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Showing posts from September, 2016

Short Cuts - Marguerite Duras

To interview Marguerite Duras, you had to speak Duras. ‘Durassien’ stood, then and now, for inscrutability. Her novels consist of a succession of paragraphs entire of themselves; in her plots everything happens at once or nothing happens. Her movies were about giving the viewer as little to see as possible, and all the better if that meant the screen went black for up to half an hour at a time. Everyone knew she drank, that she’d nearly died from it, and that she loved recklessly, and that she refused to be counted as a Nouveau Romancier, or part of the Nouvelle Vague, or an habituée of the Flore, or the Deux Magots, or wherever else it was fashionable to go that season. But she was in the habit of leaving the door of her apartment on the Left Bank open from dawn until dusk. Home, she thought, ought to be open to the outside: to her friends Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, to Alain Resnais and Delphine Seyrig, to those who simply rang the bell on the rue Saint-Benoît, like the I…

Relentlessly Relevant - The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

On July 31, the U.S. Postal Office issued an 89-cent stamp in honor of Henry James. The issuance is part of the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series — James is the 31st figure in American literature to be so honored.

It is ironic that the stamp arrives on the centennial anniversary of James’s death and the year he became a British citizen. This was done as an expression of support for England’s war effort in World War I (Americans would not enter the war until April of 1917). Yet for all his gratitude to England, his loyalties never fully strayed from his native land. James’s novels and stories are full of American characters, often naïve and foolish, but also upright and brave — always morally superior to their more worldly European counterparts. It is therefore fitting that he be honored as an iconic American, worthy of his own postage stamp.

It is also fitting that the end of James’s life be celebrated. This was when he ascended to the “major phase” of his writing career — when he …

Practical Cat - How Eliot became Eliot.

T.S. Eliot was a morally, intellectually, and sartorially fastidious man. His manner was so correct that it sometimes seemed a few degrees too correct. He was known to friends as a connoisseur of cheese—there are several anecdotes about him in which the punch line is provided by a remark about cheese—and as a collector of umbrellas with custom handles. He came to hold political and religious views that were far to the right of most of his contemporaries’, and to believe that Western civilization had been in decline since the thirteenth century, the time of Dante. He claimed to consider Richard III, who died in 1485, the last legitimate English king.

The poems and plays that Eliot published in his lifetime fill a single volume; his prose works are collections of talks and occasional journalism. The project to which he committed most of the latter part of his career, the revival of verse drama, was a failure. He was dismissive of grand theories of poetry, or anything else, and he never h…

One Long Poem - Elizabeth Bishop

“The enormous power of reticence,” Octavio Paz wrote in 1977, “is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” Many critics have echoed his praise since her death in 1979. “Bishop wrote delicately and elliptically,” Kathleen Spivack sums up in her 2012 memoir With Robert Lowell and His Circle. “What is most important is what is not said.”

Bishop’s reputed reserve has taken on new significance in light of personal correspondence discovered in 2009. When Bishop’s lover Alice Methfessel passed away, her heir found a locked box containing some of Bishop’s photographs and personal documents, including three remarkable letters she wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, in 1947. These letters were written at a crucial moment of Bishop’s career, and their discovery calls for a reassessment of her lyric development and legacy.

But their intensely private nature also raises questions about the ethics of archival reconnaissance. Scholar Lorrie Goldensohn, who first wrote of the discov…

Prophet and Loss - What Marx means in a world that has made peace with capitalism.

Does Karl Marx still matter? It’s a question most readers of a new biography of Marx would ask—even if they are already steeped in the contentious scholarship about (or the perpetual ideological skirmishes within) the radical left. What relevance can his life and work have in a world where nearly every socialist party long ago made its peace with capitalism, and at a time when his writings are read far more by academics than by the workers he longed to liberate? Even Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “socialist,” just wants to force the governing and economic elites to treat wage earners and consumers more fairly. He wants a new New Deal, not a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The decline of Marx’s influence does not seem to worry Gareth Stedman Jones. At many points in his new book, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, he even seems to welcome it. That may appear an odd stance for a distinguished left-wing historian of Britain, best known for his studies of the Victorian-era working…

Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism

On YouTube there is a three-minute clip of the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre. The funeral took place on Saturday 19 April 1980 and the television coverage from which the clip is taken follows the journey of the hearse from the hospital where Sartre died to Montparnasse Cemetery, where he was to be buried – a distance of about three kilometres. Along the way, the hearse moves through a staggering number of people. The commentator says that there are 50,000 mourners in total, 30,000 on the streets leading to the cemetery and another 20,000 at the cemetery itself. When the camera pans out, you can see how extraordinarily packed the streets are; when it homes in on some of the faces, you notice that many of the mourners are young, in their early twenties. If you did not know whose funeral it was, you would guess a famous actor or actress, a rock star, or some such popular public figure as Diana, Princess of Wales or Winston Churchill. It would never occur to you that what you were seeing wa…

The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction.

The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans wer…

The Stein Way

Gertrude Stein exploited every freedom in language she knew about and when she reached the end of her list she invented some more. Gertrude Stein set many of the best passages of her writing into extremely deep and confusing labyrinths such that when I read them I feel found though I am still lost. Gertrude Stein would seem to be convention’s prodigal but in fact she is convention’s most loyal child man or woman because knows more than anyone about convention because she was constantly standing just this far from it. Gertrude Stein had her own life and during it she wrote what she called someone else’s Autobiography and this is one definition of novelist. Gertrude Stein was called by Alice B. Toklas “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle.” Gertrude Stein wrote many long and many short sentences that come alive when they are read aloud and she took a Master’s Degree in Paragraphy and she spelled very well and she was unsuccessfully courted by punctuation and she took a faint but playful interest in lines. Here …

The stark moral world of Georges Simenon

The author of about 500 books, most of them written in less than a fortnight, including nearly 80 Inspector Maigret volumes and over 100romans durs or “hard novels”, Georges Simenon began keeping notebooks in 1960, when he was nearing 60 and beginning to feel old. The three volumes that are published here run from June of that year up to February 1963. By December 1969, when he wrote the preface to the book, he was able to declare: “I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooks, and those that I did not use I’ve given to my children.”

Why Simenon wrote the notebooks when he did is not entirely clear. At first, they may have been intended principally as family reading. He writes that he wanted to show his children their father as he really was – an ordinary human being with normal human foibles. He also mentions that he was finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the concentration required to produce his novels: whereas he used to write them (…

The other Schlegel

Roger Paulin’s monumental biography of August Wilhelm Schlegel is a rescue mission. Now one might not think that Schlegel needed rescuing. His name is familiar in the English-speaking world from the ­Schlegel–Tieck translation of Shakespeare (1825–33). Schlegel himself translated seventeen of the plays, with help from his then wife Caroline; the rest were translated by Dorothea Tieck (daughter of the Romantic author Ludwig Tieck) and the diplomat Wolf Graf von Baudissin. The translation has given its name to the Schlegel–Tieck Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society of Authors (in partnership with the TLS) for the best translation from German published in Britain. 

Schlegel has many other claims to fame. With his younger brother Friedrich, he edited the periodical Athenäum (1800–02) in which they defined the concept of Romanticism. Of his copious critical works, the lectures on European drama that he delivered in Vienna in 1808 were translated into many languages. It was throu…

A Life Written in Invisible Ink - Adrienne Rich

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
—“Planetarium”

Adrienne Rich was, without question, the unofficial poet laureate of 20th-century American feminism. Over the years, as she evolved from a stereotypical “daddy’s girl” and a precocious disciple of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens into an aesthetic, critical, and political pioneer, she became a prophet for both the women whose causes she championed and the country whose flaws she lamented and whose transformation she envisioned. Many critics thought her crotchety or, worse, “strident,” while she herself sometimes said that she spoke from a marginalized perspective. Even women who might have been sympathetic to her ambition complained about her. Two éminences grises of The New York Review of Books castigated her feminism: Susan Sontag dismissed it as “a bit limited,” and Elizabeth Hardwick fretted that she “deliberately made h…

The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien

One year ago, when the first volume of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was published, an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature cast a spell over the readers who ventured within the world of his creation. It was a haunting and ennobling world, held together by inner tension, and so the spell lasted while the fate of his world remained in doubt. For months the concluding volume was delayed while Professor Tolkien labored with a formidable index listing the lineage of his characters, the origin and pronunciation of their languages, and other footnotes from the Red Book of Westmarch, the source of his tale. Now the last volume, The Return of the King, is published, and so his readers may return from the fantastic to the commonplace.

Tolkien’s trilogy is fantasy, but it stems of course from Tolkien’s own experiences and believes. There are scenes of devastation that recall his memories of the Westen front where he fought in the First World War. The description of a snowsto…

John le Carré: I was beaten by my father, abandoned by my mother

John le Carré was beaten up by his father and grew up mostly starved of affection after his mother abandoned him at the age of five, he reveals in his hugely awaited autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, serialised in the Guardian.

Le Carré – one of the greatest novelists of the postwar era – gives a definitive account of his life as a writer and sometime MI6 agent. He insists he is an author who “once happened to be a spy” rather than a “spy who turned to writing”.

His memoir details the extraordinary first-hand research and relentless travel that underpins his long career and literary success. Le Carré gives amusing and at times lacerating pen portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch and Yasser Arafat, as well as a kaleidoscope of other cultural and political figures.

The most personal passages cover Le Carré’s fraught relationship with his father, Ronnie, whom he describes as a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird”. Ronnie was an erratic presence in his childhood and adulthoo…