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Showing posts from June, 2016

Hungry for Love - Charlotte Brontë

This is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, and to celebrate it comes a biography by the British writer Claire Harman. Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart isn't the first literary life she has penned: Her biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared to critical acclaim in 2001 and 2005, respectively. And of course this isn't the first Brontë biography to be published. In 1857, two years after Brontë's death, Elizabeth Gaskell produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a seminal work but one whose biases and flaws have since been revealed, chief among them Gaskell's toning-down of Brontë's love for a married man. In the mid-1990s, Juliet Barker's monumental The Brontës took the form of a kind of grand literary salvage operation by debunking the many myths and prejudices that had hardened around the family and replacing previous biographers' spurious supposition with hard fact.

While Harman draws on letters that were unavailable to her…

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

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Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time. Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, theTimes said, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity …

Fifty Shades of Moby-Dick

Think of Herman Melville and you don’t think lothario. But in 1847, after the publication of his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, Melville was considered something of a venereal adventurer by the antsy prudes who controlled literary comment. The erotic episodes he’d had with girls on the Marquesas Islands as a young sailor helped inform the narrative contours of Typee, and puritanical readers eagerly squinted between the lines to spot evidence of their own obsessions. The greatest living authority on Melville, Hershel Parker, in his matchless two-volume monument to the author’s life and work, writes that Typee and Omoo saddled Melville with the erroneous reputation for “being sexually dangerous, and even depraved.” You didn’t have to sin very earnestly in antebellum America to be branded a libertine: Writing temperate books of the flesh did the trick. So Melville had to listen to the drivel of censorious critics such as Horace Greeley, who charged his novels with being “positively di…

The Novel-Machine - Anthony Trollope

In July 1883, eight months after Anthony Trollope’s death, Henry James wrote a long, appreciative, although not uncritical, essay about him. Recalling their meeting on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1875, when Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning to write, James went on to evaluate the work of one of England’s pre-eminent and most prolific novelists. Trollope, he judged, was not on a level with Dickens, Thackeray or George Eliot, but he was “in the same family.” “If he was in any degree a man of genius (and I hold that he was), it was in virtue of this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties.” His great merit was his appreciation of reality and of the behavior of men and women. James concluded (with his typical qualifying note): “Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”

Three months later, Trollope’s “Autobiography” (which he had been writing on that memora…

‘The Transylvanian Trilogy,’ by Miklós Bánffy

Neglected masterpieces aren’t all that unusual (no reading public is perfect), but one that runs to almost 1,500 pages would seem hard to lose sight of. Starting in 1934, Count Miklós Bánffy strapping “Transylvanian Trilogy” was published one book at a time in Hungary, with “great success,” according to Hugh Thomas in his introduction to this handsome two-volume edition. But by the time the third and last book came out in 1940, World War II had broken out, and it couldn’t have been easy to generate interest in fiction set during the run-up to the earlier world war.

A few years later, with Hungary under communist rule, few writers were likelier to be ignored than a nobleman from a family of soldier-diplomats whose income had derived from vast forests in Transylvania, a region that had been something of a poor relation within Hungary (not unlike Hungary itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and now found itself subsumed into Romania. But thanks to the labors of two translators, one of w…

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in, with many anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

Across 600-plus pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) narrates the story of the discovery of genes, the evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline, and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene”, coined by the monk Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades, only to be revived in early twentieth century, after which it became a common term.

A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany.

Half a century later, the helical structure of DNA & RNA was discovered. Two decades later, questions were being raised about t…

Seamus Heaney: Bogland

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s “great, inestimable merit,” Henry James once wrote, “was a complete appreciation of the usual.” He was right: You won’t find a single uncanny moment in that Victorian author’s 47 novels. Yet reading Trollope in the 21st century can nevertheless be a bit spooky. That’s because seemingly everything that happens today has already been covered in one of his books, albeit in a less technologized form.

An example: Recently, in advance of watching a new adaptation of Trollope’s 1858 novel, Doctor Thorne, I revisited the book. Within a few chapters I came upon an account of a local parliamentary election in the fictional county of Barsetshire, where Trollope’s greatest novels are set. One of the candidates, Sir Roger Scatcherd, is a stonemason turned developer whose fortune has won him a baronetcy despite his coarse, boastful manner and well-earned reputation for drunkenness. During the campaign, someone paints a caricature of him on “sundry walls” about the town of Greshams…

How Borges made ends meet

Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could…

Thinking God Knows What: James Joyce and Trieste

January 15, 1941 dawned as a bleak, cold, snow day in Zurich, Switzerland. A scantily attended funeral procession made its way from the Fluntern Cemetery chapel to the burial plot. In the chapel, the few attending dignitaries had made their funeral speeches: Lord Derwent, the British Minister at the Legation in Zurich, University of Zurich English professor Heinrich Straumann, poet Max Geilinger, and Swiss tenor Max Meili, who sang the aria Addio terra, addio ciel (Goodbye earth, goodbye sky) from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. As the deceased had not liked flowers, there were none – only a green plant and a wreath with a lyre, the symbol of Ireland woven into it. When the coffin holding the earthly remains of Irish novelist James Joyce was being lowered into the grave, his wife Nora stretched out her arms to say goodbye; an old man going by asked the undertaker who was being buried and was told “Herr Joyce.” The man was a little deaf and asked again. The undertaker shouted: “Herr Joyc…

Ecce Homunculus - Friedrich Nietzsche

Which famous philosopher wrote, ‘I have experienced so much, happy and sad, enlivening and dispiriting, but God has led me safely through it all as does a father his weak little child’? The words are taken from the autobiography of the profoundly religious thirteen-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was given to writing autobiographies. The most famous of these, Ecce Homo, was penned in 1888, shortly before, or perhaps during, his descent into madness. You might have heard of that one because it contains chapters such as ‘Why I am So Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’. From 1858 to the end of the 1860s, Nietzsche wrote at least six autobiographies. These take centre stage in Daniel Blue’s new book on Nietzsche, covering the years 1844–69. We might be tempted to think of this as ‘Nietzsche: The Early Years’, but that would have misleading connotations. ‘Early Nietzsche’ customarily refers to the period 1868–76, when he was overtly under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’…

What Family Does to You - Anne Enright

The Gathering – Anne Enright’s fourth novel, and her best – is aware of its heritage, of the books that have gone before it. It makes use of familiar signals and motifs. It is centred on a wake for a man who has died early: an alcoholic who was betrayed as a child, part of a large, chaotic family. So far so Irish. But there are new things too. There is nothing clichéd about the language (Enright treasures words; she polishes them, puts them on display). The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death. The novel opens with Veronica learning that Liam has committed suicide. He drowned himself off Brighton beach. We find out – later – that he had stones in his pockets, that he was wearing a fluorescent coat so that his body could be easily found, and that he was wearing n…