Saturday, 30 July 2016

Unblinking Eye The infinite rewards of immersion in Proust

In a contest for the best novels of the past four centuries, the winners, surely, are: for the 17th century, Don Quixote; for the 18th century, Tom Jones; for the 19th, War and Peace; and for the 20th, Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now increasingly known in English, In Search of Lost Time. A Spaniard, an Englishman, a Russian, and a Frenchman—what a motley crew their authors comprise! Cervantes was the son of a barber-surgeon; Fielding was a journalist, a jurist, and scion of the squirearchy; Tolstoy, of course, a nobleman; and Proust a half-Jewish, fully homosexual flâneur. 

The theme of the story of art, unlike that of the sciences, is not, whatever else it may be, one of progress. In science, discovery builds on discovery, achievement on achievement. "If I have seen further," said Isaac Newton, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." In art there are merely—some merely—discrete geniuses, who arrive without predecessors and depart without successors. Marcel Proust is a case in highly italicized point: No one could have predicted that this dilettantish young social climber would write the novel that Benjamin Taylor, in this study of Proust in the Yale Jewish Lives series, calls the "culmination of European literature."

Taylor's Proust: The Search is a work of admirable concision, covering Marcel Proust's life, interests, oddity, and the arc of his career, all in relatively brief compass. Relying on the work of Proust's biographers—William C. Carter and Jean-Yves Tadié especially—but also through his own penetrating reading of Proust's writing, he has brought out what it is about Proust that commands our interest and, for those Proustolaters among us, our devotion.

Proust's father was a physician, an expert in cholera, himself the son of a provincial Roman Catholic grocer. His mother was Jewish, a Weil, daughter of a successful Parisian stockbroker, with an uncle, Adolphe Crémieux, who was a staunch defender of Jewish rights in France. The marriage, as Taylor characterizes it, joined "ambition to money." Each may have felt him- or herself superior to the other. Their first child, Marcel, was born in 1871; a second son, Robert, who like his father would become a physician, was born roughly two years later. No effort was made, Taylor notes, to force a conversion on the part of Jeanne Proust, who continued to think herself Jewish.

Marcel Proust was the greatest mama's boy in all of literature. An asthmatic all his life, his mother, upon whose affection he counted preternaturally, was also something akin to his caregiver. A social butterfly, of highly exotic coloring, the young Marcel Proust dithered and dallied and did not get down to serious work until his mid-thirties. He felt he had betrayed his father, remarking that "I am well aware that I was always the dark spot in his life." On his mother's death, which occurred when he was 34, Proust wrote: "She takes away my life with her, as Papa had taken away hers." This major subtraction from his life, as Taylor notes, turned his thoughts to suicide. He replaced his mother with work on his great novel.

How Jewish Proust felt himself—though anyone born to a Jewish mother under the Israeli Law of Return technically qualifies as Jewish—is a complicated matter. Taylor writes that "Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother." But then, a Jew, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, and Proust, though baptized, was nonetheless often taken for Jewish. In his Diaries Harold Nicolson described Proust as "very Hebrew." Earlier, Colette put a character modeled on Proust in one of her novels, describing him as "a young kike of letters." François Mauriac, describing in his diary a visit to Proust, wrote: "sheets none too clean, the stench of the furnished flat, his Jewish features, with his ten-day growth of beard, sinking back into ancestral filth." A man who served on a literary prize committee with Proust described him as "despite the moustache, [having] the look of a sixty-year-old Jewish lady who might have been beautiful."

Proust understood that Jewishness is a club from which it would be dishonorable to drop out, even though his being Jewish in those days may have prevented him from joining other clubs. Antisemitism was one of the favorite indoor sports of the French literati: The Goncourts, Maurice Barrès, Alphonse Daudet, Paul Bourget, and others engaged freely in it. Benjamin Taylor quotes a letter from Proust to Robert de Montesquiou, one of the people on whom Proust's character Baron de Charlus is based, apropos of his antisemitism. In this letter Proust remarks that, though himself Catholic, his mother is Jewish, and this is "enough for me to refrain from such discussions"—adding, ambiguously, that he "was not free to have the ideas I might otherwise have on the subject."

Yet Proust had no difficulty aligning himself with Jewish causes. In the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely charged with treason and sent off to Devil's Island, Proust signed petitions on behalf of Dreyfus. He was able to persuade Anatole France, then possessed of a much grander name than his own, to sign Zola's famous J'accuse article against the injustice done to Dreyfus that appeared in 1898 in the French paper L'Aurore. Charles Swann, the most sympathetic character in In Search of Lost Time, is a Jew.

Fame did not come quickly to Proust. In his mid-twenties he published Pleasures and Days, a lightish collection of feuilletons and parodies. He worked on Jean Santeuil, a longish autobiographical novel that he abandoned. With the aid of his mother, whose English was superior to his own, he turned out a translation of John Ruskin's Bible of Amiens. He also wrote an important collection of essays, Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing against what he took to be the biographical fallacy in judging fiction.

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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hans Fallada novel, Nightmare in Berlin, gets first English translation

Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin was the hit book of the summer six years ago, selling 300,000 copies and making a bestseller of an author who had been largely forgotten. Now the late German author’s Nightmare in Berlin, an autobiographical novel beginning on the day the war ends, is to be published in English for the first time.

Released in German as Der Alpdruck (“The Nightmare”) in 1947, the year of Fallada’s death, the novel is the only book other than Alone in Berlin to have been written by the author in the post-war period. It tells of a man, Dr Doll, and his wife, who are taking shelter in the German countryside, haunted by nightmarish images at night, when the Russians invade. They return to Berlin after the end of the war, and attempt to resume their lives, but confronting the reality of life in the devastated city, they fall into morphine addiction, with each dose a “small death”.

“More than anything, [Dr Doll] wishes to vanquish the demon of collective guilt, but he is unable to right any wrongs,” said the novel’s English-language publisher Scribe UK, which will publish the book in the UK in October. “As the German nation tries to awaken from the nightmare that Hitler’s state had descended into, Fallada’s protagonists slowly wrestle their way out of their own oblivion, eventually finding a way forward.”

Scribe said the novel was “heavily autobiographical”, with the author’s “turbulent life … a mirror for the imploding society he documented”. Fallada’s biographer Jenny Williams writes in her biography of the author, More Lives Than One, that Der Alpdruck “draws on his experiences from April 1945 to July 1946”, and notes that the author himself called it “half fact, half fiction”. In Fallada’s preface, she adds, he describes the book as a “report, as true to the facts as possible, of how Germans felt, suffered and acted from April 1945 into the summer of 1946”.

Williams calls Der Alpdruck “the book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin”. Fallada, the pen name of the German author Rudolf Ditzen, rose to fame with the publication of the 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - Was Nun? (“Little Man – What Now?”), but was addicted to morphine and spent his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and prisons.

Ditzen chose to stay in Germany when the Nazis came to power, and was put under pressure to write antisemitic works. He completed Der Alpdruck in August 1946, the year before his death. “It’s patently autobiographical,” said translator Allan Blunden. “He and his wife were both drug-addicted, and that figures largely.”

Fallada would go on to write one more book, Alone in Berlin – in German published as Jeder Stirbt Für Sich Allein (“Each dies only for himself”) – in 1947, but, like Der Alpdruck, the book was not published until after his death that same year.

Inspired by a true story, Alone in Berlin is set in Berlin in 1940 and follows the story of the couple Otto and Anna Quangel, who begin a campaign of resistance against the Nazi regime when their son is killed in France. It topped charts in the US and the UK when it was published for the first time in English in 2009, selling 300,000 copies in the UK, an extraordinary amount for a translated classic. A film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson is due out this autumn.

Although other works by Fallada have been published in English – including The Drinker, A Small Circus and Wolf Among Wolves – this October marks the first English-language release for Der Alpdruck.

“The moment I saw a sample translation, I was so impressed with it,” said publisher Henry Rosenbloom. “It’s one of only two postwar novels, along with Alone in Berlin. He was writing them around the same time, and in terms of his psyche, and what was happening in Germany at the time, they are closely related. It’s very compelling, very gripping. The thing about Fallada is that he’s got his extraordinary intensity when he writes. Every line is supercharged with vividness, and that’s especially the case with this novel, which is set in a very harrowing time in Germany, in Berlin immediately after the war. It’s a nightmare.”

Williams writes in her biography that the novel contains inconsistencies, which she believes are “due largely to Ditzen’s inability to resolve the conflicts arising from his recent and current situation. Thus Doll, Ditzen’s protagonist and alter ego, feels at the same time both detached from and implicated in the fate of the German nation.”

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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Murakami in the making: how his early novels shaped the author

In a foreword to the recent publication of his two earliest novels, recently made available in a good English translation for the first time, Haruki Murakami says that the novel that followed them, A Wild Sheep Chase, was “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.” Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) were his practice novels, his apprenticeship, the groundwork that had to be laid before he could make a true beginning. Murakami calls them “totally irreplaceable,” yet he has also said that if he had continued writing novels like these, “I would have soon hit a dead end.” He looks back on Wind and Pinball “with love mingled with a bit of embarrassment”; they were indispensable to his becoming a writer, and yet if he had not transcended them, he would not have been able to keep on writing. 

Both Wind and Pinball revolve around the same nameless narrator-protagonist and his friend, known as the Rat. The narrator and the Rat both want to write: the narrator manages to produce the two short books we hold in our hands, and the Rat, who starts out “a virtual stranger to books,” ends up churning out multiple novels. So Wind and Pinball are books about trying to write. What’s fascinating about these novels, to a reader of Murakami’s subsequent work, is that in them we can see the now world-famous writer gradually working his way to his “true beginning.”

Murakami became a literary superstar with the publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987—an outcome he himself never foresaw—and his immense popularity has not flagged since. Readers outside Japan might see his work as deeply Japanese, yet to the Japanese literary establishment he is anything but; his fiction occupies a cultural space of its own. It takes place in a world of profound aloneness where hope nevertheless resides in the possibility of love. Magical, unexplainable things tend to happen to utterly ordinary people, leading to quests and ordeals that end with much unresolved. Each individual’s existence as an autonomous being must constantly be re-affirmed through the story one tells oneself, and the greatest danger is the possibility of losing one’s personal narrative and becoming completely empty inside. Perhaps this latter aspect of Murakami’s vision is what resonates so widely today, when manipulative imagery on ubiquitous screens not only invades but threatens to replace inner life. Whatever the ultimate reason for Murakami’s popularity, his books have been translated into over 40 languages and he may well be the most widely read living author whose work is not written in English.

The narrator of Murakami’s first two novels is a nameless would-be writer whose main literary influence is someone named Derek Hartfield. Supposedly a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Hartfield was a massively prolific failure who produced reams of futile sub-literature, “sterile in the full sense of the word,” and then committed suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building, “clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left.” It’s hard to imagine a less desirable role model for a writer, but the narrator says he’s learned almost everything he knows from Hartfield, whose credo of good writing he quotes: “Writing is, in effect, the act of verifying the distance between us and the things surrounding us. What we need is not sensitivity but a measuring stick.”

The narrator lives in a personal isolation booth and connects with only two people, perhaps three: his friend the Rat; J, the owner of their favorite bar; and perhaps, very tentatively, a girl who has nine fingers and almost becomes his lover before disappearing from his life forever.

The protagonist is stubbornly determined; he admires Derek Hartfield for having been a “fighter,” and as disillusioned as he undoubtedly is, there remains some fight in him as well. He needs that fight to survive the act of writing, which, as Murakami has said, “is an unhealthy type of work.” In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his memoir-essay on obsessions physical and mental, he puts it this way:
When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place.
Comparing writing to the problem of eating a fugu fish, where “the tastiest part is the portion near the poison,” Murakami explains that “those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within.”

In that book, Murakami never names the toxin. He leaves the question hanging: what is this inexorable, potentially fatal force that he had no choice but to deal with? Wind and Pinball leave no doubt: the toxin is despair. These are the first lines of Murakami’s first novel: “There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” From the start, it’s a given that writing and despair are parallel; what’s true of one must be true of the other. Despair suffuses the plot, or lack of it, in these first two books, in which aimless and alienated young men brood over how to escape their lives of stagnation. Murakami’s later novels have far more urgency, and a great deal more plot; the dangerous quests that propel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 bear no resemblance to the almost directionless rumination of Hear the Wind Sing. The characters in his major novels are not mired in the kind of aimless passivity we see in Wind and Pinball. As fatalistic as the later protagonists may be, they still take action, knowing that what they are committing to could be a matter of life and death.

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Many aspects of Goethe

Access to Goethe can be arduous; tools to facilitate our approach are always welcome. This year they come in the contrasting formats of a 1,000-page-volume of “essential” translations and a paperback addition to Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. Together they reduce a prolific life’s work to manageable proportions, bearing in mind that the first complete edition of Goethe in German ran to 143 volumes and was put together over a period of thirty-two years.

The dimensions of Goethe’s legacy are less of a hindrance than its diversity. This multi-talented individual was active, over a lifespan of eighty-two years, as a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, librettist, translator, biographer, diarist, conversationalist, critic, theatre director, collector, painter, sculptor and in many other capacities. He was no less committed to the sciences, conducting experiments and extending the frontiers of knowledge in botany, optics, colour theory, climatology and all aspects of human and animal biology. As a Minister and Privy Councillor, he served in the government of the semi-independent state of Saxony-Weimar, and participated as an observer in military campaigns in the wake of the French Revolution.

Neither Matthew Bell’s edition nor Ritchie Robertson’s commentary can pretend to give us the whole Goethe. He himself believed that his scientific studies would eventually be seen as more significant than his literary output. Today, most would agree that the essence of his work will be found in his poetry and plays, but the search for the centre is complicated by seismic shifts in style and attitude. The over-wrought rococo verse of his youth was soon abandoned in favour of the turbulent “Storm and Stress”, a “new wave” movement that began around 1770 and produced the defiant hymns “Prometheus”, “Mahomet”, “Ganymede” and the groundbreaking novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. For many German readers the true Goethe is the young genius who, in those heady days, took the literary world by storm with what looked like the outpourings of a frenzied iconoclast. Yet within little more than a year of creating the hugely successful Werther (1774), he had become the tutor and companion of a Duke and was rapidly being absorbed by the ruling elite. The same process has been observed in our own times with Günter Grass, the sometime enfant terrible turned praeceptor Germaniae. This might explain why many are put off by what Robertson calls the image of the “distant, unexciting Victorian sage” who in fact departed this world five years before the young Queen ascended her throne. The dramatic works of his middle period, Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso, may seem to proclaim the virtues of moderation, but the tranquil mood was not to last. Not content to continue as a princeling’s client, he surreptitiously turned his back on courtly life and absconded to Italy. Two years later he reappeared in Weimar a changed, and, as he put it, a “reborn” man.

His forte, and the theme of many of his works, was metamorphosis. The “Olympian” conservative was to become, in later years, mystic and prophetic. Several of his greatest works, notably Faust and the “novels of identity” Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, were repeatedly revised as they accompanied their author’s meandering journey through life. Their length matches their depth. Part One of Faust takes six, Part Two fourteen hours or more to perform. Goethe created new categories, defying conventions. Werther may look like an old-fashioned epistolary novel whose plot unfolds through a sequence of letters, but in Goethe’s hands it becomes the terrifyingly persuasive monologue of a love-sick youth, more jealous of his beloved’s pet canary than of her fiancé, whom he counts among his closest friends. And yet this book is routinely misunderstood either as a celebration of young love or as a warning against blind passion. One of Werther’s “sorrows” is the harrowing effect of a bigoted, gossip-ridden society controlled by fatuous hereditary aristocrats, which he experiences at the precise moment when he finds a job and begins to recover from his romantic obsession. Robertson may be wide of the mark when he blames Werther’s decline on a disregard for social convention: he is, in effect, maliciously outed for a trivial oversight by a chorus of wagging tongues.

As Wolfgang Goethe was transformed into Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he simultaneously mellowed and became more vitriolic. The “classical” Iphigenia may achieve her mission and impose restraint on homicidal barbarians, but the more “modern” poet Tasso, stifled by court etiquette and reduced to a performing lackey, lashes out at his perceived tormentors in various tragicomic ways. Driven by a blinding frustration, he starts a duel with a high-ranking courtier and, just when you think things cannot get any worse, is caught trying to steal kisses from a Princess. Shortly thereafter the play breaks off, leaving audiences to speculate whether the poet will recover or founder. Robertson’s application of the term “tragedy” to these two outwardly non-tragic constructs is clearly justified.

Himself no stranger to the torments of sexual frustration, the “reborn” Goethe challenged the hypocrites of his day by living “in sin” with an impoverished, untutored young woman in the heart of fashionable Weimar, impervious to the sneers of most of his former friends. Fortunately, his patron, Duke Carl August, continued to support him, allowing him to regale the German language with some of its raciest verse, including the Roman Elegies (original title: “Erotica Romana”), the Venetian Epigrams, and a little-known narrative poem, “The Diary”, which explores the causes of, and cure for, erectile dysfunction. Bell’s edition reproduces it without its Latin motto, while Robertson relays the beguiling myth that its English-language debut occurred in the form of a “Ribald Classic” in Playboy magazine in 1968. Sadly, not so: a translation had, in fact, appeared four years earlier in David Luke’s Penguin edition.

Goethe’s later prose fiction is hugely complex. As a novel of adultery in which no physical adultery takes place, Elective Affinities suffers from unfair comparisons with the more explicit Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. It is the product of an earlier, manifestly pre-Victorian epoch, ignorant of the demands of out-and-out realism. Its underlying questioning of marriage as a social institution is partly obscured by polarizing symbols and cryptic adumbrations. Yet it is ahead of its times in presenting a relationship that is progressively eroded by futile landscape gardening projects, sham name-day and birthday celebrations and dilettantish musical soirées, no less than by the advent of a seemingly angelic young houseguest. Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years promises to pursue the biography of the “apprentice poet” of the earlier, more accessible novel, reproduced over 380 pages in Bell’s edition, but takes an altogether more mystical turn, frustrating the expectations of readers accustomed to linear plot development. At a time when neo-Gothic Romanticism was enjoying popularity, the publication of Faust, Part Two in the year of Goethe’s death was the final straw. No one had anticipated the counter-intuitive redemption of the man who gave his soul to the devil. The operatic effects, the hero’s absence during protracted scenes at the court of a fun-loving Emperor, the labyrinthine “Classical St Walpurga’s Night”, prophetic colonization and land-reclamation episodes proved too much. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that it came to be recognized as Goethe’s most forward-looking project: the unachievable quest for a fusion of the classical and the modern, through a kaleidoscopic but elusive vision of harmony and beauty set against the self-aggrandizing, conflict-ridden world of the present and near future.

While omitting the second part of Faust and the final Wilhelm Meister novel, Bell’s compilation attempts to give a rounded portrayal of Goethe’s oeuvre. The absence of The Sorrows of Young Werther is regrettable, and it is disappointing to discover that with one solitary exception, the entire selection derives from the twelve-volume Princeton edition of 1980, to the detriment of first-rate contemporary translators such as David Constantine. John Williams’s recent Faust, Part I captures the linguistic profusion of the original; Egmont, Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso were competently done by David Luke and Michael Hamburger. It is typical of the low esteem in which literary translators are held that only these four renderings are attributed; no other translations are acknowledged.

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Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.
I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.
In April 1945, the partisans took over in Milan. Two days later they arrived in the small town where I was living at the time. It was a moment of joy. The main square was crowded with people singing and waving flags, calling in loud voices for Mimo, the partisan leader of that area. A former maresciallo of the Carabinieri, Mimo joined the supporters of General Badoglio, Mussolini’s successor, and lost a leg during one of the first clashes with Mussolini’s remaining forces. Mimo showed up on the balcony of the city hall, pale, leaning on his crutch, and with one hand tried to calm the crowd. I was waiting for his speech because my whole childhood had been marked by the great historic speeches of Mussolini, whose most significant passages we memorized in school. Silence. Mimo spoke in a hoarse voice, barely audible. He said: “Citizens, friends. After so many painful sacrifices … here we are. Glory to those who have fallen for freedom.” And that was it. He went back inside. The crowd yelled, the partisans raised their guns and fired festive volleys. We kids hurried to pick up the shells, precious items, but I had also learned that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.
A few days later I saw the first American soldiers. They were African Americans. The first Yankee I met was a black man, Joseph, who introduced me to the marvels of Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. His comic books were brightly colored and smelled good.
One of the officers (Major or Captain Muddy) was a guest in the villa of a family whose two daughters were my schoolmates. I met him in their garden where some ladies, surrounding Captain Muddy, talked in tentative French. Captain Muddy knew some French, too. My first image of American liberators was thus—after so many palefaces in black shirts—that of a cultivated black man in a yellow-green uniform saying: “Oui, merci beaucoup, Madame, moi aussi j’aime le champagne…” Unfortunately there was no champagne, but Captain Muddy gave me my first piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint and I started chewing all day long. At night I put my wad in a water glass, so it would be fresh for the next day.
In May we heard that the war was over. Peace gave me a curious sensation. I had been told that permanent warfare was the normal condition for a young Italian. In the following months I discovered that the Resistance was not only a local phenomenon but a European one. I learned new, exciting words like réseau, maquis, armée secrète, Rote Kapelle, Warsaw ghetto. I saw the first photographs of the Holocaust, thus understanding the meaning before knowing the word. I realized what we were liberated from.
In my country today there are people who are wondering if the Resistance had a real military impact on the course of the war. For my generation this question is irrelevant: we immediately understood the moral and psychological meaning of the Resistance. For us it was a point of pride to know that we Europeans did not wait passively for liberation. And for the young Americans who were paying with their blood for our restored freedom it meant something to know that behind the firing lines there were Europeans paying their own debt in advance.
In my country today there are those who are saying that the myth of the Resistance was a Communist lie. It is true that the Communists exploited the Resistance as if it were their personal property, since they played a prime role in it; but I remember partisans with kerchiefs of different colors. Sticking close to the radio, I spent my nights—the windows closed, the blackout making the small space around the set a lone luminous halo—listening to the messages sent by the Voice of London to the partisans. They were cryptic and poetic at the same time (The sun also rises, The roses will bloom) and most of them were “messaggi per la Franchi.” Somebody whispered to me that Franchi was the leader of the most powerful clandestine network in northwestern Italy, a man of legendary courage. Franchi became my hero. Franchi (whose real name was Edgardo Sogno) was a monarchist, so strongly anti-Communist that after the war he joined very right-wing groups, and was charged with collaborating in a project for a reactionary coup d’état. Who cares? Sogno still remains the dream hero of my childhood. Liberation was a common deed for people of different colors.
In my country today there are some who say that the War of Liberation was a tragic period of division, and that all we need is national reconciliation. The memory of those terrible years should be repressed, refoulée, verdrängt. But Verdrängung causes neurosis. If reconciliation means compassion and respect for all those who fought their own war in good faith, to forgive does not mean to forget. I can even admit that Eichmann sincerely believed in his mission, but I cannot say, “OK, come back and do it again.” We are here to remember what happened and solemnly say that “They” must not do it again.
But who are They?
If we still think of the totalitarian governments that ruled Europe before the Second World War we can easily say that it would be difficult for them to reappear in the same form in different historical circumstances. If Mussolini’s fascism was based upon the idea of a charismatic ruler, on corporatism, on the utopia of the Imperial Fate of Rome, on an imperialistic will to conquer new territories, on an exacerbated nationalism, on the ideal of an entire nation regimented in black shirts, on the rejection of parliamentary democracy, on anti-Semitism, then I have no difficulty in acknowledging that today the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, born from the postwar Fascist Party, MSI, and certainly a right-wing party, has by now very little to do with the old fascism. In the same vein, even though I am much concerned about the various Nazi-like movements that have arisen here and there in Europe, including Russia, I do not think that Nazism, in its original form, is about to reappear as a nationwide movement.
Nevertheless, even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)?
Ionesco once said that “only words count and the rest is mere chattering.” Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings. Thus it is worth asking why not only the Resistance but the Second World War was generally defined throughout the world as a struggle against fascism. If you reread Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls you will discover that Robert Jordan identifies his enemies with Fascists, even when he thinks of the Spanish Falangists. And for FDR, “The victory of the American people and their allies will be a victory against fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represents.”
During World War II, the Americans who took part in the Spanish war were called “premature anti-fascists”—meaning that fighting against Hitler in the Forties was a moral duty for every good American, but fighting against Franco too early, in the Thirties, smelled sour because it was mainly done by Communists and other leftists. … Why was an expression like fascist pig used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits? Why didn’t they say:Cagoulard pig, Falangist pig, Ustashe pig, Quisling pig, Nazi pig?
Mein Kampf is a manifesto of a complete political program. Nazism had a theory of racism and of the Aryan chosen people, a precise notion of degenerate art, entartete Kunst, a philosophy of the will to power and of the Ubermensch. Nazism was decidedly anti-Christian and neo-pagan, while Stalin’s Diamat (the official version of Soviet Marxism) was blatantly materialistic and atheistic. If by totalitarianism one means a regime that subordinates every act of the individual to the state and to its ideology, then both Nazism and Stalinism were true totalitarian regimes.
Italian fascism was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy. The article on fascism signed by Mussolini in the Treccani Encyclopedia was written or basically inspired by Giovanni Gentile, but it reflected a late-Hegelian notion of the Absolute and Ethical State which was never fully realized by Mussolini. Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric. He was a militant atheist at the beginning and later signed the Convention with the Church and welcomed the bishops who blessed the Fascist pennants. In his early anticlerical years, according to a likely legend, he once asked God, in order to prove His existence, to strike him down on the spot. Later, Mussolini always cited the name of God in his speeches, and did not mind being called the Man of Providence.
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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

First among equals, the Roman way - Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

History remembers wars in terms of the tipping point, the moment when, with dramatically pleasing clarity, the world changes for ever: the plucking of the red and white roses of Lancaster and York; Gavrilo Princeps's lucky shot in Sarajevo; the words 'I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received'. The decisive moment is a staple of our understanding. It is also, of course, a myth.

The crossing of the Rubicon was the exemplary act of decision. As Tom Holland explains, the Romans had a word, discrimen, for a choice hanging in the balance that might bring either triumph or catastrophe. Rubicon is a study of discrimen; of the fall of great men ostensibly dedicated to an uplifting ideal, and the rise of other, more floridly self-interested great men - the Roman emperors. Of risk and greed, feuds and folly; of, as Holland would see it, the degeneration of civic honour to the hegemony of personal ambition. Long into the Principate which replaced the shattered Republic, political idealists and the historically nostalgic recalled the glory days.

Holland takes up their cause with passion. Ancient history often descends to us either through impregnable academic works or the sword-and-sandal epics of the cinema. What Holland achieves is to draw from both genres to write a modern, well-paced and finely observed history which entertains as it informs.

Rubicon unravels the myths and exposes the compelling reality behind what we might now call regime change in ancient Rome. Like all studies of cause and effect, the circle tends to move outwards once discrete explanations are dismissed. The chronology Holland finds himself encompassing is, of necessity, so large that it risks overwhelming the drive of the narrative. That he pulls this off is a tribute to his established skills as a novelist. That he makes a complicated historical period comprehensible is a tribute to broad research. That a large cast of mostly repellent men comes to life and individuality is mostly down to wit and, I suspect, reluctant affection.

If Holland has a hero, it is the verbose Cicero, whose loyalty to the Republic and its values endured to the end; he hesitated too long in leaving his Rome and died like the bravest of gladiators, stretching out his neck for the assassin's blade. By contrast, when the dictator Sulla, one of the cruellest of Romans, goes into retirement and expires at home in bed, the reader feels cheated of the just desert of fiction.

Two challenges face a historian writing about ancient Rome for a general readership. The first is transmitting hefty information of a dullness that has driven generations away from Classics, yet without which the dynamics of the Roman Republic cannot be understood. The second is to reflect the true fascination of ancient Rome, a civilisation deceptively like our own - with muscular paganism, hygiene, a legislature, literature and military virtues - but which was in fact utterly alien. Holland succeeds brilliantly in conveying the paradoxes of that society.

Part of this success is created in changes of register, from the rhetorical to the poetic to modern vernacular - stylistic devices loved by Roman writers. 'As the traveller approached Rome's gates he might occasionally find the stench from the city ameliorated by myrrh or cassia, the perfumes of death, borne to him on the breeze from a cypress-shaded tomb' has echoes of the poet Propertius. Yet there are also pornographers, hacks, drag-queens and sleaze here; and words whose impact echo the shock of the vulgar, of the new men and their new ways which appalled conservative Rome in the first century BC.

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Friday, 15 July 2016

Voltaire’s Luck

It was once said of Voltaire, by his friend the Marquis d’Argenson, that “our great poet forever has one foot on Mount Parnassus and the other in the rue Quincampoix.” The rue Quincampoix was the Wall Street of eighteenth-century Paris; the country’s most celebrated writer of epic and dramatic verse had a keen eye for investment opportunities. By the time d’Argenson made his remark, in 1751, Voltaire had amassed a fortune. He owed it all to a lottery win. Or, to be more precise, to several wins.

Lotteries were all the rage in eighteenth-century Paris. There had been a financial crisis in 1719, and France had nearly gone bankrupt. The bankers were to blame, having devised financial instruments that magicked debt away, only for it to return multiplied once it was discovered that the collateral wasn’t there. With the ensuing austerity came the lottery and the blandishments of la bonne chance. Why tax a weary and resistant populace when luck might seduce them?

The lottery craze began in 1694 (the year of Voltaire’s birth) when the English Parliament established a lottery in order to raise one million pounds for the country’s treasury. Once the first winners were announced, the craze started to spread around Europe. “We’d never heard so much talk of lotteries,” wrote Swiss theologian Jean Leclerc in a book on lotteries published in Amsterdam in 1696, “before they created one in England two years ago.” Leclerc’s work records how the English lottery had already achieved two-fifths of its target and the model had been adopted in Holland. The lottery, as he noted, was a way “to extract money from people who would not otherwise readily part with it, no matter how worthy its intended use.”

The Protestant Leclerc decided to write his book after being struck by the way people refer to lottery winners and losers as either heureux or malheureux—“lucky” or “unlucky.” It was nonsense, he argued, to believe that certain individuals are inherently lucky or unlucky; it was positively “pagan,” he protested, to think that God’s hand is to be seen in the lottery’s outcome. Leclerc told his readers to look to the motivations of lottery players; they are to be condemned if personal gain is all they care about, to be congratulated if they are helping to raise money for some noble, charitable object. Thirty years later, Voltaire would have read Leclerc with a wry smile.

Lotteries came in essentially two forms. The older type, dating from earliest times and akin to what we now call a raffle, was the “blank” lottery. From a central office or other licensed seller, participants purchased numbered tickets on which they entered their name or a “device,” which might variously be a proverb, a religious appeal for assistance, or some other luck-inducing invocation. These tickets were then officially registered and placed in a container (a leather sack, a metal urn), while another container held an equivalent number of slips of paper that were either blank or else stated an amount of money or other prize. The draw itself was usually carried out by a child (as an advertisement of innocence), who was sometimes blindfolded like Fortuna. After the child drew a ticket and a corresponding slip of paper, an official would read out the number and the device on the ticket and announce whether it had been matched with a prize or merely a blank. It could be a lengthy process: one such draw in Hamburg in 1612 took over eight weeks to complete.

The other type of lottery had originated in Genoa, where it was the practice to elect five of the city’s ninety councillors by lot every six months. From the custom of betting on the outcome of these elections there evolved a purely numerical lotto, first devised by Benedetto Gentile in 1610. This brought one great advantage: it could be played more frequently. Here, too, a child was employed, this time to draw five numbered balls from among ninety that had been sent tumbling in a so-called wheel of fortune. Players could bet amounts on individual numbers being drawn, on combinations of numbers, or even on the sequence in which they were drawn.

The first official lottery to be held in France, in 1539, was the idea of King François I, who had learned of such things during his military campaigns in Italy. But his experiment was not a success. Louis XIV held a royal lottery as part of his wedding celebrations in 1660 and another in 1661 to mark the birth of his heir. But during his reign, public lotteries were banned, and these royal ones were seen merely as one-off festive entertainments. Gradually, pious opposition to the lottery faded as proponents, including men of the church, argued for it as a way to fund charitable purposes. A number of religious buildings and communities were among the beneficiaries, including several hospitals and the foundling home known as the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés, created by St. Vincent de Paul in 1638. The idea of offering fixed-term or lifelong annuities as prizes was imported from England, and the French decree by which a state lottery was eventually established in 1700 reflected the new mood:
His Majesty has observed the natural inclination of the majority of his subjects to participate in private lotteries, as well as in the authorized lotteries organized by religious communities for the relief and support of the poor, and even in foreign lotteries, and who desire to obtain for themselves a pleasant and convenient means of securing a reliable and substantial income for the remainder of their lives, and even to enrich their families, by hazarding sundry sums of money so modest that no harm can thereby come to themselves.
When Louis XIV died on September 1, 1715, French finances were in a perilous state. There had been too many wars, most recently the War of the Spanish Succession. Ten years later, thanks to Scottish financier John Law, these finances were in an even worse state. As a convicted murderer (in 1694 he had killed a man in a duel over a woman) Law was ill-named, and, having escaped from prison in London, he was on the run, first in Amsterdam, then Paris. Nevertheless, his exceptional charm and arrestingly original thinking soon brought him to the attention of the regent, Philippe d’Orléans. At the heart of Law’s new system was the use of paper money, welcome at a time when metal shortages were inhibiting the minting of new coins. But paper money was also essential to Law’s object of stimulating the economy by creating a new instrument of credit. In 1716 he was permitted to set up a private bank (with offices on the rue Quincampoix) called the Banque Générale (approvingly renamed the Banque Royale in 1718) through which banknotes, convertible into coin, were issued. The ancestor of quantitative easing had been born, and the economy responded well to the tonic of new money. Following this highly successful innovation, Law was given leave to intervene in colonial commerce, consolidating French trading companies across North America into a single monopoly called the Mississippi Company and, from 1719, selling shares therein. The value of the shares quickly increased. But the bubble burst when Law found himself obliged to deflate the value of banknotes and to cut the share price. There was a run on the bank as investors sought to convert paper into silver and gold; the shares became virtually worthless. Having been appointed controller general of finance at the beginning of the year, Law was sacked at the end of it. There was considerable civil unrest, and the magician fled Paris.

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

In late 1949, as George Orwell was living through what would be the final months of his life, he addressed himself to the matter of completing yet another of the book reviews that had formed so large a part of his career as a writer. The book was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. As Orwell prepared his essay, he recorded in his notebook a conclusion that neatly articulates the conundrum with which all those with an interest in this most troubling of writers must reckon. “Waugh”, wrote Orwell, “is about as good a novelist as one can be (ie as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.”

The opinions that Orwell had in mind were Waugh’s snobbery and Catholicism (Orwell considered them his “driving forces”). However, these were related to an array of additional views and characteristics that, collectively, have bequeathed to us a picture of Waugh in which he appears possessed of an almost comic – and certainly bewildering – aptitude for unpleasantness.

Hilaire Belloc believed that Waugh had “the devil in him”. Diana Cooper said that he was “a bad man for whom an angel is struggling”. Martha Gellhorn thought he was “a small and very ugly turd”. Barbara Skelton found him “rude to everybody”. Even his friend Christopher Sykes commented that, later in life, Waugh was “more arrogant, more quarrelsome . . . invariably unpleasant.”

Waugh knew he had this reputation, seldom claimed he didn’t deserve it (he once remarked to Nancy Mitford that people ought to imagine how awful he would be were he not a Catholic), and often found pleasure and security in perpetuating it. Here he is in a letter to Laura Herbert, whom he would eventually wed: “You might think about me a bit & whether . . . you could bear the idea of marrying me. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve . . . I have always tried to be nice to you and you may have got it into your head that I am nice really, but that is all rot. It is only to you & for you. I am jealous & impatient – but there is no point in going into a whole list of my vices.”

Candour can be winning, and nobody who is acquainted with Waugh’s character could reasonably deny that he was capable of exhibiting all of these qualities. But there is also an element of self-mythology at work here. Waugh needed his vices, cultivated them, was as proud of them as he was ashamed. As Philip Eade puts it in this brisk and entertaining new biography, they were both “defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life” and the outward signs of a hatred of the sentimental and demonstrative.

They were also occlusive of the kinder and more generous facets of Waugh’s personality. Or so Eade argues. He quotes many of Waugh’s friends and acquaintances to support this proposition. Paul Moor, a young American fan who visited the great novelist for three days in 1949 (during the course of which he was relentlessly mocked for his nationality), considered his host “an essentially kind man”. Graham Greene wrote: “What I loved most in him was that rare quality that he would only say the kind things behind one’s back”. Patrick Kinross recalled that “his affections were constant and he was the staunchest of friends . . . His friendship was not only a solace and a stimulus, but a challenge.”

Eade also draws on the letters Waugh wrote (unavailable to previous biographers) to his great unrequited love, Teresa “Baby” Jungman, in order to reveal a “deeply romantic and tender side to his character that counters the popularly held view of his heartlessness”.

These revelations are not convincing. Waugh could be tender and romantic, it is true. But the tenderness and the romanticism were of a peculiarly selfish, smothering and demanding kind, and often laced with truculence and self-pity: Baby Jungman repeatedly had to beg Waugh “to be generous enough not to feel bitterly about me”.

Where Eade is more persuasive – and more interesting – is in his account of the forces that contributed to Waugh’s peculiarly fraught relationship with the question of love and friendship. The account takes us back to Waugh’s childhood, which was marked by a debilitating absence of love from his father, the publisher and literary journalist Arthur Waugh.

Arthur adored his eldest son, Alec, to the point of deification, but was uninterested in Evelyn – so much so that Evelyn was driven as a boy to say to his mother that “I am lacking in love”. This helped to shape a childhood and adolescence in which he felt perpetually isolated from his family, and sought refuge in the macabre, in thoughts of suicide (an option he would return to throughout his early life), and in a propensity for acts of cruelty. (As an adult, he burned one of several unrequited loves with a cigarette.)

Over the course of his acutely lonely and unhappy years of education – at the Lancing School, Sussex, followed by Hertford College, Oxford, where he had numerous homosexual relationships – these traits hardened into pathologies that would bedevil Waugh’s adult life. These years involved a disastrous and loveless first marriage to Evelyn (“Shevelyn”) Gardiner, more bursts of unrequited love, various unsuccessful spells as a schoolmaster, service in the second World War, and a second marriage to Laura Herbert, with whom he had seven children.

None of the children received from their father anything approaching proper affection – most he regarded as an inconvenience from which to isolate himself. (We here exclude Margaret, the fourth born, with whom he had an alarming relationship that looked to others like a “love affair”.) This he did by taking himself on long holidays abroad every winter (the idea being to miss Christmas); by travelling extensively throughout the rest of the year on assorted writing and journalistic assignments; and by attempting to sequester himself in his library when at home.

Waugh’s later years, which were characterised by dramatic physical and mental decline, featured periods of madness and dependence on prescription drugs. He died of a heart attack in 1966. While all of this was taking place, and aided by his personal trinity of religion, rudeness and drink, Waugh produced many volumes of travel writing and biography, and some of the finest novels of the 20th century. Eade is not much interested in Waugh’s literary achievements (he says at the start of the book that this is not a critical biography), but the limited use he makes of his work is intelligent and illuminating.

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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Erotic Bard of Ancient Rome - Catullus

“This bedspread, / Embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago, unveils the virtue of heroes / Through the miracle of art.” These lines, from a mini-epic by the Roman poet Catullus, speak of a coverlet given to Thetis, mother of Achilles, on her wedding day; Catullus is about to set its embroidered scene into motion using the “miracle” of poetry. With a racy title—Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet—and the use of this quote as epigram, classicist Daisy Dunn lays claim to a parallel miracle: The reanimation, for modern readers, of the poet himself. It’s a noble goal, but one that can be pulled off only by resorting to the dark arts of historical biography—guesswork, speculation, and the reconstruction of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Dunn’s book raises questions about how far these forms of necromancy can be taken before nonfiction passes over into fiction, and scholarship is eclipsed by romance.

The lure of these dark arts is strong for any scholar who approaches Catullus; the voice and emotional candor of this twenty-something writer—he died at age 30—are as alive as anything from ancient Rome. I vividly recall my first encounter, more than three decades ago, with the two dozen odes in which he charted a passionate and ultimately agonized love affair with the woman he called Lesbia, a name that evoked in his day the lyric genius of the Lesbos-born poetess, Sappho. “I hate and I love,” he wrote of his inability to get free of his obsessive passion for this woman. “Why do I do it, perhaps you will ask. / I don’t know why. But it’s happening, and it’s torment.” Catullus may have refined that elegiac couplet, today the most famous in all Latin literature, over days or weeks, but like so many of the poems about his feelings for Lesbia it reads like it poured straight out of him.

Just as his Lesbia poems course with lust and anguish, the verses Catullus addressed to male rivals, or to friends who he felt had let him down, often pullulate with rage and obscenity. Paedicabo ego vos et irrumabo is his gloriously defiant reply to two companions, Furius and Aurelius, who had criticized the indecency of his writings: “I shall fuck you in the ass and I shall fuck you in the mouth.” His fearless attacks on his enemies, even revered public figures, teem with anuses, penises, stinking armpits—one man, a certain Rufus, is said to have a wild goat living beneath his—and graphic sex acts either given or received. The saltiness of these poems has thrilled many a beginning Latin class, but their power extends beyond mere shock value. With his freewheeling aggression, his willingness to let fly at the slightest provocation, Catullus evokes the modern Beat poets; the “neoteric” school to which he belonged was just as daring as theirs in breaking with literary tradition.

Catullus’ corpus of 116 poems connect us powerfully to his inner life, but to what degree do they describe his life? They come down to us in the order assigned by some ancient editor, grouped by their metrical schemes—essentially a random shuffle. Few can be pinned to a date during Catullus’ decade of adult life, the mid-60’s to the mid-50’s B.C., or even sequenced relative to each other. The problems posed by such undateable texts are complex, as I learned recently when writing about the Roman philosopher Seneca, whose tragic dramas also stand outside chronology. Fortunately, since Seneca played a leading role in politics, contemporary writers supply the framework of his life. Catullus by contrast was small-time, a provincial from Verona (Dunn misleadingly calls him a Gaul) who lived among the great at Rome but never attained greatness. “Practically everything that can be known about him must be extracted from his book of poetry,” Dunn writes in her prologue—an admission, seemingly, that extreme measures will need to be taken.

Dunn’s first foray into the realm of the dark arts comes when she identifies Lesbia as Clodia Metelli, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher—a leading politician of Catullus’ day, a bizarre, bad-boy aristocrat next to whom Donald Trump might seem a sober statesman. This is not an egregious leap of faith; an ancient source with good authority tells us that Lesbia’s real name was Clodia, and Catullus himself reveals, in one of his poems, that Lesbia’s brother was named Pulcher. The trouble is that Clodius had three sisters, all of whom were named Clodia, and at least one recent scholar has strongly argued that a different Clodia was the woman who drove young Catullus half-insane. Since the Clodia Metelli theory is central to Dunn’s story—especially given that much is known about Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life, including a rumored affair with her brother, is detailed in an extant speech by Cicero—it matters deeply that it is only a theory. Yet the constructs Dunn builds upon this flawed foundation—the imagined first meeting of Catullus and Clodia, their efforts to keep their affair secret from Metellus, the correlations of Catullus’ Lesbia poems with what is known (or at least rumored, in a surviving diatribe by Cicero) facts of Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life—assume it has the solidity of fact. Dunn’s single, poorly reasoned footnote does little to address a problem that should have been acknowledged openly, in her text.

Once she has set foot on the slippery slope of speculation, Dunn’s slide becomes precipitous. Furius, the friend whom Catullus jeeringly threatened with oral and anal rape, is identified on thin evidence as a satirist named Marcus Furius Bibaculus, whom Dunn thereafter refers to confidently as “Catullus’ rival” because the historical Bibaculus wrote in verse. A little boat that Catullus addresses in one of his lighter compositions is made to serve a very specific role in his life, bearing him back through the Black Sea on his return from an administrative tour of duty in the East. In her footnotes Dunn gropes for obscure scholarly support or ancient testimony to shore up these guesses. Her last pages, which conjure up a scene of public mourning for Catullus—when in fact nothing is known about his death or burial—are sourced only to an Italian Renaissance writer who may, or may not, have had access to a now-lost work by the Roman historian Suetonius.

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Monday, 11 July 2016

Samuel Beckett, the maestro of failure

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, Samuel Beckett wrote a short story called Ping. It begins:
All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one sure yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping elsewhere.
The first time I read it, it reminded me of the chant-like rhythm of BBC radio’s shipping forecast: a hypnotic flow of words the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure. But persevere and patterns emerge: “moderate or good, occasionally poor later”/“white walls”, “one square yard”, “white scars”. In both cases, we soon realise we are within a system of words performing very defined tasks, albeit ones only understood by initiates. But while fathoming the shipping forecast can be achieved relatively quickly, initiation into the system of words Beckett was working with in the mid-1960s is more complicated, not least because the system was corrupted, a failure, as were all the systems Beckett devised during his long career.

Beckett came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed. His best-known expressions of this philosophy appear at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable – “ … you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – and in the 1983 story Worstward Ho – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics. No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously. The collection, which follows Beckett’s mirror image Belacqua Shuah (SB/BS) around Dublin on a series of sexual misadventures, features moments of brilliance, is a challenging and frustrating read. Jammed with allusion, tricksy syntax and obscure vocabulary, its prose must be hacked through like a thorn bush. As the narrator comments of one character’s wedding speech, it is “rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage”.

Throughout this period, Beckett remained very much under the influence of James Joyce, whose circle he joined in Paris in the late 20s. Submitting a story to his London editor, Beckett blithely noted that it “stinks of Joyce”, and he was right. Just compare his, “and by the holy fly I wouldn’t recommend you to ask me what class of a tree they were under when he put his hand on her and enjoyed that. The thighjoy through the fingers. What does she want for her thighbeauty?” with this, from Ulysses: “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”

Beckett was rudderless in his late 20s and early 30s (which, thanks to the allowance he received following his father’s death, he could just about afford to be). He wandered for much of the 1930s, having walked out of a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin. He returned to Paris, then moved to London, where he wrote the novel Murphy and underwent Kleinian psychoanalysis. He toured Germany, and in 1937 settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. During the second world war, he joined the resistance, fled Paris to escape arrest, and lived penuriously in Roussillon. These years of wandering and war and want influenced the character of his later work. In 1945, working at a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, he wrote an essay about the ruins of the town, “bombed out of existence in one night”, and described “this universe become provisional”. Versions of this ruin strewn landscape and post-disaster environment would characterise the settings and atmosphere of much of his later work.

Although Beckett had written some poetry in French before the war, it was in its aftermath he resolved to commit fully to the language, “because in French it is easier to write without style”. This decision, and his switch to the first-person voice, resulted in one of the more astonishing artistic transformations in 20th-century literature, as his clotted, exhaustingly self-conscious early manner gave way to the strange journeys described, and tortured psyches inhabited, in the four long stories he wrote in the course of a few months during 1946. The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, and to a lesser extent First Love (which Beckett, always his own harshest judge, considered inferior and suppressed for many years), describe the descent of their unnamed narrators (possibly the same man) from bourgeois respectability into homelessness and death.

We witness a succession of evictions: from the family home, some kind of institution, hovels and stables, basements and benches. There is a nagging suspicion that the initial expulsion in each story is a form of birth, often characterised in violent terms. (In the novel Watt, a character’s birth is described as his “ejection”; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo says birth takes place “astride of a grave”.) These journeys become surrogates for the journey we take through life, as Beckett perceives it: bewildered, disordered and provisional, with only brief respites from a general strife. In the final scene of The End, the narrator is chained to a leaking boat, his life seemingly draining away. It is the monumental bleakness of works such as these (often shot through with splinters of sharp humour), that Harold Pinter was writing of in a letter of 1954 when he called Beckett “the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”.

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Saturday, 9 July 2016

Between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines - Dante Alighieri

Put real people in a work of fiction these days and you immediately face libel and privacy issues. The publishers will demand a legal report; every correspondence between your story and reality will be scrutinised. It won’t be enough simply to change names or avoid unpleasant aspersions; the mere idea that someone might recognise themselves and feel aggrieved will set alarm bells ringing and have editors demanding revisions. How would Dante’s Divine Comedy have fared in an environment like this? Large numbers of his fellow citizens are named and shamed. It’s true that most of them were dead, but by no means all. Two living characters are pronounced so evil that the devil has carried their souls off to hell leaving demons in their bodies to perpetuate a zombie life up above. Others are declared by the damned to be ‘expected shortly’.

 Add to this that Dante places the prophet Muhammad in hell, launches violent insults against various cities and political and religious groupings, in many cases evidently motivated by personal resentment or self-interest, and it’s hard to imagine that The Divine Comedy would be an easy book to publish today. Reading Marco Santagata’s fascinating new biography, the reader is soon forced to acknowledge that one of the cornerstones of Western literature, a poem considered sublime and universal, is the product of vicious factionalism and packed with local scandal, much of it deployed in the hope of accruing benefits to the author.

Aside from his published writings, 11 surviving letters, a scattering of official records and one or two brief personal testimonies, we have so little information about the life of Dante Alighieri that Santagata is obliged to proceed deductively and speculatively, counterpointing the history of Florence and Italy in Dante’s lifetime (1265-1320) with references and allusions in The Divine Comedy and Dante’s other works. What we know about Dante we know largely because he was embroiled in public life and because his writing always took a position on the political situation of the moment. What makes the going hard is how complicated the politics were, how much they depended on an intricate network of family relationships, and how ambiguous and mobile Dante’s loyalties were within the general mayhem. The payoff for keeping track of all this comes when we finally set aside the biography and reread the Commedia, and find it at once more urgent and more beautiful than we remembered.

Santagata tells us about the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, two parties with competing claims to the allegiance of Italy’s numerous feudal lords and city states in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Guelfs, the church party, dominated where people felt they had more to fear from the German-based emperor than from the Roman pope. It was the party of the nouveaux riches, the bankers and traders, anyone who had an interest in the formation of a looser, less rigidly controlled society. The Ghibellines, siding with the Holy Roman Empire, were largely made up of those who had an investment in the hierarchical structures of feudalism, or simply felt themselves uncomfortably close to a papal state bent on territorial expansion.

This is perhaps too neat. Any party or grouping was as much tribal as ideological. Families, corporations, even whole cities tended to show their allegiance collectively. If a large city was Guelf, the smaller cities around it were likely to be Ghibelline, implicitly appealing for protection from afar. And vice versa. Neither party had a stable hold on people’s identity. Divisions over commercial, religious and family issues were always on the cards. When decades of conflict between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence finally came to an end in 1289 (when Dante was 24), with the defeat and mass expulsion of the Ghibellines, the victorious Guelfs, now in complete control of one of Europe’s most populous and wealthy cities, lost little time in dividing themselves into Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, who would then fight each other with the same intensity and ferocity as they had previously fought the Ghibellines. Santagata’s account of how this schism came about and how the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ (with no more content or significance, as it turns out, than the letters a or b, x or y) were borrowed from a similar schism in Pistoia – a town which, precisely in order to overcome the impasse caused by internal division, had taken the drastic course of handing over control of its affairs to Florence – requires maximum attention on the part of the reader. But it’s worth the effort. Factionalism spread like a virus and Dante wasn’t immune.

These conflicts were unspeakably cruel. Enemies were imprisoned and tortured. If they were exiled, their property was confiscated, their houses, even in the centre of town, razed to the ground. Tongues were cut out and hands amputated. People were left in dungeons to starve, or disembowelled and dragged through the streets, or burned at the stake in front of jeering crowds. Imaginative though Dante’s infernal punishments may be, the spirit behind them was familiar. It would be hard to miss the continuity between history and the Inferno.

What was Dante’s position in all this? The third child of a mother who died when he was very young, he belonged to neither the old landed elite nor the successful new commercial community. Of the two, although his father was a small-time moneylender, he tended to favour the former. Always innovative and forward-looking when it came to writing and art, convinced that language and culture must be on the move, he was generally conservative on questions of society and government.

The Alighieri family was Guelf by tradition, but obscure enough to have avoided exile with other Guelfs when the Ghibellines were in the ascendant shortly before Dante’s birth. Of his education we know only that his family wasn’t rich enough to provide him with a private tutor. Dante’s father died when his son was ten, leaving him, as Leonardo Bruni would put it, ‘not greatly rich … but with moderate and sufficient wealth to live honourably’. The problem, as Santagata construes it, was that Dante’s notions of honourable living were not Bruni’s. He was ambitious, had the highest possible opinion of himself and aspired to the life of a noble, or at least to a noble life, a life dedicated to writing. Which brings us to one of the core themes of this biography: Dante’s self-image, the way it dominated his writings and conditioned his every move.

Giovanni Villani, almost the only person to write about Dante who actually knew him, thought him a ‘great poet and philosopher’ but ‘presumptuous, contemptuous and disdainful’ as a person. A generation later, Boccaccio, whose biography of Dante is based on conversations with people who had known him, describes him as ‘proud and disdainful’ and prone to losing his temper. Around these meagre testimonies, Santagata gathers a quantity of detail, largely drawn from Dante’s writing, to suggest a man intent on constructing a myth of himself as both nobly born and destined to greatness. All three of his major works, the Vita nova (1295), the Convivio (1307) and the Commedia (1321), were, for their time, remarkably autobiographical. ‘Dante seems incapable of imagining a book in which his person, or at least a person bearing his name, doesn’t play a significant role,’ Santagata writes. However, the Dante on the page is subtly transformed from the Dante seeking to overcome the limitations of a modest background.

There’s no hint of criticism here. Santagata isn’t arguing that Dante is a lesser poet than we thought, or in any way disreputable. But he’s not in the business of hagiography. His consideration of the Beatrice narrative is typical. Dante first presents the story in elaborate form in his late twenties in the Vita nova, which gathers together his poems of the previous years, linking them with an autobiographical prose narrative. The ideas of the so-called dolce stil nova, the ‘sweet new style’ of writing that had recently introduced elements of religious reflection into courtly love poetry, were thus tied to his personal development. This in itself was a remarkable innovation. Dante describes an early encounter with Beatrice when he was nine years old; he falls in love and remains faithful and devoted to her until their next meeting a full nine years later. At this encounter she acknowledges his presence, though no word passes between them. The fact, well known to his Florentine readers, that Dante had addressed love poems to other women is explained as a deliberate attempt to draw attention away from Beatrice, who, higher born than he was, had married in her early teens. After the second meeting, his love intensifies, but there are no further exchanges between the two, until Beatrice’s early death in 1290, at 24, triggers a shift in the poet’s interests from sentimental to divine love.

That the story is idealised and in a tradition of idealisation is evident. Any real relationship between the two, Santagata suggests, could only have occurred in the late 1280s, long after the two meetings described. But the way Dante hangs onto the story throughout his career, making it ‘one of the classic features of his intellectual and literary biography’, is unusual. The effect, Santagata insists, is always to make the real Dante appear ‘someone exceptional’ to whom exceptional things happen. In one poem, he speaks of having suffered a seizure at the age of nine months, on a day and hour corresponding to Beatrice’s birth and foreshadowing their love. In general, the seizures he experiences on meeting his beloved go far beyond conventional accounts of romantic fainting, and, along with similar episodes elsewhere in his work, could suggest epilepsy. But rather than consider these fits a mark of the devil, the standard interpretation at the time, Dante takes them as a sign of ‘a predestination decreed by a supreme power’. He had been chosen.

Various details in the Vita nova contribute to a false impression of his social status. ‘Dante,’ Santagata writes, ‘refers several times to a “room” of his own where he could go alone to think, to weep, and also to sleep.’ Since the Alighieri house was small and the family hardly of the aristocratic kind where a member might enjoy such a private space, this can only be ‘one of the many signs of distinction by which he was seeking to hide his lowly origins’. Another, years later, would be the reconstruction in the Paradiso, thanks to an imagined meeting with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, of a supposedly noble lineage for the Alighieri family.

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Thursday, 7 July 2016

Angela Carter’s monsters

In the “pubescent years” of the twentieth century, a young Englishman, handsome and virginal, bicycles into Transylvania. He meets an old crone who leads him to a castle, feeds him bread and stew, then ushers him to the darkened boudoir of an ageless vampire, hungry for her own dinner. But our reasonable Hero (for that is his only name) dismisses his foreboding, deciding what he sees before him is a beautiful girl whose photophobia and pointed teeth might soon be cured by an eye doctor and good dentist. That night something unexpected happens: the innocent boy awakens unprecedented feelings of love in the vampire and she leaves him unmolested. The following morning Hero discovers that his companion – now older and infinitely more human – is dead. Saved from his fate by rationalism, coupled with a chronic lack of imagination, Hero cycles away to the First World War, where the unsusceptible boy who could not shiver finally becomes a man who can. 

Angela Carter’s story, “The Lady of the House of Love”, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, is one of her most brilliant deconstructions of the Gothic, historicizing both rationalism and the imagination (bicycle meets vampire) in a way that is typical of her oeuvre. “Sex comes to us out of history”, as she reminded us in The Sadeian Woman, which was published in the same year, while her good friend, the critic Lorna Sage described the combination of fantasy and materialism in her fiction as “monsters marinated in being”. Today Carter is well known, widely taught in schools and universities, and much of what she presaged – in terms of recycling and updating (“old wine in new bottles”, she called it), or gender role play and reversal – has become commonplace in the culture. Despite this, many critics find it difficult to situate her work properly. This is partly because Carter is so sui generis (she has literary offspring but few antecedents), and partly because many struggle with the relationship of politics and aesthetics in her writing.

The “reality” in this Nosferatu revamp was something of a private joke for Carter, who was inspired to write by another friend, Christopher Frayling, who did indeed journey into Transylvania – but in the early 1970s, undertaking research for Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1978). It is this friendship, and with it Frayling’s claim of mutual influence (“we shared a lot of conversations, ideas and inspirations”), on which his new book, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales, rests. Readers may be disappointed to find, however, that of the nine pieces in his collection, only the first essay, “Angela and me – a literary friendship” is about Carter.

The remainder are selected from his writing over the past thirty or so years – rich and entertaining fare that, like the best cultural studies, looks for links, unearths back stories, investigates a tale’s reimagining and examines its reception, legacy and mythologizing. In this manner, Frayling tracks Freud and Fuseli, Hitchcock and Gounod, Jack the Ripper, Hammer Horror, Disney’s and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Conan Doyle’s Hound, the origins of Peter and the Wolf, and the state of the Gothic. Many of his tracks end up at the cinema (the fate of much art in the twentieth century), often newly minted with a happy ending. As stories pass from hand to hand, and from one kind of art to another, we find many strange bedfellows: there is Walt Disney, for instance, so proud of Fantasia’s cartoons that he announces to Leopold Stokowski: “this thing will make Beethoven”. For the purposes of Inside the Bloody Chamber, Frayling has added a brief introduction to each of these essays pointing to his and Carter’s shared interests (a joint visit to a Fuseli exhibition, a ramble together on Dartmoor) and to Carter’s own writing that relates to his subject. But the essays themselves make only occasional reference to her, and it is hard not to feel that in order to have earned his title, and the book’s selling point, Frayling might at least have rounded out his collection with a concluding essay on Carter, more gallantly giving her the spotlight rather than making her a player in his own show.

“Angela and me”, the essay in which she does feature, is an odd one. Frayling’s friendship with her in Bath in the 1970s gives us a valuable portrait of Carter during the middle years of her career which few others could offer: tracing the sources of her interest in vampires, werewolves and feral children (particularly as they fed into the stories, plays and filmscripts associated with The Bloody Chamber), her fascination with all kinds of automata, and redressing a critical legacy which has underestimated her socialism. His memories are fleshed out with the liberal use of her notebook-journals and published writing (though these are not always ascribed). And he finds in their dialogues the seeds of many of Carter’s ideas. Verdi’s Falstaff prompts a conversation where they “fantasised about Falstaff as a liberal education for Prince Hal” – an idea that crops up in Wise Children (1991); a trip to a Weber opera finds them in discussion about a Satanic western, something which “eventually turned into Angela’s play Gun for the Devil”; a conversation they had after viewing Murnau’s Nosferatu “led indirectly to Vampirella”; while stories in The Bloody Chamber were “inspired by” books and catalogues that he lent her.

This familiarity with Carter’s thinking, and their mutual reading and watching, means that Frayling is able to suggest many unexpected influences: they attend a screening of Miklós Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Pleasures, featuring a “full-frontal Welsh hermaphrodite”, much to Carter’s amusement, just as she was transforming Evelyn into Eve in The Passion of New Eve (1977). He is also a persuasive judge of Carter’s sensibility: “her imagination was certainly more Jacobean than Shakespearian”; and in his hands her wit comes alive: “Angela relished the thought of a Good Food Guide for vampires”. But for all his excavation of their many conversations about vampirism (the impact of the First World War on the political geography of the vampire lands, Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor, and “whether human relationships are sometimes about ‘asset stripping’”), there is an odd lack of self-awareness about the terms in which Frayling frames his essay, none of the self-deprecation one might expect from someone claiming so great an intimacy with the generation of another writer’s work.

Something similar happens in a recent book from the historian Rosemary Hill, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter. The origin of this book lay in Hill’s review of Susannah Clapp’s postcard-led memoir of Carter for the London Review of Books in 2012. Encouraged by the Editor, Hill extended her article into a longer essay which she packages here with fourteen of the poems that can be found in Carter’s archives. (The archives, which also include the journals Frayling makes use of, were bought by the British Library in January 2006; in May this year some of their contents were digitalized for a public website, “Discovering Literature: 20th century”). Carter wrote most of her poems during the early part of her career and those presented in Unicorn were published originally in small magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1966, with three more from 1971, which she later incorporated into Fireworks: Nine profane pieces (1974). Hill’s essay is in three parts beginning with an analysis of the poetry, especially as it prefigures her later writing. This is followed by a sketch of the literary landscape of the 1950s and early 60s from which Carter started to write – a decade before Frayling crossed her path. Like Frayling, Hill emphasizes her rejection of the Leavisite school, with what Carter called their “eat up your broccoli” approach. She also discusses her embrace of the French avant-garde and bohemianism; and her ambivalent relationship to the Angry Young Men and the school of suffering of young women writers whom Hill identifies. A final evaluation of the prose pays particular attention to Carter’s first novel Shadow Dance (1966), written in the same years that produced much of the poetry.

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