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Showing posts from October, 2015

Knausgaard’s Triumph

The serial publication of the six volumes of My Struggle—four of them so far translated from Norwegian into English—has been one of the most exciting developments in contemporary fiction. The books recount, not always chronologically, the childhood, adolescence, first and second marriages, and fatherhood of a character who shares author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s name, family, and history. Not quite an autobiography, My Struggle contains invented dialogue and details that it would have been impossible for Knausgaard to remember. The volumes span 3,600 pages, and leisurely attention is given to such activities as childhood play, a teenage attempt to procure alcohol for a party, dinner conversation, visits to grandparents, a music class with one of his young daughters, and much more of everyday life past and present.

All of this is surprisingly interesting, even addictive, as has often been pointed out in reviews. But no one can pinpoint precisely why. A striking element in the praise of Knau…

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman

Few writers have inspired as many biographies as Charlotte Brontë, beginning with Elizabeth Gaskell's classic life, published in 1857, only two years after its subject's death. What has come to be known as the Brontë story went on to imprint itself on the cultural memory, spawning sentimental legends aplenty, an afterlife both rich and contested and, in more recent times, some much-needed corrective scholarship.

The fact that there has been no major biography of Charlotte for more than 20 years is an unusual hiatus in the ongoing saga of her reception. Claire Harman's new book has benefited hugely from this breathing space, and suggests that we have got beyond the need to demythologise the Brontës. With no particular interpretative or ideological axe to grind, Harman is able to tell the story straight, and to get rid of all argumentation and clutter.

And what a story it still is, beginning with the extraordinary narrative of the Brontës' father Patrick. The son of semi-l…

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: On the Didease of the Soul

You have been complaining that my letters to you are rather carelessly written. Now who talks carefully unless he also desires to talk affectedly? I prefer that my letters should be just what my conversation would be if you and I were sitting in one another’s company or taking walks together,—spontaneous and easy; for my letters have nothing strained or artificial about them. If it were possible, I should prefer to show, rather than speak, my feelings. Even if I were arguing a point, I should not stamp my foot, or toss my arms about, or raise my voice; but I should leave that sort of thing to the orator, and should be content to have conveyed my feelings to you without having either embellished them or lowered their dignity. I should like to convince you entirely of this one fact,—that I feel whatever I say, that I not only feel it, but am wedded to it. It is one sort of kiss which a man gives his mistress, and another which he gives his children; yet in the father’s embrace also, hol…

Divided soul - Christa Wolf

CHRISTA WOLF, an East German writer known for her perspectives on power, was for a long time a serious contender for the Nobel prize in literature. Then the East German state ceased to exist in 1990, and the reputation of its most celebrated author also imploded. In 1993 Wolf was revealed to have been an informer for the secret police, the Stasi. Worse, to West German critics, she delayed publishing her own account of being spied upon, a novella written in 1979 and entitled “What Remains”, until the Berlin Wall came down.

In her last years Wolf, who died in 2011, was branded an opportunist who not only failed to blow the whistle on a corrupt dictatorship, but enjoyed all the privileges doled out to a “state poet”. Now a brace of new translations—of her first novel, and her last—offer English speakers a more generous reading of her literature and life.

An ardent young socialist convinced of culture’s mission to educate, Wolf wrote her first novel in 1963. Originally called “Divided Heave…

How Proust's 'madeleine moment' changed the world forever

In one respect Marcel Proust is like Richard Wagner: each created one world-famous work of such scope and depth that people hesitate to explore them. Complexity should never be a barrier to intellectual curiosity, especially when the pleasure and enlightenment to be obtained are of the magnitude both these artists offer.

Wagner's Ring cycle, around 16 hours of drama and music in four separate operas, is one of the greatest achievements in music and also one of the most rewarding. Likewise, the sequence of seven novels that make up Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu is to my mind the finest work of fiction ever written in any language. It leaves the reader with an altered understanding of the nature of reality, human relationships and perceptions.

Proust wrote the novels between 1909 and his death in 1922 at the age of 51. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he lived a normal span. In one sense he was a late casualty of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71: he was…

John Locke: Reading

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This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in. Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment. There are indeed in some writers visible instances of deep thoughts, close and acute reasoning, and ideas well pursued. The light these would give would be of great use if their readers would observe and imitate them; all the rest at best are but particulars fit to be turned into knowledge, but that can be done only by our own meditation, and examining the reach, force, and coherence of what is said; and then, as far as we apprehend and see the connexion of ideas, so far it is ours; without that, it is but so much loose matter floating in …

The Pound Error - The elusive master of allusion

Ezra Pound turns up five times in Peter Gay’s big survey of the modern movement in literature and the arts, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy”—once in connection with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which Pound edited), once as the author of an anti-Semitic sentiment (one of many), and three times as the originator of the slogan “Make It New” (which suits the theme of Gay’s account). Pound’s poetry and criticism are not discussed; no reader of Gay’s book would have any idea of what his importance or influence as a writer might be. Gay’s is a commodious volume with a long reach, “From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond”; still, a handful of passing references seems a sharp decline in market value for a writer who was once the hero of a book called “The Pound Era.” 

Pound’s aspirations for literature were grand. He believed that bad writing destroyed civilizations and that good writing could save them, and although he was an élitist about what counted as art and who mattered as an artist, he…

The Beginning of the End, the Battle at the End, and the End

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surprised the world by suddenly attacking its own ally, the Soviet Union. Certainly the Soviets were surprised, in that dull-faced flat-footed way the treacherous are always surprised by treachery. The German offensive was in its first few weeks a textbook success of the patented Blitzkrieg type; Minsk, Gomel, and Kiev all fell immediately to the advancing Wehrmacht, and Wolfram voin Richthofen’s Luftwaffe destroyed the ragged Russian air force with contemptuous ease. Prisoners of war were taken in vast numbers, burgeoning croplands were avidly coveted. The guiding objective of all this summer slaughter was obvious though at first unstated: to capture Moscow before the worst of winter set in, to knock the Russian bear out of the fight in the first round. This had worked before – Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium: all had fallen with a speed that astonished both themselves and international onlookers.

The mo…

She gives me partridges - Alma Mahler Werfel

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Alma Mahler Werfel celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out. Luminaries from the ‘German California’ scene came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius’s divorced wife and Oscar Kokoshka’s former lover. Thomas Mann, who was one of the guests, offered ‘cordial felicitations on your special day’. Some of Mann’s friends were astonished that he could maintain his friendship with Alma when he had been such a prominent opponent of Nazism. After all, she was an unrepentant anti-Semite who spoke openly and often of her preference for Aryans and her disappointment with Jews, even though she had married two of them, Mahler and Werfel. At a social ev…

Barstool Stories - Bohumil Hrabal

Bohumil Hrabal was the brash and boozy child of the Czech twentieth century. Born in Austro-Hungarian Moravia in 1914, he was an infant under monarchism on the cusp of the House of Habsburg’s collapse; later, he became an adolescent under democracy and the first Czechoslovak nation, a railway laborer under Nazism and Hitler’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, an insurance salesman, steelworker, paper-packer, and stagehand through the Third Republic and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s 1948 coup d’état, a persona non grata after the failure of “socialism with a human face” and the Warsaw Pact’s crackdown, a celebrity after the Velvet Revolution, and a legend in the newly formed Czech Republic. He wrote lush, lengthy sentences—lines that flowed on for pages, folding memories into memories, stories into stories—that painted a tableau of his ever-changing homeland. Banned from publishing after the 1968 Soviet invasion, he circulated his most popular works illegally in samizdat. …

Heroine Addict - What Theodor Fontane’s women want

Whatever others may have thought of the novels of Theodor Fontane—and the long-standing consensus is that they are, as one critic has noted, “the most completely achieved of any written between Goethe and Thomas Mann”—Fontane himself clearly thought that they were pretty unexciting. To his mind, “L’Adultera” (1882), one of the studies of tormented heroines on which his present-day reputation rests, was primarily about “the circumstantial and the scenery.” He characterized “The Poggenpuhls” (1896), the story of an aristocratic family frantically maneuvering to extract itself from genteel poverty, as a book that “is not a novel and has no subject-matter.” In May of 1898, a few months before he died, at the age of seventy-eight, he wrote a letter rather wearily describing “The Stechlin,” the unusually “pudgy” tome (most of his fiction is bracingly short) that was the last work he lived to see published: 

An old man dies and two young people get married,—that is just about all that happen…

The Man with the Golden Typewriter - Ian Fleming

In June 1957, with five successful Bond novels to his name and Dr No in the works, Ian Fleming displayed one of the unmistakable signs of megalomania: he began to write of himself in the third person, and as a brand. He also flaunted the Bond-like trait of an unashamed chancer, trying to write off his taste in sports cars as a business expense. “The success of Mr Fleming’s books has depended in considerable measure on their verisimilitude,” he wrote to his accountant, a certain HW Vallance Lodge, suggesting a possible line of attack against the Inland Revenue. Fleming had established his own company, Glidrose, at the very start of his Bond career, and surely, he argued, it shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for his deep literary research: “It might be thought extravagant that the company should have purchased a rather expensive sports car for Mr Fleming in preference to a modest family saloon were it not for the nature of Mr Fleming’s highly successful books. These are Secret Se…

Mahesh Rao: One Point Two Billion

Like many of Mahesh Rao’s stories, “Minu Goyari Day” is a slow-burning fuse. We are in the imaginative universe of the boy next door, who is fascinated by volcanoes, the internet and Rasputin, and terrified of wetting his bed. Only by degrees do we realise we are watching him watch the unravelling of his mother, whose husband was blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Assam when the child was a year old. The man’s shoes were unaccountably untouched, and the boy, who has no memory of his father, confesses he thinks of him “mainly when he goes to Bata and sees rows of lace-ups and loafers gleaming on their brackets all the way to the ceiling”. In the best stories here, meaning shimmers between the lines; apparently humdrum observations and innocuous happenings, taken together, create a resonance that lingers in the air like a vibration. In “The Agony of Leaves”, set in a Nilgiri tea estate where there is nothing to do except watch the rain and play rummy, a man falls in love with his daught…