Thursday, 30 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 volumes of stories and reportage.) Amateur readers have taken up Trollope as a cause and a favorite in a way that they have taken up perhaps no other nineteenth-century English novelist except Jane Austen. George Eliot has passionate readers, but they tend to concentrate on her one great book, “Middlemarch,” without rushing toward “Romola.” The fun of Trollope lies in his endless multiplicity: people who like “Rachel Ray” turn to “The Three Clerks,” and fans of “The Three Clerks” ask their friends about “Orley Farm.” Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.

“Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to a friend, knowing that his correspondent would be startled by the disclosure, since Trollope was so far from Hawthorne’s own dark, allegorical style. “Just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.” Yet Henry James, in a long obituary tribute, complained that Trollope’s work lacked irony, and, for all his mastery of daily life, was not realistic enough. Trollope’s light, intrusive narrative voice, James thought, “took a suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, make-believe.”

Words change meaning over time, and the quality of irony that we value today is omnipresent in Trollope—and that is the habit of turning objects and values upside down, of seeing big and little inverted. Trollope’s people are all doing things that are small: getting on committees, making sermons, writing to newspapers, finding misplaced checks. Even Prime Ministers end up obsessed with trivial actions and tiny disputes. (Trollope’s Prime Ministerial hero is obsessed with decimal coinage.) Yet these acts are hugely important to them, and become so to us. His mother, the travel writer and novelist Fanny Trollope, wrote volumes on “domestic manners,” but “domestic politics” was her son’s preoccupation. Novelists of manners, like Thackeray, die as their manners age; in Trollope, we see the social forces that make manners happen, and these—the permanent appetite for power and prestige—change much less. That’s why, despite the dated subjects, the books don’t date. If we want to understand why e-mail arguments are dangerous (“The word that is written is a thing capable of permanent life, and lives frequently to the confusion of its parent. A man should make his confessions always by word of mouth if it were possible”), or if we want to understand why professional politicians hate “principled” stands (not because they hate principles but because they believe that the cost of the principles is already priced into the politics), or if we want to know how scurrilous gossip can eat away at its subject without actually damaging his reputation—for all the permanent, practical questions of the politics of existence, Trollope remains the man.

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

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 Sweden. Knausgaard has a gift for analyzing precisely the self at the center of the narrative without in the least neglecting the pleasures of being alive. Rarely have I felt more gripped by a novel.

I arrived at Community Bookstore in Park Slope two and a half hours early, having mistaken the start time. Already there were people waiting. I left and came back. By then, with an hour to go, only a few seats were available. Two women stood up so I could climb past their chairs to an out-of-the-way bench no one had noticed. People were comparing how far they’d read, talking about the rave reviews, commenting on his good looks. In The New York Times ArtsBeat blog the next day, John Williams wrote: “About 30 minutes before the start […] people packed the entire space in a scene more reminiscent of the calm before an indie-rock storm than an author appearance. Ezra Goldstein, an owner of the store, approached a microphone. ‘Don’t get excited,’ he said. ‘This is just a sound check.’”

My imagination had constructed two not entirely unrelated images of who the writer might be: the taciturn, somewhat antisocial Karl Ove, the character from the novel (its protagonist shares Knausgaard’s name and biographical details), or, alternately, the dismissive hero suggested by the author photographs and some of the early reviews — an overnight sensation only accidentally literary, whose cigarettes, long hair, and sex appeal seemed to emphasize offhandedness. The first of these would be impossible to get to know, the second would be insufferable.

When he arrived, we applauded and caught images on our phones. He was more handsome and magnetic than in pictures, his silvery hair combed straight back, his public smile infectious. But during the ensuing conversation with Nicole Krauss, I was struck by how private the hour felt, how much Knausgaard seemed to think things through as he spoke rather than reciting paragraphs he’d delivered a hundred times before. He talked slowly, with his shoulders hunched, his hands alternately clasped and gesturing, his forehead wrinkled. He came across as modest, thoughtful — full of hurt and humor. Or maybe it was jetlag. I was as drawn to the man as I’d been to Book One.

The next night I waited for him again, at McNally Jackson Books in Greenwich Village. A line extended halfway down the block — 100 people or more — even after the lower level, where he’d be appearing with Zadie Smith, had filled. Some in the audience stood behind bookshelves, others sat on the wide steps, and still more listened from upstairs. It reminded me of accounts of Dostoevsky’s reception late in his life, when an adoring public thronged his dedication of the Pushkin Monument.

When the Q&A at Community Bookstore ended, the entire audience — maybe 200 people in a space designed for far fewer — transformed into a signing line. I hung back, watching and listening, hoping my friendship with his American publisher would give me license to meet Knausgaard at a quieter moment and join in for whatever was happening after. And that’s how it went. We sat in folding chairs on the back patio — me, the editors of Archipelago Books, the staff and owners of the bookstore, a representative from his Norwegian publishing house, and Knausgaard, drinking can after can of Dale’s Pale Ale, a few of us bumming Knausgaard’s Marlboros — and talking late into the night.

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Sunday, 26 April 2015

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-romanticizing poets such as Julian Grenfell and Vera Brittain’s fiancé, Roland Leighton. His 1914 sonnets and their torrent of imitations, published daily in newspapers along with the casualty lists, later came to represent the callous idiocy of the generals and politicians who blundered through the war until millions of people were dead. But the idea that Brookish innocence vanished at the first sight of a rat-bitten corpse in a trench is, of course, much too simple, and it conceals a continuing battle over the war’s meaning. As recently as last January, the U.K.’s Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, attacked the “left-wing myths,” taught in British schools, that the war was a “misbegotten shambles.” Unquestioning, self-sacrificing patriotism of the kind Brooke represented remains a powerful right-wing myth—never mind that the poet was a committed Fabian socialist for much of his life. As so often happens, the truth about Rupert Brooke is more interesting than the political and biographical myths that have followed him.

Brooke enlisted almost as soon as the war broke out, like most young men of his class, and finagled an officer’s commission in the Royal Naval Division under the command of Winston Churchill. He composed the “1914” sonnets in October, during the evacuation of the Belgian fortified city of Antwerp—a bloodless action by the later standards of the Western Front, although the sight of columns of refugees fleeing the city shook him. In the end, to Brooke and his classically educated fellow officers, Belgium was nothing: they were sailing to Troy. In the spring of 1915, Brooke was on his way to the Dardanelles, the strategically essential waterway between Europe and Asia known to the ancient Greeks as the Hellespont. Homer and Herodotus were his guides, Brooke wrote to his mother, as he sailed over the “sapphire sea, swept by ghost of triremes and quinqueremes.” On April 25th, Allied troops would make a muddled, bloody landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, the start of a disastrous nine-month campaign. Brooke missed it by two days—a mosquito bite and a blood infection sent him down among the Greek ghosts. He was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros in the sapphire-blue Aegean.

In the library of King’s College, Cambridge, Brooke’s alma mater, there is a privately printed account of his death and burial, based on the log of the French hospital ship where he died. Over eleven excruciating pages (“Oh pale, pale, English face that no one will look on ever again! Face of passion, of dreams, and of torment!”), it establishes the twin poles of the Brooke myth, painting him as a literary hero, for dying in Greece like Byron, and as a figure of national political importance—he was attended throughout his illness and death by the Prime Minister’s son, his comrade Arthur “Oc” Asquith. His death, which came barely three weeks after the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral recited “The Soldier” during the Easter Sunday service, seemed like the fulfillment of the poem’s prophecy. Its particular unmartial circumstances quickly ceased to matter—an obituary by Winston Churchill, which ran in the London Times, attributed his death to sunstroke. The symbolism was all. When the British came to lay out their war cemeteries, the organization in charge made Brooke’s poem come literally true: instead of gathering the dead into vast ossuaries, as the French did, the British established grave plots of varying sizes at the corners of “foreign fields.” Through a technical land-lease agreement, they became, forever, English.

Churchill’s brief obituary was part of a longer remembrance of Brooke by the politician’s private secretary, Edward Marsh, a patron of the arts who became Brooke’s literary executor. Marsh had become infatuated with the young poet after seeing him on stage, dressed in a thigh-grazing blue tunic, in a production of “The Eumenides” during his first term at Cambridge. In July 1918, after three years of battling Brooke’s formidable mother, Marsh published the first, highly sanitized account of Brooke’s life. It was the start of a reverent biographical trajectory that reached its apotheosis in Christopher Hassall’s fiftieth-anniversary door-stopper, published in 1964, which lavished attention on Brooke’s early life but could not draw on the sheaves of scandalous letters in Brooke’s correspondence, which were strictly embargoed by the trustees of his estate. The first collection of Brooke’s letters, edited by his old friend Geoffrey Keynes and published in 1968, was also heavily censored. After Hassall, most of the biographical work on Brooke has been a process of dismantling the golden-boy myth as new letters and new lovers have appeared. Just last month, the publication of several previously unseen letters and of a memoir by Phyllis Gardner, one of several women with whom Brooke was involved in the years before the war, prompted one of his recent biographers to brand him a “vicious sadist” in the Daily Mail.

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Friday, 24 April 2015

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 sensations the universal experience of erotically fixated individuals, which would mean that lived experience had been recorded with uncanny realism in Sappho’s art?

Sappho has probably had more words written about her in proportion to her own surviving output than any other writer. A couple of complete poems and about two hundred fragments are all that remain of the nine substantial books, in diverse genres and meters, that she produced on her home island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean around 600 BC. Her poems could be consulted, complete, in the ancient libraries, including the famous one at Egyptian Alexandria. But they did not survive the millennium between the triumph of Christianity and the frantic export to the West of Greek manuscripts from Constantinople before it fell in 1453. Some Renaissance scholars believed that in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII had all the manuscripts of Sappho burned as dangerously salacious.

Yet Sappho, for all the meagerness of her extant poetry, is a founder in many more respects than in teaching us what love feels like. She is the first female poet and “learned woman” known to antiquity and to the “Western” literary tradition. Said to have been entitled “the tenth Muse” by Plato, she was the only woman whom ancient scholars included in the canon of significant lyric poets. Nor is it only her poems that have mattered: her life and loves have inspired plays, operas, and novels, skillfully documented in Margaret Reynolds’s The Sappho Companion (2001). Until the nineteenth century, these biographical narratives mostly derived from Ovid’s fictional letter in his Heroides, addressed by a suicidal heterosexual Sappho to her male lover Phaon. Although this tradition reached its acme in Charles Gounod’s spectacular 1851 opera Sapho, it is still going strong—as in Erica Jong’s raunchy novel Sappho’s Leap (2003).

The change in attitudes toward Sappho’s work and life came when self-conscious lesbian literary culture emerged in the nineteenth century, thanks to French decadence and Baudelaire’s poem “Lesbos” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857); Sappho was crowned as the first explicit poet of female homoerotic love. Fin-de-siècle Prussian scholars then tried to resist the growing popularity of erotic Sapphos by insisting that her relationship with the young women, whose leisure hours on soft couches she celebrated, was that of the headmistress of a finishing school to debutantes entering the marriage market. But explicitly sexy verses by Sappho found soon afterward on papyrus made the task of these prudish academics impossible. Although Sappho is unusual as a female poet, her homoerotic stance, in the ancient setting, was unremarkable. It is found in women’s songs related to goddesses’ cults, for example in the songs Alcman composed for Spartan girls to sing to Artemis. Homoeroticism is also a feature of symposium poetry written by men, and the age of tyrants and lyric poetry that produced Sappho was precisely the period when the fashion for symposia—drinking parties with musical and literary entertainment imitating Anatolian palace practice—swept across the Greek world. Women held banquets at festivals from which men were excluded. There is no reason to suppose that Sappho’s songs were not sung at them.

Some more recent scholars have tried to tame Sappho by turning her into a priestess and claiming that the erotic behaviors she describes were part of formal ritual. Yet nothing has stopped Sappho from inspiring not only lesbians but heterosexual poets and poets of male homosexual love, especially C.P. Cavafy: like this gay Alexandrian proto-modernist, she seems to sing to us, as E.M. Forster described Cavafy, from a position “at a slight angle to the universe.” With a single poem, which says that her beloved Anactoria is more valuable than the splendor of any cavalry, infantry, or fleet, she created a tradition of “love-not-war” lyrics whose future stretches from Propertius to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bruce Springsteen. As the definitive ur-voice of lyric ecstasy, she is so consequential that poets of every generation, from Catullus to Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson, have used her to define their aesthetic manifestos: among the ancients, only Homer can claim an instrumental role in literary history equivalent to Sappho’s.

The incomplete poem that allowed the diagnosis of the Seleucid Antiochus’ symptoms is the most influential lyric poem of all time. It is usually known as “Sappho fragment 31,” or “phainetai moi” (a transliteration of its first two words, which mean “he seems to me”). It describes a triangular scene. Sappho is transfixed by her physiological responses to watching a woman she loves laughing with a man. The brilliance of the poem—besides the luxuriant specification of the symptoms—lies in the paradox that the speaker, the only silent member of the triangle, in putting her thoughts into words nearly becomes silent in death.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

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 was obliged to wear a rupture truss. He could, of course, hunt no more. He was increasingly afflicted by asthma and writer’s cramp. The Duke’s Children, written five years before his death, from stroke and cardiac failure, is the last major work he could write without the aid of an amanuensis. His heart, he told a friend, a year before his death, was “worn out, having worked too hard”. But not to work too hard was beyond him, however stiffened his writing hand, decayed his organs, disapproving his physicians, and fearful his family.

He did not fear death. If he were wise, he told his friend, the poet Alfred Austin, a man could face his end bravely enough. But what he did fear, to the pitch of sheer terror, was idleness. He confided to his son Henry, in 1880, five months after The Duke’s Children was (belatedly) published, “I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing and on Friday I began another. Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books, even though they be not published, I think that I can be happy”. The happiness, one deduces, of the galley slave.

Trollope’s last years resemble a literary Totentanz. This sick, prematurely aged, enfeebled man wrote, in the six years that remained to him after he finished The Duke’s Children, thirty-three volumes of fiction, eight volumes of non-fiction, and numerous short stories and articles. A rough count puts that at not far off 3 million words. They were not called for. His price had shrunk to a third of what it had been at the height of his popularity. That he could glut the market was only because he was, via Henry, a major shareholder in Chapman and Hall, who published most of the bulk of his later work.

This final Trollopian eruption was not vanity publishing (no man was less vain) but creative mania. Whatever psychic disorder produced it, the wonderful late phase has left us much that lovers of Trollope can be grateful for. Not least The Duke’s Children, the coping stone to the massive Palliser parliamentary novel structure. Trollope wrote it in six months, from May to October 1876. It was originally designed to plump out four volumes. He was, clearly enough, inspired by George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). There was a signal difference. Eliot was out-earning him ten to one, and her reputation was rising, not sinking. Her serialization of Middlemarch in eight “half books” (at 5 shillings each), followed by a four-volume “library” edition, was her partner G. H. Lewes’s bright idea. He was probably inspired by French livraisons. In fact the four-volume format had been tried before, never very profitably (Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth was probably the most successful stab at it). Edward Bulwer-Lytton had made a couple of experiments which confirmed its unattractiveness.

The British reading public loved their three-deckers. They drew the line at four. Not even Middlemarch was a sales success for Blackwoods, ideal as its octagon narrative architecture proved for its author. Trollope’s previous foray into four-deckerdom, The Prime Minister (the most politically thoughtful of the Palliser series), had received scathing reviews and dismal sales when it came out in June 1876. So dammed up was his flow of unpublished fiction at this stage that Trollope was in a position to take on board The Prime Minister’s failure while its immediate successor (first entitled “The Ex-Prime Minister”) was still in alterable manuscript form. It would be between three and four years before the The Duke’s Children saw the light of print, first in serial and then multi-volume form.

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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-Soviet Poland, free, successful, blessedly ordinary.

Szymborska neither evades nor fetish­izes her country’s travails. She can be tough and blunt toward them, as in the poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” where “the meadow’s silent, like a witness who’s been bought.” But Szymborska is always more interested in the individual. After saying, “History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand,” the poem goes off to wonder about that uncounted individual. In “Innocence,” she muses on young German girls blissfully unaware they were “conceived on a mattress made of human hair,” and in “Hitler’s First Photograph” she has a little macabre fun at the Führer’s expense: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe? / That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” Of course, as with any newborn, you can’t help wondering what his future will turn out to be: “Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know: / printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?”

Great as these subjects are, they aren’t enough for Szymborska, who is simply interested in everything here on earth, “beneath one of the more parochial stars” — not only what happened, but what might have happened and what nearly didn’t. “I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.” That amazement takes her mind racing off in all directions: to delight in “the admirable number pi,” to wonder what angels’ favorite form of human culture is (answer: slapstick) and to delve into the onion’s “pure onionhood,” its “unanimous omninudity.” She contests the contemporary feel-good spirit. The poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” begins: “The buzzard never says it is to blame. / The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean. / When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame. / If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.” It ends: “On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one.”

Szymborska’s skepticism, her merry, mischievous irreverence and her thirst for the surprise of fresh perception make her the enemy of all tyrannical certainties. Hers is the best of the Western mind — free, restless, questioning, in every way the opposite of the terrorist who plagues civilized life in our time. Yet she makes an effort to enter the terrorist’s mind, his perceptions if not his psychology. In the minutes before his bomb goes off, he ­watches those who leave and enter the cafe, including a fat bald guy who “goes back in for his crummy gloves.” (This poem is also typical of Szymborska’s weaker side, a tendency to be chatty and topical, resulting in poems worth reading once but which leave nothing for a second look.)

Szymborska’s great theme is vivid presence and its transience, “this very passing moment that’s just passed.” She even tries to make it happen on the page: “When I pronounce the word Future, / the first syllable already belongs to the past.” And of course what happens to syllables also happens to those who utter them. In “The Day After — Without Us,” she observes: “The next day / promises to be sunny, / although those still living / should bring umbrellas.”

Since nothing is as fleeting as love, it’s a natural subject for Szymborska. She can be as lyrical as Auden: “So here we are, the naked lovers, / lovely, as we both agree, / with eyelids as our only covers / We lie in the dark, invisibly.” But (again like Auden) she can also be humorously cynical, as in “True Love”: “Perfectly good children are born without its help. / It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years, / it comes along so rarely. / Let the people who never find true love / keep saying that there’s no such thing. / Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.”

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

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 the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful …

Where does beauty come from, in the short story? Beauty comes from form, from development of idea, from after-effect. It often comes from carefulness, lack of confusion, elimination of waste—and yes, those are the rules. But that can be on occasion a cold kind of beauty, when there are warm kinds. And beware of tidiness. Sometimes spontaneity is the most sparkling kind of beauty—Katherine Mansfield had it. It is a fortuitous circumstance attending the birth of some stories, like a fairy godmother that has—this time—accepted the standing invitation and come smiling in …

"The Reading and Writing of Short Stories," by Eudora Welty, February 1949 and March 1949

Monday, 20 April 2015

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 began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name.

What changed? It was in this fourth installment that readers met Sam Weller, a cheerful young bootblack with a distinctive cockney idiolect—a character, in other words, in whom many readers could recognize themselves. Dickens gave Weller a fine comic entrance; his first appearance finds him in the yard of the White Hart Inn, polishing eleven and a half pairs of shoes. The half, he explains, belongs to the man with the “vooden leg” in No. 6. Dressed in a striped waistcoat with blue glass buttons, a bright red handkerchief wound loosely around his neck, and an old white hat worn rakishly on his head, Weller was thoroughly urban but with old country values—a good son and a loyal servant. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Sam Weller introduces the English people.” Responding to the market’s roar of praise, Dickens brought Sam to the center of the novel by having Pickwick hire him as his valet: a cockney Sancho Panza to his naive esquire, Quixote.

Readers were enchanted by Sam’s wisecracks, his unabashed laugh-lines, his outlandish habit of quoting Dr. Faust to the chambermaid the one minute and Bluebeard the next, while smoothly interchanging his v’s and w’s. Charles Darwin, writing in 1838 to his friend and mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, referred admiringly to “Samivel, that prince of heroes.” Sam was especially famous for what came to be known as Wellerisms—one-liners that turned proverbs on their heads. (An example from Pickwick: “That’s what I call a self-evident proposition, as the dog’s-meat man said, when the housemaid told him he warn’t a gentleman.”) Puzzled by this strange, aphoristic creature, one of the Pickwickians says cautiously, “You’re a wag, ain’t you?” To which Sam coolly replies, “My eldest brother was troubled with that complaint, it may be catching—I used to sleep with him.”

Sam was certainly catching: even before the serialization of Pickwick was complete, plagiarized stage versions were up and running, and soon imitators calling themselves Bos and Buz were writing spin-offs—one married off Pickwick, another sent him to Madras. Then came the merchandise men with Pickwick cigars, playing cards, toby jugs, candy tins, china figurines, Sam Weller puzzles, Weller boot polish, jest books, and even Weller Taxicabs, named after Sam’s loquacious coachman father, Tony, whom Dickens introduced to exploit the Weller wave.

Sam Weller not only carried the lumbering Pickwick chaise to the top of the best-seller list, he valet parked it there for the next thirty years. Though it’s now regarded as one of Dickens’s weakest novels, Pickwick was his most popular book during his lifetime, selling 1.6 million copies. At Dickens’s last public reading, writes his biographer Claire Tomalin, when he bid farewell to the “garish lights” he loved, Dickens was so ill and weary he stumbled on the name, saying Pickswick, Pecknicks, Pickwicks—but he was called back several times and got a prolonged standing ovation. Shortly before he died, in 1870, when Chapman and Hall brought out its handsome Charles Dickens Edition, Pickwick had to be reprinted four times: a total of seventy-six thousand copies.

The Sam Weller Bump testifies not merely to Dickens’s comic genius but to his acumen as an “authorpreneur,” a portmanteau he inhabited long before The Economist took it up. Thomas Carlyle once remarked on his “remarkable faculty for business.” Driven as much by commercial success as critical acclaim, he juggled novel writing, journalism, plays, theatrical productions, charity works, public readings, and twenty-mile walks with an inexhaustible energy.

Tomalin rightly calls 1836 Dickens’s annus mirabilis—but he made almost nothing from Pickwick. The profits went straight to Chapman and Hall, his publishers, who held the full copyright. It was a bitter lesson, and Dickens learned it well: if ever he felt underpaid, he quarreled with his publishers or simply broke his contract. Since he was England’s blockbuster writer, publishers conceded to his demands—Our Mutual Friend, serialized from 1864–5, earned him more than any other novel, though it sold less than half as well as Pickwick. By then, Dickens had arranged to share in advertising revenues, and he’d sold Chapman and Hall half copyright for six thousand pounds. They lost seven hundred pounds on the novel.

For a writer who made his reputation crusading against the squalor of the industrial revolution, Dickens was a creature of capitalism; he used everything from the powerful new printing presses to the enhanced advertising revenues to the expansion of railroads to sell more books. In a speech he gave at Birmingham, a factory town, he spoke eloquently about how the people had freed writers from the unseemly patron system. Grimly conscious of how his hero Samuel Johnson had been humiliated by his patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, Dickens was infinitely grateful to market forces—they’d delivered him “from the shame of the purchased dedication, from the scurrilous and dirty work of Grub Street, from the dependent seat on sufferance at my Lord Duke’s table today.”

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Sunday, 19 April 2015

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 empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as "a nice person". (Deeply perturbed, China's rulers - all of them men - soon weighed in to criticise the show's historical heresies.) Empress Orchid is a further, feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers.
Born into a declining gentry family in 1835, the 16-year-old Cixi travels to Beijing with her widowed mother, brother and sister. There they are sheltered by Cixi's uncle until she restores the family's fortunes by being selected as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's legion of concubines. Once received into the Forbidden City, however, she is ignored by the emperor - who, after all, has several thousand other consorts to occupy him. Thus neglected, she is left to contemplate the life choices open to imperial concu bines: allow yourself to be forgotten and grow old torturing coital moths (a traditional concubine amusement), or try to win the emperor's favour, risking assassination by rivals or, worse, mutilation by mother-in-law. Immediately after Cixi enters the palace, the empress dowager takes her on an educational visit to see a legless, armless concubine stored in a jar, whose limbs she removed as punishment for monopolising the emperor.
Understandably depressed by the prospect of a lifetime spent tormenting insects, Cixi bribes her way into the imperial bedchamber. Once there, she wins the jaded and impotent emperor's affections through a combination of plucky outspokenness and sexual wiles, and soon falls pregnant. But her success brings enemies: the moment her pregnancy is announced, she faces the threat of poisoning by jealous fellow concubines. Beyond the palace walls, meanwhile, China is being torn apart by western invaders and domestic rebellion. Hsien Feng disintegrates under the nervous strain, forcing Cixi to educate herself in government. As the emperor approaches death, Cixi has to fight to avoid being entombed with her husband, is hurled at a pillar by an enemy eunuch, and narrowly escapes assassination.
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Friday, 17 April 2015

‘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 Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and Ravelstein (2000), published when he was 85. When asked which of Bellow’s works to start with, however, I often say the Collected Stories (2001), which contains several of his novellas, including The Bellarosa Connection (1989), a brilliant meditation on the psychic impact of the Holocaust, in Europe, America and Israel. Bellow’s stories and novellas, he claimed, were written “at the top of my form”.

He was born 100 years ago, on 10 June 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, a quiet working-class town just south-west of Montreal. His parents and older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were Russian-Jewish immigrants from St Petersburg. When he was three, the family moved from Lachine to the heart of Montreal’s Jewish district, where the hero of Herzog also spent his early childhood. Moses Herzog recalls this district as “rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather”, but possessed of “a wider range of human feelings than he had ever been able to find”. In Canada, Bellow’s loving, tyrannical father failed at everything: as farmer, baker, dry-goods salesman, jobber, manufacturer, junk dealer, marriage broker, insurance broker and bootlegger. In 1923, pursued by agents of the Canadian Inland Revenue, he fled Montreal for Chicago, followed months later by the rest of the family, who were smuggled across the border by bootlegging associates. The Bellows were illegal residents in the United States, as they had been illegal residents in Russia, St Petersburg lying outside the Pale of Settlement, the area of tsarist Russia to which most Jews were restricted.

The immigrant neighbourhood where the Bellows settled was on Chicago’s north-west side. Here, Bellow went to local state schools and became an American, while remaining loyal to his Russian, Canadian and Jewish heritage:
I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American. I took all of these things for granted and in me you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration of all these diverse elements and I feel no particular conflict. I never felt any special discomfort over any of these elements. I’ve taken them all for granted because they are part of my history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault ... I was faithful to what I was. I lived that way and I tried to write that way.
Bellow’s faith in his history, his “reverence for the source of one’s being” (a phrase taken from Santayana), could be said to underlie his mature style. At home he spoke to his parents in Yiddish. They spoke to each other and to Bellow’s older sister and brothers in Yiddish or Russian. At school he spoke English or French. And from the age of three he studied Hebrew. As a young child, “I didn’t know what language I was speaking and I didn’t understand if there was any distinction among these various languages”.

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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” — which tracks in enthralling, exhaustive detail the poet’s life up to the book publication of “The Waste Land” — Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) has since his death become nearly as controversial a figure as his friend Ezra Pound. He’s been labeled anti-Semitic and elitist, as well as a religious nut, an abusive husband, a cuckold and a prig. Some of these accusations are, at least partly, true: “How unpleasant to know Mr. Eliot!” as he himself once wrote. And yet the same man could be wholly admirable — generous, loyal, immensely kind.

Earlier biographies — the best is Lyndall Gordon’s — have somewhat scanted Eliot’s American childhood and youth, which is one reason why this new book is so valuable. It is magisterial in its minutiae. It covers the poet’s family life in St. Louis and his summer holidays in Gloucester, Mass., his early schooling and reading, the years at Harvard and his bittersweet love for Emily Hale, literally the girl he left behind when he moved to England. To humanize a figure often (wrongly) regarded as coldly marmoreal, Crawford calls his subject “Tom” throughout. He also promises a second volume sometime after Hale’s letters become available to scholars in 2020.

While proffering a steady flurry of names, facts and occasional trivialities, Crawford nearly always relates his discoveries to the poetry, at times quite subtly, as when he notes that Eliot’s sister Margaret was sensitive to the sound of thunder (the last section of “The Waste Land,” titled “What the Thunder Said”). In these pages, you will learn that a Mr. Prufrock owned a St. Louis furniture store and a Dr. Sweany advertised tonics to increase male energy and vigor. No possible connection to Eliot’s published work, however faint or distant, goes unnoticed.

But Crawford, who is a professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St. Andrews, also interweaves several ongoing themes. Eliot grew up the scion of a distinguished family of preachers, educators and wealthy businessmen (his father owned a brick factory). As the youngest of six surviving children, Tom was distinctly cosseted, especially by his doting mother (who wrote poetry). The reserved, physically delicate boy — he was born with a double hernia and needed to wear a truss; children mocked his big ears — never played sports and seems to have had almost no close friends. Instead he began to scribble at an early age, producing a family magazine of his own stories and jokes: “Eat Quaker Oats” was reworked into “Eat Quaker Cats,” with a feline sketch. (Crawford expects the reader to remember that Eliot later produced the Edward Learish “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the basis for the musical “Cats.”)

While Eliot always maintained that he had a happy childhood, by adolescence this sheltered Little Lord Fauntleroy existence began to chafe. His social relations — especially with girls — suffered because of his shyness and acute anxiety about his body image. Despite surprisingly mediocre grades, he was nonetheless admitted to Harvard as a kind of legacy student — and nearly flunked out as a freshman. Away from home, he loafed, frequented music halls, joined dining clubs and secret societies. The more polite of his youthful verses appeared in student publications; the ribald and offensive ones — with rhymes ending in “unt” and “ugger” — their virginal author reserved for the private delectation of frat-boy hearties he wished to impress. (All this juvenilia can now be yours in a collection titled “Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917.”)

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Thursday, 16 April 2015

“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 for television, which Claudia thinks “diminished the past, turned history into entertainment”: “I held forth about the difference between history as reasoned analysis and history as spectacle.”
Moon Tiger itself experiments with different approaches to history. In particular, it prods us to consider the insoluble problem that history is at once personal and general, that the particular which matters so much, so intensely, to each of us in the moment is always part of something much larger in which it can easily be lost. How can history, as a narrative, accommodate both these levels of attention? The novel’s vacillation between first-person and third-person narration is a formal gesture towards the desired balance. But even the third-person narration focuses mostly on Claudia, whose personality dominates the novel just as she has always commanded every room she enters: “always,” thinks her sort-of adopted son Laszlo, “Claudia has seemed brighter cleverer more entertaining than other people, . . . always when you leave Claudia you go flat a little.” It’s through Claudia that we are directed out into the world of impersonal history: we are shown its events through her eyes and through her ideas about it, as if to remind us that objectivity is always already compromised, that nothing means anything until it is seen, considered, narrated — all of which requires a point of view, a story.
So Moon Tiger is Claudia’s story, but it is also a historical story. In particular, it is the story of her years as a correspondent in Egypt during the Second World War, when she had the experiences which still, at the end of her life, are “its core, its centre.” The section about the war in the desert, and the heartfelt love story of Claudia — the usually impervious, arrogant, brilliant Claudia — and Tom Southern (“oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending”), comprise the novel’s stunning centerpiece, but embedded as it is in Claudia’s wide-ranging reflections on history and mortality, and in her memories of her family, it doesn’t define Moon Tiger as either a war novel or a romance. Instead, it provides the most fully realized example in the novel of the ways we are all, as Tom says to her, part of history, not exempt from it. We can’t always tell what that truth means: it’s cataclysms like war that break open our illusion of immunity, revealing that most of us are not writing history but living it — that we are not really the authors of our own lives.
As she lies in her hospital bed waiting for death, Claudia dreams of writing another book, this time “a history of the world.” It’s an absurd project, of course: no book could be so comprehensive. But as she reflects, there’s a way in which she herself already embodies just such a history:
My body . . . remembers Java Man and Australopithicus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I share but cannot apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee; there, but for the grace of God, went I. Being the raging agnostic that I am, of course, I consider that God had nothing to do with it.
Claudia is fascinated by fossils, those physical traces of the past in the present, reminders of the enormous changes but also continuities of the earth. On her deathbed, she feels at once the totality and the singularity of it all, the simultaneity of the big stories (“Rommel was pushed out of Africa … we won the war”) and the personal experiences. Against the overarching narrative of the war she has Tom’s diaries, “louder now than the narrative I know”...
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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

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

Henry James and Edith Wharton

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, with James urging the younger writer to stick to America as a subject: ''I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it - it's an untouched field, really.''

''Use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts,'' he added, ''they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.''

As Wharton began to establish herself as a writer, however, artistic differences and envy threatened to eat away at the blossoming friendship. Wharton despaired of critics' ''continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James.'' She took issue with his increasingly rarefied esthetics. (''Everything, in the latest novels, had to be fitted into a predestined design,'' she wrote, ''and design, in his strict geometrical sense, is to me one of the least important things in fiction.'') And in 1904 she told her editor that she had been unable to read anything James had written in the last 10 years.

James, on his part, professed admiration for Wharton's work, but the tone of his encouragement tended to underscore their artistic differences. He singled out ''The Reef'' as his favorite of her novels - clearly the most Jamesian of her efforts - while somewhat condescendingly observing that her masterwork, ''The House of Mirth,'' was ''better written than composed.'' Already covetous of her social position and independent wealth, James was to become even more envious of the wide readership and fat advances she achieved so quickly in her career - a career that had begun not, like his own, as a sacred commitment to literature but as a means of escape from a suffocating marriage.

After learning that the earnings from one of her novels paid for her luxurious touring car, James remarked that proceeds from ''The Wings of the Dove'' had enabled him to buy a small wheelbarrow in which his guests' luggage might be transported from the local railroad station to his house. ''It needs a coat of paint,'' he wrote. ''With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.''

Happily enough, none of these petty differences seemed to diminish the growing affection Wharton and James possessed for each other. Although James unfortunately burned most of Wharton's correspondence -in 1909, during a fit of depression, he burned most of his personal papers -his letters and her few remaining ones indicate that they shared not only an interest in literary matters but also a concern for each other's domestic ups and downs and a love of gossip.

In fact one of the charming aspects of this volume is that it shows just how susceptible James, that severe high priest of Art, could be to the stuff of ordinary life. His letters are filled with references to dreaded trips to the dentist (''the process arrests the flow of soul''), with catty appraisals of dinner party guests and exasperated complaints about the hardships of travel. As time goes by, the combination of failing health and an arduous work schedule would force James to withdraw almost exclusively to the solitude of his home in England, where he depended upon Wharton and other friends to bring him news of the outside world.
As these letters indicate, the friendship between James and Wharton spanned particularly difficult periods in their lives, and the two writers provided each other with much needed emotional support. Wharton's affair with their mutual friend Morton Fullerton was passionate but tempestuous and brief; and her ill-matched marriage to Teddy Wharton ended in 1913, after he embezzled large sums of money from her and showed growing signs of mental instability. James counseled her throughout these travails, while Wharton helped see him through the severe depressions that overtook him toward the end of his life. In addition to providing him with companionship and good will, she campaigned (unsuccessfully) to win him the Nobel Prize, secretly persuaded Scribner's to divert some of her own royalties to provide him with an $8,000 advance for ''an important American novel'' and made elaborate plans for a celebration of his 70th birthday that were supposed to help alleviate his financial worries. ...

Monday, 13 April 2015

A life in writing: Günter Grass

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 his stint in the Waffen SS was broken in the German press in 2006 as a shocking disclosure, though "it came out later that I'd spoken openly about it in the 60s," he says. "Nobody was worked up by it at the time."

That was in an era turning its back on the past amid Germany's "economic miracle", whose amnesia was assailed by Grass and other writers, including Heinrich Böll, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Martin Walser – before opinion shifted with the Auschwitz trials and 1968 student protests.

Yet for decades, he wrote in Peeling the Onion, he "refused to admit" to the "double letters" of the Waffen SS. He always avowed membership of the Hitler Youth, volunteering without success for the submarine corps at 15, and being conscripted as a tank gunner at 16, before being wounded, never having fired a shot. Yet, as one of the "schoolboy generation" burdened with crimes he learned of only as a PoW in US hands, he wrote: "What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame." That Grass took 60 years to address his Waffen SS membership in his work might be a reminder of the difficulty of the task he undertook. As his oeuvre suggests, the past is never "come to terms" with, but recurs in a perpetual grappling with responsibility and guilt of the kind that "hibernates in dreams".

On whether he might have handled things differently, he says, "I would have had to write my autobiography earlier. It was portrayed . . . as though I'd made a confession – and even that full of false comparisons. I did not volunteer for the Waffen SS, but was, as were thousands of my year group, conscripted. I did not then know as a 17-year-old that it was a criminal unit. I thought it was an elite unit."

For Grass, his conscription has less significance than the unquestioning beliefs of his youth, for which he claims responsibility, and spent a lifetime "working through" in fiction, poetry, drama, essays and memoir. "I belonged to the generation that grew up under National Socialism, and was blinded and led astray – and allowed itself to be led astray," he says. Soon after 1945, "while many were retrospectively counting themselves members of the German resistance, I said: 'No, right until the end, I believed like an idiot in the final victory.' I was shattered when the Germans capitulated. I never made a secret of it. Everything I have done since emerged as an insight after the war."

Though the "Grass affair" brought attacks on his moral authority, he has never styled himself "Germany's conscience" ("No one person can be the conscience of a country – it's stupid"). Accused of hypocrisy in attacking others' wartime records, he objects: "When I criticised [Kurt Georg] Kiesinger because he wanted to be chancellor, I was talking about a man who . . . during the Nazi-era, had a leading position in the propaganda department. He was no 17-year-old."

A lifelong Social Democrat, though no longer a party member ("I criticise them but I'm still on their side"), Grass sees the furore as politically driven. "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. That didn't work. I still keep opening my mouth."

The controversy is touched on in an exhibition in Günter Grass House, the Lübeck museum that houses prints, watercolours and sculptures by the 1999 Nobel laureate. It was founded in 2002 in the 15th-century print works where he keeps an office, near a red-brick Gothic cathedral like those in Danzig, his Hanseatic birthplace (now Polish Gdansk). "Günter Grass and Poland", on until January 31, has a newly unearthed photograph from his first return in 1958, clasping his Slav great-aunt Anna, a Kashubian in voluminous skirts who inspired the potato-field conception in his most famous novel.

Later he met the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who in 2006 demanded that Grass hand back his honorary citizenship of Gdansk. Grass says he wrote to the mayor, and the idea was rejected. "The people of Gdansk said: 'No, he belongs to us!' I'm there every other year; I'm proud they celebrate me." In 2005 he showed 10 translators around the city on the occasion of new 50th-anniversary translations of The Tin Drum. The English one, by Breon Mitchell – out this month in Vintage paperback – is unexpurgated and more faithful, Grass feels, to his "tapeworm-long sentences".

His studio barn is next to the house he shares with his wife Ute, an organist. Downstairs he hammers on his blue Olivetti, and upstairs makes prints. With his "walrus moustache" and pipe paraphernalia, Grass seems relaxed, switching between German and English – even mischievous. Rehearsing his objections to the "annexation" of East Germany in 1990, he scowls theatrically, "you're speaking with an angry old man", but laughs with good humour. He looked forward to marking his 83rd birthday this month with friends. As for fearing death: "No, I'm astonished with each new spring. At my age, every year is like a gift."

More here.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

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 (American) Society for the Suppression of Vice: “Who is James Joyce?” you will receive the following reply: “He is an Irishman who has written a pornographic work called Ulysses which we have successfully prosecuted when it appeared in the Little Review in New York.”
For what had happened to Flaubert and Baudelaire, said Larbaud, had happened to Joyce. His art had been deemed obscene. Larbaud’s proposal, therefore, was to “try to describe the work of James Joyce as precisely as possible.” And then he began his lecture, using notes prepared by Joyce himself.
“All men should ‘Unite to give praise to Ulysses’; those who will not, may content themselves with a place in the lower intellectual orders,” wrote Ezra Pound a few months later, after the novel was finally published—by Shakespeare & Company, in its first venture as a publishing house. But you can only truly praise something you understand, and no one was quite certain what Ulysses was. Joyce’s novel created a vast transatlantic tremor of anxiety. Pound called it a “super-novel,” and even Joyce had problems of definition. In a letter to another of his supervised interpreters, Carlo Linati, he called it an “epic,” an “encyclopedia,” and most charmingly a “maledettissimo romanzaccione” (fucking novelosaurus). Only the gargantuan proportions were sure.
Should it have been so difficult? This novel has a story, after all. The date is June 16, 1904. The setting is Dublin. And the hero is Leopold Bloom—a devoted husband to his wife Molly, with whom he has one daughter. Jewish by race, Christian by baptism, and atheist by inclination, Bloom is really a believer in reason and science: he is the everyman of the democratic twentieth century. He works in the newspaper world as an advertising salesman. Calmly he goes about his business on this sunny day in June—cooking breakfast, attending a funeral, having lunch, negotiating with a client, sitting on the beach—wandering in Dublin, just as Ulysses once wandered in the Mediterranean during his long journey home.
The difference is that this Ulysses is avoiding his home: for he knows that Molly has an appointment that afternoon with the dapper Blazes Boylan—ostensibly to discuss a singing tour, but probably to consummate their flirtation. And so he pauses in pubs and bars, encountering a cast of kibitzers and schlemiels that includes, in particular, Stephen Dedalus, student of philosophy, with dreams of literary glory, whom the avant-garde reader would remember from A Portrait of the Artist, just as that reader would recognize many characters from Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories.
It’s true that a story that takes place over one day, without the usual sequence of grand events, was not an obvious genre. But this was the new avant-garde invention. It was not so arcane. As early as 1914, Ezra Pound had praised the stories in Dubliners precisely for this refusal of plot: “Life for the most part does not happen in neat little diagrams and nothing is more tiresome than the continual pretence that it does.” But then, the absence of plot was not the only problem. There was also the craziness of the technique.
Joyce’s novel employed the largest range of styles—a series of rapid innovations—ever seen in a single novel. Its first impression on the startled reader was a kind of intellectual blur. Most notorious was Joyce’s lavish use of the technique that became known, following Larbaud’s lecture, as interior monologue. This kind of thing:
A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand. Chapped: washing soda. And a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages. His eyes rested on her vigorous hips. Woods his name is. Wonder what he does. Wife is oldish. New blood. No followers allowed.
All the usual demarcations—between dialogue and thought and description—were now jumbled. (Joyce appropriated the technique from a minor nineteenth-century novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés, by Édouard Dujardin.) However, the technique could be gradually understood by the patient reader. True, one episode, set in a newspaper office, was interrupted with headlines, and a later episode, in a saloon bar, where songs were being solemnly recited, came with its own overture, but the committed reader could cope. Late in this day’s afternoon, however, a flamboyant range of styles took over: sports journalism, sentimental fiction, and even a sequential historical pastiche of English prose style. “I understand that you may begin to regard the various styles of the episodes with dismay,” Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, his most devoted patron and editor of The Egoist, which had serialized Portrait,
and prefer the initial style much as the wanderer did who longed for the rock of Ithaca. But in the compass of one day to compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me only possible by such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.
And this manic variation culminated in a final chapter where Bloom’s wife Molly, lying in bed, thinks to herself, with almost no punctuation, in a free flow of domestic, dirty associations: “I know every turn in him Ill tighten my bottom well and let out a few smutty words smellrump or lick my shit….” This was the extra problem with Ulysses. Joyce’s stylistic one-man band included a linguistic obscenity that had not been used before so casually or comprehensively in literature. This not only upset the critics; it upset the lawyers, too.
And of course it’s easy to laugh at the critics, just as it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. Look at them handle this masterpiece! At the end of 1922, Sir Archibald Bodkin, the director for public prosecutions, wrote a legal opinion explaining why Ulysses was to be banned in Great Britain. He had only read the last chapter, and was “entirely unable to appreciate how those pages are relevant to the rest of the book, or, indeed, what the book itself is about.” And yet, he concluded, there was “a great deal more than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity.”
Yes, it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. But what if the lawyers were right? For the question that still needs to be answered, I think, is whether the arguments over the novel’s obscenity and obscurity were just temporary historical effects or whether they point to the essence of Joyce’s originality. Or at least, that is the question raised by Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, and he has written a detailed account of the gestation, publication, and legal battles of Ulysses—a compendium of raw materials that can also point toward why Ulysses, nearly one hundred years later, is still the romanzaccione of the future.
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