Monday, 30 November 2015

Tagore's writings in various shades of difference

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's work in diverse genres has always attracted and fascinated authors and readers alike. This collection of some of his greatest works talks about Tagore's attempt to approach the central impulse of contradiction in various aspects of life. 

The collection includes short stories, plays, poems, articles, travel writing, correspondence and conversations. It depicts his complex, dynamic approach to commonly perceived dualities, like life versus death, nature versus culture, male versus female, tradition versus modernity, East versus West, local versus universal and urban versus rural, to highlight his humanistic vision and its significance for the modern world. 

The editor of the book, Radha Chakravarty, is a writer, critic and translator. She has also co-edited The Essential Tagore, which was nominated the New Statesman Book of the Year 2011. She is the author of Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers and Novelist Tagore: Gender and Modernity in Selected Texts. 

The book also comes with a DVD, which has paintings, doodles, music of Rabindranath Tagore among many other things. 

The book has English translation of short stories of Tagore like 'A Fantastic Tale', 'The Living and the Dead' and 'Trespass'. It also has his plays like 'Chitra' and 'Chandalika'. Translation from his famous poem 'Gitanjali' is also there. 

In Gitanjali, the poet abjures the elitism of Brahminical temple-rituals, and affirms his faith in a God who lives among the downtrodden toilers of this earth. 

Chakravarty, in her book, said Tagore's intuitions and judgements were never value-neutral. His recognition of heterogeneity and insistence on inclusivity do not imply an absence of ethical, moral, social, political and aesthetic discrimination. 

"Nor is Tagore's thinking simplistic. While constantly alive to the heterogeneity of the world around him, he refuses to reduce things to rigid binaries. In place of black and white categorisations, we discover in his works fine-tuned shades of difference, a whole spectrum of possibilities," she said. 

Tagore was brought up in a household that followed eclectic cultural practices, drawing elements from indigenous as well as European traditions. He was thus acutely aware of differences between cultures but was also receptive to a range of influences from traditions that did not always dovetail neatly, Chakravarty observed. 

The book mentions about Tagore's early life and how it was frequently touched by the shadow of death and how later it had left an impression on his writings. 

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

T S Eliot and the sexual wasteland

For most of his lifetime T S Eliot appeared an austere and reticent figure. During the long breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he took a vow of celibacy in 1928, controlled his relations with other women, and in 1953 planned to retire to an abbey. So some may be surprised by the sexual content of two sets of poems published in full for the first time in a complete edition of his Poems.

The editors politely call the earlier set “Improper Rhymes”; in truth, it’s a smutty romp. The later set contains poems of marital love, written for his second wife, Valerie Fletcher. Neither set remotely approaches the greatness of the 1963 Collected Poems, Eliot’s last volume before he died in 1965, and we may wonder how to place erotic exploits in our sense of his life and character.

As a student at Harvard, he began circulating his Columbo and Bolo jingles between about 1908 and 1914. For men only, and degrading women, Jews and blacks, they offer the spectacle of a penis so mighty it can rip a “whore” “from cunt to navel”. This revel in violence is varied by the antics of the sex-mad King Bolo and his Big Black Kween, whose bum is as big as a soup tureen.

After Eliot settled in London in 1915 he was prepared to publish the verses, but Wyndham Lewis, to whom they were offered for his avant-garde magazine Blast, declined to print words “ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger”.

At first, when I came upon the Bolovian Court and Columbo and his crew, I assumed that they were a juvenile aberration. The third volume of Letters (covering the period of Eliot’s conversion to the Anglican faith in June 1927) presents a challenge to this. For the obscene verse that Eliot continued to write and disseminate as late as the age of 44 is not, in his own post-conversion view, an aberration. In an exchange with his fellow publisher Geoffrey Faber in August 1927 he commends obscenity, in the manner of Swift, as an eye for evil.

Here is an elevated justification, and I have tried to accept it. All the same, hesitation has lingered. For one thing, an eye for evil is dangerously godlike, a danger acknowledged by Eliot’s Puritan forebear Andrew Eliott, who condemned innocents to death at the Salem witch trials. In 1692 Eliott confessed that he and his co-jurors had been unable to withstand the delusions of the powers of darkness. Can Tom Eliot be something of a throwback to the punitive temper of those old New England Puritans, and foreign, after all, to the mild-mannered Anglicans whose faith he adopted? Conceivably he was testing and judging the morality of the recipients of his smut, among them his Harvard buddy Conrad Aiken, Ezra Pound and a Criterion board member called Bonamy Dobrée.

Hesitation lingers also because the pervasive history of violence against women makes it impossible to be amused by the incitement to sexual violence that accompanies Eliot’s obscenity. This is not imaginative. It’s as banal as Eliot’s stabs at anti-Semitism – as banal as evil.

Eliot concealed his extremes with a normative mask: the City uniform of his bowler hat, rolled umbrella and what his first editor, Virginia Woolf, called his “four-piece suit”. Eliot himself caricatures propriety in the figure of J Alfred Prufrock at a Boston tea party, too prudish, too buttoned-up for love, recoiling from a woman whose arm, moving to wrap a shawl, is “downed with light brown hair”.

This shudder precedes Eliot’s doomed first marriage and intensifies over the years as a counter to what he termed “the wind beyond the world” – an evanescent vision that came but rarely. There is disgust with the flesh in “Sweeney Erect”, where sex is associated with the jolts of an epileptic attack. In the drafts of The Waste Land, the clerk and the typist couple “like crawling bugs”.

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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Forbidden Love - The passions behind Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt.”

In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was complete, but it would be more than a year before it was published. A Texas native with thick black hair and feral good looks, Highsmith made a habit of standing at attention when a woman walked into the room. That Christmas season, she was working behind the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, in order to help pay for psychoanalysis. She wanted to explore the sharp ambivalence she felt about marrying her fiancé, a novelist named Marc Brandel. Highsmith was a Barnard graduate, and, like many sophisticates at the time, she viewed homosexuality as a psychological defect that could be fixed; yet she had enough self-respect and sexual appetite to reject any attempt to fix her own. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,” Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” She never married Brandel—or anyone else.

One day, a woman in a mink coat drifted into the toy department. Highsmith later recalled, “Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, Highsmith was captivated by frosty blondes, all the more so if they were married and rich. The shopper, who slapped her gloves into one hand as she scanned the merchandise, made Highsmith feel “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting yet at the same time uplifted.” With an abstracted air, the woman, Mrs. E. R. Senn, bought a doll from Highsmith.

That night, Highsmith wrote an eight-page outline for a novel: a love story about Therese Belivet, a diffident nineteen-year-old who lives on her own in New York City, and Carol Aird, a wealthy suburban wife and mother in her thirties. Highsmith conjured what Therese would feel upon catching her first glimpse of Carol: “I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her. Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her. Though there are seven girls between us, I know, she knows, she will come to me and have me wait on her.”

Highsmith published the novel, “The Price of Salt,” in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She was understandably wary of derailing her career, but she also may have been uncomfortable with the book’s exaltation of love. Highsmith never wrote another book like it; indeed, her work became known for its ostentatious misanthropy. And for the next four decades she publicly dodged any connection to a book of which she had every right to be proud.

Highsmith was a pared-down, precise writer whose stories rarely strayed from the solipsistic minds of her protagonists—most of them killers (like the suave psychopath Tom Ripley) or would-be killers (like the unhappy husbands in several of her books). “The Price of Salt” is the only Highsmith novel in which no violent crime occurs.

Therese is not an eloquent or self-revealing character, and her dialogue with Carol is sometimes banal. Yet the novel is viscerally romantic. When Therese visits Carol’s home for the first time, Carol offers her a glass of warm milk that tastes of “bone and blood, of warm flesh, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo.” The two women embark on a road trip, and the descriptions of it read like a noirish dream—stiff drinks, wood-panelled motel rooms, a gun in a suitcase. A detective hired by Carol’s husband pursues the couple, and you can feel Highsmith’s thriller muscles twitching to life.

The love story is at once hijacked and heightened by the chase story. Therese’s feelings, massing at the edge of her perception like the storm clouds out the car window, are a mystery to her. The weight of what goes unsaid as she and Carol talk about the towns they pass or where they might stop for breakfast builds in an almost ominous way. Like a girl in a fairy tale who has been put under a spell, Therese falls silent on the open road: “She did not want to talk. Yet she felt there were thousands of words choking her throat, and perhaps only distance, thousands of miles, could straighten them out.”

When the women at last make love, Highsmith describes it with a sacramental intensity appropriate to the young Therese: “Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else, of Carol’s hand that slid along her ribs, Carol’s hair that brushed her bare breasts, and then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.” It makes for a stark contrast with the way Highsmith once described an attempt to have sex with a man, which felt to her like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place.”

This month, “Carol,” a film adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” directed by Todd Haynes, opens in theatres. Haynes is known for his meditations on lush mid-century genres: women’s pictures, Technicolor melodrama. Instead of treating such material as kitsch, he teases out emotions that were latent in the originals, showing what once could not be shown. Both “Carol” and “Far from Heaven”—his 2002 homage to the movies of Douglas Sirk—feel like fifties films that somehow eluded the Hays Code. Haynes’s direction largely hews to the conventions of old Hollywood: in “Carol,” there’s a sex scene between the two women, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but it’s more swoony than libidinous. The characters don’t use the word “lesbian”; the dialogue is mannered. Haynes’s approach suits the novel, which is neither prim nor explicit about the women’s affair.

Our image of the fifties still tends to be shaped by “Father Knows Best” clichés of contentedly conforming nuclear families. But the era offered some surprising freedoms. “The Price of Salt” depicts a world where a suburban matron could take a salesgirl she’s just met out for Old-Fashioneds in the middle of the day—and where two women in love might live together, hiding in plain sight as roommates, more easily than two gay men or an unmarried heterosexual couple might. In a recent interview with Film Comment, Haynes said that the “indecipherability” of lesbianism at the time—the “unimagined notions of what love between women might even look like”—is the engine of Highsmith’s plot.

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Was He Quite Ordinary? - Marcus Aurelius

In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai made an extraordinary discovery in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He spotted that a book containing the records of the First Church Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 had been made out of reused parchment. The earlier writing on each sheet had been erased (washing with milk and oat-bran was the common method), and the minutes of the Church Council copied on top. As often in reused documents of this kind, the original text had begun to show through the later writing, and was in part legible.
It turned out that the recycled sheets had come from a very mixed bag of books. There was a single page of Juvenal’s Satires, part of Pliny’s speech in praise of Trajan (thePanegyric) and some commentary on the Gospel of St John. But the prize finds, making up the largest part of the book, were faintly legible copies of the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, one of the leading scholars and orators of the second century ad, and tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180. The majority of the letters in the palimpsest were between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius himself, both before and after he had ascended to the throne. Unlike the passages from Juvenal and Pliny, these were entirely new discoveries.
By an almost suspicious coincidence, when Mai moved to the Vatican Library a few years later, he found another volume of the same proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon – with more of Fronto’s correspondence detectable under the later text. Altogether, these palimpsests had preserved more than 200 letters – some 80 of them written by Marcus Aurelius. Not only did this count as the third great collection of private letters to have survived from classical antiquity, after those of Cicero and Pliny, it also promised insights into the private world of one of the most renowned Roman rulers: the philosopher-emperor and author of the philosophical Meditations; persecutor of Christians; conqueror of the Germans (in campaigns immortalised on his column in Rome); and father of the monstrous emperor Commodus. For many thinkers of the 19th century – from Darwin to Nietzsche – Marcus was an intellectual hero. Even Bill Clinton claimed (according to Frank McLynn in his new biography) ‘to have read and reread’ the Meditations during his presidency. For most people now, Marcus Aurelius is remembered as the elderly emperor smothered by young Commodus on campaign on the German frontier at the start of the movie Gladiator.
The rest of the story of the discovery of these letters is less heroic. The text proved almost impossible to read in many places – a problem made worse by Mai’s interventions. Sharp-eyed maybe, but no scientist, Mai applied chemicals to the Ambrosian parchment in order to make the underlying text easier to decipher. In fact, the effect was almost completely to obliterate it. But even what was legible hardly matched up to expectations. For a start, whoever had collected the letters (surely not Fronto himself) had paid little attention to chronology, so that the exact, or even relative, dates of many were hard to fathom. But, more to the point, most 19th-century scholars had expected more elevated subject matter in these letters between the prince (later emperor) and his distinguished tutor in rhetoric. When Fronto wasn’t indulging in scholastic disputes about rhetorical theory, or the meaning and usage of obscure Latin words (what was the most appropriate term for ‘removing a stain’, maculam eluereabluere or elavere?), he was complaining about his physical ailments: ‘I have been seized with a dreadful pain in my neck, but my foot is better’, ‘I’m fine except that I can hardly walk because of a pain in the toes of my left foot’, ‘I’ve been seized with a terrible pain in the groin – all the pain from my back and pelvis has concentrated there’, and so on, and on.
But even more disconcerting were the open expressions of love, longing and desire found throughout the letters. ‘I love the gods who care for you, I love life because of you, I love letters with you . . . I gorge myself on love for you,’ as Fronto signed off one letter to his pupil. Or, as Marcus put it, at the end of what is probably one of the earliest letters in the collection, written when he was about 18, ‘Farewell, breath of my life. Should I not burn with love for you when you have written to me as you have. What am I to do? I can’t stop. Last year, at the very same time and the very same place, I found that I was burning with longing for my mother. This year the longing is set alight by you.’ It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that Amy Richlin recently argued – in Marcus Aurelius in Love (2006) – that, whether or not they were physical lovers, there was a marked erotic dimension in the relationship between tutor and imperial pupil. Not something that Mai had been expecting, or hoping, to find when he came upon the precious correspondence.
McLynn will have none of this. In fact, in his account of Marcus’ life, Fronto is a tedious hypochondriac, whose malign influence his pupil was eager to escape – and indeed already had escaped by the mid-140s, when he was in his early twenties, more than 15 years before he became emperor. Perhaps, he writes, ‘Marcus had learned all he needed from Fronto; perhaps he had begun to tire of the older man’s pedantic ways; and, probably most of all, he was by now bored with rhetoric and wanted to switch full time to philosophy.’ On this view, many of the later letters in the collection are nothing more than attempts by Fronto to wheedle his way back into Marcus’ affections. Sometimes this is by fawning: in one letter, for example, he claims that his relationship with Marcus was more important to him than holding the consulship, and proceeds to compare their friendship to that of Achilles and Patroclus. Sometimes it is by playing for sympathy – hence all the complaints about ill-health. This did not cut much ice, McLynn believes, with Marcus himself, but it has worked with modern scholars, who have been convinced by this correspondence that there was a particularly close relationship between Fronto and his pupil.
What, then, of the erotic language of the letters? McLynn sees no need to suppose anything directly sexual here at all. This is merely the idiom of the second century, reflecting a world unlike our own (he claims), in which it was possible for two men to ‘express love without sexuality’. Or – though this seems a significantly different point – ‘Marcus and Fronto used the word “love” in a ludic way . . . it was a kind of elaborate charade or game, in its way part of the very rhetorical hyperbole that Fronto was supposed to be teaching his pupil.’
It is, of course, impossible now – as it no doubt always was – to know what, if anything, went on between Fronto and Marcus when the lights were out. McLynn is right to say that we cannot move directly from a loving linguistic idiom to sexual practice (the same is true when we try to decode the sentimentality of 19th-century women’s letters). And the fact, as we have seen, that Marcus compares his longing for Fronto to his longing for his mother does not instantly suggest sexual desire. That said, McLynn consistently plays down the aggressively eroticised tone of the correspondence, as well as the implications of Fronto’s comparing of his own relationship with his pupil to that of Achilles with Patroclus. Long before the second century, this Homeric pair had become a well recognised symbol for male homoeroticism.
The problem with McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius is not just how he chooses to tell the story of Fronto and Marcus, which is only one element in his vast study of the reign. Apart from the many digressions that help him fill these pages (a whole chapter on the reign of Commodus, an eight-page summary of Rome’s relations with Parthia from the first century BC, and another 15 on the Germans) he has some big claims to make about Marcus Aurelius’ place in the wider history of the Roman Empire. Like many others, Gibbon among them, McLynn has considerable admiration for the moral stature and personal integrity of the emperor himself. Yet, for all those virtues, he sees the reign as the beginning of the end of the glory days of Roman imperial power – thanks to a combination of the poisoned legacy of the paranoid emperor Hadrian, the ambivalent political and military successes of Marcus himself, and a devastating plague, which may on McLynn’s generous estimates have wiped out up to 18 million people across the Roman world, including the emperor himself (despite the Gladiator version of his death). He was in other words a decent, thoughtful man ‘caught up in the whirlwind of history’ – the Jan Christian Smuts of his generation, as one, rather forced, comparison in McLynn’s final chapter presents him.
There may be something in this (though there are rather too many ‘whirlwinds of history’ rushing through this book for my taste). But the real problem is that, as in his discussion of Fronto and Marcus, McLynn is throughout reluctant to share with his readers the curious fragility of the evidence on which his own version of Marcus Aurelius’ life and achievements is based. So, unlike Richlin, he chooses not to explain the strange history of the Fronto letters or to remark on the gaps in the correspondence and the reasons that may lie behind them. When he uses the letters to reconstruct the major events of the reign, or even just the shifting fortunes of Marcus and Fronto themselves, he does not stop to point out that the dates of many of them are either unknown or disputed – that you cannot, for very obvious reasons, simply string them together into a narrative.
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The darker side of George Eliot

The most intriguing aspect of George Eliot's life has to be her honeymoon in Venice, in the summer of 1880. Her decision, at the age of 60, to marry John Cross, a young friend some 20 years her junior, had excited disapproval among friends and acquaintances, not least because GH Lewes, with whom she had enjoyed a long and loving relationship, had been dead for less than two years.

Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, who begins to love Will Ladislaw while she is still married to Casaubon, Eliot had been delighted by Cross's youth and devotion long before Lewes's death. But their honeymoon punctured the fantasy for both when Cross leaped from the balcony of their hotel suite, sailing over three or four gondolas before landing in the middle of the Grand Canal. He was rescued and carried back to his room unharmed.

Tongues started wagging. Had Cross been in flight from the sexual demands of his older wife? "One could say he had a lucky escape!" wrote an Italian journalist with unconscious irony. Was it true Cross had begged the gondoliers not to drag him out of the canal? Brenda Maddox, in her jaunty sketch of Eliot's life, believes Cross was suffering from a recurrence of severe depressive illness. She also thinks that the marriage was unconsummated. It was, in any case, short-lived. Eliot was dead and buried in Highgate cemetery in just six months. Cross - "George Eliot's widow", as he was unkindly known - became the keeper of the flame, producing a biography of his late wife that enshrined her as a sibyl and earnest talking head, leaving one critic to bemoan the absence of the "salt and spice" of Eliot's life.

Brenda Maddox is very keen on the salt and spice, as the ominous description "lover" indicates in the book's subtitle. Sex and money, not provincial piety and natural history, or even novel writing, dominate here, making GH Lewes's nickname for Eliot - "Madonna" - appear curiously apposite. Maddox tells what is essentially a familiar tale: of the Midlands ugly duckling, Marian Evans, born in 1819, who became a literary swan and scandalised polite society (and especially her brother Isaac) through her common-law relationship with Lewes, said to be the only person more unattractive than she was. The "great horse-faced bluestocking", as Henry James called Eliot, spent her formative years impressing men with the perfection of her mind while suffering from the belief that her heavy, irregular features would never bring her husband.

Nevertheless, if we are to believe Maddox, Eliot lost her virginity early on to one of two older men, Charles Bray or Robert Brabant. She was then alerted to the "dangerous attractiveness" of the radical journalist John Chapman, complicating the domestic menage he already shared with his wife and mistress, before throwing herself desperately at Herbert Spencer, who later unchivalrously contributed an essay on "Personal Beauty" to a magazine edited by Lewes, attributing ugliness to mental and racial inferiority.

Only with Lewes did she find a safe berth and a launching pad for her novels of genius. "Lewes was an experienced lover and Marian was ripe for awakening," Maddox assures us, slipping in the scarcely surprising detail that the couple must have used condoms.

Having exhausted the sexual potential of her subject, Maddox turns in her book's second half to Eliot's earning power. She wasn't, it seems, quite on a par with Dickens, but certainly in his league, having her house in Regent's Park decorated by a fashionable interior designer. For Romola, her novel of 15th-century Florence, and her least popular work of fiction, Eliot received £7,000 - almost £500,000 in today's money - then the highest sum paid for an English novel.

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Friday, 27 November 2015

Iris Murdoch and an enduring love affair

In The Black Prince, her great novel about the perils of love, Iris Murdoch has her main character say: "What dangerous machines letters are: perhaps it is as well that they are going out of fashion. A letter can be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs imagination and fantasy, it persists, it is red-hot evidence." She was herself a recklessly prolific correspondent who destroyed quantities of letters she received but left many of her own behind; and over the last 10 days the truth of those lines has been well demonstrated, with the news that some 250 of her letters to her lifelong friend, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, have been made public by Kingston University. With depressing predictability, and ignoring a careful press release, newspaper headlines announced "Iris Murdoch's 60-year lesbian relationship with her best friend and lover revealed".

As it happens, I have been studying that friendship between two brilliant and remarkable women and have had access to the whole correspondence. I never met Foot, but knew of her work as a leading moral philosopher; Murdoch I knew slightly, but her novels have absorbed, entertained and educated me since I first read them in the 1960s. To me she remains a great writer, whose reputation has been overshadowed by details of her private life and decline into Alzheimer's.

I have been planning to write a book about friendship, and after Peter Conradi's biography of Murdoch came out in 1991 I knew that her relationship with Philippa Foot would form part of it. Friendship, to my mind, is an undervalued and under-explored subject, often treated as a less important, tepid version of romantic or erotic love. Iris and Philippa did not have a 60-year affair, although there was a brief period around 1968 when their friendship became physical. Soon, as Philippa explained to Conradi, they realised that their feeling for each other was "not best expressed" in that way. The affair quietly ended; they remained close and loving friends for another 30 years. "Essential you" was how Iris described her friend. Philippa called Iris, after her death, "the light of my life".

They met in Oxford in the autumn of 1939, as the war was starting. Iris was 20 and had been at Somerville for a year; Philippa Bosanquet was a year younger. They were both studying philosophy, and one of their tutors was the eccentric moral and religious philosopher Donald Mackinnon, a fervent Catholic who believed that philosophy was meaningless if it did not concern itself with how to live a good life. This became an increasingly unfashionable view in Oxford, where the focus was firmly on language and facts, not values, and where metaphysics, Iris's natural habitat, had no place in serious thinking.

They had eager, brilliant minds but were otherwise very different. Philippa was cooler, taller, more elegant and upper class; she grew up in a grand house in Yorkshire with governesses, ponies and plenty of money. Iris's parents were Irish; born in Dublin, she was smaller, rounder, fairer, more intense and better educated. By late 1943, both with first-class degrees, they were happily sharing a cavernous, cold, mouse-ridden flat in Seaforth Place in London and working as civil servants. Iris was writing long letters to (among others) her platonic love, Frank Thompson, while experimenting with several admirers, including Michael Foot (the future historian, not the Labour politician). Philippa was precariously involved with a former tutor, the clever, predatory economist Tommy Balogh. Within a few months, in an emotional dance her readers might now call Murdochian, Iris had dismissed Foot, who was distraught, and taken up with Balogh, thus badly wounding her friend. But, as in many of her novels, Eros had struck and they were all his victims. Before long the unreliable Balogh was gone, Philippa and Michael Foot had fallen in love and Iris found herself excluded, unloved and unwanted.

The pain and guilt Iris had brought on herself marked her writing and her thinking for the rest of her life. One of Mackinnon's precepts had been "do no harm", and she knew she had harmed all three of them. She would never stop exploring two great questions: how to love without ego, and how to be unsmugly good.

By the time the war ended, Philippa and Michael – who had survived being wounded and captured on an SOE mission to France – were married, Frank Thompson was dead, murdered by fascists in Bulgaria, and Iris had failed to find a lasting love. In the bleak winter of 1946 she wrote a handful of letters that show how deep the damage had been. The Foots were living happily in Oxford, teaching and studying; she was with her parents in Chiswick, trying and failing to find an academic post. "It seems perhaps a foolish useless gesture after so long," she wrote, "to say – I'm so sorry I caused you both to suffer - but I do say it, most humbly, and believe me I do feel it." As well as a plea for forgiveness, her letter read like a declaration. "Pippa, you know without my telling you that my love for you remains as deep and tender as ever – and always will remain, it is so deep in me and so much part of me. I cannot imagine that anyone will ever take your place. I think of you very often. My dear heart, I love you."

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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Our Contemporary, Montaigne: He Pioneered the Personal Essay and Made Candor Literary

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave one of the most important speeches in American history, an address at Harvard University in which he urged students to fulfill the country’s political independence by being intellectually and culturally independent, too.
Through his “American Scholar” speech, Emerson suggested that his fellow citizens should test the ideas of the Old World against experience, and not simply embrace them through habit. “It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago,” said Emerson. “As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.”
Emerson found the courage to question accepted wisdom in many places, but an important model for his critical thinking came, oddly enough, from Michel de Montaigne, an icon of the European literary tradition Emerson regarded so skeptically. In the early days of his career, as Emerson was seeking the best way to think and write, he looked to Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, as an inspiration. Later, Emerson wrote an essay about his hero, “Montaigne; or the Skeptic.”
Montaigne and Emerson are an unlikely literary pair. Emerson, an often earnest New Englander with a Brahmin’s sense of propriety, once took Walt Whitman on a walk and advised the poet to tone down the “sex element” in Leaves of Grass. Montaigne, by contrast, could be unabashedly frank, mentioning his track record with various enemas (“farted endlessly”) and treating sex with matter-of-fact candor.
That sensibility sometimes left Emerson breathless. “Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness,” Emerson observes, with quite possibly a sigh, “but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.” Montaigne’s occasional explicitness, although not to Emerson’s taste, seemed to express his willingness to see things clearly.
Emerson first encountered the French writer as a young man. He had inherited a volume of Montaigne’s essays from his late father’s library, but he had neglected it for years, only opening the book one day not long after he graduated from college. Reading Montaigne was a revelation.
“It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience,” Emerson declared. “I know not anywhere a book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets.”
Emerson’s feeling of finding himself in Montaigne’s essays has been a common one for Montaigne fans. Shakespeare appears to have read Montaigne’s essays and worked their insights into his plays, so that to watch the Bard is to see Montaigne just beyond the stage lamps, winking with approval. Virginia Woolf compared reading Montaigne to looking at a portrait and seeing your own image. “For thirty years,” Gore Vidal told readers a few years before his death, “I have kept Donald M. Frame’s translation of The Complete Works of Montaigne at, if not bedside, hand. There are numerous interlocking Olympic circles on the maroon binding where glasses were set after I had written some no longer decipherable commentary in the margin or, simply, ‘How true!’”
The late Lewis Thomas, one of America’s celebrated modern essayists, was another admirer. “For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read,” said Lewis, “and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”
This is all tall praise, indeed, for a writer who seemed to do exactly the opposite of what was required to achieve literary fame. Born in 1533, Montaigne came from a wealthy family and held important government positions, including work as an adviser to three French kings. He studied law and served as a magistrate and mayor of Bordeaux. Even after ostensibly retiring, he continued to keep a hand in public life, mediating France’s religious strife and serving once again as Bordeaux’s mayor.
When Montaigne retreated to his country estate at age thirty-eight, instead of writing about his life at the center of power, he wrote mostly about what he saw from his tower library. The fruits of that period of relative seclusion secured his place in posterity. As the New Yorker’s Jane Kramer has pointed out, every French schoolchild learns the date of Montaigne’s “retirement”—February 28, 1571—because of its significance to the literature of France and, indeed, the world. “He had his books for company,” writes Kramer, “his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and, to support it all, the income from a large estate, not to mention a fortune built on the salt-herring and wine trades, which, in the last century, had turned his family into a landed gentry.”
At first glance, the musings from a man of leisure didn’t seem the most promising material for a best-seller. Instead of penning an epic poem, a historical narrative, or an imposing treatise on government, a project for which he was eminently qualified, Montaigne decided to simply follow his thoughts wherever they led. The complete edition of his Essays is about thirteen hundred pages, but there’s no obvious plot or design. Topics include everything from sadness to sleep, lying to Cicero, and drunkenness to the pleasure of books. Montaigne even includes a lengthy essay on thumbs, of all things. Like many educated men of the Renaissance, Montaigne looked to Greek and Latin classics for inspiration. “His first tutor spoke only Latin to him, and Montaigne himself spoke no French until he was five years old,” notes scholar Kia Penso. In his writings, Montaigne quotes the Greek commentator Plutarch so often that the ancient historian and moralist presides over the essays like a favored uncle at the dinner table. But while Montaigne, ever the lawyer, leans on precedent when useful in making his case, he also embraces the Renaissance enthusiasm for close personal observation as an avenue to truth. He’s one of the world’s great noticers, his essays suffused with the texture of everyday sensation.
A quick look through the essays turns up one gem after another. “I have never had any trouble except in the management of my own affairs. Epicurus says that to be rich is not the end, but only a change, of worries,” he laments at one point. “Nature seems to have inclined mankind to social intercourse above all else. And its supreme point of perfection, I find, is friendship,” he observes in another passage. Another turn of the page reveals this thought: “I can dine without a tablecloth, but hardly without clean napkins, as the Germans do; for I soil them more than they or the Italians, since I make little use of a spoon or fork. I regret that the royal custom of changing napkins, together with the plates, after every course, is not more widespread.” And then one dips in and finds Montaigne bridging the ageless subjects of sex and death with cutting concision: “Everyone, certainly, flees from seeing a man born, and everyone rushes to see him die. To destroy a man we use a large field in open daylight. But to make a man we sneak into as dark and secluded a corner as we can.”
The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”
When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.
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Aldous Huxley versus the Mesomorphs

When Bert Goodrich called the shopfitters into 6624 Hollywood Boulevard, in 1953, most West Coast gyms were low-rent hideaways for a blue-collar army of boxers, grapplers and Herculean bodybuilders. Thanks to Goodrich, a former Mr America and one-time stunt double for John Wayne, a new generation of young and upwardly mobile Americans was about to be inducted into his mirrored palace of barbells, chin bars and pulley machines.
Up in the hills of Hollywood lived a gently spoken pacifist, an urbane man of letters whose personal loathing of sport had taken root on the playing fields of Eton. Over 6 foot 4 in height, with poor vision and the unwieldy demeanour of a “giant grasshopper”, Aldous Huxley was no more likely to be seen at Goodrich’s Gym to the Stars than Joe McCarthy sightseeing in Red Square. To adapt the words of George Orwell, his former student and near doppelgänger, competitive sport was for Master Huxley essentially a crucible of “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence”; it was “war minus the shooting”.
Huxley may have winced at the grunting machismo on display at Goodrich’s gym, yet he was, in his own donnish way, intrigued by the relationship between physique and personality. In fact, Huxley had, since coming to America in 1937, begun to believe that his literary talents and deficiencies were the congenital offshoots of his elongated shape. “The gut of a round fat man, like G. K. Chesterton, may be as much as forty feet long. The gut of a thin man like myself maybe as little as eighteen and would weigh half what the Chestertonian intestine weighs. It would obviously be miraculous if this physical difference were not correlated with a mental difference.” As “a tall, emaciated fellow on stilts”, Huxley reckoned that he simply lacked the stomach of a good storyteller.
Whatever his shortcomings as a novelist of character and dramatic action, there was certainly no denying the staggering panorama of ideas that Huxley, a self-styled professor of nothing-in-particular, could navigate in his fiction and essays. From the history of scissors to Chinese ceramics, Vedic scripture to medieval gastronomy, his reach was telescopic. But Southern California, his adopted home, ushered him towards a new role. Frustrated by his moderate success as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Huxley found sustenance in a diet of mysticism and mescaline, hypnosis and dianetics. Writing for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, lecturing to ever-more crowded auditoriums, Huxley took the question of human potential writ large as his intellectual lodestar. What non-revolutionary measures could the godless society pursue to expand the heart and mind? How could co-operation and collectivism replace the urge to control and dominate?
To answer these and other questions, Huxley plundered psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, anthropology, psychopharmacology and evolutionary biology. According to his own definition, he was now a “pontifex”, a bridge between science and the general world, a kind of freelance human engineer. But like the hapless Theodor Gumbrich, the inventor of the world’s first pneumatic trousers, from Antic Hay (1923), Huxley’s rapport with new scientific research and technology was sometimes seriously misjudged.
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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Marcus Aurelius: The Meditations, Book Two

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these thingshappen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. 

Whatever this is that I am, it is a little flesh and breath, and the ruling part. Throw away thy books; no longer distract thyself: it is not allowed; but as if thou wast now dying, despise the flesh; it is blood and bones and a network, a contexture of nerves, veins, and arteries. Seethe breath also, what kind of a thing it is, air, and not always the same, but every moment sent out and again sucked in. The third then is the ruling part: consider thus: Thou art an old man; no longer let this be a slave, no longer be pulled by the strings like a puppet to unsocial movements, no longer either be dissatisfied with thy present lot, or shrink from the future. 

All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving andinvolution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow; and there is besides necessity, and that which is forthe advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part. But that is good for every part of nature which the nature of the whole brings,and what serves to maintain this nature. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements so by the changes of things compounded of the elements. Let these principles be enough for thee, let them always be fixed opinions. But cast away the thirst after books, that thou mayest not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to the gods. 

Remember how long thou hast been putting off these things, and how often thou hast received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it. Thou must now at last perceive of what universe thou art a part, and of what administrator of the universe thy existence is an efflux,and that a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing away the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go,and it will never return. 

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection,and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy lifeas if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things. 

Do wrong to thyself, do wrong to thyself, my soul; but thou wilt no longer have the opportunity of honouring thyself. Every man's life issufficient. But thine is nearly finished, though thy soul reverences not itself but places thy felicity in the souls of others. 

Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.But then thou must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts. 

Through not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy. 

This thou must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of a part it is of what kind of a whole; and that there is no one who hinders thee from always doing and saying the things which are according to the nature of which thou art a part. 

Theophrastus, in his comparison of bad acts- such a comparison as one would make in accordance with the common notions of mankind- says, like a true philosopher, that the offences which are committed through desire are more blameable than those which are committed through anger. For he who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire, being overpowered by pleasure, seems to be in a manner more intemperate and more womanish in his offences. Rightly then, and in a way worthy of philosophy, he said that the offence which is committed with pleasure is more blameable than that which is committed with pain; and on the whole the one is more like a person who has been first wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried towards doing something by desire. 

Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away fromamong men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if theyhave no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man's power to enable him not to fall into real evils. And as to the rest, if there was anything evil, they would have provided for this also, that it should be altogether in a man's power not to fall into it. Now that which does not make a man worse, how can it make a man's life worse? But neither through ignorance, nor having the knowledge, but not the power to guard against or correct these things, is it possible that the nature of the universe has overlooked them; nor is it possible that it has made so great a mistake, either through want of power or want of skill, that good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil. 

How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe. To observe too who these are whose opinions and voices give reputation; what death is, and the fact that, if a man looks at it in itself, and by the abstractive power of reflection resolves into their parts all the things which present themselves to the imagination in it, he will then consider it to be nothing else than an operation of nature; and if any one is afraid of an operation of nature, he is a child. This, however, is not only an operation of nature, but it is also a thing which conduces to the purposes of nature. To observe too how man comes near to the deity, and by what part of him, and when this part of man is so disposed. 

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Monday, 23 November 2015

A Hemingway Surprise

In the early photographs, Hemingway has a bold expression—stepping forward, saying “This is me”—accompanied by a squint that holds the camera at a certain distance. The attitude stops short of an available emotion. Toward the end of his career he would grow used to hearing himself demoted for an excess of surface and showmanship, as if his identification with the roles of celebrity, sportsman, and revolutionist, the friend of boxers and movie stars, implied a distrust of literature itself. This criticism was a plausible half-truth. At heart, he was a listener, and to a large extent a mimic, with the intellect to judge and sift the voices that he heard. Of all the moderns, Hemingway was the foremost defender of revision as a proof of serious craft. The more you could throw away, he said, the surer you could be that something of substance was there to begin with.

As the wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library makes clear, with its generous sample of photographs, books, corrected proof pages, and letters to and from the writer, Hemingway was already ambitious for fame in his teenage years in Oak Park, Illinois. His adolescent pieces show a strong pull toward genre fiction of the “boy’s adventure” type. (In his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, he would rank “the good Kipling” and Captain Marryat alongside Thoreau, Twain, Turgenev, Mozart, Bruegel, and Cézanne among the artists he had “learned the most from.”) A fondness for boyish subject matter and excitement would never leave him; you can see it in the keyed-up manly dialogue and fast melodrama of his play The Fifth Column.

But though Hemingway disliked “the trauma theory of literature,” especially as applied to himself, a particular grown-up experience seems to have formed him as much as any experience after childhood can do that for a writer. He was wounded in an Austrian trench mortar attack on July 8, 1918. His stories about soldiers who are recovering from battle injuries—“In Another Country,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be,” all of them extraordinary work—introduced and brought to perfection a style that nothing in English had prepared his readers for.

In the last of these stories, Nick Adams (as usual a stand-in for the author) rides his bicycle past the scene of a battle and “saw what had happened by the position of the dead.” This opening is followed by a one-sentence paragraph: “They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.” The next paragraph is a straightforward panorama of the dead, their weapons and debris—most of it done with semicolons, occasionally jostled by a comma splice to break the rhythm—the juddering syntax here keeping time with the hurried motions of the soldiers digging in. Already in these stories of the 1920s, what we are seeing is a discipline peculiar to Hemingway—a method of description that becomes a record of repressed emotion. The force of absent things and feelings is made more powerful by a minimal rendering of present details.

James Joyce, in stories from Dubliners like “An Encounter” or “After the Race,” may have supplied a clue to the method, but Hemingway pushed it further, and the documents at the Morgan all frame a question: How did he do it? His advance was partly owing to a canny choice of mentors: Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. With a pedagogic sense of purpose, Stein above all took an early interest in his work, and responded to a sheaf of novice stories with a note of severe encouragement that mattered greatly to Hemingway: “Begin over again and concentrate.”

Of his patience and the reward for his new beginning, a vivid illustration may be found in the manuscript revisions of the story “Indian Camp.” Nick Adams’s father, who is a doctor, has brought him along to deliver a baby. The Indian woman has been in labor for two days, and his father cuts her open, gets the baby to start breathing, stitches her up, and moves to inform the “proud father” only to discover that he has slit his throat. The man’s helplessness to relieve her screams, and perhaps horror and mortification at the sight of the doctor’s work, have been too much for him. A nervous stretch of dialogue between Nick and his father tries to absorb the shock:
“Is dying hard, Daddy?” 
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
Somewhere in this part, Hemingway had set to work on sentences to describe Nick’s fear: “He was not afraid of anything definite as yet. But he was getting very frightened afraid. Then all suddenly he was afraid of dying.” There is visible art in the substitution of “afraid” for “frightened”—taking the stronger and more grown-up word to repeat the fear—and in the deflection of the cliché “all of a sudden”; but the interesting thing when you look at the published story is that none of this passage was used. The narrator, as a knowing and explaining presence, has dissolved, first into the passage of straight dialogue and finally into a more indirect report of Nick’s very different afterthoughts. As he returns home with his father, the story closes in a dramatic non sequitur matched to a psychological truth: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

Among other instances of a similar paring down are some draft pages of “Big Two-Hearted River” and a specimen of the four thousand words with which The Sun Also Rises had originally begun—two entire chapters that were cut on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice. Hemingway had been too intrusive with his opinions of people and his worldly wisdom, and the effect was overbearing, a trespass against the reader’s freedom to trust the author at his own pace. In later years he mainly erred when he showed he loved the sound of his voice—a traceable weakness in Green Hills of Africa, and in some of his letters, with their profusion of nicknames for friends and cronies, wives and lovers. But he knew that Fitzgerald’s was the sound advice of a fellow artist, and he adopted a smaller suggestion from the same source to cut an “inside” boxing anecdote from the story “Fifty Grand.”

In Our Time (1925), the sequence of paragraph-sketches and stories in which “Indian Camp” first appeared, had been the basis of his reputation in Paris and New York, where he was known as an avant-garde writer. The Sun Also Rises (1926), written in six weeks in a rush of self-confidence he would never equal, brought him a larger fame. Edmund Wilson wrote on January 7, 1927, in a letter displayed at the Morgan: “I think your book is a knockout—perhaps the best piece of fiction that any American of this new crop has done.”

Within a few years, still in his early thirties, Hemingway was being sought by a scarcely younger generation for advice as a master of fiction. His reading list for Arnold Samuels, a visitor to Key West in the spring of 1934, shows a mixture of classical touchstones and near-contemporary favorites that is touchingly personal: two stories by Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” get an honorary place beside Flaubert and Dostoevsky and Henry James. Also on the list are Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; George Moore, Hail and Farewell; W.H. Hudson, Far Away and Long Ago; and E.E. Cummings, The Enormous Room.

By the mid-1930s, Hemingway was admired by writers of English prose with a fealty most unusual in the arts. A letter from John Steinbeck praises “The Butterfly and the Tank,” a story of the Spanish civil war published in 1938 in Esquire, but Steinbeck must have been looking for an excuse to write his letter. The story is hardly even a story but rather an anecdote, given in Hemingway’s person as something that happened to him: a homosexual, in an access of high spirits, uses a “flit gun” to spray with cologne a waiter at Chicote’s in Madrid (“a place sort of like The Stork, without the music and the debutantes”) and in retaliation is shot dead. The magic, for Steinbeck, must have been that Hemingway was the one who saw it and told it.

This was much the effect of, say, things that happened to and were told by Lord Byron in 1818. There was glamour in the very idea of such an author, and there was something else: an adaptation to the uses of writing as a transcription of the glamour. This degree of charismatic attraction has rarely been seen in literature, and it can occur only when an author and audience are agreed on the worth of anything that happens to one of us.

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Sunday, 22 November 2015

'A book is not its plot' - Orhan Pamuk

After one of Orhan Pamuk’s students berated him for spoiling the ending of Anna Karenina, he made a new rule: read the book’s summary on Wikipedia before coming to seminar, because “a book is not its plot”.

There was a time in the history of literature when the story was more important than the details, the Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor told an audience on Wednesday at the Brooklyn public library as part of an author series arranged by Community Books and Congregation Beth Elohim. But in his own writing, Pamuk said: “It’s not the character and the story that come first, it’s the little details – the novelist wants to go in some direction and creates the character to take you to that direction.”

That’s certainly the case with Pamuk’s newest work A Strangeness in My Mind, whose opening paragraph lays out the plot of the 600 pages to come. Pamuk calls Strangeness “my first feminist book”. It follows the life of an Istanbul street vendor named Mevlut Karata in the years between 1969 and 2014.

His Mevlut is not an activist – in fact, he “thinks about politics only in terms of his business” and “has no strong opinions”, Pamuk said. Yet it is precisely neutrality (or apathy) that allows Mevlut to “go everywhere” and hear the voices of both the city’s extreme left- and right-wing ideologues – and, by extension, let Pamuk explore Istanbul’s politics and history even as he insists that he does not write novels with strong political messages.

In fact, his book Snow, published in 2002, originally included two references to an alleged Osama bin Laden plan to murder sex workers in Turkey. In the wake of 9/11, Pamuk removed the references to prevent readers from thinking he wrote the book to capitalise on the political turmoil.

Instead of pegging the novel to big events, Forrest Gump-style, it’s the small decisions that provide the most room to explore. For example, Mevlut sells, in addition to yogurt, a semi-fermented drink called boza that is popular in the Ottoman empire and parts of North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Pamuk, who himself grew up buying boza, said the drink was “both alcoholic and non-alcoholic”. This gave it a curious social function at a time when alcohol was nominally forbidden. Even the Ottoman rulers knew that boza contained alcohol, and some would go out in disguise to buy it. Others were in denial. This made it a flashpoint for the right-wing politics Pamuk explores in the novel.

“The first image that came to me was this: that because of technological development, a person who sells his things in the street loses his job,” Pamuk said. In the 1950s, yogurt was not yet a bottled product in Turkey, though it eventually began to be sold in ceramic cups, then glass cups, then cardboard boxes, then plastic boxes and so on. Every change of this sort affected the vendor, he said, and he wanted to chronicle the small changes that this wrought in the lives of his characters.

Pamuk said he believed that Strangeness is one of the few novels to allow a working-class character to speak for himself. Classic novels, he said, either portray the middle and upper classes exclusively, or show peasants through the eyes of the middle class, as in Anna Karenina, in which the reader learns about about Russian peasants through the experience of the middle-class Konstantin Levin.

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Herodotus, the Homer of European prose

The Hellenist John Herington once called Herodotus a literary “centaur”, because from the front he looks like a rational intellectual, but his rear parts belong to a primitive creature of the wild. Herodotus’ pioneering prose treatise sought to explain the nature of the world he inhabited, in the mid-fifth century BC, from the events that had taken place across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during the reigns of four Persian kings – Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes. These culminated in the victory of Greece over Persia in 480–479 BC. Herodotus, the “father of history”, often uses rational explanations, backed up by evidence. But he also includes many traditional stories and legends, with patently fantastic elements, derived from poems, fables and oral tradition. Herodotus therefore needs a versatile translator who appreciates his hybridity. Enter Tom Holland, a distinguished and highly readable author of both historical non-fiction dealing with ancient empires (Persian Fire, Rubicon, Millennium, The Shadow of the Sword) and popular fantasy novels. He knows more than most of us about how to evoke both real and imagined scenarios with economy, elegance and gusto. Although there is no shortage of rival translations on the market, the Herodotus of Holland has therefore been eagerly awaited.

This is a twenty-first-century Herodotus. It is a Herodotus whose tongue is often in his cheek: the conflict between Greeks and Persians began long ago with “a bout of competitive princess-rustling”. It is a Herodotus who can speak directly to modern capitalism: the Phoenicians “began investing heavily in the long-distance shipping business”, exporting goods “to a wide variety of markets”. Arion, the travelling poet, “raked in an absolute fortune”. It is a Herodotus who knows the language in which powerful men are described today: Peisistratus the tyrant was attended by a retinue of “heavies”. Cyrus is described as “eye-balling” Croesus from his rival camp.

But this is also the Herodotus of a translator who respects the old-fashioned niceties of rhetoric and prose style. Herodotus was the Homer of European prose, who almost single-handedly dragged writing without the aid of metre from pedestrian parataxis to an exquisite art form. He was criticized even in antiquity for being factually unreliable, but his literary style was universally praised by eminent critics, including Longinus, for its sweetness and charm. Many sentences in Herodotus are breathtakingly beautiful; he mirrors content in aural effect (long plangent vowels when people are bereaved; crescendo as the Nile rises) and is a master of delicate insinuation of his own reserve or bafflement. Holland works tirelessly to do justice to Herodotus’ easy flow, dazzling diction and intermittently faux-naïf tone. He preserves the different rhetorical styles of Herodotus’ diverse speakers. We gain a strong impression of Herodotean hyperbaton, rhythm and chiasmus often ignored by previous translators: “In peacetime it is sons who bury their fathers – but in times of war, it is fathers who bury their sons”. Judicious parentheses steer us deftly through some of Herodotus’ more convoluted sequences. One crucial Herodotean stylistic feature is almost impossible to translate – the use of lonely, elevated polysyllabic words near the beginning or end of a sentence, anchoring the reader’s emotional reaction. But Holland ingeniously substitutes an arresting or unusual locution. He rarely forgets that Herodotus wrote in order to deliver live performances, rather than to be pored over in a library. Much of his translation is ripe for oral delivery.

From the respectful reproduction of the first, sonorous period with which Herodotus announces his objectives, to the ironic flashback to the glory days of Persian army discipline under Cyrus with which the History concludes, Holland’s text makes for energizing reading. He has understood that Herodotus’ protean work is united by the philosophical question of human happiness, and in particular the demonstration that happiness cannot be guaranteed by power or wealth. This ethical grip on the overarching storyline makes Holland’s unquestionably the best English translation of Herodotus to have appeared in the past half-century, and there have been quite a few. It knocks out of the water the colourless, trudging “Landmark Herodotus” of Andrea Purvis (2007). It is more pleasurable to read than Robin Waterfield’s worthy but slightly flat 1998 translation for Oxford World’s Classics, and is comparably accurate. David Grene, a fine Hellenist, prose artist and judge of translation, should have done better with Herodotus than he did in 1987 for the University of Chicago Press: his Herodotus sometimes archaizes painfully (“It is sweet to hear of the good hap of one who is a friend”) and is mystifyingly reluctant to translate the ancient Greek word for tyrant (turannos) as “tyrant”.

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Proust: The Search by Benjamin Taylor

A third of the way through this beguiling biography, Benjamin Taylor offers a statement from Marcel Proust that he believes explains why the (arguably) greatest novelist of the 20th century dribbled away nine years of his life translating Ruskin into French before getting down to writing À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. “There is no better way of becoming aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself that which a master has experienced. In this profound effort that we make, it is our own way of thinking, together with the master’s, that we bring to light.”

Is this what Taylor is trying to do himself, but is too shy to admit? I only ask because Taylor – who is American – has written this biography in what reads like art nouveau French sieved through Scott Moncrieff’s English Proust translation of the 1920s. In fact, some of Taylor’s loose, multi-clausal sentences are as bendy as the master’s, and there is the same shimmery quality to the prose, like sunlight glancing off a shallow Normandy sea. Most striking of all are the archaisms that Taylor employs, which read as if they were at least 100 years old: “irreal”, “youth being the season for such emotion”, and a reference to the long-delayed novel that was “aborning” in Proust.

If Taylor didn’t mostly do this pastiching well – “aborning” notwithstanding – it would feel suffocating, a bit like someone stuffing you with madeleines and then pouring linden tea down your throat afterwards to make sure that you’d got the point. As it is, this biography is probably best imagined as a kind of supplementary text to À La Recherche, which is neither quite bolted on to the masterwork nor entirely detached from it. A bit like the relationship between Proust’s lived experience of high-society Paris during the third French republic and his rendering of it into over a million words of exquisite mimesis.

Previous biographies of Proust – by George D Painter, Jean-Yves Tadié and William C Carter – have been doorstops, based on decades in the ever-expanding archives. But Taylor, whose biography appears in a series of brief lives for Yale, has fewer than 200 pages to play with, which means that he has been obliged to do something different. Instead of plodding through Proust’s early life again, Taylor concentrates on the 38-year-old’s Cinderella-like transformation from high-class layabout into a great literary artist. How, Taylor wants to know, did the snobbish, sissy young man who spent a decade flirting with hideous old duchesses and going home with handsome young waiters finally find the discipline to take permanently to his bed at 102 Boulevard Haussmann and start smelting pure gold out of glitzy dross? How did all that simpering chat and gossip turn into a work of profound moral seriousness, providing us with the best account we will ever have of why love feels like a sickness and what was actually at stake in the Dreyfus affair?

Although Taylor is wonderful at making us feel the unlikeliness of the transformation, he never quite identifies the tipping point. Was it the death of Proust’s beloved Mama, his co-translator of Ruskin? Initially he had considered killing himself when Jeanne succumbed to the family curse of uremia in 1905, but worried that it would get into the papers. Or was it rather that the nearly middle-aged Proust realised that he didn’t have as much time to lose as he thought, thanks to the disabling asthma that would eventually cut short his life at just 51?

Perhaps Taylor is hazy on the detail because, in truth, there was no single moment of metamorphosis. Even after Proust finished the first instalment of his novel sequence, no one thought it was any good. “I fail to understand why a man needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep,” snapped a publisher’s reader at Ollendorff’s. Across town at Nouvelle Revue Française, Andre Gide likewise turned down “Du côté de chez Swann”, although later, embarrassed at being caught on the wrong side of literary history, he pretended that the manuscript had never reached him. In the end Proust had to pay to get the book published with a minor house, a further signal that this was nothing but an ageing playboy’s vanity project.

But then, little by little, the right people got hold of “Swann” and pronounced themselves stunned. For Rilke it was “incomparably remarkable”, composed in an “utterly original style”. Edith Wharton loved it, but loved even more the fact that she was responsible for giving it to Henry James, who “devoured it in a passion of curiosity and admiration”. The big-picture readers were entranced at the way the book resembled nothing they had ever experienced before while seeming instantly familiar. Close readers, meanwhile, marvelled at the things Proust managed to do with tenses, eliding perfect and imperfect pasts as seamlessly as in a feverish dream.

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