Thursday, 26 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 published more books since his death that some historians do in their entire lifetime.

I should perhaps declare my hand: I am a Judt fan. In my view, almost everything he wrote, from his early books on the French Left in the mid-20th century to his piercing essays in the New York Review of Books, was distinguished by a remarkable acuity, honesty and intellectual insight. One of the curious things about him, though, was that for much of his career he cut a relatively obscure figure, teaching French history at Cambridge and Oxford. Only in the last years of his life, after he had moved to New York, did his public standing gather momentum. Had he lived a bit longer, I suspect he would have become a household name.

Judt was never afraid of controversy. In particular, his essays on Israel made him a hate figure for many Jewish American activists. When Judt published 'Israel: The Alternative', which warned that the Jewish homeland was becoming a 'belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state', the New York Review of Books received more than a thousand furious letters, many of them describing him as anti-Semitic. The irony is that Judt himself, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in Putney, had previously been a keen Zionist and even volunteered as an Israeli army translator during the Six Day War. His critics called him a self-hating Jew, which was nonsense. As his wife, Jennifer Homans, notes in her moving introduction to this book, Judt hired a graduate student from the Jewish Theological Seminary to teach their two boys Hebrew. The furore surrounding his articles about Israel, she notes, 'disturbed him deeply'.

When the Facts Change reprints no fewer than eight of Judt's essays about Israel, most of them originally published in the New York Review of Books. There is no doubt that these were some of the most personal things he ever wrote, reflecting his deep frustration that the Zionist dream had taken, as he saw it, an ugly turn. Yet though they are powerful and often persuasive, they do not necessarily show him at his best. Judt was a fine polemicist, but he was an even better historian, and it is his historical pieces that really shine. In a splendid essay on the Cold War, for example, he takes an unfashionably long view, tracing its origins back to, among other things, the disruption to the European state system caused by the rise of Prussia. In this context, he suggests, the Cold War was 'not a problem but a solution'. Perhaps only now do we realise how right he was.

The real pleasure of this book, though, comes from Judt's evisceration of other historians. He was a quite brilliant bad reviewer. Some of his targets seem a little too easy: among the pieces here is a full-blooded assault on Vesna Goldsworthy's bookInventing Ruritania, a sub-Edward Said account of the Western 'invention' of the Balkans, in which 'everything is imagined, represented, constructed, Orientalized'. But what was refreshing about Judt is that he was not afraid to go out big game hunting. The very first essay in the book, for example, is a supremely perceptive review of Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes, absurdly overpraised in many circles. Judt rightly acknowledges Hobsbawm's strengths: the sweep of his narrative, the accessibility of his prose. But he shows very clearly how Hobsbawm, as an unrepentant Marxist, fudged and distorted the history of the early Cold War and failed to deal properly with the terror of Stalin's regime, which he implicitly supported for so long.

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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 to Dedalus as many a politician has responded to the artist or intellectual, by demanding commitment: “A man’s country comes first. . . . You can be a poet or a mystic after.” He finds Stephen to be “a terrible man,” even a bit of a traitor, for insisting so unequivocally on his personal liberty. It is Stephen’s peculiar separateness, his disregard of party or faction, that Davin finds threatening.

Political orthodoxies of both the right and left have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics, supporting their contention by asserting a utilitarian moral right. Artistic freedom concerns one person alone, or at best a privileged minority, while politics concerns the good of many. Political concerns can seem reassuringly anti-elitist. For collectivists, whether nationalist or proletarian in their orientation, communal benefit always outweighs the prerogatives of the individual. The left in particular has long held that by allowing too much power to the few, liberal governments erode the welfare of the many. And for Marxists, the primacy of individual liberty and formal rights is a sham concealing unjust advantages and systematic oppression.


Yet poetry, relying as it does on the primacy of individual sensibility and the often-contested “right” to free expression, has a long and vexed historical connection to liberalism that has remained deeply problematic to critics from the more radical fringes of the left. For that reason, I am concerned mainly with the relationship between leftist critics and poetry; not because the right is lacking in doctrinal pressures, but because since the early twentieth century literary intellectuals as a group have inclined toward left-wing politics, and also because the left, at least in the West, retains strong anti-authoritarian and libertarian traditions that conflict with tendencies toward censoriousness and control.


In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.


In the classical sense, the term politics refers to a form of activity concerned with public life. In that context, the vicious intensity of the internecine cultural controversies we often see playing out in the pages of journals—or now, on social media—seems quite odd. Often the parties involved tend to share largely similar views on broader issues. The driving force in these conflicts is often “politics” in a less savory sense, as Jonathan Chait recently pointed out: the use of intimidation and rhetoric “to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Debates over speech and sensitivity often invoke an undemocratic understanding of what politics is and how it works, one concerned primarily not with individual freedoms but with enforcing group solidarity and the hegemony of a prescribed set of opinions.


Auden’s case is revealing. In the 1930s his work developed a following among committed Marxists. Ideologically Auden was a fellow traveler: not a Party member but sympathetic to the egalitarianism of the left. What he perhaps failed to realize, at least initially, was that this audience had certain expectations that did not conform to his traditionally liberal sensibilities. What was expected was overt encouragement of true believers, a celebration of class struggle, and unwavering demonstrations of loyalty to approved causes. Having courted their favor, Auden found himself in the position of having to meet their demands. Along with many other writers and artists, Auden traveled to Spain to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. On returning from Valencia, where he had worked as a radio broadcaster for the local government, Auden composed “Spain,” a poetic hymn to the fight against Franco. Fellow volunteer George Orwell commended “Spain” as “one of the few decent things written about the Spanish war” but also noted its less commendable portions:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
       Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
       Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
According to Orwell, “the second stanza is intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of a ‘good party man.’ In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.” Orwell’s criticism was telling. Auden later had fits of guilt about “Spain” and recanted parts of it. He had the bad timing, however, to drift away from the party line just as demands for ideological conformity were growing more strident. By the late thirties, it was clear that the war in Spain had not gone well, that Hitler was rearming, and that fascist movements were gathering strength throughout Europe. Auden became a convenient scapegoat for leftist critics angry at the political fecklessness of their own faction. F. W. Dupee, for instance, was less concerned with Auden’s commitment to anti-fascism than with asserting that poetry was a form of activity requiring political control and supervision. For Dupee, being a radical poet meant doing effective work on behalf of the party. In Partisan Review, he criticized Auden’s deviations from orthodoxy: Auden appeared to be thrusting “deeper and deeper into his own ego” and abandoning his role as “the impersonal voice of a generation.”

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Friday, 20 February 2015

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 adrift from history: “There’s a real sense that there’s a whole world travelling there in that man … he’s out of time, somebody who belongs to a more violent world. And peaceful people need him when violence is needed, but he’s not really welcome in a peaceful community.”
But it was not to the American frontier that Ishiguro looked for the backdrop for his own lone rider. Instead The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, takes us back to Britain after the Romans have departed, and the Anglo-Saxons are on the brink of fully occupying the island; the moment, in other words, “when England is created”. Its horseman is none other than Sir Gawain, the youngest of King Arthur’s knights, a figure of myth and legend, of chivalry and poetry; and in Ishiguro’s imagining, now an old man responding – just like John Wayne in The Searchers or James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – to one last call to arms. “Dressed in rusted chainmail and mounted on a weary steed”, Gawain’s “sacred mission” is to slay the she-dragon Querig.
The novel inhabits the gap in the historical record, argued over by archaeologists and historians, about what happened after the Roman occupation. The hypothesis Ishiguro brings to life is that waves of Anglo-Saxon migrants from the Germanic countries landed in the eastern part of Britain, “and at a certain point they massacred the people who were living here. There was what today we’d call ethnic cleansing – and they just vanished. The Britons, basically, were slaughtered.”
In support of this theory – another view suggests that the different groups interbred and assimilated – is that so little survives, in terms of place-names or the language that we use today, of the Romano-Celtic spoken at the time. It’s possible that it endures, in remnants, in Cornish or Welsh; that the survivors of the genocide fled to the westernmost parts of the country. By alighting on the moment before this brutal drama begins, Ishiguro captures a country on the brink of seismic change. As he puts it: “It’s not any old conflict that’s about to happen. This is the Anglo-Saxon settlement.”
It was both the uncertainty of what actually happened and the distance from contemporary events that attracted Ishiguro. His choice of setting was sparked by a reading of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or – more accurately – a tiny moment near the beginning when Gawain, “quite a pampered guy”, has to travel between castles, in a land without comfortable inns or courtly protection, constantly being chased out of villages by wolves and up hills by ogres: “And there’s a series of all the irritating things that happened in the countryside, how freezing cold it was, and rain, nowhere to shelter, and then he gets to the other castle and the story continues. And the way these things are mentioned, particularly the ogres, as if they’re just like boars or something in a field, I suddenly got this vision of a landscape … I thought, that’s quite a fun place to put something. And things like ogres and elves could be completely banal.”
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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

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 death of her mother from rheumatic fever in 1895 had provoked Virginia’s first breakdown at the age of 13. Her father’s death in 1904 triggered her second collapse; her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell wrote: “All that summer she was mad.” She also endured the death of her half-sister Stella in 1897 and her beloved brother Thoby in 1907; the repeated bereavements took their toll on her mental health. Virginia’s third breakdown in 1913, aged 31, occurred less than a year after her marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Between 1913-15 Virginia made several suicide attempts, including trying to jump from a window and overdosing on Veronal, a powerful sedative. As the ‘madness’ took hold, she would stop eating or sleeping and at times she hallucinated – Bell records that she once heard “the birds singing in Greek and [imagined] that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language”. 1915 ought to have been a good year for Virginia. As well as the publication of her first novel, she was starting to make a living from reviewing and other critical writing. She and Leonard were living in Richmond, making plans to set up their own printing press, and discussing buying a bulldog, to be called John. So why did 1915 take such a disastrous turn?

She had been grappling with endless drafts of The Voyage Out for four or five years – Leonard recalled her rewriting it “with a kind of tortured intensity”. It was finally published on 26 March 1915, the day after Virginia entered the nursing home where she was to remain for the next six months. The novel had been accepted for publication in 1913 (by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, who is said to have sexually abused her as a child) but was delayed because of her hospitalisation. Throughout Virginia’s life, the process of completing a book and working on proofs was a time of extreme anxiety, followed by the terrible wait for publication, and, still worse, the critical response. In 1936 while struggling with The Years she recalled the misery and self-doubt she had experienced two decades earlier: “I have never suffered, since The Voyage Out, such acute despair on re-reading . . . Never been so near the precipice to my own feeling since 1913.”

It was appropriate that I was rediscovering my great-aunt’s letters and diaries in the London Library: her father Sir Leslie Stephen was president of the Library from 1892 until his death in 1904. Virginia referred to it as “a stale culture smoked place” in 1915, although she was a regular visitor there. When the librarian showed me her original registration form, I was moved to see that she joined the library four days after her father’s death. Despite being only 22 years old, she describes her occupation on the form as “spinster”.

The joy of Virginia’s personal writings is the lively and varied content, from literary highs to domestic lows, gossip about her contemporaries and relatives, often satirical, sometimes spiteful (especially about the “Jews”, Leonard’s large family). On the one hand she is writing to Thomas Hardy: “I have long wished to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to you for your poems and novels, but naturally it seemed an impertinence to do so.” (17 January 1915). And in her diary at the same time she is documenting the daily catastrophes in their “House of Trouble” in Richmond: on a typical January day “the pipes burst; or got choked; or the roof split asunder. Anyhow in the middle of the morning, I heard a steady rush of water in the wainscot . . . various people have been clambering about the roof ever since. The water still drips through the ceiling into a row of slop pails.”

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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

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 botch, and a taint on the reputation of the revered author of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Three decades later, in 1998, Remarque’s estate authorised a new German edition of the novel, based on a different version of the manuscript, which appeared under one of Remarque’s working titles, Das gelobte Land. It is this text that has now been published in English as The Promised Land, in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. And though the publisher has taken care to downplay the book’s backstory – nowhere on the jacket is it described as an unfinished novel, and Hofmann’s brief afterword only glancingly mentions its earlier incarnation – it is clearly the same story as Shadows in Paradise. The characters mostly have different names – the narrator, Ross, is now named Ludwig Sommer – and the episodes are in a somewhat different order, but for the most part everything that happens in the earlier book can be found in the later one, sometimes in nearly identical form.
And yet, The Promised Land manages to be unmistakably a better book than its predecessor. Shadows in Paradise, as edited and translated by Remarque’s German and English publishers, tried to come across as a slick, fast-paced romance. Passages of description were stripped away, many pages were boiled down to bare dialogue, and the love story at the book’s centre, between Ross and the Russian model Natasha Petrovna, was made more conventionally Holly­woodish. The effect was to foreground the weaknesses of the novel, which in fact is very light on plot, and much more interested in atmosphere. By restoring the fullness of Remarque’s narrative voice, and by acknowledging the book’s incompleteness – instead of tacking on an unconvincing ending, as in the earlier version – Hofmann has turned The Promised Land into a more literary novel. It is still far from a masterpiece, but it now serves as a potent evocation of a fascinating historical moment.
That moment is the summer of 1944 (not, as the book’s jacket has it, 1942), in a New York City apparently untouched by the war that has ravaged Europe. Sommer – that is the name on his passport; we never learn his original name – has made his way to Ellis Island after years on the run from the Nazis. The details remain sketchy, but he has served time on what Remarque calls the Via Dolorosa: the odyssey through hideouts, jails and concentration camps that Germans fleeing from Hitler were forced to undergo. He is even familiar with the scent of crematoriums – an odd detail, as he is supposed to have been on the run in Belgium and France, whereas the killing centres of the Holocaust were in Poland.
Here is a sign that Remarque was constructing Sommer’s experiences from the accounts of other refugees, as well as books published long after the fact. For though he, too, fled Hitler in 1933 and spent the Nazi years in Switzerland, France and America, his own exile was considerably plusher than his character’s. Ironically, both the need to escape Germany and the resources that allowed him to do so in comfort came from the same source:All Quiet on the Western Front, which became a worldwide bestseller after it appeared in January 1929.
Remarque had spent only six weeks on the German front lines during the First World War before he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele and sent to hospital for the remainder of the war. But that was enough time for him to glean the impressions and anecdotes that fill his novel, which has introduced generations of readers to the realities of trench warfare: the gas attacks and night-time bombardments, the raids into no-man’s-land, the surreally severed heads and limbs and torsos. In its matter-of-fact, reportorial approach to the war and its resentment on behalf of the generation that fought it, All Quiet captured the imagination of millions of readers, not just in defeated Germany but in victorious France and England as well.
For the same reasons, it earned the undying enmity of the Nazis, who despised Remarque’s pacifism and lack of nationalist zeal. When the film adaptation premiered in Berlin in 1930, Joseph Goebbels arranged for it to be disrupted by Brownshirts; the book was among the first titles that Nazi students consigned to the flames. On the night of 30 January 1933, the day Hitler took power, Remarque was warned by a friend to leave the country immediately and he slipped over the border into Switzerland. He did not return to Germany for another 20 years. Unlike most émigré writers, however, he never had to deal with the ordeals of poverty and obscurity. He never again had a success on the scale of All Quiet but his subsequent novels sold well in many countries. Books such as Three Comrades (1936), set in strife-torn Weimar Berlin, and Arch of Triumph (1945), which follows a German doctor in exile in Paris, served as chronicles of the age while also telling appealing romantic stories, and were often purchased for princely sums by movie producers.
Moving between his Swiss villa and Paris, Remarque assembled one of the world’s leading private art collections (he specialised in French impressionists) and engaged in a stormy love affair with Marlene Diet­rich. When war broke out in 1939 he departed for America, where, in Hollywood and New York, he added Greta Garbo, Lupe Vélez and many others to his list of conquests. Handsome and sensitive, he was exactly a movie star’s idea of what a novelist should be. It was left to more intellectual émigré writers, such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, to sniff at his blockbuster novels and glitzy lifestyle.
It’s all a long way from Ludwig Sommer, who arrives in America with a few dollars in his pocket, a false passport and tormenting memories. Yet Remarque shows in The Promised Land that he knows something of the despair and aimlessness of the refugee. In the opening pages, Sommer manages to get off Ellis Island with the help of an old acquaintance from the Via Dolorosa, Robert Hirsch, who spent years conducting a one-man campaign against the Gestapo, freeing prisoners and forging papers. Now, however, Hirsch is leading the quiet life of a Manhattan shopkeeper, selling vacuum cleaners to housewives; and this incongruity points to the thematic heart of the novel. As Sommer begins to put down roots in America, getting lodgings at a run-down hotel and a job working off the books for an antique dealer, he is repeatedly struck by the disjunction between wartime in Europe and wartime in America. Walking through the streets of Manhattan, he undergoes a kind of unwilling resurrection:
Did such things really exist? I wondered, as I stared into a huge open hall full of shiny chrome slot machines, jingling and flashing coloured lights – could it be? Wasn’t everything desiccated and dead, could survival morph into living on and then become just – life? Was it possible: to begin again, from the beginning, to be interpreted like the language before me, unknown and full of possibilities? Was it possible, without being treason and a kind of twofold murder of the dead, who wanted not to be forgotten?
Yet for the émigrés who make up most of the novel’s cast, beginning again proves an impossible ambition. Sommer stays in the seedy Hotel Rausch, an exiles’ asylum where no one is able to let go of their past life. One of its denizens, an elderly Romanov princess who fled Russia after the revolution, survives by selling off pieces from her jewellery collection. The manager, Moikov, another Russian exile, brews vodka in an attempt to recapture the taste of home. Other acquaintances include Jessie Stein, a benefactress of the residents who is dying of cancer, and Tannenbaum, a wealthy German Jewish exile who tries to draw a line under his past by changing his name to Smith. Yet none of them can really become American, with an American’s freedom from history, as Robert Hirsch wryly warns the narrator: “We’re not persecuted here. We’re tolerated. That’s progress. But don’t get light-headed. And don’t forget we’re second-class citizens here.”
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Sunday, 15 February 2015

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," everything which refers to his wife's work. (The book was published in England in 1953.)

What had been hoped for, at least in England, was everything that would relate to Virginia Woolf's work--i.e., her existence as an entirety. Mr. Woolf's withholding (for the time being) of the bulk of the diary, on the score that it was too personal to be published during the lifetime of many people referred to in it, has been, if not challenged outright, queried. Something less vulgar than curiosity may lie behind the dissatisfaction; it is felt or feared that the picture may be lopsided, or that the editor's sense of what made for continuity may have been over-arbitrary, or that pain-saving excisions sacrificed too much else to the interests of a pacific caution.

All such objections, it should be said, Mr. Woolf at the outset himself foresaw: and he has, we should note, answered them in advance. "At the best," he states, "and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted * * * portrait of the writer, because as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, one gets into the habit of recording the particular kind of mood--irritation or misery, say--and of not writing when one feels the opposite. The portrait is therefore at the start unbalanced * * * in my own view, the effect of his editorship has been to correct the unbalance there might have been. That he is wise and that he was the person who knew her best are two facts which to the unbiased reader must surely gradually appear.
For "A Writer's Diary," as it reaches us, never shifts from its focus: it is internal. Its continuity is not merely a continuity; it is Virginia Woolf. Here we have what she was and what she was for. In a genius writer, is being ever separated from purpose? Times, stretches of time maybe, when between the two a divorce appears to occur are irrelevancies, only the more agonizing because of the writer's sense that they are irrelevant. The only death is death through what does not matter--hence the protest, the "irritation or misery."

Into the diary, no doubt, was discharged Virginia Woolf's fury against the consuming futile--the interrupters, the overplayed social farces, the persons whose inner vacuum sucked at and tried to drain out her own vitality, a vitality dedicated to something other. Who knows what we did to her, we who knew her? The diary apparently knows and tells. But let that rest be silence--what is it but a rest, a residuum, a transience which, resented into those pages, she has forgotten the day after.

She was adorable as a friend: she had perhaps more than she knew to spare. The illumination for us of moments we wasted for her is what remains for us--and her husband elects to leave that unmarred. Nor could she herself wish, through the long run of eternity, to revoke or cancel out any joy she gave. For the spring and principle of her art was joy.

The diary gives no impression of having been stripped down. Here certainly is no mechanic's workbook, nor is mood absent--rather, the whole vibrates with the ups-and-downs of a passionate relationship. Infinitely disliking to be "a woman writer," Virginia Woolf shows herself most a woman in the intensities, variations, alarms and excursions, panics and exaltations of her relationship to her art. As in all love, harmony was the happiness.

In 1924, "galloping over" the revision of "Mrs. Dalloway," she notes: "It seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world." To the end, those peaks of the moment were to recur--though between what stretches of anguish, what thoughts of terror! As one must, she mistrusted her subjectivity: "Not," she says, "that my sensations in writing are an infallible guide."

Hence, no doubt, what has astounded or even shocked some readers of "A Writer's Diary": her sensitivity to criticism, her suspense until there had been impact upon another mind. There were the phases of dereliction, or of an alienating fatigue--"Thought of my own power of writing with veneration, as of something incredible, belonging to someone else: never again to be enjoyed by me." And there was the problem presented, the crisis or ordeal gradually forced by the emergence from isolation: the solitary burner of the Richmond lamp finding herself crept up upon by would- be limelight. Appreciation by the elect few, recognition by an increasing many, fame, threatening "popularity"--book by book, the situation was to take clearer form: it had foreshadowed itself for her as early as 1921.

"Well [she then writes], this question of praise and fame must be faced * * * How much difference does popularity make? * * * One wants, as Roger [Fry] said very truly yesterday, to be kept up to the mark; that people should be interested and watch one's work * * * One does not want an established reputation, such as I think I was getting, as one of our leading female novelists. I have still, of course, to gather in all the private criticism, which is the real test. When I have weighed this I shall be able to say whether I am 'interesting' or obsolete * * * As I write, there rises somewhere in my head that queer and very pleasant sense of something which I want to write; my own point of view. I wonder, though, whether this feeling that I write for half a dozen instead of 1,500 will pervert this--make me eccentric--no, I think not."

And that poltergeist of her house of the spirit, vanity!--"Poor Mlle. Lenglen," she notes, "finding herself beaten by Mrs. Mallory, flung down her racquet and burst into tears. Her vanity I suppose is colossal." Was it perhaps a latent fear of possible accessibility through vanity which was at the root of Virginia Woolf's contemptuous misprison of the world? "Brilliant" occasions find her derisive, hostile. All the time, though with and after each book the indicator needle oscillated or faltered, there mounted the pressure toward success.

"The Waves" brought about the height; with "The Years" a potential drop came. And then, most of all, was it that absolutely she recognized her own virtue--the untouched ice, the savage intractability of the spirit which must experiment? To please she was willing, but never to please at all costs. Never once did she do the same thing over again.

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Saturday, 7 February 2015

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 tube to Ananda’s, buying some Indian sweets en route, then go out to dinner at a curry house, after which they saunter back to Ananda’s room. That’s it. Yet everything happens in these 200 pages on different levels.
The level of the story first. Adhering closely for almost its entirety to Ananda’s point of view, the book necessarily gives him a rich, eloquent interiority. From his impatience with any pre-modernist literature, to his intense poetic ambitions (he wants to be another Larkin; there is a priceless account of a tutorial in which his poetic pretensions are gently sent up by his tutor); from his attachment to his mother, who has just returned home to India after a short visit, to the annoyance caused by his noisy neighbours: it is all rendered beautifully in Chaudhuri’s signature sentences. They are elegant and classical, rich in parentheses, subclauses and digressions; unexpected, surprising spaces open up within them to accommodate the ever‑present past and the infinite branching of thought.
But it is Rangamama, 50-something, unmarried (a virgin, even), wealthy, simultaneously generous and parsimonious, supporting a network of relatives in India with the sizeable pension from his early retirement, who steals the show. The dynamics between uncle and nephew, affected by the complex triangulation between Rangamama, his sister (Ananda’s mother), and his brother-in-law – a long history before Ananda existed – are playful, complicated and brilliantly done. Chaudhuri gives each of them a complex, nuanced past, staggered artfully through the book, and even touches on consequences resulting from the division of India that resonate in curry houses staffed by Sylhetis in London. One of the great surprises, given that the comic mode has not been Chaudhuri’s metier in the past, is how delightfully witty the novel is.
And then there is the invisible book, the spirit that animates Odysseus Abroad. There are clues everywhere as to its identity: in the title; in the chapter titles (Eumaeus, for example, or Ithaca); but, most importantly, in the third epigraph from Borges (“I believe our tradition is all of western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition … ”). Odysseus Abroadis Chaudhuri’s conversation with Joyce’s Ulysses (and, therefore, inevitably, with Homer, too); a homage and a love-letter, but also, crucially, an intervention. It is not simply a matter of the echoes between characters and situations in Chaudhuri’s novel on the one hand and Joyce’s and the Odyssey on the other, or of the symbolic and metaphorical correspondences between the works, however engaging the investigation of such mappings may be.
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Monday, 2 February 2015

'Nightwood,' A Hymn To The Dispossessed

Djuna Barnes 1930's, photo: Berenice Abbott
The spring after I turned 24, I discovered Nightwood by 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 to an elderly woman on the subway. She looked down at the volume in my lap, and said, "Oh, Djuna Barnes. I know her. Would you like to write to her?" She gave me the author's address, and I sat down to write a page-long testament to the power of Nightwood.
A year and a half later, I received a reply: "Your letter," Barnes wrote, "has given me great difficulty."
That was all. A couple of months later, I read in the newspaper that the 90-year-old Barnes was dead. I realized that her letter to me must have been one of the last things she wrote.
Almost 30 years have passed since then, and I've always been a little afraid to return to Nightwood. What if the book was a folly of my youth? What if I found it overwrought and shallow, rather than rich and deep?
But when I read it again, I loved it, and again found myself amazed by its prose. In his introduction to the novel when it was first published in 1937, T.S. Eliot called Barnes' language "astonishing." He was right.
"Ho, nocturnal hag, whimpering on the thorn, rot in the grist, mildew on the corn," the doctor says to Nora during a lyrical tirade. A page later, his diction drops when he confesses that he was born in the wrong body: "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months."
But the wonder of Nightwood is not only stylistic. It lies in the range and depth of feeling the words convey. There is irony here and humor, too, but in the end, the novel is a hymn to the dispossessed, the misbegotten and those who love too much. At one time or another, I suspect that those adjectives describe most of us.
The letter I wrote to Djuna Barnes was the only letter I have ever written to an author I didn't know, and despite her cryptic reply, I am glad I sent it. It turns out that the aging, settled person I have become was just as overwhelmed and impressed by Nightwood as that young woman who rode the subway years ago, feeling a little lost in a big, new city.

Excerpt: 'Nightwood'


Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavor to make them historical; they could not survive it.
She had a beaked head and body, small, feeble, and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called "right." There was a trembling ardour in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming in the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her hand moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.
She writhed under the necessity of being unable to wear anything becoming, being one of those panicky little women who, no matter what they put on, look like a child under penance.
She had a fancy for tiny ivory or jade elephants; she said they were luck; she left a trail of tiny elephants wherever she went; and she went hurriedly and gasping.
Her walls, her cupboards, her bureaux, were teeming with second-hand dealings with life. It takes a bold and authentic robber to get first –hand plunder. Someone else's marriage ring was on her finger; the photograph taken of Robin for Nora sat upon her table. The books in her library were other people's selections. She lived among her own things like a visitor to a room kept "exactly as it was when." She tiptoed, even when she went to draw a bath, nervous and andante. She stopped, fluttering and febrile, before every object in her house. She had no sense of humour or peace or rest, and her own quivering uncertainty made even the objects which she pointed out to the company, as, "My virgin from Palma," or, "The left-hand glove of La Duse," recede into a distance of uncertainty, so that it was almost impossible for the onlooker to see them at all. When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening for faux pas. She frequently talked about something being the "death of her," and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; she had been forced to invent a vocabulary of two words, "ah" and "oh." Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the "every day" voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.
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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, for instance, and the winter of 1910, just one postcard survives. Letters to his parents and almost all his correspondence with his first wife were also destroyed. Crawford has not been cowed by this Great Repression. Indeed, he rebukes Eliot’s ghost. Biography, he challenges, makes “an artistic narrative that averts caricature and illuminates both poet and poetry”.
Previous unauthorised biographers, frozen out by the estate, were forced to cover these crucial first 21 years in about 21 pages. Crawford, by contrast, has dug deep, excavating Eliot’s life, from childhood in the ragtime city of St Louis, to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, to the 1922 publication of The Waste Land.
The estate, having taken a chance on a poet known for his life of Burns, will be delighted with its experiment. Despite misguidedly naming its subject “Tom” throughout, Young Eliot is judicious, sympathetic, meticulous and sometimes plodding, but it can hardly fail. The story it tells of a great poet’s early life is enthralling.
Crawford’s portrait of the midwesterner who left home at the first opportunity, defied his parents, and committed himself to an English exile during the great war, reveals a shy, brilliant and deeply wounded young man, tormented by a prolonged struggle to reconcile his public and private face. The upshot was a kind of premature senescence, in which he became “Old Possum”, the “pope of Russell Square”, and (for Ted Hughes) “the Guru-in-Chief”.
“I grow old, I grow old…” From Prufrock’s first appearance, Eliot was always putting his youth behind him. He was, as Crawford says, “never young” but disguised a mischievous youthfulness, the “Tom” that Valerie championed. Born in 1888, the same year as Raymond Chandler, his childhood was shaped by three handicaps: elderly parents, a posh pedigree, and a truss.
Henry (Hal) and Charlotte (Lottie) Eliot, both 45 at their son’s birth, were minor American aristocracy with family connections to Melville, Hawthorne and president John Adams. Lottie was a frustrated poet and antisemite with, in her own words, “an instinctive antipathy to Jews”. Hal was a high-minded, cold and repressive businessman for whom syphilis was “God’s punishment” and sex a “nastiness”.
Adored by his parents, and embarrassed by his sticking-out ears, young Eliot had another reason to feel singular. Born with a congenital double hernia, he wore a truss from childhood. With his masculinity cosseted and his natural shyness nurtured by Lottie’s “mother-love”, but blessed with an extraordinary ear for the music of words, the boy took refuge in books and writers, with a special fondness for Conan Doyle. Throughout this early life, there are also some covert intimations of homosexuality which Crawford grapples with sporadically. He also cordons off that other, notorious parental legacy – Eliot’s antisemitism – as part of his “early conditioning”.
With such antecedents, it’s no surprise that, consciously or not, the boy should rebel and then break loose. Adolescent transgression came in the form of his bawdy King Bolo and Columbo poems. Once his Harvard career was over, Eliot was crossing to Paris, Germany and England.
Eliot’s “Oxford year” (1914-15) is decisive. It’s now that he encounters Ezra Pound. Soon after, perhaps betrayed by his “genius for dancing”, he met and married his first wife, Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood. This self-inflicted wound, by Crawford’s account, holds the key to The Waste Land and also to the ageing of TS Eliot. “All I wanted of Vivien,” he later wrote, cruelly, “was a flirtation.” He persuaded himself he was in love, “because I wanted to burn my boats” and stay in England with Pound.
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