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Tagore's writings in various shades of difference

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's work in diverse genres has always attracted and fascinated authors and readers alike. This collection of some of his greatest works talks about Tagore's attempt to approach the central impulse of contradiction in various aspects of life. 

The collection includes short stories, plays, poems, articles, travel writing, correspondence and conversations. It depicts his complex, dynamic approach to commonly perceived dualities, like life versus death, nature versus culture, male versus female, tradition versus modernity, East versus West, local versus universal and urban versus rural, to highlight his humanistic vision and its significance for the modern world. 

The editor of the book, Radha Chakravarty, is a writer, critic and translator. She has also co-edited The Essential Tagore, which was nominated the New Statesman Book of the Year 2011. She is the author of Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers and Novelist Tagore: Gender and Modernity in …

T S Eliot and the sexual wasteland

For most of his lifetime T S Eliot appeared an austere and reticent figure. During the long breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he took a vow of celibacy in 1928, controlled his relations with other women, and in 1953 planned to retire to an abbey. So some may be surprised by the sexual content of two sets of poems published in full for the first time in a complete edition of his Poems.

The editors politely call the earlier set “Improper Rhymes”; in truth, it’s a smutty romp. The later set contains poems of marital love, written for his second wife, Valerie Fletcher. Neither set remotely approaches the greatness of the 1963 Collected Poems, Eliot’s last volume before he died in 1965, and we may wonder how to place erotic exploits in our sense of his life and character.

As a student at Harvard, he began circulating his Columbo and Bolo jingles between about 1908 and 1914. For men only, and degrading women, Jews and blacks, they offer the spectacle of a penis so might…

Forbidden Love - The passions behind Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt.”

In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was complete, but it would be more than a year before it was published. A Texas native with thick black hair and feral good looks, Highsmith made a habit of standing at attention when a woman walked into the room. That Christmas season, she was working behind the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, in order to help pay for psychoanalysis. She wanted to explore the sharp ambivalence she felt about marrying her fiancé, a novelist named Marc Brandel. Highsmith was a Barnard graduate, and, like many sophisticates at the time, she viewed homosexuality as a psychological defect that could be fixed; yet she had enough self-respect and sexual appetite to reject any attempt to fix her own. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,”…

Was He Quite Ordinary? - Marcus Aurelius

In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai made an extraordinary discovery in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He spotted that a book containing the records of the First Church Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 had been made out of reused parchment. The earlier writing on each sheet had been erased (washing with milk and oat-bran was the common method), and the minutes of the Church Council copied on top. As often in reused documents of this kind, the original text had begun to show through the later writing, and was in part legible. It turned out that the recycled sheets had come from a very mixed bag of books. There was a single page of Juvenal’s Satires, part of Pliny’s speech in praise of Trajan (thePanegyric) and some commentary on the Gospel of St John. But the prize finds, making up the largest part of the book, were faintly legible copies of the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, one of the leading scholars and orators of the second century ad, and tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aure…

The darker side of George Eliot

The most intriguing aspect of George Eliot's life has to be her honeymoon in Venice, in the summer of 1880. Her decision, at the age of 60, to marry John Cross, a young friend some 20 years her junior, had excited disapproval among friends and acquaintances, not least because GH Lewes, with whom she had enjoyed a long and loving relationship, had been dead for less than two years.

Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, who begins to love Will Ladislaw while she is still married to Casaubon, Eliot had been delighted by Cross's youth and devotion long before Lewes's death. But their honeymoon punctured the fantasy for both when Cross leaped from the balcony of their hotel suite, sailing over three or four gondolas before landing in the middle of the Grand Canal. He was rescued and carried back to his room unharmed.

Tongues started wagging. Had Cross been in flight from the sexual demands of his older wife? "One could say he had a lucky escape!" wrote an Italian journalist wit…

Iris Murdoch and an enduring love affair

In The Black Prince, her great novel about the perils of love, Iris Murdoch has her main character say: "What dangerous machines letters are: perhaps it is as well that they are going out of fashion. A letter can be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs imagination and fantasy, it persists, it is red-hot evidence." She was herself a recklessly prolific correspondent who destroyed quantities of letters she received but left many of her own behind; and over the last 10 days the truth of those lines has been well demonstrated, with the news that some 250 of her letters to her lifelong friend, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, have been made public by Kingston University. With depressing predictability, and ignoring a careful press release, newspaper headlines announced "Iris Murdoch's 60-year lesbian relationship with her best friend and lover revealed".

As it happens, I have been studying that friendship between two brilliant and remarkable women and hav…

Our Contemporary, Montaigne: He Pioneered the Personal Essay and Made Candor Literary

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave one of the most important speeches in American history, an address at Harvard University in which he urged students to fulfill the country’s political independence by being intellectually and culturally independent, too. Through his “American Scholar” speech, Emerson suggested that his fellow citizens should test the ideas of the Old World against experience, and not simply embrace them through habit. “It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago,” said Emerson. “As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.” Emerson found the courage to question accepted wisdom in many places, but an important model for his critical thinking came, oddly enough, from Michel de Montaigne, an icon of the European literary tradition Emerson regarded so skeptically. In the early days of his career, as Emerson was seeking the best way to think …

Aldous Huxley versus the Mesomorphs

When Bert Goodrich called the shopfitters into 6624 Hollywood Boulevard, in 1953, most West Coast gyms were low-rent hideaways for a blue-collar army of boxers, grapplers and Herculean bodybuilders. Thanks to Goodrich, a former Mr America and one-time stunt double for John Wayne, a new generation of young and upwardly mobile Americans was about to be inducted into his mirrored palace of barbells, chin bars and pulley machines. Up in the hills of Hollywood lived a gently spoken pacifist, an urbane man of letters whose personal loathing of sport had taken root on the playing fields of Eton. Over 6 foot 4 in height, with poor vision and the unwieldy demeanour of a “giant grasshopper”, Aldous Huxley was no more likely to be seen at Goodrich’s Gym to the Stars than Joe McCarthy sightseeing in Red Square. To adapt the words of George Orwell, his former student and near doppelgänger, competitive sport was for Master Huxley essentially a crucible of “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard o…

Marcus Aurelius: The Meditations, Book Two

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these thingshappen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. 

Whatever this is that I am, it is a little flesh and breath, and the ruling part. Throw away thy books; no longer distract thyself: it …

A Hemingway Surprise

In the early photographs, Hemingway has a bold expression—stepping forward, saying “This is me”—accompanied by a squint that holds the camera at a certain distance. The attitude stops short of an available emotion. Toward the end of his career he would grow used to hearing himself demoted for an excess of surface and showmanship, as if his identification with the roles of celebrity, sportsman, and revolutionist, the friend of boxers and movie stars, implied a distrust of literature itself. This criticism was a plausible half-truth. At heart, he was a listener, and to a large extent a mimic, with the intellect to judge and sift the voices that he heard. Of all the moderns, Hemingway was the foremost defender of revision as a proof of serious craft. The more you could throw away, he said, the surer you could be that something of substance was there to begin with.

As the wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library makes clear, with its generous sample of photographs, books, corrected proof…

'A book is not its plot' - Orhan Pamuk

After one of Orhan Pamuk’s students berated him for spoiling the ending of Anna Karenina, he made a new rule: read the book’s summary on Wikipedia before coming to seminar, because “a book is not its plot”.

There was a time in the history of literature when the story was more important than the details, the Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor told an audience on Wednesday at the Brooklyn public library as part of an author series arranged by Community Books and Congregation Beth Elohim. But in his own writing, Pamuk said: “It’s not the character and the story that come first, it’s the little details – the novelist wants to go in some direction and creates the character to take you to that direction.”

That’s certainly the case with Pamuk’s newest work A Strangeness in My Mind, whose opening paragraph lays out the plot of the 600 pages to come. Pamuk calls Strangeness “my first feminist book”. It follows the life of an Istanbul street vendor named Mevlut Karata in the years b…

Herodotus, the Homer of European prose

The Hellenist John Herington once called Herodotus a literary “centaur”, because from the front he looks like a rational intellectual, but his rear parts belong to a primitive creature of the wild. Herodotus’ pioneering prose treatise sought to explain the nature of the world he inhabited, in the mid-fifth century BC, from the events that had taken place across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during the reigns of four Persian kings – Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes. These culminated in the victory of Greece over Persia in 480–479 BC. Herodotus, the “father of history”, often uses rational explanations, backed up by evidence. But he also includes many traditional stories and legends, with patently fantastic elements, derived from poems, fables and oral tradition. Herodotus therefore needs a versatile translator who appreciates his hybridity. Enter Tom Holland, a distinguished and highly readable author of both historical non-fiction dealing with ancient empires (Persian Fire…

Proust: The Search by Benjamin Taylor

A third of the way through this beguiling biography, Benjamin Taylor offers a statement from Marcel Proust that he believes explains why the (arguably) greatest novelist of the 20th century dribbled away nine years of his life translating Ruskin into French before getting down to writing À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. “There is no better way of becoming aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself that which a master has experienced. In this profound effort that we make, it is our own way of thinking, together with the master’s, that we bring to light.”

Is this what Taylor is trying to do himself, but is too shy to admit? I only ask because Taylor – who is American – has written this biography in what reads like art nouveau French sieved through Scott Moncrieff’s English Proust translation of the 1920s. In fact, some of Taylor’s loose, multi-clausal sentences are as bendy as the master’s, and there is the same shimmery quality to the prose, like sunlight glanci…