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Showing posts from May, 2016

Love and Walt Whitman

In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote,
& so were they all—he was well used by the attendants…. Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside…—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots…& this dear young man close at hand…—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to…. I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss ab…

'Everybody is happy now' - Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

"O brave new world, that has such people in't!" - Miranda, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, on first sighting the shipwrecked courtiers

In the latter half of the 20th century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures. One was George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its horrific vision of a brutal, mind-controlling totalitarian state - a book that gave us Big Brother and thoughtcrime and newspeak and the memory hole and the torture palace called the Ministry of Love and the discouraging spectacle of a boot grinding into the human face forever.

The other was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism - one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration, of a pre-or…

A Poet Unlike Any Other - Stevie Smith

More than with most poets, when people write and talk about Stevie Smith (1902–1971), they try to nail her down with comparisons. She is a female William Blake, an Emily Dickinson of the English suburbs, a mixture of Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and the Brothers Grimm. Her reading style, which became legendary, with her cropped hair, baleful expression, little-girl dresses, and singsong lugubrious chanting voice, was described (by Jonathan Miller) as a cross between Mary Poppins and Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. Seamus Heaney called it a combination of Gretel and the witch. He also compared her to “two Lears,” “the old King come to knowledge and gentleness through suffering, and the old comic poet Edward veering off into nonsense.”

She is often described as dotty, batty, silly, odd, childish, droll, or “fausse-naïve” (Philip Larkin’s term). Her English quirkiness and eccentricity are played up, as in Stevie, the play of 1977 by Hugh Whitemore (made into a film by Robert Enders in 1978…

Hanif Kureishi: even the best writers face rejection

Of all the questions authors get asked, the most puzzling but persistent is what others might think of what the writer has produced. These potential disapprovers could be the writer’s spouse, family, colleagues, community or neighbours. It doesn’t matter exactly who they are. Yet the question of these opinions is clearly a crucial one for apprentice artists. When they begin to work a chorus of censure and dissent, if not of hate, starts up. The writer becomes inhibited by concerns about the effect his or her words might have. The writer could become anxious, stifled or blocked. They could begin to hate their own work, or become phobic about beginning.

Materials put online by the British Library this week detailing the lives of 20th century writers are testament to this; we see TS Eliot worrying about The Waste Land – “I do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivienne’s opinion as to whether it is printable …” – and rejection letters to James Joyce (from Virginia Woolf) and G…

A life in feuds: how Gore Vidal gripped a nation

I came to know Gore Vidal in the mid 1980s, when I was living in southern Italy, virtually a neighbour, and our friendship lasted until his death in 2012. Needless to say he was a complicated and often combative man. It took an effort, strenuous at times, to remain a close friend; but it seemed to me worth putting in the time, allowing him to relax into his deeper self, which was actually quite shy, even solitary. The public mask didn’t fit the private man very well, and I was always much relieved when he took it off.

Vidal would dwell at length on his feuds and fixed on the idea, which he took from Goethe, that talent is formed in stillness but character “in the stream of the world”. He entered that stream and swam vigorously, often against the current. And his wide knowledge of the world informed his work – the brilliant historical novels, especially Burr (about Aaron Burr, a founding father) and Julian, about the fourth-century Roman emperor. His seven novels about American history …

Old Possum's Nest - A second look at the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

This long-awaited critical edition of T. S. Eliot's poems is a scholarly milestone, a watershed in publishing history. The elaborate notes Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have provided for each line—indeed, each word—of each and every Eliot poem are so informative and the overviews for each stage of Eliot's career contain so much of the poet's own germane commentary that one can now trace Eliot's poetic development using no further aids than these two volumes.

The opening background section, "A Beginner in 1908," for instance, reproduces every key statement Eliot made, whether in essays, lectures, or letters to friends, about his literary origins. From a 1946 essay on Ezra Pound, for example:
Whatever may have been the literary scene in America between the beginning of the century and the year 1914, it remains in my mind a complete blank. I cannot remember the name of a single poet of that period whose work I read. And further, in a 1924 letter to Pound not w…

Homage to Poe

Outside the afternoon had already grown sunless and gray as we settled into our seats in eighth-grade English class. Our teacher, without preamble, carefully lowered the tone arm on a rackety portable record player. There was a scratchy pause, and then, unforgettably, we heard a low and sonorous, but slightly manic, voice whispering: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

It was Basil Rathbone, reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe. We sat mesmerized, until the actor produced his final, blood-curdling shriek: "Here, here—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

At the time, I failed to recognize that the voice on the record was the same as that of Sherlock Holmes, but I already knew a little about Poe. My steelworker father used to recite: It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee. …

The Hardship of Henry James

Why is Henry James so hard? I found myself asking the perennial question about “The Master” again (and again and again) while I worked my way through the volume of his autobiographical writings, published by The Library of America in time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the author’s death in 1916. Autobiographies consists of the three volumes of memoirs that James composed near the end of his life: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and a Brother (1914) and The Middle Years (1917), unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously. The book also contains some extracts from the journals and other relevant writings by James. (As a bonus, we get “Henry James at Work” by Theodora Basanquet, James’s super secretary who was with James from 1907 to his death in 1916.) It is a handsome volume, superbly edited by the eminent Jamesian, Philip Horne, whose historical and biographical notes do as much as such notes can do to illuminate some of James’s most …

Anne Enright: In search of the real Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped. She did not have to become a bag lady for her work to be revived, though that possibly helped too. The story of her mental decline is terrifying for anyone who works with words, who searches her clean, sour sentences for some hint or indication of future madness, and then turns to check their own. 

Brennan is, for a new generation of female Irish writers, a casualty of old wars not yet won. The prose holds her revived reputation very well, especially the Irish stories. These feel transparently modern, the way that Dubliners by Joyce feels modern. It is partly a question of restraint. Benedict Kiely, Walter Macken, perhaps even Mary Lavin, ran the risk of being “Irish” on the pages of the New Yorker, which is to say endearing. Frank O’Connor was the cutest of the lot, perhaps, as well as the most successful. Brennan remains precise, unyielding: something lovely and unbearable is happening on …

Emily Dickinson Isn’t You

“I couldn’t let go,” Jerome Charyn begins his author’s note to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, as if remembering a severed romantic relationship. He remained transfixed after writing a fictionalized account of Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, in which he inhabited, or vampirized, as he says, the nineteenth-century poet’s voice, detailing flings with noted scholars and tattooed handymen—all imagined of course. He spent two years on the book, culling through all the letters, biographies, studies, accounts, and poems he could. “I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” Charyn writes in his new book. “Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, and like a spider, she spun her meticulous web…”

Her seduction of Charyn implies her lingering claim on the present, but his inability to “let it go” introduces his attempt to put his mark on her. In the twenty-first century, Emily Dicki…

The Brontës’ Secret

No body of writing has engendered more other bodies of writing than the Bible, but the Brontë corpus comes alarmingly close. “Since 1857, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her famous Life of Charlotte Brontë, hardly a year has gone by without some form of biographical material on the Brontës appearing—from articles in newspapers to full-length lives, from images on tea towels to plays, films, and novelizations,” wrote Lucasta Miller in The Brontë Myth, her 2001 history of Brontëmania. This year the Brontë literary-industrial complex celebrates the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth, and British and American publishers have been especially busy. In the U.S., there is a new Charlotte Brontë biography by Claire Harman; a Brontë-themed literary detective novel; a novelistic riff on Jane Eyre whose heroine is a serial killer; a collection of short stories inspired by that novel’s famous last line, “Reader, I married him”; and a fan-fiction-style “autobiography” of Nelly Dean, the servant-nar…

Alice Munro, Our Chekhov

The announcement that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Alice Munro probably strikes many readers and writers as deliriously incredible. Few contemporary writers are more admired, and with good reason. Everyone gets called “our Chekhov.” All you have to do nowadays is write a few half-decent stories and you are “our Chekhov.” But Alice Munro really is our Chekhov—which is to say, the English language’s Chekhov. (In Munro’s great story, “The Beggar Maid,” an ambitious man sees that a friend of the woman he is courting “mispronounced Metternich,” and says indignantly to her: “How can you be friends with people like that?” I’m put in mind of Chekhov’s story “The Russian Master,” which has a character who repeatedly torments a young teacher by asking him why he has “never read Lessing.”)

Yet many of Munro’s readers had sadly concluded that she was not, somehow, the kind of writer that the Nobel committee seemed to like; I had decided that she would join the list of …

The Landscape of the Heart - Virginia Woolf

The re-issue of these four books in handsome bindings answers no urgent need; three of them are already available in less expensive editions. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to reread several of Mrs. Woolf’s books at the same time. Inevitably, I found the spell of the old enchantment considerably diminished. Inevitable, in part, because we are at that awkward distance which prevents either a fresh reading of her work of an impersonal detachment. In so far as our disaffection is caused by a temporary impatience with the elaborate, the playful, the idiosyncratic, we are the losers.

Orlando has always seemed to me embarrassingly frivolous. Of course, it is a very ingenious joke, very “literary” and scholarly, and the frivolity mocks itself, as when, after exercising a few lines in an archaic manner, the author breaks off: “(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).” It would have been delightful as one of her shorter, light pieces, but in this…

The Living Stream: Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares

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Warwick Gould discusses the research-level series offering a tribute to the pioneering Yeats scholar, A. Norman Jeffares.


Botticelli: Love, Wisdom, Terror

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Sometime around 1490 Sandro Botticelli set out to make a book unlike any ever seen before. Prompted by a patron, and inspired by his own deep love of Dante, the artist planned the first fully illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy. Almost since the poem was completed around 1321, painters had decorated manuscripts of it with illuminations of selected scenes. But the very qualities that drew so many readers to the poem—its vivid accounts of the horrors of Hell and the splendors of Heaven, its sprawling narrative, its penetrating descriptions of emotion, its philosophical gravity, and its unequaled mix of realism and what Dante called alta fantasia—were all far beyond the skills of earlier painters to convey. Even the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the book, including those made for humanist rulers such as Alfonso V of Aragon, king of Naples, were illustrated with comparatively naif and rudimentary images. Botticelli was determined to be the first painter to do justice to t…

The Man Who Made the Novel - Samuel Richardson

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely novelist than Samuel Richardson. The son of a carpenter, he attended school only intermittently until he was seventeen, when his formal education ended and he was apprenticed to a printer. He didn’t publish his first novel until after he turned fifty. The undertaking was almost accidental. He had become the proprietor of a printing press when, in 1739, two London booksellers asked him to put together a “letter-writer,” an etiquette manual consisting of letters that “country readers” might use as models for their own correspondence.

Richardson quickly expanded the project’s scope. A diligent worker who had risen from tradesman to middle-class property owner, he longed to impart what he had learned. He wanted, he wrote in the book’s introduction, to teach readers not only how to write elegant letters but “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of life.” Recollecting a true story he’d heard years earlier, he composed several l…