Showing posts from March, 2016

John McGahern: ‘one of the greatest prose writers of the twentieth century’

When John McGahern passed away in March 2006 his body of published work comprised six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, two volumes of collected stories and one play (an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness). He had also scripted a small number of radio and television adaptations. Reviews and other prose essays were brought together in an edited collection after his death.

Given that his writing career spanned five decades, McGahern’s output was not prolific. The relatively low volume of work can be explained by his creative imperative: he once said that “rather than write novels or stories I write to see”. This perception of writing as an act of seeing, of discovery or self-discovery, did not lend itself to a steady flow of finished work – or work that he was satisfied with. McGahern also continuously refined and edited his work, believing that it was the writer’s primary duty to write well.

Having found a publisher for his first novel, he made the unusual and co…

Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: a masterpiece and its genre

The title of Charlotte Palmer’s It Is, and It Is Not a Novel (1792) could describe a lot of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century prose fiction. It was a time when novels could be declared on their title pages to be histories, adventures, tales, true stories, romances, narratives, or simply “a work”; their eventual lumping together under the label “novel” was a back formation. Palmer’s cheeky title and sharp preface point up perfectly the era’s classificatory disquiet.

It Is, and It Is Not a Novel crops up in Karen O’Brien’s introduction to her and Peter Garside’s collection of essays, English and British Fiction 1750–1820 (Volume Two of a planned twelve in The Oxford History of the Novel in English). There the obscure Palmer and her equally obscure epistolary fiction are credited with having anticipated “what now would be called ‘crossover fiction,’ as well as novels commenting on the process of fiction writing”. That may well be, but Palmer’s taxonomic precociousness doesn’t guara…

D. H. Lawrence: Beautiful Old Age

It ought to be lovely to be old
to be full of the peace that comes of experience
and wrinkled ripe fulfilment.

The wrinkled smile of completeness that follows a life
lived undaunted and unsoured with accepted lies
they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins
in their old age.

Soothing, old people should be, like apples
when one is tired of love.
Fragrant like yellowing leaves, and dim with the soft
stillness and satisfaction of autumn.

And a girl should say:
It must be wonderful to live and grow old.
Look at my mother, how rich and still she is! -

And a young man should think: By Jove
my father has faced all weathers, but it's been a life!

Christina Rossetti: A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;          My heart within me like a stone Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;          Look right, look left, I dwell alone; I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief          No everlasting hills I see; My life is in the falling leaf:          O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,          My harvest dwindled to a husk: Truly my life is void and brief          And tedious in the barren dusk; My life is like a frozen thing,          No bud nor greenness can I see: Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;          O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,          A broken bowl that cannot hold One drop of water for my soul          Or cordial in the searching cold; Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;          Melt and remould it, till it be A royal cup for Him, my King:          O Jesus, drink of me.

Malamud’s Grace

The Times headline reads: “Bernard Malamud is Dead at 71. Author Depicted Human Struggle.” Well, yes, I think, after recovering from the shock and starting to feel the sorrow, he did do that. But don’t all writers do it in one way or another? Isn’t there a depiction of human struggle even in those books that don’t make it their theme or subject, even in those “inhuman” works (as Robbe-Grillet’s novels were called) that are more concerned with the nature of language or perception than with lives? To write at all, to set down words in formal ways, to imagine fictively, is to report on a struggle. Malamud did that, more directly than most.

But what kind of a writer was he? Rilke spoke of fame as “the sum of misunderstandings that has gathered around a person.” Malamud was known for having had “compassion,” “moral wisdom,” a concern for the “ordinary man.” True, but was that what made him a good writer? The misunderstanding in his case lies in how the relation between those virtues and wri…

Murder in Miniature - Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk is a fifty-year-old Turk frequently hailed as his country's foremost novelist. He is both avant-garde and best-selling. His eminence, like that of the Albanian Ismail Kadare, looms singularly; Western culture-consumers, it may be, don't expect Turkey and Albania to produce novelists at all—at least, novelists so wise in the ways of modernism and postmodernism. Pamuk, the grandson of a wealthy factory director and railroad builder, has been privileged to write without needing to make a living by it. From a family of engineers, he studied engineering, architecture, and journalism, and practiced none of them. Until the age of thirty, he lived with his parents, writing novels that did not get published. When literary success dawned, he married, and now, living in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, he composes, according to an interview he gave Publishers Weekly in 1994, from eleven at night till four in the morning and again, after arising at noon, from two in the af…

Cesare Pavese: Passion for Solitude

I’m eating a little supper by the bright window. The room’s already dark, the sky’s starting to turn. Outside my door, the quiet roads lead, after a short walk, to open fields. I’m eating, watching the sky—who knows how many women are eating now. My body is calm: labor dulls all the senses, and dulls women too.
Outside, after supper, the stars will come out to touch the wide plain of the earth. The stars are alive, but not worth these cherries, which I’m eating alone. I look at the sky, know that lights already are shining among rust-red roofs, noises of people beneath them. A gulp of my drink, and my body can taste the life of plants and of rivers. It feels detached from things. A small dose of silence suffices, and everything’s still, in its true place, just like my body is still.
All things become islands before my senses, which accept them as a matter of course: a murmur of silence. All things in this darkness—I can know all of them, just as I know that blood flows in my veins. The plain is a great f…

Emile Verhaeren: The Silence

Ever since ending of the summer weather.
When last the thunder and the lightning broke,
Shatt'ring themselves upon it at one stroke,
The Silence has not stirred, there in the heather.

All round about stand steeples straight as stakes,
And each its bell between its fingers shakes;
All round about, with their three-storied loads,
    The teams prowl down the roads;
All round about, where'er the pine woods end,
The wheel creaks on along its rutty bed,
But not a sound is strong enough to rend
    That space intense and dead.

Since summer, thunder-laden, last was heard.
The Silence has not stirred;
And the broad heath-land, where the nights sink down
Beyond the sand-hills brown.
Beyond the endless thickets closely set,
To the far borders of the far-away.
    Prolongs It yet.

99 Ways of Looking at Kafka

The Statue of Liberty holding not a torch but a sword. A massive insect on its back in an apartment bedroom. A decaying machine designed to inscribe a prisoner’s sentence into the skin of his back. These images, like so many others from Kafka’s mind, are so strange and immediate as to belie their age. His stories seem disturbingly contemporary, as if they had not been written by an author who died nearly a century ago. To enter Kafka’s cosmos is to enter a space of unease, one that retroactively casts our own world in an unfamiliar light.

The urge to explain how anybody might possibly conceive these seemingly inconceivable stories is overwhelming. Was Kafka estranged from daily life? Was he deformed or antisocial? Not at all, says Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach. “Kafka’s social life is striking for the fact that he was generally well received by all,” he tells us at the start of an anecdote about the one person who bore him any ill will. “In his everyday life, Kafka was friendly, help…

John Donne: Death, be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

W. H. Auden Can Teach Us Not to be Afraid

He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939.” They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.

My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems—many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may…

A Different ‘Darkness at Noon’ - Arthur Koestler

Last July a German doctoral student named Matthias Weßel made a remarkable discovery. He was examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht for a dissertation on Arthur Koestler’s transition from writing in German to writing in English at the end of the 1930s. Oprecht was a left-wing fellow traveler who had founded his famous publishing house Europa Verlag in Zurich in 1933, and was well known for his anti-Nazi views and support for writers in exile, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Ignazio Silone—and the young Arthur Koestler. Weßel told me that at the time, “I was looking for letters and royalty reports, because I wanted to know how many copies were printed of the first German edition of Koestler’s Spanish Testament.” He failed to find the answer to his question, but while looking over the Europa holdings in the Zurich Central Library he came across a cryptic entry: “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”

This was extremely odd. Weße…

I was blind, she a falcon - Elena Ferrante

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or – a question not happily answered – were you Lila? S. said she had got back in touch with an estranged friend to give her the first volume in the series; K. felt that, impossibly, embarrassingly even, the books captured how she’d gone about finding an intellectual identity for herself. And we couldn’t stop talking about the experience of reading them: S. read under sodium-orange streetlight while smoking a cigarette outside a pub, unable to break off to go in to the friends waiting inside; E. had a week of violent dreams after she finished the first volume; A. had sleepless night after sleepless night to finish them, and walked to work the next morning her head still full of Naples; B. – a man – couldn’t go on reading as he started…

A long look at Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer. Look at how she arrived in 1992: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The Secret History more than lived up to the promise of that opening. It was a glorious combination of intrigue, in-crowd appeal, mystery and wrong-footing cheek. It was intelligent, fresh and a compulsive page-turner. It turned Tartt into a star and sold truckloads of copies, as did her next book, The Little Friend. After only three novels, she is one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine.

Which goes to explain why editing Donna Tartt must be a daunting task. Why it would have taken steel cojones to ask her to trim down some of The Goldfinch’s 864 pages. Why no one would want to be the person to tell her that the last 30 pages of her novel are among the worst ever committed to paper by a serious writer. Not least because an editor with good i…