Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A life in writing: Helen Dunmore

The entire back wall of Helen Dunmore's tiny studio-cum-office – eight floors up in a neat block of flats on Bristol's northern slopes – is given over to a glass door, leading on to a strip of balcony. Underneath, the city's streets, parks and houses roll out all the way to the feet of the hills on the skyline. It is, Dunmore says, "a lovely place to write. I know authors who say they can't work unless they're facing a blank wall; they find the external world too distracting. But I like the reminder that it's all out there."

The analogy of the all-seeing novelist is hard to resist: Dunmore perched on high, peering down into the lives playing out below. But such aesthetic distance has no place in her novels. The worlds she creates are urgent and intimate; she talks about her characters as if they were close friends, constantly steering the conversation back to them, like a proud parent, or a lover. "History leaves so much out," said the novelist JG Farrell, when asked why he liked to write books about the past. "It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like." It's in this detail, above all, that Dunmore revels.

In her latest novel, The Betrayal (a sequel to 2001's The Siege), she transports us to another port city, Leningrad, and sinks us deep into the oppressive heart of it. The novel opens in 1952 in the months leading up to Stalin's death; while the atmosphere in the city is fractionally less paranoid than during the purges and executions of the Great Terror, its citizenry remains watchful, overwound. In The Siege, set 10 years earlier during the deadly Leningrad blockade, Dunmore set out a world of shrinking horizons. The frontiers of the characters' lives were pulled back and back: to the city's limits, the walls of an apartment, a single, icy room, a spoonful of honey measured on to a five-year-old's tongue. Fear pulses from the pages, but while cold and hunger slaughtered Leningraders in their thousands, these dangers were at least clearly visible: a decade on, the adversaries are just as terrifying, but harder to pin down. Andrei, a paediatrician, lives with his teacher-wife Anna (Dunmore herself trained as a teacher) and Anna's younger brother, Kolya – the five-year-old of The Siege, now a bumptious teenager. Together, they've constructed a life of more-or-less blameless obscurity, but their peace is shattered when Andrei is called on to treat the son of Volkov, a senior secret police operative. Andrei and Anna find themselves plunged into a tenebrous zone in which logic and truth have no currency, and where their fate depends on the progress of disease in a young boy's body. While the world appears to have opened out from the narrow limits imposed by the blockade, Dunmore reveals that in many ways it remains just as constrained: there is no safety except within the walls of one's own apartment, and even there, the enemy can enter if he chooses.

Dunmore's great skill as a novelist is to swoop down from the historian's eyrie from which everything looks ordered, familiar, sanitised by the passage of time, and plunge into the interior of daily lives. In one of The Betrayal's most effective and affecting scenes, we see Anna after a brutal encounter with the secret police, leaning over her sink in despair, but at the same time noting that "the tap has a crust of dirt around the bottom. You can't see it from above . . . she must clean more thoroughly." "That to me is what people are really like," Dunmore says. "We're never thinking a dreadful or exalted thought without a more mundane one coupled to it. Our essential everyday identity is still humming along."

Her style isn't to everyone's taste. While Stevie Davies called The Siege a masterpiece, and Antony Beevor, writing in the Times, labelled it "a world-class novel", the Observer's reviewer, Michael Williams, wasn't sold, dismissing the domestic arena through which she parses the agonies of the blockade as a "mum's-eye view", "less Tolstoyan than suburban". Dunmore refuses to apologise. "The wars of the 20th century engulfed millions of civilians," she says, briskly. "There's no superior legitimacy in writing about them from a military point of view. Look at Sarajevo; look at the Iraqi children, dead because of inadequate medical supplies: it's on their pulses war is fought. I wanted to write a novel where people would feel an engagement with the subject – not that this was something strange and far off, which could only ever have happened in another country. I feel very passionately that it is not only legitimate to write about these people, but absolutely vital."

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On Lionel Trilling

I first met Lionel Trilling at the artists’ colony at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, in the summer of 1931 (or maybe 1932; I was at Yaddo for two or three years). I was impressed by a certain gentleness of outlook. He had just come to terms with the fact that he was Jewish, though his own longing would have been to have been born into an English literary family. He was then engaged in writing a dissertation on Matthew Arnold. That summer I believe I won him over to a kind of revolutionary Marxist position—it was the climate of the times, the depths of the Depression, and the general movement of intellectuals toward the left. For a period of six weeks, I saw him daily. We would walk and talk together about many things. I was impressed by his sensitivity to modern literature. I still recall his attempts to make James Joyce’s Ulysses intelligible to me. 

After we left Yaddo, we were in touch by phone quite often, and on many occasions he would call me to sound me out, mostly on political questions of the time. In general he would talk about political affairs and complain bitterly about the factionalism of the Marxist groups. Diana Trilling, his wife, was, I think, more interested in politics than Lionel.1 She contributed to his political development. Before long, he and Diana Trilling were regarded as Trotskyites by virtue of their association with Herbert Solow2 and with me—though actually they never had any organizational connection with the Trotskyist groups and were not very clear about the importance of the division among the warring factions of the left.

We discussed the factions within the non-Communist Marxist groups and also the outrageous behavior and actions of the American Stalinists. Even during those halcyon days of fellow-traveling, we constituted a rather special group. Our fundamental orientation, I think, was civil-libertarian and even traditionally liberal. We believed that the transformation of the social order would be one way of furthering these liberal values, which we didn’t question. We knew very little about the Soviet Union, and since Hitler was already on the scene, we tended to discount some of the adverse reports that came from critics and some pilgrims to the USSR, on the ground that the main enemy was Fascism and the threat of a victory by Hitler would plunge the world into war.

Lionel was also very much interested in Freudian analysis. It was one subject on which we did not see eye to eye. I made no bones about my critical attitude toward Sigmund Freud, and Lionel was in no position to counter the methodological objections I raised to the superstructure of Freudianism. In fact, I was much better read in the literature of Freud and psychoanalysis than were he and Diana.

At that time, although I didn’t know about it until much later, Diana had become a fanatical believer in psychoanalysis and in the great vision and psychological insight of D.H. Lawrence. Many years later, after the political wars were over, so to speak, at a party at the home of Irving and Bea Kristol,3 I asked Lionel about the rumor I had heard that Diana Trilling regarded Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a great work of art. I had examined a few pages, and it had left me cold. I said to Lionel, “Well, I am rather critical of Lawrence, particularly of his social views. What do you think? Shall I discuss my critical attitude towards Lawrence with Diana?” And I still recall him saying to me, “If you do, she’ll scratch your eyes out.” I don’t think she would have. Anyhow, she really was a very intelligent woman.

Diana was a very aggressive believer in Freudianism and very much annoyed with people like me who, whenever the question arose, raised critical objections. I still remember with amusement an incident. One evening she turned on me and said, “Well, I don’t see why you’re a critic of psychoanalysis since it gives such an obvious explanation of your career and behavior.”

I asked her what she meant. She said, “Well, you’re very aggressive, you’re very analytical, and you’re very argumentative, so it’s obvious this is compensatory.” I said, “What is it compensatory for?”

“A small penis,” she said!

I laughed, and I said, “How do you know? It’s purely a priori!” It’s part of Freudian theory, I suppose.

Lionel’s interest in Freud developed before that in Marx, and persisted afterwards. He had an astonishingly profound interest in sexuality. But the extraordinary thing about Lionel and Diana is that they were exceedingly proper in their manner. I remember the first time that Ann Zinkin and I, before we married, had dinner at their home. Ann, in her typical uninhibited way, expressed some dismay, if not disdain, for the elaborate appointments of the apartment and the refinements of the service, to a degree that was almost impolite on her part. She felt that people who claimed to be revolutionists ought not to live either on that level or be so mindful of the proprieties.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The young Chekhov: a comedian in spite of himself

There are, at the very least, three Anton Chekhovs: the doctor, the playwright and the short-story writer. In each field, great achievements sprang from undistinguished beginnings. Chekhov was an average medical student, yet he had numerous triumphs as a doctor, including manning the village clinic when a cholera epidemic struck the area around his estate and his 1890 journey to investigate the prison island of Sakhalin: an ambitious humanitarian mission to make the realities of Siberia manifest to the Russian people. As a playwright, he faltered initially, failing to find anyone willing to produce the turgid melodrama Platonov. Ivanov proved his dramatic talent but The Wood Demon, staged two years later, was savaged and half a decade elapsed before he wrote another play. His final four, however, persist as centrepieces of world theatre.

As a prose writer, too, the young Chekhov gave little indication that, within a decade, he would produce work that came to define the modern short story. “The Kiss”, “A Dreary Story”, “Gusev”, “About Love”, “The Lady with the Dog”, “The Bishop” – these are some of the greatest stories ever written about disappointment, death, long­ing, passion and loneliness. Yet before Chekhov became a master of atmosphere and psychology, he was a different kind of writer: a newspaperman dashing off copy to feed the booming culture of weekly comic magazines in St Petersburg and Moscow. Small enough to operate largely beneath the censors’ attention, magazines such as the Spectator, Dragonfly and Alarm Clock rewarded topicality, brevity, irreverence and the ability to produce work at speed.

Chekhov obliged. When, in 1886, he received a letter of praise from Dmitry Grigorovich, an elder statesman of Russian letters, he replied, “In the course of the five years that I have been knocking about from one newspaper office to another . . . I don’t remember a single story over which I have spent more than 24 hours.” He was exaggerating but not greatly. By the spring of 1888, he had amassed an unbelievable 528 stories.

This fecundity began in the late 1870s, when Chekhov began submitting his work through contacts established by his eldest brother, Alexander. Insolvency had forced Chekhov’s parents and his five siblings to flee to Moscow from their home in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, leaving Anton alone to complete his schooling and settle his family’s affairs. He joined them in Moscow in 1879 and had two pieces accepted by the St Petersburg weekly Dragonfly in 1880. He was 20. In the next two years, on top of his student workload, he published more than 60 pieces in St Petersburg and Moscow magazines under a variety of names. It is his selection of these, made in 1882 for a book that never appeared because of tightened censorship after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which appears in The Prank.

The book’s translator, Maria Bloshteyn, spiritedly argues in her introduction: “The same problems, themes, characters and behaviours occupy Chekhov at the end of his literary career as they do at its earliest beginnings.” But she isn’t able to provide many supporting examples, as in truth these stories offer few of the pleasures found in Chekhov’s mature work. They are, however, entertaining and often very funny, especially when the humour tends towards the absurd as opposed to the broad (“comic” names such as Ivan Ivanovichichichich or Save-Yourselves-If-You-Can train station give an idea of just how broad Chekhov can get). Two literary parodies feature, one mocking Jules Verne (“Here follows an extremely lengthy and extremely dull description of the observatory, which the translator has decided to omit in order to save time and space”) and the other – one of two stories making their English-language debut – the simile-heavy, Gothic style of Victor Hugo:
A sky as dark as typographer’s ink. It was as dark outside as it is inside a hat pulled down low. A dark night – like a day shut up in a nutshell. Cloaks wrapped tight, we set off, the wind gusting, chilling us to the bone. Rain and snow – those two sodden brothers – battered our faces with terrible force.
This is fun stuff and decently put to­gether: the joke-to-line ratio of “Artists’ Wives” would impress the writers’ room of a US sitcom. But these are mostly throwaway pieces. The exception is “St Peter’s Day”, an account of an amusingly calamitous hunting trip that is something more than pure knockabout. For one thing, we get a first glimpse of Chekhov’s skill (inherited from Turgenev) for evoking landscape:
The stars grew pale and misty. Voices rang out here and there. Acrid blue-grey smoke billowed from the village chimneys . . . The drowsy sexton climbed into the grey belfry and rang the bell for Matins. Snoring issued from the night watchman lying sprawled under a tree. The finches woke up and started a ruckus, flying from one side of the garden to the other, breaking out with their tiresome, insufferable chirping. In the blackthorn shrubs, an oriole began to sing. Above the servants’ kitchen, starlings and hoopoes raised a fuss.
Here, Chekhov the author holds up the by turns comedic and tragic events of the day (an old man is abandoned in the countryside, probably to die, a foreshadowing of the servant shut up in the house at the end of The Cherry Orchard) for our entertainment but a distance is maintained between himself and the story. One of the main advances that Chekhov subsequently made as a writer was to dissolve this distance entirely. Consider this passage from the late story “In the Ravine”, describing two peasants returning to their home village:
On the opposite slope one could see rye – stacked up, or in sheaves here and there, as if scattered by a storm, or in just-cut rows; the oats, too, were ripe and gleamed in the sun now, like mother-of-pearl. It was harvest time. Today was a feast day, tomorrow, a Saturday, they had to gather the rye and get the hay in, then Sunday was a feast day again; every day distant thunder rumbled; the weather was sultry, it felt like rain, and, looking at the fields now, each one hoped that God would grant them to finish the harvest in time, and was merry, and joyful, and uneasy at heart.
As an authorial presence Chekhov is almost completely gone. He “absents himself”, in V S Pritchett’s description. He no longer presents his characters but inhabits them. The young Chekhov’s work is all surface. As his ability grew, he packed more and more meaning into the depths beneath that surface, creating stories that, to paraphrase one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic, have never exhausted all they have to say to their readers.

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Monday, 28 September 2015

Blind Spot: On Christa Wolf

“You can only fight sorrow when you look it in the eye.” The East German novelist Christa Wolf wrote that sentence in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall went up and the same year John F. Kennedy delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech before a throng of West Berliners in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg. The sentence is spoken in the 1964 film adaptation of Wolf’s Divided Heaven, a novel about a love affair between Manfred, a young chemist, and Rita, an even younger woman studying to become a teacher while working in a factory. The novel is set in the German Democratic Republic on the eve of the 1961 division of Berlin into East and West. Frustrated professionally and cynical by nature, Manfred opts to go West just as the last opening is about to close. Rita must decide whether to follow him. To look sorrow in the eye is to make a difficult, tragic choice: difficult because “whatever she decided, she would have to give up a piece of herself,” and tragic because, as Rita comes to realize, she has no choice. She must stay in East Germany; not because of the wall, or because she doesn’t see that one side is richer and the other poorer, and that most things are easier in the West. Rather, as Rita discovers while visiting Manfred, it’s that in West Berlin “everything really comes down to eating and drinking and dressing and sleeping. Why did a person eat? I asked myself. What did one do in one’s beautiful apartment? Where did one go in those cars as wide as streets? And what did a person think about in this city before going to sleep at night?” Left cold by a society with “more glass and cellophane,” one she can see through, Rita returns to the society that, however sorrowful and dark, she feels she can look in the eye.

In her autobiographical novel Patterns of Childhood (1976), Wolf wrote of her younger self, “Her object was to observe some people and envy them a little, and to see through others.” Her life’s work became to record her observations. In her last novel, City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (2010), she wearily admitted that she had sometimes yearned for “the ultimate darkness…that would free me from the compulsion to say everything.” Her protagonists, most of them women—from the Trojan prophetess Cassandra to postwar Rita—are blessed and cursed with the ability to see more than the average person. These women don’t come upon the gift of exceptional sight by accident; they see more because they feel more deeply. Karoline von Günderrode, the early-nineteenth-century poet whom Wolf made the tragic heroine of her novella No Place on Earth (1979), discovers for herself the way “some people become seers: A deep pain or a deep concentration lights up the landscape within.”

The same was true of Wolf. Physical pain, even death, she treated as symptoms of psychological trauma. Of her late friend Christa T., whose official cause of death was cancer, and whose life she traced from World War II to the 1960s in the novella The Quest for Christa T. (1968), she wrote, “Do you really think that she died of this illness? No…. One can always speak of illness. Death-wish as illness. Neurosis as the inability to conform to particular circumstances.” For Wolf and her characters, personal pain and sickness were inseparable from the events and politics of the time. In her novel on Chernobyl, Accident: A Day’s News, from 1987, she related with grotesque exactitude the brain operation her brother underwent the day of the disaster. On November 4, 1989, a few days before the Berlin Wall came down, as Wolf was giving a speech before hundreds of thousands of East Germans gathered on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in which she exhorted them not to see the events of the day as the coming about of a sailing ship, but as a true social revolution, a rising to the top of what had been on the bottom, she felt a “familiar disturbance” in the rhythm of her heartbeat and had to be taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

Wolf died on December 1, 2011, leaving behind more than thirty volumes of fiction and essays and a complicated legacy. After her burial in Berlin, Dirk Knipphals, literary editor for the leftist daily Die Tageszeitung, wrote that “there will be no more authorial figures like Christa Wolf, who in their very vulnerability are heroic.” “Wounded,” wrote another journalist reporting on her death. “She was wounded inside and out; and she collapsed just like the [socialist] system in which she believed.” A distillation of her persona can be seen in the opening credits of the film Divided Heaven, as the camera pans slowly across the face of a woman looking straight ahead, unblinking, with tears in her eyes, reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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On Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé is generally agreed to be the most influential French poet of the late 19th century. Barring some more popular, not to say populist, contenders, he is perhaps the most influential French poet, full stop. Like his predecessor Baudelaire and his contemporaries Verlaine and Rimbaud, Mallarmé has stimulated minds in the highest reaches of later poetry, from American high Modernists Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot to such formal adventurers as the Language poets, as well as in fields as disparate as Surrealism, Cubism, and Dada, the philosophies of Derrida and Barthes, and the music of Debussy and Ravel.
His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear and, to be frank, unlikely. What it will do is provide English speakers with an opportunity to grapple with a great master.
Born in Paris in 1842, Mallarmé’s lackluster school days ended with a year in London, during which he secured a certificate for teaching English, a job he performed poorly and with little satisfaction until an early retirement at the age of 51. His career was spent largely hopping from school to school, settling in Paris after nearly a decade of teaching in places such as Tournon and Avignon. His wife Gehrard stayed with him until his death, and as a couple they appear to have been happy, despite the itinerant nature of his teaching career. Perhaps this was due to his other career’s unqualified success: by the time of his retirement, he had established himself as a key figure in the French literary world, and, by his death in 1896, he was widely regarded as the greatest living French poet and the pillar of the Parisian scene. Attendees of his regular salonsincluded Yeats, Rilke, Valery, and others, and Verlaine included an essay on his work in the famous Les Poètes Maudits (The Accursed Poets).
His output, prolific but unremarkable at the beginning, slowed as he got older and better. The sum total of what he wished to have published in his collected works numbers around fifty individual poems. This count is expanded by earlier works, depending on the taste and generosity of the many editors who have undertaken to collect Mallarmé’s writing.
His earlier work bore the unmistakable influence of Charles Baudelaire, albeit a somewhat unhappy one. Whereas Baudelaire’s project of self-emancipation from the burden of everyday reality via sense experience was a basically optimistic one (if darkly and idiosyncratically so), Mallarmé’s hope for release from banality—a broader term in this case than mere boredom—was rooted in a kind of realism, for want of a better word, which was balanced between a belief in the essential orderliness of the cosmos and a somber recognition of that order’s near-constant inscrutability. His primary philosophical interests—ideesideal, etc.—and the manner in which those perfections break down in practice anticipate the fin-de-siècle fixation with the fin du monde, or at least the fin du monde tel que nous le conaissons. See “Quand l’ombre meneça . . .” a poem published in 1883 but generally regarded to have come from the earlier, more heavily Baudelairean period of the ’60s:
When the shadow of fatal law menaced me
A certain old dream, sick desire of my spine,
Beneath funereal ceilings afflicted by dying
Folded its indubitable wing within me.
This is not mere cynicism, never mind the nihilism of which much of 19th- and 20th-century French poetry is accused. The tone is not sarcastic, and if it is bitter it strikes the reader more as a disappointed than vindictive bitterness. Like all of Mallarmé, the images are vivid and ambiguous. The first impression will be of the source of the menace: the “fatal law,” or, more precisely, the “shadow of fatal law.” Is it the stricture of the material world, which limits the poet’s creative freedom? Or is it the impassable world of noumena, implied by but inaccessible through the phenomenawe experience, making Eros, so lauded by the old poets and thinkers, a sad craving, a “sick desire of [the poet’s] spine”? The “funereal ceilings” call to mind the supra-human ambitions of gothic cathedrals, and the plain fact that the true heights—the sky and the heavens beyond—are hidden by the rib-vaults meant to evoke them. And yet the “wing,” the means of flight, is, despite being folded, is “indubitable.” This is at once hopeful and desperate, a sentiment related to a quotation made by one of Mallarmé’s descendants, Beckett, and attributed to St. Augustine: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” And, in a manner reminiscent of the Christianity he rejected, the Mallarmé of “Quand l’ombre meneça . . .” takes the path of hope, viewing his own art as a transformative act by which the impasse between ideal and real might be breached:
Space, like itself, whether denied or expanded
Revolves in this boredom vile flames as witness
That a festive star’s genius has been enkindled.
Broadly speaking, Mallarmé’s influence in Anglophone poetry cuts two ways. The first and most prominent is the heritage of the Symbolists, a combination of religious and philosophical preoccupations with a deep concern for musicality and rhythm. The latter of these is in part what makes Mallarmé so difficult to translate. The nearest English equivalent to my mind is Wallace Stevens, a poet whose work is in constant conversation with his French predecessor. (Consider the task of translating even Stevens’ most famous poems, such as the “Emperor of Ice Cream,” which opens, “Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.”) Through the American Modernist quadrumvirate of Stevens, Frost (with his insistence on the “sound of sense”), Pound, and Eliot (though, true to form, he cited the more obscure Jules La Forgue as a decisive influence), Mallarmé’s hand can be seen in all of what might be called “mainstream” poetry of the 20th century.
The other strain of Mallarmé’s influence comes down through the more experimental line in Modern poetry, from Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams to such diverse practitioners as Surrealists like André Breton, the Language poets, and, in our own time, the nascent movement of digital and computer-generated poetry. This loosely defined nexus of formally and conceptually experimental poets, who often relate intensely in their work with other art forms, can be traced directly to Mallarmé’s final work, Un coup des Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard.
This relatively short volume (the present edition, the first since 2004, which was the first ever to be produced according to Mallarmé’s specifications, runs to little over 60 pages, including both an English translation and a facsimile of the French) is a study as much in space as it is sound, in silence as much as in speech. It is a meticulously deliberate meditation on the possibilities of these elements of poetry, performed long before this idea became a cliché. As the poet writes in his preface (which, incidentally, he wishes not to be read):
The “white spaces,” in effect, assume importance, are the first that strike our eyes; versification has always required them, usually as an encompassing silence, such that a poem, lyrical or with few feet occupies, centered, about a third of the page: I don’t disregard this method, merely disperse it.
Mallarmé here is being a bit coy: he is not, of course, merely rearranging text on a page for the sake of rearrangement, and he goes on in his short introductory note to consider the possibilities of his method. Two items of importance here: the first is the strikingly active persona he gives to the text, referring to it as moving and shaping itself according to its own “mobility,” rather than by being discovered by the reader. This seems to anticipate in particular Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein as almost entirely passive (see his discussion of “Das Wort” by Stefan Georg who, not incidentally, was one of Mallarmé’s guests in the salon days). The second point of interest in this note is his striking assertion toward the end:
I will, nevertheless have indicated a “state,” rather than a sketch of this Poem, one that doesn’t break with tradition at all.
How could this poem, which only to the “initiated” would appear as a poem, be considered as not breaking with tradition? This may be what separates Mallarmé from the excesses of his descendants: while experimentation has for many become a good in itself, if not a direct assault on the literary tradition, for Mallarmé it was a means of drawing the essentials of poetic form out from under the trappings of orthodoxy, in order to bring new light to poetry’s practice. As Joyce said of Finnegans Wake, this may be a book of the night, but at daybreak the world as we know it reappears.
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Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Citizen Kane of Literature - Gore Vidal was an insatiable egoist who had everything, and lost it all

That Gore Vidal had a monstrous ego is proverbial; that he liked to make fun of that fact, and anything else, is more so. “Never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television,” he liked to say, and he meant it. In his salad days, especially, he was a connoisseur of a kind of bloodless, indefatigable cruising, and other than (perhaps) Norman Mailer, no American writer made such a fetish of his own celebrity. Jay Parini, an old friend of Vidal and now his latest biographer, remembers entering the great man’s study in Ravello, Italy, and being struck by an entire wall of framed magazine covers featuring Gore Vidal. “When I come into this room in the morning to work,” Vidal explained, “I like to be reminded of who I am.”

In some respects Vidal, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, was a relic from an age of rarefied celebrity that is gone forever: the writer-hero who consorted with the Kennedys and pursued a political career in his own right; the sage whose controversial opinions were constantly in demand; perhaps our best essayist of the last 50 years, one of our best historical novelists, an outrageous satirist, and an unabashed hack who made a mint writing left-handed screenplays and pseudonymous potboilers. Such a massive cultural figure deserves a first-rate biography, surely, and yet: What particular aspect of Vidal’s polymathic output is most likely to endure?

As shadows lengthen now across the greensward—as Vidal put it, by way of P.G. Wodehouse—how many discerning essay readers remain among us, and of those happy few how many would consider Vidal’s novels to be worthy of comparable notice? Not enough to suit Vidal, safe to say, who was haunted by a fear of the “Great Eraser” that had all but obliterated the reputation of his idol, William Dean Howells, the great realist author once known as “the Dean of American Letters.” On the other hand, this would seem to be Vidal’s moment: Apart from this latest biography and at least two controversial memoirs (Sympathy for the Devil, by Michael Mewshaw, and In Bed With Gore Vidal, by Tim Teeman), he’s been the subject of two major documentaries in the last three years, The United States of Amnesia and Best of Enemies—the second of which, especially, would seem to suggest that Vidal will be best remembered as the man who shattered, on national television, the tic-ridden but otherwise serene composure of his ideological opposite, William F. Buckley Jr.

Vidal was a man of infinite irony, but on some bedrock level his ambitions were deadly serious and sometimes noble. That he was expected to do great things was never in doubt. As a boy he was the constant companion of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma whose staunch isolationism would have an enduring and somewhat curious influence on Vidal. His father, Gene, an Olympic decathlete and pioneering aviator, taught his son how to fly a plane and served as an affable counterbalance to the boy’s wayward mother, Nina, a self-absorbed alcoholic whom Vidal would later, reductively, claim to hate. As fate would have it, Vidal’s own grotesque dotage—as his protective facade of cool, elegant irony began to dissolve in liquor—left him resembling his mother more than ever.

His long, brilliant career arguably began as a desperate effort to stand on his own feet and be shut of Nina forever. Rather than join his Phillips Exeter classmates at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, Vidal began writing a novel at age 19, Williwaw (1946), based on his World War II experience as first mate of an Army supply ship in the Aleutians. Within two years he became famous, after a fashion, when he published his third novel, The City and the Pillar, a succès de scandale with a gay protagonist. The arch-philistine New York Times reviewer, Orville Prescott, was allegedly so offended that he made sure Vidal’s books were henceforth not to be mentioned in the daily edition. Ever resourceful, Vidal wrote a number of mystery novels under such pseudonyms as Edgar Box and Katherine Everard (named after a gay bathhouse), before finding a more lucrative calling as a television scriptwriter. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he remarked of this era, echoing Milton’s Satan, though the motto of the Wise Hack (as Vidal called a composite of his more seasoned screenwriting colleagues in his essay, “The Ashes of Hollywood”) was more to the point: “Shit has its own integrity.”

Vidal was at his best and worst as a political pundit and sometime candidate. In 1960, as the hospitable (and louche) proprietor of a Greek Revival mansion in Dutchess County, New York, he ran for Congress on a platform of taxing the wealthy, and, to his lifelong gratification, outpolled his friend Jack Kennedy in that strongly Republican district. In 1982, he ran for the U. S. Senate in California. On the surface these campaigns would seem quixotic at best, but Vidal was earnest in his ambitions and piqued at the people’s failure to choose the best man. “There is not one human problem that could not be solved,” he declared, “if people would simply do as I advise.” What he advised ranged from the well-considered (especially in his more temperate essays) to the far-fetched and downright crackpot. He obsessed over the “national security state,” which had transformed the republic, he believed, into a militaristic empire both morally and financially bankrupt. Fair enough. Nor was he alone in promoting the dubious claim that FDR had allowed the bombing of Pearl Harbor to proceed as a pretext for pushing the country into war. But as Vidal grew more paranoid, alcoholic, and shrill—not to say desperate for attention—he defended Timothy McVeigh as “a noble boy,” and almost predictably (by then) insinuated that President Bush had colluded in the September 11 attacks. Parini, for the most part, is careful to place such excesses into context, rightly emphasizing that a more lucid, objective side of Vidal “was able to lift his discourse above the petty” and write such astute historical epics as Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), perhaps the best of his Narratives of Empire, the seven novels that chronicle our nation’s descent into its present decadence.

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Richard J Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich

In his preface, Richard Evans fishes up a phenomenal statistic. The standard bibliography of works on the Nazi period stood at more than 37,000 entries in the year 2000, having increased from 'a mere 25,000' in 1995. This is an average rate of 2,400 new items a year. I know that it is untrue to claim that the only bit of history now taught to British school pupils is the Third Reich. But it probably is true that it is the only bit of history they are almost all taught about.
What is going on? Here we are in 2003, almost 60 years since Hitler sent for the pistol and the cyanide, and the flow of English-language books about the Nazis - not just specialist studies, but great big respectable mainline 'bookburgers' of narrative history - is still accelerating. I mean no disrespect to Professor Evans. He has written an admirable book, as I want to show. But I find more and more that it is the German reflections on the Third Reich which matter.
This summer, for instance, Joachim Fest wrote an obituary essay in Der Spiegel on the mighty Observer journalist Sebastian Haffner, mostly about how Haffner advised and criticised Fest as he worked on his own biography of Hitler. Here was the living stream of continuity with the German past, the flashing, constantly changing perceptions of moral, political and cultural connections which affect how one judges the Germans and Germany of today.
But the gap between that sort of intimate self-discovery and the books written by American and British scholars is widening. Have we, the foreigners, reached a point at which none of our modern historians makes the A-list unless he or she has done a Third Reich book? Most of this stuff in English is high-quality history, but why is so much of it being produced?
Richard Evans recognises that this question deserves an answer. Many people will remember him as the star defence witness during David Irving's disastrous 'Holocaust denial' libel action two years ago. At the Irving trial, he was amazed to discover that 'no general history of Nazi Germany' existed which he could recommend. This book is the outcome, and it is only the first of three. This volume runs up to Hitler's accession to power in 1933; the second will cover the prewar period of Nazi rule, while the last volume will deal with the apocalypse of Hitler's Germany between 1939 and 1945.
But there was another reason. As Evans explains in his preface, he considers many previous Third Reich histories to be contaminated by the rage or horror of their authors. This offends Evans's professional conscience: 'It seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous.' The reader, in other words, is apparently in for a unique experience: a value-free history of the Nazis. That would be drab indeed.
Luckily, it works out differently. The book is, in fact, full of moralising outbursts, but coming from contemporary witnesses rather than from Evans himself. And the events themselves grow only more horrifying as their details are magnified by the author's research.
Instead of moral judgments, Evans puts in lively and often contentious historical judgments. He, for instance, thinks that German history before about 1813 is totally irrelevant to the rise of National Socialism; he won't hear the old argument that Luther contributed to an ethos of resigned obedience to Satanic rulers. I think he might be wrong about that. But he is absolutely right about another irrelevance, when he warns that the consumption of high culture (Bach, Cranach, Goethe and all that) tells you nothing whatever about whether the consumer will take to political barbarism. To my regret, he also demolishes my own belief that the Weimar Republic did have a few 'golden years' and might have succeeded.
Even in such a large-scale work, there are gaps. Richard Evans underplays the overwhelming pull of the Volksgemeinschaft idea (the concept of racial and virtual equality and unity). And the reader gets a clearer notion of how offensive traditionalists found the cultural and sexual experiments of Weimar than of the delight and freedom they brought to the urban young. But his cool way of narrating makes many tangled episodes - the Munich Soviet of 1919, or the Reichstag fire - more understandable. And his account of the tsunami of terror and sadism which burst over Germany after the Nazis took power is all the more appalling because it concentrates on small detail rather than on big adjectives.
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Friday, 25 September 2015

Finding Love in the Cavafy Archive

What made C. P. Cavafy write some of the most original poetry in the world? I went to Athens in January 2015 to find out.

Born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, Cavafy died there, on the same day seventy years later. He came from a prosperous family with aristocratic roots but, when he was a child, his family lost this fortune and, as an adult, he found work as a civil servant.

The Cavafy we know from his mature poetry—he published only 154 poems of the hundreds he had written—seems emotionally distant, dedicated only to his craft. Though he enjoyed company, received visitors regularly, and was admired as a conversationalist, he lived a loveless life.

The letters from his adulthood, often terse, lack affection, personal indiscretion, or self-revelation. Contemporaries paint a picture of a sociable person, eager to talk about his poetry or ancient history but one devoid of intimate friends. No one described him as a loving or empathetic person.

I was greatly surprised, therefore, to discover material that presents a different Cavafy, at least in his youth.

For instance, in a letter to his friend, Pericles Anastasiadis, housed in the ELIA Archive, Cavafy appears as a compassionate friend. Written in English sometime in the 1890’s and sent to Paris where Peri was traveling, the letter exists only in draft form with sentences crossed out, others added, and many words composed in short hand. Reading it is like reading his poem “In the Month of Athyr,” in which a modern reader tries to interpret an ancient inscription.

From my attempts to decipher the text, Cavafy appears to console his friend. He speaks of sorrow, referring perhaps to a death of a family member, friend, or a lover. I’m not sure.

Cavafy opens the letter by saying that he misses Peri “awfully.” After many years of friendship, they “have become necessary for each other.” He writes warmly and empathetically, especially about the unspecified loss. He advises: “Try and compose your soul during this short period of comparative freedom. I would not ask to cease remembering—forgetting is a great wrong to the [?] but to remember without bitterness.”

Cavafy says that he is no stranger to loss, having felt it “too keenly.” Indeed, we know that in addition to forfeiting his family fortune and social standing, he had to attend many funerals: His father died in 1870, his mother 1899; his brothers Petros Ioannis 1891, Georgos, 1900, Aristidis 1902, Alexandros 1905, Pavlos 1920, and John 1923. He lost two close friends in their early twenties. Death was an old familiar.

Critics have often speculated about the effects these bereavements must have had on the poet. In my research this winter I have found evidence of this: the journal of Phillipos Dragoumis, a future lawyer and politician, who visited Cavafy in the spring and summer of 1916.

In his diary Dragoumis writes that Cavafy “thirsted in his isolation for a companion who would understand him.” Interestingly Cavafy told him that after the loss of a beloved brother, he “withdrew from the world and lived like an ascetic, recalling the old things.” Even if, in reality, he was neither an ascetic nor a melancholic aesthete, his adult life lacked intimate connections.

Cavafy’s confession to Dragoumis suggests that the many deaths made him abandon the worldly life of his youth and turn inward. He fused his fallen social status, his homosexuality, Alexandria, and Greek history into a synthetic theory that excites and persuades today. He made his world and his poetry so Cavafian that, as W. H. Auden noted, anybody looking at his poems would recognize them immediately. And he achieved this roughly by 1910, ironically the year when, according to Virginia Woolf, human character had changed.

Cavafy’s contemporaries were beginning to recognize his path-breaking oeuvre. The poet, Myrtiotissa, wrote about her visit to Cavafy in the early 1920’s, describing his eyes which “come from far distant time and which reveal a mystery unknown to us.” She depicted Cavafy as an exotic being who lived in another epoch but who understood our time and put his stamp on it.

By that time of Myrtiotissa’s visit Cavafy had become well known as an innovative poet. And his reputation was spreading in Europe, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of E. M. Forster who met Cavafy during his stay in Alexandria in 1916-17 and who introduced his poetry to the literati of his time: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, Arnold Toynbee, Robert Graves. Forster referred to his acquaintance with Cavafy as one of his “triumphs.”

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Thomas James Merton: Advice to a Young Prophet

Keep away, son, these lakes are salt. These flowers   
Eat insects. Here private lunatics   
Yell and skip in a very dry country.

Or where some haywire monument   
Some badfaced daddy of fear   
Commands an unintelligent rite.

To dance on the unlucky mountain,   
To dance they go, and shake the sin   
Out of their feet and hands,

Frenzied until the sudden night   
Falls very quiet, and magic sin   
Creeps, secret, back again.

Badlands echo with omens of ruin:
Seven are very satisfied, regaining possession:   
(Bring a little mescaline, you’ll get along!)

There’s something in your bones,
There’s someone dirty in your critical skin,
There’s a tradition in your cruel misdirected finger   
Which you must obey, and scribble in the hot sand:

“Let everybody come and attend   
Where lights and airs are fixed
To teach and entertain. O watch the sandy people   
Hopping in the naked bull’s-eye,

Shake the wildness out of their limbs,
Try to make peace like John in skins
Elijah in the timid air   
or Anthony in tombs:

Pluck the imaginary trigger, brothers.   
Shoot the devil: he’ll be back again!”

America needs these fatal friends
Of God and country, to grovel in mystical ashes,   
Pretty big prophets whose words don’t burn,   
Fighting the strenuous imago all day long.

Only these lunatics, (O happy chance)
Only these are sent. Only this anaemic thunder   
Grumbles on the salt flats, in rainless night:

O go home, brother, go home!   
The devil’s back again,
And magic Hell is swallowing flies.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Flow of Life -  Saul Bellow

During his lifetime, Saul Bellow was the most celebrated of American writers: In addition to the Nobel Prize, he won the National Book Award three times, as well as the Pulitzer. In 1964, his novel Herzog was a huge—and hugely unexpected—bestseller, and from then until the turn of the century a Bellow novel landed on the bestseller list roughly every half-dozen years. But now, a decade after his death, Bellow has faded from readers’ consciousness, in spite of the aggressive publicity campaign conducted by his British fans, including James Wood and Martin Amis.

The withering of Bellow’s reputation is partly the result of academic fashion: Professors now ignore his work, believing it to be a swamp of white male privilege tinged by racism and sexism. These charges are wrongheaded: Bellow had a firmer grasp of social reality than most of his contemporaries; his work did not exclude otherness, but instead engaged with it. In his college years at Northwestern, Bellow was a student of the pioneering anthropologist and African-Americanist Melville Herskovits, and it showed. His novel The Dean’s December offers a worried, somber, detailed portrait of inner-city Chicago. Bellow’s working-class Jewish childhood in Montreal and Chicago, conducted in a mixture of Yiddish, English, and French, readied him for a multicultural world. In Henderson the Rain King, his title character finds enlightenment in Africa, not his native Connecticut.

There’s a strong case to be made that Bellow is the central American novelist since Cather and Faulkner. He had a rich comic sense—he might be the funniest of our major writers—but comedy, for Bellow, was the road to moral seriousness. He was an intellectual who refused to traffic in that deadliest of genres, the novel of ideas. He was willing to let his characters stretch out, even take over his novels, especially in Humboldt’s Gift and his last book, the masterful Ravelstein, a roman à clef about Allan Bloom, his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago.

Bellow’s generous way with his characters sometimes led to charges of looseness. Philip Roth once observed that something happens halfway through a Bellow novel: The plot goes astray, the structure slackens. This was not because Bellow got distracted. He revised his work compulsively and, when he wanted to—as in Seize the Day and Mr. ­Sammler’s Planet—could produce a superbly organized piece of fiction. His short stories, too, are often perfect, faux-casual in Chekhov’s manner. (“It came out of him like a watermelon seed,” Bellow’s son Adam said about one of his father’s late marvels, the story “By the St. Lawrence.”) But for the most part, Bellow chose looseness. He practiced what the film critic Manny Farber called “termite art”—deliberately unkempt, chewing away in several directions at once—instead of constructing the too-polished plaster-of-Paris classic (“white elephant art,” in Farber’s term). Bellow disliked writing that aimed self-consciously at greatness, the grand poise of a Thomas Mann or André Malraux.

I once challenged a friend to open Herzog at random and find a less-than-remarkable sentence. She tried the experiment a half-dozen times before admitting defeat. Bellow was among the most stylistically well honed of the American novelists after Hemingway, but to consider him just a stylist is to underestimate him drastically. Bellow was driven by the idea that style is not merely a veneer but rather the voice of human personality, which invaded his work as it did that of Dostoevsky, his favorite writer. The more untamed the personality, the better. Because of the Jewish cadences that flavored his writing, and because of his devotion to the unruly powers of personality, Bellow stood against the bland New Yorker fiction of his day, with its careful ironies—sometimes poignant, sometimes dry, but always so excessively controlled.

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Sunday, 20 September 2015

A witness of the first century - An interview with György Spiró

Alongside Peter Nádas's long-awaited Parallel stories (Párhuzamos történetek), György Spiró's new novel, Captivity (Fogság), is the latest Hungarian literary sensation. Captivity is a reconstruction of the period from around the death of Christ until the Jewish War. In an interview with Erika Csontos, Spiró talks about why he needed 800 pages to finish his story; why he imagined Jesus as a chubby, fortyish guy; and why people can no longer read the Iliad.

Erika Csontos: Did you have any preconceptions when you started working on the novel? 

György Spiró: None. I read an enormous quantity of Jesus novels. They are mostly horrendous, and precisely because every author had a preconception. Or, to be more precise, they all had a worldview or a faith, and when they came across some facts that seemed to support their faith, they happily declared their research to be over and done with. These novels were mostly written from the point of view of Christianity: how wonderful it is and how it will conquer the world and is worth every sacrifice. 

EC: You used historical sources: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus Flavius. 

GS: And Cassius Dio, who is not translated into Hungarian for some reason.

EC: And the philosopher who ardently fought for the reconciliation of Greeks and Jews: Philo of Alexandria. 

GS: Philo does not mention Jesus, only Pilate – that Pilate executed prisoners who were not sentenced to death. As a matter of fact, Philo was my contemporary source, because it is known that there was probably something about Jesus in Josephus Flavius, but what is actually there now in his writings was added later. 

EC: Who manipulated the text, and why? 

GS: Most probably the Christians; their censorship was very strong. The Talmud was also an important source for me, but I used the Mishnah wherever it was possible, because it is more likely to have been born before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AC). I had to take great care not be influenced by later Jewish developments. And I also used archaeological material and historical works published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

EC: Why are the small details of everyday life and the visual reconstruction of inner and outer spaces and buildings so important for you?

GS: Because I was interested in everyday reality. An archaeologist called Leon published a book about Jewish catacombs in 1960, and all the names inCaptivity are from the tombstones. Who would have thought – not me, definitely – that Jews gave Greek or Latin rather than Hebrew names to their children at the time. I like Leon, because he is a really good positivist. I need data from which to draw the essence for myself. I like positivists, because they have no preconceptions. I guess they do have a secret preconception, but at least they don't ignore the facts so blatantly as historians who belong to other schools. 

EC: From your book, we get a taste of contemporary Jerusalem, even the Temple. It is as if you had been there in secret.

GS: I have only been in Rome, and quite long ago. But just think of it: only one column has remained intact in ancient Alexandria. And I wanted to present it as if I had walked there myself... 

EC: On what basis did you decide whose point of view to take?

GS: There are lots of important points of view, and already many people have thought along the same lines as me. It is difficult to determine though what this direction is. Many people have tried to conceive of religion a bit more sensibly than simple ideologues. I realized long ago that Christianity satisfied a real need, that at the time Christianity was born, something was missing from the world, something that other religions were incapable of satisfying. Luckily – and I was quite surprised to realize that – the first century was pretty unreligious. Although there were lots of religions, they were not really spiritual, they were unable to solve people's problems. People living in that era were rationally religious, Latins, Jews, and Greeks alike.

ECCaptivity is almost 800 pages long. Why is it so long-winded? 

GS: I planned a 450-page novel. I thought that since world politics was done in Rome at the time, the novel would have to take place there. Pilate was too unimportant a figure to represent Rome, I had to take a look at the person who was behind him in Rome. So I thought I would write a tripartite novel: Rome, Jerusalem, Rome. Then I saw that it would not work unless the action was set in everyday life. I did not know yet that I had to take the protagonist to Alexandria. 

EC: Why?

GS: I have read excellent historical works, but scholars are obsessed by their own subject, and fail to see the context. I noticed that, strangely enough, Alexandria does not appear in the story, although Alexandrian Jewry was very strong at the time, and Christianity must have spread there quickly. 

EC: Finally the novel came out in four parts.

GS: Yes, because Alexandria had to enter the picture. And then I was in trouble. Four books?! In Europe, the representative form consists of three parts, like the sonata, the triptych, and so on. Or the Hegelian dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Or the Holy Trinity. This form presupposes progress and redemption. Yet there are also four-part works, like the mature dramas of Chekhov or Wyspianski and some Russian formalists, geniuses all of them. I have been thinking a lot about this – why some people prefer eternal return and lack of change to progress. 

EC: The four parts take forty years altogether. 

GS: The novel starts in 35, when Jesus was crucified, and ends in 74, after the Jewish War. I must say I was quite happy with the number 40. The Bible is full of 40 days and 40 years... And I realized that I needed a protagonist, because the reader wants to clutch to somebody. In truly great novels – Don Quixote, Svejk, Tom Jones – there is usually a strong central character. It is important for the reader to have an at least somewhat loveable central character. 

EC: Why?

GS: People are incapable of experiencing the sense of community any more, their life is not like that. Therefore they are unable to accept books written in a communal form. They prefer lyrical novels to epics. They experience the outer world as hostile, and if there is an absolute protagonist, they go with him. And they even prefer if the protagonist is the narrator himself who lectures to them. This gives ample space to the lyricization and the ideologization of prose. This is generally called postmodern, but it could as well be called sentimentalism. To put it differently: today people cannot read the Iliad – they can perhaps still read the Odyssey – but in their heart they desire Rousseau in whom they recognize themselves. So I thought I should create a mediocre figure who is sometimes up and sometimes down, like people – the readers – in general. Then I decided to endow him with some of my qualities and deficiencies, so that I could perhaps be able to guess his reactions, even though he experiences things that are foreign to me. I tried to guess, for example, what would have happened if I had been born short-sighted two thousand years ago..

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John Banville on the Utter Mystery of Writing

When John Banville was a teen-ager, he wanted to be a painter. Banville was born and raised in Wexford, Ireland, and on weekends his mother would take him into Dublin to go to Combridges, a bookstore that doubled as an art-supplies shop. Along with an easel and paints and brushes, he insisted on making her buy him large tubes of zinc white, a type of white pigment. Back home, he would stand for hours at his easel trying to paint “mythological scenes of great meaning.” But painting never quite clicked, and Banville, still a teen-ager, traded paintbrushes for pens. Five decades later, he still thinks about what his life would have been like had he become a painter.

 “I loved the notion of being a painter,” Banville said on the phone from his home, in Dublin. “I loved all the paint, that whole world, all that beautiful equipment one uses. That’s one thing I hate about being a novelist: I have a nice fountain pen and nice big books to write in, but it’s nothing compared to being a painter and all the wonderful brushes and all that paint and all that turpentine and those wonderful smells, all that muckiness—it’s like being a child again.”

His new novel, “The Blue Guitar,” concerns a failed painter turned petty thief named Oliver Orme, who, unlike Banville, never found another outlet for his painterly ambitions. There is not much to the book’s plot; the reader is carried along by Oliver’s wonderfully narcissistic voice. “A thief’s heart is an impetuous organ,” Oliver says, describing himself, “and while inwardly he throbs for absolution, at the same time he can’t keep from bragging.”

One of the primary challenges of the novel, Banville said, was making Oliver’s self-obsession more palatable for readers. “In the early twenty, thirty pages, he was so awful and pompous that I had to tone him down a bit,” Banville explained. “He’s pretty bad as he is, but he was much worse in the earlier version. But he’s a failure, and, you know, there’s nothing more bitter and more dangerous than failed artists.”

Oliver’s failure is not necessarily a matter of skill; rather, he believes that whatever he paints will eventually have no meaning, and thus there is no point to painting at all. “You see my predicament?” he asks at one point. “The world without, the world within, and betwixt them the unbridgeable, the unleapable chasm. And so I gave up.”

Banville, like Oliver, believes that there is an unbridgeable chasm between surface and meaning—but he believes the surface is all we need. It’s why he quit painting mythological scenes of great meaning and began writing ordinary scenes of great beauty. “I loved the idea of working on the surface, because I think, on the surface, that’s where the real depth is,” he said. “I regard my books as more superficial—they’re dealing with surfaces. I’m not interested in psychology. As a citizen, I’m interested in psychology; as an artist, I’m only interested in getting a work of art made.”

“I work by the sentence,” he added. “When I’ve got a sentence as close to being right as I can get, it generates the next sentence, and I let the big stuff take care of itself. When I was younger, I used to plan out my books, and I would know what the last sentence was before I did the first one, and so on. But, as the years go on and I get older, I realize that age doesn’t bring wisdom but confusion, and I allow my instincts to work. I allow them free rein. That seems to work.”

Oliver’s manner of speaking in “The Blue Guitar” is ornate and pretentious; it is tempting to compare him to Humbert Humbert, who says, in “Lolita,” “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Banville concedes the similarity, but maintains that there is a fundamental distinction between himself and Nabokov. “Nabokov and I differ very much in the sense that I have a very Irish approach to language,” he said. “Irish writers are very aware of the wind, of the musicality of language. Nabokov was tone-deaf, and all his work is pictorial. He said himself he should have been a painter. His work is very painterly. The rhythm doesn’t matter too much. I’m not saying he writes ugly sentences; he just doesn’t write musically.”

“I don’t know how to translate what I see in paintings into words,” Banville added. “It’s a sensual experience rather than a linguistic experience.” But he has not entirely let go of his painterly past: he told me that he has two tubes of zinc white at his desk right now, the very same stuff his mother bought him years ago. “The past fascinates me obsessively, I suppose, because it’s such a strange phenomenon,” he said. “The past was the present at some point, and it was just as boring as the present. What makes it so important? What gives it that luminous, exalted quality where it becomes the past? When does the past become ‘the past’? Is yesterday ‘the past’? Is last week ‘the past’? How far do you have to go until the past becomes ‘the past’? These are things I’ve never found an answer to, and that’s why they fascinate me.”

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Saturday, 19 September 2015

Being Elizabeth Bishop

“What must it be to be someone else?” Gerard Manley Hopkins wondered. It is a question that has occupied Colm Tóibín before, whether the someone else was Henry James, or the mother of Christ. What must it be to be someone else in a book that is not a novel, and in which the someone else is a poet who specialized in solitariness, who could be “chilly” in person, and who did not hesitate to turn away uninvited guests. When Mary McCarthy threatened to visit Elizabeth Bishop, she replied: “I’d be grateful if youdidn’t come over”.
Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop introduces the poet in new company – he likens her to James Joyce, and more persuasively to Thom Gunn – and alongside old acquaintances (Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore). Mostly, Tóibín recognizes in Bishop aspects of himself. Both writers are drawn to grey, muted coastlines; both invest feeling in “things withheld”. Like Bishop, Tóibín found himself returned to childhood by the experience of “elsewhere”: Bishop’s fifteen-year sojourn in Brazil prompted her to recall and reimagine Nova Scotia; having “escaped Ireland” to write his first novel in Southern Europe, Tóibín found his proper “melancholy tone” in memories of Wexford. These childhood haunts were, for both writers, places of profound loss. Tóibín is particularly good on estrangement, and puts his finger right on it when he says that Bishop’s life in Brazil – at least as retold in her letters and poems – seemed “a parody of ‘normal life’”, “a comedy she had invented”. Yet he tends to underestimate Bishop’s knowingness about this kind of self-estrangement: he is deaf, oddly, to the ironizing distance she puts between herself and the naive tourist speaker in “Arrival at Santos”, who “somehow never thought of there being a flag” and who hopes that “the customs officials will speak English”.
When he went away to school aged fifteen, Tóibín wasn’t allowed to take his poetry books with him, so he spent the month before he left home copying poems into a notebook. It is a good way of becoming intimate with verse, and a habit that persists in this volume. Sometimes he will drop a phrase of Bishop’s in passing, and ask you to pick it up (“the attempt to escape this cold spring had been a sojourn . . .”; “because of the sheer sweet intensity in how nature greeted my eyes . . .”); or he will find another way of copying her style into his prose. Bishop’s verbal tic of self-correction, for example (“shadows, or are they shallows?”), comes out in Tóibín’s prose remix as “she was careful, or as careful as she could be, not to allow that to happen in her life, or more accurately, in her poems”. Tóibín is a less inviting mediator of the poetry when he gets up close and technical. Paragraphs which begin, “The next stanza reads . . . ” and which proceed by counting syllables and marking stress patterns seem thoroughly competent, but not a particular enticement to follow him into the verse.
Things open up in the chapters on Gunn. The heart of the story here is not Bishop’s meeting Gunn in 1968, but Tóibín’s recollection, while reading one poet, of something he’d heard in the other. Gunn said of his mother’s suicide (he and his brother had found her body), “obviously this was quite a traumatic experience”. Bishop had written something equally deadpan, about her mother’s confinement to a mental institution (“well – there we are”). So the two poets meet in Tóibín’s reading of them, and in that meeting he discovers something about himself: that the writers he had read intensively in his teens – Gunn, Bishop, Thomas Mann and James Baldwin – had “hit [him] emotionally”, not only, as he had thought, because of their common sexuality, but also because each had suffered the early loss of a parent (in Baldwin’s case, the turbulent relationship with a stepfather).
“In the work of both Bishop and Gunn, words meant simply what they said”, Tóibín claims, and he returns to that thought several times in this book, as though to appoint himself guardian of the poetry’s guardedness. “It is important to insist that the poem ‘Roosters’ is about roosters”, he says, and goes on: “if Bishop had wanted to write a poem about maleness and militarism, she would, or might, have done so, although it would have been unlikely”. Aside from the fact that Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore, in a letter Tóibín later quotes, that she wanted the controversial “water-closet” in “Roosters” to “emphasize the essential baseness of militarism”, one could respond that if she had wanted words to mean only what they said, then she probably shouldn’t have put them into verse, and so encouraged them, as poems often do, to mean other things too.
Tóibín chooses to focus Bishop’s relationship with Marianne Moore, as others have before, on the drama of the closet (Bishop put the water-closet in “Roosters”; Moore wanted her to take it out; Bishop refused; and so ended Moore’s mentoring of – though not her friendship with – the younger poet). Tóibín makes a common mistake in assuming that Moore’s fastidiousness came with a narrow view of sexuality.
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