Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Acutest Ear in Paris - Marcel Proust

I have not been able to discover whether there exists a precise French equivalent for the common Anglo-American expression "killing time." It's a very crass and breezy expression, when you ponder it for a moment, considering that time, after all, is killing us. Marcel Proust was the man who, by contemplating in a way that transcended the moment, attempted to interpenetrate these two forbidding alternatives.

When the Monty Python gang acted out its "Summarize Proust" competition, one of the contestant teams, a madrigal group, was cut off abruptly by the master of ceremonies before it had got beyond the opening stave of Swann's Way. One can readily appreciate the difficulty; yet if I were asked to "summarize" the achievement of Proust, I should reply as dauntlessly as I dared that his is the work par excellence that exposes and clarifies the springs of human motivation. Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and the hypocrite and the poseur, with a transparency unexampled except in Shakespeare or George Eliot. And this ability, so piercing and at times even alarming, is not mere knowingness. It is not, in other words, the product of cynicism. To be so perceptive and yet so innocent—that, in a phrase, is the achievement of Proust. It is also why one does well to postpone a complete reading until one is in the middle of life, and has shared some of the disillusionments and fears, as well as the delights, that come with this mediocre actuarial accomplishment. Because plainly, along with being "about" social climate and fashion, and the countryside versus the city, and sexual inversion and also Jewishness, with l'affaire Dreyfus one of the binding and constitutive elements in its narrative, Proust's novel ("the novel form," he wrote in one letter, is the form from which "it departs least") is all about time. And one does not fully appreciate this aspect until one has learned something of how time is rationed, and of how this awful and apparently inexorable dole may conceivably be cheated. The foregoing is intended as a word of encouragement. Proust can be regained, even if—in the very long run—time itself cannot.

My introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu came by way of Terence Kilmartin, who died in 1991, roughly a decade after completing his retranslation of C. K. Scott Moncrieff's original English rendering. Kilmartin was, as well as a translator, an editor of considerable verve and decision. He made the book pages of the London Observer into a necessary weekly resource for the literate—an infinitely elastic "section" in which more seemed to get itself discussed than the allotted space could conceivably permit. To give you an idea of Kilmartin's panache: I was once told by Gore Vidal that after turning in his first review to the Kilmartin regime, he received a telephone call from Kilmartin informing him that the piece had had to be shortened by half a dozen lines. Exigency at the printer's had meant that this pruning had been executed by the editor himself. "Oh, no you don't, Mr. Kilmartin," said an irate Vidal, shortly before replacing the receiver with a bang. "Nobody cuts my stuff except me. I shall not be contributing to your pages again." When he later seized that Sunday's offending Observer in a foul frame of mind, Vidal found that he could not tell where (or how) the excisions had been made. After duly going to Canossa, he gave Kilmartin full power of attorney.

Kilmartin wrote a highly amusing and illuminating account of his experience as a Proust revisionist, which appeared in the first issue of Ben Sonnenberg's quarterly Grand Street in the autumn of 1981. The essay opened with a kind of encouragement: "There used to be a story that discerning Frenchmen preferred to read Marcel Proust in English on the grounds that the prose of A la recherche du temps perdu was deeply un-French and heavily influenced by English writers such as Ruskin." I cling to this even though Kilmartin thought it to be ridiculous Parisian snobbery; I shall never be able to read Proust in French, and one's opportunities for outfacing Gallic self-regard are relatively scarce. It seems to be the case, at all events, that Scott Moncrieff aroused a possessive instinct in the French. He published his translation of Swann's Way just as Proust was dying, in 1922, and by the time of his own death, in 1930, had made the work into something like a vogue or a cult in the Anglophone universe. (He did not live to undertake Le temps retrouvé, which was Englished by other hands.) For decades Proust was eclipsed in France, first by surrealism, next by la littérature engagée, and then by the existentialists. Not until the 1950s, with the advent of André Maurois's A la recherche de Marcel Proust, did French literary opinion decide to reclaim Proust, and was the celebrated Pléiade edition published. This event in its turn began to generate concern among English-speaking Proustians that their treasured translation might not be quite up to standard, which meant that French precedence had been restored and that—in Cartesian terms, at least—reason had regained her Parisian throne.

When I was quite young, I often made the trip between suburban North Oxford and the wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock. At some stage of my boyhood I was told that the Oxford-to-Woodstock distance was ten miles, and to this day, if at the end of any tiring journey I see a road sign indicating the remaining distance to be ten miles, I instantly feel that I am almost home. I am sure that everybody has a similar mnemonic prompting, and Marcel Proust wrote the book, so to speak, about mnemonic devices. But the distance to be traversed between, or as between, the Swann and the Meseglise and the Guermantes "ways" is measured also in metaphysics. Kilmartin thought a good deal about the responsibility this entailed. He didn't cite Hegel's famous observation about the Owl of Minerva taking wing only as its surroundings turn crepuscular, but he did realize that "the complexities of the opening pages of the novel are especially difficult to decipher without the hindsight provided by the later volumes." 

I myself noticed too late (after the new version had gone to press) that in the paragraph evoking the bedroom at Tansonville la chambre où je me serai endormi had become in English "the bedroom in which I shall presently fall asleep" (instead of "in which I must have fallen asleep"), thus giving the reader the impression that the narrator is writing at Tansonville instead of in Paris some years after. 

A similar bêtise—this time caught by Kilmartin—had altered the spatio-temporal significance of Swann's jealous questioning of Odette. He demands to be told, of her possible lesbian encounters, "Il y a combien de temps?" Perhaps to an extent giving away his own proclivities, Scott Moncrieff made this into "How many times?" instead of "How long ago?" Even my French would be equal to that, as it would have been on the occasions when Scott Moncrieff, astonishingly, gave actuel as "actual." If only the present and the actual were indeed the same. But what's the occasional faux ami between real friends?

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Saturday, 30 May 2015

In George Gissing’s strange time

George Gissing has never been a popular writer, and never will be. He gets no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, though few novelists have been more literary or better read than Gissing. This wouldn’t have surprised him. Though eager to have intelligent readers, he despised popularity and had a low opinion of the popular writers of his own day, even Robert Louis Stevenson. I would guess that you could assemble a group of a hundred tolerably well-read people and find nobody who had read any of Gissing’s twenty-odd novels. Acquaintanceship with Gissing might be limited to George Orwell’s admiring essay, but, even though Orwell thought him perhaps the best of English novelists, he doesn’t make him alluring. The novels Orwell himself wrote in the 1930s are evidently indebted to Gissing; he might indeed be called Orwell’s master. But then novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are themselves dogged pieces of work, kept in print on account of Orwell’s reputation rather than their own qualities.

Gissing himself was in no doubt as to the reasons for his unpopularity:

“It is my misfortune as a writer of fiction that English readers have so long been taught to look for the moral of such works, and especially in the case of stories which deal with the poor. To say that I am out of sympathy with that view is saying little. My own masters are the novelists of France and Russia; in comparison I have given small study to those of England . . . . It is mere accident that I choose for my artistic material a sphere of life which just now is so attractive to the philanthropic world . . . . What attracts me is the striking juxtaposition of barbarism and civilization in our strange time. I hold that there is the artist’s opportunity now a-days, the greatest of many opportunities.”

“The striking juxtaposition of barbarism and civilization in our strange time”: this makes Gissing modern enough, the juxtaposition being as evident now as it was in the last decades of the nineteenth century; likewise the disclaimer of a moral purpose in his fiction. For Gissing, his material was what life had given him; art was what you made of it.

The life itself was often grim – that is the one thing people who haven’t read any of his novels know about Gissing. Unfortunate as he was, partly on account of the contradictions in his character, partly on account of his obstinate integrity, he has been fortunate in his biographer. Pierre Coustillas has devoted himself to Gissing for more than half a century; the first version of his The Heroic Life of George Gissing, written in French, was part of his State Doctorate in March 1970. He has edited Gissing’s Letters and several of the novels, and compiled, in association with others, what he describes as “the gigantic primary bibliography” of Gissing’s works. “In spite of its bulk”, he writes, “a supplement will some day be needed.” This reflects the huge increase in academic interest in Gissing. Sadly, however, academic interest does not invariably translate into popular interest, and therefore into readership. Perhaps the publication of this thorough and very detailed biography – the third and final volume has just appeared – will at last secure for its subject the wide readership his biographer is certain he deserves.

Coustillas early concluded that Gissing’s “life and professional career had been heroic. A scrupulous, original artist who cared more for the quality and sincerity of his work than for the demands of the public, he was, when publishers could no longer exploit him cynically, at best poorly rewarded for his strenuous work”. Gissing came from a shopkeeping family in Wakefield. His intelligent father, active in local politics as a Liberal, himself well-read and devoted to schemes of civic and social improvement, died when George was still a boy; he would feel the loss all his life, certain that his father would have given him the understanding and encouragement which neither his mother nor siblings could satisfactorily offer. He read widely, especially in the Classics – he would be devoted to Greek and Latin literature and his idea of Antiquity all his life; one of his best books, By the Ionian Sea, would be the late result. At the age of sixteen, he became a student at Owens College in Manchester. It was there that his life fell apart. Living in lodgings, more or less free from adult supervision, he met and fell in love with a young prostitute called Nell. The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, even to Coustillas who surely knows everything that is to be known about Gissing. He writes that “On meeting her Gissing felt the first pangs of sexual longing”. Either to redeem her, support her, or perhaps to enjoy her, Gissing stole money from other students. The crime was detected. The police were called. He was sent to trial, convicted and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment with hard labour. His academic career was in ruins.

Coustillas is in no doubt that Gissing’s motives were admirable. “In his youthful artlessness, he had reduced Nell’s problem to its simplest expression: in his eyes blinded by passion, she was blameless; only society was to blame.” Perhaps this is an accurate statement of the case. (The students whose money he stole may have thought differently.) Gissing was sent to America, where he met with friendship and encouragement. He wrote a few short stories and sold them, but he never settled. He continued to correspond with Nell, and, soon after he returned to England, they began to live together, and eventually married. Years of ever-deepening misery followed. Gissing was eager to educate her and improve her, but she would not be improved. She took to drink and what was judged low company. Eventually, cohabitation became intolerable. Gissing made her an allowance which he continued till she died, possibly of alcoholism, possibly of syphilis.

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Friday, 29 May 2015

Theodore Roethke: The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Dürer's Melencolia I – a masterpiece, and a diagnosis

Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose.

In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Young Man in London's National Gallery. The influence of Dürer's print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer's print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail.

Dürer's work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature.

Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer's image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate.

The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the "humours", melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well.

In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless.

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William Styron: Darkness Visible

For the thing which
I greatly feared is come upon me,
and that which I was afraid of
Is come into me.
I was not in safety, neither
had I rest, neither was I quiet;
Yet trouble came. —Job

Abbie’s brother appeared on television, grief-ravaged and distraught; one could not help feeling compassion as he sought to deflect the idea of suicide, insisting that Abbie, after all, had always been careless with pills and would never have left his family bereft. However, the coroner confirmed that Hoffman had taken the equivalent of 150 phenobarbitals. It’s quite natural that the people closest to suicide victims so frequently and feverishly hasten to disclaim the truth; the sense of implication, of personal guilt—the idea that one might have prevented the act if one had taken certain precautions, had somehow behaved differently—is perhaps inevitable. Even so, the sufferer—whether he has actually killed himself or attempted to do so, or merely expressed threats— is often, through denial on the part of others, unjustly made to appear as a wrongdoer.

A similar case is that of Randall Jarrell—one of the fine poets and critics of his generation—who one night in 1965, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was struck by a car and killed. Jarrell’s presence on that particular stretch of road, at an odd hour of the evening, was puzzling, and since some of the indications were that he had deliberately let the car strike him, the early conclusion was that his death was suicide. Newsweek, among other publications, said as much, but Jarrell’s widow protested in a letter to that magazine; there was a hue and cry from many of his friends and supporters, and a coroner’s jury eventually ruled the death to be accidental. Jarrell had been suffering from extreme depression and had been hospitalized; only a few months before his misadventure on the highway and while in the hospital, he had slashed his wrists.

Anyone who is acquainted with some of the jagged contours of Jarrell’s life—including his violent fluctuations of mood, his fits of black despondency—and who, in addition, has acquired a basic knowledge of the danger signals of depression would seriously question the verdict of the coroner’s jury. But the stigma of self-inflicted death is for some people a hateful blot that demands erasure at al costs. (More than two decades after his death, in the summer-1986 issue of The American Scholar, a onetime student of Jarrell’s, reviewing a collection of the poet’s letters, made the review less a literary or biographical appraisal than an occasion for continuing to try to exorcise the vile phantom of suicide.)

Randal Jarrell almost certainly killed himself. He did so not because he was a coward, nor out of any moral feebleness, but because he was afflicted with a depression that was so devastating that he could no longer endure the pain of it.

This general unawareness of what depression is really like was apparent most recently in the matter of Primo Levi, the remarkable Italian writer and survivor of Auschwitz who, at the age of sixty-seven, hurled himself down a stairwell in Turin in 1987. Since I had survived a near-fatal siege of depression myself a year or so earlier, I had been more than ordinarily interested in Levi’s death, and so, late last year, when I read an account in The New York Times about a symposium on the writer and his work held at New York University, I was fascinated but, finally, appalled. For, according to the article, many of the participants, worldly writers and scholars, seemed mystified by Levi’s suicide, mystified and disappointed. It was as if this man whom they had al so greatly admired, and who had endured so much at the hands of the Nazis—a man of exemplary resilience and courage—had by his suicide demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept. In the face of a terrible absolute—self-destruction—their reaction was helplessness and (the reader could not avoid it) a touch of shame.

My annoyance over all this was so intense that I was prompted to write a short piece for the op-ed page of the Times. The argument I put forth was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be bourne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

I had set down my thoughts in this Times piece rather hurriedly and spontaneously, but the response was equally spontaneous—and enormous. It had taken, I speculated, no particular originality or boldness on my part to speak out frankly about suicide, and the impulse toward it, but I had apparently underestimated the number of people for whom the subject had been taboo, a matter of secrecy and shame. The overwhelming reaction made me feel that inadvertently I had helped unlock a closet from which many souls were eager to come out and proclaim that they, too, had experienced the feelings I had described. It is the only time in my life I have felt it worthwhile to have invaded my own privacy, and to make that privacy public. And I thought that, given such momentum, it might be useful to try to briefly chronicle some of my own experiences with depression, and in the process perhaps establish a frame of reference out of which one or more valuable conclusions might be drawn. Such conclusions, it has to be emphasized, must still be based on the events that happened to one man. In setting these reflections down I don’t intend my ordeal to stand as a representation of what happens, or might happen, to others. Although as an illness depression manifests certainly unvarying characteristics, it also allows for many idiosyncracies; I’ve been amazed at some of the freakish phenomena—not reported by other patients— that it has wrought amid the twistings of my mind’s labyrinth.

Depression afflicts millions directly, and many millions more who are relatives or friends of victims. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds, and classes, though women are at considerably higher risk than men. The occupational list (dressmakers, barge captains, sushi chefs, Cabinet members) of its patients is too long and tedious; it is enough to say that very few people escape being a potential victim of the disease, at least in its milder form. Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of 20 percent of its victims by way of suicide. Just a few of these fallen artists, all modern, make up a sad but scintillant roll call: Hart Crane, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky—the list goes on. (The Russian poet Mayakovsky was harshly critical of his great contemporary Esenin’s suicide a few years before, which should stand as a caveat for all who are judgmental about self-destruction.) When one thinks of these doomed and splendidly creative men and women, one is drawn to contemplate their childhoods, where, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the seeds of the illness take strong root; could any of the m have had a hint, then, of the psyche’s perishability, its exquisite fragility? And why were they destroyed, while others—similarly stricken—struggled through?

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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.

 “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” That’s the Plath-world, freakishly bleak, exerting its tractor-beam fascination on American culture. Fifty years after she killed herself, we find her vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry sitting in a region of cultural near-­exhaustion. Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation. A Massachusetts girlhood; a precocious literary ascent interrupted by an early nervous breakdown; a decampment to England; marriage to—and separation from—the poet Ted Hughes; suicide. In her lifetime, she published just one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar), and a few stories in magazines. Upon her death, the bulk of her work—including the completed manuscript of Ariel—was still unknown to readers.

Out of these elements, endless constructions and conjurations. The ’70s enthroned her as a feminist martyr. She has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, politicized, astrologized. She did, it’s true, pack into her three decades a remarkable number of reboots and re-selvings—transformation, and its lethal opposite, was her theme—but even so … Can’t we leave her alone?

Not just yet, we can’t. This year has already brought us two new biographies, two more runs at the imago. Carl Rollyson’s American Isis declares her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” This is not as daft as it sounds: When Plath arrived in England in 1955, on a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, she was, at least to English eyes, ablaze with American glamour. She had fashionable hair, man-eater lipstick, and a wobbly sense of momentum about her. She posed in a swimsuit for the university newspaper. She wore red shoes, as in a fairy tale. She wanted, she needed, to be famous. Rolly­son makes much—too much, perhaps—­of a dream Plath had three years later, in which Marilyn appeared to her “as a kind of fairy godmother,” giving her a manicure and promising her “a new, flower­ing life.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Andrew Wilson, cuts a little deeper, because it comes in at a sharper angle. Querying the notion that Plath’s career was essentially a countdown to the artistic blastoff ofAriel—­the poems she wrote in the months preceding her death—Wilson zooms in on her pre-Ted life: the bold college girl, adventuress in the virginal ’50s, who finally rebelled into madness. In Wilson’s book, we get to know in depth her extraordinary, leather-jacketed pen pal Eddie Cohen, who wrote to Plath after reading a short story she had published in Seventeen magazine and then—though only a couple years her senior—took it upon himself to be her epistolary instructor in art, sex, and the life authentically lived: “Petting, if it does not culminate in orgasm for both parties, will increase rather than alleviate frustrations.” Cohen was of the “Howl” generation (“I have seen many of my friends,” he wrote in one letter, “all of whom are hard-headed, clear-thinking people, driven to sanatoriums and asylums”), and he had intuited that Plath was a high risk for cracking up. Plath, on the other hand, in literary-hustler mode, would later propose that their correspondence be published as a book called Dialogue of the Damned.

Wilson also gives us one priceless image: that of Plath, her hair bound up, retiring each night in a viscid mask of Noxzema, its odor so strong that her roommate considered finding alternative accommodations. This is about as Sylvia Plath as it gets: the bedtime beauty routine turned ceremonial horror, the lady cream with its repellent smell—ecce mulier, at the brink of the underworld, passing semi-­monstrously through the rituals of American womanhood on the way to some deeper, darker initiation.

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Monday, 25 May 2015

Flawed Perfection - Edna St. Vincent Millay

EDNA MILLAY GOT her vivid and aristocratic-sounding middle name from the hospital in New York City that saved her Uncle Charlie's life. Drunk on the New Orleans waterfront, Charles Buzzell boarded a ship while it was loading grain and fell asleep on a bale of cotton in the hold. He woke to find himself pinned below deck, out of earshot and unable to move. After ten days without food or water, he saw a bright light expanding suddenly in the black hull, "& I could see through the ship as though it was made of clear glass." Rushed to St. Vincent's, he was convinced forever after that he had entered the spirit world and been reborn. He began to appear at the Globe Museum on the Bowery as "The Adventurer and Evangelist Chas. A. Buzzell, The New Orleans Stowaway." Six days after his miraculous rebirth, Edna St. Vincent Millay—nicknamed "Vincent" almost immediately—was born on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1892, in Camden, Maine.

Millay's parents were so badly matched that, as her mother Cora wryly remarked, "any crank on Eugenics would have said we were perfectly mated for the propagation of a family." Henry Millay liked to fish, to play poker, and to drink. When his industrious wife complained about his inability to hold a job, he beat her. Cora finally kicked him out in 1900, when Edna turned eight, and raised her three daughters—one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead (Edna, the eldest)—alone. A hairdresser and a self-taught nurse, she found occasional work in neighboring towns, often leaving the girls to their own devices.

Under their mother's tutelage, all the girls played the piano, wrote poetry, and acted. Cora Millay had a bohemian strain intertwined with aristocratic pretensions, a sometimes unattractive combination that she passed on to her eldest daughter. When a New Yorker profile in 1925 harped on Edna Millay's humble beginnings, her mother sent in a haughty correction: "Certain Millays owned houses and lands—but that was long ago." Still, as Cora remarked with equal pride in an interview, "The hardships that bound the children together made them stronger, and banded them together in self-defense against the world....I let the girls realize their poverty." That use of "realize" is nicely turned. In her best poetry it can be said that Edna Millay realized—acknowledged even as she made something real and lasting from—her poverty.

MILLAY’S CHILDHOOD IS a story of precocious virtuosity. She excelled at everything, and was always the leading lady in the school play, the class poet (except once, when her classmates, tired of her queenly ways, voted for the class dullard), the star. Music and poetry were her refuge from the daily grind of keeping house in ever more modest rented rooms along the rocky Maine coast. Nancy Milford, in the moving opening section of her painstaking and sympathetic biography, cites a poignant memory of Millay searching for a chord on the organ, and asking her exhausted mother for help.

We did not have the notes of it, it was something she knew by heart. I called her to help me with the chord, and she came in. She had been doing washing, and her hands, as she placed them upon the keys[,] were very pink, and steam rose from them. Her plain gold wedding ring shone very clean and bright, and there were little bubbles on it which the soap suds had left, pink, and yellow, and pale green. When she had gone and I was sure that she would not hear me, I laid my cheek softly down upon the cool keys and wept. For it had come into my mind with dreadful violence as she bent above me and placed her fingers upon the keys ... that my mother could die; and I wanted to save her from that, for I knew she would not like it; and I knew that I could not.

Poetry also came from Cora. "Mother gave me poetry," Millay wrote. Her discovery of the physical thrill of poetry was a perfect match for Emily Dickinson's famous statement that "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Millay said of her own first encounter with poetry: "I know that it knocked the wind clear out of me, and left me giddy and almost actively sick ... when, on opening at random my mother's gargantuan copy of Shakespeare, I read the passage from Romeo and Juliet about the ‘dateless bargain’ and Death keeping Juliet as beautiful as she was in life, to be his `paramour.'" She began writing poems early, and perhaps too early learned to meet perfectly the editorial expectations of the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas. By the time she was eighteen, the cut-off age for submissions, she had won every poetry contest that the magazine offered. The awareness that poetry was a matter of prizes and editors as much as a giddy and gut-wrenching experience set her on the path of a big career—but one sometimes wishes that her eyes had not always been so firmly locked on the prize.

BY HER TWIENTIETH birthday, in 1912, Millay had written the first half of a masterpiece, the claustrophobic "Renascence," which recalls in its hammering tetrameters both her hemmed-in Maine childhood landscape and her Uncle Charlie's below-deck ordeal:

All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line Of the horizon, thin and fine, Straight around till I was come Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood.

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Elizabeth Bishop at Summer Camp

“I have never been homesick but just at present I feel awfly campsick,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, the summer she was fourteen. She had just finished a month at the sailing camp on Cape Cod where she spent her teenage summers, a camp where she found respite from the families engaged in a tug-of-war over her upbringing (it would be too much to say her affections), her father’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her mother’s in Revere and farther away in Great Village, Nova Scotia. For much of her childhood, this shy and sickly girl had been carted from one set of relatives to another like a piece of luggage.

Bishop was born in Worcester in 1911. When she was still a baby, her father, William Bishop, died of Bright’s disease (the term a century ago for acute or chronic nephritis). After his death, her mother’s grief slowly hardened into suicidal despair, and she tried to take her life by leaping from a hospital window. At last, having for five years dressed in mourning clothes, Gertrude Bishop became delusional, afflicted with imagined illnesses, convinced that she was being “watched as a criminal.” In 1916, she was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Her doctors must have felt there was no hope of recovery, because her little daughter was “taught to think of her as dead,” according to the poet Frank Bidart. Having been dragged about by her nervous and overwrought mother, now to Boston, now back to Nova Scotia, Elizabeth found a home with her mother’s family in Great Village, where she was enrolled in the village primary school. When her father’s parents visited a year and a half later, they were shocked to find the barefoot six-year-old racing wild through the village lanes.

Her Bishop grandparents “kidnapped” her—at least it felt that way, she later said—and carried her off by overnight train. Her father’s father was a wealthy New England contractor, the founder of J. W. Bishop Company, which built mills, stores, churches, hospitals, gymnasiums at both Brown and Harvard, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and numerous mansions for private clients. The firm, which had been in business since the 1870s, was a nineteenth-century example of vertical integration, owning quarries as well as a woodwork and ornamental-iron mill.

The Bishops were already elderly (her grandfather seventy-one, her grandmother sixty-eight) when Elizabeth was spirited away to Worcester. Most of their nine children were already dead. Her grandparents lived outside the city in a dark, spraddling farmhouse behind a white picket fence, one block before the end of the trolley line, though John W. Bishop Sr. was driven to work each morning by a chauffeur. The Bishops never mingled in Worcester society. Though distant, austere presences to this frail young girl, they were apparently kind and thoughtful. Her grandfather, who showed off numerous gold teeth when he laughed, once carted home, all the way from his company’s Providence office, three Golden Bantams— pets for his little granddaughter.

Bishop found life in her home country difficult. Separated from her mother’s parents, whom she adored, she “didn’t want to be an American.” (As she told a critic, “I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander.”) According to her memoir “The Country Mouse,” saluting the American flag made her feel “like a traitor”—in the Great Village school, she had been taught to sing “God Save the King” and “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Her grandmother in Worcester, whose most violent oaths were “Pshaw” and “Drat,” tried to make her memorize “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every verse.

Often severely ill with bronchitis, asthma, and eczema, Elizabeth spent nine miserable months with the Bishops. After that disastrous winter, she was dispatched, no doubt by chauffeur, to a drab neighborhood in working-class Revere to live with her mother’s eldest sister, Maude (always spelled “Maud” by Bishop). The girl spent the rest of her childhood with Maude and her husband in their dingy second-floor apartment, frequently missing school because of her illnesses. She later said that during those years, “I was always a sort of a guest.”

Bishop may have felt close to Aunt Maude at first; later, when she was in prep school, she tried to avoid staying in Revere during the holidays. Her favorite aunt, Grace Boomer, another of her mother’s sisters, shared the apartment but moved back to Nova Scotia in 1923, when Bishop was twelve. That same fall, her Bishop grandparents died, first her grandmother and then, five days later, her grandfather. Their son Jack, who became head of the family firm, took charge of her schooling. Whatever Uncle Jack’s failings as a businessman (under his management, J. W. Bishop Company soon fell on hard times), as her guardian he sought an education for her beyond that available in public schools—or perhaps he was just shooing her out of the way. Though Bishop felt no fondness for him, he seems to have responded to his young ward. He knew that in Revere she had few friends.

Her cousin Kay claimed that the move to Revere was suggested by Bishop’s doctors, who thought her asthma would improve if she lived by the sea, a common prescription of the day. Perhaps the “saltwater camp” on Cape Cod was chosen to get her to the shore, the fees no doubt paid by her guardian—they would have been beyond the means of Maude and her husband. The July after her grandparents died, Bishop was packed off to summer camp for the first time. She returned every summer for the next five years.

Camp Chequesset overlooked the shellfishing fleet in Wellfleet Harbor, in the 1920s still the main source of the town’s economy. The camp stood across the bay from the town pier, on some forty acres of ground once inhabited by Chequesset Indians, whose shell heaps could still be found along the beach. There were two main camp-buildings. Big Chief Hall contained the dining hall, a wardroom, and craft shops. On the mantel above its massive open fireplace stood a ship’s clock and a pilot wheel, the symbol of the camp. There were more craft shops in the Bungalow, which also had a library of some five hundred books and rooms for visiting former campers—”Old Chequesset girls,” as they were called. Though a fair amount of swimming and sailing was required, the camp offered archery, tennis, baseball, dramatics, and dancing, interrupted by walks to the Cape’s backshore or a clambake on Jeremy Point. The camp navy consisted of a clutch of sailboats and canoes, a few rowboats and dories, and a forty-foot sedan-cabin cruiser, the Mouette, with her famously unreliable engine. The name was French for “seagull.”

The campers’ “lodges” were scattered in the pines, each with room for three or four girls and a counselor (a “skipper,” in the camp’s nautical slang). These cabins, screened on all sides, with shutters for bad weather, had been given whimsical names like the Look-Out, the Hopp-Inn, the Kennel, and the Nursery. An early photograph in Cape Cod Magazine shows a “cosy dormitory corner” with simple cots covered in what even in black-and-white look like colorful blankets. The Mary Louise, the cabin where Bishop berthed for the summer of 1926, was a forty-seven-foot sloop marooned in a cradle nearby. Forty girls, the youngest twelve years old, spent July and August at this “Nautical Camp for Girls.”

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Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty

On April 24th, Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, took time off from her regular duties in the International Space Station to read from the Divine Comedy. She picked the opening canto of the Paradiso, in which Dante describes his ascent through the circle of fire and his approach toward God:

I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
not speak.

As Cristoforetti spun around the globe at the rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour, her reading was beamed back to earth and shown in a movie theater in Florence.

Ten days later, the actor Roberto Benigni recited the last canto of Paradiso in the Italian Senate. His selection included the poem’s famous closing lines:

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already like
a wheel revolving uniformly by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The senators gave the comedian a standing ovation. That same day, Pope Francis made some brief remarks about the poet, officially joining what he called the “chorus of those who believe Dante Alighieri is an artist of the highest universal value.” He can, the Holy Father added, help us “get through the many dark woods we come across in our world.”

Dante’s seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday is sometime in the coming month—he was born, he tells us in Paradiso, under the sign of Gemini—and, to mark the occasion, more than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.) There’s talk of extending the celebrations to 2021, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death.

I teach Dante to American undergraduates, and I struggle to convey to them his place in Italian culture. The obvious comparison is to Shakespeare, but this is like trying to make sense of Mozart by means of Coltrane: the number of centuries that divide Dante from Shakespeare is practically as large as the number that separates Shakespeare from us.

Italian kids first encounter Dante at school, when they’re in the equivalent of seventh grade. They return to him in the eleventh grade to study the Inferno in more depth. In twelfth grade, they work on the Purgatorio. Secondary school—liceo—lasts five years, and so in what might be considered the thirteenth grade, the text for the year is the Paradiso. I recently asked the high-school-aged son of an Italian friend of mine about the experience. “It’s annoying, boring, and it never ends,” he told me. “But then you get to like it.”

At the college level, the study of Dante ratchets up by slowing down. In the late nineteen-eighties, I spent a semester in Florence, where I sat in on a Dante course at the university. The entire term was devoted to the analysis of a single canto. As it happened, the canto was Inferno 19, which is devoted to simony. Dante reserves a special hole in the third sub-circle of the eighth circle of Hell for corrupt Popes; they are stuffed into it, one after another, headfirst. Their feet are then lit on fire. Among the issues the class discussed at length was how, exactly, new Popes could be accommodated. Had space been left open for all those that would come along? Or did each new arrival compress his predecessor into some kind of pontifical pesto?

Either because of or despite this pedagogical program, Italians, to a surprising degree, stick with Dante. Since 2006, Benigni has been staging hepped-up variations on the traditional lectura dantis, a form that goes back all the way to the fourteenth century, to Boccaccio, who lectured on the poem in Florence’s Santo Stefano church. A typical lectura opens with a detailed gloss of a particular canto, followed by a dramatic reading of it. Benigni’s performances in Rome, Florence, Verona, and other cities have been watched live by more than a million people. Millions more have tuned into them on TV.

Similar, if stodgier, lectures are delivered all over Italy at societies set up expressly to foster appreciation of the Divine Comedy. In Rome, for example, the Casa di Dante sponsors a lectura dantis every Sunday at 11 A.M. Owing to holidays and long summer breaks, six years of Sundays are required to get through the poem, at which point the whole process starts over again. It’s not unusual for two hundred Romans to attend. Some are liceo students, perhaps there under duress, but most are middle-aged and beyond. After one recent session at the Casa di Dante, I asked the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me what everyone was doing there. “I don’t know about the others,” he said. “I always come.”

There are, of course, many possible explanations for Dante’s hold on Italy, including, after seven hundred and fifty years, sheer momentum. Language, too, clearly plays a part. When Dante began work on the Comedy, none of the different dialects spoken in Italy’s many city-states had any particular claim to preëminence. Latin, meanwhile, was the language of the Church and of institutions such as the courts and universities. (Dante wrote “De Vulgari Eloquentia,” his defense of the vernacular, in Latin.) Such was the force and influence of the Comedy that the Tuscan dialect became Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national one. The fact that people in Venice and Palermo could understand Cristoforetti as she read from the Paradiso in space was due, in a quite literal sense, to the poem that she was reading.

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

A Back Way Into Eden: Elaboration on Kleist

To be innocent is to be on the right side of the law, to have avoided crime. But if you’re ignorant of the law, that alone is enough to render you innocent—if not legally at least morally. And of course if there were no law at all one would be innocent always. No action is in itself enough to stain one’s innocence, to render one guilty; knowledge of right action is needed as well. (There are men who in their whole lives will never be as entirely innocent as a cat tormenting a half-eaten mouse.) It is not the criminal act itself but its relation to a law—its difference with respect to law—that makes for sin. Yet even to obey a law (to act not merely in accordance with it but because of it) is already to know the seed of this difference. Christ taught that even merely to lust after a woman is already to commit adultery in one’s heart, and we understand very well that this is so: in lust one part of our soul is already over the line. But if Christ is right, no one has ever obeyed the commandment against adultery: both those whose lust led them to act and those who resisted temptation out of respect for the law are equally at fault. Innocence became impossible from the moment this commandment was given. This is a formal characteristic of moral law as such, independent of which particular acts are forbidden; the moment there is law, obedience is already too little, already sin. The moment an “ought” cracks through the unbroken surface of what is, sin is there; obedience, as such, can never restore what was lost. Christ saw this and drew his conclusions (not to abolish but to fulfill the law)—but he was not the first to see it. The intimate relation between law and sin is already inscribed with exacting clarity in the story of the Fall.
The problem of law, considered formally, extends beyond the moral domain to spheres with which we moderns are perhaps more familiar. Think of the “self-consciousness” which prevents a person from dancing well, or conducting himself charmingly. Isn’t it precisely the same story? One becomes conscious of a difference between how one is and how one ought to be; every effort to correct it is futile, because real grace is precisely effortless. (Again, cats come to mind.) One knows this, one decides to relax and simply be oneself, but alas! It’s too late. Effort is futile, and the subterfuge which tries to stop trying is equally so, since it still hopes. The harder one tries, the more evidently one is “trying too hard.” To know what would be right is immediately to act wrong.1

* * *

Physical grace, then, is analogous to spiritual grace in at least this respect: both are beyond the rule’s dilemma, or before it, and neither is to be attained through conformity with a rule. This analogy orients Heinrich von Kleist’s elegant 1810 story, “On the Marionette Theatre.” The story takes the form of a dialogue between the narrator and his friend, a talented professional dancer. Yet he is often to be found at the local puppet theatre, watching the show. His friend asks what could attract him to such a vulgar entertainment; he answers that “any dancer who wished to perfect his art could learn a lot from [the puppets].” What is to be learned, however, turns out to be rather sad: no human dancer can “perfect his art.” “Where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect.”
A dancer more than any other artist attempts to embody his art, to be the beauty he creates; but this dancer believes his effort to be in vain and envies the puppet. He’s tragic, maybe, but he’s also ridiculous, and his friend is skeptical. What advantage could a wooden puppet have over a human? His friend offers three.
First, a puppet moves as a whole. The narrator has always wondered how a puppeteer can manage, without dozens of strings, to control each movement of every limb of his puppet—but his friend explains that the puppeteer doesn’t need to. He simply moves the whole body, and the limbs swing in relation to it like pendulums; they follow the same curves as planets in orbit, and with the same necessity. A human dancer must control every aspect of his every movement separately in order to generate a whole; the puppet, just because it is not human, can’t help but present unbroken completeness in every gesture.
Second, the puppets have a negative advantage: unlike human dancers, they are incapable of affectation. And what is affectation?
“Affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement... Take that young fellow who dances Paris when he’s standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it’s a frightful thing to see) in his elbow.”
The dancer’s center of gravity is the place where he most fully is; his soul is the place from which he moves. In a human these loci scarcely ever overlap—it’s as hard to ground your action in the place you find yourself as it is to concentrate your mind in the present moment. Only the unsouled, who do not act at all, who move in perfect obedience to necessity, can achieve this grace perfectly.

Finally, a puppet does not need the ground. According to the dancer, puppets do not need the ground, because they “are not afflicted with the inertia of matter, the property most resistant to dance.” This appears true in one sense: lifted by its strings, a puppet can fly through the air in a way no dancer could. Yet it appears to contradict the dancer’s argument. Puppets are matter, mere objects, and this was supposed to be their advantage over human dancers . In what sense are they not subject to inertia?
The dancer explains:
Puppets need the ground only to glance against lightly, like elves, and through this momentary check to renew the swing of their limbs. We humans must have it to rest on, to recover from the effort of the dance. This moment of rest is clearly no part of the dance. The best we can do is make it as inconspicuous as possible...
The contradiction is only apparent: We have been imprecise about the condition of the puppet’s grace. For a human, the ground and the need for rest are a limit. A human is spirit embodied, the dance is the spirit’s expression, the rest is the body as border: opacity and the tremor of death. The puppet has no inertia (the tendency of a body to resist changes in motion, as the schools say) because it knows nothing of resistance. It does not strain against itself. It is a machine for dancing. The condition of its grace is not that it is matter but that it is only matter, one thing entirely, at one with itself. 2

* * *

When the narrator remains skeptical even after these weighty arguments, the dancer becomes frustrated:
It seemed, he said, as he took a pinch of snuff, that I hadn’t read the third chapter of the book of Genesis with sufficient attention. If a man wasn’t familiar with that initial period of all human development, it would be difficult to have a fruitful discussion with him about later developments and even more difficult to talk about the ultimate situation.
The narrator defends himself: he does indeed understand “how consciousness can disturb natural grace.” To illustrate, he tells a story. He once knew a charming and graceful boy hardly afflicted with vanity. One day, when he and this boy were dressing after a bath, the boy caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was reminded of the famous “Boy with Thorn” statue which he had recently seen. He told the narrator of the discovery, and the narrator, chuckling, asked him to demonstrate by repeating the pose. The boy tried once, twice, ten times, but was unable to do it!
From that day, from that very moment, an extraordinary change came over this boy. He began to spend whole days before the mirror. His attractions slipped away from him, one after the other. An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures. A year later nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who looked at him.
The tale naturally calls to mind the story of Narcissus—but only to remind us of how superficially we have understood it. Narcissus’ story is in no sense a parable of vanity; Narcissus does not recognize himself in his reflection, he simply falls in love. If the story teaches us anything, it is not the folly of the vainly beautiful but that of their lovers. Beauty in its pure form does not know itself, not even face to face; it is perfectly unselfconscious, therefore perfectly at one with itself. Narcissus’ fate suggests, strangely, a certain ideal of love: do not lovers wish to be a single being? Isn’t their difference the limit of their love? Vanity merely reproduces this difference within the subject, but Narcissus enthralled by his own image is otherwise: a being in love with itself, therefore in love absolutely. Poor Echo, to chase such a thing! What can she hope to hear from it but the sound of her own longing?

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Vivian Gornick: 'Most people who are writing memoirs are not writers'

The first thing one notices about Vivian Gornick’s apartment is how spare it is. The walls are lined with tall bookshelves but there is little other element there by way of decoration other than some cat paraphernalia for her pair of tabbies. I have come prepared for the sight; towards the beginning of her typically lucid new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick writes that her friends tease her about her “indifference to acquisition”.

It’s not really the result of anti-materialism, though Gornick is very aware of class and labour issues. “All my life I’ve made do with less,” she writes, “because ‘stuff’ makes me anxious.” Another thing this memoir records Gornick as failing to acquire is a live-in partner, but that is treated as a secondary question to her working life and to the city – New York – where she has lived this whole time. The whole book then serves as an implicit clarion call to her fellow “Odd Women”, a term she borrows from the George Gissing novel to describe her condition.

The confession of anxiety in the text is startling. Not much about the smooth, self-critical persona Gornick has built in her writing hints at it. And there is no trace of any kind of anxiety throughout our conversation. In person Gornick is affable and warm and has a wonderful thick laugh, but she speaks in perfect, resolute sentences. She is 79, but for most of our interview I feel pressed to keep up with her as she repeatedly prods and pokes at the basis of my questions.

I start out by asking her about memoir, the form in which she has worked for more than a quarter-century. Though she wrote books before it, it was the publication in 1987 of her highly regarded memoir of her mother, Fierce Attachments, that made Gornick’s literary reputation.

Though her books have never sold exceptionally well, Gornick since became a kind of sage of the form in literary America. She wrote a well-regarded guide to the writing of personal narrative called The Situation and the Story, which has moved onto many an MFA syllabus across the country. She also gave an interview to the Paris Review on the subject. Google Vivian Gornick and you’ll find her quoted on innumerable aspiring memoirists blogs. And since memoir is the genre of the moment, that’s a lot of blogs. (Gornick doesn’t spend much time online; she is pleased, but disbelieving, when I tell her she’s “big on the internet”.)

She confidently bats away my question about the critics of the genre. “It’s quite a long time now, that the memoir has had such cachet. And a large part of it is because fiction writing has been for many years now, proven unsatisfying,” she said. “Modernism itself, the whole movement of modernism, has sort of run its course.” It’s not that she doesn’t believe there are bad memoirs; on the contrary, she readily admits it. “Just as you have thousands of novels that are not good, that did not achieve literature,” she said, “so in the same way you have a small number of memoirs that have a rich life and that achieve literature.

“If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” (She did once get herself into a controversy about the use of composite characters in her work, which she defended by writing: “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.”)

Gornick’s own persona on the page is successful, in large part because of her great ability to enact her ambivalence without making the tone of her memoir tentative. In The Odd Woman and the City, we hear about many of Gornick’s failures. One phrase early in the book recurs to me as I’m talking to her: “I began to write but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street.” The admission of wanting a wider audience strikes me as a very vulnerable thing for a writer to put in print. But when I mention it to her I get only a warm smile. “People always say to me, ‘You reveal so much,’” she says a bit later. She doesn’t think so: “I never write when I am vulnerable.”

Gornick was not always a memoirist. Initially, she was a journalist. She worked for the Village Voice in its heyday, the early 1970s, where she was known as a feminist polemicist. She’s a bit bashful about that writing now: “Many people have gone and looked back at the files of the Village Voice, which was a passionate subculture,” she said, “And you know, it’s all very dated.” She quit the newspaper, she has said in several interviews throughout the years, because eventually being a polemicist became exhausting. “We were a lot of testifiers in those years,” she smiles, “and only a few of us turned out to be writers, is really how it comes down.”

But Gornick doesn’t quite repudiate her feminist past as a force in her writing; in fact she credits the 1970s practice of consciousness-raising as leading her to a desire to delve into her own experience. Talking about the after-effects of 1970s feminism’s discovery that women were “second-class citizens”, she adds: “The neurosis that that helped create in each of us couldn’t be cured in the repetition of our claim on the world, it could only be cured psychologically. As Chekhov said: ‘Others may be a slave, but I must squeeze the slave out of myself drop by drop.’”

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Cecilia Bartoli: 'Sacrificium' - 'The art of the castrati'

The Art of the Castrati
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini
A cinematographic vision by Olivier Simmonet
Filmed at the Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Works on Paper - The letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

In 1947, Elizabeth Bishop published “At the Fishhouses,” in this magazine. Among those who admired the poem was her new friend the poet Robert Lowell. “I liked your New Yorker fish poem,” he wrote. “I am a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!” Bishop, who was staying at the time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, had written to Lowell of the region’s marvellous bird life, “auks and the only puffins left on the continent, or so they tell us . . . real ravens on the beach . . . enormous, with sort of rough black beards under their beaks.” In response, Lowell lamented, “Puffins are in my book of New England birds, but I’ve never seen one.” As for Nova Scotia, he recalled it as the site of a bad trout-fishing expedition with his grandfather, including a “horrible after sea-sick feeling” and a few “dismal low-tide gulls.”

From the start, Lowell and Bishop were intent on being a mismatch. When Lowell invited Bishop to visit him in Washington, where he was serving as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a post that we now call “Poet Laureate”), she informed him that she would be travelling there with her pet canary. Staying at the home of Pauline Hemingway in Key West and deep in what she called her “female Hemingway” phase, Bishop wrote of catching amberjack and jewfish. Lowell, fresh from charming William Carlos Williams’s ninety-one-year-old mother, responded that he had once “tried swimming” but “was nearly drowned and murdered by children with foot-flippers and helmets and a ferocious mother doing the crawl.” The critic John Thompson recalls his friend Lowell lying in bed all day writing poems, surrounded by a “tumble-down brick wall” composed of “his Greek Homer, his Latin Vergil, his Chaucer, letters from Boston, cast-off socks, his Dante, his Milton.” Bishop once interrupted a letter to witness the birth of a calf in a nearby field. These differences, sharpened for each other’s amusement, made them ideal trading partners. Lowell, the literary fisherman, sent a copy of “The Compleat Angler” to Bishop in Key West, keeping the motif alive. When he absent-mindedly put away a lit cigarette in his pocket, nearly setting himself on fire, Bishop mailed him a “SAFE if not particularly esthetic ashtray.”

They shared the tiny poetry orbit of stipends and seminars and itinerant jobs, but when it came to seeing each other they specialized in near-misses. Lowell’s first-ever letter to Bishop rues the fact that he had already narrowly missed seeing her on three occasions. When Bishop was at Harvard to record her poems for the Woodberry Poetry Room, she listened to Lowell’s recording of his poems, made there a year earlier. One season it was Lowell’s turn in Washington, calling on Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and then it was Bishop’s, bringing Pound a bottle of cologne. When Bishop wrote of blowing bubbles on the balcony outside her magnificent room at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Lowell wrote that he thought he had stayed in that room, too, and reminisced about games of croquet. “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire,” he wrote, “so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.” They spent their lives begging each other to visit, but when the opportunity presented itself they conspired with almost comic transparency in setting up obstacles.

Seeing each other more often would have given them less time to write, less to write about, and, since letters exist in reciprocal terms, less to read. As it is, “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” edited by Thomas Travisano, with Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $45), takes up more than nine hundred pages. Like Victorians hungry for the next installment of a serialized novel, the two looked to each other’s letters for sustenance. “I’ve been reading Dickens, too,” Bishop wrote, as though confirming the scope and flavor of the correspondence, the “abundance” and “playfulness” that she ascribed to Dickens. The letters abound in Dickensian caricature, mostly gentle and humane. “Several weird people have shown up here,” Lowell wrote from Washington, including a Dr. Swigget with a terza-rima rendering of Dante and an aspiring writer named “Major Dyer, who takes Pound ice-cream, was a colleague of Patton’s and teaches Margaret Truman fencing.”

They were also adroit self-satirists. The poetry they perfected, so different in so many ways, shares a nearly absurdist attitude toward the self. Bishop, in “The Gentleman of Shalott,” imagined herself as a man (she often chose male personae) standing with half his body in the mirror and half out. Lowell, in poem after poem, finds himself reflected in unlikely ways. A late poem called “Shaving” describes his face “aslant” like a “carpenter’s problem,” and in “Waking in the Blue” he sees himself “before the metal shaving mirrors” of the insane asylum:

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey

The poem, written during one of Lowell’s stays at McLean Hospital, outside Boston, takes a scrupulously external view: he’s just another one of the Brahmin “old-timers” holding a “locked razor.”

“It’s funny at my age to have one’s life so much in and on one’s hands,” Lowell wrote. Bishop responded by quoting her Maine hairdresser: “Kind of awful, ain’t it, ploughing through life alone.” They were introduced in 1947 at a dinner party thrown by Randall Jarrell in New York. Bishop recalled, “It was the first time I had ever talked to some one about how one writes poetry.” She found that talking with Lowell, who struck her as “handsome in an old-fashioned poetic way,” was “strangely easy, ‘like exchanging recipes for a cake.’ ” It had been a strange, lonely interval for them both. Lowell was twenty-nine and coming out of his disastrous first marriage, to the novelist Jean Stafford. (Stafford had sued him, before they were married, after he permanently injured her face in a car crash. Things went downhill from there.) Bishop was turning thirty-six, and her relationship with Marjorie Stevens, from Key West, was coming to an end. Lowell’s “Lord Weary’s Castle” and Bishop’s “North & South” had just been published to acclaim. (Lowell collected a Pulitzer Prize for his book; he was among the youngest poets ever to receive one. Bishop won the Pulitzer nine years later, for her second book.) Bishop was writing poems along with autobiographical stories and sketches, while Lowell was wringing out of his early style the long, hysterical poem “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” a daily task that he greeted with expanding dread.

Bad childhoods are a human misfortune, but for writers they are often a stroke of luck. Both Lowell and Bishop were aware that growing up lonely sponsored their imaginative lives. In the seventies, Lowell, in his great poem “Ulysses and Circe,” chose a baffled and emasculated Ulysses for his self-portrait. A few years earlier, Bishop, in “Crusoe in England,” had picked, for hers, a retired Robinson Crusoe nostalgic for his island days.

Both were ways of representing an essential strandedness that had its origins in childhood. Lowell was the unwanted only child of a belittling mother and a father who grew, in Lowell’s eyes, “apathetic and soured.” Bishop’s father had died when she was eight months old. When she was five, her mother was placed permanently in a sanitarium. Bishop never saw her again, though her mother lived nearly twenty more years. Bishop was then subjected to several experiments in child rearing. She was happy in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents, but her father’s parents, burghers in Worcester, Massachusetts, felt they could provide better for her. That arrangement soon failed, and she was sent to live with her aunt Maud, in Revere, Massachusetts. Maud nursed her back from the ailments she suffered in Worcester: asthma, bronchitis, eczema, symptoms of St. Vitus’ dance, and allergies to practically everything in her grandparents’ house. (Later, reading Proust, she discovered a voluble fellow asthma sufferer and decided wryly that she hadn’t “capitalized” enough on her condition.) Aunt Maud had pet canaries and Italian neighbors with beautiful surnames that Bishop never forgot.

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Amitav Ghosh: There is now a vibrant literary world in India

About 10 years ago Amitav Ghosh began work on a new novel about departures. His experience of moving from India to Britain in the 1970s had been “wrenching” and set him wondering what it was like for Indian people travelling to England in the 19th century. “So I began to write about some characters who might have been among the first people to leave India, and immediately I came up against this immense canvas that lies behind relations between India, Britain and China. It was essentially all about opium and it was clear this was not a story I was going tell in a single book.”

So Ghosh set about writing a fictional account of the period leading up to the first opium war (1839-42), in which UK and China clashed over the British importation of opium, grown on their Indian plantations, into China. Sea of Poppies was published in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. It was the first part of what has become the 1,600-page Ibis trilogy, named after the schooner that ferries both opium and human traffic. In 2011 River of Smoke, the second part, was shortlisted for the Man Asian prize and the series culminates this week with the publication of the final volume, Flood of Fire, Ghosh’s eighth novel in a career that has seen his work translated into more than 20 languages. This week his entire body of work was shortlisted for the International Booker prize, which was awarded to László Krasznahorkai.

Ghosh, who was about to turn 50 when he embarked on the trilogy, says he found it daunting: “For the next 10 years, this was what I was going to do. But I also knew that I had to set myself something really difficult and ambitious. And that has proved to be the case. I was determined that the individual books should stand alone – it’s indefensible, aesthetically, for it be just one huge book chopped into three. One of my favourite experiences was reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in Alexandria. I love his writing and it is strange how he is kind of forgotten now. He had an incredible range and the books capture all aspects of a cosmopolitan life in the eastern Mediterranean. They do articulate with each other so that you get glimpses of characters across books, but they are not all meshed together. If I had a model, that was it.”

Despite the darkly cynical and violent subject matter, Ghosh’s trilogy is funny, sexy and rip-roaring. “The material is so grim for so much of the time I had to have some leavening. But I also think there is a contemporary sentimentality that assumes people living difficult lives are always gloomy. That is just not the case. I’ve spent a lot of time in very difficult places, and I can tell you that people in desperate circumstances can also be incredibly cheerful and good-natured, often more so than people on the streets of London, for instance.”

The co-option of Indian labour, and soldiers, by the British empire underpins much of the trilogy. “The indentured system was self-consciously a replacement for slave labour,” he explains. “It is strange that people don’t put together that India was to the 19th century what Africa had been to the 17th and 18th: a global sink of labour.” There are obvious echoes of the conditions endured by some migrant workers today, and while Ghosh does not labour the point, there are also inescapable parallels between the opium and Iraq wars. “British merchants were saying in the lead-up to the opium war that there will be joss sticks lit in the streets and the people will be grateful for the overthrow of the Manchu tyrant,” he says. “It is a complete echoing across two centuries and was eerie to see. The other striking thing was the degree of corruption. You have to read between the lines, but the opium war was one of the first to be fought in a complete public and private partnership. The merchants were given contracts to provide services and provisions to the soldiers and they made out like bandits. Paying off British generals, and bad provisions probably killed more soldiers in China than did the Chinese army.”

The book jacket for Flood of Fire features an admiring quote from the historian Christopher Clark and Ghosh has been acclaimed for providing a plausible account of events that had previously been underexamined. “Puzzlingly, there is no military history of the first opium war,” he says, “although it saw the first major use of steam-powered warships which revolutionised naval warfare forever. So I found myself piecing much of the battlefield details together from primary sources. But the difference between writing fiction and writing history is that fiction doesn’t commit you to one view. That is why I was never a historian or an academic. I don’t think theoretically. What interests me about history is that there are so many alternative ways of telling it. I have had my life and experiences and I have my opinions. But I have also forced myself to see the world through, say, the eyes of an opium trader, and that is one of the great strengths of historical fiction. It encourages you to step out of your skin and see the world from other points of view.”

Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and was brought up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as his family moved around with his ex-soldier father on various secondments to the Indian government. The peripatetic life meant that books became particularly important to him – one early childhood favourite was Richmal Crompton’s Just William series before he moved on to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for many the inventor of the historical novel as we know it today. “Scott had a huge influence on many early 19th-century Indian writers and I found his books utterly absorbing and remember curling up in bed with them at boarding school”. He was at the prestigious Doon School where Vikram Seth, a pupil a couple of years ahead of him, came back to teach and they talked a lot about writing to each other. “Not long ago I went back there and looked at those same editions of Scott in the library. I was the last person to have checked them out.”

As a teenager, Ghosh enjoyed Indian classical music as well as Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, “all the stuff my kids still listen to” – he is married to the writer Deborah Baker, they have two children and live in Brooklyn and India. “We also had the radical politics of the 1970s. I came of age in the middle of the Naxalite-Maoist uprising. But even then I was much more interested in Gandhism and thought Naxalism was a fetishism of violence of a very ugly kind. Yes, I was sympathetic to many of their aims, but I was not a joiner.”

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