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Showing posts from 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 noveli…

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 qu…

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 sto…

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…

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 …

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 …

Richard J Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich

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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, Joachi…

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 discove…

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 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 pio…

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…

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 …

Being Elizabeth Bishop

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“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…