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Showing posts from 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 succes…

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 …

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 pr…

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 an…

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 …

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…

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 1…

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 …

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 schola…

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…

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…

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 …