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Showing posts from October, 2016

Elena Ferrante: What An Ugly Child She Is

The following essay was drawn from “Frantumaglia,” a collection of Elena Ferrante’s writings and interviews, translated by Ann Goldstein, which is out November 1st from Europa Editions. The central passages were originally conceived as a response to the Swedish publisher Brombergs, which, after acquiring the rights to “The Days of Abandonment,” decided not to publish it, on the ground that the behavior of Olga, the novel’s protagonist, toward her children was morally reprehensible.

France for me—long, long before Paris—was Yonville-l’Abbaye, eight leagues from Rouen. I remember crouching inside that place-name one afternoon, when I was barely fourteen, travelling through the pages of “Madame Bovary.” Slowly, over the years, thousands of other names of cities and towns followed, some near Yonville, others far away. But France remained essentially Yonville, as I discovered it one afternoon decades ago, and it seemed to me that at the same time I came upon the craft of making metaphors an…

JM Coetzee’s new novel asks a crucial question: When everyone’s the same, can a person be different?

Strangeness is a difficult quality to represent in an age when it’s all around us, all the time: from a species of bees becoming endangered to thousands of Americans even considering voting for a certain businessman in the running for President, and celebrity breakups being bundled alongside proclamations of the world ending by climatologists in your Facebook feed.

It’s easy to forget that we’re living in some of the most disorienting years in any century. And what’s more unsettling than all of these things is how we’re taking it all in our collective stride. How do you write a realist novel that can genuinely unsettle you amidst everything else that’s vying for your attention?

JM Coetzee’s answer, if The Schooldays of Jesus is anything to go by, is that you don’t. Not write a “realist’ novel anyway, or at least, not in the sense we understand "realism". Coetzee seems to be suggesting, and very slyly at that, that we leave behind such demarcations and come with an open mind to…

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical

Judging from her introduction to Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, it seems fair to say that Helena Kelly is not a fan of the forthcoming Jane Austen £10 note. The “idealised picture” chosen by the bank looks “far less grumpy” than the “unfinished sketch it’s based on”. The background is a stately home “where Jane didn’t live” and the selected quotation – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” – is “spoken by a character who shortly afterwards yawns and throws her book aside”. 

I also have mixed feelings about this banknote. It was not, as Kelly asserts, a simple matter of the Bank of England celebrating the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Rather, it was the culmination of a hard-fought campaign that I started when the bank announced that the only female historical figure on our banknotes was being replaced with Winston Churchill. And so when the bank produced this mocked-up note, part of me was delighted. We had won. But another part of me was, like Kelly, frustrated…

Margaret Drabble: ‘I am not afraid of death. I worry about living’

We are often told that in earlier times all cultures had a concept of the afterlife – that “everybody” believed in some form of life after death, be it a journey over a river to a dark land, an eternity of hellfire and torment, a paradise with angels and ambrosia, or a reunion with loved ones. We have created many metaphors to carry us across the Styx. Some cultures believed, and believe, in rebirth and the migration of souls. In 21st-century Christian countries, orthodox religious services still routinely profess faith in the resurrection of the body. Painting and poetry and mythology offer us visions of heaven and hell, some horrific, and some, like Stanley Spencer’s, reassuring and comforting. But I’ve always suspected that most of us, even in the pious, priest-dominated Middle Ages, didn’t really believe what we said we believed. Most of us knew that when we were dead, we were gone. We went nowhere. We ceased to be. That’s what we didn’t like about death – not fear of hell, but fe…

The last love affair of Elizabeth Bishop, and the losses behind “One Art.”

In the spring of 1970, Robert Lowell accepted a position at the University of Essex, in England, leaving a vacancy at Harvard, where he’d been teaching poetry for one semester each year since the fall of 1963. He wrote to his old friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, then fifty-nine, to ask whether she would fill in for the fall semesters of 1970 and 1971. Despite Bishop’s meagre teaching experience, the college was happy to offer her the job on the strength of Lowell’s recommendation and the National Book Award bestowed on her “Complete Poems,” in 1970.

Bishop was living in Casa Mariana, her restored colonial home in Ouro Prêto, the picturesque former mining town in southeastern Brazil to which she’d retreated after her longtime partner, the Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, three years before. For two decades, Bishop had found solace in Brazil from the horrors of her early life in the suburbs of Boston—her father died when she was eight months old, h…

Sara Coleridge by Virginia Woolf

Coleridge also left children of his body. One, his daughter, Sara, was a continuation of him, not of his flesh indeed, for she was minute, aetherial, but of his mind, his temperament. The whole of her forty-eight years were lived in the light of his sunset, so that, like other children of great men, she is a chequered dappled figure flitting between a vanished radiance and the light of every day. And, like so many of her father’s works, Sara Coleridge remains unfinished. Mr. Griggs [1] has written her life, exhaustively, sympathetically; but still . . . dots intervene. That extremely interesting fragment, her autobiography, ends with three rows of dots after twenty-six pages. She intended, she says, to end every section with a moral, or a reflection. And then “on reviewing my earlier childhood I find the predominant reflection. . . . ” There she stops. But she said many things in those twenty-six pages, and Mr. Griggs has added others that tempt us to fill in the dots, though not with…

Kierkegaard’s Rebellion

Around 1840, Niels Christian Kierkegaard began a sketch of his second cousin Søren. The face remains, like the portrait itself, unfinished. Though the sitter was already twenty-seven you would swear he was still an adolescent. The gaze is intense, the eyes innocent and preternaturally large. You can just glimpse the light sideburns he grew to cover his cheeks after the fashions of mid-nineteenth-century masculinity. But the mouth, held firm in conviction, betrays him: the lips are too delicate, sensuous, petulant. A year later he would cancel his engagement to Regine Olsen to begin a life of celibacy that would also mark the start of his philosophical career: “My engagement to her and the breaking of it,” he wrote, “is really my relationship to God.”

Kierkegaard is widely considered the most important religious thinker of the modern age. This is because he dramatized with special intensity the conflict between religion and secular reason, between private faith and the public world, and…

What to Make of T. S. Eliot?

In 1914, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was introduced to a student at Harvard University who greatly impressed him, and who would later become quite famous himself. Russell left behind his first impressions of T. S. Eliot in a letter that possibly inaugurated the now-standard fiction of the poet as representing a final, repressed branch of the old Boston Brahmans:
My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.Eliot struck many of his contemporaries as a person not unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” Virginia Woolf mentioned him in a letter to her brother-in-law: “Come to lunch. Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.” With his fine manners and noble bearing, Eliot was all too restrained by his own sense of decorum and propriety. The novelis…

Flaubert — the writer’s writer par excellence — is a real challenge to write about

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse’.

This might have been the influence of his freethinking father, an eminent Rouen surgeon, but perhaps it was just the spirit of the age. The Napoleonic adventure was over; the sun of Romanticism had set. As Winock reminds us, quoting Alfred de Musset’s Confession of a Child of the Century, ‘the young saw the foaming waves ebbing away from them… and those oiled gladiators felt unbearably wretched’.

The depressing lycée which Gustave attended in Rouen can’t have helped: ‘Life at boarding school was harsh. The premises were poorly heated and rudimentary, hygiene le…

Model White Writer - Carson McCullers

In the past few weeks, there has been an escalating public debate about the social role of the white writer, stimulated by the novelist Lionel Shriver’s speech at a writers’ festival in early September. It is a cultural moment that has made white writers look in the mirror and wonder if we have been confusing it with a window. White writers are not used to being objectified in this way. One of our conceits has been to imagine ourselves as neutral, objective, and value-free. Yet this sense of “objectivity” is itself constructed, organized, and enforced. And, within the context of racist police violence and obstructions to voting, it is particularly striking that the current incarnation of this old question has reëmerged in the language of “rights.” As Shriver told her audience:
Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, s…

Watching the sun set - The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire

In July 1944, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, proposed a meeting of the Big Three, the Anglo-American-Soviet triumvirate that was presently to be victorious in the war against Nazi Germany. His idea was that he, Roosevelt and Stalin should each sail in his own battleship to an anchorage off Invergordon in Scotland, where each would be provided with his own mansion on shore, and the King of England could entertain them all at Balmoral.

Just a year later, we see Churchill, by then no longer presiding over His Majesty's government, saying goodbye to Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India, who has been in London trying to arrange the handover of power to his Indian subjects. "Keep a bit of India", are Churchill's wistful last words to him - all he can say, as the British prepare to dissolve the empire he himself had famously surmised might last a thousand years.

The two passages superficially summarise the message of Peter Clarke's work…

The Man Who Invented The Drug Memoir - Thomas De Quincey

Long before he tried opium, Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist, was addicted to books. The cycles of “remorse and deadly anxiety” that he suffered in his adult life began when he was seven, after a kindly bookseller lent him three guineas. This, according to Frances Wilson’s new biography, “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was De Quincey’s “earliest trespass”: a “mysterious (and indeed guilty) current of debt” that he feared would carry him away. Among the books De Quincey acquired, there was a history of Britain, expected to grow in time to “sixty or eighty parts.” But he craved something vaster and more dangerous, so he purchased “a general history of navigation, supported by a vast body of voyages”: a work that was, like its subject, “indefinite as to its ultimate extent” and, as he was told by a jesting clerk, might involve as many as fifteen thousand volumes. It would “never end,” De Quincey reasoned, since by the time “all the one-le…

T. S. Eliot: Whispers of Immortality

Webster was much possessed by death And saw the skull beneath the skin; And breastless creatures under ground Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls Stared from the sockets of the eyes! He knew that thought clings round dead limbs Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
Donne, I suppose, was such another Who found no substitute for sense, To seize and clutch and penetrate; Expert beyond experience,
He knew the anguish of the marrow The ague of the skeleton; No contact possible to flesh Allayed the fever of the bone.
.  .  .  .  .
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye Is underlined for emphasis; Uncorseted, her friendly bust Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
The couched Brazilian jaguar Compels the scampering marmoset With subtle effluence of cat; Grishkin has a maisonnette;
The sleek Brazilian jaguar Does not in its arboreal gloom Distil so rank a feline smell As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
And even the Abstract Entities