Sunday, 28 February 2016

Eugenio Montale: The Dead

The sea that breaks on the opposite shore
throws up a cloud that spumes
until the sand flats reabsorb it. There,
one day, we jettisoned, on the iron coast,
our hope, more gasping than
the open seaand the fertile abyss turns green
as in the days that saw us among the living.

Now that the north wind has flattened out the cloudy tangle
of gravy-colored currents and headed them back
to where they started, all around someone has hung
on the limbs of the tree thicket fish nets that string
along the path that goes down
out of sight;
faded nets that. dry in the late
and cold touch of the light; and over them
the thick blue crystal of the sky winks
and slides toward a wave-lashed arc
of horizon.

                More than seawrack dragged
from the seething that uncovers us, our life
moves against such stasis: and still it seethes
in us, that one thing which one day stopped, resigned
to its limits; among the strands that bind
one branch to another, the heart struggles
like a young marsh hen
caught in the net's meshes;
and motionless and migratory it holds us,
an icy steadfastness.
                               Thus
maybe the dead too have an rest taken away from them
in the ground; a force more pitiless
than life itself pulls them away from there, and all around
(shadows gnawed and swallowed by human memories)
drives them to these shores, breaths
without body or voice
betrayed by the darkness;
and their thwarted flights brush by us even now,
so recently separated from us, so close still,
and back in the sea's sieve go down...

                                                                   translated by Charles Wright

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Master of reality: on Henry James' non-fiction

Henry James was the originator in ­English of novel-chauvinism, the idea that the extended prose fiction is, as he put it, “the book par excellence”. Between 1871 and 1904, during which time he published 19 novels, including The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew, plus novellas such as Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, James also wrote dozens of reviews, essays on “The Art of Fiction” and “The Future of the Novel”, and half a dozen stories about the novelist’s earthly tribulations and posthumous mistreatment. In the words of a later novel-chauvinist, F R Leavis, James set out to accomplish “a general full recognition among the educated that creative talent – creative genius – was at least as likely to go into the novel as into any mode of art”. In this effort, James employed all the big rhetorical guns, not just French tags (“par excellence”), but capitals and superlatives. In the closing words of his preface to The Ambassadors, which he considered “the best, ‘all round’, of my productions”, he stated that “the Novel remains still, under the right persuasion, the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms”.

The chauvinist position had a limiting effect on his relationship with non-novelists. T S Eliot, a fellow uprooted American and like-minded elegist for the unlived life, looking back on the arid years of his apprenticeship, said that he “learned something, no doubt, from Henry James”. That “something” went a long way, in terms of borrowed images and allusive phrasing. But Eliot felt he would have learned more if not for James’s “exclusive concentration on his own kind of work”. James moved through the world in a pair of novel-blinkers. Confronted with the volumes of Browning’s The Ring and the Book, he claimed, in a 1912 lecture, to experience “the sense, almost the pang, of the novel they might have constituted”. He called this phantom novel “a work of art . . . smothered in the producing” – hardly an orthodox way to mark the hundredth birthday of a poet.

But, for all this, the most prominent new publications during the centenary of James’s death, on 28 February 1916, do not relate to his fiction: a Library of America edition of his autobiographical writing, edited by Philip Horne, and Oliver Herford’s Henry James’s Style of Retrospect, a diligent and minutely argued study of the “late personal writings”. It is true that the Library of America has already produced 11 volumes of James’s fiction; that Cambridge University Press is in the process of doing a scholarly version of the same thing in 34; and that the James industry has already yielded writing on every inch of that work. Still, for almost three decades there has been a growing critical and editorial engagement with his non-fiction writing from the decade after his “major phase” novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl – during which he published virtually no fiction. This work, amounting to a “second major phase”, includes the contentious travelogue The American Scene, an account of his 1904-05 tour of the much-changed United States he had left for Europe 30 years earlier; the long explanatory prefaces to the 24 volumes of the New York Edition of his fictions; the essays collected in Notes on Novelists (1914); and the autobiographies A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), which are printed alongside essays, notebook entries and an uncompleted third instalment in the Lib­rary of America volume.

If the late novels, with their snaking, ­nuance-laden sentences and relentless tracking of the characters’ inner lives, show that James was in at the beginning of literary modernism, the later non-fiction shows why he might be considered modern and even modish. The recent writing on him as a novelist talks of impressionism, vagueness, religious experience, melancholia. In the non-fiction, we meet James the Freudian, the explorer of family dramas and selfhood, the proto-psychogeographer given to flâneries, a figure whose descendants are neither self-conscious Jamesians such as Alan Hollinghurst and Cynthia Ozick nor self-declared modernists such as Eimear McBride and Tom McCarthy, but rather the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and David Shields, who embrace the literary potential of the memoir and the essay. In a letter written in 1908, when the prefaces had followed The American Scene in monopolising his attention, he spoke about being taken away from “‘creative’” work, throwing the primacy of the novel into doubt many decades before somebody offered the first graduate seminar in “literary non-fiction”.

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Friday, 26 February 2016

Cavafy in English accents

“ Everything is Greece to the wise man”, said Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, at the beginning of the third century AD. The assertion was at once true and defiant: despite the dominance of Rome, Greek was the lingua franca of anyone of intellectual pretensions in the known world. The defiance was both manifest and implicit in Pausanias’s second-century catalogue raisonné of the classical monuments of mainland Hellas: his Description of Greece makes no mention of the temple which the Romans had built adjacent to the Parthenon. Pausanias ignores what all contemporary Greeks found it painful to acknowledge: their long subjection to Rome.

Literary Greeks have often responded to humiliation by reference to an earlier, golden age. Emigration in time is a version of pastoral which regularly appealed to Constantine Petrou Cavafy (1863–1933). Odysseus Elytis, the poet of the Cyclades, remarked, looking back on his work, “Oles tes idees mou enisiotisa”: I made islands of all my ideas. Cavafy islanded his ideas in an ocean of time past, leaving whatever he preferred to ignore below the surface. Wearing a metaphorical mask of Gyges, he repaired, for consolation, to a world of antique peripeties. When he celebrated the Spartans’ courage at Thermopylae, he acknowledged that, however noble the resistance, the Mede was always fated to get through. In another poem, he harps on the sore moment when Rome displaced the Delphic oracle as the decisive centre of Mediterranean diplomacy. Hellenic as he was, his first school was English (the family business had had a branch in Liverpool) and he retained the British habit of telling jokes with a straight face: “I have found that it helps me in my daily affairs . . . . Deep within I laugh and joke a great deal”. Cavafy’s ironies are nothing if not calculated. He recognized how often the masks of tragedy and comedy hang from the same hook.

One of his recurrent topics was the crumbling of the Hellenic hegemony imposed on the Levant by Alexander the Great and, later, by his fractious diadochi. Conquered in its turn, Greece might comfort itself with the notion that it had educated its Roman masters; but their muscular acquisition of its treasures (Mummius’ spoliation of Corinth not least) was unforgivable. So too was, and is, Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon marbles, the retention of which by a now reduced supremacy continues to rile Athens. Who ever mentions the purloining of the fine sculptures from the temple of Aphaia on Aegina by prospecting Germans in the late eighteenth century? They are installed in a museum in Munich, after being disastrously skinned, en route, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, who made a bust of Lord Byron in Rome in 1817, seven years before the Harrovian classicist set out to help liberate Greece.

When the classical education was all but mandatory in English schools and universities, there was a canonical hedge around Greek and Roman literature. Somewhat like Odysseus, when he steered close enough to hear the Sirens’ songs, apprentice philologists were bound to a curriculum which sailed past the erotic, even though their eyes were known to stray to it. For academic and Christian purposes, the preferred Greek for love was agape, not eros. A terminus ad quem of this officious selectivity came as late as 1960, when C. J. Fordyce, in his scholarly edition of Catullus, omitted the latter’s improper “Alexandrian” poems (except for one the base implications of which he seems to have been too proper to get wind).

Alexandria, where Cavafy lived for most of his life, stood more than any other city at the opposite pole to Rome. Had Antony and Cleopatra defeated Octavian at the battle of Actium, in 31 BC (a year celebrated, à sa façon, in two of Cavafy’s sly glosses on Levantine mutability), the city founded by Alexander the Great would have displaced Rome as the capital of the known world. Cleopatra’s nose is more celebrated than her tongue, but it is reported that she spoke Greek with a Macedonian accent, even though the royal house of the Lagids – the Ptolemaic dynasty – had had no place in Macedonia for some three centuries. Long roots are a Greek speciality. Cavafy lived only briefly in Constantinople, but he never ceased to mourn (and celebrate) Byzantium. When the Turks captured Smyrna in 1922, the eloquent ironist choked out “The Gods are lost!” before being reduced to tears. He spoke Greek (and wrote in a composite of katharevousa and demotic), English (he parodied British stylishness as well as Lucian did Attic) and French; but – despite his clerkly place in the local bureaucracy – knew only dog Arabic. It is said that he never entered an Arab Egyptian home.

Like the turncoat historians Flavius Josephus and Polybius, Cavafy was a somewhat willing recruit to the dominant culture. He genuinely admired the proconsular Lord Cromer, but he was outraged by the Denshawai incident in June 1906, after which the British hanged a number of native young men, whom the poet imagined as beautiful, for the murder of a loutish British officer who had almost certainly died as a result of sunstroke. As a bookman at least (Marguerite Yourcenar noted that he was “plutôt lettré qu’érudit”, well read rather than learned), Cavafy remained an Anglophile. In 1918, E. M. Forster reports him saying that “the two peoples are almost exactly alike . . . quick-witted, resourceful, adventurous. ‘But there is one unfortunate difference between us, one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital’”.

Forster’s description of the poet as a “Greek gentleman in a straw hat standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” has become definitive. Few have remarked the tincture of derision in it. And what of Forster’s own stance with regard to Alexandria, whither he was sent as a Red Cross volunteer during the First World War? Did Cavafy’s immobile angularity have something to do with his slant on an Anglo-Saxon sidling into what he regarded as Hellenic space? Imperial England stood to the inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean as Rome had to the Greek-speakers of the same region. Both powers demanded deference; both ignored, or crushed, symptoms of native resentment.

Was the nice Mr Forster not conscious of quizzing eyes behind those thick glasses? Did he have any sense of the irony with which a local poet, who did not need to conceal his sexual appetites from his (few) readers, addressed himself to an already successful novelist, whose homosexuality had to be disguised so long as he was appealing to bourgeois Britons who had seen nothing very wrong in the defenestration, two decades earlier, of Oscar Wilde, Cavafy’s abiding pagod (as Byron said Napoleon was his)? In his Levantine obscurity, the poet was freer than the prosaic eminence, who showed a conventional face to those who bought his books and another to his close friends, at least until the posthumous publication of his sad “gay” novel Maurice. One of Forster’s happiest loving relationships was with an Egyptian tram conductor.

“You will never understand my poetry, my dear Forster”, Cavafy said, at their first meeting. The Cambridge man then surprised him by using his “schoolboy Greek” to decipher some of “The God Abandons Antony”. At that stage, Forster reported, “to be understood in Alexandria and tolerated in Athens was the extent of [Cavafy’s] ambitions”. In view of what Daniel Mendelsohn says about the poet’s relevance to today, it is notable that the lines which Forster was challenged to construe had no homoerotic undertones.

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Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller

The tragically short life of this great writer makes a dramatic, seductive and difficult subject. At least a dozen versions already exist, including plays, memoirs, fictions and biographies. The fascination of the subject is obvious. There is the New Zealand family life, so furiously resented, yet so passionately invoked. There is the self-exile to England, the nomadic life, the complicated relationships with other women (the grotesquely self-sacrificing Ida Baker, for one), the edgy intimacies with writers such as Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, and the confused, reckless sexual experiments and mistakes. 

There is the long, intense relationship with the talented, narcissistic John Middleton Murry, which disintegrated painfully. (Once, while she was very ill in Italy and he, absent, did nothing but write to her about his sufferings, she underlined all the "I"s in his letters.) There is the death of her brother in the war, and, from that moment in 1915, the amazing flowering of the writing. And there is the agonising history of her illness, culminating in the dubious Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, where she died, in 1923, at 34, still, to the last, crying out for a chance: "I want to work . . . I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this . . . I want to be writing . . . But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life . . . That is what I want."

An irresistible story: but then come the difficulties. Katherine kept secrets, covered her tracks, and moved house endlessly (about 10 times in 1914, for instance), leaving papers everywhere. After her death, Murry, haunted by her all through his next two catastrophic marriages, made the most of what she left behind her. Ignoring her request that he should "tear up and burn as much as possible", he edited a stream of stories, journals and letters, all heavily altered and censored – often to reflect better on himself. In the process, which one caustic observer called "boiling Katherine's bones to make soup", he kept her writing alive. He also made a lot of money out of her, and promoted a mythologised version of a martyred Saint Katherine, "sealed in porcelain", as Anthony Alpers put it.

For Alpers and other biographers, Murry's editing of Mansfield's posthumous life was both a vital source of materials and an obstruction. It wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that Mansfield scholars in New Zealand began to publish complete editions of her letters and notebooks. They had not only to unpick Murry's versions but to read Mansfield's handwriting; Margaret Scott told Kathleen Jones that she "once spent an entire week deciphering one word".

Her writing was as impenetrable as she was: romantic, excitable, sharp-edged, malicious and cold, charming and funny, lonely, proud, vulnerable, a wearer of masks. Her on-off friend, the artist Beatrice Hastings, is well quoted here: "A difficult person to know . . . very complex, very self-critical and self-centred, struggling to make herself different, to get rid of what she considered the bad parts of herself . . . terribly private and sometimes hard to approach."

How does Jones – an experienced biographer of an assortment of women writers – approach the challenge? She is steady, thorough, professional and unsensational. She is especially good on Mansfield's feeling for the landscape (and people) of New Zealand, on her financial situation (often desperate, and dependent on the allowance from her much maligned father), and on the frequent squalor of her and Murry's living conditions – yet another appalling furnished flat, "grimy and draughty and smelling of dust, tea leaves and match ends in the sink", yet another wretched hotel room: "I know I shall die in one. I shall stand in front of a crochet dressing-table cover, pick up a long invisible hairpin left by the last 'lady' and die with disgust."

Jones firmly sees off previous biographers, for instance on Mansfield's plagiarism of Chekhov (which Jones thinks has been over-stated), on her premature stillborn child (not a miscarriage, says Jones) and on her gonorrhea (a false diagnosis, says Jones).

There are some nice rewards for the close attention Jones pays to the sources. When Leslie, Mansfield's brother, died horribly in the war (a grenade blew up in his hand and he bled to death), all other biographies give Mansfield's version of his last words: "Lift my head, Katie, I can't breathe." Jones has noticed that in the letter Mansfield received describing his death, the words quoted were: "Lift my head, I can't breathe". Mansfield adds her name into the account. "She wants passionately to feel that her brother's last thoughts had been of her."

At times, though, these sorts of comments can sound reductive or banal. "She felt herself to be loved less than her siblings and as a result became more difficult to love." "Under her self-confident exterior, there was a much more insecure young girl." We are told that Mansfield suffers from "panic attacks" and is "good at networking". Jones is enthusiastic, but not very interesting, about the stories. And she has some blank spots. Virginia Woolf is introduced, oddly, by a passage on the conventions of the English upper classes: "Ladies do not wear makeup or perfume . . . clothes are bespoke, or purchased at exclusive shops . . . among these people Katherine is a foreigner." (Yes, Woolf could be snobbish about Mansfield, but she was not a conventional upper-class "lady".) Mansfield's brilliant, savage account of Lawrence and Frieda's marriage is solemnly paraphrased, without any sense that it might be funny as well as appalled.

The biography's main problem, though, is its structure. Because Mansfield's story is so intertwined with Murry's version of it, Jones has chosen to break the narrative into contrasting chunks of Mansfield's life and her afterlife. The Mansfield sections are told in the present tense, intercut with sections in the past tense that tell the story of Murry's next marriages and the lives of his wretched children, under the shadow of Mansfield's ghost.

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George Orwell’s master – and spymaster?

Every belated release of official documentation about the “Cambridge Spies” throws up more fog than illumination. The latest batch, in October 2015, was no exception. But, tantalizingly glimpsable in the murk may be the wholly unexpected figure of George Orwell. If one wants to follow the trail one has – as Julian Mitchell does in Another Country, his play about the Cambridge Spies – to return to their schooldays.

The five years, 1917–22, he spent at Eton are one of the mysteries of Eric Blair / George Orwell’s life. A “Colleger” (his family could not otherwise have paid for his education there), he was primed to fly high at the school. He flew just about as low as an Etonian scholar could. He resolutely “slacked”. It was the first of his many non serviams, and one of the stranger. In the final school examinations for his year, Eric Blair came 137th out of 168. The shame was such that Andrew Gow, his longest-serving tutor, told the boy’s father, when he came to enquire what should be done with Eric, that it would be a “disgrace” to Eton even to allow him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Lesser institutions (say London University, or Manchester) were unthinkable. Where higher education was concerned Gow might as well have worn a black cap.

It’s preposterous on the face of it to have suggested that an Eton scholar, by no means at the bottom of the class, could not, with a month or two’s cramming, have won an Oxbridge scholarship. Eric Blair was one of the cleverest boys in England. Why did Gow deliver this death sentence? Gow would reappear tangentially in the known narrative of Blair / Orwell’s life – always tantalizingly, suggesting there was more to the relationship than meets the eye. One glimpses sinister networks: but, if one tries to grasp them, they melt like cobwebs before a candle.

Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow (1886–1978) was the son of a public school headmaster. He got a double first in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, but, when Blair came his way, was having difficulty obtaining the job there which he wanted above all things in life. As his tight-lipped entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records:

He applied four times for permanent posts in Cambridge, but was each time unsuccessful; it was feared that he would alarm and discourage his pupils, particularly the weaker sort. Indeed Gow’s appearance was formidable, an uncompromisingly Scottish kind of countenance being set off by bushy eyebrows and side-whiskers, and anything like conceit or pretentiousness on the part of a pupil might provoke a wounding sarcasm.

The rejection letters from Cambridge cannot have softened his schoolroom sarcasm. A “bachelor and a half” (as Paul Johnson archly called him), he liked the friendly company of favourite pupils, out of school hours. Barely thirty, he was nicknamed “Granny Gow” – for effeminacy and his solicitude towards these favourites.

Gow was Blair’s classics tutor. They were necessarily close but they didn’t, it would seem, like each other. “Granny Gow” could not have been unaware of homophobic sneers against him by the “manlier” boys. Orwell was not tolerant – at any period of his life – of “nancies”. Blair penned a scurrilously homophobic poem printed in one of the school’s papers. It opens: “Then up waddled Wog [Gow spelt backwards] and he squeaked in Greek / ‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek’”.

No need to ask which cheek is alluded to. Gow was a hairy man. The lines are an allusion to the outrageously homosexual Cleisthenes tearing the hair out of his rump in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. The verse in the school magazine was anonymous, but Gow – who probably dreamed in Greek – would have had no difficulty in uncovering the rascal who wrote it and what it implied. But he could not rush off to the Provost, M. R. James, and demand condign retribution without the career-endangering query: “Do all the boys know, Andrew?” James, of course, was himself discreetly homosexual.

One can speculate that Gow used certain texts (such as The Frogs) in his small classics translation tutorial group to observe how receptive boys were to various Hellenic and Roman improprieties. Orwell’s early biographers Peter Stansky and William Abrahams interviewed Gow, and recorded him recalling a warm relationship with Blair, perceiving “under the shyness and surliness . . . an authentic intelligence”. As with other pupils, Gow said, they had private tutorials in Gow’s room, where groups of four or five boys would read aloud their personal writings. A fondness for Eric Blair is implied. Did Gow, in this relaxed atmosphere, venture some kind of pass?

What he told Stansky and Abrahams makes all the odder the account of Richard Blair visiting Eton to be told by Gow to remove his son entirely from the British higher education system. (It could be thought Gow did not want Blair around at Cambridge, where he, Gow, was determined to return, out of pure malice. He had identified Blair as a “nuisance”. Or it could have been payback for the “Wog” doggerel: Granny’s revenge.) Richard got the message, and cut off any further family monetary sacrifice, for Eric: the only son, but no longer the hope of the Blairs. From now on, he would have to pay his own way. And that meant, as it had done for his father, the colonies: that finishing school for Etonian non-starters.

Richard Blair would, of course, have relayed to his son Gow’s devastating report. It cannot have been a pleasant conversation. According to Jacintha Buddicom – Eric’s sweetheart – her family put pressure on Richard to get Eric to university, whatever the cost. He wanted “so much” to go. “But Mr Blair was adamant.” Five years in the Burmese imperial police service was more than enough for Eric Blair. He returned, his health damaged, with the draft of his first novel and a lifelong hatred for that despicable “racket”, the British Empire.

There occurred on his return a very strange event. Blair visited the man who had, effectively, dished his prospects at Eton, to get “advice” on what he should do next. And Gow was, apparently, pleased for Orwell to come and stay a day or two with him. After years of trying, the unhappy schoolteacher had finally got his Trinity job. Competition had been thinned out by the war. (A heart murmur had excused him service, and he is reputed to have replied, when someone asked why he was in civilian clothes, that he was the civilization others were dying for.)

Bernard Crick, Orwell’s first authorized biographer, is at a loss to explain this “somewhat surprising” reunion. Gow’s advice on Blair’s career prospects had not, hitherto, been helpful. Nor, as far as one knows, had Blair corresponded with Gow, since leaving Eton (his letters from Burma are almost all lost). And why should he have done? According to Crick’s account of his interview with the retired don (still resident at Trinity), in 1976,

Gow remembered little about the visit, except that Blair came to tell him that he had resigned from the Burma Police, was thinking of pursuing a literary career, but wanted to take advice first. “I seem to remember”, Gow said, “that as he seemed fairly determined and had nothing else in mind, I said, in a rather non-committal way that he might as well have a try.” He stayed the night in college [at Gow’s expense, presumably] and Gow remembers that he set him next to A. E. Housman at High Table, “who asked him about Burma”. It is hard to interpret this incident.

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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Elizabeth Taylor - a writer who can do a lot with very little

If it wasn’t for Paul Theroux, I might never have got around to reading Elizabeth Taylor. In the face of a succession of articles that praise her, and bemoan the fact she is ignored, I continued to ignore her. But when I heard Theroux reading her 1958 story The Letter Writers, I suddenly knew I was missing out.

The Letter Writers takes place in an English coastal village where Emily, a middle-aged spinster, is nervously preparing for the visit of a man called Edmund, a writer she has been corresponding with for a decade. They have become close without meeting – although Emily did once stand outside his apartment in Rome without having the courage to announce herself.

In fact, Emily values their not having met: “She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, and certainly no voice. Although photographs had once passed between them, they had seemed meaningless.” The highest hopes she seems to have for their planned lunch are that Edmund won’t find her foolish, or dull: “Too much was at stake and, for herself, she would not have taken the risk.” Taylor’s characters often find themselves in situations like this, where little is to be gained, but everything to be lost.

But there is another layer to Emily’s fluster: a remarkable moment on the first page suggests an element of sexual anticipation that she herself is not fully aware of:
Over her bare arms the warm air flowed, her skirt seemed to divide as she walked, pressed in a hollow between her legs, like drapery on a statue.
How much there is packed in here: the warm air dividing Emily’s skirt, suggesting the heat of sexual arousal and the searching hands of a lover; the simile “like drapery on a statue” giving the illusion of malleability to something in fact frigid and immovable. Nevertheless, the paragraph twists again as Emily imagines herself walking “nakedly, picking her way, over dry-as-dust cow-dung, along the lane”.

Taylor is a writer who can do a lot with very little. “I feel happier about my stories than about my novels,” she wrote in the London Magazine in 1970, asserting that for a story to be successful “there must be immediate impact, more scene and less narrative”. She considered these “beautiful and exciting restrictions”.

One restriction she had little time for, however, was sticking to a single point of view. Almost all her stories are written in the third person, and almost all of them access the thoughts of multiple characters. Sometimes she flicks briefly into the thoughts of an incidental character (in The Letter Writers it is a nosy neighbour who intrudes on Emily’s lunch), while elsewhere she cycles more methodically through a story’s cast, building a scene from multiple perspectives. Oasis of Gaiety (1951), about a boozy afternoon party, is a bravura example.

This roving point of view has a bearing on the harsh streak that runs through Taylor’s writing. She is a dispassionate chronicler of her characters’ faults, sometimes to the point of cruelty. They tend to be tough on themselves as well, but however self-critical we think we are, we are often spared the potential unpleasantness of knowing exactly what others think of us. Taylor removes that buffer, giving the reader an overview, like a general on a hill, of all the many disconnects between perception and reality.

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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Tales from the confessional - Frank O'Connor

I first came to Frank O'Connor by way of a possessive pronoun. The fiction shelves of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin proposed an antique orange Penguin: author's name in white, title in black, no strident capitals on the spine, and the cover taken up with what was in those days a come-on - a blurry author photo. It was not this, or the distantly familiar name that made me buy it (the original 3/5d now having become six euros), but the title. My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories. It was the slyly inviting "My" that did it. A lesser writer might have settled for "The", and the book would have stayed on its shelf.

Since his death in 1966, a respectful forgetting has settled over Frank O'Connor. Indeed, he is now better remembered - and more in print - in the United States than in either Britain or Ireland. Why should this have come about? Perhaps because in his large output - of novels, stories, plays, essays, travel books, biography, poetry and translations from the Irish - there is not one particular title to which his name is indelibly attached. Perhaps because his finest work is in the short story, a medium more vulnerable over time. Perhaps because he doesn't require academic explication; in which he resembles some of the writers he most revered - Maupassant, Chekhov, Turgenev. Perhaps because he spent many years away in America, where his best work first appeared: the New Yorker ran 51 of his stories in a two-decade-long association beginning in 1945. Perhaps because he could be as harsh about the land of his birth as other Irish writers: it was a "country ruled by fools and blackguards", where life was "emptiness and horror" - though a country to which he returned, in 1961, for the last five years of his life. Even cumulatively, these reasons seem insufficient.

He was born Michael O'Donovan in 1903, a demographic rarity at that time: both a late child and an only child. His mother Mary had been born in 1865, a date she long concealed from her son; she was an orphan who channelled into him her social and cultural ambitions. His father Michael was an old soldier proud of his two pensions from the British Army, a bandsman and navvy, given to powerful drinking bouts which blighted family life. Frank was a self-admitted mother's boy and sissy, who deep into adulthood fought his father for possession of the woman of the house. He left school at 14, and worked on the railways as a clerk in the flourishing misdirected-goods department. At 15, he started doing "odd jobs", as he put it, for the IRA; but proved a "wretchedly bad soldier", and was interned by the Irish Free State for a year in 1922-23. Upon release he became a librarian, teacher, translator and man of the theatre, first in Cork then Dublin, rising to become director of the Abbey Theatre. After retiring from that post in 1939, he lived from his writing, with the help of teaching stints at American universities.

Much of his early life, up to and including internment, finds its way into his stories; his later life less (or less obviously) so. His first volume of autobiography, An Only Child, is full of brief anecdotes and asides, which are recognisably the germ of later stories: how he drank his father's pint; how he decided he was a changeling; how he determined to murder his embarrassing grandmother; how he sought to apply the English public-school ethic in an Irish trades school. Each is, however, only the germ: the final story has less to do with its authenticity of origin, everything to do with the manner of its development. William Maxwell, who was O'Connor's editor at The New Yorker and thereby his great friend, said that Frank, despite being an only child, "behaved as if he were the oldest of a large family of boys and girls". Such a transforming instinct is a good start for a fiction writer.

So is listening carefully - which may come in many forms, from a child's eaves-dropping upwards. In 1959, Maxwell received a letter from one of his magazine's readers asking when to expect a new story from another of the Irish writers he published, Maeve Brennan. He showed the letter to Brennan, who judged its tone (or the request itself) impertinent, and concocted a fantastical reply purporting to come from Maxwell himself. The editor is terribly sorry to have to inform the reader that "our poor Miss Brennan" has died - indeed she shot herself ("in the back with the aid of a small handmirror") at the foot of the main altar of St Patrick's Cathedral on Shrove Tuesday. The letter continues: "Frank O'Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out ..." Brennan is making fun of her fellow-countryman and his subject-matter; but also of the writer's love of hearing other people's innermost secrets - which he, unlike the priest, will subsequently betray.

O'Connor himself put the point a different way. In An Only Child he describes himself as "a natural collaborationist". By which he means that, "Like Dolan's ass, I went a bit of the way with everybody". An initial biddability followed, at a certain point, by an instinctive intransigence. When he was an internee, Republican prisoners across Ireland were called out on hunger strike against the Free State; O'Connor was one of the only three among the thousand prisoners in his camp who both voted and spoke against the decision. The writer has a similar stance, and duty: a bit of the way, but no further; join with others, inhabit their lives at will, but remain mulishly yourself.

Imaginative sympathy, and then, in rendering the lives of others, a furious - and, to some, infuriating - perfectionism. Maxwell, who knew writers well, said that "if there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written. There is no worse sign." O'Connor almost never gave such a sign. Though he liked to write a quick first draft - obeying Maupassant's injunction to "get black on white" - everything thereafter was itchy dissatisfaction and constant revision. His story "The Little Mother" exists in 17 versions, published and unpublished; sometimes the count rose as high as 50 drafts. A story might eventually appear in a magazine, but that would not be the end of the revisions. Then it might be published in volume form, and still O'Connor would go on tinkering. Finally it might be Selected or Collected, yet there was always further work to be done. All for the sake of what Maxwell, writing about his friend, called "The happiness of getting it down right."

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Monday, 22 February 2016

How Henry James's family tried to keep him in the closet

Towards the end of 1915, as he became increasingly unwell, Henry James revised his will. He left Singer Sargent’s portrait of him, made two years earlier for his 70th birthday, to the National Portrait Gallery. He cut one nephew out of his will – the son of his brother Bob had published an anti-war pamphlet of which he disapproved. Although he had become a British citizen, he directed that his ashes should be buried in the family grave in Cambridge in Massachusetts. He left most of his estate to the family of his brother William. William had died in 1910.

On 4 December 1915 Singer Sargent wrote to Edmund Gosse: “Henry James has had two slight strokes within the past 48 hours. He is paralysed on the left side – his brain is clear and his speech. A nephew has been called for from America.”

The news of his illness was broken to friends, including Edith Wharton, by James’s devoted amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, who spent each day with James at his flat in Chelsea. Years later, Wharton reported that James’s friend Howard Sturgis had been told by the novelist that his first thought on falling was: “So it has come at last – the Distinguished Thing.” Another friend reported that she heard James say: “It’s the beast in the jungle, and it’s sprung.”

As his temperature went up and down, James asked Bosanquet to bring the typewriter into the bedroom. He began to dictate sentences about Napoleon Bonaparte, soon imagining that he himself was Napoleon as he grew delirious.

On 13 December, the formidable Alice James, the widow of William, arrived in London, having braved the Atlantic. Mrs James had years before promised her husband that she would “see Henry through when he comes to the end”. She dismissed Bosanquet and took over the management of the household. She disapproved of Miss Bosanquet’s writing to Wharton with news of James’s condition. Being a good Boston matron, she harboured an intense dislike of Wharton. Burgess Noakes, James’s servant from Rye, remained with him, having returned from the war. “It is a touching sight,” Alice wrote, “to see little Burgess holding his hand and half kneeling in the chair beside him, his face very near to Henry, trying to understand the confused words Henry murmurs to him.”

James was still raving, believing that he that he was in Cork in Ireland or in California or at Lamb House in Rye. At times, his hand would move, mimicking a hand in the act of writing.

In the New Year, James’s name was included in the honours list, being offered the Order of Merit. As his condition worsened, his nephew Harry, son of William and Alice, arrived in London and prepared himself to be his uncle’s executor. Peggy, Harry’s sister, was also there.

Henry James died on 28 February 1916. The memorial service was held in Chelsea Old Church; the body was cremated at Golders Green and then the ashes smuggled into the US by Alice.

At one moment, as he lay dying, James discussed her sons – his nephews – with his sister-in-law and then said: “Tell them to follow, to be faithful, to take me seriously.” This would become more important than he imagined in the years after his death as the family of his brother took control of his estate. In his book Monopolizing the Master, published in 2012, Michael Anesko sought to outline the struggle that went on to control James’s posthumous reputation.

It began some years before James’s death as the novelist worked on the volume of his autobiography called Notes of a Son and Brother. As he began to use letters written by his brother William in this book, letters that had been given to him by his sister-in-law, he felt free to make amendments to suit his own purposes. Harry wrote to his uncle sharply when news of this leaked out. When Henry replied: “the sad thing is I think you’re right in being offended”, Harry wrote an exclamation mark in the margin. He wished to control publication of his father’s letters himself.

Both Harry and his sister Peggy were also concerned about the literary legacy of their aunt Alice (not to be confused with their mother, also called Alice). Both of them had all of the James entitlement without any of the talent of the older generation. They were dull people and they craved respectability. Wharton called Harry, who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and later was involved in the governance of Harvard, “the great & grim brother”. Bosanquet noted: “He has a tremendous chin – the most obstinate-looking jaw.”

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Sunday, 21 February 2016

Why the long-held view of Kipling is just so wrong

George Orwell called Rudyard Kipling a “jingo imperialist”, attacking him for racism, snobbery and his Empire obsession.

So Kipling's not quite the kind of man you’d expect the BBC to defend. But that’s exactly what Kipling’s Indian Adventure, which aired last night on BBC Two, did. This grown-up programme explained how Kipling’s literary career was forged in India, where he was a reporter from the age of 16 to 23.

As a journalist for the Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling was a clear-eyed observer, often affectionate towards his Indian subjects, and caustically funny about his British ones.

The programme's presenter, Patrick Hennessey, may seem Establishment (public school, Oxford and a bestseller about his service in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards) but this was no tub-thumping, red-faced defence of Kipling. Instead, in a diffident, measured way, Hennessey put forward a convincing argument in Kipling’s favour, largely rooted in a close reading of his journalism and books.

When Kipling started working for the Gazette in 1882, he had the classic journalist’s qualification: he was a well-connected outsider.

He was born in India, but had gone back to Britain for a miserable education. His father, Lockwood Kipling, was head of the art school and museum in Lahore, where Rudyard Kipling began his career.

For all these contacts, Kipling never quite fitted in. He was un-coordinated, with terrible eyesight – the reason he failed to get into Sandhurst. And he hadn’t been thought clever enough for an Oxbridge scholarship.

So he landed on the shores of journalism, where so many misfits wash up. He was a natural. He called his time on the Gazette “seven years' hard” but it was an ideal literary apprenticeship, as he accumulated deep layers of detail about Indian life.

As a cub reporter, he covered colonial gymkhanas, tea parties and polo games. He graduated to the big news stories: riots and Viceroys’ visits. In Simla – the Viceroy’s summer residence in the Himalayan foothills – he noted romances between holidaying officers and “grass widows”, whose husbands were toiling on the boiling plains below.

Kipling wasn’t seduced by the high life, though. Even as a teenager, he had the confidence and intelligence to see how dull and dim the chat was at the Punjab Club, the upmarket colonial club in Lahore.

He shifted between the colonial classes, swigging beer with the army privates guarding Lahore Fort. It was here that Kipling sharpened his picture of the British soldier, as in ‘Tommy’:

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”

Kipling also applied his other journalistic gifts – observation and memory – to Indians of all classes. Unlike other British colonials, he dared to wander inside the walls of old Lahore at night, when he couldn’t sleep thanks to the intense heat.

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Czeslaw Milosz: A Poem For The End Of The Century

When everything was fine
And the notion of sin had vanished
And the earth was ready
In universal peace
To consume and rejoice
Without creeds and utopias,

I, for unknown reasons,
Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians,
Of philosophers, poets,
Searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.

What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful.
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage
Against the health of mankind.

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

Why then innocence
On paradisal beaches,
An impeccable sky
Over the church of hygiene?
Is it because that
Was long ago?

To a saintly man
--So goes an Arab tale--
God said somewhat maliciously:
"Had I revealed to people
How great a sinner you are,
They could not praise you."

"And I," answered the pious one,
"Had I unveiled to them
How merciful you are,
They would not care for you."

To whom should I turn
With that affair so dark
Of pain and also guilt
In the structure of the world,
If either here below
Or over there on high
No power can abolish
The cause and the effect?

Don't think, don't remember
The death on the cross,
Though everyday He dies,
The only one, all-loving,
Who without any need
Consented and allowed
To exist all that is,
Including nails of torture.

Totally enigmatic.
Impossibly intricate.
Better to stop speech here.
This language is not for people.
Blessed be jubilation.
Vintages and harvests.
Even if not everyone
Is granted serenity.

Berkeley 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Margaret Drabble: The art of growing old

When Simone de Beauvoir published her study of old age, La Vieillesse, in 1970, she was a pioneer in the field. The Second Sex (1949) had been a groundbreaking, seminal and life-changing work, gaining instant recognition, but with Old Age, as the book was called in the UK, she ventured into territory that nobody else seemed willing to enter, and friends and colleagues expressed astonishment that she, in her early sixties, wished to go there. Her research took her back to the Ancients, to mythology and anthropology and literature, and she offered readings of writers from Plato to Proust, but her volume remained for decades a lone landmark. Few had wished to follow. That has all changed now. A shifting demography has altered the landscape. Her volume (which appeared, less bleakly, as The Coming of Age in the US), remains an essential point of reference for all subsequent studies, and the steady flow of these has now swelled into a torrent: into what has, disobligingly, been described as a “silver tsunami.” Memoirs and self-help and lifestyle books and advice about dementia have poured out from the press, some confessional, some jokey, some intended to be comforting, and some designed to sell the products that promise everlasting youth. Library shelves display titles such as Senior Momentsand Keeping Mum and I Feel Bad About My Neck and Somewhere Towards the End and Crazy Age andNothing To Be Frightened Of, all of them exploring aspects of age, and some of them confronting the approach of death. The 2013/14 batch includes Anne Karpf ’s How to Age, Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time.All of them acknowledge and quote from the inescapable de Beauvoir.
It’s time to commission a new translation of La Vieillesse as a tribute to the growth in the number of books being registered under Dewey classification 305. 2. The version we have in English was rendered, perhaps hastily (for it is a very long book) by Patrick O’Brian, better known for his maritime novels of the Napoleonic Wars, and it is at times very irritating. There is no index (which isn’t O’Brian’s fault) and a dearth of accurate source notes (again, not his responsibility). One suspects that at times there is pronoun gender confusion, offering perhaps unfair ammunition to feminist critiques of the great feminist. Worst of all, and most oddly, O’Brian has chosen to translate de Beauvoir’s prose translations of some of the most beautiful and pertinent poems in the English language back into a kind of English doggerel. The opening lines of Yeats’s “The Tower”:
I
What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Have been turned into:
What shall I do with this nonsense, oh my heart, my troubled heart
This caricature, this decrepitude tied to me as to the tail of a dog?
 
Similar indignities have been inflicted on his 1937 poem, “What then?” As late Yeats provides some of the greatest consolations available to the ageing reader, this is a pity. Poetry, as Yeats pointed out, endures while the body withers, but it doesn’t have quite the same restorative power if you mess it up like this.
It’s odd how fortifying Yeats’s rage remains. But that’s the paradox of great poetry, of tragedy, of catharsis.
Dylan Thomas, who died young, and Yeats, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Doris Lessing who didn’t, all have their place in discussions of age and rage, and all are cited in these three new works. Swift’s hideously haunting Struldbruggs, doomed to immortality and senile decay, make appearances. But only Anne Karpf, in her reflections on what she calls the “burden model” of ageing—which she claims was dismantled by Phil Mullan’s The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem (2002)— mentions Anthony Trollope’s strange dystopian novel, The Fixed Period (1882). I was first alerted to this work by an essay published by David Lodge in December 2012, outlining its subject: “the effects of a law passed by the youthful Britannula Assembly [a British Antipodean colony] making euthanasia compulsory for everybody between the age of 67 and 68”: and commenting on its relevance to “our own current social, economic and ethical concerns” in view of rising life expectancy and increasing public controversy about the legitimacy of assisted dying.
Following the double prompt, and expecting, as an advocate of voluntary euthanasia, to feel some sympathy for its highminded narrator Mr Neverbend, I read the novel, and rather wish I hadn’t. It is interesting but lowering. Britannula has abolished capital punishment but introduced something even worse: the obligation of each citizen not to choose, but to know, the time of his or her death. I felt quite bad while reading this book. I do think about death often, probably several times a day, but then I always have done, from an early age, and I forget about it as quickly as I envisage it, distracted by a multitude of smaller worries, hopes and projects. Unlike the authors of some old age testimonies, I certainly don’t think “it will never happen to me,” nor does the idea of it make me wake and howl in the night, as some (perhaps ostentatiously) claim to do. But Trollope’s proposition got me down, and as I read on, I realised that his “fixed period” was precisely the capital punishment his imaginary colony had idealistically abolished. Knowing the hour, when decided by others and not by oneself, is not a good prospect.
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Friday, 19 February 2016

Schooling an Intelligence - John Keats

There is a scene in Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic about John Keats, in which Keats discovers that his friend, Charles Brown, has sent a valentine to Keats’s beloved, the young Fanny Brawne. Brown defends his conduct as a jest, spitefully observing, “It is a game. It is a game to her. She collects suitors.” Keats reacts violently, grabbing Brown by the lapels and rebuking him: “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections: know you nothing of that?” Brown, the older man, is a cynic whose scorn betrays small-mindedness and a lack of understanding; Keats is the idealist, who embodies romantic sincerity. Yet the “holiness of the Heart’s affections” is a quotation lifted from one of Keats’s letters, a letter about the “authenticity of Imagination”. It is concerned with aesthetics. He is speaking not with the passion of a lover, but with the rapture of a poet.

Bright Star’s dramatic moment of personal conflict is thus a fiction which distorts the historical personality it purports to portray. In the film, Keats’s letters and poems are made subservient to the plot, to the story of his romance. Yet Keats was not a confessional poet; his verse was not an autobiographical presentation of naked subjectivity. Bright Star, though, perpetuates the myth of Keats, rightly dismissed by Susan J. Wolfson as the “fable of a sensitive boy slain by hostile reviews.” By contrast, Reading John Keats provides a series of close readings of his greatest poems, informed by and condensing half a century of work by scholars of Romanticism, which illuminate Keats’s literary interests. The book serves its purpose well as an introduction to the nuances of Keats’s thought and poetic argument. Wolfson reminds us that the lyric “I” is so often in Keats an allegory, meaning another self. Keats’s ideal of the “chameleon Poet” was epitomised by Shakespeare’s ability to empathise poetically equally well with villains as with virtuous heroines. Wolfson usefully draws on the work of scholars such as Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox to explain Keats’s position as a “cockney poet” (a low-class pretender), whose style challenged the establishment poetically. Politically, too, Keats was unorthodox, associated with the circle of the liberal journalist Leigh Hunt.

Wolfson’s Keats is an obsessive reader, a man who, had he been able to take advantage of a university education, “would have been a star student.” His poetry is the product of intensive study, debate and re-examination, such that “Reading John Keats is always to encounter John Keats reading.” The literary forebears to whom Keats turns form a recognisable pantheon: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth, but Wolfson’s elucidation of their importance is no less illuminating for its familiarity. Wolfson’s 1986 study The Questioning Presences treated Keats’s relationship with Wordsworth at length, and in Reading John Keats she distils the main discussion. Keats preferred Wordsworth’s explorations of human emotion to Milton’s theology, but, for Keats, Wordsworth’s genius was undercut by his “egotistical sublime”: his tendency to make definitive pronouncements about the significance of experiences and relate the external world to his own personality. From studying these poetics, Keats developed his principle of “negative capability”, the capacity for creating poetry from the uncertainty and doubt provoked by his experience of the world. Wolfson elucidates the process by which Keats formulated and refined this critical theory when writing his poems. She traces an ongoing process by which Keats reinterpreted his influences in order to promote his aesthetic.

Wordsworth’s presence is felt throughout Reading John Keats, but he does not dominate. Keats self-consciously measured himself against Shakespeare and Milton, attempting to match their achievements. However, his attempts at epic and tragedy were either unfinished, or immature. His greatest poetic achievements were realised in sonnets, lyrical odes, and narrative romances. These genres were associated with a female readership, and the snobbery directed against him as a “cockney poet” figured him as effeminate. Keats’s gender and genre anxieties are carefully explored by Wolfson. She provides a compelling reading of Keats’s sonnet ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’, which demonstrates how the “point by point refusal of Romance for tragedy” advanced is undermined fatally by the last couplet, “But when I am consumed in the fire, / Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” Here, there is “the stretched meter of the last line, a hexameter born out of pentameters, analogous to the last line of the Spenserian stanzas that build The Faerie Queene. Keats talks tragedy, but lingers in a form from Romance.” Wolfson adeptly navigates Keats’s generic confusion, a mixed literary inheritance which led to his best work.

The great strength of this study is that Wolfson presents the development of Keats’s narrative poems as a response and challenge to the characterisation of his work by critics and the reading public. Keats’s reading ensured that he wrote romances which refused to conform to traditional ideas of the genre, meaning that “Flirting with and subverting Romance arguably becomes Keats’s modern mode.” ‘Isabella’, the first composed of Keats’s romances, is explained by Wolfson as demonstrating “ungentleness”. The tale itself is one of murder, mutilation, and grief, and hints at incest, removing it far from the indolent escapism previously associated with Keats. ‘Isabella’’s “proto-Marxian” depiction of widespread exploitation of the labouring class directly confronts the material conditions that enable the aristocratic luxury at the centre of romance. Cruelty is not to be forgotten, nor dismissed as an aberration: it is endemic to the class structures idealised by the genre. The violence and greed of ‘Isabella’ was followed by the explicit eroticism of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, a voyeuristic piece that breached the bounds of propriety in a deliberate attempt to attract a male audience. The poem’s ending, which relates the death of the secondary characters after the protagonists have escaped, concludes by shifting the sentiment from sexual fervour to Byronic mockery. Keats blurs genres, complicates registers and combines influences as he destabilises the certainties of the poetic tradition he read. Wolfson thus provides an holistic view of Keats’s approach to the poetic craft. She combines an explication of his class and gender politics with a continued focus on his use of poetic form and narrative.
Consequently, Wolfson is able to trace the genesis and refinement of Keats’s aesthetic theory through his poems. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a significant development, a poem in which sustained doubling produces a “lyricized ballad (its action not just over, but unknowable)”, where “Keats is on the verge of conceiving a deliberate poetry from self-questioning.” Wolfson’s treatment of Keats’s “Odes” demonstrates this tendency by paying close attention to their rhymes, metrical patterns and structures. The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a “self-listening poem” in which phrases and sounds repeat with different meaning, casting their original use in new light and demanding reconsideration. Her reading of the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is an extended treatment on Keats’s use of sight rhymes to provide parallel meaning to the auditory, a double structure which enhances the poem’s focus on the balance and competition between knowledge and sensuality, truth and beauty. In ‘Ode on Melancholy’ the doubling is similarly prominent: the ironies of repeated images and echoes of earlier sounds render aesthetic achievement and self-annihilation as one experience in their realisation.

The potential of this approach is best realised in Lamia, the story of a serpentine femme fatale, where the apparently misogynistic metaphor is balanced by the moral defects of its male characters. Wolfson explores the poem as “gordian”: twisted, complicated and unstable. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the term connotes satanic deception, but applied to Lamia it indicates an ambivalent response to an ambiguous presentation. Lamia, both the character and the poem, are difficult to read: is Lamia, asks Wolfson, “a Satanic artist or an imprisoned lover”? And does the poem pity or ruthlessly expose the delusions of lovers? A debate is enacted in the poem between ‘cold philosophy’ (scientific reasoning) and the charms of beauty. Lamia’s beauty is deceptive, but only because it is exposed to the unrelenting logic of the philosopher. One would expect Keats to side with beauty. However, as Wolfson observes, by representing beauty in the form of a serpentine seductress, Keats treats his own natural tendency to celebrate “beauty” to ironic mockery.

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Thursday, 18 February 2016

Isaiah Berlin's letters reveal his despair at the 'growth of barbarism'

He was revered by many as one of the greatest scholars of his age. By the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 88 his strong critique of totalitarianism and optimistic view of human nature had made him an inspirational figure to liberals worldwide.

However, letters written by the great British philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, which are about to be published for the first time, suggest that he also had a much darker view of some of his contemporaries, such as the prime minister Harold Wilson – whom he called "a worthy mediocrity".

Berlin despaired of some of the younger generation – in terms that have a very contemporary ring. In a letter from 1968, he wrote: "I feel depressed by the rapid growth of barbarism – I daresay every generation has … This generation is complacently ignorant, uses mechanical formulae to dispose of anything that may be difficult or complicated, hates history.

"The old nihilists at least thought they respected science – the new ones confuse crudity and sincerity, and when culture is mentioned their hands really do automatically reach for a paving stone. But I must not go on with this lamentation: it sounds like some decayed liberal from Turgenev, or some horrified old baronet in the Times."

In another letter, he expressed his fears for young people without a cause: "The Gods of yesterday have failed the young … We feared something: war, economic collapse, totalitarianism. But ennui is worse."

The letters, to be published by Chatto & Windus on 4 July in a 680-page volume – Isaiah Berlin: Building – Letters 1960-1975 – offer insights into a leading liberal thinker whose lectures and essays explored philosophical and political thought with dazzling erudition.

They are the third volume of Berlin's letters, co-edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, both fellows of Wolfson College – the institution that he fought to create.

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, Berlin came to England in 1921 and was educated at St Paul's School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was revered by contemporaries as a spellbinding conversationalist, prompting one contemporary to joke that his knighthood should be for "services to conversation".

Pottle said that the letters, some dictated to a Dictaphone, exude the brilliance of his conversation and show him to be "one of the very best letter-writers of the 20th century". Dating from 1960 to 1975 and covering a huge range of subjects – from politics to prostitution – the letters cover a period of the cold war, the Arab-Israeli six-day war and the US presidencies of John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Berlin despaired of the calibre of political leaders: "I really feel depressed … by the prospect of … Nixon on one side and Brezhnev on the other. We have never lived at a time when there was literally nobody to look up to before." He likened Nixon to "a very nervous man on a very thin tightrope".

Among British statesmen, he saw Macmillan as a "decent man, who believes in personal liberty and shies away from the subject of sex and the like with extreme horror – 'when I was young, we put women on a pedestal,' he once said to me, and I daresay that is his attitude still."

Berlin's letters cover the permissive society and the admission by John Profumo, the Tory secretary of state for war under Macmillan, that he had deceived parliament over his relationship with Christine Keeler, which helped to bring down Macmillan's government. Berlin commented: "Of course Profumo behaved badly ... But there are many worse vices … cruelty, treachery, cowardice, poverty."

His letters also refer to Lady Chatterley's Lover, which became a cause célèbre in 1960 when, after a landmark trial, Penguin won the right to publish it. Berlin wrote: "I am in favour of publishing it because I am against all censorship." That it was not a good book, he thought irrelevant.

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“The Whole Tragedy of Her Life”: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again.
The House of Mirth reminded me again and again of other novels. In Lily Bart I saw Gwendolen Harleth, proud and sure in her beauty and her certain good fortune until she learns she cannot in fact control her own fate; I saw Isabel Archer, similarly proud and sure and beautiful, then caught in traps set by people more subtle and more corrupt than she is; perhaps because I just read Vanity Fair, I also saw Becky Sharp, motherless, nearly friendless, determined to invest the capital of her wiles and charms where she will get the best return at the least risk. Lawrence Selden plays an off-center Deronda to Lily’s conscience, which like Gwendolen’s is capable of a saving (but paradoxically destructive) clarity about moral hazards and compromises; Mr. Rosedale is Sir Pitt without the peerage, or Grandcourt without the malice.
I don’t mean that The House of Mirth is derivative, only that these books all present us with variations on a theme: what is a young woman of high spirits to do in a world that limits her options so severely and judges her equally harshly for trying to make something of herself and for failing in the attempt? “It was a hateful fate,” reflects Lily, contemplating marriage with a rich man who will “do her the honour of boring her for life” — “but how escape from it? What choice had she?” Brought up to see marriage as their only means of survival (and perhaps of happiness), equipped to do little more than charm but convinced at first of the sufficiency of this necessary skill, all of these women learn hard lessons about their real lack of social, economic, and even personal power. Their novels are all, as a result, deeply depressing and openly condemnatory — not, ultimately, about their heroines (with the possible exception of Becky), but about the hypocrisy and vapidity of the worlds they portray. Lily “could not hold herself much to blame” for her failures to find a productive alternative to the role she has been raised to fill:
Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbird’s breast?
“It was the life she had been made for,” she concludes:
every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and activities had been taught to centre around it. She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.
It’s an image that is specific to Lily’s situation and history, but it’s also the familiar refrain of women seeing the myth of their influence, and the perfection of their weakness, exposed as lies that serve everyone but them. It’s not just Becky shamelessly marketing herself, but Amelia, trying to scrape together enough money to keep her son at home, and Gwendolen presenting herself to Klesmer in the vain belief that she can be a great singer just by wishing it so, and Isabel imagining she has not just the freedom but the wisdom to choose her future.
For all the similarities, what’s so interesting is how differently the story plays out in each case, not just in the plot but in the whole mood the authors establish, which becomes part of the moral vision they present. Wharton is the only one who takes us all the way to tragedy: she is the only one who risks despair, rather than offering remedies, which is perhaps a sign of her modernity. Even James leaves Isabel standing, and at least by the end of the novel she has become more knowing, which in James’s universe may be the equivalent of grace (to be saved is to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost). Lily and Selden have a final encounter that is very much in the spirit of Eliot’s moments of redemptive fellowship, and Lily’s meeting with Nettie Struther and her baby offers her (and thus us) a vision that transcends the relentless downward spiral of her life:
In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with the visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties — it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by  mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.
Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily.
In Eliot’s fiction that wider perspective is precisely what draws a suffering protagonist out of her own misery and into sympathy with the larger world. But though Lily’s “surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart,” it does not help her but only fills her with a deeper horror at the isolation and futility of her own lonely existence. Perversely, the “height of her last moment” with Selden and the unexpected glimpse of something sweeter become moments too precious to survive: “If only life could end now — end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world!”
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