Showing posts from January, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer’

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

In a sense, I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

In my case, there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it or even write it. As a result, I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.

As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met (on a trip to Florence with my sist…

Alfred Brendel on a life in music: ‘Impatience was not a vice’

Where, and how, does a musician’s calling reveal itself? It can be stimulated by artistic activity and aesthetic leanings in the family, by the early opportunity to listen to concerts and opera, by being exposed to recordings and YouTube. In my case, there was nothing of that sort. Nor was there an intellectual background. Without an academic piano teacher after my 16th year, I became used to finding out things for myself. It helped me to keep my mind as independent as possible.

My first recital at the age of 17 provided a clear signal: courteously received, it made my pessimistic mother give in. Of course it wouldn’t be the solid future of a bourgeois academic – the risk was incalculable. Yet I was allowed to take it. For a couple of years, I had already dabbled in as many artistic endeavours as I could find – writing sonnets that sounded profound and meant nothing, studying composition, as well as drawing or painting myself, my friends, or whatever came to mind.

Impatience was not on…

Making Peace With Violence: Camus in Algeria

Sixty years ago today, Albert Camus gave the speech of his life. It was a speech, in fact, that nearly cost him his life, as well as one that failed in its goal of saving the lives of countless civilians, Arabs and French alike, caught in the vise of terrorism employed by both sides in Algeria’s war of independence. The reasoning behind the speech, as well as the reasons Camus gave it, cast important light on the “war on terror” now being fought in the West.

By early 1956, the war between Algeria’s nationalist movement, the National Liberation Front (the F.L.N.), and the French military had spiraled into mutual butcheries and bloodbaths — from the slaughter of the French colonist population (the “pied-noir”) of Philippeville, where more than 100 men, women and children were hacked to pieces by their Arab neighbors, to the policy of “collective responsibility,” the indiscriminate killing of Arab men, women and children by French soldiers and civilian militias. It was not just Algerians,…

A Different T.S. Eliot

For much of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s pronouncements on literature and culture had the force of a royal command. “In the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Probably no such separation of thought from feeling ever occurred, but sober historians analyzed it as if were as real as the Industrial Revolution. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot wrote, “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Two generations of critics worked to do his bidding by banishing from the canon poets like Shelley whom Eliot had judged insufficiently impersonal. Eliot’s prose borrowed its sober and severe authority from the intensity and power of his poetry. His long poems The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), like many of his shorter ones, evoked a synthesizing vision of public and private disorder: the emotional and erotic failures of individual per…

William Butler Yeats: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Design for Living - What’s great about Goethe?

In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who …

Was Robert Burns really a radical?

“Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” wrote Robert Burns in 1793, a line that will be sung or recited countless times between this weekend and next at Burns Night suppers around the world where haggis, neeps, and tatties will be served and the “immortal memory” will be toasted.

But what will they celebrate? A sentimental nationalism is usually attached to “Scots Wha Hae”, and a masonic-style of brotherly love to that other favourite, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”. Burns suppers have had the reputation of being little more than backward looking all-male piss-ups and in the 1930s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid condemned Burns clubs for their “canting humbug” that “preserved his furniture and repelled his message”.

The accepted view, still embalmed in the 1988 Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, is that after 1792, “Burns wrote little of importance except his ‘Tam o’Shanter’ ”; but more recent scholarship has shown this to be unreliable and that from 1792 until his death in 1796 many of Burns’s …

Encompassing Genius - William Blake

The Compasses, a dingy pothouse in High Wycombe, was not the most likely place to encounter John Milton, Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was here, in March 1794, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have met a man of ‘the greatest information and most original genius’. His ‘philosophical theories of heaven and hell’ and ideas of ‘daring impiety’ kept the poet awake until three the next morning. As Coleridge said to his brother, ‘Wisdom may be gathered from the maddest flights of imagination, as medicines were stumbled upon in the wild processes of alchemy.’ Reverend George Coleridge, a patient parish priest, would soon be hearing about ‘Pantisocracy’.  Is it possible that Coleridge’s genius was William Blake, author and printer of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? We shall never know: certainly, Blake was a lifelong Londoner who rarely stepped beyond the bounds of the city. Rackety prophets and philosophers thronged the revolutionary 1790s – almost every tavern had a Bible-…

On the Thames towpath with Samuel Pepys

A handful of writers speak to us from the past with their lips pressed against our living ears – we feel their warm breath, smell it even. Often enough, I’ll be inexpertly toggling together my clothes when in the arch accents I attribute to Lord Byron a voice will lazily aspirate, “Ah! All this buttoning and unbuttoning … ” Or perhaps I’ll be all alone in an isolated house in winter, bereft of companionship, and I’ll pick up a volume of Montaigne’s Essays – all at once I am alone no longer, but with a wise and wryly sceptical soulmate. But for sheer vigorous immediacy – the past rubbing up against the present so strongly they threaten to become a single plosive present – there’s no beating Pepys.

No, there’s no beating Pepys – Pepys the irrepressible; Pepys the fusser, the philanderer, the political fixer, the amasser of pelf; Pepys the playgoer, the singer, the talker, the courtier – and most important – the walker. Pepys, the ambitious young man who, plagued by a gallstone, risked hi…

'I am in your keeping' - Elizabeth Bowen

When he first sees her naked, he thinks she has "the most beautiful body I have ever seen". Her long, distinguished face is not so beautiful, and the contrast astonishes him. She is 41 and has been married for 18 years. He is seven years younger, and unmarried.

Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat of great charm and intelligence from a privileged Nova Scotia background, met in 1941, and their love affair was conducted in the emotionally heightened atmosphere of London at war. Ritchie - tall, thin, beaky and bespectacled - loved women. At first, for him, this was just a particularly intriguing and flattering affair, and one that he might put an end to. For Bowen, it was a matter of life and death, from the beginning. Their love fuelled her creative energy and what he called her "life-illusion". But gradually she became equally essential to him, "the centre of my life". Their world of love, and her idea of him and of his qualities, were t…

George Santayana

On the philosopher, occasioned by the publication of The Letters of George Santayana. Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. —Spinoza,The Ethics “Aplomb in the midst of irrational things”—that’s my motto!
—Santayana to William Morton Fullerton, 1887 It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most. It is older than the oldest speech of Rome. This is the tragic accent of the scene And you—it is you that speak it, without speech, The loftiest syllables among loftiest things, The one invulnerable man among Crude captains, …
—Wallace Stevens, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”
When John McCormick published George Santayana: A Biography in 1987, he began the introduction by registering his “bewilderment that so moving and powerful a figure, justifiably fa…

Rudyard Kipling's Kim: a zam-zammer wonder-house of wordplay

Many of the pleasures of Kim are straightforward, direct and easily absorbed – much like Rudyard Kipling’s prose. Indeed, his writing is probably chief among those joys. It’s a book where moving through the sentences is its own reward. Few novels have such beguiling rhythm, imagery and vocabulary.

The very words are fun to read, fun to say out loud: “Wonder-House”, “Zam-Zammah”, “Kimball O’Hara”, “Sind, Punjab and Delhi railway” – and those are just from the first page. But it’s what Kipling does with them that really counts, in prose so perfect you barely notice how clever it is when you first read through. It’s only when you stop to analyse that you notice how well everything is constructed:As he drummed his heels against Zam-Zammah he turned now and again from his king-of-the-castle game with little Chota Lal and Abdullah the sweetmeat seller’s on to make a rude remark to a native policeman on guard over rows of shoes at the museum door.”
That’s a sentence chosen almost at random, al…

Reading Augustine’s Mind

His [Augustine’s] monastic base was still combined with travel, always on horseback (without stirrups).
—Robin Lane Fox Robin Lane Fox, a British classical scholar, was the historical adviser for Oliver Stone’s godawful movie Alexander. He asked to be, and was, repaid by riding bareback in the movie, in the front line of Alexander’s cavalry. He is an adventurous fellow. Now he tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’sConfessions, the book in which Augustine described his own life from his birth in 354, to his early belief in Manichaeism, to his baptism in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. He takes over five hundred pages to get us to the time Confessionswas written (397), Augustine’s forty-third year (with thirty-three years more to live). Lane Fox’s book largely traces the progress of Augustine with reference to dreams, conversions, ascents, and visions. He sets a low bar for these mystical events. In the famous garden “conversion scene” …