Wednesday, 30 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 the Nobel prize for literature (and still the youngest ever from anywhere).

Indian-born, yet British? We are already entering the muddy field of contradictions that sometimes bog down the reputation of this mild-mannered man. Yet it is these that make him uniquely appealing and that, belying top-level institutional indifference, are sparking an unexpected revival of interest in him, and in particular in his role as a commentator on the origins of an integrated global culture.

A few more of those apparent incongruities spring easily to mind: the propagandist for Britain’s colonial ventures, as well as for the Boer and first world wars, who could sympathise with the plight of the women left behind in “Harp Song of the Dane Women”: “What is a woman that you forsake her, / And the hearth-fire and the home-acre, / To go with the old grey Widow-maker?”; the opponent of Indian self-determination who wrote sensitively of individual Indians in stories such as “Lisbet” and “Beyond the Pale”; the conservative supporter of the established order who poked fun at the hypocrisies of the Raj establishment in his Plain Tales from the Hills.

One clue to these anomalies is found in his troubled childhood, when he was plucked from the warmth of his native Bombay and transported halfway across the world to live with foster parents on the dank south coast of England. He recalled in his memoir, appropriately titled Something of Myself, about his love of being wheeled round Bombay in his pram by his ayah, taking in the colours of the marketplace and listening to the gentle sounds of the wind whistling through the palm trees overlooking the Indian Ocean. But then he was whisked off to Southsea, where, along with the miserable weather, he discovered the severities of monotheistic English religious fundamentalism and was subjected to physical and psychological tortures by his Evangelical foster mother, Mrs Holloway, in the excruciating manner later brought to life in his story “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. He noted that his experiences there gave him “the habit of observation, and the attendance on moods and tempers”. More generally, his early years nurtured the ecumenism of his 1912 poem “The Two-Sided Man”: “Much I owe to the Lands that grew – /More to the Lives that fed – / But most to Allah Who gave me two / Separate sides to my head.”

During the 20th century, attitudes to Kipling were shaped in a negative fashion by George Orwell, who commented in a famous essay in 1942 that, over the previous 50 years or so, “every enlightened person has despised him”, though he had the good grace to add “and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there”.

Orwell, who was born in India and worked in Burma, was part of a generation that had grown up with the empire, and that either supported its practices and values in knee-jerk fashion (and so regarded Kipling as its literary mouthpiece) or took a determined stand against it, based largely on the need to confront fascism in Europe (in which case, he was a demon).

This coolness towards Kipling was first engendered by GK Chesterton, who attacked him in 1905 from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective, not just for being a vulgar rabble-rouser (Kipling had recently been stoking up support for the Boer war), but, more lastingly, for being a rootless cosmopolitan with a penchant for innovation and no real love for England. Later, the literary critic Edward Said suggested in his book Orientalism (1978), in an argument developed in his 1987 Penguin introduction to Kim, that Kipling was part of a western movement that sought to subordinate the cultures of India and the east to its own.

Each generation seems to get the Kipling criticism it deserves. But while the issues raised by Said continue to inform present-day conversations on multiculturalism and Islam, the underlying reality is that the people who felt most strongly for and against Kipling have passed on. It is now possible to look at Kipling without historical prejudice, and the result is a growth of objective interest in his work.

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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 1979 he somehow – the details are somewhat vague – instigated a friendship that lasted until Beckett’s death in 1989.

Beckett being who he was, this is no conventional memoir. First published in France in 1992, it has taken this long to find an Anglophone publisher, and it has to be said that you can see why: for Bernold was taught by Derrida and Deleuze, and it shows. It is not, for the most part, an easy read. There were times during this book when I felt deep pity for Max McGuinness, the translator (who also supplies an excellent preface); a couple of times, I felt a little pang on Beckett’s behalf, too. “Beckett was interested in permanent states that change abruptly, as if he had been able to stretch out there, immobile, and change with them. That, I think, is why he loved music, theatre.” Ah, so that’s why. Glad to have that one cleared up.

There are also stretches when, qua memoir, that is, a description of someone’s quotidian speech and habits, this book is almost comically inadequate. However, you can imagine that time spent in a cafe with Beckett was always going to involve a lot of silences. Bernold’s first proper meeting with Beckett is described thus: “This was the first interview; it lasts exactly one hour in near total silence. I don’t remember a single word. We sat opposite each other, royally mute. I believe I remember that we were hunched forward a bit, so as to examine the deep breathing of this silence.” That won me over to the book pretty quickly, and there are enough moments like that, as well as insights into the nature of Beckett’s work (not to mention transcriptions of the words that Beckett did deign to utter in their subsequent encounters), to make this book useful. They lead you to forgive the times Bernold’s prose brings you to an uncomprehending halt. “Krapp’s Last Tape dramatises an incurable memory” is, I think, actually pretty good, Bernold getting the Beckettian note just right with that “incurable”. And I am very glad to have read this: “According to Milton, I reminded him, angels do not laugh, they only smile. ‘So what,’ he replied while laughing, ‘they are laughing behind our backs.’”

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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

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 for The Pickwick Papers. Three years earlier, as a journalist, he had been producing sketches of urban life for a magazine called The Monthly, unpaid.
One of the most fascinating undercurrents of this fascinating biography has to do with Dickens and money. All writers write for money (apart from those rare few in possession of a private income) and for Dickens – whose indigent father, John, was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea – solvency and riches were in a very real sense the holy grail. His childhood and early adolescence were marked by a descent into ever less-genteel poverty. It was poverty that denied him an education and shamefully sent him instead to work in a blacking factory by Hungerford bridge when he was 12. He was in gainful but impecunious employ at the age of 15, working as a junior clerk in a lawyer's office. So, by the year of his marriage, at 24 – which seems young to us now – he had already been earning his living for almost 10 years and, in addition, had published Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers.
Dickens was never poor again – though there were a few tricky periods during the 1840s, when he had to borrow money and live abroad. As he aged, his earning power increased, and so too did the number of people dependent on him – his large and feckless family and numerous friends and beneficiaries relied on him for financial support. He was probably never richer than in the last years before he died. His public readings in the 1860s brought him in a gusher of cash and his second American tour (1867) netted him profits of £20,000. Claire Tomalin suggests multiplying by a factor of 70 to gain a sense of what mid-19th-century pounds might be worth today. Therefore, £20,000 is £1.4m. When he was paid an advance of £6,000 for Our Mutual Friend in 1864, we should think of it as close to £420,000. And income tax stood at less than 7%.
Dickens lived well – in his pomp, he calculated that he needed around £9,000 a year (£630,000) to provide for his extended family and dependents, and to keep him in the style he was accustomed to. Among one of the last things he did before he died was carry out an inventory of his extensive cellars at his big house, Gad's Hill, in Kent, noting entries for sherry, brandy, rum and one "cask very fine Scotch whisky, 30 gallons". Dickens, in addition, was a heavy drinker, though probably not an alcoholic.
That "probably" is key. Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, defined a biographer as "a novelist, on oath". It's a valid aphorism and worth bearing in mind, particularly when dealing with a writer as famous and as shrouded with legend and anecdote as Dickens. One of the reasons why it's so intriguing to learn how much money he made is that it strips away some mythic veils – Dickens was a great artist, but he was also a very human being. Tomalin's biography – always scrupulous about what we can know, what we can deduce and what is mere speculation – paints a portrait of a complex and exacting man. He was at once vivacious and charming, charismatic and altruistic and possessed of superabundant energies – "Dickens kept going," Tomalin notes, "by taking on too much" (for example, in 1838 he was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nicklebysimultaneously). But he was also, equally – to an almost schizoid degree – tormented, imperious, vindictive and implacable, once wronged.
These matters are particularly focused when it comes to the story of Dickens's marriage and his long affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. Dickens, aged 45, fell for Ellen Ternan when she was 18. It was simply – like Pip's love for Estella in Great Expectations – because she was "irresistible", he claimed. Dickens had long been unhappy in his marriage – a union that had produced 10 children by this time – and his infatuation with Nelly brought out the worst in him. He publicly separated from Catherine, humiliating her in the cruellest manner, and, after a form of courtship with Nelly – who did not yield to his importuning immediately – set her up as his mistress in a series of houses on the outskirts of London. This was done in the greatest secrecy, and it's something of a miracle that we know about this side of Dickens's life at all.
However, by the time he had succeeded in finally establishing this new menage to his satisfaction, Dickens was ageing and ailing. Perhaps the strain of living this lie in Victorian England provoked undue stress – we must never forget how internationally famous he was – but by his early 50s Dickens was prematurely aged, suffering from terrible gout (he could often hardly walk), piles, neuralgia and, later, the effects of a minor stroke. George Eliot described him in 1870 as "dreadfully shattered". He had been an enthusiastic cigar smoker since the age of 15 and the late photographs show a raddled, smoker's face with grizzled beard and deep lines. Probably the worst thing he could do as his health gave way was to embark on a punishing series of tours giving public readings from his novels. He was so weak he sometimes had to be helped on and off the stage, but he fed off the adoration of the thousands of his readers who turned out to hear him at home and in America. Yet, while the relentless schedule may have hastened his death, it was also a great succour to his ego and his bank balance – "Think of it," he once said gleefully to his manager, "£190 a night [£14,000]." He died in 1870 from a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 58, with his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
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Monday, 28 December 2015

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 notable thing about it is the vigorous spontaneity of its better parts.

Long before Pickwick was finished, Oliver Twist had been begun, and through much of the year 1837 the author worked alternately at both books. He had engaged to complete another novel (Barnaby Rudge) in the course of 1838, and he was actually tempted into undertaking to begin Nicholas Nickleby early in that same year. Dickens found himself confronted with the impossible. After a great deal of worry, and some little quarrelling, it was decided that Barnaby must be postponed; Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby proceeded together. The first part of Nickleby appeared on March 31, 1838, and twenty numbers, as usual, completed the story. It was illustrated by Hablôt K. Browne.

"It will be our aim," wrote Dickens, a preliminary advertisement to his new novel, "to amuse, by producing a rapid succession of characters and incidents, and describing them as cheerfully and pleasantly as in us lies." Such, too, had been his aim in Pickwick, and probably he foresaw just as little of the course of the narrative in one case as in the other; he relied upon his abounding invention, and, at this time, had not arrived at the conception of a novel as a balanced and elaborated whole. His novel was the eighteenth-century story of adventure; in the Preface to the 1848 edition of Nickleby he glances significantly at the reading of his childhood, when he had "a head full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes, and Sancho Panza"; but with the characteristics of that breezy fiction he combined a tendency traceable to his love of the stage, a melodramatic violence, already manifested in Oliver Twist, and never to be outgrown through all the changes of his mood and manner. So long as he is following the rambles of Nicholas, not much troubling himself as to how they shall end, all goes well but when the progress of his monthly parts reminded him that the story must be knit together to an effective close, he has recourse to theatrical devices, and we lose ourselves amid the tedious unreality of Madeline and Gride and Ralph. The latter part of Nickleby, in so far as it is concerned with these stagy figures, is perhaps Dickens's poorest work. Its picturesqueness -- the quality which often redeems his melodrama -- will not compare with that of the clock-and-lantern villainies in Oliver Twist. When we read of Ralph Nickleby "foaming at the mouth," we feel strangely remote from the delightful world of stage-coach and hostelry which our author has shown us with such inimitable spirit. No less drearily fantastic is the presentment of high-life debauchery in the persons of Lord Frederick Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk. These persecutors of virgin innocence will bear no illumination but that of the footlights; they are, of course, stage-stricken shopboys masking as devil-may-care aristocrats. Let it be remembered, however, that Dickens was a very young man, with experience of life -- however wide in one sense -- necessarily very limited; also, that he was a "radical," with strong middle-class ideas. Even in these unprofitable portions of the story his writing is never insincere; whilst at work he thoroughly believed in his personages, even those which to us seem mere puppets. Some years after, speaking in public, he had occasion to allude to Lord Frederick, and did so with laughing disparagement; but to suppose that he had any such thought whilst writing Nickleby would be a grave misunderstanding of the man and the artist. In the year 1838 he was producing too much and too quickly, but he never consciously sent forth inferior work saying to himself that "it would do."

In Dickens's correspondence with Forster, it is evident, from first to last, that, however desirous he might be of keeping his public in good humour, and of supplying them with moral examples, he always conceived himself to be a very close and faithful student of human character. The theories of so-called "realism" had, of course, never occurred to him; a novel, to his mind, was a very different thing from a severe chronicle of actual lives; for all that, the Preface to Nickleby closes with a remark which shows that he held himself a "realist" in portraiture. "If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature." It was a protest, doubtless, against the school of fiction favoured by Mrs. Wititterly. We smile at the suggestion that Nicholas is an uncompromising study of human nature, but Dickens thought himself, and was thought, to have done a bold thing in taking for his hero this penniless youth of the everyday world. Had he not been even bolder in his choice of theme for Oliver Twist? He was opening in truth a new era of English fiction, and the critic of our day who loses sight of this, who compares Dickens to his disadvantage with novelists of a later school, perpetrates the worst kind of injustice! Dickens is one of the great masters of fiction, who, by going straight to life, revitalized their art. That he did not see life with the eyes of a later generation can scarcely be brought as a charge against him; that his individuality affected his vision is no more than must be said of any artists that ever lived.

Nicholas himself, being the "hero" of the book, is (as in so many novels old and new) one of its least interesting characters. To feel the author's vigorous originality we must turn to the figures which are nowadays commonly spoken of as grotesques -- to Squeers and Newman Noggs, to Mr. Crummles and Tim Linkinwater arid Mr. Kenwigs. These, however grotesque, are living persons, and I think they live not merely by the imaginative power of the novelist; one and all of them Dickens may very well have met. To insist upon the "unreality" of such pictures is to evince slight acquaintance with the life of the lower middle-class, or very imperfect observation. What may be reasonably objected to them is this: that Dickens does not show us the whole man, only certain of his more peculiar aspects. But whatever is given has been truly observed and faithfully rendered in the spirit of the artist. Nay, these figures could not be so amusing, so delightful, but for their genuine humanity. Mr. Squeers, no doubt, had moments when he was not quite the Squeers we know; Mr. Mantalini was not at all times so vivacious, so choice in speech; but our author has shown us these persons on the side that took his fancy, and very wisely abstains from any efforts to complete the portrait. Contrast them with Ralph Nickleby, in whose case Dickens goes out of his way to attempt what we nowadays call analysis; the reflections at the beginning of Chap. XLIV do not impress one and certainly help to make "unreal" a character very well presented earlier in the book. In this matter of deliberate analysis Dickens always failed; though much more elaborate, his discussions of Mr. Dombey are very little more to the point than this moralizing paragraph on the secret mind of Nicholas's uncle.

With Nickleby Dickens began his lifelong warfare against the bad old methods of education. It is in Dotheboys Hall that the interest of this book really centres; to attack the "Yorkshire schools" was his one defined purpose when he sat down to write, and it seems probable that much more space would have been given to Dotheboys had not the subject proved rather refractory. Here, as always, in dealing with social abuses, Dickens had to reconcile painful material with his prime purpose of presenting life "as cheerfully and pleasantly as in him lay." How is one to show in a cheery and pleasant light the spectacle of a number of starved and tortured children? It is done by insisting once and only once on the horror of the situation, and thence onwards keeping the reader mirthful over every detail that can be turned to merriment. One paragraph, admirably written (see Chap. VIII), puts before us the picture in all its hideousness; in the next we read, "And yet this scene, painful as it was, had its grotesque features, which, in a less interested observer than Nicholas, might have provoked a smile"; whereupon comes Mrs. Squeers, "presiding over an immense basin of brimstone and treacle," and the porridge which "looked like diluted pincushions without covers," and the "first class in English spelling and philosophy." These Dotheboys chapters served their double aim; they led to a practical reform and delighted the young novelist's vast circle of readers. It is doubtful whether any writer ever succeeded so well, and so easily, as Dickens in this most difficult endeavour. Nickleby taught him his power as a social reformer, and it is not the least wonderful feature of his career that again and again he repeated this success, combining, with much felicity, the moral and the artistic purpose, generally incompatible.

One of Mr. Squeers's victims accompanies us through the book; but, precisely because this figure is meant to be consistently pathetic, it fails of its effect. Smike is a mere shadow, never either boy or man. On the stage the part has commonly been played by a woman; as also that of Jo, the crossing-sweeper; a significant fact. Smike and Jo reveal the weakness of the master. Of true pathos there is abundance in his novels, but those passages are lightly touched think of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop, and of the little maid called Charley in Bleak House. Sentimentality is a mark of the great semi-educated class from which Dickens sprung and to which, unconsciously, he so often addressed himself. In Smike he indulged a native proneness to the idly lachrymose; where he is truly pathetic, his genius overcame the fault of birth and breeding.

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Friday, 25 December 2015

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 slung in a kind of padded donut that sat on my desk, and to do this for at least twelve hours a day, and for a week. I was allowed to take maybe ten minutes out of every hour for stretching, eating, looking out the window, but my job, my life, was to go south. The eye surgery itself was a great, even moving experience (really), but for a restless, jiggling sort of person the week-long physical recovery was medieval in its hellishness.

There was no pain at all, just a debilitating imposition on physical happiness. A healing gas bubble had been inserted in my eye; gas rises, and the recovering patient, looking down, allows the bubble to do its work. After a few days, I could actually see, merely by opening my eye, the bubble itself, a large, menacing, liquid dark planet whose mass covered the lower two-thirds of my vision. My own science-fiction movie, Venus moving in on Jupiter—located right in my eye, and beautiful, too. The top of the planet was a gently rounded curve, and above it, in blurred and watery form, the vision that might some day get better.

“Meistersinger” was finally over. The young knight, Walther Von Stolzing, eager for the hand of Eva, composes and recomposes his song and sings it publically, and when the last jubilant hosannas of praise for the great song, for holy German art, for Walther, for the wonderful master cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (the hero of the opera) had been thundered out by timpani, brass, and chorus, I knew I had to shift gears. Wagner was too much, too demanding; “Götterdämmerung” was definitely not in the cards for me. Time for audiobooks! I listened to Hillary Huber reading “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume (from 2013) of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which ends with long passages of impassioned confusion as the heroine, Elena, or Lena, at last has an affair with Nino, her arrogant childhood friend, now a distinguished professor. Then Lena decides to … No, no more of Ferrante! Not now, when her restlessness only increased my own. I needed something lighter, drier, faster.

“Emma”! I hadn’t read Jane Austen’s “Emma” for decades, and at this moment (I hadn’t known) the novel was exactly two hundred years old. “Emma,” it turns out, was published on this day, December 23, 1815.

There are numerous spoken versions of Austen’s novel, but in my easily flustered state I lunged at the first one I saw. The reader was a man named Michael Page, who certainly sounds English but lives and teaches in America and has read dozens of texts for audiobooks. Page was a strong, supple reader: precise, elocutionary, and, softening his voice a little, he was able to crisply read some of Austen’s most brilliantly ironized lines. Emma has vowed never to marry, and when she and her protegé, the cuddly Harriet Smith, who falls in love all the time, talk of the possibility of Emma’s being an old maid Emma quiets Harriet’s fears with this: “It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public. A single woman with a very narrow income must be a disagreeable, ridiculous old maid, the proper sport of boys and girls. But a single woman of good fortune is always respectable and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Oh, yes, a generous public. Jane Austen’s irony never ages, never loses its fierce critical edge.

As everyone has said, Austen was one of the first modern writers, one of the first thoroughly to understand the unconscious and such things as insincerity and false candor. She understood that we are almost invariably subjective and self-interested. Hearing the book read aloud makes it easier to recognize when people are fooling themselves—we can hear that the ridiculous snob Mrs. Elton, married to the town’s vicar, pretends to be concerned for others but tries always to make people feel inferior to herself, that even Emma’s superlative friend Knightley, intelligent as he is, may not be aware of how much his protectiveness toward Emma and his disdain for the handsome young Frank Churchill cover his own romantic interest in her. The reading aloud brings out the character’s intention to be believed, which is so revealing of the desire to predominate beneath it.

But listening to Page read Knightley made me aware of my troubles with him as a reader. Page has the unfortunate habit of over-characterizing some of the voices, and he makes Knightley sound too old—imposing, certainly, but almost crusty, as if Knightley were a retiring country gentleman of sixty rather than what he is, a vigorous young man of thirty-seven. In my manacled state, I called out to Page to lighten up. But he did not respond, and hearing his over-characterizing of Knightley I began to hear it also in the voices that he used for some of the other men. As for women, I accepted, at first, his stern and straight-ahead voice for Austen’s narration and his slightly softened voice for Emma herself, but his rendering of little Harriet Smith and the loquacious, inane Miss Bates—the town’s babbling brook—sounded like the falsetto used by English music-hall comics and cross-dress artists from time immemorial. Breathy, weak, ludicrous. Enough.

I switched to the first woman reader I saw (there are several). Her name was Alison Larkin, and I clicked on to the beginning of the book—and was immediately disappointed. Larkin’s voice, I thought, was too light and tinkling for Jane Austen. Did no one read this stuff well? Where is Emma Thompson when you need her? Or, perhaps, Helen Mirren. But when your head is resting in a padded donut, you had better learn patience if you’re not going to lose your mind altogether. Skipping to where I had left off with Page (somewhere near the middle, when Emma is flirting with the adroit but disingenuous Frank Churchill), I understood what Larkin was doing. Raised in England by adoptive parents, Alison Larkin was actually born in America. She herself is a comic writer and performer (who has made much of her hybrid origins), and she approaches Austen as a satirist. The initial tinkling sound darkens and attains body and weight as the book goes on; she makes her voice lower and heavier for the men without caricaturing them. Like Page, she italicizes, but she has genuine theatrical skill, so her Mrs. Elton, swooping and dipping in flights of arrogant self-serving nonsensical observation, and her Miss Bates, anxious and desperately self-conscious even as she talks without end, are both sustained comic creations. The voice reveals all.

From my two listening experiences, I drew a momentous conclusion: in this reading-novels-aloud business, women can do men better than men can do women, for the simple reason that women can sound tougher by lowering their tones and shortening their vowels, whereas men trying to sound female fall into a changed voice that comes off as comical in the wrong way—patronizing rather than affectionate.

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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 ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

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Monday, 21 December 2015

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 the weight that the great novel and the “solitude of fame,” as he would later put it, would inflict on him.

Gabriel García Márquez began writing Cien Años de Soledad—One Hundred Years of Solitude—a half-century ago, finishing in late 1966. The novel came off the press in Buenos Aires on May 30, 1967, two days before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and the response among Spanish-language readers was akin to Beatlemania: crowds, cameras, exclamation points, a sense of a new era beginning. In 1970 the book appeared in English, followed by a paperback edition with a burning sun on its cover, which became a totem of the decade. By the time García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1982, the novel was considered the Don Quixote of the Global South, proof of Latin-American literary prowess, and the author was “Gabo,” known all over the continent by a single name, like his Cuban friend Fidel.

Many years later, interest in Gabo and his great novel is surging. The Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas, recently paid $2.2 million to acquire his archives—including a Spanish typescript of Cien Años de Soledad—and in October a gathering of his family members and academics took a fresh look at his legacy, repeatedly invoking the book as his magnum opus.

Unofficially, it’s everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time—from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Díaz. A scene in the movie Chinatown takes place at a Hollywood hacienda dubbed El Macondo Apartments. Bill Clinton, during his first term as president, made it known that he would like to meet Gabo when they were both on Martha’s Vineyard; they wound up swapping insights about Faulkner over dinner at Bill and Rose Styron’s place. (Carlos Fuentes, Vernon Jordan, and Harvey Weinstein were at the table.) When García Márquez died, in April 2014, Barack Obama joined Clinton in mourning him, calling him “one of my favorites from the time I was young” and mentioning his cherished, inscribed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “It’s the book that redefined not just Latin-American literature but literature, period,” insists Ilan Stavans, the pre-eminent scholar of Latino culture in the U.S., who says he has read the book 30 times.

How is it that this novel could be sexy, entertaining, experimental, politically radical, and wildly popular all at once? Its success was no sure thing, and the story of how it came about is a crucial and little-known chapter in the literary history of the last half-century.

The creator of contemporary fiction’s most famous village was a city man. Born in 1927 in the Colombian village of Aracataca, near the Caribbean coast, and schooled inland in a suburb of Bogotá, Gabriel García Márquez quit pre-law studies to become a journalist in the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla (writing a column), and Bogotá (writing movie reviews). As the noose of dictatorship tightened, he went on assignment to Europe—and out of harm’s way. He had hard times there. In Paris, he turned in deposit bottles for cash; in Rome, he took classes in experimental filmmaking; he shivered in London and sent back dispatches from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Returning south—to Venezuela—he was nearly arrested during a random sweep by military police. When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, García Márquez signed on with Prensa Latina, a press agency funded by the new Communist government, and after a stint in Havana he moved to New York in 1961 with his wife, Mercedes, and their young son, Rodrigo.

The city, he later said, “was putrefying, but also was in the process of rebirth, like the jungle. It fascinated me.” The family stayed in the Webster Hotel, at 45th and Fifth, and then with friends in Queens, but Gabo spent most of his time at the press office near Rockefeller Center, in a room with a lone window above a vacant lot overrun with rats. The phone rang and rang with calls from inflamed Cuban exiles who saw the agency as an outpost of the Castro regime they detested, and he kept an iron rod at the ready in case of attack.

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Sunday, 20 December 2015

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, sometimes gleeful chronicle of muddle. They are also the raw material from which would spring his most powerful and telling fiction. The recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy, consisting of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle, was originally published from 1952 to 1961. Waugh was by then an established novelist, known for such stringent satires as Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and his other work of the 1930s, and for Brideshead Revisited—all of which are far better known in the United States than Sword of Honour, his masterpiece. As they were published, the works making up this new opus struck a different chord: the satire was there, the irony, the caustic wit, but laced now with an elegiac melancholy. Waugh recognized that World War II was the great watershed for twentieth-century Britain. He was profoundly mistrustful of the society emerging after the war, and lamented what he saw as the passing of the aristocracy's traditional values and the ascendance of what would come to be called the meritocracy. Sword of Honour is an extended fictional discussion of morality and incipient social change expressed through a gallery of vivid characters who reflect the chaos of war.

The central figure is Guy Crouchback, the son of one of those ancient English Catholic families for whom the sixteenth century has only just happened. The three novels follow his wartime career and adventures from West Africa to Yugoslavia to Crete to London's clubland—a progression that almost precisely mirrors Waugh's own. But the ascetic, troubled Guy is hardly Waugh, who was using his own experiences as inspiration for an opinionated and savagely satiric meditation.

The war calls the tune throughout the trilogy. Its convolutions move the main characters around like pieces on a chessboard and enable Waugh to manipulate a large cast with marvelous dexterity, whisking satellite figures out of sight and then producing them with a flourish when the reader has almost forgotten their existence. The picture of army life is one of anarchy and opportunism, the daily triumph of expedient behavior. A central thread is the career of the dreadful Trimmer, an arriviste hairdresser who first appears as Guy's fellow trainee and subsequently turns up having engineered his own promotion to high rank through a combination of luck and chutzpah. Personal negotiation and the fortunes of war are inextricably intertwined. In Crete the chaotic and catastrophic evacuation of British forces is an occasion for the miserable disintegration of a seemingly noble officer to be set against the sinister progress of a soldier intent on saving his own skin at all costs.

The war episodes have their own rhythm, as does the common wartime experience: long spells of boredom punctuated by passages of terror. Waugh varies the broader rhythm within the novels as well, alternating periods of hectic military activity with dips into civilian life to expand his commentary on the society of the day—primarily that of his own world, the masonic enclave of the upper middle class spilling over into the chic bohemia of the literary scene. A lurid event in West Africa, in which the one-eyed Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, one of Waugh's most enduring creations, returns from a reconnaissance patrol clutching the dripping head of an African sentry, contrasts with interludes in which Guy consorts with old friends and tries to persuade his ex-wife, Virginia, to sleep with him at Claridge's.

Guy's is a cloistered world of privilege, based on the certainties of the pre-war British class system and fortified by economic circumstances. The army into which he is flung mimics that society, but with the rug pulled from under its feet. The hierarchies are still there, the pecking orders, the assumptions about rank and entitlement. But the vagaries of war mean that all this can be undermined and eroded. The proletarian Trimmer owes his advancement in part to a public-relations exercise with the United States, which makes it expedient to field him as "the new officer which is emerging from the old hidebound British Army." Though deeply satiric, Waugh's earlier novels were nonetheless sympathetic toward the hedonistic world he knew. Sword of Honour continues in this vein somewhat, with characters suited to previously established themes. (Mrs. Stitch, who was famously based on the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, first appeared in Scoop [1938] and trips in and out of the wartime series as well.) But here Waugh trained his lens primarily on a doomed system—those charmed lives and that unquestioned privilege in the cataclysm of war and the social upheaval it generated.

Waugh was not, of course, without partis pris. His particular pieties, and his fierce adherence to that world of privilege, may seem archaic or even incredible today, but his intent was to bear witness to a time and to a society. Other novelists might have put a different spin on that scene, but Waugh was the master of the very English kind of fiction—practiced by Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, William Cooper, and, in a subsequent generation, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge—that discusses serious matters with a light touch.

Thus Trimmer is essentially a ludicrous figure—brash, amoral, and impervious to the opinions of others. The scenes in which he appears are always tours de force of ironic exchange, as he pursues his own ends despite the amused contempt of Guy or Virginia, for whom Trimmer develops an unlikely passion. But there is a grim inevitability about Trimmer's rise; he is the symbol of that very victory of another order which Waugh feared and anticipated, the rise of the meritocracy that was taking place in postwar Britain as he wrote the trilogy. Trimmer enabled Waugh to have fictional fun and display his dazzling gifts for characterization, but he is also the embodiment of themes at the heart of the trilogy: change and decay, the victory of cleverness over integrity. In a final twist, Virginia and Guy remarry, but the son Virginia bears—the Crouchback heir—is Trimmer's child.

This use of social comedy to make succinct points about morality or about a particular climate of opinion gives Waugh's writing its edge. When Waugh served up a character like Ritchie-Hook, who has the mental outlook of an aggressive schoolboy, a penchant for practical jokes, and a single-minded devotion to violence ("I'd like to hear less about denying things to the enemy and more about biffing him"), he was also pointing up the way in which the artificial community that is an army allows such exaggerated figures to break cover.

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Saturday, 19 December 2015

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 to stink, mourners are congregating, but your chief khandhia’s still in bed, pissed out of his skull.”

Abusive harangue, the crunch of footsteps on gravel… both receded.

Oh fuck you Buchia, you aren’t paying for our drinks, are you? No time for a sip of water, let alone a tumbler of booze.

Rustom and Bomi would have given anything for a quick stopover last night – all of us deadbeat after walking those six miles to Laal Baag and back with a stiff more corpulent than most – but even simple-minded louts like us know better than to leave a corpse unattended on the pavement while guzzling at an illicit den. So, we hit upon a compromise: resting one end of the bier against a compound wall, Fali’s brainwave this, Bomi ran in and purchased a bottle. Snugly secured between the corpse’s stout legs for the remainder of our jaunt, it had to be pried out with some force once we deposited the body in the washroom of the allotted funeral cottage.

Now how is that any of your business, bloody Buchia? Those damn biers we lug around – solid iron – each weighs nearly eighty pounds! And all corpses aren’t emaciated by death, let me tell you. Some positively swell, growing more flaccid by the minute. Besides, how else, I ask you this, how else are the best of us to keep up this carrion work, this constant consanguinity with corpses, without taking a drop or two? The smell of sickness and pus endures; the reek of extinction never leaves the nostril.

Good sport that he is, Fardoon waited until I had knocked back my share of the booze before joining me for the arduous job of washing the man mountain. Fardoon doesn’t drink.

It’s a job that takes courage and strength, believe you me – rubbing the dead man’s forehead, his chest, palms and the soles of his feet with strong-smelling bull’s urine, anointing every orifice of the body with it before dressing him up again in fresh muslins and knotting the sacred thread around his waist.

All the while making sure the pile of faggots on the censer breathes easy and the oil lamp stays alive through the night; all this, before we retire ourselves well past midnight. So what’s your fuckin’ fuss about, you bastard of a Buchia?

One side of my head was throbbing, raw; felt a bit of a corpse myself. Then my eyes lit on the wall clock: twenty past six already!

Early morning silence punctuated by a tittering of birds soothed my nerves, but the muscles still ached… Outside the wire-meshed window, a sprig of pale orange bougainvillea swayed slightly. As I climbed out of bed, the rays of a fledgling sun touched the treetops lightly with a golden brush. The sky was deep blue and softly luminous, without a speck of cloud. Had I really woken up from dreaming? Or was this a dream I was waking to?

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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.

Friday, 18 December 2015

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 in tears more wise
Dissolved those captivating eyes,
Whose liquid chains could flowing meet
To fetter her Redeemer's feet.
Not full sails hasting loaden home,
Nor the chaste lady's pregnant womb,
Nor Cynthia teeming shows so fair
As two eyes swollen with weeping are.
The sparkling glance that shoots desire,
Drenched in these waves, does lose its fire ;
Yea oft the Thunderer pity takes,
And here the hissing lightning slakes.
The incense was to Heaven dear,
Not as a perfume, but a tear ;
And stars shew lovely in the night,
But as they seem the tears of light.
Ope then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use ;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
Now, like two clouds dissolving, drop,
And at each tear in distance stop ;
Now, like two fountains, trickle down ;
Now, like two floods, o'erturn and drown :
Thus let your streams o'erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things ;
And each the other's difference bears,
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

“ Magdala, lascivos sic quum dimisit amantes
  Fervidaque in castas lumina solvit aquas ;
Haesit in irriguo lachrymarum compede Christus,
  Et tenuit sacros uda catena pedes.”
(Footnote in 1681 edition.)


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 was really “about” McCarthyism (often suggesting that this interpretation was merely a distraction), Miller uses the essay to set the play firmly in its context. He recalls writing the play in an impulse to respond to a “climate of fear”, a climate in which “it had come rather quickly to be believed that a massive, profoundly organized conspiracy was in place and being carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labor people, teachers, professionals of all sorts, sworn to undermine the American government”. He discusses the parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the “ideological war” of 1950s America: “in both was the menace of concealed plots, but most startling were the similarities in the rituals of defense and the investigative routines . . . in both eras . . . the charge itself, suspicion itself, all but became the evidence of disloyalty”.

Miller experienced first-hand the cruel and unusual vagaries of McCarthyist suspicion: FBI surveillance and the denial of a passport on the grounds that his “presence abroad was not in the best interests of the United States”. Before the making of the film version of Death of a Salesman, Columbia Pictures demanded that he “sign an anticommunist declaration”. It was then suggested that he substitute Communists for Brooklyn gangsters in the screenplay, and allow a short called The Life of a Salesman to be shown alongside his film, in which several professors argued that “selling was basically a joy, one of the most gratifying and useful of professions”, and implied that Willy Loman “was simply a nut”. In 1956, when he was due to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the chairman sent word that he would be inclined to cancel the hearing if Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife-to-be, “would consent to have a picture taken with him” (she refused). For refusing to name any of the “fellow travellers” he had met at “one of the two communist writers’ meetings” he had attended years previously, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress and given a year’s suspended sentence, a $500 fine and an entreaty to “write less tragically” about America. This, of course, he could not do. “The tragic process”, Miller wrote, is “as much a part of humanity as walls and food and death”, and while “no play will make it go away”, the job of the playwright is to address that process, “that the coiled thing in the public heart might die of light.”

Theatre, according to Miller, is the most “vulgar” of the arts, as well as “the simplest”; and yet it bears “an ancient burden . . . the moral illumination of society and the human condition”. Destined to struggle amid “the fog of unwelcome”, in which “the measure is either total success or total obliteration” – with no room for “the pretty good, flawed play” – theatre nevertheless has the power to “clarify the minds of thousands, still the whirling compass needle of their souls and point it once more toward the stars”. These views were originally espoused in the second edition of his Theatre Essays (1992), and are reprinted here as part of a tripartite introduction. As Roudané establishes in his own introduction to the Collected Essays, Miller cherished, above all, “the civic dimension of the theatre”. This vast assortment, spanning five decades, reflects the playwright’s lifelong conviction that “the theatre may promote social change within the polis and may promote a new found self-awareness that so often eludes his fated heroes”. From the opening essay, “Belief in America” (which explores the inherent social danger in an American soldier returning from war only to discover “a people without scars and without any commonly held understanding of why he had to go and what he accomplished by going”), to the last, “Subsidized Theater” (a reflection on the “artistically bankrupt” Broadway theatre scene), the Collected Essays is of a piece with the man Roudané calls “an engaged and engaging public intellectual”.

The essays are presented chronologically, in sections from 1944–50 to 1991–2000. The effect of this is to combine (somewhat headily) Miller’s theatre essays, his analytical musings on subjects ranging from the Nazi trials to Mark Twain’s Autobiography, his satires (notably “Get it Right: Privatize executions”) and his autobiographical reflections. The last include an eloquent response to the aftermath of a fire (“Thoughts on a Burned House”) and the riveting and hilarious “Kidnapped?”, in which he describes a meeting with the Sicilian mobster Lucky Luciano in Palermo not long after the war. The Collected Essays is, as Roudané intends, a series of “historical markers of a nation that prides itself on exceptionalism while often overlooking its tragic flaws”. It is also an extended “barbaric yawp”, sounding across the rooftops of theatre, literature, culture and politics, and embodying Miller’s own view that “a fine work is wedded to the time it takes to perform or read it”. Unfortunately, the book itself is rather unwieldy, meaning that its broadly appealing content is undermined by its lack of physical allure or accessibility – it is not an easy book to just pick up and read. It works best as a text to be dipped in and out of, as and when inclination strikes, but it looks and feels more like a lacklustre reference text for theatre scholars. This is odd, given that this is a centenary collection, and that the publishers, in describing Miller as “one of the most influential literary, cultural and intellectual voices of our time” who takes us on a “whirlwind tour of modern history”, have pitched the book at a general readership.

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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 providing significant financial assistance.
Still, in the decades after his death, Mahler’s music was overshadowed by the flourishing of modernism as well as by his much-longer-lived contemporary Richard Strauss. The story of Mahler’s neglect and rediscovery has become an unavoidable part of any discussion of his work. The symphonies were dismissed as Kapellmeistermusik, the kind of music that conductors often produce—deftly orchestrated but lacking a voice of its own. It didn’t help that Mahler was Jewish; an anti-Semitic strain in criticism of his work was already well established in his lifetime and under the Nazis his work became unperformable in Germany and Austria.
But around 1960, things started to change. Conductors championed him, notably Leonard Bernstein, and the advent of the LP record enabled listeners to assimilate these gargantuan pieces through repeated listening. Then, too, in the postwar era, the music came to speak for a vanished Europe. Theodor Adorno even claimed that it was possible to hear that “the Jew Mahler scented Fascism decades ahead.” Adorno’s monograph on Mahler, published in 1960, was vastly influential. Before it, critics could be divided into those who saw Mahler as squarely carrying on the symphonic tradition and those who found his music blemished by trite material, overblown handling, and a neurotic vacillation between irony and sentimentality. Adorno, ingeniously, played the two views off against each other. He claimed that Mahler was subverting tradition from the inside, deliberately showing up the limitations of the materials and procedures he had inherited. Mahler, like a good Marxist, was heightening the contradictions. (Mahler did in fact harbor lifelong sympathy for socialism but was not politically active.)
ter Adorno’s essay, Mahler’s overreaching maximalism and his fondness for banal melodies stopped being an embarrassment and became instead his core achievement. He emerged as a far more sophisticated artist: the works, tuneful enough to please the average concertgoer, were now also difficult and ambiguous enough to absorb the cognoscenti.
Mahler advocates before Adorno had to adopt a proselytizing tone. A recently republished volume contains two works of this kind: a reverent appreciation from 1936 by the conductor Bruno Walter, an acolyte of Mahler’s, who premiered the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony after his death; and an essay from 1941 by the composer Ernst Křenek. Křenek was briefly married to Mahler’s daughter Anna, and worked on completing two movements from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death. His essay is brilliantly perceptive and anticipates Adorno. Mahler’s symphonic edifices are old-fashioned, he writes, but “the cracks in the structure herald the future.”
Today Mahler is no longer a cause and critics must seek out unexplored aspects of a composer who has become a fixture of the musical landscape. Two recent academic studies, by Thomas Peattie and Seth Monahan, are complementary opposites: Peattie focuses on evocative moments of orchestral writing, Monahan on the long-range narratives created by Mahler’s use of sonata form.
Among composers, Mahler was never fully eclipsed: Britten’s Spring Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony show an obvious debt to the way he grafted the cantata and the song cycle onto the symphony. And his example was particularly important to composers of the postwar avant-garde. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in a preface to the first volume of Henry-Louis de la Grange’s mammoth Mahler biography in 1973, expressed the mystical view that “should a higher being from a distant star wish to investigate the nature of earthlings in a most concentrated moment, he could not afford to bypass Mahler’s music.” The famous third movement of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–1969) takes the entire scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony and fills it with a cacophonous array of spoken text and musical quotations from Bach to Boulez. The collage-like homage is apt, because Mahler’s works are themselves so compulsively capacious. “The symphony must be like the world,” Mahler told Sibelius in 1907. “It must be all-embracing.”
Contemplating the popularity of Richard Strauss in 1902, Mahler wrote, “My time will come.” Because he was right in the long run the words now sound quietly confident, but at the time his self-belief was compromised by doubt and by frustration with the course his career had taken. His outlook was closer to that of the imagined protagonist of his First Symphony who, he said, “as often as he lifts his head above the billows of life, is again and again dealt a blow by fate and sinks down anew.” Mahler’s anxiety about his reputation and legacy is written into the music, which—in its extremes of emotion, volume, and sheer duration—is determined to assert itself in spite of everything.
Born in 1860, Mahler grew up about halfway between Prague and Brno, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a distiller and innkeeper, and Mahler grew up loving the sound of village bands and other popular music. His talent was recognized early. At four, he could play on the accordion folk songs he heard Czech servants singing. At six he composed a polka that had a funeral march as an introduction, a foretaste of incongruities to come. Synagogue chants and other Jewish music quite probably left a mark too, though specific influences are elusive. Adorno argued that “what is Jewish in Mahler does not participate directly in the folk element, but speaks through all its mediation as an intellectual voice”—a sense of instability and otherness permeating the work.
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Thursday, 17 December 2015

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 in The Jungle Book; or the Janeites in a short story from the First World War.

As Andrew Lycett points out in a new collection, Kipling and War, the term Janeites, meaning “admirers of Jane Austen”, was invented by Kipling’s friend George Saintsbury.

Who would expect to find them behind the sandbags of the Western Front? But the narrator of the story tells how Macklin, a drunken mess-servant, joins in the officers’ discussion of their heroine.

“Pa-hardon me, gents,” Macklin says, “but this is a matter on which I do ’appen to be moderately well informed. She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James.”

It wasn’t from the First World War that Kipling learnt of life’s brutal horrors, but from a boarding house in Southsea, Hampshire, where he went to live in 1871, aged five, separated from his parents in India and cruelly treated, physically and mentally, by the landlady.

This went on for more than five years, no unusual ordeal for the children of Empire, but for this boy “an avalanche that had swept away everything happy and familiar”.

To these years in the House of Desolation (as he calls it in his story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”) Kipling attributed his “habit of observation and attendance on moods and tempers”, as he noted in his fragmentary autobiography, Something of Myself.

No doubt also in Southsea was ground into his psyche the sadism that regularly emerges in his work. One story in Stalky & Co, on the torture of two bullies, is too terrible to reread.(Stalky & Co is sometimes mistaken for children’s literature, since its subject is school, but it isn’t, any more than is Kim, the dreamlike tale of a boy in India.)

How Kipling seemed to a brilliant contemporary is shown by the parody “PC X36” in Max Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland (1912). The narrator’s policeman friend Judlip spotted an old man with “a hoary white beard, a red ulster with the hood up, and what looked like a sack over his shoulder” standing on a rooftop.

Ordering him down to the street, the constable grabbed his collar. “The captive snivelled something about peace on earth, good will toward men. 'Yuss,’ said Judlip.

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