Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Love and Walt Whitman

In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote,
& so were they all—he was well used by the attendants…. Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside…—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots…& this dear young man close at hand…—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to…. 
I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones…. Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying there.
The letter was signed “Walt Whitman,” with a Brooklyn address.

Writing letters of condolence was just one of the duties that Whitman took upon himself as a Soldiers’ Missionary. Doing the rounds of the hospitals in Washington, he brought the soldiers gifts of fresh underwear, fruit, ice cream, tobacco, postage stamps. He also chatted to them, consoled them, kissed and embraced them, and if they had to die tried to ease their dying. “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys,” he wrote. “I have formed attachments in hospital, that I shall keep to my dying day, & they will the same, without doubt.”

Between 1862 and 1865, Whitman by his own count ministered to some one hundred thousand men. Though his interventions were not universally welcomed—“That odious Walt Whitman, [come] to talk evil and unbelief to my boys,” wrote one nurse—he was nowhere denied entry. One might wonder whether in our day a middle-aged man, a reputed pornographer, would be allowed to haunt the wards, drifting from the bedside of one attractive young man to another, or whether he would not soon find himself hustled to the door by a couple of aides.

Whitman kept notes on his Washington experiences, later working these up into newspaper articles and lectures, which in 1876 he published in a limited edition under the title Memoranda During the War. This in turn became part of Specimen Days, published in 1882, ten years before his death. The Memoranda are now republished under the editorship of Peter Coviello, with a well-informed, thoughtful introduction and succinct notes.

Not everything in the Memoranda comes from firsthand experience. Though Whitman gives the impression that he witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater and provides a dramatic description of the event, he was not in fact there. But he did believe he enjoyed a special relationship with Lincoln. Both men were tall. Whitman was often present when Lincoln passed through the streets and was convinced that, over the heads of the crowd, the elected leader of the people recognized and nodded back to the unacknowledged legislator of mankind (like Shelley, Whitman had elevated ideas about his calling).

As a young man Whitman had been much impressed by the new science of phrenology. He took the standard phrenological test and came out with high scores for amativeness and adhesiveness, middling scores for language skills. He was proud enough of his scores to publish them in advertisements for Leaves of Grass. In phrenological jargon, amativeness is sexual ardor; adhesiveness is attachment, friendship, comradeship. The distinction became important to Whitman in his erotic life, where it gave a name and in effect a respectability to his feelings for other men. It also gave body to his conception of democracy: as a variety of love not confined to the sexual couple, adhesiveness could constitute the grounding of a democratic community. Whitmanian democracy is adhesiveness writ large, a nationwide network of fraternal affection much like the loving comradeship that he witnessed among young soldiers marching out to war, and that he detected in his own heart when he tended them afterward. In the preface to the 1876 Leaves of Grass he would write: “It is by a fervent, accepted development of Comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows,…and by what goes directly and indirectly along with it, that the United States of the future… are to be most effectually welded together, intercalated, anneal’d into a Living Union.”

To Whitman, adhesiveness was not simply amativeness in sublimated form but an autonomous erotic force. The most attractive feature of Whitman’s dreamed-of United States is that it does not demand of its citizens the sublimation of eros in the interest of the state. In this it differs from other nineteenth-century utopias.

Whitman was not only highly adhesive but, if one goes by what he wrote, highly amative too: “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,/I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.” The question of exactly what physical form his amativeness took has exercised Whitman scholars more and more openly of late.

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'Everybody is happy now' - Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

"O brave new world, that has such people in't!" - Miranda, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, on first sighting the shipwrecked courtiers

In the latter half of the 20th century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures. One was George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its horrific vision of a brutal, mind-controlling totalitarian state - a book that gave us Big Brother and thoughtcrime and newspeak and the memory hole and the torture palace called the Ministry of Love and the discouraging spectacle of a boot grinding into the human face forever.

The other was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism - one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration, of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work, and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Which template would win, we wondered. During the cold war, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have the edge. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits proclaimed the end of history, shopping reigned triumphant, and there was already lots of quasi-soma percolating through society. True, promiscuity had taken a hit from Aids, but on balance we seemed to be in for a trivial, giggly, drug-enhanced spend-o-rama: Brave New World was winning the race.

That picture changed, too, with the attack on New York's twin towers in 2001. Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all. The Ministry of Love is back with us, it appears, though it's no longer limited to the lands behind the former iron curtain: the west has its own versions now.

On the other hand, Brave New World hasn't gone away. Shopping malls stretch as far as the bulldozer can see. On the wilder fringes of the genetic engineering community, there are true believers prattling of the gene-rich and the gene-poor - Huxley's alphas and epsilons - and busily engaging in schemes for genetic enhancement and - to go one better than Brave New World - for immortality.

Would it be possible for both of these futures - the hard and the soft - to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?

Surely it's time to look again at Brave New World and to examine its arguments for and against the totally planned society it describes, in which "everybody is happy now". What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?

I first read Brave New World in the early 1950s, when I was 14. It made a deep impression on me, though I didn't fully understand some of what I was reading. It's a tribute to Huxley's writing skills that although I didn't know what knickers were, or camisoles - nor did I know that zippers, when they first appeared, had been denounced from pulpits as lures of the devil because they made clothes so easy to take off - I none the less had a vivid picture of "zippicamiknicks", that female undergarment with a single zipper down the front that could be shucked so easily: "Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor."

I myself was living in the era of "elasticised panty girdles" that could not be got out of or indeed into without an epic struggle, so this was heady stuff indeed.

The girl shedding the zippicamiknicks is Lenina Crowne, a blue-eyed beauty both strangely innocent and alluringly voluptuous - or "pneumatic", as her many male admirers call her. Lenina doesn't see why she shouldn't have sex with anyone she likes whenever the occasion offers, as to do so is merely polite behaviour and not to do so is selfish. The man she's trying to seduce by shedding her undergarment is John "the Savage", who's been raised far outside the "civilised" pale on a diet of Shakespeare's chastity/whore speeches, and Zuni cults, and self-flagellation, and who believes in religion and romance, and in suffering to be worthy of one's beloved, and who idolises Lenina until she doffs her zippicamiknicks in such a casual and shameless fashion.

Never were two sets of desiring genitalia so thoroughly at odds. And thereon hangs Huxley's tale.

Brave New World is either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite, a dystopia, depending on your point of view: its inhabitants are beautiful, secure and free from diseases and worries, though in a way we like to think we would find unacceptable. "Utopia" is sometimes said to mean "no place", from the Greek ou-topos; others derive it from eu, as in "eugenics", in which case it would mean "healthy place" or "good place". Sir Thomas More, in his own 16th-century Utopia, may have been punning: utopia is the good place that doesn't exist.

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Monday, 30 May 2016

A Poet Unlike Any Other - Stevie Smith

More than with most poets, when people write and talk about Stevie Smith (1902–1971), they try to nail her down with comparisons. She is a female William Blake, an Emily Dickinson of the English suburbs, a mixture of Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and the Brothers Grimm. Her reading style, which became legendary, with her cropped hair, baleful expression, little-girl dresses, and singsong lugubrious chanting voice, was described (by Jonathan Miller) as a cross between Mary Poppins and Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. Seamus Heaney called it a combination of Gretel and the witch. He also compared her to “two Lears,” “the old King come to knowledge and gentleness through suffering, and the old comic poet Edward veering off into nonsense.”

She is often described as dotty, batty, silly, odd, childish, droll, or “fausse-naïve” (Philip Larkin’s term). Her English quirkiness and eccentricity are played up, as in Stevie, the play of 1977 by Hugh Whitemore (made into a film by Robert Enders in 1978), with Glenda Jackson as Stevie. Some readers throw up their hands in bafflement, as she told them they would, at the start of her 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper: “This is a foot-off-the-ground novel…and if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.”3

Other readers are indulgent and curious, but reluctant to think of her as a professional poet, more as an amateur folk artist, a hit-or-miss ingenue (or enfant terrible). Fellow poets who have taken her seriously do so for different reasons. Heaney hears the accents of “a disenchanted gentility.” Amy Clampitt sees in her “the desolation of the ordinary.” D.J. Enright says she is “somewhat Greek”: austere, severe, and “bracing.”4 In the introduction to his edition of All the Poems, an invaluable and complete collection of her poems and drawings, Will May adds to the adjectival pursuit. He calls her trenchant, dogmatic, indignant, plaintive, stoic, eerie, shrewd, self-conscious, tricky, and uncompromising.

All these adjectives point to a poet who is hard to categorize and not really like anyone else at all. They also, often, suggest a writer who has been marginalized as an oddity. Now, forty-five years after her death, bound inside this large annotated collection, she can be celebrated as a major English poet of the twentieth century. She is a writer of astonishing skill, range, comedy, and depth of feeling; she is inimitable, strange, and utterly original. With her poetry collected as a whole, it becomes more apparent too that though she is a funny writer—funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar—her work is melancholy and despairing, full of pain, terror, and grief: “Not waving but drowning.”

As Will May makes clear both in this edition and in the book he published six years ago, Stevie Smith and Authorship,5 it has not been an untroubled path from the appearance of her first novel and her first skinny, quirky-looking book of poems in 1937, to this solid production, which at last gives her the look of a classic. Until now, Stevie Smith’s poetry has been as evasive of mainstream and academic acceptance as her life has been resistant to biographers. Tellingly, her title for her first novel was “Pompey Casmilus,” after both the ruthless Roman general and the wily, untamed messenger of the gods, alias Hermes or Mercury.

The bare facts of the life, as summed up by Will May, don’t look enticing:
Stevie Smith was born in Hull in 1902, moved to Palmers Green [a North London suburb] aged three, and lived there for the rest of her life. After school, she spent thirty years working at Newnes Publishing as a secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, and produced three semi-autobiographical novels and eight collections of poetry.
Some color can be added to this, drawing on Frances Spalding’s sympathetic biography. There was her upbringing in what Stevie Smith calls “a house of female habitation” (mother, sister, aunt) after her father, an unsuccessful shipping agent in Hull, ran away to sea soon after she was born, leaving behind “a cynical babe.” There was the death of her mother when she was seventeen, and the consoling presence of her Aunt Madge—“Auntie Lion”—who moved the whole family south, and looked after Stevie Smith until it was her turn to be looked after.

There was her dislike of her disciplinarian school, North London Collegiate, where, however, she had a useful classical education and started to write. There was her adoption of her androgynous writing name, taken from a popular jockey called Stevie Donoghue. (Her given name was Florence.) There was her opting for a dull secretarial job so that she had time to write (on yellow office paper). There was her move away from Christianity to a troubled skepticism. There were a few unsatisfactory love affairs with both men and women, and an interesting range of literary friendships (many of them wrecked by her tendency to put them into her fiction) including with George Orwell, Inez Holden, Betty Miller, Kay Dick, Mulk Raj Anand, Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Rose Macaulay, and Veronica Wedgwood.

As Will May says, although in interviews she liked to play “the unconnected and isolated figure,” she had a rapid, eye-catching career as a poet and novelist from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. Novel on Yellow Paper aroused much fascination. One poet-reader was convinced that the book, with its free-associating, meandering, quizzical voice, was by Virginia Woolf, and wrote to tell her so: “You are Stevie Smith. No doubt of it. And Yellow Paper is far and away your best book.”6 Certainly it became a cultish hit, and after that, books poured out of her: the poetry collections with their quizzical titles—A Good Time Was Had by All (1937), Tender Only to One (1938), Mother, What Is Man? (1942), Harold’s Leap (1950)—and the novels, full of angry arguments about religion, war, politics, and marriage—Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949).

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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Hanif Kureishi: even the best writers face rejection

Of all the questions authors get asked, the most puzzling but persistent is what others might think of what the writer has produced. These potential disapprovers could be the writer’s spouse, family, colleagues, community or neighbours. It doesn’t matter exactly who they are. Yet the question of these opinions is clearly a crucial one for apprentice artists. When they begin to work a chorus of censure and dissent, if not of hate, starts up. The writer becomes inhibited by concerns about the effect his or her words might have. The writer could become anxious, stifled or blocked. They could begin to hate their own work, or become phobic about beginning.

Materials put online by the British Library this week detailing the lives of 20th century writers are testament to this; we see TS Eliot worrying about The Waste Land – “I do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivienne’s opinion as to whether it is printable …” – and rejection letters to James Joyce (from Virginia Woolf) and George Orwell (from Eliot), which show even these literary greats had to overcome early criticism and disapproval of their work.

Here the artist is generating a kind of lurid fantasy, and not one that is of use. In truth, when you begin writing you will have no idea what anyone will think. If the writer has some level of integrity, he or she will always do her best work and will eventually discover whether others are indifferent, wildly enthusiastic or something else altogether. But the assumption of the nervous writer engaged in this doomscript – this omnipotent view – is that she has already aggressively provoked or hurt someone. Not only that: these “neighbours” will retaliate. There will be guilt and a terrible conflict, so why bother at all?

This rigmarole implies that words are dangerous – that they can upset, thrill, provoke and change lives, which is useful knowledge. Good writers are aware that they work not for themselves, but to do something to a reader: words are powerful magic which must evoke strange and terrible worlds.

But what of these “neighbours”? What are they doing in this internal scenario? Will the wrong words persuade them to abandon you? François de La Rochefoucauld describes this fallacy well. “That which we call virtue is usually no more than a phantom formed by one’s passions.”

From one point of view, this virtue could be called conscience. To put it kindly: here the writer is considering others, and how could anyone argue with such benevolence? Nevertheless, conscience is a less effective description of what is taking place than the notion of the superego, an idea Sigmund Freud developed after the first world war, linking it to hate, depression, masochism and what he called the death instinct. Conscience implies concern, if not decency. The notion lacks the devilish, if not sadistic dimension that the idea of the superego has, where the “good” becomes an obstacle to the truth. It is not that the writer has committed a crime of speaking, but rather that she is already guilty and always will be.

Ultimately this is not a moral question about doing harm to others. It concerns self-harm, the enigma of self-persecution and how you can begin to fear your own imagination. The writer might be a voyeur who likes to exhibit herself. This is partly what it means to present something to an audience – the wish to be known, to inhabit a persona, accompanied by a certain shamelessness.

But even as we speak we also wonder if we are more monstrous than we can bear. We believe that if we were good we wouldn’t have aggressive or violent thoughts, forgetting that monstrousness is useful in art, which, to be effective, has to be pushed to an extreme, making the audience tremble. Art emerges from what Friedrich Nietzsche called “inner anarchy” and never from so-called decency.

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A life in feuds: how Gore Vidal gripped a nation

I came to know Gore Vidal in the mid 1980s, when I was living in southern Italy, virtually a neighbour, and our friendship lasted until his death in 2012. Needless to say he was a complicated and often combative man. It took an effort, strenuous at times, to remain a close friend; but it seemed to me worth putting in the time, allowing him to relax into his deeper self, which was actually quite shy, even solitary. The public mask didn’t fit the private man very well, and I was always much relieved when he took it off.

Vidal would dwell at length on his feuds and fixed on the idea, which he took from Goethe, that talent is formed in stillness but character “in the stream of the world”. He entered that stream and swam vigorously, often against the current. And his wide knowledge of the world informed his work – the brilliant historical novels, especially Burr (about Aaron Burr, a founding father) and Julian, about the fourth-century Roman emperor. His seven novels about American history form an elegant and entertaining interlocking series that runs from the Jeffersonian years through the mid-20th century, and which puts his vast erudition on display in palatable ways. His essays, as gathered in United States: Essays 1952-1992, make up more than 1,000 pages of vivid writing about books and ideas – perhaps his main contribution to the republic of letters. His perspective is always that of the lofty intellectual. As John Lahr once said, Vidal “pisses from an enormous height”.

A brilliant writer and public intellectual who could take on the world when he felt it necessary, Vidal was a brave figure on the political scene who would stand up for things that meant a lot to him, and he made his case eloquently before a wide audience. He was that nearly extinct variety of human being: a famous writer whose fame extended far beyond the realms of literature: a wit, a political pundit, a sought-after TV guest, a scold and much more. As he put it himself: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” That he was also a brilliant novelist and essayist was often beside the point.

From the start of his career in the late 1940s, he looked around to see who else was getting attention, and it irked him when others seemed to outflank him. Truman Capote certainly annoyed him, and he honed his talent for feuding with this feline young novelist from the American south whose first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, swept the bestseller lists in 1948. That same year, Vidal’s first major novel, The City and the Pillar, arrived noisily on the scene; one of the first American novels with an explicitly gay theme, it turned Vidal into something of a pariah in the literary establishment.

Vidal lived in New York after the war, as did Capote, and they moved in the same social circle, over which Tennessee Williams presided. “I first met Truman at Anaïs Nin’s apartment,” Vidal recalled. “My first impression – as I wasn’t wearing my glasses – was that it was a colourful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

It annoyed Vidal horribly that when Life magazine ran an article on the new generation of writers it featured a large picture of Capote and a small one of Vidal. The two men quarrelled endlessly in those days, exchanging punches in the press over each other’s styles. Vidal accused Capote of imitating the prose of Carson McCullers with “a bit of Eudora Welty” thrown in for good measure. Capote suggested that Vidal’s main literary influence was the New York Daily News. Overhearing this particular exchange, Williams rolled his eyes in mock horror: “Please! You are making your mother ill.”

In 1948, Vidal travelled to Paris, where he met up with Williams and Christopher Isherwood, and, the purpose of his visit, saw the elder statesman of world literature, André Gide, who had won the Nobel prize in literature the year before. Gide was at the peak of his fame, a public intellectual who represented, for Vidal, an ideal of sorts. Like Vidal, he considered homosexuality utterly natural, noting that it could be found in most of the advanced cultural moments in history. That Gide was also gay intrigued Vidal, and he gratefully accepted from the 79-year-old writer an inscribed copy of Corydon, a volume of four dialogues on homosexuality.

The young writer admired Gide’s severe manner, recalling his large bald head with a dent above the brow, skin like rice paper and eyes that glistened with a combination of “lust and intelligence”. Gide smoked, talking in mandarin French about Oscar Wilde and Henry James as if he were giving a lecture. When Vidal heard that Capote had been there only a couple of days previously, he nervously asked the old master how he found him. “Who?” asked Gide. Then he remembered that there was a young American author by that name and found on his desk the article from Life that featured Capote. Unsurprisingly, the young Vidal winced.

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Saturday, 28 May 2016

Old Possum's Nest - A second look at the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

This long-awaited critical edition of T. S. Eliot's poems is a scholarly milestone, a watershed in publishing history. The elaborate notes Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have provided for each line—indeed, each word—of each and every Eliot poem are so informative and the overviews for each stage of Eliot's career contain so much of the poet's own germane commentary that one can now trace Eliot's poetic development using no further aids than these two volumes.

The opening background section, "A Beginner in 1908," for instance, reproduces every key statement Eliot made, whether in essays, lectures, or letters to friends, about his literary origins. From a 1946 essay on Ezra Pound, for example:
Whatever may have been the literary scene in America between the beginning of the century and the year 1914, it remains in my mind a complete blank. I cannot remember the name of a single poet of that period whose work I read.
And further, in a 1924 letter to Pound not widely known, Eliot similarly dismisses British turn-of-the-century poets, especially the "Swinburnians," with the words, "I am as blind to the merits of these people as I am to Thomas Hardy." Again—and to me surprising, given the London milieu in which he was circulating—in a 1945 letter to A. Benedict Crannigan, Eliot insists, "I had no knowledge of the so-called Imagists until 1915, and Imagism made very little impression upon me." Henry James was important but, after all, he wrote novels and hence was not much use to a poet.

Indeed, the only significant contemporary, so far as Eliot was concerned, was his great friend Ezra Pound, to whom he repeatedly acknowledges his debt. Otherwise, he insists, his inspiration came from France—from "Baudelaire and his immediate followers, Laforgue, Corbière, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé." And the editors provide references to Eliot's most important remarks on French Symbolist poetry and especially his views on vers libre: "The pleasure one gets out of the irregularity of such verse is due to the shadow or suggestion of regular metre behind." The kind of "free verse" D. H. Lawrence wrote, says Eliot scathingly in a 1924 essay on Whitman, produces "more notes for poems than poems themselves."

Nine pages of close commentary elucidate the background of Eliot's first volume Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), and the title poem is given 17 further pages. No matter how well we think we know "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there is sure to be new information here. I did not know, for instance, that in a little-known essay (1959) in the Kipling Journal, Eliot remarked that "I am convinced [the poem] would never have been called Love Song but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head, The Love Song of Har Dyal." And under the notes for "Hysteria," one of Eliot's rare prose poems (1917), the editors have culled some of the poet's most important—and little-known—comments on the genre, which are tersely caustic, as in "I have not yet been given any definition of the prose poem which appears to be more than a tautology or a contradiction." Or, conversely, "verse, whatever else it may or may not be, is itself a system of punctuation"—a pithy comment made in a set of letters to the Times Literary Supplement under the heading "Questions of Prose" (1928).

Such notes are more than helpful: They are transformative, and Eliot scholarship and criticism will never be the same. For The Waste Land, the editors have supplied "An Editorial Composite," which is to say "a 678-line reading text of the earliest available drafts of the various parts and passages of the poem." These drafts will be familiar to readers of the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, edited by the poet's widow, Valerie Eliot (1971); but to read the text in its earliest form, before Eliot and then Pound made the crucial cuts and changes, is a sobering experience. It is not just that the overwritten imitations of Popean satire were eliminated, but Pound challenged every phrase, every modifier so that

Terrible city I have sometimes seen and see
Under the brown fog of your winter dawn.


Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.

The change of "Terrible" to "Unreal" was Eliot's own, thus cementing the echo of Baudelaire's "Fourmillante cité." But the qualifier "I have sometimes seen and see," which dilutes the force of the apostrophe, is bracketed by Pound, and the latter also understands that the "winter dawn" should not be "your" (the city's) but "a."

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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Homage to Poe

Outside the afternoon had already grown sunless and gray as we settled into our seats in eighth-grade English class. Our teacher, without preamble, carefully lowered the tone arm on a rackety portable record player. There was a scratchy pause, and then, unforgettably, we heard a low and sonorous, but slightly manic, voice whispering: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

It was Basil Rathbone, reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe. We sat mesmerized, until the actor produced his final, blood-curdling shriek: "Here, here—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

At the time, I failed to recognize that the voice on the record was the same as that of Sherlock Holmes, but I already knew a little about Poe. My steelworker father used to recite: It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee. That was about all he could remember. As a child, I loved the wistful sound of the words, just as I would later be taken by the tintinnabulation of "The Bells" and the mournful repetition of "nevermore" in "The Raven." But when, in sixth grade, I had finally borrowed a friend's copy of the Signet Classics paperback of The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, I found Poe disconcerting, even disappointing.

Mostly, this was because I could barely understand his complicated sentences and sometimes couldn't figure out what was happening. "A Descent into the Maelstrom" dragged at the beginning, and its account of being caught in the vortex of a whirlpool went tediously on and on. "The Masque of the Red Death" was hardly a story at all, just a series of symbolic tableaux. Even "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" opened with pages of dry theorizing: "The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis." Though I was suitably delighted when C. Auguste Dupin deduced that the savage murders could only have been committed by an orangutan, I nonetheless regarded this solution as farfetched, despite the usual caveat (frequently enunciated by my hero, the sleuth of Baker Street) that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

"The Purloined Letter" also charmed me with its central conceit that people will invariably overlook the obvious, even if the maxim's application in this instance seemed distinctly unrealistic: The police would surely have examined every scrap of paper in the minister's apartment, no matter where its hiding place.

My initial puzzlement about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was hardly surprising. His fiction can seem too rhetorical, too thickly textured, too literary for most young people. Still, Basil Rathbone's recording did persuade me to give the writer another try—sometime. The opportunity finally arose in high school when I opened my new English textbook and discovered the revenge story "The Cask of Amontillado." In class, our teacher emphasized Poe's use of irony and guessed, like many other readers and critics, that the narrator Montresor was speaking to a priest. The phrase "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" could obviously be addressed to one's confessor. But I wasn't quite convinced of this.

What were the "injuries" and the "insult" that Montresor had suffered from the doomed Fortunato? I soon had my own ideas. When the two men repair to the damp underground vaults to sample the much-anticipated Amontillado, Montresor says to his tipsy companion: "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was." I had read enough fiction by then to know that lost happiness usually meant lost love. Obviously, this rich, rather stupid aristocrat had somehow stolen Montresor's girl, married her, and then, through neglect and drunkenness, made her life miserable. Just look at the sodden fool: He is out carousing by himself on the street, decked out in jingle bells and clown regalia, while Lady Fortunato, we later learn, sits at home waiting for him.

So I boldly contended that Montresor could no longer bear the repeated disrespect, probably coupled with physical abuse, endured by the woman he adored. He walls up Fortunato and, after a suitable period of mourning, weds his widow. As he lays dying, Montresor finally tells the whole story to the person who really knows his soul—his wife, the former Mrs. Fortunato. My teacher was somewhat nonplussed by my argument—especially when I extrapolated the future wedding—but I cling to it even now.

From that time on, I grasped that textual ambiguity could contribute to a poem or story's power and appeal. Like Shakespeare's plays, Poe's tales of the grotesque and arabesque are tantalizing, open-ended, susceptible to multiple interpretations. When you finish "Ligeia"—in which a dark-haired beauty of indomitable willpower returns from the dead and takes over the body of the fair Rowena—you are left with some interesting questions: Is Ligeia truly alive again? Will she and her husband take up their marriage from where it left off? What will Lady Rowena's relatives say about her disappearance? Could everything be just a hallucination of the opium-addled narrator?

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Monday, 23 May 2016

The Hardship of Henry James

Why is Henry James so hard? I found myself asking the perennial question about “The Master” again (and again and again) while I worked my way through the volume of his autobiographical writings, published by The Library of America in time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the author’s death in 1916. Autobiographies consists of the three volumes of memoirs that James composed near the end of his life: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and a Brother (1914) and The Middle Years (1917), unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously. The book also contains some extracts from the journals and other relevant writings by James. (As a bonus, we get “Henry James at Work” by Theodora Basanquet, James’s super secretary who was with James from 1907 to his death in 1916.) It is a handsome volume, superbly edited by the eminent Jamesian, Philip Horne, whose historical and biographical notes do as much as such notes can do to illuminate some of James’s most difficult prose. As I say, it is a handsome volume (you know those Library of America editions—amazing production values), though my own copy of it is somewhat less than handsome now. It’s pretty much mutilated with pen, pencil, sharpie marks and enough post-it notes to paper over the Empire State Building—part of a dogged effort to tame the wild and crazy style of the late James—some of those sentences are insane!—into something like serviceable sense. My copy is water-stained as well: that would be the result of my sweat and tears. (Or it could be that I read it once in the bath: I thought I might be more open to it if I were a bit more relaxed.) It’s also dented in various places, as are the places on the walls of my apartment where I threw it. On the inside flap of the book, the editors at the Library of America assure us with understandable pride that the “page layout” for their editions “has been designed for readability as well as elegance”. Elegant, absolutely, but there is no amount of design in the whole wide world of arts and crafts that will make some of the pages in this particular volume readable, at least not without a lot of work and in some cases not even then. (Everyone knows that there are sentences in late James that no one has ever understood; subordinate clause that sprawl beyond the lifespan of any mind; orphaned pronouns whose natural antecedents elude all efforts at reunification; abstractions that mock any attempt to draw them into the range of human comprehension.)

I promise you though, this review isn’t going to be one of those hate-on-James-for-being-so hard, bitch sessions. In fact I love Henry James, not in spite of his difficulty, but at least in part because of it: I think James is difficult partly because life is difficult and his difficulty is partly a way he has to help show us the damage done to us by that difficulty. Before I get to that though, I think it’s important once more to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The difficulty of Henry James, especially the late James (and there’s not much later than the volumes that make up these autobiographies): that’s a very big elephant—at least as big as the ones P.T. Barnum used in his shows. James, by the way, loved those shows as a kid, “the Barnumite scenes” of his youth. He loved acrobats and pantomimes and all kinds of overacting. He loved ice cream and pastries and the fun little neighborhood things that mean the world when you’re young, and the way those little things get turned into stories as good as ghosts or the sweetest summer fruit—“local allusions—mystifications always—that flowered into anecdote as into small hard plums”. One of the joys of these late volumes, especially “A Small Boy Among Others”, is the chance they give us to see Henry James as a child. It makes me think of a line from Charles Lamb that you may remember from your own childhood—it’s the epigram at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”. Henry James, that student of the law who went on to become the supremely magisterial and mandarin advocate for the most complicated cases of personal and impersonal injury, cases so elusive that except for his exacting and surpassingly subtle representation, would have never had their day in court—this profoundly Old Adult Writer (too old even for the young adult category, much less for kiddie lit.): can you think of any lawyer we are less likely to suppose once a child?

Still, Henry James, I might have supposed, was a child once. One of the great gifts of his autobiographical writings is to confirm it. Here we have a portrait of the recondite stylist not just as a young man, but as a little boy who loved the things that children love and who was thrilled and hurt by the things that thrill and hurt children—small things, sometimes, as small as the smallest of “breakable toys” maybe, but not too small for a child, nor for a man wise enough to keep a child’s hold on memories that other adults might discard as too little to keep—“no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny” (18).

As far as hurt goes, James suffered his share, some of which is recorded in these books. There is the feeling, for example, he had as a boy that the older brother he adored didn’t wish to associate with him, for reasons that are perhaps as obvious as contemporary readers interested in recruiting the young James as an avatar of the “queer” (one of James’ own key terms of description and self-description) seem to think they are: “’I play with boys who curse and swear.’ I had to sadly recognize that I didn’t . . . I simply wasn’t qualified” (158). There is his general terror of competition—“I never dreamed of competing” (110); his feeling that he’s already forfeited the regular games of manhood (marriage, for example, and a real career) before they’ve even started, and that all that’s left for him are the irregular ones to be played on the side—the odd friendship and the craft of fiction.

Some of the hurt James suffered as a boy and a young man are recorded in these books. The worst of it is the reason they were written in the first place--the deaths that mark and bring on the loss of his youth. James begins his autobiography on the occasion of his older brother’s death--William whom he admired as he much as he admired anyone (so felt and fluent are the passages where he pays tribute to his brother, that I’m tempted to say that he admired him as much as anyone has ever been admired). And then there is his father, Henry James senior and his cousin, Mary Temple, both of whom he adored, and whose deaths also dwell at the heart of these memoirs: “Such then is the circle of my commemoration and so much these free and copious notes a labour of love and loyalty” (5), a circle of commemoration that extends to include not only family and friends, but the now vanished scenes (as vanished as summer fruit in winter) where who and what and how he loved were most present and best represented: “where is that fruitage now . . . the mounds of Isabella grapes and Seckel pears in the sticky sweetness of which our childhood seems to have been steeped?” (46).

James may be at his most conspicuously hard to handle when he’s writing, or avoiding writing, about his share of what’s hardest for all of us to handle: death, for starters: the death of those who have been dearest to us. When he comes to the most dire difficulty, James can be as hard for us to figure out as math, that “dire discipline”, was for him: “the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank”. Isn’t that just the way the mind of a reader of James can feel, drawn to a blank by his strange syntactical operations? In everything he wrote, it seems to me, and in his late work, especially, James converts a feeling of helplessness at the hands of the most awful existential algorithms (the conversion of life into death, first of all) into a sense of blankness, a crippling of mind which makes it all but impossible to understand what he is saying about our worst losses and how we should best address them. What makes James’s late prose so damned difficult I see gathering most thickly at the Grave; at the death and disappearance of who and what he most loved. Take what he says about the awful terror Mary Temple suffered at the hour of her death. Her letters are so beautiful and brave—the last one in particular, and yet, “there came a moment, almost immediately after, when all illusion failed; which it is not good to think of or linger on and yet not pitiful not to note”. All those negations (a double, a triple negative): who doesn’t get a little confused? Even when you factor the shift in the value of “pitiful” from James’s time to our own (for James the term means something more like compassionate), it still takes a minute for the reader (maybe longer if the reader is bad at math) to figure out that she’s supposed to note (and not, not note) the terrible, terrified death of the twenty four year old Mary Temple. (The reader’s not supposed to think of or linger on it. For the sake of simplicity and space, not to mention respect for the distress of everyone concerned, I’ll let slide what if, anything, the difference might be between thinking of and noting.)

About the math, I admit, I’m being a little bit fanciful. (Like James and like a lot of literary types, I have my own personal problems with math.) But what I’m dead serious about is this: I think James illuminates our emotional troubles by converting them into cognitive ones. What’s hard for the heart to undertake without breaking becomes in James what’s hard for the mind to understand without failing.

It’s not just death: other grave losses (what can feel like death to the heart) bring on this problem in comprehension as well. James is at his most rebarbatively abstract, complicated and confusing when he is grieving the disappearance of the simple and natural and concrete from the social scenes of his youth. The antecedents of his pronouns are never harder to discover than when what they mark the blessed particulars, and beyond that, the blessing of particularity, that give weight and grace to our individual lives (the particular people and places we love); the blessed particulars, the blessing of particularity, that by the dim view of the likes of James, are lost in the homogenizing movement of modernity.

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Anne Enright: In search of the real Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped. She did not have to become a bag lady for her work to be revived, though that possibly helped too. The story of her mental decline is terrifying for anyone who works with words, who searches her clean, sour sentences for some hint or indication of future madness, and then turns to check their own. 

Brennan is, for a new generation of female Irish writers, a casualty of old wars not yet won. The prose holds her revived reputation very well, especially the Irish stories. These feel transparently modern, the way that Dubliners by Joyce feels modern. It is partly a question of restraint. Benedict Kiely, Walter Macken, perhaps even Mary Lavin, ran the risk of being “Irish” on the pages of the New Yorker, which is to say endearing. Frank O’Connor was the cutest of the lot, perhaps, as well as the most successful. Brennan remains precise, unyielding: something lovely and unbearable is happening on the page.

Despite the lack of surface charm, Brennan was very Irish indeed. Her mother, Una, took part in the fighting during Easter 1916, alongside her father, Bob, who was arrested and sent to prison for it. Maeve was born 37 weeks later: conceived along with the Irish state you might say, she was a true daughter of the Rising. A few years later, Bob Brennan left his young family to take part in the war of independence and in the Irish civil war. He spent months in hiding and on the run and Maeve’s childhood home was raided several times by men carrying guns. After the state was founded, he set up the Irish Press for Éamon de Valera, and in 1933, when Maeve was 17, her father was appointed to Washington as Ireland’s first envoy to America. The Brennans could not have seen this remarkable future when they fell in love in the Gaelic League in Wexford, but they both saw some great ideal. Their three girls were named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.

She was a “Gaelic princess”. Her hair was chestnut, her eyes were green. A pixie, a changeling, she was admired for the sharpness of her wit. It is hard to find a description of Brennan that is not code for her ethnicity. In 1941 she moved to New York and found a job at Harper’s Bazaar and when her family returned to Ireland, she stayed behind. Already reclusive, she moved from one rented room to another and rarely had a kitchen to call her own. Still, she seemed to miss some idea of Ireland, or of domesticity. Her biographer Angela Bourke wrote that: “Throughout her adult life, to the point of eccentricity, Maeve drank tea and sought out open fires.”

In 1949, at the age of 32, she secured a staff job at the New Yorker where she had the great good fortune to be edited by William Maxwell, who became a loyal friend. “To be around her,” he wrote, “was to see style being reinvented.” Brennan was a beautiful, unmarried woman in a dingy office full of men. She wore a fresh flower in her lapel and smelled of Cuir de Russie, a perfume designed by Chanel for women who dared to smoke in public. She worked all the time, produced very little, and ate boiled eggs to keep her figure neat.

By the early 1950s the descriptions of her Irishness had tipped from fey to fierce. Her tongue “could clip a hedge” she had “a longshoreman’s mouth”, she said “fuck” in company and drank in Costello’s on Third Avenue. Once, when nobody came to take her order as she sat in a booth there, she lifted a heavy, full sugar bowl and dropped it on the floor. There was no sense, when she married her New Yorker colleague, St Clair McKelway, fellow drinker – fellow madman, indeed – that he was taking a virgin Irish bride. Brennan was 36. They were, a friend said, “like two children out on a dangerous walk: both so dangerous and charming”.

It is worth saying that no middle-class Irish woman at the time would set foot in a Dublin pub. Irish drinking culture, for all its famous good fun, was deeply shame-bound. Maeve’s thirst had its origins in a terrific social uncertainty, but also in a great want. As her posthumous editor Christopher Carduff said, her work showed “a ravenous grudge, a ravenous nostalgia and a ravenous need for love”.

Brennan’s progress as a fiction writer was far from steady. She wrote a column of city observations as “The Long-Winded Lady”, and short pieces of memoir, in the sad, bright tone the New Yorker did so well. Her first published stories were lightly satirical and set in America. These were published between 1952 and 1956, after which came silence. The Irish stories, on which her reputation was revived, did not start to appear until 1959, a year after her mother’s death, when her marriage had fallen apart. There was a second rush, of more hopeful fictions, after the death of her father in 1964.

The stories involve two couples, the Bagots and the Derdons, who live in Ranelagh, where Brennan grew up. The Bagots are happier than the Derdons, but it can be hard to distinguish the memoir pieces from the fiction and one couple from another – they are all so lonely and their compass so small. They live, interchangeably, in Brennan’s childhood home at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, they climb the same little stairs and look out on the same laburnum tree. The stories are painful acts of reclamation. Brennan circles around the few events of these people’s lives. A new sofa arrives at the house, to great excitement. A man selling apples knocks at the door. People get married, they walk in the park, go to work and die. There are visits, disappointments and interminable, small cruelties – especially between the Derdons, whose only son John becomes a priest, leaving his mother bereft. Some of the most affecting stories are almost entirely without incident. A man goes into his dead wife’s bedroom and finds nothing there. A woman sees her own shadow on the wall of her children’s room, and is comforted by it.

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Friday, 20 May 2016

Emily Dickinson Isn’t You

“I couldn’t let go,” Jerome Charyn begins his author’s note to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, as if remembering a severed romantic relationship. He remained transfixed after writing a fictionalized account of Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, in which he inhabited, or vampirized, as he says, the nineteenth-century poet’s voice, detailing flings with noted scholars and tattooed handymen—all imagined of course. He spent two years on the book, culling through all the letters, biographies, studies, accounts, and poems he could. “I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” Charyn writes in his new book. “Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, and like a spider, she spun her meticulous web…”

Her seduction of Charyn implies her lingering claim on the present, but his inability to “let it go” introduces his attempt to put his mark on her. In the twenty-first century, Emily Dickinson has become very much about our selves, an interpretation that has been allowed to flourish partly because of her anonymity: The bulk of her poems, of course, were published after she died, and she lived with her parents all her life, unmarried and leaving letters that only hint at possible lovers, hardly ever leaving her home. During the last 30 years, it has been many writers’ impulse to try her on, explore the “masks,” as Charyn calls them, that she wore in her poems, and give motive to her writings through more expressive means. Among the better-known works there’s Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, which traces the works that informed Dickinson’s rich interior life; Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home,” which sees her as feminist forebear; Maureen McLane’s “My Emily Dickinson” from her biblio-memoir My Poets; and Camille Paglia’s essay from Sexual Personae, comparing her to the Marquis de Sade.

Charyn’s book gives a checkered history of the many interpretations of Dickinson, at times attempting to connect them to her actual biography. He starts to trace key disputes in Emily Dickinson scholarship, from the intended recipient for her Master letters—a major clue to a possible hidden romance—to her jumbled publication history. (Her editors Matthew Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd removed her punctuation, then her heirs began to find more unpublished poetry and letters—as did their children.) There was no complete volume of Dickinson’s poetry until 1955. This volume, when it finally appeared, led to a fuller picture of Dickinson by 1976, when “Vesuvius at Home” and the popular one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, which Charyn writes much about, both came out.

The goal of such writings is ostensibly to better know Emily Dickinson, though by means of murky, refracted knowledge—as if making sense out of the same image as projected through a hall of mirrors. But in Charyn’s book, which leans heavily on his own personal web of associations, some sense of who Dickinson might have been ends up feeling more out of reach.

A Loaded Gun progresses with a snaking chronology, imitating the slipperiness of its subject. One chapter, “The Two Emilys—and the Earl,” examines Emily Norcross Dickinson, Emily Sr., in detail, along with Emily’s father, as a portrait of the people who ostensibly best knew her; another chapter is devoted to Dickinson’s very close relationship with her dog, Carlo, her only recorded long-term companion.

Charyn’s book quickly sets up themes that reflect more about his own cultural tastes than Dickinson. He examines, for instance, figures who have been as enchanted as he is with Dickinson as muse. The chapter “Ballerinas in a Box” mostly traces the artist Joseph Cornell’s near-obsession with Dickinson, but Charyn takes such a circuitous path that the portrait becomes muddled. He opens with quotes from male poets and critics who revived Dickinson’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Allen Tate, he tells us, wrote in 1932 that many were mistaken that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry,” but went on to call her “a dominating spinster whose very sweetness must have been formidable.”

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Brontës’ Secret

No body of writing has engendered more other bodies of writing than the Bible, but the Brontë corpus comes alarmingly close. “Since 1857, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her famous Life of Charlotte Brontë, hardly a year has gone by without some form of biographical material on the Brontës appearing—from articles in newspapers to full-length lives, from images on tea towels to plays, films, and novelizations,” wrote Lucasta Miller in The Brontë Myth, her 2001 history of Brontëmania. This year the Brontë literary-industrial complex celebrates the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth, and British and American publishers have been especially busy. In the U.S., there is a new Charlotte Brontë biography by Claire Harman; a Brontë-themed literary detective novel; a novelistic riff on Jane Eyre whose heroine is a serial killer; a collection of short stories inspired by that novel’s famous last line, “Reader, I married him”; and a fan-fiction-style “autobiography” of Nelly Dean, the servant-narrator of Wuthering Heights. Last year’s highlights included a young-adult novelization of Emily’s adolescence and a book of insightful essays called The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which uses items belonging to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as wormholes to the 19th century and the lost texture of their existence. Don’t ask me to list the monographs.

I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are Peoples of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts? The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister, Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other 19th-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive? In an essay on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights published in 1925, Virginia Woolf bears witness to this miracle:
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious. So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds.
If Charlotte’s novels keep up a stiff wind, Emily’s one novel, Wuthering Heights, is a thunderstorm. Her characters, even the ghosts, Woolf writes, have “such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” (Like most readers, Woolf ignores the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, a lesser novelist and poet, and the Brontë brother, Branwell, a failed poet and artist turned alcoholic.) And just think, Woolf went on to write in a more famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, what Charlotte might have produced had Victorian mores not corseted her potential.

Woolf seizes on a passage in Jane Eyre in which she believes she hears Charlotte breaking out of Jane’s voice to lecture the reader about women’s exclusion from the “busy world” and “practical experience,” and to lament the confinement of their talents “to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” According to Woolf, this shows that Charlotte’s imagination, however bold, is also constricted—that she “will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.” Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

But Woolf gets it exactly wrong, thereby missing what makes the Brontë story so satisfying. The sisters’ social and economic disadvantages didn’t hold them back. Charlotte and Emily explored—and exploited—the prison-house of gender with unprecedented clear-sightedness. It so happens that the sisters had a good deal of “practical experience,” and they didn’t like it one bit. Pushed out into the world, they came home as fast as they could, and in their retreat from society found the autonomy to cultivate their altogether original voices. Those forays into the marketplace of female labor, though, gave them their best material.

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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Alice Munro, Our Chekhov

The announcement that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Alice Munro probably strikes many readers and writers as deliriously incredible. Few contemporary writers are more admired, and with good reason. Everyone gets called “our Chekhov.” All you have to do nowadays is write a few half-decent stories and you are “our Chekhov.” But Alice Munro really is our Chekhov—which is to say, the English language’s Chekhov. (In Munro’s great story, “The Beggar Maid,” an ambitious man sees that a friend of the woman he is courting “mispronounced Metternich,” and says indignantly to her: “How can you be friends with people like that?” I’m put in mind of Chekhov’s story “The Russian Master,” which has a character who repeatedly torments a young teacher by asking him why he has “never read Lessing.”)

Yet many of Munro’s readers had sadly concluded that she was not, somehow, the kind of writer that the Nobel committee seemed to like; I had decided that she would join the list of noble non-Nobelists, a distinguished category that includes Tolstoy, Nabokov, Borges, Hrabal, Sebald, Bernhard, Ingmar Bergman—and Chekhov, as it happens.

We were wrong, and for once it was wonderful to be wrong. Greatly enjoying being wrong, I spent an hour yesterday rereading one of Munro’s finest stories, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which appeared in this magazine. It tells the story of Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years. Grant has been a professor, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature, Fiona a hospital administrator. In their old age, Fiona begins to develop signs of serious dementia, and Grant has her placed in a local nursing home, Meadowlake. The marriage has been a happy one, or so Grant feels, despite the fact that he has been a considerable philanderer: “He had never stopped making love to Fiona in spite of disturbing demands elsewhere. He had not stayed away from her for a single night.” And just as he has been, in his way, devoted to his wife, so Fiona never strayed from him. It was never, despite Grant’s many infidelities, an open marriage. She put up with his adventures.

On the morning of his first visit to the nursing home, after a month’s separation from Fiona, Grant is “full of a solemn tingling, as in the old days on the morning of his first planned meeting with a new woman.” Fiona has not quite forgotten Grant (this is his great anxiety), but she has found a new friend in the nursing home, a man of about Grant’s age, named Aubrey, wonderfully described as having “something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse. But where Fiona was concerned, he was not discouraged.” Grant is naturally jealous, but his love for Fiona is protective, and over the next weeks he begins to adapt to the new happiness that Fiona has clearly found with Aubrey: “He didn’t see much point in mentioning their marriage, now.” When Aubrey—who was only a temporary resident—leaves the nursing home to return to life with his younger wife, Fiona is distraught, and Grant decides that he will ask Marian, Aubrey’s wife, if she might occasionally let Aubrey visit Fiona. Marian refuses: she doesn’t want to upset her bewildered husband. He belongs at home, she says, with her. She says that it was probably a mistake to have put him in the nursing home, even briefly. Grant returns home empty-handed, but he finds a phone message from Marian: Would he like to go with her to “a dance in town at the Legion supposed to be for singles on Saturday night…. I realize you’re not a single and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not either, but it doesn’t hurt to get out once in a while.” The old philanderer is interested—partly because a seducer has never retired from the game, but largely because he thinks that this may be the best way to get Marian to let Aubrey visit Fiona in the nursing home. Perhaps Marian will be inclined, once the affair is properly blossoming, to send her husband back there for good?

The story is beautiful in the irony of its symmetries—the philanderer who unexpectedly loses his loyal wife to the love of another man, and then returns to his old erotic ways in order to secure his wife’s own continuing infidelity. But two additional elements, both characteristic of Munro’s careful art, make it a great story. First, there is Munro’s astounding lack of sentimentality—the clear-eyed, utterly unillusioned, bleakly subtle description of the nursing home, its inmates, and its staff. Grant, for instance, becomes reliant on one of the nurses, who has her own problems—an absent husband, four children, one of whom is asthmatic. “To her, Grant and Fiona and Aubrey too must seem lucky. They had got through life without too much going wrong. What they had to suffer now that they were old hardly counted.” The second very Munro-ish element is the formal freedom of the story, which compacts a lot of life into a short space, and moves backwards and forwards over a great deal of terrain. Strikingly, the story begins with two paragraphs, subsequently abandoned, about Fiona and Grant as young people, before they were even married, and then vaults silently over fifty years to begin the narrative of Fiona’s elderly mental decline. These two first paragraphs are beautifully full of energy and joy and hope; they capture with extraordinary economy the happiness of youth, a happiness largely absent from the rest of the story. This is how “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” begins:
Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant left-wing politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to strange tirades with an absentminded smile. All kinds of people, rich or shabby-looking, delivered these tirades, and kept coming and going and arguing and conferring, sometimes in foreign accents. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and this activity in her house was probably the reason.
Because of this sparkling first paragraph, we begin “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” thinking that it will be a story about a young woman’s growth, rather than the tale of her decline (albeit a decline that includes a final unexpected love affair). We carry with us, through the sadness of aging and loss, the memory of these devastating opening lines—devastating just because they are not continued, but simply abandoned by Munro at the very start of her tale. The effect is as if Michael Haneke’s film “Amour” were to open with a scene in which we see the two elderly protagonists as young unmarried lovers, and then brutally scroll forward five decades.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

The Landscape of the Heart - Virginia Woolf

The re-issue of these four books in handsome bindings answers no urgent need; three of them are already available in less expensive editions. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to reread several of Mrs. Woolf’s books at the same time. Inevitably, I found the spell of the old enchantment considerably diminished. Inevitable, in part, because we are at that awkward distance which prevents either a fresh reading of her work of an impersonal detachment. In so far as our disaffection is caused by a temporary impatience with the elaborate, the playful, the idiosyncratic, we are the losers.

Orlando has always seemed to me embarrassingly frivolous. Of course, it is a very ingenious joke, very “literary” and scholarly, and the frivolity mocks itself, as when, after exercising a few lines in an archaic manner, the author breaks off: “(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).” It would have been delightful as one of her shorter, light pieces, but in this form the joke is stretched beyond the fun in it, and the fun was always more for the writer than for the reader.

The Waves is a serious novel, of course, about six children who are brought up together and whose lives are interwoven until the book leaves them in middle age. They reveal themselves (and one another) in alternating interior monologues. Never has Mrs. Woolf (or any other writer, for that matter, in quite this way) employed this technique so exclusively. It is not an attempt to imitate the processes of the unconscious or of involuntary association, but a determined concentration on the self, expressed in a formal poetic style: “’Now let me try,’ said Louis, ‘before we rise, before we go to tea, to fix the moment in one supreme endeavor. This will endure.’”

In this sort of fixity, consciousness is a continual surrender to a stream of sense-impressions and related memories. It is an end in itself; sensitivity is the supreme value. The result is often very lovely; nevertheless, the rhythm of monologue is finally monotonous and the characters of the novel are apt to fade into the anonymity of mere sensitized plates. Any continuity or interrelation of their reveries is too frequently only a trick of composition. The Waves (like most of its author’s work) has been compared to music—a useful simile, as it suggests a thematic structure unusual in English fiction. But literature is no more music than music is literature, and the obtrusion of a formal scheme risks the chilling or even paralysis of a novel.

Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are Virginia Woolf’s most successful novels. The former is brilliant; it originates on the surface of things—“the silver, the chairs”; “there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats”—and the impulse of these impressions to the reflective mind constructs the sense of “life; London; this moment in June.” Appropriately in this world of surfaces, “the supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here was one room, there another.” It is a rare creative stroke that recognizes the mood, despite the flash and gayety, as one of ineffable sadness and futility: “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears.” The most Clarissa Dalloway can do is give a party.

So far, the work is a triumph of the visual imagination; the following reference to Clarissa’s courageous and inane high-mindedness is another matter: “Not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, . . . must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it.” And again: “Thank you, thank you, she went on saying in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted.” There is here, at the very least, an ambiguity; at most, a failure of the ironic intelligence. How can one judge the passages quoted above? There are too few clues. This failure, if it is failure, is all the more baffling because it is intermittent; Sir William Bradshaw and Hugh Whitbread are disposed of swiftly and keenly.

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Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Living Stream: Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares

Warwick Gould discusses the research-level series offering a tribute to the pioneering Yeats scholar, A. Norman Jeffares.


Botticelli: Love, Wisdom, Terror

Sandro Botticelli: Primavera, 1477–1482

Sometime around 1490 Sandro Botticelli set out to make a book unlike any ever seen before. Prompted by a patron, and inspired by his own deep love of Dante, the artist planned the first fully illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy. Almost since the poem was completed around 1321, painters had decorated manuscripts of it with illuminations of selected scenes. But the very qualities that drew so many readers to the poem—its vivid accounts of the horrors of Hell and the splendors of Heaven, its sprawling narrative, its penetrating descriptions of emotion, its philosophical gravity, and its unequaled mix of realism and what Dante called alta fantasia—were all far beyond the skills of earlier painters to convey. Even the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the book, including those made for humanist rulers such as Alfonso V of Aragon, king of Naples, were illustrated with comparatively naif and rudimentary images. Botticelli was determined to be the first painter to do justice to the great poem.

An exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London allows us to see what he hoped to achieve. It features thirty of the surviving ninety-two parchment sheets he made for the book. The sheets are relatively large—about 12 1/2 by 18 1/2 inches—and they are arranged in what is commonly called landscape format. Each sheet bears on its back Botticelli’s illustration for a canto, and on its front the text of the following canto, written in the neat lettering of a Florentine scribe. Most scholars agree the plan was to bind the sheets together in a codex, with its spine on the top, like a modern-day calendar. When opened to a spread it would present Botticelli’s picture of a canto on the upper page, and the text of the same canto on the lower page. In all earlier illustrated versions of the Divine Comedy most of the images are small and tucked among the blocks of script, or placed at the foot of the page. By contrast, in Botticelli’s the pictures and the text were to be given equal space, and the pictures were to go above the writing. This format was unprecedented in Italian book design.

Three of the illustrations—although none in the London show—are at least partially colored, and it is generally thought that Botticelli had originally meant to paint all the illustrations in the book. In the event, however, he never completed the drawings for the project, stopping while at work on Canto 32 of the Paradiso, seemingly defeated by the challenge of depicting the utmost reaches of Heaven, which by Dante’s own account are outside the capacity of human representation. It is perhaps fortunate for us that he did not finish. Made with pen and brown ink over faint preliminary sketches, Botticelli’s drawings for the Divine Comedy are among the most lively, tender, and psychologically searching works he ever created.

Botticelli first made drawings of the Inferno around 1480; those served as the basis for nineteen engravings in an edition of the Divine Comedy, with a commentary by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino, that was completed in 1481. The prints are small, cramped, and crude, and Botticelli’s drawings for them do not survive, so any analysis of his interpretation of Dante at that time is necessarily limited and speculative.

Almost all scholars believe that the extant drawings instead come from the 1490s and were made for a deluxe codex commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503). He was Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin, and perhaps Botticelli’s greatest patron. Among other works he ordered from the artist was the Primavera.

In his commentary on the Divine Comedy, one of the achievements Landino celebrated was Dante’s power “to place form before our eyes.” This praise may come from ancient classical texts on eloquence, and yet it still gives a sense of the daunting difficulties the poem posed for the artist. Despite the fantastical settings, the characters in the poem have a credibility of action and feeling unlike those in almost any earlier work of Western literature. In the words of Erich Auerbach, “Never before—scarcely even in antiquity—has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painfully immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings.” For Botticelli the problem was how to translate such immediacy into actual images of comparable authority.

We can see this problem, and Botticelli’s response to it, in the depiction of Dante as a figure in the Divine Comedy. Renaissance painters typically only had to represent rulers, heroes, or holy persons—people often portrayed as having an ideal and exemplary moral stature that placed them above the sufferings of everyday life. With some important exceptions, such as scenes from the Passion of Christ, or the Annunciation to the Virgin shown in the instant of change from confusion to obedience, the protagonists in early Renaissance art are rarely presented in moments of pain, doubt, or uncertainty. By contrast, Dante in the Divine Comedy may be Everyman, but he is also credibly a specific man, full of complex feelings. In the course of the poem, we see him experience not only love and joy but also fear, pity, hesitation, anger, remorse, curiosity, and bewilderment.

For example, at the end of Canto 17 of the Inferno, Virgil commands Dante to ride with him on the back of the monster Geryon. In just eight lines Dante describes the terror he felt at this prospect, then his shame at the thought that Virgil would consider him a coward, then his request to Virgil that the poet hold him tight as they ride—but, as in a nightmare, he is so afraid he cannot even really get these words out. Once on the back of the monster, he is momentarily reassured, only to feel even greater fright as the beast plunges into the abyss.

Botticelli beautifully captures the intensity of Dante’s response by drawing this sequence as a series of four scenes arranged in a continuous narrative. First we see Dante, hesitant and afraid, with his head down, eyes closed, and hands crossed guardedly on his chest, as Virgil beckons to him from the beast. Next we see Geryon take off with Virgil clasping Dante, whose shoulders are hunched high in fearful self-protection. Then as the beast plummets we see Dante staring in nauseous horror; and finally as Virgil and Dante disappear below the rim of the seventh circle of Hell, almost all we can make out of Dante’s face is one eye glaring further into the frightful depths. I do not know of any other early Renaissance work of art that so convincingly portrays the experience of sickening terror.

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Friday, 13 May 2016

The Man Who Made the Novel - Samuel Richardson

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely novelist than Samuel Richardson. The son of a carpenter, he attended school only intermittently until he was seventeen, when his formal education ended and he was apprenticed to a printer. He didn’t publish his first novel until after he turned fifty. The undertaking was almost accidental. He had become the proprietor of a printing press when, in 1739, two London booksellers asked him to put together a “letter-writer,” an etiquette manual consisting of letters that “country readers” might use as models for their own correspondence.

Richardson quickly expanded the project’s scope. A diligent worker who had risen from tradesman to middle-class property owner, he longed to impart what he had learned. He wanted, he wrote in the book’s introduction, to teach readers not only how to write elegant letters but “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common concerns of life.” Recollecting a true story he’d heard years earlier, he composed several letters to and from a pious servant girl whose boss was making lewd advances, in order to warn young women of “snares that might be laid against their virtue.”

In the fall of 1739, Richardson began to absent himself from his wife in the evenings, after work at the printing press. Instead of proceeding as planned on the letter-writer, he was quietly adding to the stock of letters by the servant girl, bringing her story to a happy conclusion. It took him just two months to produce “Pamela,” a book many consider the first modern English novel.

Not that Richardson made this claim. He associated novels with improbable romances, or mere entertainments; “Pamela” was intended to be instructive. But a novel it was. More than the adventure stories of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, “Pamela” was concerned with the representation of interior life. It is also organized around a single, unified plot, which distinguished it from Defoe’s more episodic “Moll Flanders” (1722), a pseudo-memoir that recounts its protagonist’s varied and largely illicit pursuits, from her inauspicious beginnings through her late years in the colonies. Flanders’s story is told from the complacent perspective of a woman who has achieved wealth and security, and generally adopts the matter-of-fact tone of a case history. Pamela’s letters, in contrast, are lively and conversational, their language a reflection of both her native cleverness and her inexperience. Richardson was fond of saying that his characters’ letters are written “to the moment”; that is, as the characters experience the events they describe. This lends “Pamela” a palpable sense of immediacy. In its first letter, our fifteen-year-old heroine describes to her parents the attention she has begun to receive from her young, unmarried employer—who “gave me with his own hand four golden guineas, and some silver.” Her parents urge Pamela to keep her distance. “We had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue,” they write—to which Pamela responds, “I will die a thousand deaths, rather than be dishonest in any way.”

This can sound like the exaggerated language of farce. It isn’t. To read Richardson is to enter a moral universe in which the terms “virtue” and “honesty” are used, unironically, as synonyms for virginity. Richardson’s puritanism was extreme even for his period. (Flanders, for example, spoke playfully about her virginity as a “trifle . . . to be had” easily.) But the sanctimonious tone didn’t deter many readers. The novel was so popular that “Pamela”-inspired merchandise, from teacups to fans, quickly sprang up, as did spurious sequels, a theatrical version, and even a comic opera. The book also drew praise for its edifying story line. (“Virtue Rewarded” is its apt subtitle.) Alexander Pope gave it a jolt of publicity when he said that it would “do more good than many volumes of sermons,” a quote that may have been solicited by Richardson’s brother-in-law, a bookseller.

Not everyone was won over by the self-taught moralist. A number of “Pamela” parodies also appeared, including two by a not yet famous Henry Fielding, then a thirty-four-year-old failed playwright studying to be a lawyer. Fielding, whose Tom Jones would gain renown for his cheerful sexual exploits, found Richardson’s platitudinous Sunday-school morality unbearable. He launched his own novel-writing career with the spoofs “Shamela,” in which the virginal young maid is recast as a slatternly schemer who manipulates Squire Booby into marrying her, and “Joseph Andrews,” which purported to be about Pamela’s brother. Strapping young Joseph’s impassioned speeches about his virtue, though nearly identical in substance to Pamela’s, read rather more comically coming from a man’s mouth.

Fielding articulated a squeamishness about Richardson that outlasted either man’s lifetime. Though Richardson went on to write two more novels—including the masterly “Clarissa”—he has long inspired an unusually intense mix of appreciation and irritation. “So oozy, hypocritical, praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent,” Samuel Coleridge described him in his notebooks. It pained Coleridge to admit that he nonetheless admired the man “very greatly.” A self-satisfied bourgeois, with a scold’s horror of impropriety, Richardson certainly confounds the image of the writer as tortured artist. The bigger problem is that these qualities bleed into his work. His self-serious moralizing and the ostentatiousness of his characters’ rectitude make Richardson difficult to embrace. Yet, unlike the more urbane and congenial Fielding, Richardson has a knack for psychological realism and an ability to craft characters whose clamorous inner lives continue, almost three centuries later, to feel real to us. He possesses a sometimes dizzying rhetorical intelligence—his characters argue with the agility of top litigators—and seemingly boundless imaginative sympathy: the figures who populate the most winning of eighteenth-century picaresques are cardboard cutouts compared with Richardson’s principals.

Even “Pamela,” prudish and didactic as it is, feels far less limited or quaint than we might expect. The story is robust enough that readers needn’t accept Pamela’s belief that she’ll be “ruined” if she has sex (consensual or otherwise) in order to sympathize with her situation; it’s enough that she doesn’t want sex on the terms offered. It helps, too, that her narration is engaging and tartly comic. If Mr. B, her employer, had his way, she writes to her parents, he “would, keep me till I was undone, and till his mind changed; for even wicked men, I have read, soon grow weary of wickedness with the same person.” Meanwhile, Mr. B—“the finest young gentleman in five counties”—assumed that what he wanted from Pamela would not be so very unwelcome, especially since, like any decent “gentleman of pleasure,” he was prepared to reward her for her favors. He is baffled by her reaction to his overtures—somewhat understandably, given that Pamela says things like “How happy am I, to be turned out of door, with that sweet companion my innocence!” (In spite of being on Pamela’s side, we can’t help feeling some sympathy with Mr. B when he calls her a “romantic idiot.”) Even as his actions become increasingly desperate, he has a coherent rationale for his behavior. He thinks Pamela is overreacting. “I am sure you . . . frightened me, by your hideous squalling, as much as I could frighten you,” he says after he tries to kiss her.

Richardson’s wit and ability to conceive characters who feel “natural”—as he rather immodestly put it in the book’s original introduction—enable the novel to outpace his own didactic intentions, to become something far more lifelike and original than a morality tale. But “Pamela” is, at bottom, a Cinderella story, and so Mr. B eventually proposes marriage to his former maid. Pamela is transported with joy that he is willing to “stoop” so low, but what’s good for the character is less good for the reader. With a story to tell, Richardson the writer of instructional material was distracted, but when the conflict is resolved, about halfway through, we enter a narrative dead zone in which the author’s more irksome qualities come to the fore. Mr. B becomes a mouthpiece through which Richardson delivers life lessons (for example, that a woman ought not grow “careless in her dress” after marriage). Lest we forget that Pamela’s happiness is due to her exemplary virtue, we watch as she is embraced, one after another, by all the neighboring gentry as “an ornament to our sex,” “a worthy pattern for all the young ladies in the county,” “the flower of their neighborhood,” etc.—a tedious procession of praise that starts to undermine the good will we felt for Pamela when her circumstances were less prosperous. The novel closes with a last word from our zealous author, who briefly tears off his epistolary robes to list the various moral teachings the book contains, in case we somehow missed them.

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