Friday, 30 September 2016

Short Cuts - Marguerite Duras

To interview Marguerite Duras, you had to speak Duras. ‘Durassien’ stood, then and now, for inscrutability. Her novels consist of a succession of paragraphs entire of themselves; in her plots everything happens at once or nothing happens. Her movies were about giving the viewer as little to see as possible, and all the better if that meant the screen went black for up to half an hour at a time. Everyone knew she drank, that she’d nearly died from it, and that she loved recklessly, and that she refused to be counted as a Nouveau Romancier, or part of the Nouvelle Vague, or an habituée of the Flore, or the Deux Magots, or wherever else it was fashionable to go that season. But she was in the habit of leaving the door of her apartment on the Left Bank open from dawn until dusk. Home, she thought, ought to be open to the outside: to her friends Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, to Alain Resnais and Delphine Seyrig, to those who simply rang the bell on the rue Saint-Benoît, like the Italian journalist Leopoldina Pallotta della Torre. (It helped that she had brought a hunk of Parmesan; it was noon, the 73-year-old had just got up, and there was nothing to eat in the house.) Pallotta della Torre came on commission from La Stampa, and stayed for long afternoons of talk over two years. The result, a book-length interview called La passione sospesa, came out with a tiny Italian press in 1989 and was unknown in France until it was translated in 2013. It now appears in English as Suspended Passion (Seagull, £17) and it shows Duras at her most scrutable.

Marguerite Donnadieu was born in 1914 in Gia Dinh, French Indochina, to a teacher mother and civil servant father who died when she was seven. Her mother’s attempt to raise the family out of poverty – the purchase of a paddy field in the Mekong Delta that constantly flooded and so produced nothing – ruined them. The teenage Donnadieu, with heart-shaped face and lips as glossy as tar, attended lycée in Saigon and it was there that she began an affair with an older, richer Chinese man. At 18 she escaped to Paris, and at 36 she had her first success with The Sea Wall, based on her Indochinese adolescence.

Three years before Pallotta della Torre turned up in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Duras had published The Lover, a short, elegant novel that returned once more to her memories of the affair in Saigon. ‘I’d rather you didn’t love me,’ the 15-year-old Lolita says to her lover, ‘but if you do, I’d like you to do as you usually do with women.’ Duras adopts the smoky tone of The Lover’s narrator to Pallotta della Torre: ‘Love, I’m told, is a subject that guarantees success’ – the novel sold more than two million copies, was translated into 43 languages and won the Prix Goncourt. She would keep returning to the subject because her experience of love, in particular a ‘violent, highly erotic love affair’ she had in the late 1950s, had shattered something in her: ‘It made me want to kill myself and that changed the way I produced literature – it was now about discovering the gaps, the blanks I had within me, and finding the courage to express them.’ In moments of respite – ‘I grew to like the empty space men left when they went out’ – she found a style. Her simple stories of love found and love lost, or vice versa, allowed for experimentation: paragraphs floating in white space, blacked-out film screens, memories that tessellate rather than succeed each other. ‘You destroy me. You’re so good for me,’ as the woman says in Hiroshima mon amour, the film Resnais made from her screenplay.

One reason love is terrible is that men are terrible, ‘only prepared to understand those who are like them. A man’s true life companion – his real confidant – can only be another man.’ The men Duras had known had not wanted her to go on so much about her difficulties with writing or the obtuseness of her critics (who would?) and instead to clean and cook and help them rest from their work. ‘Each time in my life when I stopped living with a man, I rediscovered myself. I wrote my finest books alone,’ she says. The insufferableness of men was a theme: ‘We have to love men a lot. A lot, a lot. Love them a lot in order to love them at all. Otherwise it’s impossible; we couldn’t bear them,’ she says in an earlier book of conversations, Practicalities, which was translated by Samuel Beckett’s lover, Barbara Bray, who put much of Duras’s work into English. In The Lover, the young French woman in her mother’s silk dress is contemptuous of her lover’s failure to defy his rich father and marry her, though he is the one who will phone years later to tell her ‘that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death’.

Duras liked other women if they were actresses; she loathed Simone de Beauvoir but counted Nathalie Sarraute as one of her closest friends. She was wary of feminism as one of ‘all these rather obtuse forms of activism that don’t always lead to true female emancipation’. (She’d left the Communist Party in the late 1950s and saw Marxism as having ‘set itself up to censor experience, desire’.) She read most nights until three or four in the morning – ‘daylight dissipates the intensity’ – returning time and again to The Princess de Clèves, The Man without Qualities, Moby-Dick. Her contemporaries? ‘Who reads them? My suspicion is that they’re boring … at any rate, none of them will ever write a book like The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein’ (by one M. Duras). She blamed Sartre for the ‘cultural and political backwardness of France’ and although Lacan made much of Lol, she didn’t read him: ‘Quite honestly I can’t understand much of what he wrote.’

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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Relentlessly Relevant - The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

On July 31, the U.S. Postal Office issued an 89-cent stamp in honor of Henry James. The issuance is part of the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series — James is the 31st figure in American literature to be so honored.

It is ironic that the stamp arrives on the centennial anniversary of James’s death and the year he became a British citizen. This was done as an expression of support for England’s war effort in World War I (Americans would not enter the war until April of 1917). Yet for all his gratitude to England, his loyalties never fully strayed from his native land. James’s novels and stories are full of American characters, often naïve and foolish, but also upright and brave — always morally superior to their more worldly European counterparts. It is therefore fitting that he be honored as an iconic American, worthy of his own postage stamp.

It is also fitting that the end of James’s life be celebrated. This was when he ascended to the “major phase” of his writing career — when he became, as his most important biographer and critic, Leon Edel, put it: “the Master.”

Although James’s early writing is more accessible and widely read, his late work is more important in the history of the novel and, arguably, in culture more generally. These late books are stylistically tortuous, prompting one of his friends to remark famously that he “chews more than he bites off.” (The quote has been attributed to a number of people, including Oscar Wilde and Henry Adams. Whoever said it first, others apparently found it so apt that they were prompted to repeat it.)

James’s dense and difficult style meshed with a shift in orientation in his later work. If you can grope your way through late James, you’ll find you have moved out of the Victorian era into the modern and, beyond that, into what we have come to refer to as the postmodern. This postmodern James is a harbinger of some unfortunate trends in our society today. It’s hard to believe that the difficult late writing of this long-dead writer has had a dangerous effect on our time, but — Jamesian enthusiast though I am — I am obliged to admit that this is so. But I’ll get to that.

Henry James was born in 1843 into a New York family of inherited wealth. Encouraged by his eccentric father to be unconventional, he abandoned law school for literature. He moved, gracefully but definitively, away from his geographical roots, expatriating himself first to Paris, then to London, where he would spend the majority of his writing life — though making regular forays into Italy for the art, architecture, and food.

As he moved into late middle age, James revamped the novel form to a point that exasperated many of his readers. Among them was his older brother William who, on the publication of Henry’s especially difficult late novel, The Golden Bowl, wrote:
Why don’t you, just to please your Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness of style?
William James, a pioneer in the fields of philosophy and psychology, remained attached to realism and clarity in his taste for fiction. But Henry James had left that kind of writing behind as he crossed from the 19th century into the 20th. His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, as his brother’s comments indicate — and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

James was also superficially modern in his predilection for the new tools of the new age. One of these was the typewriter. In his last years, he dictated his novels to his typist. It has even been speculated that the cadences of his late work follow the rhythm of the typewriter, punctuated by the bell as the machine moves from line to line. As he lay on his deathbed after a stroke, he was soothed by the tapping of the typewriter keys as they recorded his garbled dictation.

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Monday, 26 September 2016

Practical Cat - How Eliot became Eliot.

T.S. Eliot was a morally, intellectually, and sartorially fastidious man. His manner was so correct that it sometimes seemed a few degrees too correct. He was known to friends as a connoisseur of cheese—there are several anecdotes about him in which the punch line is provided by a remark about cheese—and as a collector of umbrellas with custom handles. He came to hold political and religious views that were far to the right of most of his contemporaries’, and to believe that Western civilization had been in decline since the thirteenth century, the time of Dante. He claimed to consider Richard III, who died in 1485, the last legitimate English king.

The poems and plays that Eliot published in his lifetime fill a single volume; his prose works are collections of talks and occasional journalism. The project to which he committed most of the latter part of his career, the revival of verse drama, was a failure. He was dismissive of grand theories of poetry, or anything else, and he never held a regular academic appointment. During his most productive years as a writer, from 1917 to 1925, he worked in a bank. His place in the curriculum is established, but he is hardly popular as a subject of teaching or scholarship.

Yet he was a true avant-gardist, and he made a revolution. He changed the way poetry in English is written; he re-set the paradigm for literary criticism; and his work laid down the principles on which the modern English department is built. He is the most important figure in twentieth-century English-language literary culture, a position he achieved with a relatively small amount of writing produced in a relatively brief amount of time and in unpromising circumstances.

He was a foreigner in a society, literary London, that is almost as incestuous and xenophobic as intellectual Paris. The writers he counted as comrades were looked upon by most of the literary establishment with distaste: Ezra Pound, an American; Wyndham Lewis, whose father was an American; and an Irishman, James Joyce. (There was not much love lost on their parts, either.) He was cut off from his family by the war; he was married to an unhealthy, demanding, and unstable woman; and he had troubles all his own. At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown and diagnosed his condition as aboulie—lack of will. While he was recovering, he wrote “The Waste Land.”

His success is an improbable and amazing story, and the publication, in two volumes, of his correspondence from 1898 to 1925, “The Letters of T. S. Eliot” (Yale; $45 each), lets us watch that story as it was unfolding, day by day, from the inside. The letters (some of which are by Eliot’s correspondents) have been compiled and edited, with generous annotation, by Hugh Haughton and Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife. They take up almost two thousand pages.

The inside view makes the success only a little easier to understand. Eliot was not just inscrutable; he performed inscrutability. He was pleased to adopt Pound’s nickname for him, the Possum, and the too-correctness was a way of suggesting that the umbrella fetish, the cheese-course rituals, the white flower (for York) that he wore on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, and all the rest of the bowler-hatted persona might be a put-on. He came across as a man who had got trapped inside an elaborate, Chaplinesque joke of his own devising. He was enjoying the joke, but he couldn’t get out. Ivor Richards, a founder of modern literary studies and one of Eliot’s most powerful disciples, recalled “the ghostly flavor of irony which hung about his manner as though he were preparing a parody.”

But what was within? Richards’s wife, Dorothea, described Eliot, on a visit, as “very gaunt & grim—as if he had burnt himself out. His queer coloured, strangely piercing eyes in a pale face are the most striking thing about him. He is pale with special wrinkles which run horizontally across his forehead & his nose is delicately Jewish. He doesn’t understand all I say nor do we him. His questions are surprising—disconcerting because so simple, sometimes also inane.” This was in 1928, a low point in Eliot’s life: he had secretly converted to Anglicanism the year before, and he was preparing to leave his wife. But from the beginning of his time in England the same details turn up in people’s takes on him: the unusual eyes (tawny, like a lion’s), the enervated demeanor, the uninspired conversation.

“Dull, dull, dull,” complained the Bloomsbury-circle hostess Ottoline Morrell in 1916, after Eliot’s first visit to her estate. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and imagines that it is essential to be highly polite and conventional and decorous and meticulous.” Most of the Bloomsbury figures had the same response at first. “Altogether not quite gay enough for my taste,” Lytton Strachey reported. “In an envelope of frozen formality,” Leonard Woolf remembered him. Bertrand Russell thought that Eliot was “lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything.” But Eliot made friends with them all. He also made friends with many of their rivals, like the Old Guard novelists Hugh Walpole and Arnold Bennett. He plugged himself in.

The letters show that he knew what he was doing. He was persistent, and he understood how the game was played. “Don’t think that I find it easy to live over here,” he wrote to his brother, Henry, in 1919, after he had been in England for five years:
It is like being always on dress parade—one can never relax. It is a great strain. And society is in a way much harder, not gentler. People are more aware of you, more critical, and they have no pity for one’s mistakes and stupidities. They are more spontaneous, and also more deliberate. They seek your company because they expect something particular from you, and if they don’t get it, they drop you. They are always intriguing and caballing; one must be very alert. They are sensitive, and easily become enemies. But it is never dull.
He saw that, among people so high-strung and self-centered, being an outsider, someone who appeared to have no personal stake in things, could be a source of authority. More important, he held all the English writers in contempt. It was a cool and disinterested contempt; it came from arrogance, not from pettiness or insecurity, and he gave just enough of a hint of it to make people nervous. The only contemporary writers he considered his peers were Pound and Lewis (though he knew their limitations extremely well). The only one he looked up to was Joyce.

That London was the square of the board Eliot landed on was something of an accident. If he had picked a city to expatriate to, it would probably have been Paris, where he spent a very happy year after graduating from Harvard College, in 1910. But he had not intended to emigrate at all. When he arrived in England, in August, 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, he was on a fellowship from the Harvard philosophy department. He planned to spend a year at Oxford, reading Aristotle and writing his dissertation, and then return to the United States and become a professor.

He liked Aristotle. He disliked Oxford. “I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books, and hideous pictures on the walls,” he wrote to an American friend, the poet Conrad Aiken. “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” He had met Pound soon after arriving in London—a meeting arranged by Aiken—and he had already written “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound, who had been in England since 1908 on a self-appointed mission to modernize the natives, read the poem and was stunned. “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own” was his famous reaction, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe. He encouraged Eliot to make more poems.

In the spring of 1915, at a party hosted by Scofield Thayer, a wealthy Harvard classmate who was also studying at Oxford, Eliot met Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a friend of Thayer’s sister. She was English, and working as a governess. Three months later, without informing their parents, they married. Eliot was twenty-six and, before they met, almost certainly a virgin. She was a party girl, unrefined, vivacious, and self-dramatizing—pretty much everything he was not.

People assumed that Eliot was sexually infatuated, but, considering the entirety of his romantic history (fairly barren), this doesn’t seem the most likely explanation. Eliot’s own version, in an unpublished memoir written near the end of his life, was:
I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or mild affair: I was too shy and unpracticed to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. . . . To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came “The Waste Land.”
They did, in the end, have one thing in common. They were both tremendously ambitious for his career.

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One Long Poem - Elizabeth Bishop

“The enormous power of reticence,” Octavio Paz wrote in 1977, “is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” Many critics have echoed his praise since her death in 1979. “Bishop wrote delicately and elliptically,” Kathleen Spivack sums up in her 2012 memoir With Robert Lowell and His Circle. “What is most important is what is not said.”

Bishop’s reputed reserve has taken on new significance in light of personal correspondence discovered in 2009. When Bishop’s lover Alice Methfessel passed away, her heir found a locked box containing some of Bishop’s photographs and personal documents, including three remarkable letters she wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, in 1947. These letters were written at a crucial moment of Bishop’s career, and their discovery calls for a reassessment of her lyric development and legacy.

But their intensely private nature also raises questions about the ethics of archival reconnaissance. Scholar Lorrie Goldensohn, who first wrote of the discovery in January 2015, noted that the letters appear to have been carefully copied and preserved, perhaps by Bishop herself. The poet might have wished her oeuvre to be understood by a future generation alongside the secrets that, in her lifetime, she kept so carefully from view. Biography, when it resists hagiography, can’t help but adjust the light in which we assess a writer’s art. In Bishop’s case, the light limns astonishing shadows.

• • •

Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
Bishop may have wanted her poems to be read by future generations in light of the secrets that, in life, she kept so carefully hidden.
Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.

Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.

Yet her poems are unflinchingly, unceasingly modern. With more subtlety and nuance than many of her peers, Bishop explored the marketplace of love and the homely accident of happiness; the arrogations of empire and ego; beauty’s unlikely appearance in the ugliness of a child’s death, an electric storm, or a blood-splattered armadillo; and art’s frail attempt to answer to life’s dinning disasters. A poet of broad sensibility and exacting technique, she excelled in classical forms, but she also riffed on blues songs and nursery rhymes, folk ballads and news broadcasts, building poetic structures of uncanny paradox, urbane surrealism, and figurative experiment. Few twentieth-century poets have been so proudly, possessively claimed by both new formalists and anti-lyricists, by the so-called establishment and the avant-garde.

It is ironic that Bishop should achieve the status of aesthetic alma mater of contemporary poetry. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, she lost her father in her infancy and her mother, Gertrude Bulmer, to psychiatric incarceration in 1916. The hospital file notes that Bulmer tried to hang herself with a sheet and to strangle Bishop’s grandmother; she spent the remaining eighteen years of her life in Nova Scotia Hospital, and Bishop never saw her after she was committed. The unearthed Foster letters fill in long-standing biographic lacunae regarding the extent of Bishop’s mourning for her mother and her other personal travails. They suggest that her reticence served as both a psychic and an aesthetic strategy. In the adage of Marianne Moore, Bishop’s mentor, the younger poet’s “omissions are not accidents.”

• • •

Bishop’s letters to her psychiatrist are newsy and notational. One begins with a friend surprising her “with a birthday cak[e] and some mimosa” and concludes with a hairstyling appointment before dinner with Randall Jarrell. But she also uses the letters as an extension of psychoanalysis, detailing a schoolgirl crush, for example, as well as a daring escape from a mixer party with “strange boys” that entailed hitchhiking and sleeping overnight in the Natick woods. The greater biographical significance of the letters lies in their revelation that Bishop suffered from incest and physical abuse as well as alcoholism and familial estrangement, subjects that many of her confessional peers explored publicly—often hyperbolically—in their poems. Although Bishop’s struggles with drink and parental loss have been well documented, these letters provide an aperture into her suffering, new information about her childhood traumas, and a compelling portrait of the solace she found in her psychiatrist’s understanding—a key to the poetics of recognition that marks her mature work.

Bishop’s epistolary persona is chatty and self-deprecating, even as she relates painful memories and concerns, including a growing dependency on drink. Alcoholic admissions punctuate her narrative: “while I was in my cups—kegs I should say”; “it’s taken three quarts of whiskey”; “I was so drunk I kept falling off my bicycle”; and “if only I didn’t feel I were that dreadful thing an ‘alcoholic.’” She traces her addiction back to the collegiate year in which her mother died and her unrequited love, the painter Margaret Miller, refused her. Bishop describes, too, her bouts of social anxiety (“I wanted to go but couldn’t damn fool that I am”) and her memory of a harrowing car accident in France that resulted in Miller’s arm being amputated. Poignantly, she recounts seeing in a lover’s expression at the moment of sexual climax, in “that mask of anguish we call joy,” the look of her late mother and “some connection with the word madness.” Bishop appears to have been haunted by her mother in some of the most private moments of her adult life.

In fits and starts, Bishop gradually relates the “long sad tale of Uncle George,” husband of her maternal aunt Maud Shepherdson. George began abusing Bishop when she was eight and continued well into her adolescence. He was an accountant for General Electric and a sadistic “storm trooper type” in his off hours; Bishop recalls instances in which he “lowered me by the hair over the second story verandah railing,” handled her sexually in a bathtub, and threatened to beat her without provocation. Altogether, the letters display an enabling trust between patient and doctor while providing new information about the poet’s hidden difficulties. In the gathering, concentric energy of these letters, Bishop shares confidences more intimate than what might be conveyed to a priest or a mother.

• • •

While these letters testify to a deep bond between analyst and analysand, they are also something of an ars poetica. Citing Edward Degas’s adage that “art doesn’t grow wider, it recapitulates,” Bishop credits Foster for helping her to “get over the fear of repetition.” She reports that she has begun to see each poem not as an “isolated event” but as part of “really all one long poem anyway” as “they go on into each other or over lap.” Bishop also situates the activity of writing poetry alongside dreaming and painting and emphasizes the genesis of her poems in fully formed, integral images.

Speaking of her poem “At the Fishhouses,” for example, she notes, “The day I saw this poem I was in Lockeport.” The poem is something seen, not just conceived. Bishop recounts awaking hungover, then taking a long bicycle ride “by way of punishment” to the ocean shore where she sat on the rocks, “cried for a while,” and visited with an Atlantic seal. That episode, she says, reanimated an earlier dream about a “wild & dark” storm in which she witnessed herself, “baby size,” feeding at Foster’s breast, a posture that she wryly rationalizes must be “a common dream about a woman analyst.” Bishop confides in Foster that this mammary imagery informs “At the Fishhouses,” in which the narrator describes knowledge as “drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever.” Later on, addressing her psychiatrist as “Ruth,” Bishop indicates their shared vulnerability: “You once said that I wouldn’t think you had once been shy . . . . I should have been more empathic I think—I fel[t] right away that you had once . . . been frightfully shy and that was an other reason why I took to you.”

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Thursday, 22 September 2016

Prophet and Loss - What Marx means in a world that has made peace with capitalism.

Does Karl Marx still matter? It’s a question most readers of a new biography of Marx would ask—even if they are already steeped in the contentious scholarship about (or the perpetual ideological skirmishes within) the radical left. What relevance can his life and work have in a world where nearly every socialist party long ago made its peace with capitalism, and at a time when his writings are read far more by academics than by the workers he longed to liberate? Even Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “socialist,” just wants to force the governing and economic elites to treat wage earners and consumers more fairly. He wants a new New Deal, not a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The decline of Marx’s influence does not seem to worry Gareth Stedman Jones. At many points in his new book, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, he even seems to welcome it. That may appear an odd stance for a distinguished left-wing historian of Britain, best known for his studies of the Victorian-era working class; Stedman Jones was, for almost two decades, a member of the editorial board of New Left Review—the most prominent and sophisticated venue for Marxian thought in the English-speaking world. Yet he has come to believe that the “dogmatic assumptions” of many Marxists inhibit “the writing of good history.” His study is thus a prolonged exercise in scraping off the dogma to get at the unvarnished figure, the Marx who died before he could turn into an “ism” both esteemed and reviled.

Stedman Jones maintains that the iconic image of Marx, created soon after his death in 1883, ignores historical context and a good deal that his work got wrong. The “forbidding bearded patriarch and lawgiver, a thinker of merciless consistency with a commanding vision of the future” worshiped by leftists was, in Stedman Jones’s view, a flawed theorist and failed revolutionary socialist, who overlooked the significance of the democratic revolution he was actually living through. What’s more, as a political refugee in working-class London who was rarely healthy, he struggled constantly to keep his children nourished, housed, and well-educated. He was also an arrogant soul who took criticism of his work as something like an act of war. “The aim of this book,” writes Stedman Jones, “is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings,” shedding “posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements.”

Most of the biography is devoted to a careful, occasionally pedantic evaluation of what is useless in Marx’s work and what remains of value. Stedman Jones provides lengthy examinations of his subject’s battles with other radical thinkers, his painstaking labors on Capital, and his ongoing quest to locate and rev up engines of change, to put an end to the exploitation of man by man and lay the foundation of a classless society. Stedman Jones includes just enough details of Marx’s personal life to justify labeling the book a biography instead of purely a study of his ideas and their consequences. Stedman Jones dutifully quotes the man he calls “Karl” complaining about his chronic liver disease and carbuncles, and continually pleading for financial support from Friedrich Engels, his sometime collaborator and ever-faithful friend.

Marx’s spouse and daughters also make intermittent appearances, revealing a formidable yet tragic family history. During the American Civil War, Karl’s daughter Eleanor, then ten years old, “wrote to Lincoln, appointing herself his political adviser.” Later, she would become a leading Socialist and feminist, who translated Ibsen and Flaubert into English. But Eleanor’s renown did not lift her from despair at the acts of an unfaithful lover. At 43, she committed suicide by poisoning herself. For her part, Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote reviews for a major German newspaper and organized a group of Londoners who read Shakespeare out loud to one another. Yet three of her children died very young, and like her husband, she was often plagued by protracted ailments. A hidden resentment may have exacerbated her poor health: Jenny probably knew that Karl had fathered a son with their longtime housekeeper. But if she ever spoke of it, that detail has never been recorded.

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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism

On YouTube there is a three-minute clip of the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre. The funeral took place on Saturday 19 April 1980 and the television coverage from which the clip is taken follows the journey of the hearse from the hospital where Sartre died to Montparnasse Cemetery, where he was to be buried – a distance of about three kilometres. Along the way, the hearse moves through a staggering number of people. The commentator says that there are 50,000 mourners in total, 30,000 on the streets leading to the cemetery and another 20,000 at the cemetery itself. When the camera pans out, you can see how extraordinarily packed the streets are; when it homes in on some of the faces, you notice that many of the mourners are young, in their early twenties. If you did not know whose funeral it was, you would guess a famous actor or actress, a rock star, or some such popular public figure as Diana, Princess of Wales or Winston Churchill. It would never occur to you that what you were seeing was the public reaction to the death of a philosopher.

It is often remarked that this shows the difference between French and British culture, because it is unimaginable that so many people in this country would be so deeply affected by the death of an intellectual. But, in fact, it is a pretty unusual event anywhere and at any time. It is said that when Kant died, the whole of Königsberg turned out to pay its respects, and there were big crowds at Voltaire’s funeral in Paris, too. In Russia, the funerals of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attracted huge numbers of mourners. However, these occasions of mass public grief on the death of a writer or intellectual are few and far between. What is shown by the crowds that lined the Boulevard du Montparnasse to catch a glimpse of Sartre’s hearse is not something about France, but something about Sartre in his own right, something that demands explanation. Why were so many people drawn to him? Why did he matter to so many?

For Sarah Bakewell, the answer lies in the peculiar appeal, and the timeliness, of the philosophy that he espoused: existentialism. In her wonderfully engaging and readable book At the Existentialist Café, she traces the history of the existentialist movement through the lives, personalities and thinking of its leading members. In addition to Sartre, these included his lover Simone de Beauvoir, his friends Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his main philosophical influences, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

The book is a joy to read. Bakewell shows enormous skill in bringing to life not only the leading figures, but also the times and places in which they lived, their ideas and their works. There is an awful lot of research packed into it which extends far beyond the literary and philosophical writings of her chief protagonists. She deftly places those writings in their political, social and historical context, often by considering the films, books, fashions and trends that formed their cultural backdrop. In many ways, hers is a study not of a particular philosophical movement, but of the ideas that shaped the art, literature and politics of the 20th century. Yet all this knowledge is carried ­remarkably lightly, and the book does not, for one moment, get bogged down or become a chore to read.

Another feature of At the Existentialist Café that makes it enjoyable is the author’s occasional mention of her personal engagement with the work of her subjects. The jacket blurb tells us that “Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist, having been swept off her feet by reading Sartre’s Nausea, aged 16”, and in the book she tells us that she has watched the online clip of his funeral “a dozen or more times, peering into the low-definition images of the many faces, wondering what existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre meant to each of them”. One feels that, had Bakewell been in Paris at the time (which was just a year after her teenage introduction to Sartre’s work) she would have been one of those mourners, because, she writes, “Sartre’s books changed my life, too.”

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Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction.

The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

Eventually, Simón, Davíd and Davíd’s mother, Inés, fled Novilla, heading for a town called Estrella. It is here that we pick up the story in the second novel in the series, with Simón and Inés arguing over how best to educate the six-year-old Davíd. Finally, after the intercession of three wealthy sisters, Davíd is sent to the local Academy of Dance, run by a Juan Sebastián Arroyo and his elegant wife, Ana Magdalena (many of the names in the book are obscurely significant). The education at the Academy is unusual – students learn maths by “dancing down” numbers – and yet Davíd, who’s a precocious and exasperating child, appears to flourish, forming a particularly close bond with Ana Magdalena.

Estrella is as blandly well-meaning as Novilla before it. The front page of the town’s newspaper features “an elderly couple with a gigantic cucurbit from their garden. It weighs fourteen kilograms, says the report, breaking the previous record by almost a kilogram. On page two a crime report lists the theft of a lawnmower from a shed (unlocked) and vandalism at a public toilet (a washbasin smashed)”. Against this banal backdrop, a real crime takes place. Dmitri, a creepy guard at the town’s museum, murders Ana Magdalena. It is Davíd who finds the body.

If The Childhood of Jesus was about Davíd leading Simón to a point where he could no longer endure the smothering goodwill of the state, this novel finds Simón questioning the extent to which his own internal landscape has been resculpted by the stultifying amiability of his adopted land. He attends Dmitri’s trial, where the judges do everything they can to mitigate the offence, leaving the murderer raving in the dock, assuring them of his genuine ill will. In Dmitri, Simón finds a model for real feeling. When the judges ask for a recess in order for the suspect to cool down, Simón has the first of a series of revelations. “Allow our passions to cool, he thinks: what passion do I feel except a passion of irritation?”

The Schooldays of Jesus is delivered in language stripped of all ornament and affect. There are few metaphors, little description, nothing lovely to snag the mind as we move forward through the story. There is, though, the regular clang of cliche: Simón knows the city “like the back of his hand”; the news of Dmitri’s relationship with Ana Magdalena “will spread like wildfire”; the three sisters greet Simón “stony-faced”. The prose, as we have come to expect from Coetzee, is not the point. And yet when Simón starts to attend a writing class, it is the austerity of his own language that brings home to him how devoid of real feeling his life has become. “Dmitri has on several occasions ridiculed the way I speak, which strikes him as overly cool and rational,” he writes. “Dmitri believes that the style reveals the man… he would call me a passionless man.” In the light of this new self-knowledge, he resolves to change. “I want to become a different person.”

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Friday, 16 September 2016

The Stein Way

Gertrude Stein exploited every freedom in language she knew about and when she reached the end of her list she invented some more.
Gertrude Stein set many of the best passages of her writing into extremely deep and confusing labyrinths such that when I read them I feel found though I am still lost.
Gertrude Stein would seem to be convention’s prodigal but in fact she is convention’s most loyal child man or woman because knows more than anyone about convention because she was constantly standing just this far from it.
Gertrude Stein had her own life and during it she wrote what she called someone else’s Autobiography and this is one definition of novelist.
Gertrude Stein was called by Alice B. Toklas “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle.”
Gertrude Stein wrote many long and many short sentences that come alive when they are read aloud and she took a Master’s Degree in Paragraphy and she spelled very well and she was unsuccessfully courted by punctuation and she took a faint but playful interest in lines.
Here are two short poems by Gertrude Stein and then a passage from her prose masterpiece Tender Buttons and another passage from her lecture on Punctuation and when you are done with these you should listen to a recording of her reading her short poem “Matisse” which is available at PennSound.
Please read more of Stein’s work thank you.
Two Short Poems and the Finale of Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
Ir
Re
Sis
Ti
Belle
21      excerpted from Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Faded
I love my love with a v
Because it is like that
I love my love with a b
Because I am beside that
A king.
I love my love with an a
Because she is a queen
I love my love and a a is the best of them
Think well and be a king,
Think more and think again
I love my love with a dress and a hat
I love my love and not with this or with that
I love my love with a y because she is my bride
I love her with a d because she is my love beside
Thank you for being there
Nobody has to care
Thank you for being here
Because you are not there.
And with and without me which is and without she she can be late
and then and how and all around we think and found that it is time to cry she
and I.
From Tender Buttons (the finale):
A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.
From “On Punctuation”:
There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. It is evident that is you ask a question you ask a question but anybody who can read at all knows when a question is a question as it is written in writing. Therefore I ask you therefore wherefore should one use the question mark. Beside it does not in its form go with ordinary printing and so it pleases neither the eye nor the ear and it is therefore like a noun, just an unnecessary name of something. A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already there in the writing. Therefore I never could bring myself to use a question mark, I always found it positively revolting, and now very few do use it. Exclamation marks have the same difficulty and also quotation marks, they are unnecessary, they are ugly, they spoil the line of the writing or the printing and anyway what is the use, if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question. The same thing is true of a quotation. When I first began writing I found it simply impossible to use question marks and quotation marks and exclamation points and now anybody sees it that way. Perhaps some day they will see it some other way but not at any rate anybody can and does see it that way.
So there are the uninteresting things in punctuation uninteresting in a way that is perfectly obvious, and so we do not have to go any farther into that. There are besides dashes and dots, and these might be interesting spaces might be interesting. They might if one felt that way about them.
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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The stark moral world of Georges Simenon

The author of about 500 books, most of them written in less than a fortnight, including nearly 80 Inspector Maigret volumes and over 100romans durs or “hard novels”, Georges Simenon began keeping notebooks in 1960, when he was nearing 60 and beginning to feel old. The three volumes that are published here run from June of that year up to February 1963. By December 1969, when he wrote the preface to the book, he was able to declare: “I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooks, and those that I did not use I’ve given to my children.”

Why Simenon wrote the notebooks when he did is not entirely clear. At first, they may have been intended principally as family reading. He writes that he wanted to show his children their father as he really was – an ordinary human being with normal human foibles. He also mentions that he was finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the concentration required to produce his novels: whereas he used to write them (the popular novels, at least) in three or four days, then 12 a year (at the time of the Maigrets), then six a year, “Now it is down to four.” Incredibly, Simenon may have been suffering from a form of writer’s block. Producing the notebooks may have served to distract him from this condition.

But the thoughts recorded here serve another purpose. These notebooks contain his most explicit account of his goals and methods of writing and of the view of human beings that his work expressed. As he puts it:
Like the great naturalists, I would like to focus on certain human mechanisms. Not on grand passions. Not on questions of ethics or morality. Only to study the minor machinery which may appear secondary. That is what I try to do in my books. For this reason I choose characters who are ordinary rather than exceptional . . . the naked man in contrast to the clothed man.
In Simenon’s stories, the appearances of everyday life are costumes that are quickly discarded. The catalyst may be an unexpected event, or an impulse that seems to come from nowhere. Either way, what emerges is the bare human animal.

In The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), a quiet clerk for a respectable Dutch shipping company discovers that his boss has looted the firm in order to fund an affair. Having lost his life savings, the clerk boards a train to Paris, contacts his boss’s mistress, goes on a wild spree and (almost by accident) commits a murder. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945), the prosperous protagonist leaves his business, wife and family without warning, exchanges his expensive suit in a second-hand clothes shop for a shabby anonymous outfit, and disappears into the demi-monde. M Monde has no clear idea why he leaves his life behind:
He had not thought about it beforehand . . . He was following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible. Nor had he taken any decision the day before. It all came from much further back, from the beginning of things.
Some of the best examples of what is commonly described as crime fiction – the novels of Patricia Highsmith, for instance – are studies in character which show why the protagonists act as they do by probing their states of mind. In Simenon, human beings are the sum of their impulses and behaviours; there is no enduring self behind the façade of habit. No one authors their own life; the belief that they are responsible for their actions is an illusion.

“My very first Maigrets,” Simenon writes, “were imbued with the sense, which has always been with me, of man’s irresponsibility. This is never stated openly in my writings. But Maigret’s attitude to the criminal makes it quite clear.” Simenon would have dismissed any suggestion that his romans durs were novels of ideas. He believed that ideas count for very little in human life. But the idea – or fact, as he would have called it – of human irresponsibility is at the centre of nearly everything he wrote.

That is one reason why Simenon’s work does not belong in the genre of crime fiction. In the romans durs, criminal acts are important only in signifying a final break with society. Even in the Maigrets, the question is not why a crime was committed, but how the person who committed the crime departed from a settled routine of living, and the detective resolves the conundrum by imaginatively entering into the life of the suspect. Identifying the criminal is rarely the principal focus of the story, though this fact has been obscured for English readers by the uneven quality of the versions of those Maigrets that have been available to date, in some of which the endings were altered in an effort to make the novels more closely resemble crime fiction. The new and freshly translated versions of Simenon’s novels that Penguin is publishing give us, for the first time, the opportunity to read them as he wanted them to be read.

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Thursday, 8 September 2016

The other Schlegel

Roger Paulin’s monumental biography of August Wilhelm Schlegel is a rescue mission. Now one might not think that Schlegel needed rescuing. His name is familiar in the English-speaking world from the ­Schlegel–Tieck translation of Shakespeare (1825–33). Schlegel himself translated seventeen of the plays, with help from his then wife Caroline; the rest were translated by Dorothea Tieck (daughter of the Romantic author Ludwig Tieck) and the diplomat Wolf Graf von Baudissin. The translation has given its name to the Schlegel–Tieck Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society of Authors (in partnership with the TLS) for the best translation from German published in Britain. 

Schlegel has many other claims to fame. With his younger brother Friedrich, he edited the periodical Athenäum (1800–02) in which they defined the concept of Romanticism. Of his copious critical works, the lectures on European drama that he delivered in Vienna in 1808 were translated into many languages. It was through them that the language of German philosophical criticism reached Coleridge and hence the English-speaking world. From 1817, as a professor at the University of Bonn, he devoted himself increasingly to the study of Sanskrit and became one of the founders of German Indology.

So why the need for rescue? The audience for Schlegel’s lectures at Bonn included Heinrich Heine, who at the time intensely admired Schlegel and dedicated three sonnets to him. Schlegel, for his part, had gone out of his way to advise the young, unknown Heine on his poetry. Later, however, in his polemical essay The Romantic School, Heine wrote a cruel, malicious, but memorable caricature of Schlegel, and many readers of German literature first encounter Schlegel in Heine’s sketch. Schlegel appears here as a fop, as a critic narrowly obsessed with metrics, as the submissive companion of Germaine de Staël, and as someone whose second marriage was ruined by his physical deficiencies.

Schlegel’s well-known association with Staël was certainly of the utmost importance to him. In 1804, Staël, encouraged by Goethe, engaged Schlegel as a tutor for her children and an intellectual companion for herself. They were never lovers: that role was filled by Benjamin Constant, at least until 1809, when he made an initially secret marriage to Charlotte von Hardenberg. Schlegel was, in Paulin’s words, “abjectly devoted” to Staël, but such a fascinating personality could easily inspire devotion. The long section of the biography where she takes centre stage is fast-moving and hard to put down.

As an outspoken opponent of Napoleon, Staël was banished to the family mansion at Coppet, on Lake Geneva. There Schlegel educated her children – he once took young Albert on a walking tour through German-speaking Switzerland. They retained a lifelong affection for him. Staël, bored and restless, hired a theatre in Geneva and staged a number of plays by Voltaire and Racine, with herself, Schlegel and Constant in leading roles. She also travelled extensively with what is here called her “cavalcade”.

In 1812 Staël set off for Sweden with Schlegel and her new lover, John Rocca. Staël’s husband, the obnoxious Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, now dead, was Swedish, her children were therefore Swedish citizens, and she hoped to get employment for her sons in the Swedish service. To get to Sweden without passing through territory controlled by Napoleon, however, it was necessary to go through Russia, and so Staël and Schlegel were among the last foreigners to see the old Moscow before it was burnt (as we remember from War and Peace) to save it from French occupation. Once in Stockholm, Staël used her many connections to bring Schlegel into contact with the Prince Royal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who employed him as a pamphleteer writing against Napoleon.

Thanks to Staël, therefore, Schlegel had a more adventurous life than most scholars. It may be that she was more important to him than either of his wives. His first wife, Caroline Böhmer, née Michaelis, was the widowed daughter of an eminent professor at Göttingen, where Schlegel studied. They married in 1796 and lived in Jena, where Schlegel obtained a professorship, and where Romantic writers gathered round the journal Athenäum. Their marriage soon cooled, however; Caroline – emotionally devastated by the death of Auguste, her eldest, and only surviving child from her previous relationships – transferred her affections to the philosopher Schelling, and divorced Schlegel in 1801.

Schlegel’s second marriage was even briefer and more disastrous. After Staël’s death in 1817 had freed him from her thraldom, he seems to have longed for children of his own. In 1818, quite suddenly, he married Sophie Paulus, twenty-two years his junior, the daughter of a distinguished theologian in Heidelberg. The Paulus parents intervened to prevent Sophie from following her husband to Bonn, where Schlegel had just obtained his chair, and accused Schlegel of various unspecified underhand dealings. They also spread a rumour that Schlegel was impotent, an allegation that came to Heine’s ears and contributed to the malice of his pen portrait. From 1818 until his death in 1845, Schlegel was celibate, obliged to live for his studies.

These studies now centred on ancient India. His study of Indian literature was the culmination of a lifelong preoccupation with world literature. His work on Shakespeare is only part of his varied activity as a translator. He was the first German to translate Dante into verse (previous translations of the Divine Comedy had been in prose). He translated a large body of poetry from Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. And he introduced Germans to the great Spanish dramatist Calderón by translating five of his plays, which aroused enthusiasm among Goethe and the Romantics.

Schlegel also attempted poetry of his own. Although Paulin describes most of it as “correct, learned – and soulless”, he lets us make up our own minds by giving us the full text of a rather impressive fifty-six-line poem in ottava rima, “Dedication of the Tragedy Romeo and Juliet”, in both German and English. Paulin’s rendering, which sensibly preserves the metre but not the rhymes, is good enough to make one wish that he would do more translating. Schlegel’s only attempt at dramatic verse, a neoclassical play inspired by Euripides’ Ion, was staged at Weimar in January 1802, but was a complete flop. This was the occasion when Goethe rose in his box and commanded the audience: “Man lache nicht!” (No laughing!).

Comparative literature was then in its infancy, having arguably begun with Voltaire’s Essay on Epick Poetry (first published in English in 1727). Schlegel is among its great pioneers. He undertook a comparison (written in French) between Euripides’ Hippolytus and Racine’s Phèdre, claiming that the former was much better. This comparison, however, was undertaken in bad faith. Schlegel did not in fact admire Euripides, and was only using him as a stick with which to beat French classical drama. And classicism had to be downgraded because Schlegel, especially in his Vienna lectures, offered a new history of European literature focusing on Romanticism. Romantic literature, beginning in the Middle Ages, represented a fusion of pagan and Christian, North and South; its high points included not only the Divine Comedy but also the Nibelungenlied, in which a pagan story is Christianized by incorporating the notion of divine retribution.

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A Life Written in Invisible Ink - Adrienne Rich

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
—“Planetarium”

Adrienne Rich was, without question, the unofficial poet laureate of 20th-century American feminism. Over the years, as she evolved from a stereotypical “daddy’s girl” and a precocious disciple of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens into an aesthetic, critical, and political pioneer, she became a prophet for both the women whose causes she championed and the country whose flaws she lamented and whose transformation she envisioned. Many critics thought her crotchety or, worse, “strident,” while she herself sometimes said that she spoke from a marginalized perspective. Even women who might have been sympathetic to her ambition complained about her. Two éminences grises of The New York Review of Books castigated her feminism: Susan Sontag dismissed it as “a bit limited,” and Elizabeth Hardwick fretted that she “deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” Yet during her lifetime, Rich won countless prizes, including a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Bollingen Prize, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. When she died at 82, in 2012, Margalit Fox, who composed her New York Times obituary, aptly characterized the ambiguity of her position, describing her as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.”

“Towering rage”—no one would have expected such passion from the preternaturally expert 20-something who won the Yale Younger Poet’s prize in 1951 for a first book tellingly titled A Change of World, which arrived with a commendation from W. H. Auden that is still infamous. Her poems, declared Auden, who had chosen them for the distinguished Yale series, were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” A few years later, in patronizing words on her next volume, The Diamond Cutters, Randall Jarrell made things worse, writing that the author of the book seems “to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” That the young woman responsible for these two collections was a serious student of English and American verse tradition with an extraordinary verbal gift and an impressive command of prosody—the kind of formal skill especially admired in the ’50s—makes these remarks seem especially odd today, when we inhabit a literary world that has been significantly altered by, among others, the powerful author of A Change of World. Yet it is from the midcentury American culture whose implicit assumptions about gender and genre were arguably defined by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique that Rich journeyed toward her major accomplishments, achieving stature through, in her own words, “a succession of brief, amazing movements / each one making possible the next” (“From a Survivor”).

Rich’s life, like her writing, was marked by dramatic metamorphoses, changes that reflected, even while they influenced, the world that was radically changing around her. Her growth, observed the poet-critic Ruth Whitman in 1975, was “an astonishing phenomenon to watch: in one woman the history of women in our century, from careful traditional obedience … to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.” Like Yeats, the poet she most admired when she was an undergraduate, Rich evolved from phase to phase as, increasingly, she elaborated the politics of her aesthetic in essays that can be read along with her poems as both manifestoes and glosses. In prose and verse, she herself remarked on these transformations, sometimes almost with wonder. A dutiful child, she was homeschooled for some years by a strict pianist mother, who taught her to play Bach and Mozart, and more overwhelmingly, by a scholarly pathologist father who set daily literary tasks for her and her sister. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she once wrote to the poet Hayden Carruth, “with geniuses for children.” (Her unpublished letters to Carruth appear in “The Wreck,” an article by Michelle Dean in the April 3, 2016, issue of The New Republic.)

But beneath a veneer of decorum, the stubborn poet had begun to stir. In secret, she confided to Carruth, she “spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously,” and “mercifully,” she recalled in print, she “discovered Modern Screen, Photoplay, Jack Benny, ‘Your Hit Parade,’ Frank Sinatra,” and other icons of popular culture. Worse still, though from her father’s perspective she was “gratifyingly precocious,” she confessed in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution that she had “early been given to tics and tantrums.” Even in the years when Auden and Jarrell were captivated by her command of versification (“I was exceptionally well grounded in formal technique,” she herself admitted in What Is Found There, “and I loved the craft”), she was “groping for … something larger.” Her first act of overt rebellion against Papa Brontë was to marry “a divorced graduate student.” Then, as she sardonically noted in Of Woman Born, she began to write “ ‘modern,’ ‘obscure,’ ‘pessimistic’ poetry,” and eventually she had “the final temerity to get pregnant.” Another young woman poet who visited Cambridge at this time discerned what Auden, Jarrell, and perhaps even Rich’s father had failed to grasp. Sylvia Plath was fiercely rivalrous toward Rich, but in her journal she described her, with some respect, as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparkling black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella: honest, frank, forthright and even opinionated.”

When Plath encountered her, Rich had ostensibly settled into marriage and maternity. Her husband, Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, was simpatico and reasonably supportive. Yet soon enough the young poet began to rebel against the implications of her own decision to bear children in her mid-20s. In Of Woman Born, another classic text of  ’70s feminism, Rich examined with unusual frankness the anxieties and ambivalences of maternity. Though she confided that she loved her sons deeply—and was evidently close to them throughout her life—she argued that “every mother has known overwhelming, unacceptable anger at her children.” And at her husband. For like Plath, Rich was slowly skidding toward a marital breakup. Unlike Plath, she survived the pain. Instead, seven years after Plath gassed herself in a London oven, leaving two children for Ted Hughes to raise, Alfred Conrad drove in a rented car to the family’s Vermont country home and shot himself, leaving his wife with three young boys and a weight of grief that went for many years unwritten.

Inevitably, biographical pressures shaped the work of both Rich and Plath. Though each fictionalized or screened personal crises in sometimes evasive or obscure metaphors, each might be said to have lived what Keats once called a life of allegory, “a life like the scriptures, figurative.” But because Rich outlasted Plath for so many years, she was able through the “amazing movements” at which she herself marveled to become a feminist warrior for yet further change. And many of her readers, especially those of us who were poets and feminists, detected the revolutionary urge even in her most elliptical texts. We knew that traditional marriage hadn’t worked for her, as it hadn’t for Plath, and that she had begun writing with passion and precision not only about the problems of patriarchal culture but also about lesbianism as personal desire and political decision. But what exactly, many must have wondered, had happened and how was life dramatized in art?

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The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien

One year ago, when the first volume of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was published, an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature cast a spell over the readers who ventured within the world of his creation. It was a haunting and ennobling world, held together by inner tension, and so the spell lasted while the fate of his world remained in doubt. For months the concluding volume was delayed while Professor Tolkien labored with a formidable index listing the lineage of his characters, the origin and pronunciation of their languages, and other footnotes from the Red Book of Westmarch, the source of his tale. Now the last volume, The Return of the King, is published, and so his readers may return from the fantastic to the commonplace.

Tolkien’s trilogy is fantasy, but it stems of course from Tolkien’s own experiences and believes. There are scenes of devastation that recall his memories of the Westen front where he fought in the First World War. The description of a snowstorm in a high pass is drawn from a mountain climbing trip in Switzerland. And through the descriptions of life in Hobbiton and Bywater runs his own bemused love of the English and his scorn for the ugliness of the industrial surroundings in which they live. But Tolkien shuns satire as frivolous and allegory as tendentious. His preparation is immersion in Welsh, Norse, Gaelic, Scandinavian and Germanic folklore.

The Hobbit, the earliest of Professor Tolkien’s selections from the Red Book, was first published in 1937, and I mention ti because it forms a prologue t0 Tolkien’s major work. It is the account of his adventures written by a well-to-do Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. There comes to Bilbo’s door one morning a wandering wizard (Gandalf) and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, the descendent of dwarf kings.

They are bend on recovering the dwarf hoards stolen from Thorin’s ancestors and Bilbo to his lasting astonishment joins them. Trolls capture the band and almost roast them; goblins pursue them; giant spiders enmesh them in saliva; an elf king imprisons them; after the treasure is recaptured from a dragon’s lair there remains the Battle of the Five Armies in which Thorin is killed. At last Bilbo, decked out in armor, and laden with jewels, returns to the Shire, somewhat to the annoyance of his fellow Hobbits who have declared him dead and are preparing to auction off his well-worn furniture.

The Hobbit is a classical fairy story. As such it might well have earned its place on the nursery shelf and been forgotten. But the ending is incomplete thanks to a minor encounter of Biblo’s whose significance was not clear to Professor Tolkien at the time. Bilbo, crawling alone through dark goblin mines, finds and pockets a small gold ring. Slipped on his finger it makes him invisible and thereby saves him when he is attacked by Gollum, a creature who lives in an underground lake catching blind fish and eating them raw. The ring serves further to hide Bilbo from his enemies but arouses no great interest among his companions. Once back in the Shire he mentions it only to the wizard Gandalf, and to Frodo his nephew and heir. And yet the story is not concluded. For at its end the little householder remains in possession of something beyond the comprehension of Bilbo and the story teller: the ring.

The ring confers power on its bearer. Power unmatched by responsibility corrupts and therefore is potentially evil. The power conferred by the ring is without parallel. Therefore its capacity to work evil is unlimited. In the presence of limited good, and of corruptible man, what is the responsibility of the ring-bearer. Is it to use present evil on behalf of present good and thereby to ensure the continuation of evil? Or is it to deny present gain in an effort to destroy evil itself? The question forced itself upon Tolkien over a period of fourteen years of warfare, and forms the theme of three books of The Lord of The Rings.

Like The Hobbit, the trilogy is a fairy story; it deals in a world of its own, without resort to traveller’s tales or to dreams. It contains the four elements which Professor Tolkien maintains are characteristic of fairy stories: Fantasy (the purest of art forms), Escape (from oppressive and meaningless detail), Recovery (of true perspective) and Consolation (the joy of the happy ending).

Beyond these common attributes however, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stand in sharp contrast. The Hobbit is a fairy tale for children, simplified in thought and language, restricted in scope, jocular and sometimes patronizing in style. As such it is limited, for as Tolkien himself maintains: “All children’s books are on a strict judgment poor books. Books written entirely for children are poor even as children’s books.” The Lord of the Rings in contrast is a fairy tale written for adults. The language is richer, the characters deeper, the plot grander; the final triumph of good is cast in doubt; the participants are extended to include “those darker things which lurked only on the borders of the earlier tale.”

Forty-nine years after Bilbo’s return, the Hobbits still of their contented ways, as the first book of The Lord of the Rings opens, unaware of the mounting evil beyond the Shire’s narrow borders. Orcs—a new kind of goblin—are multiplying in the mountains; trolls are abroad armed with dreadful weapons; there are other creatures far more terrible and over all of them is Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. Of the twelve Great Rings of Power all but three have returned to Sauron; one only, the Lord of the Rings, remains for the moment, beyond his grasp. Sauron is searching for the ring, and all his thoughts are bent upon it. If he regains it his domination of Middle Earth will be final and absolute.

All this is the secret information which Gandalf, after twelve years of search and travels, returns by night to tell Frodo. For, thanks to Bilbo’s inheritance the harmless young Hobbit is now in possession of the Lord of the Rings.

Frodo, appaled, attempts to pass the ring to Gandalf. But Gandalf knows that those who possess the ring end by being possessed. And, while he is tempted by power his spirit is one of “pity for weakness, and the desire of strength to do good.” So he refuses the responsibility. No time is left for Sauron is closing in on the Shire. Frodo flees to save his homeland, taking the ring and followed by three companions, while Gandalf goes his own way towards their next meeting place. Stone barrowights encase the Hobbits; ringwraiths, slaves of Sauron pursue them and wound Frodo. He makes mistake after mistake and survives only though his own bravery or by the intervention of some unexpected force of good. Strider, a ranger sent by Gandalf, guides him and so at last Frodo reaches Rivendell.

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Saturday, 3 September 2016

John le Carré: I was beaten by my father, abandoned by my mother

John le Carré was beaten up by his father and grew up mostly starved of affection after his mother abandoned him at the age of five, he reveals in his hugely awaited autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, serialised in the Guardian.

Le Carré – one of the greatest novelists of the postwar era – gives a definitive account of his life as a writer and sometime MI6 agent. He insists he is an author who “once happened to be a spy” rather than a “spy who turned to writing”.

His memoir details the extraordinary first-hand research and relentless travel that underpins his long career and literary success. Le Carré gives amusing and at times lacerating pen portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch and Yasser Arafat, as well as a kaleidoscope of other cultural and political figures.

The most personal passages cover Le Carré’s fraught relationship with his father, Ronnie, whom he describes as a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird”. Ronnie was an erratic presence in his childhood and adulthood, he writes, who beat up his mother, Olive, prompting her to “bolt”.

“Certainly Ronnie beat me up, too, but only a few times and not with much conviction. It was the shaping up that was the scary part: the lowering and readying of the shoulders, the resetting of the jaw,” Le Carré writes, adding that Ronnie would call him from various foreign prisons asking for money.

“Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent.”

Le Carré – whose real name is David Cornwell – offers insight into his creative habits. He explains that he “loves writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafes”. He eschews laptops and computers. “Arrogantly, perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanised writing,” he says.

In 1982 Thatcher invited him for lunch, after he refused a government honour. “I had not voted for her,” he writes. He had just returned from a trip to the Middle East and pleaded the case of the “stateless Palestinians”. Thatcher was dismissive, telling Le Carré they had trained the IRA bombers who “murdered her friend Airey Neave”.

Le Carré is hilariously brutal about Murdoch. Meeting him in 1991, Le Carré writes that he seems smaller than the last time they met and “has acquired that hasty waddle and little buck of the pelvis with which great men of affairs advance on one another, hand outstretched for the cameras”.

Murdoch brusquely asked Le Carré who killed the tycoon Robert Maxwell, found bobbing in the sea after falling off his yacht? The novelist didn’t know but suggested Israeli intelligence. Murdoch departed soon afterwards. “Estimated duration of lunch: 25 minutes,” he writes.

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