Posts

Showing posts from April, 2015

Trollope Trending

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the English novelist Anthony Trollope, and maybe the fourth decade of the Trollope boom that has put him back into the most-read ranks of the English novelists. The metrics of such things are shaky; still, one professor has discovered that as many books were published about Trollope in the five years between 1976 and 1981 as had appeared in the entire near-century since his death, in 1882. That scholarly industry goes on, and now includes books called “Reforming Trollope: Race, Gender, and Englishness in the Novels of Anthony Trollope” and “The Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope’s Novels”—stern studies in sex, race, and colonialism, with modern academics enforcing the orthodoxies of our time as Trollope’s Barsetshire clergymen enforced the orthodoxies of theirs, with as much spirit and approximately as much effect.

More important, all of Trollope’s books have been back in print. (There are forty-seven novels and many vol…

Reality Hunger: The Six Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Part I

It was like / A new knowledge of reality. — Wallace Stevens, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself” JUST DAYS after finishing Book One of My Struggle, an unusual six-part novel, I took a train from Boston to New York to see if I could meet the author, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This was last June, after the release of Book Three. His New York Public Library appearance was sold out, but there were two other events scheduled, and the writers lined up to hold public conversations with him gave a hint of the excitement people were feeling: Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jeffrey Eugenides. In my duffel I’d packed Book Two, but already the first volume was enough to make the trip a kind of pilgrimage for me.

My Struggle — 3,600 pages in Norwegian, which Don Bartlett is translating at a rate of one book per year — sets out in astonishing and dispassionately forthright detail the struggles both large and incidental of a life: a boy, a young man, a father, navigating his days in Norway and Swede…

The True Story of Rupert Brooke

Among other quintessentially English anniversaries—Shakespeare’s birthday, St. George’s Day—April 23rd marks a hundred years since the death of Rupert Brooke, who for most of the past century has ranked among Britain’s best-known and most beloved cultural figures. A poet of the First World War who never saw action, he is famous mainly for one sonnet, “The Soldier,” from a sequence of five, and then mainly for its opening lines: “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” Upper-class and stiff-upper-lipped, blond-haired and blue-eyed, eager to sacrifice youth and beauty for king and country, Brooke embodied a romantic and remarkably tenacious national fantasy. He was a minor celebrity before he died and a monstrous one afterward, holding on, to this day, to his fame and a rather tattered glory.

By the centennial of the First World War, Brooke ought to have faded to a scholarly footnote, along with other war-romantici…

Sensual Sappho

In about 300 BC, a doctor was summoned to diagnose the illness afflicting Antiochus, crown prince of the Seleucid empire in Syria. The young man’s symptoms included a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, fainting, and pallor. In his biography of Antiochus’ father, Seleucus I, Plutarch reports that the symptoms manifested themselves only when Antiochus’ young stepmother Stratonice was in the room. The doctor was therefore able to diagnose the youth’s malady as an infatuation with her. The cause of the illness was clearly erotic, because the symptoms were “as described by Sappho.” The solution was simple: Antiochus’ father divorced Stratonice and let his son marry her instead.

Plutarch’s story invites us to wonder if the relationship between Sappho and erotic symptoms is entirely straightforward. Did Antiochus and his doctor learn to describe the sensations he was experiencing from their knowledge of Sappho’s already “classic” love poetry? Did art shape life? Or are such …

Trollope’s great work

The Victorians aged faster, and most of those we care to remember died earlier, than most of us do. In Anthony Trollope’s late novella An Old Man’s Love, William Whittlestaff, the “old man” of the title, is fifty years old. (What could Charles Dickens, who went to his reward at the age of fifty-eight, not have done with Philip Roth’s eighty-two years and counting? Or William Makepeace Thackeray, who died at fifty-two, or Charlotte Brontë, who died at thirty-eight?) Trollope thought much about oncoming death in his last years. He wrote a witty work of science fiction called The Fixed Period about the ideal age for euthanasia. Sixty-seven, the rulers of “Britannula” ordain, and Trollope himself died at exactly that, in 1882. (The 200th anniversary of his birth falls on April 24.)

It was with difficulty that he reached even that unadvanced age. Physically his last years were wretched. His eyes were poor, his hearing poorer. He was grossly overweight (sixteen stone on a medium frame) and w…

Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Map: Collected and Last Poems’

The mass of men may “lead lives of ­quiet desperation,” as Thoreau wrote, but the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) did just the opposite: She lived a life of quiet amazement, reflected in poems that are both plain-spoken and luminous. Many of them are gathered now in “Map: Collected and Last Poems.” 

Born in the countryside, Szymborska moved in 1931 to Krakow, city of kings and culture, and lived there until her death. Though her life was most eventful inwardly, there was no escaping history in Poland. Indeed, Szymborska lived in four quite different Polands: the anxious interwar Poland that had regained its independence in 1918 after more than a century’s absence from the map of Europe; the Poland of the Nazi occupation, the death camps and uprisings, which began shortly after she turned 16; postwar Poland under Soviet domination, where she herself was a Communist until breaking with the party in 1966, about the time she was finding her voice as a poet; and, last, post-Sovi…

Eudora Welty on the Short Story

Experience teaches us that when we are in the act of writing we are alone and on our own, in a kind of absolute state of  Do Not Disturb. And experience tells us further that each story is a specific thing, never a general thing—never. The words in the story we are writing now might as well never have been used before. They all shine; they are never smudged. Stories are new things, stories make words new; that is one of their illusions and part of their beauty. And of course the great stories of the world are the ones that seem new to their readers on and on, always new because they keep their power of revealing something.

But although all stories in the throes of being written seem new and although good stories are new and persist, there will always be some characteristics and some functions about them as old as time, as human nature itself, to keep them more or less alike, at least of a family …

The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at…

Dickens the authorpreneur

Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales…

Anchee Min: Empress Orchid

Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi's many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance (she splurged the fund for modernising the navy on a marble pleasure boat), her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents (including her nephew, whom she placed under house arrest for a decade and perhaps poisoned). This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes - such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - on to women. But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empres…

‘I got a scheme!’ – the moment Saul Bellow found his voice

From the age of 49, when the publication of Herzog in 1964 made him rich as well as famous, Saul Bellow was the most acclaimed novelist in America, the winner of three National Book Awards, the Pulitzer prize, the Formentor prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for fiction. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 and was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French. For Philip Roth, Bellow stands with William Faulkner as “the sturdy backbone of 20th-century American literature”, with a prose style “as rich and roiling as Melville’s”. James Wood has called him “the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century”, a view he characterises as “relatively uncontroversial”. Ten years after his death, all of Bellow’s books are in print and his reputation remains undiminished.

In addition to Herzog, chief among his critical and commercial successes are The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the …

T.S. Eliot’s American childhood

Even now, if you were to ask readers to name the 20th century’s greatest poem, at least among those written in English, the answer would almost certainly be T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922). “April is the cruellest month” — what college student (or taxpayer) hasn’t, at this time of year, ruefully murmured its opening words? If Eliot’s haunting melange of quotation, lugubrious reflections on life and love, and achingly beautiful word-music has any serious rival for modern poetry’s Number One spot it would probably be his own later, almost liturgical “Four Quartets” (1943). (I myself prefer it.) No doubt a few fans might even opt for the same poet’s youthful masterpiece of erotic dithering, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917): “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.”

While Eliot’s poems continue to be greatly loved, their author himself is another matter. As Robert Crawford notes in the introductory pages of “Young Eliot” —…

“History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

“When the times are out of joint it is brought uncomfortably home to you that history is true and that unfortunately you are a part of it. One has this tendency to think oneself immune.” I have often mentioned Moon Tiger as one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read it through for at least 10 years, maybe more. The last time I’m sure I read it is when I assigned it in a seminar on “Women and Historical Writing,” in one of my first years teaching at Dalhousie. I was fresh from my dissertation research on gender, genre, and historiography, and Moon Tiger, which is preoccupied with who writes history and how, and with what authority, played right into my hands. Its protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a historian, but a popular one, not a professional one: her career has been defined by a kind of belligerent celebration of her outsider status as she is dismissed by academic historians who see her as unserious. Yet she herself derides her lover, Jasper, for the historical epics he produces …

Letters From an Unlikely Literary Friendship - Henry James and Edith Wharton Letters: 1900-1915

Image
To her, he was ''Cherest Maitre.'' To him, she was ''Dear and unsurpassably distinguished old Friend!'' ''admirable Confrere,'' ''Princesse Rapprochee!'' ''the Firebird'' and ''Dearly beloved Edith.''

Few of their mutual acquaintances could have predicted that such a warm, affectionate friendship would develop between Henry James and Edith Wharton - a friendship lovingly documented by this meticulously edited collection of their letters. Although their novels portrayed similarly well-to-do social circles, although both left America to live in Europe, there was little else initially to draw the two writers together. Indeed, they had twice attended the same dinner parties in the closing years of the 19th century without James so much as noticing the shy young woman who was then known as the wife of Teddy Wharton. By the turn of the century, the two had begun a polite literary correspondence, wi…

A life in writing: Günter Grass

Image
In his studio in the Behlendorf woods, near the Baltic city of Lübeck, Günter Grass reflects on the outcry over his fictive memoir Peeling the Onion. His mention, four years ago, of having been drafted as a teenager into the Waffen SS at the tail end of the second world war sparked the most explosive in a half-century of career controversies. "I'm used to it by now," he says. "What I do is sometimes – at least in Germany – met with wounding campaigns. I always face the question: should I grow myself a thick skin and ignore it, or should I let myself be wounded? I've decided to be wounded, since, if I grew a thick skin, there are other things I wouldn't feel any more."

His bestselling debut novel, The Tin Drum (1959), was decried in some quarters as blasphemous pornography, and banned in dictatorships from the Eastern bloc to Iberia, while his novel Too Far Afield (1995) was savaged by critics, not least for raining on the unification parade. The story of…

It’s Still a Scandal! - James Joyce’s Ulysses

One small scene from the annals of heroic modernism is the moment when, in the winter of 1921, the French novelist and critic Valery Larbaud gave the world’s first-ever talk on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, at Shakespeare & Company, an Anglophone bookstore and lending library in Paris, run by a young American woman called Sylvia Beach. The book had still not been published—and Joyce was not well known. No critic had examined his work in depth, and not many of even the most literary people in England or America had heard of him. But in the last two or three years, Larbaud explained, Joyce had acquired an “extraordinary notoriety”—he had become the literary equal of Freud or Einstein. His name was an alluring rumor. Those who had read his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially those who had managed to read his new novel Ulysses, as serialized in the New York magazine The Little Review, all agreed. And yet, Larbaud had to admit: If you ask a member of the (America…