Thursday, 30 June 2016

Hungry for Love - Charlotte Brontë

This is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, and to celebrate it comes a biography by the British writer Claire Harman. Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart isn't the first literary life she has penned: Her biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared to critical acclaim in 2001 and 2005, respectively. And of course this isn't the first Brontë biography to be published. In 1857, two years after Brontë's death, Elizabeth Gaskell produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a seminal work but one whose biases and flaws have since been revealed, chief among them Gaskell's toning-down of Brontë's love for a married man. In the mid-1990s, Juliet Barker's monumental The Brontës took the form of a kind of grand literary salvage operation by debunking the many myths and prejudices that had hardened around the family and replacing previous biographers' spurious supposition with hard fact.

While Harman draws on letters that were unavailable to her predecessors, we don't come away with a fresh understanding of her subject. Unlike Barker's book at double the length, Harman provides more of a neat retelling and distilling rather than a radical overhaul. However, for readers looking for a comprehensive study of the most successful Brontë​—​as opposed to an exhaustive history of the whole beleaguered family​—​Harman's book will prove deeply rewarding.

Many will already be familiar with at least the bare bones of this tragic saga. At least half of Harman's book serves as both an illuminating recap for the initiated and a fact-filled tale for the Brontë beginner. In the opening chapters we learn, or are reacquainted with, Brontë's childhood. She was raised in a windswept stone parsonage in the village of Haworth​—​"a strange uncivilized little place," according to Brontë​—​which offered views of graves on one side and the bleak Yorkshire moors on the other. Her mother died when she was 5, leaving her and five siblings in the care of their eccentric and melancholic clergyman-father.

Disaster strikes again when Brontë's oldest sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, die aged 10 and 11, partly as a result of their school's unhygienic conditions and neglectful staff. The four remaining children​—​Charlotte, Anne, Emily, and brother Branwell​—​are brought home and educated by their erudite father. Away from lessons, each member of the household spends considerable time alone: The patriarch is a "solitary egotist," the children make no friends from the village and lose themselves in books. Eventually, though, the children also come to lose themselves in writing, concocting imaginary otherworlds and chronicling fantastical adventures in booklet form—​"little works of fiction, they call'd miniature novels," their father explained to Gaskell.

When Brontë attends a new school in 1831, she shoots to the top of the class and makes a friend for life in Ellen Nussey and, in doing so, finds "for the first and last time, happiness similar to that of home." (One of the reasons we know so much about Brontë's life is due to Nussey's preservation of more than 600 letters from her, written over 24 years.) In 1835, Brontë starts work at the school but quickly loathes it. The once-polite and compliant pupil transforms into an impatient and uncooperative teacher. An extract from her journal attests to a newborn inner turbulence but also an ingrained sadness:
[A]m I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical & most asinine stupidity of those fat-headed oafs?
After a later stint as a governess proves equally unfulfilling, Brontë leaves Haworth for Brussels, again to study and then teach at a boarding school. There she falls hopelessly in love with the charismatic (and married) owner, Constantin Héger. Harman rightly treats this episode as the single most important experience of Brontë's life. She describes the letters Brontë wrote to Héger back at Haworth between 1844-45 as "heartbreaking documents," possibly "the most wrenching examples of unsolicited, unrequited love laments in our whole literature." In some of the most lyrical flourishes in the book, Harman notes how Brontë desperately craved a union that "was one of souls; a possession, a haunting, a living-through, a sharing of ideas, intensely verbal, profoundly silent, an enveloping warmth of love and shared awareness of power." However, in her obsession, she behaves "more like an incubus than a friend" and waits in vain for Héger's replies.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time.
Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, theTimes said, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity amongst us’. Four years before Armageddon the German emperor was decidedly not the antichrist he would become. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne – ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’ – which ended the German hope for a quick victory and set the stage for four years of deadlock and misery.
Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.
Why was this story so compelling in the 1960s? I think because at the height of the Cold War the world needed and embraced a morality tale of the sort Tuchman offered. It goes like this. In 1914, two opposing power blocs, each in the process of a massive and historically unprecedented military build-up, came to feel that it was more dangerous not to respond militarily to a relatively minor incident at the periphery of Europe than it was to do so. The precise nature of each stage of the July Crisis, or of earlier crises, is less important to Tuchman’s cautionary tale than the dénouement: the failure of the great power blocs to negotiate their differences and the catastrophe that this failure unleashed. For the generation immediately following the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hydrogen bomb that the Russians exploded in 1961, little was left to the imagination about what could happen if a mistake on the order of 1914 were made again.
John Kennedy read The Guns of August as a parable of the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] “The Missiles of October”,’ his brother Robert quotes him as saying. ‘If anyone is around after this they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace.’ Following Tuchman, he believed that European statesmen ‘somehow seemed to tumble into war’, because of their ‘stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur’. He would not follow suit. (Appeasement, about which Kennedy had written his undergraduate thesis, might have come more immediately to mind and had less happy consequences.)
Judging from his hawkish counsel during the 13 days of the crisis, Lyndon Johnson was less impressed by Tuchman. But when Kennedy was assassinated he too had the First World War in mind, arguing that what happened in Dallas could plausibly be as badly misconstrued as the murder in Sarajevo had been fifty years earlier. A comparable mistake today, Johnson believed, could leave twenty million dead instantly.
Christopher Clark’s breathtakingly good book is, much more self-consciously than Tuchman’s, also a history for its – that is, our – times. An act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – led the Austrian government to make demands on Serbia. If not quite a terror state, Serbia had close links to terrorism and made no effort to hide its view that Austria had it coming. The boundaries between official state policy, the army and clandestine terrorist cells were blurred at best. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination but he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on any but the most vague – in today’s terms ‘not actionable’ – warnings to Austria. Serbia had something to answer for.
Clark, however, begins with an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. They found the royal couple cowering in a closet, tricked them into coming out, and riddled their bodies with bullets; they then bayonetted the corpses, hacked them to pieces and partially disembowelled what was left. The queen’s near naked and almost unrecognisable body was tossed over the balcony into a garden.
One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known – would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist organisation Union or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand. In 1913, he became head of the intelligence section of the Serbian general staff, a job that put him in a position to arrange to smuggle the weapons and ‘the boys’, as Clark calls them (Gavrilo Princip who fired the fatal shots, was a month shy of his 20th birthday), over the border into Bosnia. That same year, one of the officers who had participated in the coup of 1903, and was notorious for carrying with him a dried bit of flesh cut from Queen Draga’s breast, was pardoned at the army’s insistence for the murder of a less than enthusiastic recruit. Pašić, who had become prime minister in 1903 as a consequence of the murder and had close ties with the plotters, was still prime minister in 1914.
The governing classes of Serbia and the shadowy Black Hand were bound together by the policy of irredentism: a poisonous mixture of self-serving history and mushy metaphysics that seeks national redemption by regaining lost land and lost glory. The Serbian version is that losses to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo – fought in 1389, ten kilometres from today’s Pristina – had left the south Slavs and the Serbs in particular stranded in strange lands under Muslim rulers. It was this defeat that had to be redeemed: where there was a Serb or someone who could be construed as a Serb there was – or ought to be – Serbia. This view motivated two deadly and brutal wars in 1912-13, in which first Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria clawed land away from the Turks and then Bulgaria lost much of what it had gained to its former allies. Serbia was the biggest territorial winner.
It was the history of the 16th and 17th centuries that brought the Habsburgs into this 20th-century story. Fast forward to 1908: the Austrian annexation of Bosnia that year infuriated Serbian nationalists, who felt betrayed by the European powers and in particular by Russia, which allowed it to happen. In 1912-13, Serbia invaded Albania, to whose independence Austria was committed. Its soldiers murdered three hundred Gostivar Muslims and threw them into mass graves; hundreds more were killed in small incidents before the Serbs, at Austria’s insistence and again with the backing of the other European powers, were forced to leave by the treaties that ended the Balkan Wars.
On the 525th anniversary of the Serbian defeat at Kosovo the archduke and his wife paid a state visit to Bosnia. It didn’t occur to anyone that this might have been an inauspicious date. But then, why should it have? Sarajevo’s civic architecture, its university, its hospital, its city plan were Habsburg; economic development had proceeded apace. The royal pair expected and got a warm reception. They were happy to be away from Vienna, where court protocol made their lives difficult. Moreover, 1913 and early 1914 seemed to contemporaries to be a golden time of peace and promise; few saw the darkness to come. Delusion, Clark suggests, contributed to the risky behaviour of key actors as they tried to sort through the fallout from that day.
But neither a history of terrorism in Serbia, nor irredentism and nationalism more generally, made a Serbo-Austrian, still less a Europe-wide war inevitable. An Austrian peace party, led by the soon-to-be murdered Ferdinand, had envisaged a sort of United States of Europe as the way forward; Ferdinand had prevailed over more bellicose colleagues at various tricky moments in the course of the preceding decades. And in Serbia too there were men of peace. Even in the negotiations over the Austrian ultimatum of 23 July 1914 there were many in Belgrade who were ready to compromise.
The Sleepwalkers is also a book for our time in its emphasis on contingency and the role of what Clark calls the multiple ‘mental maps’ in the decisions that were taken. The war in his account was not the consequence of two great alliances yielding to specific provocations. If anything, it was the opposite; it was the weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe. (Political scientists who have studied the question used to think that in only 25 per cent of cases did allies act as their treaty partners expected, which makes you wonder why statesmen make treaties in the first place. A more statistically sophisticated analysis of wars between 1816 and 1965 gets the proportion up to 75 per cent, but that still leaves plenty of room for chance. Those who took Europe to war in 1914 had every reason to be uncertain.)
Statesmen at various levels and in at least five countries were testing a system whose workings were beyond their comprehension. No single logic, no master narrative led to a determinable end. There were structural limits to policy-making. The dynamics of great power politics had been shifting for decades before 1914, as the rise of Germany and the rapid economic and military growth of Russia unsettled the system. Austria slowly shifted from being among the guarantors of peace in the Balkans to being seen as a threat. Clark tells this well-known story efficiently and with an important new twist that I will come to in a moment. But it does not drive his narrative.
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Fifty Shades of Moby-Dick

Think of Herman Melville and you don’t think lothario. But in 1847, after the publication of his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, Melville was considered something of a venereal adventurer by the antsy prudes who controlled literary comment. The erotic episodes he’d had with girls on the Marquesas Islands as a young sailor helped inform the narrative contours of Typee, and puritanical readers eagerly squinted between the lines to spot evidence of their own obsessions. The greatest living authority on Melville, Hershel Parker, in his matchless two-volume monument to the author’s life and work, writes that Typee and Omoo saddled Melville with the erroneous reputation for “being sexually dangerous, and even depraved.” You didn’t have to sin very earnestly in antebellum America to be branded a libertine: Writing temperate books of the flesh did the trick. So Melville had to listen to the drivel of censorious critics such as Horace Greeley, who charged his novels with being “positively diseased in moral tone.” Melville was many things—a husband for 44 years, the father of four children, an artist of impetuous virtuosity—but a diseased promoter of eroticism wasn’t exactly one of them. You close Parker’s 2,000-page excavation of Melville’s world not much wiser about his love life but certain of his life’s loves: books, ideas, art.

It’s always a touch suspicious when the biographer of a hyper-scrutinized figure such as Melville comes along with a new, catchall detail that everyone else miraculously missed. Michael Shelden’s made-for-daytime biography, Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick, lets you know up front what new detail Shelden believes he’s disinterred: Melville’s mistress. Biographers have long known about Sarah Morewood, the Melvilles’ bewitching neighbor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—an indefatigable thrower of parties and the Berkshires’ top literary hanger-on—but Shelden wants you to know her in the Biblical sense. “Sexy beyond measure,” Morewood is “one of the great unsung figures in literary history,” a woman who “didn’t like to take no for an answer.” Shelden describes her as Melville’s “goddess in his Berkshire paradise,” the “powerful key to unlocking his secrets,” an “untamed spirit” whose “seductive powers worked their wonders on more than a few men.” Her supposed years-long affair with Melville was “so intimate and revealing that it colored every aspect of his life.” Shelden’s panting, cliché-choked style soon has you reaching for the light switch and candle, then the cigarette and bonbons.

Four years younger than Melville, Morewood was an aspiring poet who was allergic to boredom and married to a wealthy, English-born stiff. She became the nucleus of Melville’s set in Pittsfield. Previous biographers haven’t considered her important in comprehending Melville, but Shelden believes that she “will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”

Proof, however, is precisely what he does not have. When you navigate by the premise that the married Melville was made dizzy by a married lover, and that such dizziness had central effects on an American masterwork, you’ll spot support for that premise wherever you glance. Shelden proceeds, page upon page, with the dauntless pluck of a conspiracy theorist out to show that Elvis killed Kennedy. The tenet that bold claims require bold evidence? Shelden is having none of it. He arrives with chatty letters between Melville and Morewood, first- and secondhand accounts of soirees and countryside frolics, and inscribed books they gave to one another as gifts. He arrives, too, with a schoonerful of extrapolation and conjecture.

Where other biographers see friends, he sees fornicators; instead of affection, he sees infatuation. And since he can’t shake his romance-novel mood, you’ll have to endure sentences such as, “She would always be restless and dreamy, a bright woman with endless curiosity searching for an elusive happiness,” and the faux-suspenseful query: “She may have been eager to cross the line into adultery, but was he?” You’ll have to hear of Melville’s lust for a “dreamy realm of lovesick heroes and heroines,” but it should be tormentingly clear by this point that Shelden himself is the one salivating for such sickness. He believes that Moby-Dick was written for Morewood, “to amaze her, amuse her, and to conquer the world for her,” and it’s hard to overstate how hokey that is. Worse, he’s consistently inept at handling Melville’s language; the best he can do with Moby-Dick is to say that it has “passages of prose like the best poetry,” a nonstatement. The writer who won’t be bothered with the integrity of his sentences won’t be bothered with much of anything else either, proof included.

Melville might have been charmed by the attractive Morewood, and he might have referred to her as “Thou Lady of All Delight” and other pet sobriquets, but flirting is not fucking, and is very often an indication of its absence. Imagine the Ahabian effort it would have taken to keep such an affair from their families and the prying citizens of Pittsfield. As Shelden himself admits, Hershel Parker “dismisses any chance of a romance” between Melville and Morewood. Andrew Delbanco allots Morewood only four unmemorable sentences in his 400-page biography of Melville. Newton Arvin, in his 1950 Herman Melville, a bio-critical beauty of uncommon acuteness, mentions her only three times in passing. The 16 scholars in The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville mention her not at all. It didn’t seem to occur to Shelden that those scholars and writers don’t mention her because there’s nothing of substance to mention, no there there. Whatever might have happened between Melville and Morewood is the province of gossip, and that’s what Shelden has whipped up here: an extended gossip column for those voyeurs who believe that every Melville needs an inamorata.

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Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Novel-Machine - Anthony Trollope

In July 1883, eight months after Anthony Trollope’s death, Henry James wrote a long, appreciative, although not uncritical, essay about him. Recalling their meeting on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1875, when Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning to write, James went on to evaluate the work of one of England’s pre-eminent and most prolific novelists. Trollope, he judged, was not on a level with Dickens, Thackeray or George Eliot, but he was “in the same family.” “If he was in any degree a man of genius (and I hold that he was), it was in virtue of this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties.” His great merit was his appreciation of reality and of the behavior of men and women. James concluded (with his typical qualifying note): “Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”

Three months later, Trollope’s “Autobiography” (which he had been writing on that memorable voyage) was published, eliciting quite a different response from James. It was, he told a friend, “one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature, for its density, blockishness and general thickness and soddenness.” James was echoing a charge that other critics were beginning to make, that Trollope wrote too much, too quickly, about too many subjects—and for money—to be taken seriously as a novelist.

The “Autobiography” has just been republished in a compact edition by Oxford University Press that includes a small selection of Trollope’s other writings about novelists. It is indeed a curious book, although not in James’s derogatory sense. Many autobiographers make a show of modesty, but Trollope did so more than most, shying away from even dignifying his book as an autobiography. “In writing these pages, which, for want of a better name, I shall be fain to call the autobiography of so insignificant a person as myself, it will not be so much my intention to speak of the little details of my private life, as of what I, and perhaps others round me, have done in literature.”

His opening chapter is replete with the agonizing events of his childhood—a Dickensian saga of the thrashings, cruelties and indignities he suffered at two of England’s famed “public” (which is to say, private) schools, Harrow and Winchester. He was taught nothing and learned nothing, he said, except Latin and Greek. Nor was life at home much better. His mother had left for America when he was 12, with one of his brothers and his two sisters, leaving him alone with his ill-tempered father, a failed barrister. Her return three years later made for somewhat happier days, partly because the earnings from her books (most notably “The Domestic Manners of the Americans” in 1832) contributed much needed funds to the family income. That respite was brief, however. After a little more than two years, financial disaster obliged first the father and then the whole family to flee England and take refuge in Brussels.

It was there, at the age of 19, that Trollope received the offer of a clerkship in the General Post Office, which was the beginning of a long career. After seven unhappy years in London, where he was insubordinate and unpunctual in his work and got into debt, he was sent to Ireland as a surveyor’s clerk, traveling throughout the country, especially the rural areas, to examine the postal system. This, he reported, was “the first good fortune of my life.” He loved the Irish and fox-hunting, which became his favorite pastime. It was also there that he met his wife, dating “the commencement of my better life” to their marriage in 1844. “My marriage,” he wrote, “was like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to anyone except my wife and me.” What he did find interesting enough to communicate in the “Autobiography” was that she—and only she—read almost everything he wrote before sending it to the publisher.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

‘The Transylvanian Trilogy,’ by Miklós Bánffy

Neglected masterpieces aren’t all that unusual (no reading public is perfect), but one that runs to almost 1,500 pages would seem hard to lose sight of. Starting in 1934, Count Miklós Bánffy strapping “Transylvanian Trilogy” was published one book at a time in Hungary, with “great success,” according to Hugh Thomas in his introduction to this handsome two-volume edition. But by the time the third and last book came out in 1940, World War II had broken out, and it couldn’t have been easy to generate interest in fiction set during the run-up to the earlier world war.

A few years later, with Hungary under communist rule, few writers were likelier to be ignored than a nobleman from a family of soldier-diplomats whose income had derived from vast forests in Transylvania, a region that had been something of a poor relation within Hungary (not unlike Hungary itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and now found itself subsumed into Romania. But thanks to the labors of two translators, one of whom is Bánffy’s daughter, “The Transylvania Trilogy” has overleaped barriers of class, language and geopolitical complexity to take its belated place among the great works of 20th-century literature.

In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned novel, with an omniscient narrator and few traces of the modernism spreading through America and Europe — and especially Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian imperial capital — while it was being written. On the other hand, Bánffy took advantage of the new freedom allowed in the treatment of sex and seems to have been well-versed in contemporary psychology. His chief asset, though, is a range that lets him depict nature in luscious detail (early in the Transylvanian spring, “the snows had recently melted on the hillsides and now all the south-facing meadows and slopes looked as if they had just been washed”); evoke a grand party; do justice to parliamentary maneuvering; and maintain control of multiple plots and dozens of characters, including a minor one who makes only a few appearances before performing a great service without taking the reader by surprise. This is a novel written with a 19th-century confidence in layer-cake storytelling, and a 20th-century recognition of sex as a pivotal human motive.

Bánffy’s hero is Count Balint Abady, a wealthy bachelor but not a playboy. Indeed, he embraces the doctrine of noblesse oblige. When a profligate cousin scoffs at the family’s “pride of race,” Balint gives him a thoughtful reply: “Nobody is unselfish. Nobody ever was. But [the Hungarian nobility has] learnt to recognize what is for the public good and to fit it to their own advantage, too. This instinct has been bred into us. . . . It’s not by chance that until now almost every great national leader has sprung from this rank of society, for leaders must know how to lead. Leadership is our responsibility and we should not lightly avoid it until such time as all our people develop some sense of social responsibility themselves.”

Balint doesn’t just mouth these precepts; he lives by them. With some reluctance (he believes he has no gift for politics), he runs for and wins a seat in parliament. But most of his civic energy goes into setting up cooperative forests on which peasants can work to overcome their atomistic poverty. His altruism infuriates vested interests, including regional foresters who exploited the old arrangements, and above all the odious, unctuous Azbej, manager of the Abady estate, who has skimmed off a small fortune over the years and wants to keep at it.

The trilogy’s most enthralling plot line, however, centers on a love affair. Balint is deeply in love with Adrienne Miloth, who unfortunately is already married. She loves him in return, but formidable obstacles lie ahead. Divorce and remarriage are theoretically possible, but Balint’s widowed mother, Countess Roza, won’t hear of this — although Protestants, the Abadys don’t stoop to that sort of thing. Adrienne’s husband comes from a family riddled with insanity. Although he turns a blind eye to his wife’s comings and goings (and may even take kinky pleasure in the thought of her committing adultery), his brutal approach to sex has effectively ruined it for her. As Adrienne and Balint spend more time together, she longs for his touch only to suffer a panic attack whenever he tries to apply it. Candidly but not pruriently, Bánffy shows the couple’s protracted efforts to negotiate these straits.

The third book of the trilogy, “They Were Divided,” proves something of a letdown, as Balint gets more and more enmeshed in Hungary’s baroque politics. The publisher has provided a chronology of relevant historical events, but only the most patient readers will take the trouble to flip back to this. At the same time, the trilogy almost loses sight of its most mesmerizing character, the scheming hypocrite Azbej, who has found a seemingly foolproof way to drive a wedge between Balint and his mother: He keeps on retainer the two maiden ladies who serve as companions to Countess Roza in the remote family castle; they spy for him, pass on gossip about Balint, play upon the countess’s imperious nature — and Balint himself can’t figure out why he and his mother are increasingly at odds.

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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in, with many anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

Across 600-plus pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) narrates the story of the discovery of genes, the evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline, and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene”, coined by the monk Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades, only to be revived in early twentieth century, after which it became a common term.

A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany.

Half a century later, the helical structure of DNA & RNA was discovered. Two decades later, questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet, recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin, achieving resounding success. And by 2000, about a century from the time the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced.

Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato, were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in semen. Aristotle rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Genedetails the manner in which, over the centuries, people theorised how information was carried across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel’s experiments with peas and Darwin’s theories.

Mukherjee argues that the resurrection of the term was a watershed moment in the history of genetics, as suddenly there was a concatenation of events that led to furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism – coining the word, understanding the structure, exploring the mechanism, and estimating the potential.

Soon afterwards, the Nazis used this branch of “applied biology” to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, citing genetic theory to justify their policy of Lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. Their notion was based on the premise that identity was fixed by genetic make-up.

Curiously enough, another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis in complete pliability. In both cases, science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. These twisted applications were overshadowed by rapid advancement in genetics, leading to, inter alia, the discovery of recombinant DNA, which helped create crucial medicines such as insulin, the ability to clone creatures as with Dolly the Sheep.

Not surprisingly, questions began to be asked about the ethical aspects of genetics. These questions feature prominently in Mukherjee’s examination, as he weighs the implications of using genome engineering to “enhance” humans, asking if it’s a good idea.

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Seamus Heaney: Bogland

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s “great, inestimable merit,” Henry James once wrote, “was a complete appreciation of the usual.” He was right: You won’t find a single uncanny moment in that Victorian author’s 47 novels. Yet reading Trollope in the 21st century can nevertheless be a bit spooky. That’s because seemingly everything that happens today has already been covered in one of his books, albeit in a less technologized form.

An example: Recently, in advance of watching a new adaptation of Trollope’s 1858 novel, Doctor Thorne, I revisited the book. Within a few chapters I came upon an account of a local parliamentary election in the fictional county of Barsetshire, where Trollope’s greatest novels are set. One of the candidates, Sir Roger Scatcherd, is a stonemason turned developer whose fortune has won him a baronetcy despite his coarse, boastful manner and well-earned reputation for drunkenness. During the campaign, someone paints a caricature of him on “sundry walls” about the town of Greshamsbury, pictures in which a laborer “with a pimply, bloated face, was to be seen standing on a railway bank, leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand, while he invited a comrade to drink. ‘Come, Jack, shall us have a drop of some’at short?’ ” The working-class voters of the district, “somewhat given to have an opinion of their own,” relish Sir Roger’s rough, plainspoken ways. Still, he has his detractors: As the baronet stands up to make a speech, someone throws a dead cat at him.

I could go on, but the resemblance between particular current events and Trollope’s fiction is like the weather: However much it changes from day to day, in one form or another, it’s always there. His novels amount to a compendium of every recurring pattern of human behavior as observed by a wise, amused, and tenderly exacting deity. He sees all our little self-delusions and vanities, but he loves us just the same. In fact, sometime they make him love us more.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty of filming from such a perspective that makes top-notch movie and TV adaptations of Trollope’s work hard to come by. The new Amazon Prime miniseries based on Doctor Thorne, adapted and hosted by the oleaginous Julian Fellowes, is one of the worst. As Slate’s Willa Paskin has noted, Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal. Fellowes’ characters are forever yammering on about how “things are changing” in the class system they inhabit, but the shows themselves cling fetishistically to the past they pretend to critique, sighing over the chandeliers and ogling the ormolu.

This was all very well when, with Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, Fellowes stuck to his own material, but Trollope adaptations are so rare that for him to coat one of the divine Barsetshire novels in his distinctive brand of syrup seems especially unjust. Apart from some well-acted but languidly paced BBC adaptations from the 1970s, in recent years there have been respectable adaptations of The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, but these are two of Trollope’s more sour works. The Way We Live Now, in both its example and in the ambition suggested by its title, seems to have partially inspired the fat “social novels” of the 1990s, and it got mentioned a lot for its depiction of a Bernie Madoff–style financial scheme when that scandal was in the news. But, as Adam Gopnik noted last year in the New Yorker, The Way We Live Now is not typical: Rather, it’s “the Trollope novel for people who don’t like Trollope novels.”

There have been a lot of them. Trollope was popular in his lifetime, but for much of the 20th century, his fiction suffered critical and scholarly disdain. To the modernists intent on shaking off the conventions of Victorianism, he represented the epitome of that era, his serenely omniscient and ironic third-person narrator the essence of bogus authority. An autobiography published shortly after his death in 1882 revealed that Trollope thought of novel writing as more craft than art, and in James’ words, he “never troubled his head nor clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his business.” He is most famous among writers today for the regimen he described in that book: Rising before dawn and working for three full hours every day, even if that meant finishing one novel and starting the next because the allotted time hadn’t expired. Trollope had a day job with the postal service to get to, after all.

That prosaic approach didn’t jibe with the literary world’s efforts to transform the image of the novel in the 20th century. What had once been seen as a lucrative form of entertainment, produced for mostly middle-class and mostly female readers was recast as the highest pinnacle of the literary arts, the work of inspired geniuses answering the call of the muse rather than the landlord. So in the mid-20th century, the imperious critic F.R. Leavis, a loyal soldier in this project of solemnification, pronounced Trollope’s works as “beneath the realm of significant creative achievement” in terms of “the human awareness they promote, awareness of the possibilities of life.” (It’s no coincidence that the promulgation of this heroic notion of the novelist coincided with the rise of the idea that the greatest of novelists must be men, and even a male novelist like Trollope, with, as James put it, a “feminine” interest in the familiar and ordinary, was dismissed.) By the latter half of the century you could get through an entire undergraduate English program with a heavy emphasis on British literature, as I did, and never once be assigned a Trollope novel.

But a funny thing happened to Trollope on his way to the dustbin of history: His novels acquired an avid, amateur readership. It’s impossible to measure such things, of course, but he seems rivaled only by Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle among 19th-century authors with an active contemporary fan base. The Trollope Society of the U.K. maintains an extensive database of books, quotes, and characters—very useful given that quite a few characters appear in more than one novel. The U.S. branch of the society has paid membership, annual meetings, lectures, and regional reading groups.

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Friday, 17 June 2016

How Borges made ends meet

Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could even make money seem like mere fantasy. It was precisely the narrative someone like me might want.

Yet, money is real. We live and die by the coin. Money tells us how many children we can raise and what kind of future they can afford, how many of our 78.7 years must be sold off in servitude, and what politics we will have the luxury of voicing. As a college freshman, I still knew none of this, and I had the luxury of not thinking about money. These days, it seems all but inescapable.

I am still full of hope and confusion, but at 35, practically nothing concerns me more than the coin, a metonymic symbol representing my helplessness. The coin represents this desperate need to support myself and my writing when, in the very near future, I start a family. My mind has changed; all my journal entries turn into to-do lists and career strategizing. Money, planning, and money. I think of little else.

It was money that originally led me to Borges—the leisure bought by college tuition. Ironically, it is money that now brings me back to him. At the doorstep to middle age, I find myself wondering: How did this literary master finance his writing? “I take no interest whatsoever . . . in money making,” he once said, “[it is] alien to me.” In truth, Borges is one of my artistic heroes because he was so benevolently and self-effacingly un-capitalist; naturally gentle and almost monastic in his devotion to literature, he was the quintessential model of the purely literary mind.

Recently, I discovered a new story of Borges. Buried deep in an early paperback edition of The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges authored an “Autobiographical Essay” of his (then) 71 years—originally appearing as a 1970 New Yorker profile. This translation of the book is now out of print, but in its yellowed pages, the revealing 50-page essay touches on money often. As any life does.

At first glance, Borges’ financial life does not seem at all imitable. Stacking all the financial events of Borges’ timeline together presents an overwhelming picture of privilege: a supportive family, superior education, no children to support, and no wife until his late sixties. Yet, in Borges’ charmed financial life, there also exists an unexpected paradox.

This was to be expected, if you’re familiar with Borges. The writer’s cryptic detective tales have charmed and perplexed everyone from Susan Sontag to Karl Rove, and in the end, very little about Borges is straightforward. The creation of one of his first short stories, “Pierre Menard,” was the result of a very O. Henry-esque near-fatal accident one Christmas Eve. Likewise, the coin for Borges was both curse and catalyst to his fiction.

The role of money plays a two-sided role in Borges’ artistic life. On one side of the coin’s face, Borges was blessed with the most privileged, ideal life for a burgeoning literary genius. Educated in Europe, raised by his father to become a serious writer, Borges devoted his entire life to literature. He did not take a full-time job for nearly 40 years. But on the coin’s reverse side, we see that young Georgie Borges did not actually write his great fictions until after his family lost their money. For anyone who has struggled to make writing pay, Borges’ financial story is a perplexing—yet utterly hopeful—case to consider. The Patron Years 1899–1937

Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, to what he called a middle class family. Yet, this seems disingenuous; to be born into a family like this would be any artist’s dream. The Borges family tree was teeming with intellectuals and respected leaders. Though he said his family lived amongst “shabby, genteel” people, they were certainly upwardly mobile. One relative “presided” over Congress, others had published books and earned PhDs, and still others were famous military heroes—a Colonel, a Commander-in-Chief. His paternal grandmother, a Brit, had made the long voyage from England and had married one of these powerful men.

Young Georgie Borges grew up, he said, in a rough part of town, but these slums he barely saw, living mainly indoors. Frail, nearsighted, and bookish, Georgie had no childhood friends to speak of. Instead, he and his sister invented imaginary friends called Quilos and the Windmill. He filled his days with the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Quixote, and the stories told by his family. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library,” he wrote. “I can still picture it.”

Growing up in this insular home, it is easy to see how Borges became the beatific elder pictured on his book jackets. He may have been born that way. His grandmother, a great reader of H.G. Wells, apologized to her family on her deathbed for taking so long to die. His father was so modest—he told Georgie that he would have liked to be Wells’ invisible man. Betraying his own naïveté and trust, Borges wrote of his father, he was “very intelligent and, like all intelligent men, very kind.” That there are intelligent men on this earth who are not at all kind, Borges was too noble-minded to admit.

Several financial conditions were met that allowed Borges to love literature. First, his father was a lawyer and teacher with the extra money to furnish a large library. Georgie’s father’s reading interests included Shelley, Keats, metaphysics, psychology, the East, and the paradoxes of Zeno. Borges’ mother was also well-educated, and Borges admits it was she, in fact, who would go on to produce translations of Melville, Woolf, and Faulkner that bore his name. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer.

Though he had his children home-schooled, Senior Borges said that it was children who educate their parents. An anarchist, he once told his son to look long and hard at soldiers, flags, and churches, because one day, they would all disappear. Like his father, Borges would become blind after the age of 40, and would destroy some of his own books. One book Senior Borges burned was a drama about a man’s disappointment in his son, and one wonders if this is autobiographical, and if so, whether it pertains to his own father or young Georgie.

Borges’ mother was a good Catholic woman who always thought the best of people, and Borges would live with her—and be tended to by her—for the rest of his life. Though Borges does not mention Leonor often, it is easy to feel her in every paragraph of his autobiography, tending to his needs, typing his essays, traveling to Texas with him for a visiting professorship, reading to him when he is delirious from illness, handling all the worldly concerns he will be free to ignore. “It was she,” he wrote, “though I never gave a thought to it at the time, who quietly and effectively fostered my literary career.”

The family summered south of the city on a grand property, a villa where he spent lazy holidays—with several houses, a windmill, and iron fences. He was amazed when the gauchos took him out on horseback to the pampas, as though he had entered the thrilling adventures of Martín Fierro. One summer there, Borges’ mother gave a doll to a farmhand’s daughter where they were staying. A year later, when she called on him, she found the girl’s father nailed to the wall. To him, it was as precious as a religious icon, clearly too fine a thing for the little girl to ever hold. He thanked Senora Borges profusely, “What a delight the doll has been to her!” In contrast, Borges began writing Quixotesque stories when he was six. When he was eight or nine, he published a translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” in El País newspaper. He started school around that time, where he was mercilessly bullied for his round glasses, stiff collar, and tie. When he was 15, Borges’ family moved to Geneva so his father could get treatment from a famous eye doctor. Their Argentine currency stretched longer in Europe, he said, and so they stayed, traveling to Verona and Venice on vacation. They sent young Georgie to study Latin, French, and algebra at the College of Geneva, a day school founded in the 16th century by John Calvin, for whom Calvinism was named. He had to take all his subjects in French, and luckily, his teachers and fellow students took pity on him for his struggles with the language. Here, he made his first friends, two boys of Polish-Jewish descent, with whom he enjoyed losing at trucocards. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer. Instead, Borges’ vocation was picked out for him by his parents. By now, the elder Borges could barely read the contracts he was preparing, and his work on his novel slowed. “It was tacitly understood,” Borges said, “that I had to fulfill the literary destiny that circumstances had denied my father. . . . I was expected to be a writer.” While the First World War raged in France, Borges dutifully studied German and read Expressionist poetry, Walt Whitman, and Dante. In his spare time, he learned German in order to readSartor Resartus in the original. Fulfilling his destiny, young Georgie began to write poetry.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Thinking God Knows What: James Joyce and Trieste

January 15, 1941 dawned as a bleak, cold, snow day in Zurich, Switzerland. A scantily attended funeral procession made its way from the Fluntern Cemetery chapel to the burial plot. In the chapel, the few attending dignitaries had made their funeral speeches: Lord Derwent, the British Minister at the Legation in Zurich, University of Zurich English professor Heinrich Straumann, poet Max Geilinger, and Swiss tenor Max Meili, who sang the aria Addio terra, addio ciel (Goodbye earth, goodbye sky) from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. As the deceased had not liked flowers, there were none – only a green plant and a wreath with a lyre, the symbol of Ireland woven into it. When the coffin holding the earthly remains of Irish novelist James Joyce was being lowered into the grave, his wife Nora stretched out her arms to say goodbye; an old man going by asked the undertaker who was being buried and was told “Herr Joyce.” The man was a little deaf and asked again. The undertaker shouted: “Herr Joyce!
Ireland, where James was born, was not represented at the funeral. Irish president Eamon de Valera, after inquiring whether Joyce had died a Catholic and being informed to the contrary, had ordered that no Irish diplomatic official be present.
Ironically, in May 2002 the granddaughter of the late President de Valera, Irish Minister of Arts and Heritage Síle de Valera stepped off the government jet in Dublin carrying a suitcase containing about 500 pages of Joyce’s original early drafts of parts of Ulysses and some of the corrected proofs of Finnegans Wake. The Irish Government had purchased the papers in Paris from Alexis Leon, whose father Paul had rescued them from the Joyce apartment in Paris, where they were in danger of being auctioned off by the landlord who had not been paid before the Joyces left Paris for Zurich, or in peril of being looted by the occupying Nazis. The papers for which the government had paid €12.6 million (about $15.5 million), were destined to the Irish National Library and the proud minister, on stepping on Irish soil, declared that the return of the papers home was a “monumental event in Ireland’s literary and cultural history.”
Joyce had abandoned his beloved Dublin for Paris first, then for Zurich, where he had been promised a language instructor position. When this mirage evaporated, he went to Trieste, and from there to Pola (now Pula, Croatia), where he taught English at the local branch of the Berlitz Language School. Joyce, who was accompanied by his lover Nora Barnacle, did not stay long in Pola, but returned to Trieste, a larger more cosmopolitan city and the major port for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He lived there from 1904 to 1915, returning briefly in 1919-20, after the end of World War I.
Joyce’s affinity with Italy and Italian went back to 1894, when he was twelve and required proficiency in a third foreign language for admission to Dublin’s Belvedere College. He already knew French and Latin, and as he later wrote to a friend, “ My father wanted me to take Greek, my mother German, and my friends Irish. Result I took Italian.” At University College, he continued his study of Italian and of Dante and D’Annunzio with Father Carlo Ghezzi and became known to his friends as “Dublin’s Dante.” Although at one point he was in danger of flunking his Italian exams, his intimate knowledge of the works of Gabriele D’Annunzio impressed his examiners and he passed with high grades.
Even before graduating from University College, Joyce decided he wanted to be a doctor and in April 1902 registered to attend medical school in Dublin. In October 1902, he began medical studies and met poet and dramatist Yeats, who recognized the younger man’s literary talent and recommended his writing to several literary reivews. Irish Dramatist Isabella Augusta Persse, known as Lady Gregory also helped him both with money, encouragement, and advice.
Medical school in Dublin did not appeal to Joyce. He decided to go to school in Paris and, with money provided by friends and acquaintances, he left Ireland in December 1902. Although he had applied for admission to medical school in Paris, he had left Dublin before he knew whether he had been admitted and spent a month there before returning to Dublin for the holidays. On January 13, 1903 he took off again for Paris, where he had been provisionally admitted to medical school. However, he had again changed his mind and spent time in literary pursuits, attending the opera, and engaging in discussions in the many cafés. While in Paris, he also became acquainted with fellow Irish protégés of Yeats, poet and playwright John Millington Singe and critic and poet Arthur W. Symons.
In April 1903, he received a telegram from his father that his mother was seriously sick with cancer, and he left Paris and hastened back to Dublin. His mother got progressively worse and died on August 13,1903.
In 1904, with the assistance of poet and editor George W. Russell, Joyce placed three stories, later to appear in Dubliners, in the Irish Homestead; he was, however getting discouraged with what he considered the small-town atmosphere of Dublin and started thinking about going abroad. Through a Mrs. Gilford, whom he had paid to start a job search on his behalf, he was told that the Berlitz School of Languages had vacancies both in London and in Amsterdam, but he was not interested in jobs in those cities. He really wanted to return to Paris, and started pestering his various supporters for money for the fare. Mrs. Gilford then informed him that she had located another language teacher opening in Zurich and on October 6, he and Nora started on their adventure. They did not embark on the boat going to England together, and only a few friends but no one in their respective families knew they were eloping.
From London, they proceeded to Paris and again Joyce called on acquaintances for money to get to Zurich, where they arrived on October 11. Alas, the Berlitz School had no openings, but its director thought an opening was available in Trieste, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
Joyce and Nora were thus again on the move and, after getting off the train in Ljubljana (Slovenia) by mistake, reboarded it and arrived in Trieste on the night of October 20, 1904. Leaving Nora on a bench in the square facing the train station, Joyce went to seek temporary lodgings but did not return until morning. While scouting for a pensione, he met three drunken English sailors who were getting arrested for disorderly conduct, tried to intercede and translate on their behalf and ended up in jail with them until the British consul, highly suspicious of Joyce’s story, got him released. Joyce biographer John McCourt writes:
… as soon as he was released Joyce hurried back to a worried Nora, whom he had left alone and penniless with their paltry luggage in a strange park in a foreign city where few people would have understood a word she said. The only thing that might have cheered her was the pleasant weather: the temperature was a balmy twenty degrees by lunchtime. Together they set off and found accommodation in the Hotel Central where they spent a few nights before moving to a room on the Piazza Ponterosso…
When Joyce checked at the Berlitz School, the deputy director Giuseppe Bertelli informed him that they had no openings, but that the owner of the school Almidano Artifoni (Joyce later gave Artifoni’s name to Stephen’s voice teacher in Ulysses) was opening a new Berlitz school in the city of Pola and might have a position for him there. Pola, a city 58 miles to the east of Trieste on the Istrian peninsula was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main naval base. When Artifoni returned from Pola, he interviewed Joyce and offered him a position in the new school he was opening. He then set off again for Pola, and put an advertisement in Il Giornaletto di Pola, announcing the arrival of the new college graduate, native speaker, teacher of English.
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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ecce Homunculus - Friedrich Nietzsche

Which famous philosopher wrote, ‘I have experienced so much, happy and sad, enlivening and dispiriting, but God has led me safely through it all as does a father his weak little child’? The words are taken from the autobiography of the profoundly religious thirteen-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was given to writing autobiographies. The most famous of these, Ecce Homo, was penned in 1888, shortly before, or perhaps during, his descent into madness. You might have heard of that one because it contains chapters such as ‘Why I am So Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’. From 1858 to the end of the 1860s, Nietzsche wrote at least six autobiographies. These take centre stage in Daniel Blue’s new book on Nietzsche, covering the years 1844–69. We might be tempted to think of this as ‘Nietzsche: The Early Years’, but that would have misleading connotations. ‘Early Nietzsche’ customarily refers to the period 1868–76, when he was overtly under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Richard Wagner’s personality. In Blue’s 320 page account, Nietzsche buys Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation on page 216 and meets Wagner on page 300. This is ‘Nietzsche: Before the Early Years’. Eight years old on page 58, eighteen halfway through, we leave him aged twenty-four, arriving in Basel to take up his first university position in philology: employed, financially independent and no longer asking his mother to do his washing.

Nietzsche was born in the Prussian village of Röcken, near Leipzig, in 1844. His father, a Prussian cleric, died when he was not yet five. The family moved to the nearby town of Naumburg. At thirteen, he had sufficiently good grades, and a sufficiently dead father, to gain entry to a famous and excellent school, Schulpforte, which had a mission to look after the sons of deceased Prussian civil servants. He studied in Bonn and Leipzig, before being offered a position at Basel. If you haven’t studied Nietzsche in some detail, then everything you’ve read by him was written after that.

A good deal of Blue’s focus lies in providing an accurate English-language account of the facts of Nietzsche’s early life, building on and correcting previous versions. Here, his success is unquestionable. There may be some minor errors – Nietzsche’s maternal grandfather, one supposes, did not both die in December 1859 and then celebrate his birthday in August 1860 – but Blue is a sensitive, careful and reliable narrator. He is also frank. Nietzsche would become a world-famous atheist, losing his faith during the period in question. We might wonder why. Ultimately, Blue thinks, we can’t know. Blue also resists the temptation to relate Nietzsche’s early experiences to his later, famous ideas – a common vice of philosophical biography.

In truth, you should already have a pretty good idea if you are the sort of person who should read three hundred clearly written and accurate pages about Nietzsche’s youth: it will depend on whether you have strong interests in Nietzsche’s life and works. Things could be different. If Nietzsche had had a surprisingly interesting youth, or had come of age in fascinating times, or had produced important, underappreciated work during this time, then such a book might have a wider appeal. But it would be hard to make a case for any of these and, with the partial exception of the third, Blue does not try – which is not to say he ought to.

As regards Nietzsche’s life, there are no major surprises. Academically, he was brilliant, especially at classics and literature, though not before his teenage years, never in mathematics, and not without occasional shameless plagiarism. His poems, letters and essays are pretentious, though not all that pretentious for a teenage Nietzsche. Indeed, the future author of ‘Why I am a Destiny’ succumbed to bouts of humility: describing a photograph of himself, he noted: ‘My stance is hunched, my feet somewhat crooked, and my hand looks like a dumpling.’ It seems the Dionysian barely made an appearance in Nietzsche’s youth. He got drunk at school and afterwards apologised to his mother, calling it ‘one of the most unpleasant and saddest incidents I have ever been responsible for’. There is no mention of romantic or sexual stirrings of any kind. As he chooses which university to attend, childhood friends write to encourage him to join them at Heidelberg, where there are great parties with beautiful women. Nietzsche goes to Bonn.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

What Family Does to You - Anne Enright

The Gathering – Anne Enright’s fourth novel, and her best – is aware of its heritage, of the books that have gone before it. It makes use of familiar signals and motifs. It is centred on a wake for a man who has died early: an alcoholic who was betrayed as a child, part of a large, chaotic family. So far so Irish. But there are new things too. There is nothing clichéd about the language (Enright treasures words; she polishes them, puts them on display). The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death.
The novel opens with Veronica learning that Liam has committed suicide. He drowned himself off Brighton beach. We find out – later – that he had stones in his pockets, that he was wearing a fluorescent coat so that his body could be easily found, and that he was wearing no socks and no pants. The shock of Liam’s death leads Veronica to suspend her own life and go back over his; to keep him company in his coffin. She re-creates and, where necessary, imagines the events that went towards making his life the life it was. In doing so, she has to open doors into dark rooms and turn up messy, uncomfortable facts. She knows from the start when things began to go wrong for her brother. The Gathering is a gathering of family members around one of their dead, but it is also a gathering of facts, of evidence. It opens with a declaration that is almost like a witness statement:
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.
Liam was the victim of a crime, and Veronica as witness will expose it. The crime is in the past, which means the novel becomes an act of reclamation. For Veronica, bones are words; sentences are skeletons: intricate, delicate, perfect, breakable – ‘I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.’ They are what is inside things; what props them up.
The Gathering moves between now and the past, through Veronica’s experiences in the present day and her imaginings and foragings in her family’s history. In the present, she must go to the family home to tell her mother that Liam is dead. She feels a surging anger towards a mother who was pregnant for much of her life, who had 12 children and seven miscarriages. ‘I do not forgive her the sex. The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences.’ Veronica is the responsible one; the one who has to break the news; the one who has had to go for Liam’s dental records to help the police identify his corpse. She is professional, affluent, organised; but she did not come upon this life by accident. She worked for it. Because of it, though, she is thrown into the role of protecting her mother, while realising that she herself loved Liam most. ‘It occurs to me that we have got something wrong here, because I am the one who has lost something that cannot be replaced. She has plenty more.’ Grief, here, is ‘biological, idiot, timeless’.
Back in her head – back in the telling of what did for Liam – Veronica explains:
The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago. The person who planted them is long dead – at least that’s what I think. So if I want to tell Liam’s story, then I have to start long before he was born. And, in fact, this is the tale that I would love to write: history is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side-buttoned boots. If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head.
History is tangible, physical here. It is a side-buttoned boot; it is different and strange and alluring. A digression: Enright writes the most extraordinary sentences. Her memoir, Making Babies – a book about love and, well, babies – is full of them. Her short stories are full of them. The Portable Virgin – a collection of short stories – was the first instance of Enright’s clear, playful, witty, present way of speaking. Cathy in ‘(She Owns) Every Thing’ thinks that the handbag counter she works behind smells like ‘a leather dream’. The petrol attendant in ‘What Are Cicadas?’ has a father ‘whose voice smells of dying, the way that his mother’s smells of worry and of bread’. Enright always wants to shake up language; to make her sentences new. Her sentences are so good you want to keep on quoting them: ‘Grief was this house, the leaking petrol pump, the way his mother smiled.’ But I had better stop.
Liam’s story – the story of his beginning and his end – is the story of the whole family. It began with Veronica and Liam’s grandmother, Ada Merriman, many years ago. It began the moment Ada met a man called Lambert Nugent in a hotel foyer in 1925. (‘This is the moment I choose,’ Veronica writes. ‘It was seven o’clock in the evening. She was 19, he was 23.’) History is a magical place, full of possibility; Veronica imagines the scene in all its potential richness. Ada, waiting in the lobby, is ‘beautiful, of course’; and the description follows seductively from there: ‘She was wearing blue, or so I imagine it. Her blue self settled in the grey folds of his brain, and it stayed there for the rest of his life.’ On the surface, they are two servants meeting in the lobby of a hotel; but in the language, in the imagining of the scene, they are wonderful. It’s mythology.
The concierge can see it all coming, the future, that is: ‘the coupling (such squelchings), the money, the lies that they have already begun to tell’. But the young, long-ago Ada does not in fact go on to marry Lamb Nugent, and therein lies the problem. She marries his friend Charlie Spillane instead. Charlie who has a car, and who drives them all to the races, and who is pleased for her when her horse wins – unlike Nugent. Charlie who has a hole in his pocket. History, in this book, is written in full awareness of the inevitable – with the near-misses celebrated alongside the certainty of what is to come. So, back in the hotel, ‘Ada does not know Charlie yet. Ada Merriman stands in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel and looks at Lamb Nugent, while outside, Charlie Spillane cruises into Great Denmark Street, towards the wife he has not yet met.’ (Of course, he doesn’t go straight there, but ‘roars off to The Hut in Phibsboro, to see a man about a dog’.)
Back in the present, Liam’s death, and Veronica’s need to go back over the facts of his life, is causing her to put her own life on hold. Veronica has a Saab 9.3 that she spends a lot of time in, and a husband, Tom, and two daughters who ‘are not obliged to fight over who is wearing the other one’s knickers in the morning before they go to school’. Her house, which is modern, and has five bedrooms, is decorated in oatmeal, cream, sandstone, slate. But right now she does not want it. She does not, she discovers, want to have sex with or sleep with her husband. She stays up all night writing and cleaning and drinking wine instead of going to bed. When her husband makes love to her on the night of Liam’s wake, she lies there, with her legs either side of him, feeling like ‘a chicken when it is quartered’. She goes for pre-dawn drives in her Saab in first gear, cruising round the estate, glass of wine in hand.
As with Liam’s story – the abused boy; the drunk man – Veronica’s story feels like one we’ve read before: there’s a lot here about the small anxieties that affect the middle classes, and that’s not new in the contemporary novel. Before the children were born Veronica was a journalist on an interiors magazine: she cares about textiles and what should be hung at windows. She cries in a department store because there is nothing she cannot buy. She piles Brabantia storage jars into the crook of her arm, and then unpiles them again because there are people starving in Africa and her brother has just died and he never went into a shop. She finds herself thinking about the first boy she loved, the gentle Michael Weiss; she wonders whether he too has succumbed to the middle-class dream. She needs – in some larger, vaguer way – to decide how to live her life. She has money, but she needs a purpose and a project. Tom thinks she should renovate a house, and she imagines doing up Ada’s old house; she would enjoy the chance to smash up all that history and smooth it over. But Veronica’s up-to-the-minute, supermodern story cannot compete in terms of narrative and emotional pull beside her brother’s chaotic story, or her grandmother’s dreamier one. Veronica may be having a crisis, but she knows how to be sensible. When she runs away from home to a hotel at Gatwick airport (with spa), she buys socks and pants and a bag to put them all in – ‘quite a nice bag, very unfussy, in that bumpy, hammered leather’. This is what Veronica is like, but we didn’t need to know it or hear it said. The consumerish frisson of these passages, with the brand-names and advice-column phrasing, makes them feel like they belong in a different book, one less good and more tired. But they serve a characterising purpose, even if we’d rather not read them: Veronica can’t help herself. She goes to Accessorize in Gatwick Village, looking for ‘something small for each of the girls, something sparkling or floral’. She settles on two pairs of fancy flip-flops: she hasn’t really left her life behind; she won’t. Gatwick is a temporary, in-between, suspended place, a purgatory, full of lost souls.
The past keeps pulling her back in because the past is charismatic. We see the neat little house lived in by Charlie and Ada after their unexpected marriage. We learn that the rejected Nugent keeps his cars in the garage at the end of Ada’s little garden. About his knocking on the front door of Ada’s house every Friday to bring sweets for the children; of his leaning forward in his chair in Ada’s good room, clearing his throat a lot. Veronica knows all this because she and Liam were sent to live with Ada and Charlie for a year. It was, she reflects, here at their grandparents’ house that her brother ‘became frightened at night’. Veronica’s reclamation of Liam’s life also takes her into the more recent past, when Liam lived in a dive in Stoke Newington. The description of his existence in a shabby house with strange housemates follows on from his becoming afraid of the night; the two are structurally close in the logic of the book. And perhaps close in other ways too. (Cause and effect; consequences.) Liam lived in lots of other houses like the one in Stoke Newington; he became ‘the guy who stuck around, the one who would not go. He was the guy who could not be relied upon, the messer.’ The guy who ends up dead.
Veronica reflects on the finding of her brother’s body:
I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.
She has to counter the fact of her brother’s body with the facts of what went before it. She describes her younger self, back in the winter of 1968, opening the door into Ada’s good room. This is what she sees: ‘It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam.’ This scene occurs just over halfway through the book. The rest of the story – Liam’s story – needs to unravel from here. Veronica – and Enright as a novelist coming out of an Irish tradition – is aware of the predictability of her family situation:
There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift. Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them.
It is family, of course, that is at the heart of the novel. What it is, what it means, what it does to you. Enright writes brilliantly about the family gathering. It is dangerously familiar, in terms of atmosphere and the provisions made for it: the ham sandwiches, the shop-bought coleslaw. As if they meant something.
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