradox of his laborious and painful struggle to emerge from the darkness to the light: an epic pilgrimage, tracked and documented by letters, …

What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?

August of 1929, Sigmund Freud scoffed at the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography. “That is of course quite an impossible suggestion,” he wrote to his nephew, who had conveyed an American publisher’s suggestion that the great man write his life story. “Outwardly,” Freud went on, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, “my life has passed calmly and uneventfully and can be covered by a few dates.” Inwardly—and who knew better?—things were a bit more complicated:
A psychologically complete and honest confession of life, on the other hand, would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.Freud ended by suggesting that the five-thousand-dollar advance that had been offered was a hundredth of the sum necessary to tempt him into such a foolhardy venture.

Unseemly self-e…

Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life

The Brecht Industry rolls on: doctoral dissertations, journals, blogs, websites, YouTube, and memoirs comprising millions of pages, much to the consternation of the boys at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, who must be musing on how it is that an ardent anti-capitalist has entranced the cognoscenti and, much like Che, taken the moral high-ground despite the ubiquitous mercantilist hard sell at Fox News. Is there a credible pro-capitalist playwright, or are we still drifting with the platitudes and prose of an Ayn Rand as counter example?

One of the answers to that riddle may be that Brecht in his short 58 years wrote forty extraordinary plays; created an exemplary body of German poetry and song, and wrote twenty volumes of theoretical work, in addition to the journals, media analysis, letters, film scripts, drafts, rewrites and dramaturgical notes. Much of this work was created while Brecht was on the run from the Gestapo, and with his name on a Nazi hit list. Still in his ea…

Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry by Paul Celan

In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes the famous claim that language “is the house of Being.” What he means by this is, as with nearly everything Heidegger wrote, a topic of debate. The letter itself produces a distinctly defiant, not to say polemical effect, reflective of those turbulent postwar years in Europe. Its target is the group of French intellectuals known as existentialists, lead by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Heidegger feels has misinterpreted the philosophical project in his landmark Being and Time by using some of its claims as a foundation for a new metaphysics. He goes on to say that the “reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement . . . [Sartre] stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”

But, then, there are many other points at which Heidegger says essentially the same thing about Being and Time itself, and so the criticism of Sartre is equally a self-criticism. Following what scholars refer to a…

Seneca: A Life review

Should philosophers practise what they preach? The question is unavoidable when it comes to Seneca. Here is a man who said “being poor is not having too little but wanting more” while pocketing 300 million sestertii writing speeches for the monstrous Nero. Here is a man who said the wealthy should be generous with their money, while using his own sordid gains to become richer still as a landlord and lender. (Some historians believe the Boudican revolt was prompted by Seneca’s calling in the extortionately rated loans he had forced on subject Britons.)

Worse, as Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life makes clear, pretty much every one of Seneca’s works can be read as an explanation or an excuse for whatever he or Nero had been up to in the weeks preceding its composition. On Clemency, a paean to Nero’s non-violent nature, appeared mere months after the emperor had had his stepbrother murdered. On Leisure was composed just as Seneca was trying to sweet-talk Nero into letting him retire from an in…

Paul Éluard: Uninterrupted Poetry

From the sea to the sourceFrom mountain to plain Runs the phantom of life The foul shadow of death But between us A dawn of ardent flesh is born And exact good that sets the earth in order We advance with calm step And nature salutes us The day embodies our colours Fire our eyes the sea our union And all living resemble us All the living we love Imaginary the others Wrong and defined by their birth But we must struggle against them They live by dagger blows They speak like a broken chair Their lips tremble with joy At the echo of leaden bells At the muteness of dark gold A lone heart not a heart A lone heart all the hearts And the bodies every star In a sky filled with stars In a career in movement Of light and of glances Our weight shines on the earth Glaze of desire To sing of human shores For you the living I love And for all those that we love That have no desire but to love I’ll end truly by barring the road Afloat with enforced dreams I’ll end truly by finding myself We’ll take possession of earth

Translated by A. …

Janet Galloway - This is Not About Me

A PAIR of too-heavy drawers hangs from a garden washing line in Saltcoats. Janet Galloway, mother of Janice, is propped upright in a foldaway chair, her bare arms extended as if she is expecting sun. She is wearing earrings and a necklace that might be pearl. A show of knees. Her black short-sleeved dress could be her Sunday best. She is in her 20s, perhaps, but there is no date on the back of the photograph her daughter is showing me. We are in a Glasgow café, and Janice Galloway is in killer boots. Black-and-white pictures poke out of a creased brown envelope, their yellowed edges frayed and damaged by time. In one, the nine-month-old Galloway sits for a studio portrait, her hair drawn up in a clump of curls. She can't walk yet but the expression on her face suggests she would like to. Her mother has left the room: the infant is looking at the already-closed door, a little frightened. The present-day Janice Galloway is full of laughter, the small child turned woman. In one hand sh…