Showing posts from February, 2016

Eugenio Montale: The Dead

The sea that breaks on the opposite shore
throws up a cloud that spumes
until the sand flats reabsorb it. There,
one day, we jettisoned, on the iron coast,
our hope, more gasping than
the open sea—and the fertile abyss turns green
as in the days that saw us among the living.

Now that the north wind has flattened out the cloudy tangle
of gravy-colored currents and headed them back
to where they started, all around someone has hung
on the limbs of the tree thicket fish nets that string
along the path that goes down
out of sight;
faded nets that. dry in the late
and cold touch of the light; and over them
the thick blue crystal of the sky winks
and slides toward a wave-lashed arc
of horizon.

                More than seawrack dragged
from the seething that uncovers us, our life
moves against such stasis: and still it seethes
in us, that one thing which one day stopped, resigned
to its limits; among the strands that bind
one branch to another, the heart struggles
like a young marsh hen
caught in the net's mesh…

Master of reality: on Henry James' non-fiction

Henry James was the originator in ­English of novel-chauvinism, the idea that the extended prose fiction is, as he put it, “the book par excellence”. Between 1871 and 1904, during which time he published 19 novels, including The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew, plus novellas such as Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, James also wrote dozens of reviews, essays on “The Art of Fiction” and “The Future of the Novel”, and half a dozen stories about the novelist’s earthly tribulations and posthumous mistreatment. In the words of a later novel-chauvinist, F R Leavis, James set out to accomplish “a general full recognition among the educated that creative talent – creative genius – was at least as likely to go into the novel as into any mode of art”. In this effort, James employed all the big rhetorical guns, not just French tags (“par excellence”), but capitals and superlatives. In the closing words of his preface to The Ambas…

Cavafy in English accents

“ Everything is Greece to the wise man”, said Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, at the beginning of the third century AD. The assertion was at once true and defiant: despite the dominance of Rome, Greek was the lingua franca of anyone of intellectual pretensions in the known world. The defiance was both manifest and implicit in Pausanias’s second-century catalogue raisonné of the classical monuments of mainland Hellas: his Description of Greece makes no mention of the temple which the Romans had built adjacent to the Parthenon. Pausanias ignores what all contemporary Greeks found it painful to acknowledge: their long subjection to Rome.

Literary Greeks have often responded to humiliation by reference to an earlier, golden age. Emigration in time is a version of pastoral which regularly appealed to Constantine Petrou Cavafy (1863–1933). Odysseus Elytis, the poet of the Cyclades, remarked, looking back on his work, “Oles tes idees mou enisiotisa”: I made islands of all my…

Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller

The tragically short life of this great writer makes a dramatic, seductive and difficult subject. At least a dozen versions already exist, including plays, memoirs, fictions and biographies. The fascination of the subject is obvious. There is the New Zealand family life, so furiously resented, yet so passionately invoked. There is the self-exile to England, the nomadic life, the complicated relationships with other women (the grotesquely self-sacrificing Ida Baker, for one), the edgy intimacies with writers such as Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, and the confused, reckless sexual experiments and mistakes. 

There is the long, intense relationship with the talented, narcissistic John Middleton Murry, which disintegrated painfully. (Once, while she was very ill in Italy and he, absent, did nothing but write to her about his sufferings, she underlined all the "I"s in his letters.) There is the death of her brother in the war, and, from that moment in 1915, the amazing flowering …

George Orwell’s master – and spymaster?

Every belated release of official documentation about the “Cambridge Spies” throws up more fog than illumination. The latest batch, in October 2015, was no exception. But, tantalizingly glimpsable in the murk may be the wholly unexpected figure of George Orwell. If one wants to follow the trail one has – as Julian Mitchell does in Another Country, his play about the Cambridge Spies – to return to their schooldays.

The five years, 1917–22, he spent at Eton are one of the mysteries of Eric Blair / George Orwell’s life. A “Colleger” (his family could not otherwise have paid for his education there), he was primed to fly high at the school. He flew just about as low as an Etonian scholar could. He resolutely “slacked”. It was the first of his many non serviams, and one of the stranger. In the final school examinations for his year, Eric Blair came 137th out of 168. The shame was such that Andrew Gow, his longest-serving tutor, told the boy’s father, when he came to enquire what should be d…

Elizabeth Taylor - a writer who can do a lot with very little

If it wasn’t for Paul Theroux, I might never have got around to reading Elizabeth Taylor. In the face of a succession of articles that praise her, and bemoan the fact she is ignored, I continued to ignore her. But when I heard Theroux reading her 1958 story The Letter Writers, I suddenly knew I was missing out.

The Letter Writers takes place in an English coastal village where Emily, a middle-aged spinster, is nervously preparing for the visit of a man called Edmund, a writer she has been corresponding with for a decade. They have become close without meeting – although Emily did once stand outside his apartment in Rome without having the courage to announce herself.

In fact, Emily values their not having met: “She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, and certainly no voice. Although photographs had once passed between them, they had seemed meaningless.” The highest hopes she seems to have for their planned lunch are that Edmund won’t find her foolish, or dull: “Too …

Tales from the confessional - Frank O'Connor

I first came to Frank O'Connor by way of a possessive pronoun. The fiction shelves of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin proposed an antique orange Penguin: author's name in white, title in black, no strident capitals on the spine, and the cover taken up with what was in those days a come-on - a blurry author photo. It was not this, or the distantly familiar name that made me buy it (the original 3/5d now having become six euros), but the title. My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories. It was the slyly inviting "My" that did it. A lesser writer might have settled for "The", and the book would have stayed on its shelf.

Since his death in 1966, a respectful forgetting has settled over Frank O'Connor. Indeed, he is now better remembered - and more in print - in the United States than in either Britain or Ireland. Why should this have come about? Perhaps because in his large output - of novels, stories, plays, essays, travel books, biography, poetry and translatio…

How Henry James's family tried to keep him in the closet

Towards the end of 1915, as he became increasingly unwell, Henry James revised his will. He left Singer Sargent’s portrait of him, made two years earlier for his 70th birthday, to the National Portrait Gallery. He cut one nephew out of his will – the son of his brother Bob had published an anti-war pamphlet of which he disapproved. Although he had become a British citizen, he directed that his ashes should be buried in the family grave in Cambridge in Massachusetts. He left most of his estate to the family of his brother William. William had died in 1910.

On 4 December 1915 Singer Sargent wrote to Edmund Gosse: “Henry James has had two slight strokes within the past 48 hours. He is paralysed on the left side – his brain is clear and his speech. A nephew has been called for from America.”

The news of his illness was broken to friends, including Edith Wharton, by James’s devoted amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, who spent each day with James at his flat in Chelsea. Years later, Wharton repo…

Why the long-held view of Kipling is just so wrong

George Orwell called Rudyard Kipling a “jingo imperialist”, attacking him for racism, snobbery and his Empire obsession.

So Kipling's not quite the kind of man you’d expect the BBC to defend. But that’s exactly what Kipling’s Indian Adventure, which aired last night on BBC Two, did. This grown-up programme explained how Kipling’s literary career was forged in India, where he was a reporter from the age of 16 to 23.

As a journalist for the Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling was a clear-eyed observer, often affectionate towards his Indian subjects, and caustically funny about his British ones.

The programme's presenter, Patrick Hennessey, may seem Establishment (public school, Oxford and a bestseller about his service in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards) but this was no tub-thumping, red-faced defence of Kipling. Instead, in a diffident, measured way, Hennessey put forward a convincing argument in Kipling’s favour, largely rooted in a close reading of his journalism…

Czeslaw Milosz: A Poem For The End Of The Century

When everything was fine
And the notion of sin had vanished
And the earth was ready
In universal peace
To consume and rejoice
Without creeds and utopias,

I, for unknown reasons,
Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians,
Of philosophers, poets,
Searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.

What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful.
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage
Against the health of mankind.

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

Why then innocence
On paradisal beaches,
An impeccable sky
Over the church of hygiene?
Is it because that
Was long ago?

To a saintly man
--So goes an Arab tale--
God said somewhat maliciously:
"Had I revealed to people
How great a sinner you are,
They could not praise you."

"And I," answered the pious one,
"Had I unveiled to them
How merciful you are,
They would not care f…

Margaret Drabble: The art of growing old

When Simone de Beauvoir published her study of old age, La Vieillesse, in 1970, she was a pioneer in the field. The Second Sex (1949) had been a groundbreaking, seminal and life-changing work, gaining instant recognition, but with Old Age, as the book was called in the UK, she ventured into territory that nobody else seemed willing to enter, and friends and colleagues expressed astonishment that she, in her early sixties, wished to go there. Her research took her back to the Ancients, to mythology and anthropology and literature, and she offered readings of writers from Plato to Proust, but her volume remained for decades a lone landmark. Few had wished to follow. That has all changed now. A shifting demography has altered the landscape. Her volume (which appeared, less bleakly, as The Coming of Age in the US), remains an essential point of reference for all subsequent studies, and the steady flow of these has now swelled into a torrent: into what has, disobligingly, been described as…

Schooling an Intelligence - John Keats

There is a scene in Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic about John Keats, in which Keats discovers that his friend, Charles Brown, has sent a valentine to Keats’s beloved, the young Fanny Brawne. Brown defends his conduct as a jest, spitefully observing, “It is a game. It is a game to her. She collects suitors.” Keats reacts violently, grabbing Brown by the lapels and rebuking him: “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections: know you nothing of that?” Brown, the older man, is a cynic whose scorn betrays small-mindedness and a lack of understanding; Keats is the idealist, who embodies romantic sincerity. Yet the “holiness of the Heart’s affections” is a quotation lifted from one of Keats’s letters, a letter about the “authenticity of Imagination”. It is concerned with aesthetics. He is speaking not with the passion of a lover, but with the rapture of a poet.
Bright Star’s dramatic moment of personal conflict is thus a fiction which distorts the historical personality it purports…

Isaiah Berlin's letters reveal his despair at the 'growth of barbarism'

He was revered by many as one of the greatest scholars of his age. By the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 88 his strong critique of totalitarianism and optimistic view of human nature had made him an inspirational figure to liberals worldwide.

However, letters written by the great British philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, which are about to be published for the first time, suggest that he also had a much darker view of some of his contemporaries, such as the prime minister Harold Wilson – whom he called "a worthy mediocrity".

Berlin despaired of some of the younger generation – in terms that have a very contemporary ring. In a letter from 1968, he wrote: "I feel depressed by the rapid growth of barbarism – I daresay every generation has … This generation is complacently ignorant, uses mechanical formulae to dispose of anything that may be difficult or complicated, hates history.

"The old nihilists at least thought they respected science – t…

“The Whole Tragedy of Her Life”: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again. The House of Mirth reminded me again and again of other novels. In Lily Bart I saw Gwendolen Harleth, proud and sure in her beauty and her certain good fortune until she learns she cannot in fact control her own fate; I saw Isabel Archer, similarly proud and sure and beautiful, then caught in traps set by people more subtle and more corrupt than she is; perhaps because I just read Vanity Fair, I also saw Becky Sharp, motherless, nearly friendless, determined to invest the capital of her wiles and charms where she will get the best return at the least risk. Lawrence Selden plays an off-center Deronda to Lily’s conscience, which like Gwendolen’s is c…