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Showing posts from December, 2015

Rudyard Kipling: an unexpected revival for the ‘bard of empire’

There’s a dilapidated bangla (bungalow) in the grounds of the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai that commemorates the nearby birthplace of Rudyard Kipling. But it’s not the actual spot where one of India’s greatest English language writers (arguably the greatest) was born to the school’s principal, John Lockwood Kipling and his wife Alice, 150 years ago this month, on 30 December 1865 – that has long since disappeared. And, apart from a plaque that seems to have a shifting presence, there’s really not much to show for Rudyard himself. Efforts by the Indian and state governments, as well as private foundations, to turn the place into a museum, or something appropriate to Kipling, have foundered, largely because Indians can never quite decide what they think about him.

They are not alone. Kipling, the “bard of empire”, has always been difficult to place in the cultural pantheon. Britain, too, has done remarkably little to officially mark the sesquicentenary of its first winner (in 1907) of …

Beckett’s Friendship by André Bernold

It is one of literature’s most exquisite ironies that Samuel Beckett was the most sought after, photographed and pestered author of the 20th century. I remember mooching around Paris when I was 18, working out where he lived from Deirdre Bair’s biography, staring through the plate glass of the front door of his apartment block, seeing with a shock of confirmation the word “BECKETT” on his letter box, and wondering whether I should hang around and say hello when he left, or entered. In the end I intuited his most likely reaction – a kind of pained decency – and fled before inflicting myself on him.

But his work spoke to people in ways others’ didn’t; it reached into, and addressed, an intimate part of the self. There was something heroic about it; no wonder people wanted to touch his hem. In years to come, I would hear of, and meet, many people who had done what I did, but without fleeing, and were treated with courtesy and patience by the man. André Bernold was one of them, and, in 197…

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

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From my study window, I can see the top of the square, pinnacled tower of St Luke's Church, Chelsea. In this church, in 1836, Charles Dickens, aged 24, married Catherine Hogarth. It was a rare venture for him into the south-west of the city – though Chelsea was effectively a village suburb in those days – as Dickens was resolutely a north London man, his "manor" running from Somers Town and Camden south to the City, down to the Strand and Waterloo bridge, taking in Marylebone and Covent Garden. In later life, the northern edge of Hyde Park was about as far west as he would venture and once, when he rented a house on the south side of the park in Knightsbridge, he felt decidedly uncomfortable. The year 1836 was also significant for another reason: Dickens not only married but he began to be rich. He was writing for four publishers and that year earned a bonus of £500 forThe Pickwick Papers.Three years earlier, as a journalist, he had been producing sketches of urban life …

George Gissing: Nicholas Nickleby

It was well for Dickens that, whatever his defects in the conception and in the practice of his art, he possessed in a high degree the artist's conscience. We English, proud of our thoroughness in many departments of life, have never felt that quality to be indispensable to the producer of fiction probably because novel-writing has never been regarded as a road to wealth. The English novelist, especially when success has come to him, is wont to see his art from the reader's point of view; with results too obvious. Dickens, for all that he put his heart into everything he undertook, did not wholly escape this perilous influence; his early and rapid conquest of the public had results which at one moment threatened artistic disaster. In writing Nicholas Nickleby he was often overwearied, often compelled by haste to an improvisation which showed him at anything but his best. The book as a whole is unsatisfactory ever considering the circumstances under which it was composed, the n…

Returning to Life with Jane Austen’s “Emma”

While recovering from eye surgery, I spent a lot of time looking down at the floor. I saw that the beige carpet was worn away—not discolored or faded but just worked through by the ceaseless back-and-forth of my desk chair. What do you see when a carpet is worn away? The floor? No, just more carpet below the surface. A little higher, at the desk above the carpet, a pristine new keyboard had keys so shallow that the usual English-muffin crumbs did not gather among them. A triumph of modern design.

The views were hardly inspiring. Something else besides the carpet and my desk must be attended to, or I would go mad. Wagner! Wagner wrote very long operas. “Die Meistersinger,” for instance, the songwriting-contest opera, the epic comedy about writing a great tune. The four and a half hours of “Die Meistersinger,” capped by the magnificent third act, one of the greatest stretches in all music, brought relief for a while. But only for a while.

My general task was to look down. To keep my head…

O. Henry: The Gift of the Magi

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ri…

The Secret History of One Hundred Years of Solitude

The house, in a quiet part of Mexico City, had a study within, and in the study he found a solitude he had never known before and would never know again. Cigarettes (he smoked 60 a day) were on the worktable. LPs were on the record player: Debussy, Bartók, A Hard Day’s Night. Stuck up on the wall were charts of the history of a Caribbean town he called Macondo and the genealogy of the family he named the Buendías. Outside, it was the 1960s; inside, it was the deep time of the pre-modern Americas, and the author at his typewriter was all-powerful.

He visited a plague of insomnia upon the people of Macondo; he made a priest levitate, powered by hot chocolate; he sent down a swarm of yellow butterflies. He led his people on the long march through civil war and colonialism and banana-republicanism; he trailed them into their bedrooms and witnessed sexual adventures obscene and incestuous. “In my dreams, I was inventing literature,” he recalled. Month by month the typescript grew, presaging…

A Maverick Historian - Evelyn Waugh

On October 6, 1940, Evelyn Waugh made an entry in his diary that will puzzle and dismay readers accustomed to the celebratory view of World War II presented in, say, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation: "The most valuable thing is to stop the fighting and working part of the nation from thinking." The tone is of course ironic, and indeed, this passage is at odds with the bulk of Waugh's wartime diaries, which are stylistically immediate and purposeful, a narrative of what happened to Waugh—when, where, and how. But at this point he paused for some acid comment: "War will go on until it is clear to thinking observers that neither side can hope for victory in any terms approximating to the hopes with which they started. Fighting troops are not thinking observers." Hence the need, according to Waugh, for those in command to make sure that subordinates had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder their circumstances.

Waugh's war diaries are a cynical,…

Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

From the novel that just won the Sahitya Akademi award for English

“Oi, Elchi, you bloody drunkard! Still lolling in bed?!”

There was no sound more revolting or hateful to the ears than that voice which plucked me rudely from my garden of dreams.

I was under the bower of the giant banyan with Seppy. Of all our numerous hideouts in the forest, this was her favourite. But in that instant, when Buchia’s hideous falsetto impinged on my consciousness, she was gone.

A wretched fatigue hugged every inch of my body like a lover. On my threadbare mattress, I clung to traces of remembered sweetness, longing for more sleep, but knew it would be denied me… The flimsy front door of my tenement was being slammed and rattled with an ugly insistence. Presently, the odious shrieking came again:

“Two minutes is all I’m giving you! Not out by then, straightaway I’m dialling Coyaji’s number. And so much the better if he’s mad for being woken at this hour… I’ll tell him everything: fucking corpses have begun…

John Donne: Nativity

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Andrew Marvell: Eyes and Tears

HOW wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see ;
That, having viewed the object vain,
They might be ready to complain !
And, since the self-deluding sight
In a false angle takes each height,
These tears, which better measure all,
Like watery lines and plummets fall.
Two tears, which sorrow long did weigh
Within the scales of either eye,
And then paid out in equal poise,
Are the true price of all my joys.
What in the world most fair appears,
Yea, even laughter, turns to tears ;
And all the jewels which we prize
Melt in these pendants of the eyes.
I have through every garden been,
Amongst the red, the white, the green,
And yet from all the flowers I saw,
No honey, but these tears could draw.
So the all-seeing sun each day
Distils the world with chymic ray ;
But finds the essence only showers,
Which straight in pity back he pours.
Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the more, and see the less ;
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.
So Magdalen…

Arthur Miller, essayist

After the first performance of The Crucible on January 22, 1953, Arthur Miller stood at the back of Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre as friends whom he had “known for years” refused to say hello to him. In watching the play they had been “called upon to believe something which the reigning powers at the time told them they were not to believe”, and they were in dread, Miller recalls, of being “identified with me”. The play had been conceived partly in response to the “paralyzing” phenomenon of “fascistic” McCarthyism, a subject on which Miller is a powerful commentator.

“The Crucible in History”, written in 1999, is among the best essays in this prodigious collection, edited by Matthew Roudané and published to mark Miller’s centenary year. The Crucible was about “the power of the inflamed human imagination, the poetry of suggestion, and finally the tragedy of heroic resistance to a society possessed to the point of ruin”. Having vacillated for many years about whether or not The Crucible…

The Meaning of Mahler

In May 1911, Gustav Mahler, the most famous conductor in the world and an important but controversial composer, was dying of a bacterial infection of the heart. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was heard to murmur “Mozartl”—an affectionate diminutive of the composer’s name—and “Who’ll take care of Schoenberg now?” The words encapsulate Mahler’s Janus-like position, perched at the turn of the last century. His essential sound is unmistakably nineteenth-century and places him at the end of the great line of Viennese symphonists—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner. At the same time, his sensibility and his determination to push the symphonic form to its breaking point make him a kind of proto-modernist. The seminal atonal works of the following Viennese generation—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—sound nothing like Mahler’s, but these composers worshiped him and were deeply influenced by his example. He in turn worked hard to encourage them, in Schoenberg’s case provi…

Rudyard Kipling: the misfit poet

Kipling is not at all like his image, which is a good thing, since he is widely regarded as jingoistic, narrow and racist. It is a pity if, for this reason, some never read him.

Kipling was always an outsider, and never a member of the Establishment. He received the Nobel Prize, but refused any honour, including the Order of Merit, that would identify him with a single country.

He wasn’t English, being born in Bombay, 150 years ago, on December 30 1865. A repeated pattern in his life was to turn his back and begin again. He never returned to India after the age of 25. He made a home in Vermont, but, after an almost fatal illness and the death of his daughter Josephine, left America forever in 1899. He pinned his hopes on English rule in South Africa, but, disgusted with the ascendancy of the Boers, left in 1908 and never went back.

In his writings, as if in a recurrent dream, small male groups offer shelter from a hostile world: the schoolfriends of Stalky & Co; Mowgli’s wolf-pack i…