Monday, 29 August 2016

Mann’s inhumanity to Mann

Klaus Mann was six times jinxed. A son of Thomas Mann. A homeless exile. A drug addict. A writer unable to publish in his native tongue. A not-so-gay gay. Someone haunted all his life by a fascination with death.” Thus opens Frederic Spotts’s elegantly written and deeply moving biography of the writer Klaus Mann. These lines set the tone for the exploration of the tragic life of a courageously uncompromising and truly European intellectual, who, born in 1906 and living through the darkest period of European history, was plagued by both political and personal calamities in almost equal measure. Spotts leaves the reader in no doubt that Thomas’s coldly judgemental attitude towards his eldest son was a root cause of many of Klaus’s problems.
In his diary, Klaus complained that his father’s “general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong toward me”. If there was indeed such a lack of interest, it certainly did not prevent the harshest of judgements, for, in his own diary, Thomas pronounced of Klaus: “The boy is morally and intellectually not intact”. In his novella Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), a thinly disguised family portrait, Thomas describes the character modelled on Klaus as someone who “knows nothing, can do nothing and thinks only how to play the clown and lacks even the talent for that”. There is little if any evidence to suggest that Klaus’s remarkable achievements later in life altered his father’s damning verdict on him.
In many ways, Klaus was Thomas’s opposite: while his father remained a closet homosexual all his life, Klaus bravely embraced his sexuality, and wrote about it in explicit terms in many of his works. As Spotts puts it: “The son suffered from being openly homosexual, the father from not being so”. While Thomas was a great respecter of authority, Klaus had an anarchic streak, defied social conventions, and detested nothing more than moral cowardice and political opportunism. These are the subject of his best-known work, the novel Mephisto, an astute analysis of the psychology of a Nazi collaborator, first published in 1936, in Amsterdam. It almost beggars belief that this momentous “parable of an artist’s political opportunism” was published only forty-five years later in Germany, after a protracted legal battle, purportedly concerning character defamation, the main character in Mephisto having been based on the German actor Gustav Gründgens.
Thomas was a loyal family man, whereas Klaus was prone to one-night stands and tempestuous affairs. Thomas was always careful to consider his own financial and reputational advantages; Klaus lived and breathed politics, sacrificing everything for his beliefs. His many initiatives included the founding, in 1933, of the exile journal Die Sammlung (“The Collection”), which his father publicly repudiated in order to protect his publishing ventures in Nazi Germany, but to which many other literary heavyweights contributed, among them Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Jean Cocteau, Alfred Döblin, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Spender, as well as Albert Einstein and Leon Trotsky. It was three years after Hitler’s seizure of power before Thomas distanced himself publicly from the Nazi regime – Klaus had been an outspoken anti-Nazi long before 1933. And while Thomas was a careful craftsman, meticulously constructing and polishing each of his novels and short stories, Klaus worked at white heat, his mind “as dazzling as a Catherine wheel, endlessly spewing out colour and fire”.
Although some of his works were greeted with critical derision or even remained unpublished during his lifetime, his output was prolific: Klaus wrote seven novels, half a dozen plays, four biographies, three autobiographies and hundreds of stories, as well as numerous essays, reviews and articles. Before his death from a drug overdose in 1949, at the age of only forty-two, he produced what Spotts rightly describes as a “unique record of the catastrophic first half of the twentieth century, told in both fiction and non-fiction”. Tellingly, on the news of Klaus’s death, Thomas, Katia and Erika Mann, who were in Stockholm at the time for a series of lectures, decided not to interrupt their schedule to attend his funeral. Of his many siblings, only Michael Mann decided to pay his respects.
Misfortune followed Klaus throughout his life. Each of his many love affairs ended badly; fellow writers whom he admired and supported let him down; many of his publishing ventures ended in failure; and after he had served for almost three years in the US Army, which he joined in order to fight Nazism, he was denounced as a Soviet agent and subjected to an inquiry by the FBI. Having turned his back on Germany in 1933, he found that post-war Germany, eager not to be reminded of the horrors of the Third Reich and the moral culpability of its collaborators, shunned the politically uncomfortable émigré.
The one blessing in his life seems to have been his relationship with his formidable sister Erika, the oldest of the six Mann siblings, and a successful actress, journalist and writer in her own right. Together, brother and sister moved to Weimar Berlin and starred in sexually and politically provocative plays, toured America, journeyed across Europe (including to Spainduring the country’s Civil War), and were important figures in the American literary exile community during and after the Second World War. Yet even his beloved sister failed to attend Klaus’s funeral.
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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Aravind Adiga The Man Booker winner talks about his new novel. Or cricket. Or both.

Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world.
Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but born to a life of wealth and comfort – have on his personality?
As the narrative raises these questions, India’s most popular sport is intriguingly used as a framework. The story dwells on the changes that have taken place in cricket, from being a genteel sport built around notions like personal honour and sacrifice to becoming a commercialised spectacle with temporary heroes and match-fixing (“How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness?” an old cricket-lover bemoans) – and how this changing trajectory in some ways mirrors that of the nation.
Excerpts from an interview about the novel:

From the cover to the jacket description, Selection Dayseems positioned as a book about cricket, but you use it as a pretext to examine many other things: the parent-child relationship, the link between sport and masculinity, the interaction between the privileged and the poor in a country where many different universes coexist. Are you interested in cricket on its own terms? Did you set out to write a “cricket book”?The best way to answer this would be to tell you about the original inspiration for Selection Day. I’ve always loved the Italian neo-realist film directors of the 1950s, men like De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves, and their successors like Pasolini. Nearly fifteen years ago, in a cinema hall in New York, I watched Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, and was profoundly moved.
It’s the story of a group of brothers who migrate from a village to the big city of Milan, in the years after World War Two. They hope to become rich, but discover that all they have done is exchange rural poverty for urban destitution. The only way out for the brothers is to enter the world of professional boxing. The brothers come to hate boxing, and what it forces them to do, but they are trapped.
I knew even as I was leaving the theatre that I wanted to write a novel that would be both intimate and sweeping, as the film was. I returned to India from America in 2003, and I was always on the look out for a way to write aRocco and his Brothers here. Boxing isn’t particularly big in India, though, so the idea lay in dormancy for a decade.
In 2011, I was having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with a businessman who began telling me of his new venture: he was sponsoring two exceptional young cricketers from the city’s slums. Every month, their father came over and took a cheque from the businessman; in return, if the boys ever made it into the IPL or the national team, they would have to hand over a big part of their fees to the businessman. I immediately asked him how old the boys were. Thirteen and fourteen, he said. “What if the boys, or one of the boys, decides he does not want to play cricket, but wants to be an engineer or doctor?” The businessman said that this wasn’t possible. Every Indian boy wants to play cricket. (He went on, if I remember right, to suggest that this was the kind of doubt I had only because – like some other NRI types – I wasn’t “mentally Indian” enough.)
I thought his statement was rubbish – “Every Indian boy wants to play cricket” is the kind of cloying generalisation, so common in India, that hides many stories of frustration. The other thing that struck me was that what this businessman was doing would be strictly illegal in America, where they have laws to protect underage athletes from the greed of coaches, businessmen, and team selectors. You can go to jail in America for doing what this businessman was doing here.
We always talk about America as a land of money, but the truth is, there are more laws there to regulate capitalism – or there were, until the late 1990s – than there are anywhere else. After lunch, I walked over to my favourite restaurant in Mumbai, Café Ideal on Chowpatty, and there I thought this could be my “Rocco.” Two brothers playing cricket, and one of them, the more talented one, would start to dislike the game. That’s how the novel began, in 2011. It took me five years to finish it, and in the course of that time it went strange places.
You often use animal metaphors in your work. In your first novel, Balram Halwai was the “white tiger”, a rare creature of initiative and daring, who tries to transcend the class he was born into. Did you conceive of the precocious, 14-year-old Manjunath in similar terms? Or is he more like the turtle, the “domed creature” mentioned in this book, peering cautiously out of his shell?Manjunath Kumar is certainly not Balram Halwai; he is, if anything, his opposite. All of us in India have seen the schoolboy in cricketing whites on his way to practice. When you attend a lot of school cricket matches in Mumbai, as I did during the writing of this novel, you see variations on that familiar theme. You see, for instance, the cricketer in stained white clothes, who is walking alone, his head bent, mumbling to himself, the epitome of abject humiliation. You look at him and you know something really bad has happened that morning – he has been dropped from the school team, perhaps.
I was watching a boy like this once, one Sunday morning right outside the Azad Maidan, when a taxi driver began laughing. “Tendulkar! Tendulkar!” He yelled at the boy, to rub it in further. I could see that the poor boy was close to tears now. That was how Manjunath Kumar (and his brother Radha Krishna) were born.
There is a hint of child abuse – in two senses of the term – in Mohan Kumar's relationship with his two young sons. He seems to fit the image of the obsessive "sports parent", pushing his kids into a world they don't want to be in, and consequently stunting their development.Much of what Mohan Kumar is doing to his sons – and there are hundreds of fathers like him just in Mumbai – would be illegal in the West. I interviewed a few of these “cricketing dads” – lower-middle-class men whose obsession is to turn their sons into the new Tendulkar. Some of them regulate every aspect of their child's life, including nutrition, exercise, and even in some cases hairstyle. After a while, their desire to control their son's body and mind starts to feel creepy.
Many of the book’s funniest observations about India and Indians come from Anand Mehta, a globe-trotting investor who left Manhattan to return to Bombay. For instance, at one point you have him say that Indians are basically a sentimental race and that their hunger for social-realist melodrama is no longer being satisfied by Hindi cinema, but cricket is still serving this purpose. At another point he suggests that cricket is a narcotising force that aids “male social control in India”. Are some of his views a stand-in for your own?Each character in the book, I hope, represents some aspect of me, but no character is all of me. Anand Mehta has studied and lived in New York, like me, and he shares my interest in World War Two history. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. I meet people like him in Mumbai and I don't like them.
You must remember that I was born in Chennai, a big city, and when I arrived at the age of seven in Mangalore, I thought I was superior to everyone there because my English was better. I was the local Anand Mehta. But when I would return to Chennai on my holidays, I was mocked by my old classmates because I now spoke English with a thick accent. Like all humiliated provincials I became suspicious of the big-city boy.
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Saturday, 27 August 2016

What was Auden thinking when he wasn't writing poetry?

"At the beginning of the 21st century," Edward Mendelson writes in his entry on W. H. Auden in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "many readers thought it not implausible to judge his work the greatest body of poetry in English of the previous hundred years or more." Even allowing for a literary executor's special pleading, this is an extravagant claim: Auden's poetry is full of good things, but it is also full of bad things. And the latter are usually the result of bad rhetoric. That Auden regarded "September 1, 1939," for example, as "infected with an incurable dishonesty'' says something for the probity of his criticism. If he was capable of writing nonsense, he was also capable of owning up to writing nonsense.

Some of the bad rhetoric that marred Auden's work can be blamed on his left-wing politics.Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (1988) brilliantly supplies the cultural and historical context for those politics. Yet Auden also acquired his rhetorical excesses from William Butler Yeats, whose public persona he initially tried to emulate. One of the virtues of this mammoth, six-volume edition of Auden's prose, which covers his essays and reviews from 1926 until his death in 1973, is that it shows how the poet gradually renounced the public stage for a more self-effacing, meditative, private life, especially after settling in America in 1939 at the age of 32.

"When the ship catches fire," he wrote in a piece on Rilke, "it seems only natural to rush importantly to the pumps, but perhaps one is only adding to the general confusion and panic: to sit still and pray seems selfish and unheroic, but it may be the wisest and most helpful course." Later, speaking with the Paris Review in 1972, he insisted that "a poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted."

How Auden regarded this duty can be seen in his moving eulogy for his friend Louis MacNeice, "The Cave of Making" (1964), in which he celebrated the demands of the art to which he devoted his life.

After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot
be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly
still insists upon
being read or ignored . . .

One can agree or disagree with the charge brought by Philip Larkin that Auden's intellectual interests stultified his poetry, but one cannot maintain that the essays in which he pursued those interests are stultifying. They exude zest. There may be much about the writing of Auden's generation that is meretricious. Evelyn Waugh was unsparing about Stephen Spender—"To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee"—yet Auden wrote a sprightly, elegant, witty prose. And if his reviewing paid the bills, it also helped to shape his protean poetry. The relationship between the state and the individual, history and human suffering, cultural vitality and cultural decay, talent and the snares that entrammel talent—these are the constant preoccupations of his poetry, and they are abundantly explored in these well-annotated volumes.

Since Auden only published two essay collections, The Dyer's Hand (1962) and Forewords and Afterwords (1973), there is much uncollected and unpublished work gathered here, and together with the previously published pieces, they reveal a good deal about the poet's inner life. In 1964, for instance, in a review of autobiographies by Waugh and Leonard Woolf, he wrote something of an autobiography of his own in which he gave expression not so much to family or personal history as to the exile's inexorable loneliness. Writing about other artists beguiled his sense of aloneness.

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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Emperor of Nostalgia - Joseph Roth

At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.

The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found itself too weak to withstand the armies of Russia, Serbia, and Italy on its borders, and fell to pieces.

“Austro-Hungary is no more,” wrote Sigmund Freud to himself on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else…. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.” Freud spoke for many Jews of Austro-German culture. The dismemberment of the old empire, and the redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe to create new homelands based on ethnicity, worked to the detriment of Jews most of all, since there was no territory they could point to as ancestrally their own. The old supranational imperial state had suited them; the postwar settlement was a calamity. The first years of the new, stripped-down, barely viable Austrian state, with food shortages followed by levels of inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class and violence on the streets between paramilitary forces of left and right, only intensified their unease. Some began to look to Palestine as a national home; others turned to the supranational creed of communism.

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, a middle-sized city a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (known in Austria as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. Brody itself had been a center of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1890s, two thirds of its people were Jewish.

In German-speaking parts of the empire, Galician Jews were held in low esteem. As a young man making his way in Vienna, Roth played down his origins, claiming to have been born in Schwabendorf, a predominantly German town (this fiction appears in his official papers). His father, he claimed, had been (variously) a factory owner, an army officer, a high state official, a painter, a Polish aristocrat. In fact Nachum Roth worked in Brody as agent for a firm of German grain merchants. Moses Joseph never knew him: in 1893, shortly after his marriage, Nachum suffered a brainstorm of some kind on a train journey to Hamburg. He was taken to a sanatorium and from there passed into the hands of a wonder-working rabbi. He never recovered, never returned to Brody.

Moses Joseph was brought up by his mother in the home of her parents, prosperous assimilated Jews. He went to a Jewish community school where the language of instruction was German, then to the German-language gymnasium in Brody. Half his fellow students were Jewish: to young Jews from the East, a German education opened the doors to commerce and to the dominant culture.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at the University of Vienna. Vienna at this time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 souls living in what amounted to a ghetto of a voluntary kind. “It is hard enough being an Ostjude,” a Jew from the East, remarked Roth; but “there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.” Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews.

Roth was an outstanding student, particularly of German literature, though for the most part he looked down on his teachers, finding them servile and pedantic. This disdain is reflected in his early writings, in which the state-run education system appears as the preserve of careerists or else timid, uninspired plodders. He worked at a part-time job as a tutor to the young sons of a countess, and in the process picked up such dandyish mannerisms as kissing the hands of ladies, carrying a cane, wearing a monocle. He began to publish poems.

His education, which was leading him toward an academic career, was terminated by the war. Overcoming pacifist inclinations, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. Ethnic tensions ran high enough in the imperial army for him to be transferred out of a German-speaking unit; he spent 1917–1918 in a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia. His period of service became the subject of further fanciful stories, notably that he had been an officer and a prisoner of war in Russia. Years later he was still peppering his speech with officer-caste slang.

After the war Roth began to write for newspapers, and soon gained a following among the Viennese. Before the war Vienna had been the capital of a great empire; now it was an impoverished city of two million in a country of a bare seven million. Seeking better opportunities, Roth and his new wife, Friederike, moved to Berlin. There he wrote for liberal newspapers but also for the left-wing Vorwärts, signing his pieces “Der rote Joseph,” Joseph the Red. The first of his Zeitungromane, “newspaper novels,” came out, so called not only because they shared the themes of his journalism but also because he broke his text into short, snappy sections. The Spider’s Web (1923) deals presciently with the moral and spiritual menace of the fascist right. It appeared three days before Hitler’s first putsch.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The qualities of Robert Musil

“Why, then, aren’t we realists?” Ulrich asked himself. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their ideas and their conduct had long left no doubt of that; but they were nihilists and activists, sometimes one and sometimes the other, whichever happened to come up. —Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities 

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value. —Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

 The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880– 1942) occupies a peculiar position in the pantheon of great twentieth-century writers. He is admired by literati for a handful of astringent modernist fictions, especially for his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Bewilderments of the Schoolboy Törless). This brutal yet seductively introspective tale of adolescent cruelty and sexual exploitation at a German military boarding school was published to instant critical acclaim in 1906, when Musil was only twenty-six. (Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Törless was hailed as a prescient allegory of the spiritual deformations of the Nazi era.)

Musil’s play Die Schwärmer (1921, The Enthusiasts) explores that favored modern topic, the collapse of traditional bourgeois ideals; its taut language and intense dramatization won it the Kleist Prize in 1923 and, eventually, a regular spot in the German theatrical repertory. Drei Frauen (1924, Three Women), a celebrated suite of three novellas, plumbs the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence—one of Musil’s staple themes.

Then there are Musil’s essays, some of which are masterpieces of ironic cultural commentary. “Uber die Dummheit” (“On Stupidity”), a lecture that Musil delivered in Vienna in 1937, deserves special mention for its signal contemporary relevance. Particularly pertinent is its withering analysis of “the higher, pretentious form of stupidity” —the “real disease of culture,” in Musil’s opinion, which infiltrates even “the highest intellectual sphere” and has repercussions throughout society. “The examples,” he dryly notes, “are pretty blatant.” As indeed they are. Finally, some of Musil’s short prose pieces, collected in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author), rival Kafka’s fables in their vertiginous humor and enigmatic creepiness.

All of Musil’s works (the German edition of which runs to nine volumes) have their partisans and admirers. But for most of us, Robert Musil is first and foremost the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities), a book in which the major themes of his earlier works coalesce to form a novelistic tapestry of extraordinary wit, complexity, and intelligence.

It is worth stressing the wit. The Man Without Qualities, the book upon which Musil’s claim to greatness chiefly rests, is regularly cited alongside Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler as a triumph of high modernism. Like those other novels, The Man Without Qualities is a book of weighty seriousness and deep erudition. It is also, in parts, an exceptionally funny book. Few readers with any sympathy for Musil’s writing will be able to read far without laughing aloud, at least as they make their way through the first volume. Whatever else one can say about it, The Man Without Qualities stands as one of the great modern works of satire.

Set in Vienna in 1913, it depicts a world on the edge of a precipice—the moral, cultural, political precipice that was to give way to the abyss of World War I the following year. But it turns out that, in Musil’s hands, peregrinations at the brink of disaster are as amusing as they are poignant; and Musil’s man without qualities—a gifted, amoral, concupiscent mathematician of good family named Ulrich—is one of the most engaging comic anti-heroes in modern fiction.

It almost goes without saying that The Man Without Qualities is a peculiar book, or set of books. Like the other great novels just mentioned, it is monumental—in its literary ambition, its intellectual sophistication, and, not least, in its length. Certainly, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Musil began working on The Man Without Qualities in 1924. He published the first volume—some thousand pages—in 1930, and the first part of the second volume in 1933 (for which he was awarded that year’s Goethe Prize).

Under pressure from his publisher, who had been steadily advancing him money for years, Musil reluctantly began preparing the second part of the second volume for publication in the late 1930s. By then, Musil and his wife Martha, a painter whose parents were assimilated Jews, were living in penurious exile from the Nazis in Switzerland. An energetic (not to say fanatical) rewriter— a literary perfectionist, really—Musil had retrieved the galleys from the printer and was in the process of extensively reworking them when, in April 1942 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Apparently, he succumbed while performing his morning gymnastics (another activity to which he was fanatically devoted). According to his widow, who found him a short while later, the look on his face was one of “mockery and mild astonishment.”

We really have no idea how Musil intended to end The Man Without Qualities. Probably, the last section would have been titled “A Sort of Ending” to mirror the opening sequence, “A Sort of Introduction.” He once said that he wanted to conclude the book in the middle of a sentence, with a comma. Be that as it may, in addition to the twenty chapters in half-corrected galley proof, there exist dozens of draft chapters as well as voluminous notes, character sketches, alternative chapters, and miscellaneous jottings related to the book. Musil’s widow published the second part of the second volume in 1943. The “complete” German edition of this incomplete novel was published in 1951.

The first English translation of The Man Without Qualities was by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, who also collaborated on translations of Törless and some of Musil’s stories. Published in three volumes from 1954 to 1960, this edition included all of the novel that Musil published during his lifetime (all of volume one and the first thirty-eight chapters of volume two). A projected fourth volume was to contain the posthumously published chapters and notes. Although incomplete, the Wilkins–Kaiser translation remains a sound introduction to The Man Without Qualities: the translation is fluent, and a prefatory essay provides an excellent précis of Musil’s career.

The one clear advantage of the new, two-volume translation of The Man Without Qualities[1] by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is that it contains Musil’s posthumously published chapters. It also contains several hundred pages of Musil’s notes, sketches, and alternative versions of chapters. While some of this material will interest readers of the novel (as distinct from those who prefer to dissect it), much of it will command the attention only of Musil specialists. It must be said, too, that shoe-horning all of this material into only two volumes has bloated the second volume to tumid, phone-book proportions: a pity, not only because it makes the book difficult to handle, but also because it seems unfair to the striking and elegant jacket design that Knopf provided.

In an afterword, Burton Pike tells us that “the translator’s intention was to have the writing startle the reader in English in the same way it startles a reader in German.” In the event, he and his co-translator have produced a version of the novel that is generally a bit more literal than the previous translation; whether it is always quite as readable is another question. It is perhaps an improvement to translate “Haus und Wohnung des Mannes ohne Eigenschaften” as “House and home of the man without qualities” (Wilkins–Pike) instead of “Abode of the Man Without Qualities” (Wilkins– Kaiser); or to render “ein leichter Geruch von verbranntem Pferdehaar” as “a whiff of burnt horsehair” (W–P) rather than “a faint whiff of brimstone” (W–K)—though given the presence of the devil in the previous clause, there is surely something to be said for “brimstone.”

In any event, other decisions in the new translation are more dubious. For example, Wilkins–Kaiser translated the second part of the first volume, “Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.” If nothing else, this does have the advantage of more or less accurately rendering the German. The Wilkins–Pike alternative— “Pseudoreality Prevails”—may indeed fulfill Mr. Pike’s ambition to “startle the reader.” The problem is that it would probably have startled the author as well: presumably, if Musil had wanted “Pseudoreality Prevails” he would have written it.

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Monday, 22 August 2016

Thomas Hardy: A Broken Appointment

You did not come, 
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,— 
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there 
Than that I thus found lacking in your make 
That high compassion which can overbear 
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake 
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum, 
You did not come. 

You love not me, 
And love alone can lend you loyalty; 
–I know and knew it. But, unto the store 
Of human deeds divine in all but name, 
Was it not worth a little hour or more 
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came 
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be 
You love not me? 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Iris Murdoch’s Incompatibilities

The word ‘parodiability’ is not in the OED, but it is a significant literary attribute. Iris Murdoch certainly had it. Malcolm Bradbury’s Murdochian parody ‘A Jaundiced View’ has Sir Alex Mountaubon watching his daughter Flavia beneath a ‘dark and contingent cedar tree … sitting on a white wooden seat, in her unutterable otherness, her pet marmoset on her shoulder, her cap of auburn hair shining like burnished gold on her head. Nearer to the house, in the rose-garden, their younger daughter, seven-year-old Perdita, strange, mysterious and self-absorbed as usual, was beheading a litter of puppies with unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms. Her cap of golden hair shone like burnished auburn on her head.’ Bradbury does capture something. Occasional whiffs of Walter Pater-meets-upmarket-Woman’s-Own fiction can emanate from Murdoch’s descriptive prose: ‘A memory came back to her from her Italian journey, the young David of Donatello, casual, powerful, superbly naked, and charmingly immature.’ And no one could read more than a couple of her novels without recognising that they usually take place in summer, often in a large house, and rarely shift their gaze significantly below the upper-middle-classes. Her people have too much time to do anything except fall in love, darling, and many of them would, one feels, have been better off had they been given a sharp slap and told to go off and make something. Rather too many of them either are or could be called Hugo. And, in the way of most parodiable writers, she can sometimes parody herself – Iris Murdoch, the Sartrean, Platonising, Buddhistical philosophical novelist – by having her characters launch into speeches like this, from The Bell (1958): ‘The good man does what seems right, what the rule enjoins, without considering the consequences, without calculation or prevarication, knowing that God will make all for the best. He does not amend the rules by the standards of this world.’

But parodiability cuts several ways. It is often a marker of writing that takes risks and that clearly has a style. It also presents critics with an easy opportunity to be unfair rather than to think. And being fair to Murdoch is quite hard at the moment. She has received a sympathetic biography by Peter Conradi, which may be too kind to her, and a sour memoir by A.N. Wilson from which even the concept of kindness appears to be absent. What with John Bayley’s Iris and the film of it, and all the ‘coo wasn’t she a one’ coverage of her sex life, she has had too much press as the novelist who did a lot of shagging and then lost her marbles to be given an entirely fair trial for at least another decade.

A first step towards being fair to Murdoch would be to take stock of what is remarkable in her. The first time I read Bradbury’s ‘unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms’ I did find it very funny indeed. But decapitating puppies? Murdoch had the inestimable virtue of not only liking dogs but of making several of her plots turn on their kindness and humans’ kindness to them: in her first novel, Under the Net (1954), a retired film star German shepherd remains infinitely obliging despite enduring the indignity of being sold and then dognapped; in The Nice and the Good (1968) a ‘somewhat poodle-like dog’ warms a pair of characters trapped in a cave. She writes brilliantly and with real sympathy about other hurtable creatures. Her adolescent men are perhaps her most vivid creations: the scene early in The Bell in which 18-year-old Toby is in a hot railway carriage opposite the insensate and sexy Dora captures an adolescent mixture of straight desire and a desire to please that vindicates her statement: ‘How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change.’ Murdoch’s representations of gay men, and also of gay men who are attracted to much younger males, are free of both cliché and moralism in a way that is probably without parallel among fiction written by women or men in the 1960s and 1970s. There is an omnivorousness about her understanding of desire which brings with it a wise form of toleration.

Perhaps her greatest skill, however, is one for which she’s rarely praised and for which she herself would probably not have wanted praise. She is exceptionally good at describing gravity-defying feats of engineering. So in The Sandcastle (1957) Don Mor, the hero’s son (an adolescent who is made vivid chiefly by not saying very much, and by his love for a dog who has died), is stuck up a tower after a school prank has gone wrong and is about to fall to his death. His father, a teacher at the school who had been off with a new love, manages to stretch out a ladder to him across from an adjacent building. Gravity, and human efforts to defy it, add material weight to the levity of passion in the novel: ‘As Mor saw the body still perched there over the sharp edge, and as he felt the terrible drop opening beneath him, he was in such an agony of fear that he almost fell himself.’ In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing. Indeed some of her plots, particularly in the earlier and mostly better half of her career, do not turn on the sub-Jamesian summery reveries that are foregrounded in Bradbury’s parody, but on literal pivots, on objects counterbalancing each other and perilously holding good: ‘Once the bell was inside the barn, the steel hawser would be passed over one of the large beams and the winch used to raise it from the ground.’

That concern with physically complex feats of engineering is an element that many of her (apparently) ultra-serious moral fictions have in common with the ultra-frivolous detective novels of the 1940s and 1950s, the dénouements of which so often turn on precisely engineered actions, in which, say, an apparently impossible murder has been committed by hoisting a body up through a skylight by means of a block and tackle and thereby vacating the murder scene. Cyril Hare’s fiction and the Oxford-based novels of Edmund Crispin in particular must have been works which Murdoch knew well. In The Nice and the Good a jealous mistress (Murdoch created rather a lot of these) tries to gather evidence of infidelity from the house of John Ducane (who is himself a kind of detective investigating a suicide that may be a murder). She casually notes ‘the bathroom wastepaper basket contained a detective novel.’ That’s a guilty acknowledgment of a debt to a genre which would not have figured large in Murdoch’s grave North Oxford conversations about Philosophy and Love. But that surprisingly donnish genre (the English tutor at Christ Church in the 1950s and 1960s, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote detective fiction as Michael Innes, and Edmund Crispin took his pseudonym from one of his novels) could be regarded as Murdoch without the metaphysics.

But of course Murdoch without the metaphysics would not quite be Murdoch. Her chief contribution to the English novel was to create an unstable marriage (and marriages within her fiction are always unstable) between apparently incompatible elements. She took the forensic realism and the stagey conjunctions of many people in one place from detective fiction and welded onto it a large dose of philosophy, with a dash of incongruous starry-eyed romantic fiction on the side. As this description implies, it was a very unstable fusion, both structurally and tonally. Sometimes her novels read as though a French farce were being redescribed by Sartre. Sometimes Hugo (as it were) pitches up for no apparent reason other than to tell the protagonist he needs to sort out his karma, and everyone suddenly falls in love. At these moments it’s hard to tell if Murdoch’s fictional tongue is in her cheek, or if it’s just poor engineering in the plot, over which she laboured with less care than she did over representing material actions, or some deeper failure to recognise that people usually do things for some kind of reason.

Her particular flavour of metaphysics is not always easily combined with the conventions of realist fiction. In 1953 she wrote one of the earliest English-language discussions of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s conception of freedom made her uneasy, but she thought about it throughout her working life; and Sartre’s way of exploring larger perceptual truths through the description of transient experiences often helps her add weight to moments of bodily accident. So, when Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, the Sea (1978), meditates on his near-fatal fall into the ocean he reflects in the mode of the more casual sections of Being and Nothingness: ‘Even in a harmless fall in the road there is a little moment of horror when the faller realises that he cannot help himself.’ Freedom and the void are there to swallow you up when you fall, and we are all weighed down with an amoral kind of gravity.

The other main strand in Murdoch’s intellectual origins is a version of Platonism that is pretty much a direct enemy of the tendency in bourgeois fiction to particularise people. This generates many problems. Her novels tend to be overpopulated with Flavias and Hugos and Pierces and Peregrines, not to mention Johns and Judies, who fall in and out of love with one another with remarkable ease. Of course there is not much else to do when you are summering by the sea in a large house; but this much-noted feature of Murdoch’s fiction does not simply result from her tendency to represent middle-class characters at leisure. Love evidently was for her an emotion that was transferable between individuals, each of whom might partially embody a form of the loveable, and whose external accidental attributes – their name, their sex, the colour of their hair, their taste in food – were therefore insignificant.

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Monday, 15 August 2016

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

When I lived in Moscow, I more often than not walked to work down Okhotny Ryad, a grand central boulevard. Like many places in Russia, it had been renamed after 1991 as part of a push to remove anything redolent of communism from the map. Like many de-Sovietising initiatives, however, the process was abandoned halfway through. Karl Marx Avenue might have become Okhotny Ryad, but a statue of the man who inspired the Soviet regime stayed in situ, a few yards away from the traffic, where the road meets Theatre Square.

The statue’s plinth proclaims: “Workers of the world, unite!” The statue itself shows him with flowing locks swept back from his forehead as if by a stiff breeze, above a full beard, all hewn ruggedly out of granite. This statue formed an occasional focal point for slightly forlorn demonstrations by some of Russia’s remaining communists, who waved their red flags and demanded that Vladimir Putin resign.

I sometimes thought, when looking at their demonstrations as I walked by, that de-Sovietisers could still solve the problem if they wanted, by just affixing a different slogan over the communist one and pretending the statue didn’t represent Marx at all. With his bushy beard and beetling brow, the great communist could easily be a mystic from the early days of Orthodox Christianity (though, admittedly, the greatcoat and tie would be hard to explain). That’s the thing about Marx – he looks right; he looks like you’d expect a prophet to look. Before you even hear the details of his arguments, you find yourself thinking: someone with that much hair has to have a point.

The magnificence of Marx’s mane has clearly long been a major part of his personal brand. It graces his grave in Highgate cemetery and here it is again, adorning the cover of Gareth Stedman Jones’s exhaustive and staggeringly well-researched intellectual biography. Stedman Jones is professor of the history of ideas at Queen Mary, University of London, and has long focused on Marx. This book is an attempt to separate the man (whom he calls “Karl” throughout, thus distinguishing him from the mythical “Marx”) from the Marxist movement he inspired.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate (a western province of what is now Germany), which had recently been added to the Kingdom of Prussia, having been held by France since shortly after the French revolution. The Napoleonic wars had only just finished and Europe was entering into a turbulent period, full of industrial innovation, revolutionary activities, philosophical debates and more. Growing up, Marx was a precocious student who befriended many of the leading German-speaking philosophers of the time. By his late 20s, he was describing himself as a communist and engaging in heated debates with fellow travellers who raised points he disagreed with, often so forcefully that they barely recovered from the experience.

The revolutionary upheavals of 1848 carried him across western Europe – France, Belgium, Germany – until eventually he ended up in London, where he attempted to write up his unifying theory of humanity’s progress towards a socialist utopia that still inspires those protesters around his statue in Moscow. He had already met Friedrich Engels (who also frequently appears as a Russian statue, despite being less hirsute), who became both his closest intellectual collaborator and the source of much of the money he lived on.

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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Justice to J.D. Salinger

When J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924″—a very long and very strange story in the form of a letter from camp written by Seymour Glass when he was seven—appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to confirm the growing critical consensus that Salinger was going to hell in a handbasket. By the late Fifties, when the stories “Franny” and “Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters” were coming out in the magazine, Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family.

When “Franny” and “Zooey” appeared in book form in 1961, a flood of pent-up resentment was released. The critical reception—by, among others, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and John Updike—was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please. “Zooey” had already been pronounced “an interminable, an appallingly bad story,” by Maxwell Geismar1 and “a piece of shapeless self-indulgence” by George Steiner.2 Now Alfred Kazin, in an essay sardonically entitled “J.D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite,'” set forth the terms on which Salinger would be relegated to the margins of literature for doting on the “horribly precocious” Glasses. “I am sorry to have to use the word ‘cute’ in respect to Salinger,” Kazin wrote, “but there is absolutely no other word that for me so accurately typifies the self-conscious charm and prankishness of his own writing and his extraordinary cherishing of his favorite Glass characters.”3 McCarthy peevishly wrote: “Again the theme is the good people against the stupid phonies, and the good is still all in the family, like a family-owned ‘closed’ corporation…. Outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in.” And: “Why did [Seymour] kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her ‘simplicity, her terrible honesty’?… Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?”

Didion dismissed Franny and Zooey as “finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.”5 Even kindly John Updike’s sadism was aroused. He mocked Salinger for his rendering of a character who is “just one of the remote millions coarse and foolish enough to be born outside the Glass family,” and charged Salinger with portraying the Glasses “not to particularize imaginary people but to instill in the reader a mood of blind worship, tinged with envy.” “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation. ‘Zooey’ is just too long.”

Today “Zooey” does not seem too long, and is arguably Salinger’s masterpiece. Rereading it and its companion piece “Franny” is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby. It remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated. It is the contemporary criticism that has dated. Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept “shapelessness” of the novel, it now seems magnificently misguided. However—as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy7—negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work’s originality. The “mistakes” and “excesses” that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.

In the case of Salinger’s critics, it is their extraordinary rage against the Glasses that points us toward Salinger’s innovations. I don’t know of any other case where literary characters have aroused such animosity, and where a writer of fiction has been so severely censured for failing to understand the offensiveness of his creations. In fact, Salinger understood the offensiveness of his creations perfectly well. “Zooey”‘s narrator, Buddy Glass, wryly cites the view of some of the listeners to the quiz show It’s a Wise Child, on which all the Glass children had appeared in turn, “that the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth.” The seven-year-old letter-writer in “Hapworth” reports that “I have been trying like hell since our arrival to leave a wide margin for human ill-will, fear, jealousy, and gnawing dislike of the uncommonplace.” Throughout the Glass stories—as well as in Catcher—Salinger presents his abnormal heroes in the context of the normal world’s dislike and fear of them. These works are fables of otherness—versions of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” However, Salinger’s design is not as easy to make out as Kafka’s. His Gregor Samsas are not overtly disgusting and threatening; they have retained their human shape and speech and are even, in the case of Franny and Zooey, preternaturally good-looking. Nor is his vision unrelentingly tragic; it characteristically oscillates between the tragic and the comic. But with the possible exception of the older daughter, Boo Boo, who grew up to become a suburban wife and mother, none of the Glass children is able to live comfortably in the world. They are out of place. They might as well be large insects. The critics’ aversion points us toward their underlying freakishness, and toward Salinger’s own literary deviance and irony.

Ten years before the “interminable” and “shapeless” “Zooey” appeared in The New Yorker, a very short and well-made story called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” appeared there, and traced the last few hours in the life of a young man who kills himself in the story’s last sentence by putting a revolver to his temple. At the time, readers had no inkling that Seymour Glass—as the young man was called—would become a famous literary character, and that this was anything but a self-contained story about a suicidal depressive and his staggeringly shallow and unhelpful wife, Muriel. It is only in retrospect that we can see that the story is a kind of miniature and somewhat oversharp version of the allegory that the Glass family stories would enact.

The story, which takes place at a Florida resort, where the husband and wife are vacationing, is divided into two sections. In the first we overhear a telephone conversation between the wife and her mother in New York, which mordantly renders the bourgeois world of received ideas and relentless department-store shopping in which the women are comfortably and obliviously ensconced. The second section takes place on the beach where the despairing Seymour is conversing with a little girl named Sybil Carpenter, whose mother has told her to “run and play” while she goes to the hotel to have a martini with a friend. Seymour is revealed as a man who is wonderful with children, not talking down to them but, rather, past them, as thus:
“My daddy’s coming tomorrow on a nairiplane,” Sybil said, kicking sand.
“Not in my face, baby,” the young man said, putting his hand on Sybil’s ankle. “Well, it’s about time he got here, your daddy. I’ve been expecting him hourly. Hourly.”
“Where’s the lady?” Sybil said.
“The lady?” The young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. “That’s hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.”
Seymour is the Myshkin-like figure whose death inhabits the Glass family stories. But as he appears in “Bananafish,” he isn’t quite right for the role. He is too witty and too crazy. (When he leaves the beach and goes back to the hotel to kill himself, his behavior in the elevator is that of a bellicose maniac.) Salinger takes care of the problem by disclaiming authorship of “Bananafish.” In “Seymour: An Introduction,” he allows Buddy Glass, the second-oldest brother and the story’s narrator, to claim authorship of “Bananafish” (as well as of Catcher and the story “Teddy”), and then to admit that his portrait of Seymour is wrong—is really a self-portrait. This is the sort of “prankishness” one imagines Kazin to have been complaining about and that no longer—after fifty years of postmodern experimentation (and five Zuckerman books by Philip Roth)—sticks in our craw. If our authors want to confess to the precariousness and handmade-ness of their enterprise, who are we to protest? Salinger would also considerably amplify and complicate the simple harsh sketch of the regular world that “Bananafish” renders. But he would permanently retain the dualism of “Bananafish,” the view of the world as a battleground between the normal and the abnormal, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the talentless and the gifted, the well and the sick.

In “Zooey” we find the two youngest Glass children, Franny and Zooey, in their parents’ large apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Salinger’s use of recognizable places in New York and his ear for colloquial speech give the work a deceptive surface realism that obscures its fundamental fantastic character. The Glass family apartment is at once a faithfully, almost tenderly, rendered, cluttered, shabby, middle-class New York apartment and a kind of lair, a mountain fastness, to which Salinger’s strange creations retreat, to be with their own kind. Twenty-year-old Franny, who is brilliant and kind, as well as exceptionally pretty, has come home from college after suffering a nervous collapse during a football weekend. In the shorter story “Franny,” which serves as a kind of prologue to “Zooey,” we have already seen her in the alien outer world, vainly struggling against her antipathy to her boyfriend, Lane Coutell. If the mother and daughter in “Bananafish” represented the least admirable features of mid-century female bourgeois culture, so Lane is an almost equally unprepossessing manifestation of Fifties male culture. He is a smug and pretentious and condescending young man. Over lunch in a fancy restaurant, the conversation between Franny and Lane grows ever more unpleasant as he obliviously boasts about his paper on Flaubert’s mot juste for which he received an A and she tries less and less hard to hide her impatient disdain.

Lane is not alone as an object of Franny’s jaundiced scrutiny. “Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad making,” she tells him. The one thing she finds meaningful is a little book she carries around with her called The Way of the Pilgrim, which proposes that the incessant repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” will bring about mystical experience. Lane is as unimpressed with the “Jesus Prayer” as Franny is with his Flaubert paper. As the breach between the pair widens, another agon is played out, that of food. Lane orders a large meal of snails, frogs’ legs, and salad, which he eats with gusto, and Franny (to his irritation) orders a glass of milk, from which she takes a few tiny sips, and a chicken sandwich, which she leaves untouched.

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Friday, 12 August 2016

Franz Kafka's virtual romance

On 13 August 1912, a summer evening in Prague, a young Franz Kafka was gathering up his manuscripts to take to the house of his friend, Max Brod. His excursion to the Brods’ home late in the evening was not unusual, but this was an unusual night, for two momentous reasons: Kafka was about to send off what would be one of his first works to be published, and that evening he would meet the woman who would dominate his romantic imagination for the next five years.

Felice Bauer, a cousin of the Brod family who lived in Berlin, was travelling through Prague on her way to a wedding. That night, she would meet the intense author at the Brods’ dining table. According to Kafka’s version of the events (and it is the only one we have, since Felice’s letters were destroyed), she did not eat much and seemed reticent when he “offered her his hand across the table”. The few words they exchanged, her demeanour, her slippers, where she sat, where he sat, his invitation that she join him on a trip to Jerusalem, his aching self-consciousness as he (along with Max Brod’s father) walked her home: all of this would form the flimsy foundation on which their relationship was built – one they would conduct almost entirely without seeing each other in person, one that Kafka scholar Elias Canetti dubbed “Kafka’s Other Trial.”.

Despite the relatively short distance between Prague and Berlin, Kafka and Bauer would meet only a handful of times, become engaged twice and never marry. But their correspondence of hundreds of letters – which finished when Kafka wrote the last letter in 1917 and only came to the world’s attention in 1955, when Bauer sold his letters to her – is one of the most poignant chronicles of the human urge to share ourselves, while foregoing the vulnerability that such intimacy creates.

These days, our world is dominated by the written word more than ever before. While letter-writing declines, in 2015 the average office worker received 121 emails every day, their very own share of the 205bn total sent and received in total. In the second decade of the 20th century, Franz and Felice, toiling in offices in Prague and Berlin, were similarly able to count on correspondence, work and otherwise, delivered several times a day. More urgent messages came via telegram and all of it was routine enough by 1912 to be taken for granted.

Kafka relied on the single medium of his letters to mythologise his romance with Bauer, making it, and consequently himself, far more attractive. (“Nothing unites two people so completely, especially if, like you and me, all they have is words,” he wrote in one letter.) He used the distance between the real and virtual worlds to his advantage, in a way that is familiar today – who of us hasn’t crafted a more perfect version of ourselves, in that separate online world?

Kafka resisted putting their epistolary relationship to the real-life test. After finally agreeing to meet Bauer, he sent a telegram in the morning saying he would not be coming, but went anyway – and remained sullen and withdrawn, later complaining that he had been hugely disappointed with the real Felice.

This was predictable: a month before the visit, Kafka wrote that “if one bolts the doors and windows against the world, one can from time to time create the semblance and almost the beginning of the reality of a beautiful life”. In these words, one could argue, lies a premonition of online romance. What Kafka did in lyrical prose, the rest of us bumble through on social media and dating apps today – enjoying a similar disconnect from reality.

And make no mistake, the virtual nature of their relationship was a deliberate effort on Kafka’s part: his allegiance was to writing, and the love he felt for Bauer was constructed entirely in writing, the content and frequency of which he could control. It was entirely untranslatable into an actual marriage. He’d veer between contradictions on that point, too, at one point gushing that “we belong together unconditionally” only to declare “marriage a scaffold” weeks later.

Reticent or eager, the internet age has made writers of us all, and even if most of us are bad ones, we gather up the small prizes of making ourselves and our virtual crushes look better than we are. Yes, our lusty, emotive missives likely lack the incandescence of Kafka’s prose, but his indulgence of a romance restricted to writing gives email love a useful literary genealogy. Kafka’s fiction has bestowed us with the adjective “Kafkaesque”, pointing to the intersection of the perverse and the grotesque woven into the banalities of modern life. Kafka’s love letters suggest another dimension for the term: that incongruity between who we are and who we want to be, between our desire to share our inner worlds and the fear of experiencing the consequent vulnerability that such exposure would bring into our “real” lives. Connection and isolation each have a cost. Virtual worlds, like letters of old, provide a partition between the two; enabled then by the postal service, and now by digital technology.

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

George Herbert: Peace

SWEET PEACE, where dost thou dwell ?  I humbly crave, 
                        Let me once know. 
        I sought thee in a secret cave, 
                And ask’d, if Peace were there. 
A hollow winde did seem to answer, No : 
                        Go seek elsewhere. 

I did ;  and going did a rainbow note : 
                        Surely, thought I, 
        This is the lace of Peaces coat : 
                I will search out the matter. 
But while I lookt, the clouds immediately 
                        Did break and scatter. 

Then went I to a garden, and did spy 
                        A gallant flower, 
        The crown Imperiall :  Sure, said I, 
                Peace at the root must dwell. 
But when I digg’d, I saw a worm devoure 
                        What show’d so well. 

At length I met a rev’rend good old man : 
                        Whom when of Peace 
        I did demand, he thus began ; 
                There was a Prince of old 
At Salem dwelt, who liv’d with good increase 
                        Of flock and fold. 

He sweetly liv’d ;  yet sweetnesse did not save 
                        His life from foes. 
        But after death out of his grave 
                There sprang twelve stalks of wheat : 
Which many wondring at, got some of those 
                        To plant and set. 

It prosper’d strangely, and did soon disperse 
                        Through all the earth : 
        For they that taste it do rehearse, 
                That vertue lies therein ; 
A secret vertue bringing peace and mirth 
                        By flight of sinne. 

Take of this grain, which in my garden grows, 
                        And grows for you ; 
        Make bread of it :  and that repose 
                And peace, which ev’ry where 
With so much earnestnesse you do pursue 
                        Is onely there. 

I gotta use words - T.S. Eliot

The first person to annotate a poem by T.S. Eliot was T.S. Eliot. His notes on The Waste Land (1922) were composed partly so that his 433-line poem could be issued by his American publishers Boni & Liveright as a book, and partly, as he recalled in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. ‘Not only the title,’ Eliot observed in his introductory paragraph to The Waste Land’s notes,
but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
In these seemingly sober, useful, self-deprecating sentences lurks the MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term, that reaches its epic, mind-boggling climax in the publication, nearly a century on, of Faber’s two all-comprehending new tomes, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. The editors promise to ‘elucidate the difficulties’ of Eliot’s work by tracing every possible verbal overlap between the words used in his poems and the words used by other writers, both famous and obscure, in texts that range from Dante’s Divine Comedy to an anonymous scribe’s record of the Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa (1902).

The lines of Eliot’s that most often occurred to me as I worked my way through these thousand or so pages of commentary (set in 10-point type) are from Sweeney Agonistes. In the course of his narrative about a man who ‘did a girl in’, and then kept her body in a bath with a gallon of Lysol, Sweeney explains that the murderer would periodically visit him:

SWEENEY: He used to come and see me sometimes
I’d give him a drink and cheer him up.

DORIS: Cheer him up?

DUSTY: Cheer him up?

SWEENEY: Well here again that don’t apply
But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

One of the side effects of reading through this edition’s extraordinarily wide-ranging and inclusive notes is the periodical rising of a Sweeney-like urge to declare: ‘That don’t apply.’ Like Sweeney, every poem has got to use words, and those words will also necessarily have been used in the work of earlier or contemporary writers.

To begin at the very beginning: is there a meaningful relationship between ‘Let us go then …’ (the opening words of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), and the phrase ‘Let us go now …’ which occurs in Chapter 40 of Daniel Deronda (with ‘street’ and ‘sky’ later in the paragraph); between ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky’ (line 2 of ‘Prufrock’) and Thomas Hardy’s ‘forms there flung/Against the sky’ (‘The Abbey Mason’); between ‘certain half-deserted streets’ (line 4 of ‘Prufrock’) and ‘he sought out a certain street and number’ in Chapter 20 of Little Dorrit; or, moving beyond literature, between that phrase and the recording of a payment made to ‘R.D. Bennett, for sprinkling a certain street’ in the aforementioned Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa; between Prufrock’s ‘overwhelming question’ (line 10) and the observation in Chapter 23 of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers that ‘The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question’?

Certainly Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language, with the possible exception of his great antagonist John Milton, he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words he deployed in his poems. But what exactly is the difference, one can’t help wondering while reading such notes, between an interesting allusion or echo and a mere verbal coincidence? And where should limits be set for the recording of these echoes or coincidences in the age of the internet, when it’s possible to pursue any phrase ad infinitum? Should notes in a scholarly edition aspire to the condition of an entry in the OED? Anyone with an interest in Eliot will be grateful for, and marvel at, the truly extraordinary knowledge of all things Eliotic that underpins these volumes, but – to get my quibble out of the way early, so that I can praise the numerous virtues of this edition with a clear conscience – it is not always easy to discern the value of the links the editors posit between Eliot’s words and the analogous phrases, drawn from a bewildering array of writers, presented for comparison in the commentary.

Those first ten lines of ‘Prufrock’, for instance, elicit, as well as the citations I’ve already mentioned, quotations from Jules Laforgue, W.E. Henley, Théophile Gautier, Russell S. Fowler (author of The Operating Room and the Patient, a 1906 book which includes a reference to ‘anaesthetic tables’), William James, James Thomson, William Acton, Charles-Louis Philippe, W.R. Burnett (a crime novelist in whose High Sierra – published in 1940 – the phrase ‘She was … a one-night-stand type’ occurs), Edward Winslow Martin (author of The Secrets of the Great City, 1868, which mentions ‘cheap hotels’), the London Baedeker, Cooper’s The Prairie and Hamlet’s ‘overwhelming question’ – ‘“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Perhaps also OED 6: “to pop the question (slang or colloq.), to propose marriage” (1725)’. In addition, the notes on these ten lines draw our attention to eight other Eliot poems, as well as including quotations from The Cocktail Party and a number of his essays and letters. It’s worth remarking at the very least that the parameters established for this edition constitute a new frontier in the use of notes to record verbal echoes and overlaps, as well as to include tangential facts. The quote from The Prairie, for instance, is adduced because Eliot always sounds the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurants’ in his various recorded readings of ‘Prufrock’; ‘OED,’ the editors add, ‘gives a pronunciation in which it is not sounded, and the spelling of its first citation, from Fenimore Cooper, 1827, points to the French derivation: “At the most renowned of the Parisian restaurans”.’ This is a good instance of the sort of knowledge you will pick up from Ricks and McCue’s commentary as an unexpected bonus. It illustrates their generous wish to impart as much information as possible, and while their method throws up all manner of fascinating trouvailles, surely even the most devoted Eliot scholars will occasionally find themselves scratching their heads when ordinary words such as ‘toast’ (‘the taking of a toast and tea’) are glossed by an OED definition – ‘Bread so browned by fire, electric heat etc.’ The editors’ kitchen-sink approach to annotation makes even Longman editions, such as Ricks’s own wonderful three-volume edition of Tennyson – who published an awful lot more poetry than Eliot – seem modest by comparison.

Modernist writing often foregrounded in unignorable ways the issues raised in the opening sentences of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. The difficulties presented through his use of allusions and source materials required elucidation by reference to other books, and readers had to be persuaded that getting to grips with an anthropological text on medieval legends in order to understand the poem that it supposedly inspired was ‘worth the trouble’. On occasion Eliot himself expressed remorse for having kickstarted the business of allusion-hunting with his ‘bogus scholarship’, while conceding that the poem and its notes were wed for ever: ‘I have sometimes thought of getting rid of these notes; but now they can never be unstuck. They have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself – anyone who bought my book of poems, and found that the notes to The Waste Land were not in it, would demand his money back.’ Maybe so, but Eliot’s notes hardly offer a reader-friendly exposition of the poem’s mysteries: they assume proficiency in French, Italian, Latin and German, and they struck Arnold Bennett, whose help Eliot sought while he was at work on Sweeney Agonistes, as a spoof: ‘I said to him,’ Bennett recorded in his Journals, ‘“I want to ask you a question. It isn’t an insult. Were the notes to Wastelands a lark or serious? I thought they were a skit.” He said that they were serious, and not more of a skit than some things in the poem itself.’

Much of Eliot’s poker-faced humour – like much of the savagery or violence in his work – derives from his confounding of the difference between ‘a lark’ and the ‘serious’, and the mock scholarly aspect of the notes is to the fore in annotations such as the one with which he glosses the lines ‘To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine’: ‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’ At times he seems almost to be taunting the philistine English poetry-lover who can’t see beyond the Georgians, as when he recommends to those unable to read Sanskrit Paul Deussen’s 1897 translation into German of Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, where the ‘fable of the meaning of the Thunder’ can be found. His note, on the other hand, on Tiresias (the blind ancient Greek prophet who had been both man and woman) suggested a way of reading The Waste Land that has had a deep and lasting influence on the poem’s reception, for it implied a coherent overall plan and a way of understanding the various characters the poem presents:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
This seems to encourage us to view The Waste Land not as a ‘heap of broken images’ or a series of sprawling, disconnected ‘fragments’ shored against the poet’s ruins, but as a skilfully orchestrated jeremiad by a prophet-like creator who, rather than a pulpit, uses collage and allusion and other avant-garde (as well as traditional) poetic techniques to alert his followers to their perilous spiritual state. The note acts as both a declaration of the ‘impersonality’ of the poem and as a kind of prophylactic insulating Eliot from Tiresias. We are not, it warns, to assume that the poet is dramatising his own divided state and dilemmas through his all-uniting ‘personage’, although, reading against the grain, the note may also prompt us to think that this is exactly the use he is making of the old man with wrinkled dugs who foresees and foresuffers all.

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