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Showing posts from February, 2015

Big Game Hunter - Tony Judt

For a man who died more than four years ago, Tony Judt remains remarkably prolific. During his lifetime he built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most combative, clear-sighted and illuminating historians of his generation, crowned by Postwar, his sweeping history of Europe after 1945. In 2008 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a horrible condition that left him paralysed from the neck down. In the summer of 2010, at the age of only sixty-two, he died.

By this stage Judt was already becoming something of an industry. Only a few months after his death his publishers brought out a slim, moving memoir, Ill Fares the Land, and two years after that his conversations with his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder were published with the title Thinking the Twentieth Century. Now we have a third book, collecting some of the best essays and reviews from the last decade or so of his life. To put it bluntly, Judt has publishe…

W. H. Auden: “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

What responsibility does the artist have to society? Speaking at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy gave one answer to that perpetually nagging question. For a politician it was a highly unusual one, though perhaps less so then than now. “Society must set the artist free,” Kennedy declared, “to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” This is essentially the same view of artistic and personal freedom that Stephen Dedalus defends against the nationalist Davin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “When the soul of a man is born,” Stephen opines, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is essentially Rousseauist, corresponding to the liberal idea that individuals best serve the general good through the exercise of their personal freedom. For all its nobility of spirit, this view is frequently contested—even, or maybe especially, in democratic societies. Davin responds t…

Kazuo Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy

Novelists might appear to be in charge of their invented worlds, but they often have to wait a surprisingly long time to do what they want; fiction isn’t quite as malleable as it may seem. Kazuo Ishiguro – for all that tight authorial control he is associated with – is no different. For a long time, he tells me, as we sit in his Cotswolds cottage on a bright, wintry afternoon, he’s wanted one of his novels to feature a man and his horse. Now, with the publication of his seventh, The Buried Giant, he has finally had his way. “That lone rider figure has always done it for me,” he laughs. Ishiguro’s prototype was the character familiar from the westerns he loves, the John Ford and Sam Peckinpah movies that so frequently, as in Ford’s The Searchers, open with a distant rider crossing a vast landscape, “like a self-contained little community of just a man and a horse, a lonely community that moves from place to place”. What particularly resonates with Ishiguro is the idea of a man somehow a…

The Joyful, Gossipy and Absurd Private Life of Virginia Woolf

“I caused some slight argument with Leonard this morning by trying to cook my breakfast in bed. I believe, however, that the good sense of the proceeding will make it prevail; that is, if I can dispose of the eggshells.” (13 January 1915)

So wrote Virginia Woolf 100 years ago, musing on her latest domestic experiment. This attempt to cook eggs in bed was a light interlude in what was to become one of the worst years of her life. Reading her letters and diaries recently in the London Library, I discovered a more playful side to the modernist writer, who we have come to think of as stern, humourless, even tortured. Virginia’s daily journal and correspondence reveal a sensitive, perceptive young woman who loved a “debauch of gossip” with her friends. And this time in her life, January and February 1915, was a precious lull before the storm: one month later she plunged into a nervous breakdown so severe that she lost the rest of 1915.

Sadly, these breakdowns were nothing new. The sudden dea…

The Promised Land: Erich Maria Remarque's unfinished final book

A dedicated reader of Erich Maria Remarque – if such a person still exists in the English-speaking world – will not get far into The Promised Land without experiencing a sense of déjà vu. In 1971, the year after Remarque died, his widow, the Hollywood actress Paulette Goddard, arranged for the publication of the novel he was working on until the end, Shadows in Paradise. This was the story of Robert Ross, a German refugee in New York City, and the various fellow exiles with whom he waits out the Second World War. In fact, as Remarque’s biographer Hilton Tims has written, “there is evidence . . . that in Remarque’s estimate the novel was nowhere near ready for publication”. He had not informed his publisher about his work-in-progress, nor had he even given it a settled title – Shadows in Paradise was the invention of the book’s American editor – and the manuscript existed in six distinct versions. So it is hardly surprising that when the book appeared, it was widely dismissed as a botc…

The Principle of Her Art Was Joy - Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf left behind her twenty-six volumes written in her own hand: her diary, started in 1915, by death concluded in 1941. She did not write it regularly every day--"there are," says her husband, "sometimes entries daily for several days; more usually there is an entry for every few days and then there will be a gap of a week or two. But the diary gives for twenty-seven years a consecutive record of what she did, of the people whom she saw, and particularly of what she thought about those people, about herself, about life, and about the books she was writing or hoped to write."
Upon Leonard Woolf the editorship of the diary has devolved; and, with that, the infinite difficulties of decision--a decision which, whatever form it took, was more or less certain to be challenged. What he has done is this: he has followed through the inner continuity of the writer. That is to say, he has given us, in this one volume entitled "A Writer's Diary," everyt…

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

In what sense are Amit Chaudhuri’s plotless meditations novels? Nothing, after all, happens in them; pages are expended describing, in exquisite prose, the cursive curl of a letter, or someone dozing off. Written seemingly out of life, these books are beautiful, intensely observed, yet static and inconsequential – more mood pieces than novels. That Chaudhuri has been pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel, may not have been obvious from his early work, but nowhere is his project more apparent than in his latest, Odysseus Abroad. Unfolding over the course of a single warm July day in London in 1985, the book follows a young Indian man, Ananda, in his early 20s, as he wakes up in his rented room in Warren Street, potters around, attends a tutorial – he is desultorily reading for a BA in English Literature – in UCL at midday, then goes to see his uncle, Rangamama, in the older man’s basement bedsit in Belsize Park. Uncle and nephew walk south for a bit, take the t…

'Nightwood,' A Hymn To The Dispossessed

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The spring after I turned 24, I discovered Nightwoodby Djuna Barnes, a slender, dense novel that I read with the aching intensity of a person possessed. It wasn't about my world — I had grown up in a small town in Minnesota and then moved to New York City. Nightwood is set mostly in a Paris Barnes knew intimately in the 1920s, a city inhabited by ex-pats, drifters and poseurs. And yet, the story of passion and grief, of exile and loneliness, spoke directly to me, a young woman who, for some reason, had never felt she quite belonged anywhere. I carried the book around with me, reread passages, pondered their meanings, and suffered with Nora Flood, whose liaison with the wild, amoral Robin Vote, becomes her abiding anguish. And I pored over the speeches delivered by my favorite character, the novel's bombastic but tender bard, Dr. Matthew O'Connor — a cross-dresser, petty thief, inveterate liar and tragic anti-hero. One afternoon, that same spring, I found myself sitting next t…

Young Eliot

Young Eliot marks both a milestone and a turning point. First, it coincides with the 50th anniversary of his death. Old Possum still dominates Parnassus as the greatest English or American poet of the last century, an achievement that adds to the impossible grandeur of Eliot’s artistic posterity. The maintenance of this reputation has been the self-motivated duty of the poet’s estate, represented by his second wife, Valerie, a heady cocktail of Ophelia and Mistress Quickly with a splash of White Witch, the archetype of the literary widow. Which brings us to the turning point. Since Valerie Eliot’s death in November 2012, there has been a great thaw in Narnia. Once upon a time, there could never be an authorised life, not even by the late Richard Ellmann. Now the estate has bestowed its blessing on his protege, Robert Crawford, a seasoned Eliot scholar. This passport to Eldorado offers less of a bonanza than expected. Eliot’s suppression of his own biography was ruthless. Between 1905, f…