Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Meeting That Never Was

ONE DAY in February 1945, in Paris, George Orwell waited at the café Deux Magots, where he was to meet Albert Camus for the first time. But Camus, suffering from tuberculosis and exhaustion — because of which he was currently on leave from his editorship of the resistance newspaper Combat — didn’t show up. They would never again have the chance to meet each other. Five years later, Orwell died, in England — from an illness related to his own tuberculosis.

This may very well be one of the great missed opportunities in 20th-century European letters. But although Orwell and Camus were two of the most intriguing political and literary figures of their time, they are rarely considered in relation to each other, and when they are, it is usually not to any great depth. There are superficial similarities between them that tend to distract from looking for deeper affinities, albeit buried beneath significant antimonies. Although, politically and intellectually, they drew many of the same conclusions, these were, more often than not, arrived at from very different starting points, or via different routes. And that is, ultimately, why Orwell and Camus are so interesting to consider together. In a sense, the life and work of each man acts as an independent variable to confirm the truths and the doubts revealed by the life and work of the other.

Even their similarities, if prodded gently, reveal telling differences. Take, for example, the most iconic, albeit the most superficial, similarity between Orwell and Camus: their obsessive cigarette smoking. Orwell rolled his own cigarettes, from the cheapest shag tobacco he could find — the type used by the British working class. Camus smoked Gauloises, a prepackaged, unfiltered cigarette, very popular amongst the French intelligentsia and artistic community. For each man, their preferred cigarette was a symbol for the world they tried to inhabit, but which was never really their home. For Camus, it was the French intellectual scene, a far cry from his poor Algerian origins. For Orwell, it was the British working class, very different from his middle-class upbringing, his public schooling, and his service in the Imperial Police. Each cigarette they smoked was both an act of solidarity and a calmative against not entirely fitting into their chosen worlds.

They entered each of these worlds as writers, however. But they had very different approaches and attitudes toward writing. They both considered writing as a vocation. Yet Orwell also saw it as an occupation. For him, to be a writer meant earning a living from your published work. This is why Orwell early on set himself a goal of writing and publishing one book every year. It is also why he wrote so many articles, and did so many book reviews (and later film reviews, even though he hated doing so). His freelance writing was to support his book writing. And his book writing was to support his living.

Camus also made a decision early on regarding his own career. But he felt that writing was not an occupation. It was not something to earn a living from, and so he sought out other employment. In his youth, he was struck by the romantic argument that money tainted art. But as he got older, and his romanticism faded, he worked more out of necessity. His university education was geared toward him becoming a schoolteacher, but his tuberculosis made him ineligible for the role. He had tried various odd jobs, both during and after his university study. He was a meteorologist assistant, for example. An uncle even wanted him to take over the family butcher shop, and to teach him the trade. But Camus eventually fell into journalism. Even here the writing aspect was always only a part of other more menial tasks, like typesetting, or more laborious roles, like editing and proofing or seeing someone else’s work through to print.

Orwell and Camus also approached their own writing differently. Orwell was only able to work on one project at a time. So when he had reviews to write, or a series of commissioned articles to complete, he would put aside his book manuscript, sometimes for months at a time. Even on those rare occasions when he did have a job — such as in the mid-’30s, when he briefly worked in a London bookshop, or when in the late ’30s he and his wife Eileen opened a village grocery shop in Hertfordshire — he made the job fit around his writing, and always saw it as something secondary. Running a grocery shop didn’t, for example, stop Orwell from traveling to Northern England to research his book on working-class life, or to Spain to fight against the fascists. But when a job became all-consuming — such as when he worked for the BBC during the war, and then as literary editor of Tribune — his own writing all but stopped. Starting in 1933, Orwell published one book every year up until 1939. His next book, Animal Farm, was not published until 1945. He would look back on these years in between as wasted.

During and after the war, Camus worked as a newspaper editor at Combat but also as a book editor at Gallimard, where he curated his own series (publishing, for the first time, writers such as Simone Weil and Violette Leduc). Still, Camus didn’t let his day job get in the way of his own writing. His illness had taught him that time was short, and so he didn’t waste any of it. Unlike Orwell, however, Camus would work on several projects at once. Despite his journalism, and essay writing, Camus tended to develop what he called “cycles” of work, based around a common theme. His aim was to write a novel, a play, and a book-length essay to make up each cycle of work. Although the reality never entirely matched the plan, he kept to this method throughout his life. At the same time that he was working on his novel The Stranger, for example, he was also writing his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and working on the play Caligula. Meanwhile, the seeds of his next cycle were already being sown in his notebooks, and rehearsed in his journalism and essay writing.

Part of the reason for these different attitudes and approaches to writing may be due to their different social backgrounds. For Orwell, that background was middle-class, old Etonian — even when he rebelled against it he was still inculcated by the attitudes that came with it. He had seen several of his classmates — such as Cyril Connolly — go on to become writers and editors of literary journals and newspapers, and so he was never in any doubt that a literary career was not something he could pursue. His five years in the Burmese Police were, he later said, partly an attempt to actively avoid becoming a writer — as if it was always inevitable.

Camus, on the other hand, came from very poor, largely illiterate, working-class French Algeria. There was hardly anything inevitable in Camus’s becoming a writer. Growing up, there were no books in the house, and no privacy. During the school holidays, he worked with his uncles and older brother in a wine-barrel factory. His older brother didn’t go to high school, but went instead to work full-time with their uncles. Camus was supposed to follow suit, but an intervention from a schoolteacher, Louis Germain — and later the encouragement of a high school teacher and then university lecturer, Jean Grenier — made Camus see new possibilities. But even here, these possibilities extended mainly to the goal of becoming a high school teacher, and the need for a steady, honest job. Writing was certainly a possibility, but it was always something besides, something you did after work hours. For a working-class family in 1930s Algeria, writing was not considered legitimate work.

Tuberculosis affected Orwell and Camus in very different ways. Orwell was often sickly, and his illnesses were always lung-related. From early childhood he had bouts of chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza, often resulting in hospitalization. In September 1938, when he was 35, he went to French Morocco to recover from his first official bout of tuberculosis, although an older tubercular lesion was also found on his lungs. He became acclimatized to illness early on, to the extent that he didn’t let it get in the way of his more adventurous activities. He fought in Spain in 1936, for example, where he was shot in the throat. It was not until the Second World War that tuberculosis stopped him from enlisting. Even then, he threw himself into the home guard, and later — at the time he was supposed to meet Camus — worked as a war correspondent.

Camus contracted tuberculosis when he was 17, much younger than when Orwell became aware of his illness, but older than Orwell in his having to cope with illness in general. It therefore came as more of a shock to Camus when he was first diagnosed. Despite the poverty of his childhood, Camus was a robust and active child, playing soccer and swimming in the ocean. But tuberculosis, during the 1930s in French Algeria, was effectively a death sentence. Camus only received basic treatment because his father had died fighting in the First World War, which made the Camus children eligible for free medical care. The severity of the illness restricted his activities. He was unable to enlist to fight in Spain during the civil war in the mid-1930s, and later, at the start of the Second World War, he was again unable to enlist, despite repeated attempts.

Tuberculosis shaped Camus’s life more so than it did Orwell’s. The latter often treated his illness as an annoying aside, something he acted in spite of. It helped that his brother-in-law, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, was a leading thoracic surgeon and attending doctor at the sanatorium where Orwell would often stay in the late 1930s. Although it could be argued that Orwell’s pervasive pessimism — especially in his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written when he knew he was dying of tuberculosis — could, in part, be due to his own sense of mortality, illness never really became a prominent subject for his writing (his essay “How the Poor Die” being a notable exception).

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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Pulling back the curtain - Jean Rhys

When I first read Jean Rhys's short novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie in my early 20s, I felt a strong sense of empathy. It was the attraction of identification. I identified with the main character, Julia Martin. She was a tragic figure. She stayed in disreputable hotels and drank alone. "The landlady ... disapproved of Julia's habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes: a bottle no. That was the landlady's point of view."

Julia liked to go for long walks. She was a seeker of adventure at a time when women were expected to be demure. "[She] wanted to go away with just the same feeling a boy has when he wants to run away to sea ... Do you understand that a girl might have that feeling?"

She had known the heady pleasure of being desired, but her beauty was fading and so too was her power. "She had grown fatter in the last few months and [her coat] was now too tight and too short for her. She imagined that it gave her a ridiculous appearance, especially behind."

She loved beautiful clothes, but she was poor. She knew that "if you have money, you can go one way. But if you have nothing at all — absolutely nothing at all — and nowhere to get anything, then you go another."

I felt as if I understood Julia Martin's plight. Of course, I was younger then, and nursing my own broken heart, and prone to a certain melodramatic narcissism, and didn't fully appreciate the feat of having written such a book in the late 1920s. (It was published in 1930.)

The story is fairly simple. Julia Martin is dumped by her former lover Mr Mackenzie and offered, under humiliating if not threatening circumstances, a measly allowance to stay away from him.

Julia has no family connections, or anyone to whom she can appeal for help who hasn't already begrudgingly offered her a handout. She is forced to rely on her ability to attract men, exhilarated and compromised though this makes her feel, and with decreasing success as her looks become haggard. (She is in her mid-30s.) Julia returns to London at the suggestion of a new, but less than dedicated, suitor. She visits her sister, Norah. Her mother dies and Julia returns to Paris where, once again, she bumps into Mr Mackenzie. Very little has changed. She still asks him for money.

When I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for the second time, 10 years later, I was more frustrated than comforted by Julia's existence. I no longer felt as nerve-wracked as Julia, nor as helpless. It was the writing that astounded me and my admiration shifted from Julia Martin to Jean Rhys herself.

I now stand in awe of Rhys's fierce talent. She had an ability to see what others could not, or refused to see, and the guts to write about it. And her writing still reads, 75 years later, as entirely fresh and modern. Her use of short chapters and short paragraphs, jump cuts and modern idioms, feels almost experimental.

Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, to a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. She is mostly known for Wide Sargasso Sea (a retelling of the story of the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), but Rhys didn't publish that book until 1966 when she was 76. It had been nearly 40 years since Rhys's first book came out, with an introduction by Ford Madox Ford, who discovered her and with whom she was romantically involved. In the decade between 1927 and 1939, Rhys published one collection of short stories and four novels, of which After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was the second. None of these books did terribly well. During the second world war, they went out of print and Rhys all but disappeared. People assumed she was dead, but she was living as a recluse in Cornwall. Wide Sargasso Sea is an important book, but it doesn't have the emotional gall and urgency of Rhys's early novels. In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie you feel as if you are in the presence of a writer who is trying to tell it as it really was, to pull back the curtain of social decorum and say, "Look! This is what we're really like to one another!"

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Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

“A novel”, it says boldly on the front cover. The thing about Alice Munro is that she only writes short stories, so this is meant to be some sort of unique selling point; but the discrete chapters and the tone of the writing suggest a collection of interlinked short stories with the same narrator. Its form, however, is not the most interesting thing about it: that, of course, is the writing.
This is Munro’s second book, published in 1971 and reprinted a few times since then, but it is clear that she already has complete tonal command of her material. Most of it is based on the small Canadian town of Jubilee, Ontario, a place of mildly stifling gentility which provides her with a rich soil in which she can grow her stories. The book opens about midway through the second world war, but there are only the scantest references to locate us in time.
The point for Munro is to look at the everyday. There is a character called Uncle Craig who has been writing a history of the county and his family. Its dullness, you gather even before you read a representative paragraph, is monumental. “He did not ask for anybody in the family to have done anything more interesting, or scandalous, than to marry a Roman Catholic (the woman’s religion noted in red ink below her name); indeed, it would have thrown his whole record off balance if it had.” Uncle Craig dies suddenly of a heart attack, and his sisters bequeath the manuscript to the narrator, Del (a reasonably straightforward stand-in for Munro herself). They suggest that, as he “had the gift”, maybe she could learn to copy his style. (“He could get everything in and still make it read smooth.”) Del’s, or Munro’s, reaction comes in one short one-sentence paragraph: “They were talking to somebody who believed that the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.”
It is a remarkable moment not only of quiet comedy (by this stage we have seen some of Uncle Craig’s prose), but of self-declaration. This part of the world, Munro is saying, is what I’m going to be writing about; but she is also aware that she is restricting herself to a small canvas - that she is a miniaturist. (This is one of the reasons you might find yourself bridling at the over-assertive declaration that this is a novel; indeed, it has not always been described as such.) And at the same time, she is both mocking and taking seriously Del’s idea of what a writer’s duty is. It is, in its muted way, extremely self-confident.
Her talent – which is such that she was awarded the Nobel in 2013, the Swedish Academy having decided that Munro had fulfilled Del’s expectations – lies in her fine understatement. In Jubilee, we learn early on, it is considered not only seemly but important not to stand out from the crowd by virtue of your achievements (a certain degree of eccentricity is acceptable, mainly because it gives people something to talk about). To accept a scholarship is not on; to be offered one and turn it down, however, is praiseworthy – and crucial, if you are a woman.
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Friday, 27 March 2015

Dylan Thomas: Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Visiting Gore Vidal

In the summer of 1980, at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, precursor of the present festival, I was introduced to Gore Vidal as the editor of the New Edinburgh Review. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Vidal asked as he took my hand, referring to the first editor (1803–29) of the Edinburgh Review. “The wide eyes were alive with humour and so was the smiling mouth”, in the words of the memoir by the Austrian aristocrat Cecilia Sternberg, quoted, along with other passages in praise of himself, in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I was suitably charmed. Interviewed onstage, he answered questions with the amusing acerbity expected of him. When I included in my report for the TLS a characteristic witticism about Anthony Burgess (also present at the conference) writing for “an imaginary readership”, Vidal wrote a letter without smiling mouth to the Editor to deny that he had said any such thing. “How could I? I am part of Burgess’s audience and although I am often grotesquely imagined, I am not imaginary.”

I was chastened but puzzled. The joke had been repeated by more than one member of a delighted audience. After reading Sympathy for the Devil, I realize that I was not alone in being subject to the master’s morning-after revisionism. It was probably only Vidal’s affection for the TLS, to which at the time he was a regular contributor, that restrained him from instructing his lawyers to settle the potentially damaging calumny. (How could severed relations with Burgess harm him? But he would find a way.) In 2007, as Michael Mewshaw relates, the London Review of Books repeated a libel that had been originally issued in print many years earlier by Truman Capote who alleged that “a drunken Vidal had been bodily heaved from the White House by Bobby Kennedy”. After much expensive wrangling, Capote, a former friend of the wounded party, was obliged to pay damages and apologize, even though Vidal was often paralytically drunk and admitted in Palimpsest that Robert Kennedy “hated” him more than almost anyone. When the LRB repeated the story in the context of a review, Vidal instructed Mewshaw to contact the paper “and threaten that if it didn’t publish a retraction and an apology, he would sue and ruin it financially” – a reckless threat but not an empty one; Vidal knew how much more smoothly the path of libel runs in Britain than in the US. As he tells the story here, Mewshaw sighed but carried out instructions, assuming that Inigo Thomas, the author of the article,

“wouldn’t object to setting the record straight. But I assumed wrong and came to recognize how often Gore must have suffered the same maddening runaround I experienced. If he was cantankerous and confrontational, it might have had something to do with the smugness of the opposition ranged against him. When I rang the London Review of Books, I got bounced from department to department, person to person, each of whom listened with palpable indifference to Vidal’s complaint”.

Eventually, after more muddying of the waters – “I should have made it clear that there are differing versions of Vidal’s evening at the White House”, Thomas first wrote – the magazine printed an apology. Another victim of Vidal’s litigious whimsy was Edmund White, who in 2007 wrote a play, Terre Haute, about the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, with whom Vidal had corresponded. White incorporated a character based on the elder writer under a different name, having gained Vidal’s permission to do so. When the play came to be produced on BBC Radio, according to White, Vidal threatened to sue.

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Monday, 23 March 2015

Beckett in Love

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.”
In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm. As for “If you do not love me I shall not be loved,” it is quickly followed by another bout of verbal nausea:
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
We are unlikely to see that on a Valentine’s Day greeting card anytime soon.
Beckett loved tennis and his sense of humor might have been gratified by the joke that contemporary culture is playing on him, making his enactments of futility themselves futile by reading them as cheerleaders’ chants. And he would have recognized the ironies involved in this transformation of wretchedness into celebration, for he faced them in his own lifetime, not least in the years after the utterly unexpected success of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s, which brought him money and fame. Success was not what Beckett had bargained for: his compact with the Muses stipulated that he must embrace, as his biographer James Knowlson summarizes, “poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” Instead of failing better, he was now succeeding worse.
The feeling of abandonment from which he had written (between 1947 and 1950)GodotMolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable—the knowledge that no one greatly cared what he wrote or why—was now impossible. In 1948, he could write, with typically self-wounding humor, to his agent George Reavey in London that “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt.” In a revealing homage to his Paris publisher Jérôme Lindon, appended to a letter of June 1962, Beckett reveals that he was, indeed, on the cusp of abandoning writing altogether before Lindon accepted his great novel Molloy for publication in 1950: “It would have taken only this last little no thank you for me finally to see that that was it.”
By 1957, when the third volume of Cambridge’s wonderful edition of his letters begins, Beckett is famous and “these bastards of journalists” and “those bastards of critics” (as he calls them in a letter to Alan Schneider) are working over his case. Beckett was acutely conscious that however much he would “refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind,” he already had by then a public image. He agonized about becoming, as it were, Beckettian and longed for those days of utter hopelessness and utter freedom. As he wrote to his American publisher Barney Rosset in November 1958:
I feel I’m getting more and more entangled in professionalism and self-exploitation and that it would be really better to stop altogether than to go on with that. What I need is to get back into the state of mind of 1945 when it was write or perish. But I suppose no chance of that.
Three days later he returned to the same theme:
The only chance for me now as a writer is to go into retreat and put a stop to all this fucking élan acquis [momentum] and get back down to the bottom of all the hills again, grimmer hills…[than] in 45 of cherished memory and far less than then to climb with, i.e. nice proportions. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely the only last worth trying to pant as far as I’m concerned. So if all goes well no new work for a long time now, if ever.
He repeated this image of getting “back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day” to his radio producer (and subsequently his lover) Barbara Bray a few days later. Later again he writes to Bray, in a beautiful summary of his aesthetic, about trying and failing “to find the rhythm and syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say.”
These protestations, admittedly, cannot be taken quite at face value. The joke on his own hopes of failing better in the letters to Rosset—if all goes well, he will write nothing—is by no means new.
Long before Beckett feared entanglement in the nets of fame and “self-exploitation,” he could always find other reasons both to be disgusted with his writing and to believe that the worse it got the better it would be in the end. In 1933, when still obscure, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy: “I find it more and more difficult to write and I think I write worse and worse in consequence. But I have still hopes of its all coming in a gush like a bloody flux.”
By the time we find him in his post-Godot agonies Beckett was, moreover, very good at being Beckettian, at playing on, and playing up to, the image he has created. The great delight of this new volume of letters, indeed, is in the hilarity of Beckett’s acting out for his correspondents a version of himself close to the misfortunate characters that populate his work. When an admirer sends him two dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs, he becomes Hamm in Endgame, who refers to his handkerchief as an “old stancher”: “I have received two dozen old stanchers; I shall have to start crying again.” He gives Rosset a wonderfully deadpan account of standing on a street corner in London after a lunch with Charles Monteith and Peter du Sautoy of Faber and Faber. While they praisedKrapp’s Last Tape as “frightfully funny,”
I was calculating with anguish the chances of my bladder’s holding out to the only public lavatory known to me in the West End, viz. in the Piccadilly Underground (it did almost).
The “almost” is as delicious in its comic catastrophe as anything in Godot. So is his description to Bray of mundane futility: “I go out to look for something to do in the garden. Yesterday I mowed the grass which did not need to be mown. Perhaps to day with rain threatening I shall water it.” And there is his similar image of himself, written to Jacoba van Velde, as a Sisyphus with a garden spade: “I would like to spend two months in the country digging holes, filling up each one as I go with the earth from the next one.”
He plays up his own bodily afflictions: “I was always a great one for cysts.” He delights in the deadliness of his physician (“You wouldn’t get through one day of his prescription,” he mock-boasts to Bray) and hopes those same afflictions might kill him off: “Perhaps in this way I shall succeed in dying before an operation becomes necessary.” He comes up with a doubly miserable topographical coinage to describe his mood, combining the flatness of the polders—low-lying land—with the becalmed doldrums and claiming to be in “the poldrums.” He imagines a character for his next work: “Says nothing, just howls from time to time.” He pretends to be so fed up with writing that he finds himself “wishing I had complied with my father’s wishes and gone into Guinness’s Brewery.”
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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Hermann Hesse: In the Fog

It's strange to wander in the fog!
A lonely bush, a lonely stone,
No tree can see the other one,
And one is all alone.

The world was full of friends back then,
As life was light to me;
But now the fog has come,
And no one can I see.

Truly, no one is wise,
Who does not know the dark
Which inevitably and silently
Does from others him part.

It's strange to wander in the fog!
Life is loneliness
No Man knows the other one,
And one is all alone.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf

Six volumes of real genius boiled down into 1,500 words of solid prose!" she spluttered in 1905 over the task of writing a review article about Jane Carlyle's letters. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, the editors of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume I," announce their intent to issue a total of six volumes of her letters in six years, at the end of which the reviewer will face a similarly impossible task, for Virginia Woolf bids fair to be remembered as a great letter-writer as well as a novelist and critic.

Not all, by any means, of the letters in the present volume are pure gold, but the wonderful ones she writes about her work, mostly to women friends, when in her twenties and beginning to be a professional writer, give us a new Virginia Woolf - not without tears (tragic family deaths and mental breakdowns fill these years) but without Bloomsbury.

To be exact, these are the letters of Virginia Stephen, literary spinster, in her first 30 years fro 1888 when she was 6 to 1912 when she married Leonard Woolf. They read like a drama which seesaws emotionally from the heights to the depths, from brilliance to numb boredom, for Virginia Stephen was intermittently mad, not steadily neurotic. A surprising strength of character emerges from these letters. She fights with renewed force, after each collapse, for her independence as a woman and a writer from the spreading web of family and social connections that binds her down.

From a sanitarium in 1910 she writes her sister on mad-lucid letter which is funny and harrowing: "Miss Bradbury is the woman you saw out of the window and said was homicidal [sic]. I was very kind with her at dinner, but she then put me to bed, and is a trained nurse." Ordinarily her bouts of madness are indicated by a gap in the letters; they appear triggered by periods of grief and physical strain, such as the ordeal of her father's last illness which she reports in daily bulletins to Violet Dickinson, an old family friend, in 1904. "Oh my Violet," she writes from abroad after Leslie Stephen's death, in a letter which in its punctuation as in its anguish announces the onset of a breakdown, "if you could only find me a great solid bit of work to do when I get back that will make me forget my own stupidity - I should be so grateful. I must work." The idea seems not to have occurred to any of Virginia Stephen's male relations, or to the fashionable doctors whose blunders dogged her life.

More than half the letters in this volume are addressed to Violet Dickinson, a woman of aristocratic connections and wide social circle who is remembered as the editor (in 1919) of Emily Eden's letters. A lifelong spinster (she was over six feet tall) and world traveler, she was 13 years older than Virginia, who sometimes called her "Aunt" and, in the earliest letters, wrote her in a language of cuddly affection which reminds us, that Virginia was a motherless child from the age of 13.

Violet Dickinson gave far more than affection. She nursed Virginia at her Welwyn home through her suicidal depression in the summer of 1904, and then introduced her to the women's editor of The Guardian and to Nellie Cecil. The Guardian assigned Virginia books to review and published her first writing; with Nellie Cecil (a professional critic, as will as daughter and wife of peers - her nephew is Lord David Cecil) she collaborated on a literary column for The Cornhill. From then until her marriage, Virginia Woolf was a hard-working literary journalist; she adored it.

This is the new act of her life that opens in the letters at the end of 1904 - and it is the act that most surprises. We have always been told that what happened to Virginia Stephen in 1904 was her immersion in the "Bloomsbury" circle which began to form around the Gordon Square home she shared with her sister Vanessa, and to which her brother Thoby brought his brilliant Cambridge friends; that Virginia's intellectual sophistication 20th-century sensibility and literary life took root in the masculine Blooms bury atmosphere.

But her letters do not say so. It may be true, as the editors write, that meeting Clive Bell in 1904 was "a turning-point in Virginia's life" because "she had discovered a type of friend and conversation that she most enjoyed." But whatever their evidence may be, it is not in these letters. "He is clever, and cultivated - more taste, I think, than genius." Was her opinion of Clive Bell in 1906, just before he married her sister Vanessa; an opinion that history has seconded.

What mattered most was her own work. Her desk filled with books - Keats, James, Christina Rossetti, Flaubert and the novel a week The Times Literary Supplement sent her to review; she was starting her own sketches and fiction; she was teaching; she was earning money. She writes to Nellie Cecil with charming professional briskness - my English being valuable - about a farthing, every 10 words, I should say." She encourages Madge Vaughan to get on with her novel, in spite of a household of young children. She sends her manuscripts to Violet Dickinson for encouragement, and shares with her joy in solitude and work.

So bubbling with busy happiness are these letters that, reading them, we brace ourselves for the bubble's burst, for the next tragedy - Thoby's death of typhoid in November 1907 - that is to set off Virginia's next collapse. Astonishingly, heartbreakingly, the buoyant mood of her letters to Violet Dickinson persists will into 1908. Virginia turned all her strength (much diminished by the effort of nursing) and all her imagination as a writer to cheerful, chatty lying about Thoby' recovery; for Violet, who lay ill of typhoid at Welwyn, could not be told the truth.

Perhaps the effort of will - the effort of attending to the imperative need of others (which seems to have no parallel in her earlier or later life) warded off her own collapse. Virginia's next breakdown did not come until 1910; then she threw herself into work for Woman's Suffrage - rather grimly, for she did not care for the middle-class people and the Jews she met among the feminists.

Between 25 and 30 Virginia Stephen seems to age, and not attractively. Bloomsbury men cluster around her and several propose; she struggles through the work of G.E. Moore, the second-rate Cambridge philosopher who was the Bloomsbury mentor; she attends the Post-Impressionist exhibit organized by Clive Bell and Roger Fry without evident enthusiasm. The letters grow shrill, lifeless, and filled with nasty, sometimes lewd gossip about uninteresting people with sill nicknames - all very old-maidish. Is this perhaps the Bloomsbury tone?

There is a great life of happiness at the end of vilume, brought by the successful, whirlwind courtship of Leonart Woolf. Why did she marry her "penniless Jew"? This is the question most readers will open this volume to discover. Hew was not a homosexual, not a poseur, not a pendant. "He spent 7 years in Ceylon," she wrote Madge Vaughan, "governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers...He interests me immensely..." Virginia seems to have played Desdemona to Woolf's Othello, but with a difference, for he was giving up his career as colonial administrator for the chance to marry her, he was writing his own novel, and most of all, as she wrote Violet Dickinson, "L. thinks my writing the best part of me" and "L. wants me to say that if I cease to write when married, I shall be divorced."

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Friday, 20 March 2015

A tale of two tongues - Hugo Hamilton's memoir The Speckled People

Anyone setting out to write about their Irish childhood should have in mind Roy Foster's gleefully ferocious attack on the Frank McCourt school of bestselling, cliché-ridden "miserable Irish-Catholic childhoods" written with "an utter lack of distinguished style". They will also be conscious of the glittering weight of more distinguished predecessors in Irish autobiography, from Yeats and Shaw to Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and Patrick Kavanagh.

Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People triumphantly avoids the Angela's Ashes style of sentimental nostalgia and victim claims, and stands up well in the mighty, unending competition for most memorable Irish life-story. It does not subtitle itself a memoir (though the blurb calls it one), and it's not a straightforward reminiscence. More like the early pages of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, it's shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.

It incorporates in passing, but often without much annotation, a complex web of allusions to literature, politics and history. One example: the father admires Cardinal Stepinac, who he thinks "should be made into a saint". This refers to the exposure by Protestant nationalist writer Hubert Butler - very unwelcome to the Irish Catholic Church - of the wartime campaign in Croatia to forcibly convert half a million Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism. But Hamilton gives the story as he hears it from his father; it's up to us to provide the historical background.

Gradually, what the child-narrator sees and hears begins to turn into what he knows and understands - secrets, conflicts, histories, beliefs. It is a bold strategy, because it does so call Joyce to mind, but it pays off handsomely. This story about a battle over language and a defeat in "the language wars" is also a victory for eloquent writing, crafty and cunning in its apparent simplicity.

Hamilton grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s with his brother and sisters. His mother, Irmgard Kaiser, came from Kempen, a small town in Germany. Her father fought in the first world war, owned a stationery shop and died when she was nine. Her mother was an opera singer; there were five sisters. She and her family lived through terrible times under the Nazis and in the war she was abused and raped by her employer.

She left Germany to go on a pilgrimage in Ireland and stayed on. The man she married, Jack Hamilton - or Sean Ó hUrmoltaigh, as he renamed himself - belonged to a west Cork family, from Leap and Skibbereen, that beautiful country marked with a history of nationalism, poverty, famine, religion and emigration. His grandfather was an Irish-speaking Munster poet; but his father - wiped from the record by his son - served and died in the British Navy.

n engineer in Dublin, Jack Hamilton dedicated his life to the anti-British, nationalist cause, and above all to the rehabilitation of the Irish language. He went around the country in wartime, making speeches for Irish neutrality and the Irish tongue; after the war he married Irmgard as part of his plan for "bringing people from other countries over to Ireland". He belonged to a group called Aiseirí (Irish for "resurrection"), whose publications were anti-semitic as well as anti-British. He campaigned for changing Dublin's street-names into Irish, and he sent his children to Irish-language schools. They were to be his "weapons" in the language wars. If they spoke English at home, he beat them.

"He says 'Irish people drink too much and talk too much and don't want to speak Irish, because it stinks of poverty and dead people left lying in the fields... The Irish language reminds them of the big famine when they had nothing to eat except the old poems in Irish... One day the Irish people will wake up and wonder if they're still Irish,' he says. And that's why it's important not to bring bad words like fruitgum into the house."

No English-speaking school-friends are allowed in; the great wave of Anglo-American music pulsing through the world in the 1960s stops at their front door. When the children come home wearing poppies on Armistice Day, they are ripped from their coats and hurled into the fire: only shamrock badges are allowed, on St Patrick's Day. This angry, determined, fanatical character is, in the end, stung to death by his own bees: a story so metaphorically apt, and told with such power, that it reads more like a Greek myth than a piece of history.

The children wear Lederhosen and Aran sweaters. They speak German and Irish at home, but their mother doesn't speak Irish. Outside, where the Dubliners all speak English, they are mocked and bullied by the other children as "Nazis". On their visits to the German sisters (warmly invoked), they compare Ireland and Germany. When they go to the Gaeltacht in Connemara, where everyone speaks Irish, they talk about the state of the Irish language - and the English prose of the book moves into lyrical rhythms, a kind of Synge-song: "All of us dreaming and sheltering from the words, speaking no language at all, just listening to the voice of the rain falling and... the water [whispering] along the roadside like the only language allowed."

Inside the Dublin house, there is a war going on between the father and the mother over intolerance and violence, and between the father and his children over language and beliefs. Both parents draw parallels between the British colonisation of Ireland and the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. Both insist on the relation between "language" and "home", and it's that link that makes the deepest story of the book. "My father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag." Their mother tells them of all the exiles in the world: "Homesick people carry anger with them in their suitcases. And that's the most dangerous thing in the world, suitcases full of helpless, homesick anger."

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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dutch Courage: The letters of Vincent Van Gogh

"The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to avenge myself by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent." So wrote Vincent Van Gogh from Arles to his sister Willemien in September 1888, describing the exhilarating joy of painting sunflowers, the night sky, and the cottages and fishing boats of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

He had just painted a self-portrait "in ashy tones against a pale Veronese background", a subject chosen, he told his brother Theo, "for want of a model". He looks ill and ageing, his red hair receding, his face sunken (he had lost many teeth, probably through poor diet), his cheekbones gaunt and jutting, and his expression grim. Yet the brilliance of the colour and the intensity of the brushwork are vibrant with triumphant life. This portrait is but one example of the paradox of his laborious and painful struggle to emerge from the darkness to the light: an epic pilgrimage, tracked and documented by letters, letter sketches and drawings, many on show at the Royal Academy in London.

The mantra of his early years was a quotation from 2 Corinthians 6:10 - "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" - which is scattered through the first two volumes of this extraordinarily interesting correspondence, recently published by Thames & Hudson. Most of it is directed to his younger brother Theo, with whom he had a mutually supportive relationship. A cursory browse may give the impression that Vincent was always asking for financial help, for rent and materials (as he was), but a closer reading reveals deep affection, shared values, and a strong desire to cheer and help Theo through illness, career difficulties and sexual disasters.

At times Vincent wrote almost daily, describing his life teaching and preaching in England, and later his work in various unaccommodating lodgings in the Netherlands. The darkness drove him to read and to write, as he could not draw or paint in the long evenings. He wrote about his admiration for George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Another of his favourite quotations was Christina Rossetti's "Does the road wind uphill".) He also devoured Balzac, Hugo and, as they appeared, the novels of Zola and Maupassant. (Gauguin was to tell him he read too much.)

His letters at this period were enriched with sketches of men digging and sowing (after his hero Millet), of women miners carrying sacks of coal, of pollarded willows, of old men ("old orphans") sitting worn out by the fireside, of women peeling potatoes. It is a dark world of hard rural labour, in dark tones, sanctified in his own eyes by a sense of religious humility. He was moved by the old, the gnarled, the destitute, even by the broken-down cab horse, to which he often likened himself. The poor, he believed, would inherit the earth.

Vincent's father was a minister who came to disapprove of his son's unworldly biblical evangelism, and even more strongly of his relationships with women - first, his unrequited love for a widowed cousin, and then his attachment to Sien, a pregnant former prostitute, with whom he lived at The Hague from 1882-83 and who worked as his model. Models were expensive, as he mentioned throughout his career, but he preferred to work from them than from the imagination. (This was to become a subject of aesthetic debate with Gauguin and Émile Bernard.) His relationship with the only models that he could afford must have affected his artistic vision, and he writes about it with compassion, occasional irritation, and some distress. But when his strikingly powerful portrait L'Arlésienne (1888) was admired, he said: "praise the model, not the painter".

Sien was one of the few who posed naked for him, most memorably as "Sorrow", 1882: on the whole he preferred to paint people with their well-worn work clothes on, because, as he said, "that's how we usually see them". He looked after Sien (with Theo's support, and eventually his father's tacit acceptance) and her two children, and his heavily illustrated letters describing efforts to make his studio functional, homely and habitable are touching. So is his affection for Sien's baby: he sent a sketch showing the infant crawling across the studio floor (Adventurer sallying forth, 1883) to his painter friend Anthon van Rappard.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?

August of 1929, Sigmund Freud scoffed at the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography. “That is of course quite an impossible suggestion,” he wrote to his nephew, who had conveyed an American publisher’s suggestion that the great man write his life story. “Outwardly,” Freud went on, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, “my life has passed calmly and uneventfully and can be covered by a few dates.” Inwardly—and who knew better?—things were a bit more complicated:
A psychologically complete and honest confession of life, on the other hand, would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.
Freud ended by suggesting that the five-thousand-dollar advance that had been offered was a hundredth of the sum necessary to tempt him into such a foolhardy venture.

Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention. Even when the most distinguished writers and thinkers have turned to autobiography, they have found themselves accused of literary exhibitionism—when they can bring themselves to put on a show at all. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” appeared, shocking the salons of eighteenth-century Paris with matter-of-fact descriptions of the author’s masturbation and masochism, Edmund Burke lamented the “new sort of glory” the eminent philosophe was getting “from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices, which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents.” (The complaint sounds eerily familiar today.) When, at the suggestion of her sister, Virginia Woolf started, somewhat reluctantly, to compose an autobiographical “sketch,” she found herself, inexplicably at first, thinking of a certain hallway mirror—the scene, as further probing of her memory revealed, of an incestuous assault by her half-brother Gerald, an event that her memory had repressed, and about which, in the end, she was unable to write for publication.

As it happens, Woolf, the tentative memoirist, met Freud, who wouldn’t dream of writing a memoir, when both were nearing the end of their lives; Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell reported that the psychoanalyst presented the novelist with a narcissus. Whatever Freud may have meant by the gesture, it nicely symbolizes the troubling association between creativity and narcissism, an association that is nowhere as intense as when the creation in question is memoir, a literary form that exposes the author’s life without the protective masks afforded by fiction.

Such self-involvement, as Ben Yagoda’s fact-packed if not terribly searching book “Memoir: A History” (Riverhead; $25.95) reminds you, is just one of the charges that have been levelled against memoirs and their authors over the centuries, the others being the ones that Freud was so leery of: indiscretion, betrayal, and outright fraud. But it’s the ostensible narcissism that has irritated critics the most. A decade and a half ago, the distinguished critic William Gass fulminated against the whole genre in a scathing Harper’s essay, in which he asked, rhetorically, whether there were “any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner’s head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety?” The outburst came at a moment when a swelling stream of autobiographical writing that had begun in the late eighties was becoming what Yagoda calls a “flood.” By the end of the nineties, a New York Observer review of one writer’s first book, a memoir, could open with an uncontroversial reference to “this confessional age, in which memoirs and personal revelations tumble out in unprecedented abundance.” (The memoirist in question was me; more on that later.)

By now, the flood feels like a tsunami. Things have got to the point where the best a reviewer can say about a personal narrative is—well, that it’s not like a memoir. “This is not a woe-is-me memoir of the sort so much in fashion these days,” the book critic of the Washington Post wrote recently in an admiring review of Kati Marton’s “Enemies of the People,” an account of how the journalist’s family suffered under Communist rule in Hungary. But, as Yagoda makes clear, confessional memoirs have been irresistible to both writers and readers for a very long time, and, pretty much from the beginning, people have been complaining about the shallowness, the opportunism, the lying, the betrayals, the narcissism. This raises the question of just why the current spate of autobiography feels somehow different, somehow “worse” than ever before—more narcissistic and more disturbing in its implications. And it may well be that the answer lies not with the genre—which has, in fact, remained fairly consistent in its aims and its structure for the past millennium and a half or so—but with something that has shifted, profoundly, in the way we think about our selves and our relation to the world around us.

It all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old—the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behavior—stole some pears off a neighbor’s tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanor. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren’t all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realized, simply to be bad. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”

However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore. For although the boy eventually straightened himself out, converted to Christianity, and even became a bishop, the man he became was tortured by the thought of this youthful peccadillo. His desire to seek a larger meaning in his troubled past ultimately moved him to write a starkly honest account of his dissolute early years (he is disarmingly frank about his prolific sex life) and his stumbling progress toward spiritual transcendence—to the climactic moment when, by looking inward with what he calls his “soul’s eye,” he “saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind.” The man’s name was Aurelius Augustinus; we know him as St. Augustine. His book was called “Confessions.”

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Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life

The Brecht Industry rolls on: doctoral dissertations, journals, blogs, websites, YouTube, and memoirs comprising millions of pages, much to the consternation of the boys at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, who must be musing on how it is that an ardent anti-capitalist has entranced the cognoscenti and, much like Che, taken the moral high-ground despite the ubiquitous mercantilist hard sell at Fox News. Is there a credible pro-capitalist playwright, or are we still drifting with the platitudes and prose of an Ayn Rand as counter example?

One of the answers to that riddle may be that Brecht in his short 58 years wrote forty extraordinary plays; created an exemplary body of German poetry and song, and wrote twenty volumes of theoretical work, in addition to the journals, media analysis, letters, film scripts, drafts, rewrites and dramaturgical notes. Much of this work was created while Brecht was on the run from the Gestapo, and with his name on a Nazi hit list. Still in his early twenties, he had been the toast of theatrical Berlin.

His life was played out between lethal Stalinists, flaccid Hollywood types, and Hitler’s murderous regime. He loses a number of friends to both Hitler and Stalin.

Shadowing Parker’s detailed biography is the taboo topic of the Russian holocaust Stalin’s military mistakes were of course a catastrophe, but twenty six million Russians died defeating the Nazis. Russia today is the forlorn shell of what might have been, had the Stalinists not been in charge, and the German attack not been so devastating. America’s Cold War on the Soviets carefully obliterated this historical possibility.

Enter Steven Parker’s biography of Brecht, 689 pages of carefully researched and foot-noted conjecture about this paradoxical, irritating, overbearing, brilliant Marxist whose love life would shame a Casanova, and whose intellectual praxis suggests that after Shakespeare he is one of the greatest theatrical thinkers and playwrights. Charles Laughton repeated this appraisal to Brecht’s Hollywood detractors; who like Brecht himself were wont to point out that the playwright just wasn’t a “nice guy.”

He wasn’t. Brecht’s early life seems a catalogue of obsessive, compulsive misogyny. He abandons the children of his first two serious relationships (Bie Banholzer, and Marianne Zoff). Despite a long and successful marriage to the actress Helen Weigel, but she too is victim to his infidelities. He ritually requires that his sexual partners sign “contracts” obligating them to obey Brecht’s rulebook, which he then flagrantly violates. Like Welles, Brecht is born into the world as radio, film, and modern theater come into being, and he will write original work for all of these mediums. Parker is good at the infinite detail that all of this involved, but after a few hundred pages Brecht’s immense erudition begins to overwhelm all.

Brecht left his mark on so many areas that his significance will still be debated in a hundred years. This is especially true for America where his reception has been grudging and carping at best, and studiedly obtuse and reactionary at worst. In having fallen victim to the professoriate, who quote him endlessly, his survival has come at the cost of his comprehensibility, which remains problematic. He remains the middlebrow intellectual’s nightmare: sexually avid and promiscuous; unceasingly disciplined and prolific; poetically so gifted that he changed the German language; and steadfast in his belief that capitalism must be destroyed and replaced by a revolutionary class dedicated to ending the Mercantilist putsch for all time. He was ‘”solitary, lonely, reckless and wise,” and remained to the end a self-described “Bolshevik without a Party.”

As Parker notes, Brecht was beset all of his life with failing health, heart problems, and a malfunctioning liver and spleen, which, as he predicted, shortened his life. Like D. H. Lawrence, the specter of his own mortality was ever-present. He was made instantly famous with the success of the Three Penny Opera, in 1928. His obsessions were eclectic and legendary: Kipling, poetry and song, Chicago, women, Marxism, market capitalism, even as he declares that his real subject is the migration of masses of people to the great cities.

In the 1920’s, while researching a play on the Chicago Futures Exchange, he declares: “these are people who do not want to be understood.” Out of this realization and association with Marxist thinkers like Karl Korsch, his political mentor, he is drawn to the German Communist Party (KPD,), which pays some faint homage to his work but never embraces him. Like Korsch, he remains too radical for the Communist Left. Although never officially a Party member, Brecht, in a few years, is considered the Poet Laureate of the international communist movement. A label that will see him forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and provide him with an FBI file that rivals the OED in size and scope. His publisher and friend Peter Suhrkamp remarked that had Brecht not encountered Marxism he would have become another in a long line of German decadents, wavering between a feeble Liberalism and the nihilism that the Nazis define.

But Brecht’s Marxism came at a price: he is relentlessly attacked, vilified, and distorted from the Left, both in East Germany, where he finally settles, and during his Exile when he attempts to write for a Communist exile journal obsessed with the Realist vs. Formalist debate so dear to Zhdanov, Lukacs, and the Party hacks. Brecht sees the SA Brown shirts marching in Berlin and remarks to a friend: “When Mahogany comes: I go.”

On the night of the Reichstag fire he enters a small bar, and hears two customers debating the event: “It was the Nazis.” “No, it was the Communists.” He does not return home but flees Germany within hours. Those who could not read events were soon either dead or in concentration camps. Parker’s primary contribution to the mountains of Brecht scholarship is his analysis of Brecht’s medical history: which is complicated, and sporadic. Diagnosed at an early age with heart problems, he is so fearful both of dying and being buried alive that his Will required that a ceratoid artery be cut before he is interred.

Brecht’s genius for survival keeps him in exile for well over a decade, and he spends the Forties in Hollywood, where he is unemployable, though there he manages a long relationship with Laughton, which produces Galileo, and one film script (Hangman Also Die), which Fritz Lang directs. Laughton will later denounce him on the advice of his manager, producing a short, bitter memorable poem from Brecht.

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry by Paul Celan

In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes the famous claim that language “is the house of Being.” What he means by this is, as with nearly everything Heidegger wrote, a topic of debate. The letter itself produces a distinctly defiant, not to say polemical effect, reflective of those turbulent postwar years in Europe. Its target is the group of French intellectuals known as existentialists, lead by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Heidegger feels has misinterpreted the philosophical project in his landmark Being and Time by using some of its claims as a foundation for a new metaphysics. He goes on to say that the “reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement . . . [Sartre] stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”

But, then, there are many other points at which Heidegger says essentially the same thing about Being and Time itself, and so the criticism of Sartre is equally a self-criticism. Following what scholars refer to as his “turn,” Heidegger will even stop referring to his own work as philosophy, instead preferring terms like “reflection,” and “deep thinking.” This turn is characterized by a deep engagement with poetry, particularly the German lyric poet Hölderlin. The cause for this turn is disputed, but it is undoubtedly connected to the thinker’s disillusionment with National Socialism, and that movement’s later collapse, an event which precipitated Heidegger’s brief but profound ostracization from the German philosophical community. The priority Heidegger placed on rootedness and authenticity in his early work (which, not incidentally, probably led him to embrace Nazism) underwent a shift in emphasis and he became focused on “dwelling.” It is in language, he writes in the Letter, that a human being dwells.

This later work helped to expand the thinker’s sphere of influence beyond academic philosophy and into all areas of humanistic inquiry, from the visual arts, to psychoanalysis, to the study of poetry itself. Many of those engaged in these fields even went to visit Heidegger in his secluded cabin in Todtnauberg, deep in the Black Forest. One such visitor was the poet and, shockingly, Nazi work-camp survivor, Paul Celan. Only one poem, titled simply “Todtnauberg,” deals with this encounter directly, but the deep, metaphysical anxiety that drove Celan to meet the philosopher in many respects animated his entire career.

Celan as a poet and as a man was, perhaps above all others, deeply engaged with the disaster of the mid-twentieth century, and with poetry as both the highest expression of that disaster and the possibility of a way forward. Fitting, then, he should have undergone a turn similar to Heidegger’s midway through his writing life, abandoning a great deal of what could be seen as the traditional elements of his poetic style and experimenting in dark, often strange tones, vocabularies, and structures as a means of pushing up against what he—and Europe as a whole—had witnessed. The results of this effort make up Breathturn Into Timestead, an extraordinary, bilingual edition of Celan’s books from the finals years of his brief, yet highly productive life.

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivsti, Ukraine) in 1920. Deeply aware of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as an epochal shift in European history, Celan was from a young age fascinated with the continent’s traditions as embodied in its literatures. Apart from the High German spoken at home and what translator Pierre Joris calls in his introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead the “usual Czernowitz languages” of Romanian, Ukranian, and Yiddish, Celan studied Latin, Ancient Greek, French, English, Italian, Russian, and (until he stopped after his bar mitzvah to distance himself from his father’s Zionism) Hebrew. This extraordinary linguistic ability allowed Celan to complete a number of important translations throughout his life.

At eighteen years old, while travelling through Austria and Germany on his way to study medicine in France, the young poet witnessed the first major effects of the Anschluss on Germany and Austria’s Jews. It was not by any means his first experience with anti-Semitism, but it certainly marked a change, to say the least. One has a hard time imagining even a young Celan being possessed of wide-eyed idealism, but it is not unlikely that for a person so invested in language and literature, chief among the Nazi crimes was that they gave their orders for slaughter in the tongue of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin.

Following a year in medical school, he went back to Czernowitz, and, unable to travel back to France due to the war, enrolled in his local university to continue his studies, not in medicine, but in Romance languages. It is from this time that his thirty-one years of surviving poetry begin, though none from this time was published until after his death in 1970. Two years later, following the Soviet occupation and subsequent Nazi invasion of his homeland, Celan’s parents were taken in the night and deported to concentration camps. The guilt at not having been there with them—he had been in a hideout which a friend had secured for him, and to which his parents refused to go, not wishing to abandon their home—haunted the poet for the rest of his life. The next year, while working in a labor camp, he discovered that Nazi guards had shot both his mother and his father. He spent the remainder of the Nazi occupation in the work camp and, in 1944, the Soviet re-invasion secured his freedom.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Seneca: A Life review

Should philosophers practise what they preach? The question is unavoidable when it comes to Seneca. Here is a man who said “being poor is not having too little but wanting more” while pocketing 300 million sestertii writing speeches for the monstrous Nero. Here is a man who said the wealthy should be generous with their money, while using his own sordid gains to become richer still as a landlord and lender. (Some historians believe the Boudican revolt was prompted by Seneca’s calling in the extortionately rated loans he had forced on subject Britons.)

Worse, as Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life makes clear, pretty much every one of Seneca’s works can be read as an explanation or an excuse for whatever he or Nero had been up to in the weeks preceding its composition. On Clemency, a paean to Nero’s non-violent nature, appeared mere months after the emperor had had his stepbrother murdered. On Leisure was composed just as Seneca was trying to sweet-talk Nero into letting him retire from an increasingly perilous court.

But even though Nero had just had his own mother offed, did Seneca (who had conspired in the murder) have any right to be fearful? After all, the founding principle of Seneca’s stoicism was that though there are many reasons for regretting living, there’s no point worrying about dying because you’re not going to be around once it happens. “We are in the power of nothing when death is in our power,” wrote Seneca. It’s a credo that’s hard to argue with – even if his own end was a farce that might have been designed to prove man’s impotence.

Forget the grand, muscular death depicted in that Rubens painting. Whatever else it was, this was no noble self-slaughter. Seneca might have slashed his own wrists, but since Nero had sentenced him to death he was hardly ending his life willingly. Alas, death didn’t come easily. Now an old man, Seneca’s blood flowed slowly, and even after slicing behind his knees and at his ankles it refused to debouch. He took a draft of hemlock, but this didn’t finish him off either. Eventually, Nero’s guards dumped him in a hot bath, in whose steamy heat this lifelong bronchitic finally breathed his last.

Not before time, you might think, though Wilson isn’t so judgmental. As skilled in the arts of exculpation as her subject, she would have you believe that “it is asking too much for any person, however philosophical, to rise above the culture of his or her own time”. This would have been news to Thomas More (whose story Wilson says is comparable with that of Seneca). More may or may not have risen above Henry’s court, but he certainly stood out from it. And anyway, if we are all mere products of our culture, there can be no exemplary lives – which rather does away with the need for biography.

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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Paul Éluard: Uninterrupted Poetry

From the sea to the source

From mountain to plain
Runs the phantom of life
The foul shadow of death
But between us
A dawn of ardent flesh is born
And exact good
that sets the earth in order
We advance with calm step
And nature salutes us
The day embodies our colours
Fire our eyes the sea our union
And all living resemble us
All the living we love
Imaginary the others
Wrong and defined by their birth
But we must struggle against them
They live by dagger blows
They speak like a broken chair
Their lips tremble with joy
At the echo of leaden bells
At the muteness of dark gold
A lone heart not a heart
A lone heart all the hearts
And the bodies every star
In a sky filled with stars
In a career in movement
Of light and of glances
Our weight shines on the earth
Glaze of desire
To sing of human shores
For you the living I love
And for all those that we love
That have no desire but to love
I’ll end truly by barring the road
Afloat with enforced dreams
I’ll end truly by finding myself
We’ll take possession of earth

Janet Galloway - This is Not About Me

A PAIR of too-heavy drawers hangs from a garden washing line in Saltcoats. Janet Galloway, mother of Janice, is propped upright in a foldaway chair, her bare arms extended as if she is expecting sun. She is wearing earrings and a necklace that might be pearl. A show of knees.
Her black short-sleeved dress could be her Sunday best. She is in her 20s, perhaps, but there is no date on the back of the photograph her daughter is showing me.
We are in a Glasgow café, and Janice Galloway is in killer boots. Black-and-white pictures poke out of a creased brown envelope, their yellowed edges frayed and damaged by time. In one, the nine-month-old Galloway sits for a studio portrait, her hair drawn up in a clump of curls. She can't walk yet but the expression on her face suggests she would like to. Her mother has left the room: the infant is looking at the already-closed door, a little frightened. The present-day Janice Galloway is full of laughter, the small child turned woman. In one hand she holds a coffee, in another her former self.
This Is Not About Me is not the book Galloway intended to write. The story she had in mind was to be about other mothers, not hers, and other childhoods, not her own. In some ways, she says, the book wrote her, the headaches and nausea beginning long before she realised she was pregnant with the idea. The kicking-screaming result is a memoir, and a novel, that she prefers to call "just a book".
"I realised to my surprise that it was my mother I was writing about," she says. "As a writer, you just need to shift your head out the way and let whatever is rising subconsciously come out. It's a story about human nature. How you work out who you can trust, what you can trust, and the biggest question of all - what the hell is going on?"
The book covers Galloway's life from conception to the age of 12. The writing, like all of her writing, is pared down, chisel-perfect - noticeable in the first instance until it dissolves behind its subjects. Names have been changed, but not her own. Her mother, Janet, becomes Beth; her father, James, becomes Eddie. Rebranding them was necessary to obtain the distance she needed, the feeling that these people were archetypes with wider currency. "What interests me is commonality," she says. "And what we all share is utter f***ing confusion." She has written semi-fictionally before, in her award-winning novel on the life of Clara Schumann.
Galloway's sister Nora, in the book, is Cora - a single consonant changed, only two strokes away on the keyboard, a minor key played with Galloway's right hand instead of her left. Nora was born 17 years before Galloway, whose mother was 40 when she conceived her and mistook the pregnancy as a sign of "the change".
Abandoning her husband and son in her early 20s, Nora landed with Galloway and her mother in the boxroom they shared above a doctor's surgery in Saltcoats, the surrogate family home after her mother and father split. She describes Nora at one point as "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful", her hair dyed with the blue-black rinse that Elvis was rumoured to have used. She would lock Galloway in wardrobes, bash her in the face, and, on one occasion, set fire to her hair. Often she threatened worse, typically in response to praise being lavished on her younger sister. Contact between the two was lost many years before Nora died of emphysema in 2000, their relationship in a state of disrepair.
"I only heard she was dead because one of her sons made diligent efforts to try to tell me, which he did through my publisher," she says. "We were never motivated to find each other." She died 20 years after the publication of Galloway's first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, which she would have left on the shelves of the library. "A friend of mine met Nora years down the line and she said I hear our Janice is writing for a paper', but whether she knew about my prose writing I'm not sure. It wouldn't have been very interesting for her. She didn't read books by women." At one stage in the book she holds a hot spoon against Galloway's neck, causing a welt. Inevitably, she comes across as a baddy, but determinedly not as a bully. "She wasn't really in control of how she behaved," says Galloway. "It's only occurring to me now that Nora may have been suffering from some form of manic behaviour pattern. But certainly, she had her problems."
The envelope opens: another photograph. The five-year-old Galloway is at a family wedding with a bouquet of flowers and shiny sandals. Her proud, slightly bashful-looking father is behind her in a suit, his eyes on his daughter and not the camera. His hand is cupped just behind her head, almost touching, but frozen at a distance for all eternity. Galloway's mother stands next to him with a fur hat, gloves and a handbag.
"Women in their 40s don't tend to look like this now," she says. "Bad dentistry, bad skincare. I'm clearly in the prized position of being a flowergirl - and I still have a taste for exotic footwear. He doesn't look well there," she says, examining her father. "He's got that west coast of Scotland boozy skin. He must have been dead within a year-and-a-half."
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