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Showing posts from August, 2015

Charles Baudelaire: Autumn

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer's stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn. 

All of winter will return to me:
derision, Hate, shuddering, horror, drudgery and vice,
And exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison,
My soul will harden into a block of red ice.

I shiver as I listen to each log crash and slam:
The echoes are as dull as executioners' drums.
My mind is like a tower that slowly succumbs
To the blows of a relentless battering ram.

It seems to me, swaying to these shocks, that someone
Is nailing down a coffin in a hurry somewhere.
For whom? -- It was summer yesterday; now it's autumn.
Echoes of departure keep resounding in the air.

Middlemarch and the “Cry From Soul to Soul”

George Eliot’s novels are often painful places to be. Her characters frequently find themselves embroiled in circumstances beyond their control or understanding, struggling to find their way forward in the face of incompatible desires or competing goods. “It is very difficult to know what to do,” Janet Dempster says plaintively in “Janet’s Repentance,” one of Eliot’s first published works of fiction, when she flees her miserable marriage to an abusive alcoholic. “O it is difficult, — life is very difficult!” says Maggie Tulliver to Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss as she resists the mutual passion that violates their most cherished loyalties; to her, “one course seemed as difficult as another.” Who — as a spouse, a lover, a parent, a friend — hasn’t been in such a situation, when to go one way seems as fraught with complications as to go another? If only there were simple rules to follow, or someone to relieve us of the burden of navigating our own way through life’s complexities…

A virtuoso muse - Bettina Brentano

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Who," asked Napoleon Bonaparte, "is that fuzzy young person?" She was Elisabeth Brentano, known simply as Bettina. Actually, Napoleon was not among her conquests, nor was he her type.

She did not jump into his lap, as she did with Goethe, or croon her name into his ear, as with Beethoven, or go for intimate walks, as with Karl Marx. Napoleon did not dedicate a battle to her, as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms dedicated songs and the Grimms an edition of their fairy tales. But, even at a distance, Bettina Brentano drew comment.

She was sister to one famous poet, wife to another and inspiration to others, but declined to write poetry. What she did write has outraged and fascinated people ever since. She was a supreme muse, a one-woman literary movement, at once among the singular and most representative figures of the Romantic century.

Bettina was born in Frankfurt in 1785 to the large family of an Italian merchant. Her grandmother was an acclaimed sentimental novelist. Her m…

Novalis: Longing For Death

Into the bosom of the earth, 
Out of the Light's dominion, 
Death's pains are but a bursting forth, 
Sign of glad departure. 
Swift in the narrow little boat, 
Swift to the heavenly shore we float. 

Blessed be the everlasting Night, 
And blessed the endless slumber. 
We are heated by the day too bright, 
And withered up with care. 
We're weary of a life abroad, 
And we now want our Father's home. 

What in this world should we all 
Do with love and with faith? 
That which is old is set aside, 
And the new may perish also. 
Alone he stands and sore downcast 
Who loves with pious warmth the Past. 

The Past where the light of the senses 
In lofty flames did rise; 
Where the Father's face and hand 
All men did recognize; 
And, with high sense, in simplicity 
Many still fit the original pattern. 

The Past wherein, still rich in bloom, 
Man's strain did burgeon glorious, 
And children, for the world to come, 
Sought pain and death victorious, 
And, through both life and pleasure spake, 
Yet many …

Amitav Ghosh: Flood of Fire

AMITAV GHOSH likes to trouble boundaries. None of his books fit snugly within categories, either of genre or of nation. He slipped between memoir and scholarly thesis throughout In an Antique Land (1992), using old letters in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo to follow the path of an Indian slave who traveled the Red and Arabian Seas a thousand years ago. Political lines on a map grew porous in Shadow Lines (1988), where Ghosh described a fictional family that suffered loss at the hands of communal tensions spilling over the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Hungry Tide (2005) weds ecology with anthropology to explore the disturbed history of man and tiger in the Sundarbans as it leaks into modern times. The Ibis trilogy — now complete with the release of Flood of Fire — represents Ghosh’s longest and most ambitious work by far, depicting a world in motion on the eve of the Opium Wars.

The ensemble cast of the Ibis trilogy — the first two volumes are Sea of Poppies (2008) and Ri…

Passion and art: the story behind Faust

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The story so far is this. Johann Wolfgang (not yet von) Goethe, the prodigiously talented son of a prosperous Frankfurt citizen, startles his compatriots with a furious and rambling play, Götz von Berlichingen (1771), which effectively inaugurates modern drama in Germany. He then writes The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a melancholy novel in letters, and becomes an immensely influential European figure, a provoker of fashions in dress and suicide, a sort of Byron before Byron. He is 25.
Troubled by this success in print - Götz was published to great acclaim but not staged for some time - Goethe seeks a different public and a different relation to the world. He moves to Weimar in 1775, where he becomes confidential adviser and then minister and privy councillor to the Duke. He is made a baron in 1782. Weimar at this time is a city of 6000 inhabitants, compared with Frankfurt's 36,000. But Weimar is also the centre of a duchy, which includes the territories of Jena, Eisenach and …

Lytton Strachey: Voltaire and Frederick the Great

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At the present time [October 1915] when it is so difficult to think of anything but of what is and what will be, it may yet be worthwhile to cast occasionally a glance backward at what was. Such glances may at least prove to have the humble merit of being entertaining: they may even be instructive as well. Certainly it would be a mistake to forget that Frederick the Great once lived in Germany. Nor is it altogether useless to remember that a curious old gentleman, extremely thin, extremely active, and heavily bewigged, once decided that, on the whole, it would be as well for him not to live in France. For, just as modern Germany dates from the accession of Frederick to the throne of Prussia, so modern France dates from the establishment of Voltaire on the banks of the Lake of Geneva. The intersection of those two momentous lives forms one of the most curious and one of the most celebrated incidents in history. To English readers it is probably best known through the few brilliant para…

Theodor Fontane feels your pain

Theodor Fontane is not the sort of novelist whose works I feel moved to press on other people. I'm not sure why. He has been described as a "loveable" writer, but I'm never confident that the rather chilly charms of Effi Briest and Frau Jenny Treibel will be apparent to others. Nevertheless, I've always been drawn to the Prussian wanderer, and particularly to his travails in the rough and tumble of the German publishing industry in the late 19th century.

Fontane was writing at the time of the emergence of a mass market for fiction, in which the origins of today's publishing industry can be easily discerned, most notably in the privileging of profit over aesthetic concerns. Improved printing technology meant books and journals could be produced with increased ease. (This did not impress Fontane, who called modern editions "cheap and nasty".) Literacy rates were increasing, yet regard for high-quality literature was wavering; the Stiehl regulations of …

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Artist’s Evening Song

Oh, for some inner creative force Through my mind, echoing! That through my hands might course A sap-filled blossoming. I only shudder, I only stutter, And yet can’t halt: at last, I feel I know you, Nature, And must hold you fast. When I think how all these years My powers have been growing, And where barren heath appeared Now streams of joy are flowing: How I yearn for you, Nature, then, And long for you, with faith and love! For me you’ll be the leaping fountain, A thousand springs will hurl above. And every single power In my mind you’ll heighten, And this narrow being-here To Eternity you’ll widen.
Translated by A. S. Kline

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics

When Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, World War II had ended and Hitler was dead, but Stalin lived and ruled. Arendt wanted to give her readers a sense of the phenomenal reality of totalitarianism, of its appearance in the world as a terrifying and completely new form of government. In the first two parts of the book she excavated hidden elements in modern anti-Semitism and European imperialism that coalesced in totalitarian movements; in the third part she explored the organization of those movements, dissected the structure of Nazism and Stalinist Bolshevism in power, and scrutinized the "double claim" of those regimes "to total domination and global rule." Her focus, to be sure, is mainly on Nazism, not only because more information concerning it was available at the time, but also because Arendt was more familiar with Germany and hence with the origins of totalitarianism there than in Russia. She knew, of course, that those origin…

Friedrich Hölderlin: Ages of Life

Euphrates' cities and
Palmyra's streets and you
Forests of columns in the level desert
What are you now?
Your crowns, because
You crossed the boundary
Of breath,
Were taken off
In Heaven's smoke and flame;
But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks, upon
The deer's heath, and strange
And dead the ghosts of the blessed ones
Appear to me.

English translation by David Constantine

A Public Man - Lord Byron

Francis Gastrell was very annoyed. He had bought a nice new house only to find hordes of uninvited guests tramping through his garden and helping themselves to sprigs and branches from his mulberry tree. These trespasses angered him so much that one day he took up an axe and chopped the tree down, thus removing the inconvenience. The visitors stopped coming, which in turn upset the villagers who relied on their money. They formed a gang, descended on Gastrell’s house, and smashed all his windows. With the score evened, things quieted down for a bit, at least until the town council decided to raise the taxes on the property, thus driving Gastrell into a renewed frenzy. Rather than pay the increased dues, the reverend (for Gastrell was a man of the cloth), chose to vacate the house and dismantle the entire building brick by brick and gable by gable. A fresh stump and a razed plot were all that remained to inform visitors that here had stood New Place, the handsome and spacious manor hou…