Showing posts from August, 2016

Mann’s inhumanity to Mann

“Klaus Mann was six times jinxed. A son of Thomas Mann. A homeless exile. A drug addict. A writer unable to publish in his native tongue. A not-so-gay gay. Someone haunted all his life by a fascination with death.” Thus opens Frederic Spotts’s elegantly written and deeply moving biography of the writer Klaus Mann. These lines set the tone for the exploration of the tragic life of a courageously uncompromising and truly European intellectual, who, born in 1906 and living through the darkest period of European history, was plagued by both political and personal calamities in almost equal measure. Spotts leaves the reader in no doubt that Thomas’s coldly judgemental attitude towards his eldest son was a root cause of many of Klaus’s problems. In his diary, Klaus complained that his father’s “general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong toward me”. If there was indeed such a lack of interest, it certainly did not prevent the harshest of judgements, for, in his own diary, T…

Aravind Adiga The Man Booker winner talks about his new novel. Or cricket. Or both.

Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world. Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but b…

What was Auden thinking when he wasn't writing poetry?

"At the beginning of the 21st century," Edward Mendelson writes in his entry on W. H. Auden in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "many readers thought it not implausible to judge his work the greatest body of poetry in English of the previous hundred years or more." Even allowing for a literary executor's special pleading, this is an extravagant claim: Auden's poetry is full of good things, but it is also full of bad things. And the latter are usually the result of bad rhetoric. That Auden regarded "September 1, 1939," for example, as "infected with an incurable dishonesty'' says something for the probity of his criticism. If he was capable of writing nonsense, he was also capable of owning up to writing nonsense.

Some of the bad rhetoric that marred Auden's work can be blamed on his left-wing politics.Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (1988) brilliantly supplies the cultural and historical conte…

Emperor of Nostalgia - Joseph Roth

At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.

The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found i…

The qualities of Robert Musil

“Why, then, aren’t we realists?” Ulrich asked himself. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their ideas and their conduct had long left no doubt of that; but they were nihilists and activists, sometimes one and sometimes the other, whichever happened to come up. —Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value. —Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

 The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880– 1942) occupies a peculiar position in the pantheon of great twentieth-century writers. He is admired by literati for a handful of astringent modernist fictions, especially for his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Bewilderments of the Schoolboy Törless). This brutal yet seductively introspective tale of adolescent cruelty and sexual exploitation at a German military boarding school was published to instant critical acclaim in 1906, when Musil was only twe…

Thomas Hardy: A Broken Appointment

You did not come,  And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,—  Yet less for loss of your dear presence there  Than that I thus found lacking in your make  That high compassion which can overbear  Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake  Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,  You did not come. 
You love not me,  And love alone can lend you loyalty;  –I know and knew it. But, unto the store  Of human deeds divine in all but name,  Was it not worth a little hour or more  To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came  To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be  You love not me?

Iris Murdoch’s Incompatibilities

The word ‘parodiability’ is not in the OED, but it is a significant literary attribute. Iris Murdoch certainly had it. Malcolm Bradbury’s Murdochian parody ‘A Jaundiced View’ has Sir Alex Mountaubon watching his daughter Flavia beneath a ‘dark and contingent cedar tree … sitting on a white wooden seat, in her unutterable otherness, her pet marmoset on her shoulder, her cap of auburn hair shining like burnished gold on her head. Nearer to the house, in the rose-garden, their younger daughter, seven-year-old Perdita, strange, mysterious and self-absorbed as usual, was beheading a litter of puppies with unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms. Her cap of golden hair shone like burnished auburn on her head.’ Bradbury does capture something. Occasional whiffs of Walter Pater-meets-upmarket-Woman’s-Own fiction can emanate from Murdoch’s descriptive prose: ‘A memory came back to her from her Italian journey, the young David of Donatello, casual, powerful, superbly naked, a…

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

When I lived in Moscow, I more often than not walked to work down Okhotny Ryad, a grand central boulevard. Like many places in Russia, it had been renamed after 1991 as part of a push to remove anything redolent of communism from the map. Like many de-Sovietising initiatives, however, the process was abandoned halfway through. Karl Marx Avenue might have become Okhotny Ryad, but a statue of the man who inspired the Soviet regime stayed in situ, a few yards away from the traffic, where the road meets Theatre Square.

The statue’s plinth proclaims: “Workers of the world, unite!” The statue itself shows him with flowing locks swept back from his forehead as if by a stiff breeze, above a full beard, all hewn ruggedly out of granite. This statue formed an occasional focal point for slightly forlorn demonstrations by some of Russia’s remaining communists, who waved their red flags and demanded that Vladimir Putin resign.

I sometimes thought, when looking at their demonstrations as I walked by,…

Justice to J.D. Salinger

When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924″—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.

When “Franny” and “Zooey” appeared in book form in 1961, a flood of pent-up resentment was released. The critical reception—by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and John Updike—was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please. “Zooey” had already been pronounced “an interminable, an appallingly bad story,” by Maxwell…

Franz Kafka's virtual romance

On 13 August 1912, a summer evening in Prague, a young Franz Kafka was gathering up his manuscripts to take to the house of his friend, Max Brod. His excursion to the Brods’ home late in the evening was not unusual, but this was an unusual night, for two momentous reasons: Kafka was about to send off what would be one of his first works to be published, and that evening he would meet the woman who would dominate his romantic imagination for the next five years.

Felice Bauer, a cousin of the Brod family who lived in Berlin, was travelling through Prague on her way to a wedding. That night, she would meet the intense author at the Brods’ dining table. According to Kafka’s version of the events (and it is the only one we have, since Felice’s letters were destroyed), she did not eat much and seemed reticent when he “offered her his hand across the table”. The few words they exchanged, her demeanour, her slippers, where she sat, where he sat, his invitation that she join him on a trip to Je…

George Herbert: Peace

SWEET PEACE, where dost thou dwell ?  I humbly crave, 
                        Let me once know. 
        I sought thee in a secret cave, 
                And ask’d, if Peace were there. 
A hollow winde did seem to answer, No :
                        Go seek elsewhere. 

I did ;  and going did a rainbow note :
                        Surely, thought I, 
        This is the lace of Peaces coat :
                I will search out the matter. 
But while I lookt, the clouds immediately 
                        Did break and scatter. 

Then went I to a garden, and did spy 
                        A gallant flower, 
        The crown Imperiall :  Sure, said I, 
                Peace at the root must dwell. 
But when I digg’d, I saw a worm devoure 
                        What show’d so well. 

At length I met a rev’rend good old man :
                        Whom when of Peace 
        I did demand, he thus began ;
                There was a Prince of old 
At Salem dwelt, who liv’d with good increase 

I gotta use words - T.S. Eliot

The first person to annotate a poem by T.S. Eliot was T.S. Eliot. His notes on The Waste Land (1922) were composed partly so that his 433-line poem could be issued by his American publishers Boni & Liveright as a book, and partly, as he recalled in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. ‘Not only the title,’ Eliot observed in his introductory paragraph to The Waste Land’s notes,
but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. In these seemingly sober, useful, self-deprecating sentences lurks the MacGuf…