Saturday, 31 October 2015

Knausgaard’s Triumph

The serial publication of the six volumes of My Struggle—four of them so far translated from Norwegian into English—has been one of the most exciting developments in contemporary fiction. The books recount, not always chronologically, the childhood, adolescence, first and second marriages, and fatherhood of a character who shares author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s name, family, and history. Not quite an autobiography, My Struggle contains invented dialogue and details that it would have been impossible for Knausgaard to remember. The volumes span 3,600 pages, and leisurely attention is given to such activities as childhood play, a teenage attempt to procure alcohol for a party, dinner conversation, visits to grandparents, a music class with one of his young daughters, and much more of everyday life past and present.

All of this is surprisingly interesting, even addictive, as has often been pointed out in reviews. But no one can pinpoint precisely why. A striking element in the praise of Knausgaard—and he has garnered almost uniform praise in the English-speaking press—is the recourse to vocabulary not normally considered complimentary. “Boring” comes up an enormous amount. James Wood of the New Yorker wrote of Book One that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Other terms that get used are “self-aggrandizing,” “sloppy,” “lack of selection,” “lack of structure,” “intermittent meaninglessness,” “cliche,” and “banal.” Again, these are all quotes from highly laudatory reviews.

Those who haven’t fallen under Knausgaard’s spell repeat those words and add more slicing ones of their own. In the Nation, William Deresiewicz claimed that Knausgaard is “utterly insensible to other people” and that his work is the product of “modern self-inflation.” Becca Rothfeld, formerly assistant literary editor for the New Republic, wrote for the site Hyperallergic that My Struggle is “insultingly self-indulgent.”

Let’s note here that Rothfeld by her own admission stopped reading My Struggle after the first 100 pages, which would seem to disqualify her from an authoritative opinion on its literary value. Outside of the review venues, many serious readers seem likewise ready to dismiss Knausgaard without reading his work. Whenever the subject of My Struggle comes up in my Facebook feed, which is heavily weighted toward fellow writers, there are numerous comments along the lines of “I have no intention of reading 3,000 pages of navel-gazing.” Always, at some point, someone will introduce the word “narcissism,” after which talk disperses like a crowd at a hanging after the prisoner’s neck has been broken.

Why is this term, a theft from the discipline of psychology, so readily reached for in discussing My Struggle, and why is it so often used as a trump card by those hostile to the book? At stake here is the question of how we regard autobiography and self-portraiture in fiction. I begin to suspect that narcissism, with its currency as shorthand for whatever drawbacks we find in our individualistic and individual rights-defending culture, is meant to put an end to conversation about the artistic merits or emotional power of certain literary works. These are generally works narrated by a speaker who feels uncertain in his self-definition and who examines his thoughts and his interactions with others in an attempt to forge some sort of coherence out of his desires, impulses, actions, and values. They are works that make us uncomfortable, and My Struggle is one of them.

The banality and boringness of My Struggle have been highly overstated. They are likely not really what readers, fans and nonfans alike, are reacting to when they try to articulate what seems strange or off-putting about the book. Despite its length, My Struggle is a quick and lively read. Knausgaard employs a brisk, colloquial style; characters are sketched with concision and energy. Even what is most ordinary in the novel is nearly always rooted in powerful emotions vividly recalled. The opening of Book One gives us the earliest and most persistent of these emotions: Knausgaard’s utter terror of his father, a controlling, rage-filled, sometimes physically violent man who tried to crush the least spontaneity and joy out of his two sons. This terror shadows Knausgaard’s entire childhood and perhaps accounts for his antiauthoritarian strain as a young man. It certainly accounts for his statement, both in interviews and in his book, that his primary wish for his own children is that “they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.” The long concluding section of Book One, in which Knausgaard and his older brother, Yngve, travel to the house where their father recently drank himself to death, is mesmerizing, both in the description of the days Karl Ove and Yngve spend scrubbing the place clean of rotted clothes, empty bottles, and excrement, and in Knausgaard’s honesty about his reaction to the death, which includes both unexpected grief and a sense that the bastard got what was coming to him. Some may read the details of the cleaning as banal, but how can they be when they are saturated with horror over a parent’s life ending in this kind of squalor?

Likewise, in later volumes, Knausgaard’s adolescent longing for sex and his courtship of his second wife strike deep universal tones of desire and despair. Passages about pushing a stroller through the streets of Malmö, Sweden, resonate with fears of emasculation (a sensitive topic, given Knausgaard Senior’s tendency to ridicule young Karl Ove as a sissy) as well as the fear of sacrificing one’s ambitions and ideals to the demands of caretaking.

The complaints about My Struggle’s banality are curious, given that the novel as a genre was born to give voice to the everyday. That is what differentiated it from the epic, the chivalric tale, and the morally improving allegory. The novel has always had as its aim the depiction of ordinary people. Think of the works of Jane Austen and their dances, letters, long walks, and teas. Novels bore not when they contain the banal but when the banal is not a means of conveying underlying feeling and meaning. When Knausgaard and his childhood friends shit in the woods in Book Three, delighting in examining the differences between one boy’s excrement and another’s, the point is not to force our attention upon something so everyday and undignified as normally to be banished from the pages of literature. The point is Knausgaard’s capturing of the pure animal vitality he and his playmates experienced as children. I disagree with critics who claim that Knausgaard includes “everything” in his opus. It’s true that he wrote the volumes of My Struggle very quickly and that they were not greatly edited before publication. But a natural selection surely occurred; he wrote of what was emotionally salient enough to have remained in memory. As an accomplished author with two celebrated novels behind him, Knausgaard had the skill and stamina to translate those memories into compelling scenes and minidramas.

My Struggle is not formless. The first volume, as has been pointed out by Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books, is a kind of overture, with glimpses of Knausgaard as a child, a teenager, and an adult. Book Two employs an ingenious structure, opening with a visit to a run-down amusement park by Knausgaard; his wife, Linda; and their then three children. It soon regresses to an earlier time, a birthday party to which Knausgaard takes his elder daughter. Then it regresses again to Knausgaard’s move several years before to Sweden, in flight from his first marriage, and his budding romance with Linda. After a great deal of material on their early months together, his relationship with his mother-in-law, and the new experience of parenthood, we are brought back to the day of the birthday party and then continue full circle to the amusement park, 500 pages after we last saw it. Books Three and Four proceed more chronologically, detailing Knausgaard’s childhood, move to a new town, last years of high school, first job, and so on.

If My Struggle is not banal in the pejorative sense, nor boring, nor formless, what triggers the endless repetition of these criticisms? Perhaps it’s that it is so clearly a book about selfhood. Knausgaard has defined his project as such, to New York Times writer Larry Rohter among others: “It is a book about the construction of the self.” This is what creates such bile in its critics and such apology in its promoters. Self-construction is historically another one of the novel’s central themes, from Jane Eyre to The Portrait of a Lady to Harry Potter. But normally this theme is tricked out with fictional characters and suspenseful plots and engaging local color (Thornfield Hall, Hogwarts) to make it less stark to the reader. The construction of an imagined, interestingly costumed self is engaging to the reader and morally acceptable in the writer. When the self happens to be more or less the author’s own, readers may feel like intruders spying on matters too intimate to enjoy.

What is narcissism, anyway? Book critics like to lob the term due to its frisson of clinical pathology (technically, it means the inability to distinguish between self and external objects, or extreme grandiosity), but what they really mean by it is a level of interest in the self beyond that which they consider polite. The very fact that Knausgaard has written 3,600 pages about “the construction of a self” is taken as proof that he suffers from excessive self-regard. “How nice it would be,” jeers Becca Rothfeld of Hyperallergic, “to be afforded the luxury of narcissism—the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter.”

In fact, Knausgaard has made it clear he often doubted that the pages he was generating for My Struggle did matter. He has many times told the story of writing the book as a desperate gambit to break through four years of writing failure that had slowed his output to a trickle. He had hoped to write a novel about his father, and the only way to circumvent his block, he discovered, was to write “stupidly”—without attention to the quality of the prose and without self-criticism. In an interview with the author Andrew O’Hagan, Knausgaard reported that he saw the work as “uninteresting” and that only the encouragement of a friend, to whom he read pages over the telephone every day, kept him going.

What made Knausgaard’s friend encourage him was clearly not just kindness. What many readers fail to see is that Karl Ove Knausgaard, the narrator of My Struggle, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the protagonist of My Struggle, are two quite independent beings. Let’s call the latter “KOK” to help distinguish them. To be able to write freely, Knausgaard had to construct for himself a stance and a voice that were without judgment: unalarmed, unafraid, unashamed, undefended. This is precisely what makes the books work and creates our riveted attention. Knausgaard achieves a Zen-like ability to observe everything yet attach to nothing. KOK, like any normal human being, attaches to it all: his parents, his brother, music, girls at school, his own fluctuating feelings. Knausgaard transcribes these feelings and the thoughts associated with them and moves on. KOK watches himself, worrying about his clothes and his popularity; Knausgaard simply watches that watching. KOK suffers from terrible shame, but Knausgaard is not ashamed of that shame and doesn’t seek to hide it. Knausgaard writes a good deal about his excessive drinking in My Struggle, and in Book Four he explains: “Alcohol makes everything big…and the light it transmits gilds everything you see, even the ugliest and most revolting person becomes attractive in some way, it is as if all objections and all judgments are cast aside in a wide sweep of the hand, in an act of supreme generosity, here everything, and I do mean everything, is beautiful.” There are hints that in writing My Struggle Knausgaard found a method of replicating what drinking does for him. And so while there is grandiosity and self-centered behavior in My Struggle, they belong to KOK the boy or teen or young man, and the more clear-sighted yet accepting Knausgaard mines these moments in a way that is gently funny. When, as an unknown eighteen-year-old, KOK is accepted into a writing program, Knausgaard tell us: “I had expected to be accepted because although I knew what I had written might not have been that good and consequently they ought to have rejected me, it was me, however, who had done the writing and that, I felt, they would not be able to ignore.”

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Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman

Few writers have inspired as many biographies as Charlotte Brontë, beginning with Elizabeth Gaskell's classic life, published in 1857, only two years after its subject's death. What has come to be known as the Brontë story went on to imprint itself on the cultural memory, spawning sentimental legends aplenty, an afterlife both rich and contested and, in more recent times, some much-needed corrective scholarship.

The fact that there has been no major biography of Charlotte for more than 20 years is an unusual hiatus in the ongoing saga of her reception. Claire Harman's new book has benefited hugely from this breathing space, and suggests that we have got beyond the need to demythologise the Brontës. With no particular interpretative or ideological axe to grind, Harman is able to tell the story straight, and to get rid of all argumentation and clutter.

And what a story it still is, beginning with the extraordinary narrative of the Brontës' father Patrick. The son of semi-literate Irish peasants, he succeeded in getting to Cambridge and then into the Church of England clergy, changing his name from the plebeian Brunty en route, and finally settling in Haworth Parsonage. It is no coincidence that the creator of the autobiographical heroine Jane Eyre – whose assertive ego was considered unfeminine by Victorians – was the daughter of a self-created man.

Charlotte in fact swung between embattled self-belief and insecurity. Her marginal social position made her want to prove herself, but the traumas of her childhood left scars. After her mother's death, she and three of her four sisters were sent to boarding-school, where the two eldest, Maria and Elizabeth, fell ill as the result of the appalling food and conditions there. Both died. Charlotte later fictionalised the institution as the notorious Lowood in Jane Eyre. No writer before her had ever portrayed a child's experience of suffering and rage at injustice with such visceral subjectivity.

Harman steers a commonsense path, neither over-pathologising Charlotte, as some have done in the past, nor over-normalising her. She gives us Charlotte the Victorian woman cramped by the everyday limitations on her life; but she does not underplay the weird escapist intensity of the young Brontës' imaginative lives. This led to the creation of their private make-believe worlds of Angria and Gondal and opened the floodgates of what Charlotte called their "Scribblemania". The masturbatory eroticism of Charlotte's juvenilia, with its stories of Byronic rakes and their mistresses, ultimately caused her to experience a moral crisis over her addiction to fantasy. With such a well-known subject, it would have been a miracle had Harman found any significant new material; yet she adds freshness and texture to her account with some original speculations. She suggests, for example, that the teenage Charlotte used opium in the form of laudanum – then readily available over the counter – to enhance her obsessive visions (her brother Branwell, who began as the family's pride and hope, failed to fulfil his promise and went on to become an addict).

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca: On the Didease of the Soul

You have been complaining that my letters to you are rather carelessly written. Now who talks carefully unless he also desires to talk affectedly? I prefer that my letters should be just what my conversation would be if you and I were sitting in one another’s company or taking walks together,—spontaneous and easy; for my letters have nothing strained or artificial about them. If it were possible, I should prefer to show, rather than speak, my feelings. Even if I were arguing a point, I should not stamp my foot, or toss my arms about, or raise my voice; but I should leave that sort of thing to the orator, and should be content to have conveyed my feelings to you without having either embellished them or lowered their dignity. I should like to convince you entirely of this one fact,—that I feel whatever I say, that I not only feel it, but am wedded to it. It is one sort of kiss which a man gives his mistress, and another which he gives his children; yet in the father’s embrace also, holy and restrained as it is, plenty of affection is disclosed.

I prefer, however, that our conversation on matters so important should not be meager and dry; for even philosophy does not renounce the company of cleverness. One should not, however, bestow very much attention upon mere words. Let this be the kernel of my idea: let us say what we feel, and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life. That man has fulfilled his promise who is the same person both when you see him and when you hear him. We shall not fail to see what sort of man he is and how large a man he is, if only he is one and the same. Our words should aim not to please, but to help. If, however, you can attain eloquence without painstaking, and if you either are naturally gifted or can gain eloquence at slight cost, make the most of it and apply it to the noblest uses. But let it be of such a kind that it displays facts rather than itself. It and the other arts are wholly concerned with cleverness; but our business here is the soul.

A sick man does not call in a physician who is eloquent; but if it so happens that the physician who can cure him likewise discourses elegantly about the treatment which is to be followed, the patient will take it in good part. For all that, he will not find any reason to congratulate himself on having discovered a physician who is eloquent. For the case is no different from that of a skilled pilot who is also handsome. Why do you tickle my ears? Why do you entertain me? There is other business at hand; I am to be cauterized, operated upon, or put on a diet. That is why you were summoned to treat me!

You are required to cure a disease that is chronic and serious,—one which affects the general weal. You have as serious a business on hand as a physician has during a plague. Are you concerned about words? Rejoice this instant if you can cope with things. When shall you learn all that there is to learn? When shall you so plant in your mind that which you have learned, that it cannot escape? When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them. You reply: “What? Are there no degrees of happiness below your ‘happy’ man? Is there a sheer descent immediately below wisdom?” I think not. For though he who makes progress is still numbered with the fools, yet he is separated from them by a long interval. Among the very persons who are making progress there are also great spaces intervening. They fall into three classes, as certain philosophers believe. First come those who have not yet attained wisdom but have already gained a place near by. Yet even that which is not far away is still outside. These, if you ask me, are men who have already laid aside all passions and vices, who have learned what things are to be embraced; but their assurance is not yet tested. They have not yet put their good into practice, yet from now on they cannot slip back into the faults which they have escaped. They have already arrived at a point from which there is no slipping back, but they are not yet aware of the fact; as I remember writing in another letter, “They are ignorant of their knowledge.” It has not been vouchsafed to them to enjoy their good, but not yet to be sure of it. Some define this class, of which I have been speaking,—a class of men who are making progress,—as having escaped the diseases of the mind, but not yet the passions, and as still standing upon slippery ground; because no one is beyond the dangers of evil except him who has cleared himself of it wholly. But no one has so cleared himself except the man who has adopted wisdom in its stead.

I have often before explained the difference between the diseases of the mind and its passions. And I shall remind you once more: the diseases are hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. To give a brief definition: by “disease” we mean a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or, if you prefer, we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all. “Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement; they have come so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease; just as a catarrh, when there has been but a single attack and the catarrh has not yet become habitual, produces a cough, but causes consumption when it has become regular and chronic. Therefore we may say that those who have made most progress are beyond the reach of the “diseases”; but they still feel the “passions” even when very near perfection.

The second class is composed of those who have laid aside both the greatest ills of the mind and its passions, but yet are not in assured possession of immunity. For they can still slip back into their former state. The third class are beyond the reach of many of the vices and particularly of the great vices, but not beyond the reach of all. They have escaped avarice, for example, but still feel anger; they no longer are troubled by lust, but are still troubled by ambition; they no longer have desire, but they still have fear. And just because they fear, although they are strong enough to withstand certain things, there are certain things to which they yield; they scorn death, but are in terror of pain.

Let us reflect a moment on this topic. It will be well with us if we are admitted to this class. The second stage is gained by great good fortune with regard to our natural gifts and by great and unceasing application to study. But not even the third type is to be despised. Think of the host of evils which you see about you; behold how there is no crime that is not exemplified, how far wickedness advances every day, and how prevalent are sins in home and commonwealth. You will see, therefore, that we are making a considerable gain, if we are not numbered among the basest.

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Divided soul - Christa Wolf

CHRISTA WOLF, an East German writer known for her perspectives on power, was for a long time a serious contender for the Nobel prize in literature. Then the East German state ceased to exist in 1990, and the reputation of its most celebrated author also imploded. In 1993 Wolf was revealed to have been an informer for the secret police, the Stasi. Worse, to West German critics, she delayed publishing her own account of being spied upon, a novella written in 1979 and entitled “What Remains”, until the Berlin Wall came down.

In her last years Wolf, who died in 2011, was branded an opportunist who not only failed to blow the whistle on a corrupt dictatorship, but enjoyed all the privileges doled out to a “state poet”. Now a brace of new translations—of her first novel, and her last—offer English speakers a more generous reading of her literature and life.

An ardent young socialist convinced of culture’s mission to educate, Wolf wrote her first novel in 1963. Originally called “Divided Heaven”, it has now been reissued as “They Divided the Sky”. The difference goes deeper than the title. Luise von Flotow’s faithful new rendering replaces a text that had been badly twisted by a zealous editor who was determined to suppress all straying from the party line.

The novel, which catapulted Wolf to fame, tells the story of Manfred and Rita, lovers faced with the decision to stay in the GDR or to escape to the West in the tense months before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The book’s political agenda is clear: Rita, like the author, decides to stay and work for a better society. Yet communist hardliners still condemned the book as decadent; Wolf was accused of portraying industrial workers in a negative light. What is striking in the new restored version is the degree to which Wolf, then still only in her early 30s, was willing to describe her country, warts and all. She does not shy from portraying factory slackers and the blind zeal of party hacks, nor from drawing a convincing portrait of Manfred, whose doubts and frustrations drive him to abandon Rita and his country.

The new version introduces in English for the first time the introspective, autobiographical voice that became Wolf’s signature and strength. Its fragmented points of view and flashbacks were innovative. From the start her ambition was to honour the inner voice and “bridge the contradiction between party diktat and personal truthfulness”, in the words of her biographer, Jörg Magenau. This made her a revered, almost saintly figure to her East German readers; at the same time, her consistently uncertain, questioning tone put her on a collision course with the socialist leadership.

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Friday, 30 October 2015

How Proust's 'madeleine moment' changed the world forever

In one respect Marcel Proust is like Richard Wagner: each created one world-famous work of such scope and depth that people hesitate to explore them. Complexity should never be a barrier to intellectual curiosity, especially when the pleasure and enlightenment to be obtained are of the magnitude both these artists offer.

Wagner's Ring cycle, around 16 hours of drama and music in four separate operas, is one of the greatest achievements in music and also one of the most rewarding. Likewise, the sequence of seven novels that make up Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu is to my mind the finest work of fiction ever written in any language. It leaves the reader with an altered understanding of the nature of reality, human relationships and perceptions.

Proust wrote the novels between 1909 and his death in 1922 at the age of 51. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he lived a normal span. In one sense he was a late casualty of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71: he was born not long after the lifting of the Siege of Paris to a mother whose considerable wealth had not helped her, in those circumstances, find sufficient food to sustain her during her pregnancy. Her baby was a weakling and it was feared he would not live. Throughout his life Proust was subject to ill health, its effect made worse by his resolute hypochondria.

In his biography of Proust, written more than half a century ago, George Painter includes an anecdote about the wedding, in 1905, of Proust's brother Robert. Robert had decided to get married in winter, which Proust saw as potentially making him prey to every disease in Paris. To ensure he did not catch cold he had his tailor make him several overcoats, which he wore one on top of the other, like a Russian doll, leaving him so large that he could not fit down the side-aisle in the church. Paradoxically, it is this type of absurd sensitivity that makes him so great a novelist.

The novels portray the world in which Proust grew up. His father was one of the most successful doctors in France, honoured for his work. He invented the cordon sanitaire - the quarantined ring around an infected area - that helped prevent the spread of cholera, a curse in all European cities in the late 19th century. The upper-middle class Prousts socialised with the aristocracy and the artistic elite of Paris, and when Marcel started to publish his novels just before the Great War, those in his circle sought to identify themselves among the characters. Some were offended by their portrayals, others were wounded that they were not portrayed.

The novels were hugely influential on writers all over the world, in that they introduced the idea of writing about "streams of consciousness". Through Proust's ubiquitous narrator, they relay in great detail not just what is perceived, but also what is remembered, and the repeated and constant links between perception and memory. Even those who have not read the novels are aware of the journey of memory on which the narrator goes when he tastes a madeleine dipped in tea; it has become "the Proustian moment".

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John Locke: Reading

This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in. Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment. There are indeed in some writers visible instances of deep thoughts, close and acute reasoning, and ideas well pursued. The light these would give would be of great use if their readers would observe and imitate them; all the rest at best are but particulars fit to be turned into knowledge, but that can be done only by our own meditation, and examining the reach, force, and coherence of what is said; and then, as far as we apprehend and see the connexion of ideas, so far it is ours; without that, it is but so much loose matter floating in our brain. The memory may be stored, but the judgement is little better, and the stock of knowledge not increased, by being able to repeat what others have said or produce the arguments we have found in them. Such a knowledge as this is but knowledge by hearsay, and the ostentation of it is at best but talking by rote, and very often upon weak and wrong principles. For all that is to be found in books is not built upon true foundations, nor always rightly deduced from the principles it is pretended to be built on. Such an examination as is requisite to discover that, every reader's mind is not forward to make; especially in those who have given themselves up to a party, and only hunt for what they can scrape together that may favour and support the tenets of it. Such men wilfully exclude themselves from truth and from all true benefit to be received by reading. Others of more indifference often want attention and industry. The mind is backward in itself to be at the pains to trace every argument to its original, and to see upon what basis it stands, and how firmly; but yet it is this that gives so much the advantage to one man more than another in reading. The mind should, by severe rules, be tied down to this at first uneasy task; use and exercise will give it facility. So that those who are accustomed to it, readily, as it were with one cast of the eye, take a view of the argument, and presently, in most cases, see where it bottoms. Those who have got this faculty, one may say, have got the true key of books, and the clue to lead them through the maze of variety of opinions and authors to truth and certainty. This, young beginners should be entered in, and showed the use of, that they might profit by their reading. Those who are strangers to it will be apt to think it too great a clog in the way of men's studies, and they will suspect they shall make but small progress, if, in the books they read, they must stand to examine and unravel every argument and follow it step by step up to its original.

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The Pound Error - The elusive master of allusion

Ezra Pound turns up five times in Peter Gay’s big survey of the modern movement in literature and the arts, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy”—once in connection with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which Pound edited), once as the author of an anti-Semitic sentiment (one of many), and three times as the originator of the slogan “Make It New” (which suits the theme of Gay’s account). Pound’s poetry and criticism are not discussed; no reader of Gay’s book would have any idea of what his importance or influence as a writer might be. Gay’s is a commodious volume with a long reach, “From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond”; still, a handful of passing references seems a sharp decline in market value for a writer who was once the hero of a book called “The Pound Era.” 

Pound’s aspirations for literature were grand. He believed that bad writing destroyed civilizations and that good writing could save them, and although he was an élitist about what counted as art and who mattered as an artist, he thought that literature could enhance the appreciation of life for everyone. He was vain and idiosyncratic, but he had no wish to be a prima donna. No doubt Eliot, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore would have produced interesting and innovative work whether they had known Pound or not, but Pound’s attention and interventions helped their writing and sped their careers. He edited them, reviewed them, got them published in magazines he was associated with, and included them in anthologies he compiled; he introduced them to editors, to publishers, and to patrons; he gave them the benefit of his time, his learning, his money, and his old clothes. “A miracle of ebulliency, gusto, and help,” Joyce called him. It’s true that he was flamboyant, immodest, opinionated, tactless, a pinwheel of affectation; he made people crazy and he became crazy himself. Gertrude Stein’s description of him is frequently invoked: “A village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” In his devotion to the modernist avant-garde, though, he was selfless. “A bombastic galleon, palpably bound to, or from, the Spanish Main,” Wyndham Lewis wrote about meeting Pound. “Going on board, I discovered beneath its skull and cross-bones, intertwined with fleurs de lys and spattered with preposterous starspangled oddities, a heart of gold.”

Pound’s own work, on the other hand, has had a difficult reception. The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past. A great deal of Pound’s poetry therefore takes the form of translation, imitation, allusion, and quotation. He is trying to breathe life into a line of artistic and intellectual accomplishment, but it is a line of his own invention—a “tradition” that includes, among others, John Adams, Confucius, Flaubert, the Provençal troubadours, and Benito Mussolini. Not, prima facie, a canon. This means that to understand what Pound is doing you often need to have read the same writers, studied the same languages, and learned the same history that Pound read, studied, and learned (or rely on the commentary of a person who has). This is especially the case with the work on which he spent fifty-four years and staked his reputation, “The Cantos of Ezra Pound”—“a cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length,” as he once described it. So it is very easy for the average underprepared reader to get Pound wrong, and he desperately did not want to be misunderstood. Opacity and ambiguity can be deliberate effects in modernist writing: sometimes the text goes dark, reference becomes uncertain, language aspires to the condition of music. In Pound’s case, though, any obscurity is unintentional. Clarity is the essence of his aesthetic. He sometimes had to struggle against his own technique to achieve it.

There is another problem with Pound, which is that he was a Fascist. The term gets abused freely in discussions of modernist writers, a number of whom were reactionaries—Gay calls these “the anti-modern modernists”—and some of whom were anti-Semites, but very few of whom were actually Fascists. Pound is one of the very few. His obsession with the Jews (there are some anti-Semitic passages in his early prose, but nothing systematic) dates from his interest in the views of the founder of the Social Credit movement, Major C. H. Douglas, around 1920. (Social Credit was an economic reform movement aimed at the elimination of debt—hence Pound’s attacks on usury and on Jews as moneylenders and financiers of wars, a classic type of anti-Semitism.) Pound’s infatuation with Mussolini dates from a concert given by Olga Rudge, a violinist who was Pound’s longtime mistress, at Mussolini’s home, in 1927, where he came up with the idea of enlisting Mussolini as a patron of the avant-garde. Six years later, Pound had a private audience with Il Duce, at the Palazzo Venezia, in Rome, and presented him with a copy of “A Draft of XXX Cantos,” which Mussolini graciously acknowledged with the remark “Ma questo è divertente” (“How amusing”). Pound concluded that Mussolini had an intuitive grasp of the significance of his poetry.

In 1941, Pound began delivering broadcasts from the Rome studios of Ente Italiana Audizione Radio, attacking the Jews, Roosevelt, and American intervention in the war. The broadcasts continued through the Allied invasion of Italy, in 1943. In 1944, he wrote two propagandistic cantos—which are known as the Italian Cantos, and which were for many years omitted from the New Directions edition of the complete “Cantos”—praising the Fascist fighting spirit. In 1945, he surrendered to American officials on a charge of treason and was imprisoned in an Army Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa. He was brought to the United States, but, thanks to the intercession of friends and of Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Washington, D.C., he was spared a trial, on psychiatric grounds (although he never received a specific diagnosis). He spent twelve years in St. Elizabeths, where he acquired a number of disciples, including John Kasper, a segregationist associated with the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. In 1958, the indictment was dismissed and Pound returned to Italy. When he walked off the boat, in Naples, he gave the Fascist salute.

Pound’s politics are not incidental to his achievement. Italian Fascism is integral to “The Cantos,” and the section called “The Pisan Cantos,” which Pound composed in the Army Disciplinary Training Center, at a time when he had every expectation of being executed, is, formally, an elegy occasioned by the death of Mussolini at the hands of Italian partisans (“Ben and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano”). Like most classical elegies, it is as much about the poet as about the departed; it is suffused with memories, and spiked with anger at the indifference of the world. It won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, and although the award was (and remains) controversial, “The Pisan Cantos” is the finest thing that Pound ever wrote. It’s the one place in his work where his learning is fused with genuine personal feeling.

Parts of “The Pisan Cantos” have been read as a recantation:

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.

This may sound repentant, but it is not the poet speaking to himself in the second person. The lines are addressed to the American Army (“Half black half white”): the prisoner is raging against his captors. Pound laments, but he does not regret. “The Pisan Cantos” is a Fascist poem without apologies.

A. David Moody does not deal with the political side of the Pound problem in the first volume of his biography, “Ezra Pound Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work” (Oxford; $47.95), because he takes us only to 1921, the year Pound left London, first for Paris and then for Rapallo, where he lived until he surrendered to the Americans. Pound was born in 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, a fact useful to English satirists, whose ridicule Pound abetted by occasionally speaking and writing in a kind of homemade cowboy/Yankee drawl. But Pound was not really a Westerner; he spent less than two years in Hailey, where his father, Homer, briefly registered mining claims. The family moved to New York and then to Wyncote, near Philadelphia, which is where Pound was reared and educated. Homer worked in the Philadelphia Mint; Pound’s mother, Isabel, was a New Yorker. Pound spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to Hamilton College, graduating in 1905.

Pound came to Europe in 1908, when he was twenty-two, after getting kicked out of the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. (Later in his career, he several times applied to Penn to receive his doctorate on the basis of work published, but was turned down.) Pound resisted the philological approach to literature that he was taught at Penn, since philology considered itself a science and above critical judgment, and Pound was consumed with a passion for critical judgment. He thought that the whole purpose of studying the past was to discover the principles of good writing—“the search for sound criteria,” he called it—and his early poetry is a kind of creative philology, consisting largely of promiscuously free translations and reanimations of the literature of half a dozen expired traditions: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Provençal, medieval Italian, eighth-century Chinese, and fourteenth-century Japanese. (After decades of frustratingly under-edited New Directions reprints, virtually all of Pound’s poetry and translations, apart from the “Cantos,” are available in a single Library of America volume, expertly edited, with annotation, by Richard Sieburth.)

Moody’s book is a biography more of the work than of the man. Pound’s love affairs, friendships, and quarrels and the intellectual and artistic culture within which he operated are mentioned, but they’re not endowed with much explanatory power. Moody treats Pound as a poet whose primary concern was writing poetry, and his pages are devoted mainly to patient, intelligent, and prudently sympathetic readings of the contents of the twenty-one books Pound produced between 1905 and 1920, beginning with “Hilda’s Book,” which he wrote for his girlfriend Hilda Doolittle (later the poet H.D.), and ending with the work he called his “farewell to London,” the self-deprecating satire “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Given the enormous variety of Pound’s production in this period, Moody’s gloss is elegant: he thinks that Pound (with a little help from his friends) grounded poetry in the everyday. He did this in two ways. He campaigned, as a prolific and bumptious critic, against the aesthetes and the Symbolists—the avant-garde of the late nineteenth century. And he formulated an aesthetic that was intended to preserve poetry’s privileged status, but without the Symbolist’s mysticism or the aesthete’s cult of the beautiful. Pound took the merely poetical out of poetry. He did not believe that (in the words of the preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) “all art is quite useless.” He thought that poetry had a kind of power. He believed, Moody says, “that ‘the perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word’ would energize the motor forces of emotion and will and illuminate the intelligence, and that the result would be more enlightened living.”

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The Beginning of the End, the Battle at the End, and the End

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surprised the world by suddenly attacking its own ally, the Soviet Union. Certainly the Soviets were surprised, in that dull-faced flat-footed way the treacherous are always surprised by treachery. The German offensive was in its first few weeks a textbook success of the patented Blitzkrieg type; Minsk, Gomel, and Kiev all fell immediately to the advancing Wehrmacht, and Wolfram voin Richthofen’s Luftwaffe destroyed the ragged Russian air force with contemptuous ease. Prisoners of war were taken in vast numbers, burgeoning croplands were avidly coveted. The guiding objective of all this summer slaughter was obvious though at first unstated: to capture Moscow before the worst of winter set in, to knock the Russian bear out of the fight in the first round. This had worked before – Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium: all had fallen with a speed that astonished both themselves and international onlookers.

The move should not have surprised careful watchers of Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf demonstrates at tediously ample length the precise geographies of his hatred. As much as the Jews are reviled in that breathless, terrible text, the Bolsheviks and Slavs are no less so; only the most foolishly optimistic Moscow diplomat could possibly have hoped that Hitler meant them no harm. They may have pinned their hopes on simple practicality, or on the chance that Hitler was as attentive a student of history as he endlessly proclaims himself to be in his book. History itself is chary of absolutes, but military history is replete with them, and the loudest of these was learned at bitter cost by generals from Alexander to Crassus to Richard Lion-Heart to Napoleon Bonaparte: don’t invade the East.

Hitler’s decision to do just that was based on his own warped version of practicality. His technologies of warfare – long-range communications, rapid troop-transport and resupply, strategic concentration, all the ligaments of lightning – had served him with unparalleled efficiency to date. Countries with proud military traditions but antiquated hardware had surrendered in weeks, sometimes days, until only the island of Britain held out. Hitler must have looked at the vast grain fields of the Ukraine as a breadbasket waiting to be emptied – and the farmlands themselves as the rightful spoil of pure Aryan blood. His troops would displace and liquidate the “beastly” inhabitants of those wide new frontiers, and then he would deal with the recalcitrant England at his leisure. It all made perfect sense if you concentrated on the glorious departure of Napoleon’s forces bent on invasion (Hitler had timed the start of his invasion, Operation Barbarossa almost to the exact same day) and avoided thinking about how the campaign of 1812 ended.

That string of early victories would have softened the judgement of a far more balanced man than Hitler, and there was also the needling of provocation. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, a union of voracious dictatorships based solely on territorial gain, was not a thing built to last. The Russians almost immediately began probing its elasticity, inching toward a Baltic hegemony that the Nazis couldn’t allow. Betrayal was the natural gambit of both players in the pact, and in 1941 Hitler made his greatest gamble, sending almost 3 million troops into Russia despite the fact that he would now technically be fighting a war on two fronts. England was supine and at bay, and Russia’s defeat was supposed to be pro forma.

The first successes were euphorically fast. Michael Jones, in his absorbing history of the campaign, records the testimony of a Russian supply officer watching the debacle at the frontier:
I saw one of our generals standing by a crossroads. He had come to review his troops, and was wearing his best parade uniform. But his soldiers were fleeing in the opposite direction. He stood there, forlorn and alone – without even an adjutant by his side – while the troops flooded past. Behind him was an obelisk, marking the route of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.
Jones has gathered an eye-opening number of tape-recorded reminiscences and first-hand accounts that combine to make his book a worthy if close-focused companion to Paul Carell’s Hitler’s War on Russia and Alan Clark’s Barbarossa. Jones’ research paints a vivid picture of that euphoria, and of the chaos that attended the sheer speed with which the Germans overran their initial opposition. One panzer company closes on Kalinin: We dashed on, through scenes of total disorder. Red Army commanders swore at us from their vehicles, believing that we were Russians fleeing from the front. Enemy vehicles cut into our column, joined us for a while, and then, realising our identity, swerved off again. It was all quite incredible. We reached Kalinin without any losses, having amassed an astonishing array of booty – hundreds of Russian trucks and artillery pieces – on our 100-kilometre raid.

The invasion, Operation Barbarossa, and the assault on Moscow, Operation Typhoon, were military and industrial expressions of that Blitzkrieg euphoria, and they took into account all variables except the possibility of their own failure. Russian resistance, at first non-existent, soon began to stiffen – fierce pockets of resistance at Vyazma and Bryansk and elsewhere were never entirely quelled, and Josef Stalin capitalized on patriotic fervor to mobilize an ever-increasing number of fresh troops and to fire up those already under arms. And as with Bonaparte, so with Hitler: a Russian winter of a ferocity not seen in living memory swept down on the invading forces with six-foot snowdrifts and temperatures plunging to –30 degrees Celsius. German regiments were being hurried to the Eastern front with no heavy coats, no gloves, no scarves, often no head covering, and both new and seasoned troops were succumbing to frostbite and disease. Fuel and equipment froze solid in such weather, and when even Hitler was prepared, by January, to order a large-scale withdrawal, much of the retreat had to be effected in horse-drawn wooden carts. Thousands of German troops perished of the elements, and millions of Russian prisoners of war were allowed to starve to death. In 1942 a Wehrmacht priest asked, “Will it be possible to atone for the crimes we are committing?”

The impetus for those crimes had been victory, and Nazi victories began to end in 1942 and early 1943. The Germans lost the Battle of Stalingrad and were routed out of North Africa and the Mediterranean. Sicily was recaptured by the Allies, U-Boat attacks were shut down all over the Atlantic, and on 6 June 1944 the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe began. By March of 1945, Allied forces were crossing the Rhine and the Russians were rushing to Berlin from the East. Hitler had concentrated his forces in a desperate attempt to preserve his thousand-year Reich, now increasingly being defended by hastily-armed Hitler Youth brigades and detachments of the Volksstrum militia, largely untrained and poorly-equipped young boys and old men. These rag-tag forces must be credited with a forlorn kind of courage, even despite the fact that that they were often coerced into patriotism. Military historian Edward G. Longacre’s War in the Ruins tells the fascinating story of the American Army’s 100th Infantry Division and its yard-by-yard slog along the west bank of the Neckar River, where it met with pockets of just such forlorn resistance in the ancient city of Heilbronn. The city had been a major industrial hub for the Nazis throughout the war, and it did not go quietly into the the night of general surrender. Longacre takes the now familiar “Band of Brothers” approach to telling the story of how the disparate hang-dog members of the 100th’s various regiments endured the artillery fire, sniper attacks, and often brutal weather in their conquest of the city.

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

She gives me partridges - Alma Mahler Werfel

Alma Mahler Werfel celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out. Luminaries from the ‘German California’ scene came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius’s divorced wife and Oscar Kokoshka’s former lover. Thomas Mann, who was one of the guests, offered ‘cordial felicitations on your special day’.
Some of Mann’s friends were astonished that he could maintain his friendship with Alma when he had been such a prominent opponent of Nazism. After all, she was an unrepentant anti-Semite who spoke openly and often of her preference for Aryans and her disappointment with Jews, even though she had married two of them, Mahler and Werfel. At a social event in California in 1942, when Werfel was still alive, she had been heard remarking that the Nazis had done ‘a great many praiseworthy things’ and that the concentration camps were ‘fabrications put out by the refugees’. She was also a terrible drunk, not to mention an extremely domineering and difficult person. The year before her 70th birthday, she dragged Mann into a row with Arnold Schönberg, whom she had known ever since her youth in Vienna. In Mann’s novel Dr Faustus, Adrian Leverkühn’s music is clearly based on Schönberg’s 12-tone compositions. Alma read the book and immediately told Schönberg she was very upset at the way Mann had appropriated his music. She then rang Mann and told him that Schönberg was angry about the misuse of his ‘intellectual property’ – thanks to Alma, he now was. She went back and forth between the two men, stoking the animus while presenting herself as a mediator. When Mann eventually found out Alma’s true role in the affair, he was furious at her ‘meddling’.
Yet here was Mann, just months later, raising a glass to celebrate her life. During the birthday party, she took Mann to one side and assured him that there was now a ‘total breach’ between her and Schönberg and she was loyal only to him, though in fact she made up with Schönberg a couple of weeks later and accepted a ‘birthday canon’ he had composed in her honour. In a book of birthday tributes – Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky and Mann’s brother Heinrich were also contributors – Mann called himself ‘an admirer, if you will, who found refreshment in every get-together with you’ and spoke of ‘the joyful stimulation that exudes from your personality, a humane nature in female form, a great woman’. In his diary, he was less fulsome but still strikingly positive after dinner parties at Alma’s house. ‘Alma quite amusing and truthful over the discomfort of life,’ he wrote; on another occasion: ‘Cold Duck. Alma amusing.’ Challenged about his failure to break off relations with her, he smiled and said: ‘She gives me partridges to eat, and I like them.’
Alma’s ambitious empire over men extended far beyond those she slept with. She saw it as her mission to draw talented men from many worlds into her orbit and to render them ‘brighter’. She’d grown up in a household, presided over by her father, the artist Emil Schindler, where there were regular gatherings of writers, artists and musicians: evenings of tarot cards, black coffee, dancing and schnapps. At every phase of her life, she tried to re-create the conditions of a lavish Viennese salon, greeting her guests with rich food, Bénédictine and a radiant smile, always up for receiving homage. She fled to America with Werfel in 1941, carrying precious musical scores by Mahler and Bruckner in her hand luggage along with her cash and her jewellery. No sooner had she arrived than she found herself ‘in heaven’, immediately setting up a makeshift salon in her hotel suite, where, as Oliver Hilmes describes, ‘she received political figures, members of the high aristocracy from the toppled Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as artists like the Russian painter Marc Chagall.’
In the song ‘Alma’ – written soon after her obituaries appeared in December 1964 – Tom Lehrer imagines all modern women being jealous of her ‘for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz’. How did she do it? At first, at least, she had great beauty. As a young woman, Alma Schindler, Emil’s oldest daughter, was said to be ‘the loveliest girl in Vienna’, with lustrous dark hair and a self-confident gaze. She had her first kiss aged 17 with Gustav Klimt, while travelling in Genoa. Klimt found her beautiful but also something more: ‘She has everything a discerning man could possibly ask for from a woman, in ample measure; I believe wherever she goes and casts an eye into the masculine world, she is the sovereign lady, the ruler.’ These sovereign qualities lasted long after her looks had faded. When Elias Canetti met her in 1933, he observed an ‘inebriated individual, who looked much older than she was’, large and overflowing, ‘with a cloying smile and bright, wide-open, glassy eyes’. Yet still she drew men to her, like mosquitoes around a lamp, as she once put it. In 1933, she was juggling her marriage to Werfel and a new love affair with a Catholic priest called Johannes Hollnsteiner: ‘Until now,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘he has never encountered womankind.’ Meanwhile, Werfel remained tied to her, almost against his will. He hated her infidelity and her anti-Semitic outbursts – ‘we’re tearing one another to shreds,’ he lamented in one letter – but somehow always came back for more.
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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Barstool Stories - Bohumil Hrabal

Bohumil Hrabal was the brash and boozy child of the Czech twentieth century. Born in Austro-Hungarian Moravia in 1914, he was an infant under monarchism on the cusp of the House of Habsburg’s collapse; later, he became an adolescent under democracy and the first Czechoslovak nation, a railway laborer under Nazism and Hitler’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, an insurance salesman, steelworker, paper-packer, and stagehand through the Third Republic and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s 1948 coup d’état, a persona non grata after the failure of “socialism with a human face” and the Warsaw Pact’s crackdown, a celebrity after the Velvet Revolution, and a legend in the newly formed Czech Republic. He wrote lush, lengthy sentences—lines that flowed on for pages, folding memories into memories, stories into stories—that painted a tableau of his ever-changing homeland. Banned from publishing after the 1968 Soviet invasion, he circulated his most popular works illegally in samizdat. He drew leftist ire for avoiding political engagements, his signature notoriously absent from Václav Havel’s Charter 77 protest initiative against the Communist state. Milan Kundera called him “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” The iconic singer-songwriter Karel Kryl called him a “whore.” And, as famous as he’d become, Hrabal was easy to find. All you had to do was head over to U Zlatého tygra (“At the Golden Tiger”) and listen for the loudest voice, the raconteur of the beer hall holding court with hostlers and heads of state alike.
In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.
Originally translated in 1993 by the late James Naughton and newly reprinted by NYRB Classics, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still brings together two of Hrabal’s most iconic works. The first part, Cutting It Short (1976), takes the perspective of the author’s mother, Maryška, a restless, energetic woman constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Hers is the story of how these boundaries change with the passage of time, marked by the introduction of the wireless telephone to the little town of Nymburk. Traditional distances shrink, information picks up speed, and life suddenly has different measures. Newly married to the sweet, if staid, brewery manager Francin, Maryška embodies a raging spirit of youth, rejoicing in the self’s sweet purchase on nothing but itself: “I was young, and hence above all that, what I did, I did, only asking prior permission of myself, and always I nodded my own consent.” This confidence puts Maryška at sharp odds with her neighbors and husband, for whom propriety and tradition are a woman’s paths to a happy life. She scandalizes the town when, taken by the spirit of the times, she cuts short her long, golden hair. As she flies through the square on her bicycle, one resident screams out in shock, transforming Maryška’s bold decision into historical process: “And she pointed me out to our town’s precious visitor, and now I knew that my hair belonged to its historical monuments.” For Hrabal and his heroine, history is a hyper-localized phenomenon, happening on one’s head as in the halls of power, and a haircut might mark the end of an era as much as a declaration of war.
And war does come to Nymburk. The second part, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still(1973), picks up a few years later, swapping Maryška’s point of view for that of her son. Where his mother was the primary source of Cutting It Short’s narrative movement, the unnamed boy (quite apparently Hrabal himself) serves as a conduit for the town’s stories, many of which spill from the mouth of his uncle Pepin. Indeed, Hrabal locates in Pepin his ideal “palaver,” or the rambling fount of stories unique to his style. Pepin’s favorite topic is the good old days in the Austrian army, regarding which he has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes. His nostalgia for Austro-Hungarian Moravia—for youth and violence, for being “the greatest good-looker” and “the one Captain Hovorka liked talking to best”—creates a kind of rhythm and momentum, as if the true backbone of the novel is nothing but a boastful monologue. For the author, Pepin’s palavering is nothing short of divine: “I knew that the Lord God didn’t actually love the truth so much, in fact he loved mad men, crazy exalted enthusiasts, people like my uncle Pepin.” When Nazi Germany invades and suffocates cultural life with the occupation, Uncle Pepin is unfazed, shouting insults at the Reich’s pencil pusher and dancing away the night of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination. Here again, history is the protest of the dancing body, twirling across a beer hall as though it were a battlefield. In the end, after Hitler is defeated and Nymburk is reorganized under socialism, after an endless flush of stories and drinking and dancing, it’s old age that finally stops the monologue. Uncle Pepin falls silent and dies.
It’s worth pausing on a passage from The Little Town Where Time Stood Still that embodies the Hrabalian sublime, what he termed “the little pearl at the bottom” of the story. When Francin ropes Uncle Pepin into helping him work on an ever-breaking motorbike, Pepin takes the occasion to recount a card game:
“Brother, you’re right there, take that Vlasta girl over at Havrda’s for instance, now you tell me, brother, the lads were playing cards, a game of ‘God Bless,’ and Vlasta says: ‘Come on you old goat pay me a bit of attention!’ But auld Švec had me looking after thousands o’ crowns, there I was sitting next tae him like some Rothschild, who else would’ve had the honour, right? And Vlasta took off her blouse and stuck her arm round my back and says, ‘Tell me about the European Renaissance, d’you hear?’ and there I was holding those thousands and no paying attention, and all of a sudden the lassie undoes the fastening on her bra, and out pops her bosoms, like two half-kegs of beer, and one o’ they breasts thumps me on the head and the other just floored me, and auld Švec fell doon as well, swept the cloth off, and all the players were swept away by that Vlasta lassie’s pair of bosoms, and there she stood over us, it was like a holy picture, Jesus arising from the dead, there we were felled and lying on the ground like the sodgers in the picture . . . ”
It’s a marriage of the high and low, the chaste and lewd, the sacred and profane, all in one breath. Such a juxtaposition is typical of Hrabal, to string along a barstool story before exploding it into the heavens with something as simple as a simile. You can find these shimmering passages through much of his best work, where the everyday seems to teem with grace. Life is as much slapstick comedy as it is Renaissance fresco, so why not just have both at once?
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Cult of Personality shows off a distinctly different Hrabal than the one English-language readers have grown accustomed to. Most of the work available in translation (Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, I Served the King of England, and others) was written from the mid ’60s to the late ’70s, during what we might call his samizdat period. The stories collected in Mr. Kafka—newly translated by Paul Wilson and published by New Directions—date from the 1950s, a new period for English-language Hrabal readers, and one that shows the author butting heads with the wreckage of war, the rise of Communist bureaucracy, and Czech Stalinism.
Mr. Kafka extends Hrabal’s claim on Czech letters back a decade, and is evidence of why the Party was so keen on banning his work. In “Strange People,” a steelworker’s attempt to negotiate with a production manager over higher quotas is interrupted by the filming of a propaganda movie, “Lunch Break in Our Factories.” “But we’ve got nothing to eat,” a priest objects fruitlessly. The story “Ingots” wraps together two narratives, one of a drunk woman following a man home, where she is subsequently raped, and the other a dialogue between a merchant and a philosopher about the political state of Europe: “All our good old golden days are being smelted down and you don’t even know it’s happening.” “Betrayal of Mirrors” uses the same diptych structure to tell the story of a church being taken apart for scrap against the narrative of a mad artist attempting to craft a statue worthy of the nation: “But just look at the artist. Look how he’s let himself go to seed for the sake of the nation. He never eats a thing, he just drinks, and then there’s the damp.” The final story, “Beautiful Poldi,” is perhaps the closest to the Hrabal we know, presenting a rambling, impressionistic tale about life in the Poldi steel factory, supple in its balance of longing and resignation: “Everything exists in the elasticity of perspective, and life itself is illusion, deformation, perspective.”
The title story takes us on a promenade of postwar Prague, where Mr. Kafka (not F. Kafka, but close) encounters a string of everyday unreality befitting his nom de guerre. In Hrabalian fashion, the juxtaposed images slide by smoothly, as when a lady’s skin is described as “so like silk that when she drank red wine it was as if she’d poured the wine into glass tubes.” Elsewhere, Mr. Kafka pauses to take in an impression of light: “I wondered then why the cars were driving along the river upside down, their wheels in the air as though sledding along on their roofs.” They’re beautiful images floating along the story’s meandering drift, but just below the surface you can feel a different kind of tension, a feeling of exhaustion and frustration and pride absent from the author’s later work. The bungled slaughtering of a pig ends traumatically: “[It] burrowed into the manure pile because it would rather have drowned in piss and shit than once more face the butcher with a knife in his hands.” Like the cars reflected in the river, the city is turned upside-down from the war. Madness and death are merely matter-of-fact: “A streetcar rumbles by with a few dead men inside hanging by their hands. A pedestrian stumbles to his knees and tries to ignite a cobblestone.” Hrabal channels his own version of Kafka to measure the weight and shape of the war’s shadow.
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Heroine Addict - What Theodor Fontane’s women want

Whatever others may have thought of the novels of Theodor Fontane—and the long-standing consensus is that they are, as one critic has noted, “the most completely achieved of any written between Goethe and Thomas Mann”—Fontane himself clearly thought that they were pretty unexciting. To his mind, “L’Adultera” (1882), one of the studies of tormented heroines on which his present-day reputation rests, was primarily about “the circumstantial and the scenery.” He characterized “The Poggenpuhls” (1896), the story of an aristocratic family frantically maneuvering to extract itself from genteel poverty, as a book that “is not a novel and has no subject-matter.” In May of 1898, a few months before he died, at the age of seventy-eight, he wrote a letter rather wearily describing “The Stechlin,” the unusually “pudgy” tome (most of his fiction is bracingly short) that was the last work he lived to see published: 

An old man dies and two young people get married,—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages. Of complications and solutions, of conflicts of the heart and conflicts in general, of excitement and surprises there is virtually nothing. . . . Naturally I don’t claim that this is the best way of writing a contemporary novel but it is the one that is called for.

Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about. In “Cécile,” an 1887 novel about a good woman trying in vain to bury a bad past, a group of tourists in the Harz mountains are taken around a medieval castle; unnerved by a visitor’s embarrassment that there’s not much to look at, the tour guide “rapidly resumed his lecture in the hope of compensating by narrative skill for the lack of visible items of interest.”

Compensating by narrative skill for the lack of visible interest is an excellent way to sum up both the strangeness and the beauty of Fontane’s fiction. The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin—the revelation of Cécile’s sexually compromised early life arrives agonizingly late in the novel, and the dénouement, as often in Fontane, is swift, efficient, and a little surprising. In “Jenny Treibel” (1892), a wry social comedy with darker political overtones, a young woman makes a play for the son of the self-absorbed title character, one of the nouveaux-riches bourgeois—a class much loathed by Fontane—who dominated German society after Bismarck unified the nation. After the girl has done a good deal of scheming, her plan simply fizzles out. (Fontane loves to create plots in which the characters’ own plots never quite work; for all the Poggenpuhls’ agonized machinations, what saves them in the end is a fortuitous event.)

And in the 1895 novel “Effi Briest,” considered by many to be Fontane’s masterpiece, the suffocating dreariness of the young heroine’s provincial existence is brilliantly conveyed precisely because the author isn’t afraid to be dreary himself; by the time you’ve got through a few dozen pages in the Baltic town of Kessin, accompanied by Effi’s excruciatingly correct, “frosty as a snowman” husband, you’ll feel like breaking down in tears, too. Fontane’s taste for withholding action, or at least delaying it improbably, is evident in the novel’s most famous feature, a structural gambit of daring subtlety: the frustrated heroine’s brief affair with a womanizing officer is never actually described—and is only discovered many years later, when Effi and her husband have settled comfortably into their marriage. (His pursuit of revenge is thus rendered all the more appalling—an effective vehicle for condemning ludicrous codes of masculine “honor.”)

When “excitement and surprises” do occur in a Fontane novel, it’s usually when the book is nearly over. The death, or suicide, or marriage, or resignation in the face of overwhelming social or familial pressure is a culminating little bump in the otherwise long, smooth, and highly scenic road. (He features more suicides than any other German writer of his century; even these are characteristically quiet.)

At first glance, it’s hard to reconcile the sparseness of Fontane’s plots, the way he prefers to linger over what he calls “the circumstantial,” with the extravagant emotions his work has provoked in so many critics and writers over the years. (Thomas Mann: “No writer of the past or the present awakens in me the sympathy and gratitude, the unconditional and instinctive delight, the immediate amusement and warmth and satisfaction that I feel in every verse, in every line of one of his letters, in every snatch of his dialogue.”) The key lies in his understated narrative style, in his paradoxically powerful “discretion,” as some critics have called it: a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader “overhear” the speech of his characters, rather than paraphrasing it for us—the last being a particularly effective alternative to the psychologizing observations of an omniscient narrator. It is this skill at delineating character through dialogue—one early scholar of Fontane’s work calls a scene in “Effi Briest” “the greatest conversation scene in the German novel”—which creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have, the sense that you’re in there with his characters: the attractive but somehow desperate wives, yearning for recognition in a society dominated by masculine and military codes; the minor nobles, hardworking seamstresses, and disdained intellectuals trying to keep their dignity in a world destabilized by the materialism and the militarism of Bismarck’s Second Reich.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Man with the Golden Typewriter - Ian Fleming

In June 1957, with five successful Bond novels to his name and Dr No in the works, Ian Fleming displayed one of the unmistakable signs of megalomania: he began to write of himself in the third person, and as a brand. He also flaunted the Bond-like trait of an unashamed chancer, trying to write off his taste in sports cars as a business expense. “The success of Mr Fleming’s books has depended in considerable measure on their verisimilitude,” he wrote to his accountant, a certain HW Vallance Lodge, suggesting a possible line of attack against the Inland Revenue. Fleming had established his own company, Glidrose, at the very start of his Bond career, and surely, he argued, it shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for his deep literary research: “It might be thought extravagant that the company should have purchased a rather expensive sports car for Mr Fleming in preference to a modest family saloon were it not for the nature of Mr Fleming’s highly successful books. These are Secret Service thrillers in which the hero and other characters make frequent use of fast cars and live in what might be described as ‘the fast car life’.”

We do not learn how the inspector of taxes responded to this request, but we can now be sure that Fleming was cannily and obsessively concerned with protecting, boosting and complaining about his earnings throughout his career. His fear that he might be victim to some grand scheme of exploitation by his publisher, Jonathan Cape, seldom abates even at the height of his success. Fleming chose not to have an agent in the UK, and his negotiations with Cape are often blunt, wheedling and grasping, an approach one seldom associates with a writer of such public grandeur. In May 1953, for example, he was concerned that his royalties would only just keep his wife Ann “in asparagus over Coronation week… I do hope you will sympathise with my financial aspirations which, I am afraid, are serious.” Agent 007 would have shuddered at such pleading.
Fleming happily compared himself with the other big hitters of the day, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton. On this evidence he generally found plot construction or characterisation a breeze, and he treats his writing rather technically, a cerebral and strategic template for thrills and suspense. But he did struggle repeatedly with jacket designs and titles. Live and Let Die will always be one of the quintessential Bond calling cards, but it could easily have been The Undertaker’s Wind (a suggestion later relegated to a chapter title). Or how about The Inhuman Element or Wide of the Mark in place of Moonraker? Fleming also had rather tortured exchanges over marketing campaigns, more than once offering to contribute a large spend on his own promotion.
Fleming suffered mixed fortunes from the critics, although even scathing reviews seemed to have little impact on his soaring sales. Vulnerable, prickly and bullish, he judged his books primarily as entertainments, and was swift to respond to those who perceived a cruelty and inhumane chill in his writing.
In April 1958 he replied to accusations in the Manchester Guardian that his work exhibited dangerous signs of moral decay. “It is true that sex plays an important part in James Bond’s life, and that his profession requires him to be more or less constantly involved in violent action.” The intention, he argued, was to establish a particular depth of character, but maybe there were also psychological explanations: “Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion.”
Fleming wrote fast – 14 Bonds in 12 years, in addition to Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bangand three nonfiction titles – and his ambitions were never sated. The roots of his desires – for more acclaim, more money, more respect – may lie in his earlier privileged life or his wartime service as a naval intelligence officer, but we get few clues here.
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Mahesh Rao: One Point Two Billion

Like many of Mahesh Rao’s stories, “Minu Goyari Day” is a slow-burning fuse. We are in the imaginative universe of the boy next door, who is fascinated by volcanoes, the internet and Rasputin, and terrified of wetting his bed. Only by degrees do we realise we are watching him watch the unravelling of his mother, whose husband was blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Assam when the child was a year old. The man’s shoes were unaccountably untouched, and the boy, who has no memory of his father, confesses he thinks of him “mainly when he goes to Bata and sees rows of lace-ups and loafers gleaming on their brackets all the way to the ceiling”.
In the best stories here, meaning shimmers between the lines; apparently humdrum observations and innocuous happenings, taken together, create a resonance that lingers in the air like a vibration. In “The Agony of Leaves”, set in a Nilgiri tea estate where there is nothing to do except watch the rain and play rummy, a man falls in love with his daughter-in-law. The inexorable accretion of the old man’s misreadings of glances and words turns a harmless bit of daydreaming (“A man my age must be allowed a last frolic in his head”) into tragedy. Punctuated by the sound of taps dripping, caustic exchanges between father and son, the smell of tea, and the cataclysmic effect of low-cut blouses, the story carries echoes of Yasunari Kawabata’s fiction, and a similar magic.
The title refers to the population of India, and the book traverses, with a kind of dizzying thoroughness, the length and breadth of the country. The thread that binds the stories is not culture or religion or language but violence. In almost every piece, seemingly inconsequential flutterings build up to a storm of aggression. An old crone imprisoned in an internment camp in central India feeds her starving body with revenge; a spoilt rich kid in Delhi drowns her little step-brother-to-be in a hot tub; a wrestler in Uttar Pradesh leaves a friend half-dead; a mass grave is discovered in lands belonging to a feudal family in Rajasthan. There is terrorism, jealousy, police brutality, infidelity and mass murder as well as comedy and high-society gossip.
It sounds schematic, and a few of the stories trudge through predictable terrain. Most of them manage to sidestep the obvious, though, and the tired old battles in them are given a new edge. Sometimes it is just the odd comic detail that does it. In the Kashmir story, a hollow-chested, slack-jawed, timid young man carrying out the riskiest venture of his life is befriended with untimely and unwanted warmth: “The dog sidled up to him, cocked its head towards his bags and tried to lick his leg. ‘Shoo’ said Farooq … the dog continued to pad alongside, appearing to have concluded that their fates were favourably and inevitably entwined. Farooq paused and pleaded with it for the last time, ‘Shoo.’”
I’m still wondering how Mahesh Rao, originally from Kenya, did it: did he get a really big travel grant that allowed him to live in all these places? Did he learn 10 languages? How is he able to inhabit the various cultural universes his book animates? Because inhabit them he does, and with the greatest ease. He has a ventriloquist’s gift for different voices, writing with equal conviction about a traditional wrestling school and a yoga institute for foreigners.
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