Showing posts from May, 2015

The Acutest Ear in Paris - Marcel Proust

I have not been able to discover whether there exists a precise French equivalent for the common Anglo-American expression "killing time." It's a very crass and breezy expression, when you ponder it for a moment, considering that time, after all, is killing us. Marcel Proust was the man who, by contemplating in a way that transcended the moment, attempted to interpenetrate these two forbidding alternatives.

When the Monty Python gang acted out its "Summarize Proust" competition, one of the contestant teams, a madrigal group, was cut off abruptly by the master of ceremonies before it had got beyond the opening stave of Swann's Way. One can readily appreciate the difficulty; yet if I were asked to "summarize" the achievement of Proust, I should reply as dauntlessly as I dared that his is the work par excellence that exposes and clarifies the springs of human motivation. Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and…

In George Gissing’s strange time

George Gissing has never been a popular writer, and never will be. He gets no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, though few novelists have been more literary or better read than Gissing. This wouldn’t have surprised him. Though eager to have intelligent readers, he despised popularity and had a low opinion of the popular writers of his own day, even Robert Louis Stevenson. I would guess that you could assemble a group of a hundred tolerably well-read people and find nobody who had read any of Gissing’s twenty-odd novels. Acquaintanceship with Gissing might be limited to George Orwell’s admiring essay, but, even though Orwell thought him perhaps the best of English novelists, he doesn’t make him alluring. The novels Orwell himself wrote in the 1930s are evidently indebted to Gissing; he might indeed be called Orwell’s master. But then novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are themselves dogged pieces of work, kept in print on account of O…

Theodore Roethke: The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.    I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.    I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?    I hear my being dance from ear to ear.    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?    God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,    And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?    The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do    To you and me; so take the lively air,    And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.    What falls away is always. And is near.    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.    I learn by going where I have to go.

Dürer's Melencolia I – a masterpiece, and a diagnosis

Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose.

In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Young Man in London's National Gallery. The influence of Dürer's print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer's print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail.

Dürer's work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms.…

William Styron: Darkness Visible

For the thing which
I greatly feared is come upon me,
and that which I was afraid of
Is come into me.
I was not in safety, neither
had I rest, neither was I quiet;
Yet trouble came. —Job

Abbie’s brother appeared on television, grief-ravaged and distraught; one could not help feeling compassion as he sought to deflect the idea of suicide, insisting that Abbie, after all, had always been careless with pills and would never have left his family bereft. However, the coroner confirmed that Hoffman had taken the equivalent of 150 phenobarbitals. It’s quite natural that the people closest to suicide victims so frequently and feverishly hasten to disclaim the truth; the sense of implication, of personal guilt—the idea that one might have prevented the act if one had taken certain precautions, had somehow behaved differently—is perhaps inevitable. Even so, the sufferer—whether he has actually killed himself or attempted to do so, or merely expressed threats— is often, through denial on the part of ot…

Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.

 “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” That’s the Plath-world, freakishly bleak, exerting its tractor-beam fascination on American culture. Fifty years after she killed herself, we find her vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry sitting in a region of cultural near-­exhaustion. Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation. A Massachusetts girlhood; a precocious literary ascent interrupted by an early nervous breakdown…

Flawed Perfection - Edna St. Vincent Millay

EDNA MILLAY GOT her vivid and aristocratic-sounding middle name from the hospital in New York City that saved her Uncle Charlie's life. Drunk on the New Orleans waterfront, Charles Buzzell boarded a ship while it was loading grain and fell asleep on a bale of cotton in the hold. He woke to find himself pinned below deck, out of earshot and unable to move. After ten days without food or water, he saw a bright light expanding suddenly in the black hull, "& I could see through the ship as though it was made of clear glass." Rushed to St. Vincent's, he was convinced forever after that he had entered the spirit world and been reborn. He began to appear at the Globe Museum on the Bowery as "The Adventurer and Evangelist Chas. A. Buzzell, The New Orleans Stowaway." Six days after his miraculous rebirth, Edna St. Vincent Millay—nicknamed "Vincent" almost immediately—was born on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1892, in Camden, Maine.


Elizabeth Bishop at Summer Camp

“I have never been homesick but just at present I feel awfly campsick,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, the summer she was fourteen. She had just finished a month at the sailing camp on Cape Cod where she spent her teenage summers, a camp where she found respite from the families engaged in a tug-of-war over her upbringing (it would be too much to say her affections), her father’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her mother’s in Revere and farther away in Great Village, Nova Scotia. For much of her childhood, this shy and sickly girl had been carted from one set of relatives to another like a piece of luggage.

Bishop was born in Worcester in 1911. When she was still a baby, her father, William Bishop, died of Bright’s disease (the term a century ago for acute or chronic nephritis). After his death, her mother’s grief slowly hardened into suicidal despair, and she tried to take her life by leaping from a hospital window. At last, having for five years dressed in mourning clothes, Gertrude Bisho…

Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty

On April 24th, Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, took time off from her regular duties in the International Space Station to read from the Divine Comedy. She picked the opening canto of the Paradiso, in which Dante describes his ascent through the circle of fire and his approach toward God:

I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
not speak.

As Cristoforetti spun around the globe at the rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour, her reading was beamed back to earth and shown in a movie theater in Florence.

Ten days later, the actor Roberto Benigni recited the last canto of Paradiso in the Italian Senate. His selection included the poem’s famous closing lines:

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already like
a wheel revolving uniformly by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The senators gave the comedian a standing ovation. That same day, Pope F…

A Back Way Into Eden: Elaboration on Kleist

To be innocent is to be on the right side of the law, to have avoided crime. But if you’re ignorant of the law, that alone is enough to render you innocent—if not legally at least morally. And of course if there were no law at all one would be innocent always. No action is in itself enough to stain one’s innocence, to render one guilty; knowledge of right action is needed as well. (There are men who in their whole lives will never be as entirely innocent as a cat tormenting a half-eaten mouse.) It is not the criminal act itself but its relation to a law—its difference with respect to law—that makes for sin. Yet even to obey a law (to act not merely in accordance with it but because of it) is already to know the seed of this difference. Christ taught that even merely to lust after a woman is already to commit adultery in one’s heart, and we understand very well that this is so: in lust one part of our soul is already over the line. But if Christ is right, no one has ever obeyed the com…

Vivian Gornick: 'Most people who are writing memoirs are not writers'

The first thing one notices about Vivian Gornick’s apartment is how spare it is. The walls are lined with tall bookshelves but there is little other element there by way of decoration other than some cat paraphernalia for her pair of tabbies. I have come prepared for the sight; towards the beginning of her typically lucid new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick writes that her friends tease her about her “indifference to acquisition”.

It’s not really the result of anti-materialism, though Gornick is very aware of class and labour issues. “All my life I’ve made do with less,” she writes, “because ‘stuff’ makes me anxious.” Another thing this memoir records Gornick as failing to acquire is a live-in partner, but that is treated as a secondary question to her working life and to the city – New York – where she has lived this whole time. The whole book then serves as an implicit clarion call to her fellow “Odd Women”, a term she borrows from the George Gissing novel to describe her…

Cecilia Bartoli: 'Sacrificium' - 'The art of the castrati'

The Art of the Castrati
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini
A cinematographic vision by Olivier Simmonet
Filmed at the Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy

Works on Paper - The letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

In 1947, Elizabeth Bishop published “At the Fishhouses,” in this magazine. Among those who admired the poem was her new friend the poet Robert Lowell. “I liked your New Yorker fish poem,” he wrote. “I am a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!” Bishop, who was staying at the time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, had written to Lowell of the region’s marvellous bird life, “auks and the only puffins left on the continent, or so they tell us . . . real ravens on the beach . . . enormous, with sort of rough black beards under their beaks.” In response, Lowell lamented, “Puffins are in my book of New England birds, but I’ve never seen one.” As for Nova Scotia, he recalled it as the site of a bad trout-fishing expedition with his grandfather, including a “horrible after sea-sick feeling” and a few “dismal low-tide gulls.”

From the start, Lowell and Bishop were intent on being a mismatch. When Lowell invited Bishop to visit him in Washington, where he was serving as Consultant i…

Amitav Ghosh: There is now a vibrant literary world in India

About 10 years ago Amitav Ghosh began work on a new novel about departures. His experience of moving from India to Britain in the 1970s had been “wrenching” and set him wondering what it was like for Indian people travelling to England in the 19th century. “So I began to write about some characters who might have been among the first people to leave India, and immediately I came up against this immense canvas that lies behind relations between India, Britain and China. It was essentially all about opium and it was clear this was not a story I was going tell in a single book.”

So Ghosh set about writing a fictional account of the period leading up to the first opium war (1839-42), in which UK and China clashed over the British importation of opium, grown on their Indian plantations, into China. Sea of Poppies was published in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. It was the first part of what has become the 1,600-page Ibis trilogy, named after the schooner that ferries both opi…