Monday, 31 October 2016

Elena Ferrante: What An Ugly Child She Is

The following essay was drawn from “Frantumaglia,” a collection of Elena Ferrante’s writings and interviews, translated by Ann Goldstein, which is out November 1st from Europa Editions. The central passages were originally conceived as a response to the Swedish publisher Brombergs, which, after acquiring the rights to “The Days of Abandonment,” decided not to publish it, on the ground that the behavior of Olga, the novel’s protagonist, toward her children was morally reprehensible.

France for me—long, long before Paris—was Yonville-l’Abbaye, eight leagues from Rouen. I remember crouching inside that place-name one afternoon, when I was barely fourteen, travelling through the pages of “Madame Bovary.” Slowly, over the years, thousands of other names of cities and towns followed, some near Yonville, others far away. But France remained essentially Yonville, as I discovered it one afternoon decades ago, and it seemed to me that at the same time I came upon the craft of making metaphors and upon myself.

I certainly saw myself in Berthe Bovary, Emma and Charles’s daughter, and felt a jolt. I knew that I had my eyes on a page, I could see the words clearly, yet it seemed to me that I had approached my mother just as Berthe tried to approach Emma, catching hold of her par le bout, les rubans de son tablier (“the ends of her apron strings”). I heard clearly the voice of Madame Bovary saying, with increasing annoyance, “Laisse-moi! Laisse-moi! Eh! Laisse-moi donc!” (“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Won’t you leave me alone!”), and it was like the voice of my mother when she was lost in her tasks or her thoughts, and I didn’t want to leave her, I didn’t want her to leave me. That cry of irritation of a woman dragged away from her own bouleversements, like a leaf on a rainy day toward the black mouth of a manhole, made a deep impression on me. The blow arrived right afterward, with her elbow. Berthe—I—alla tomber au pied de la comode, contre la patère de cuivre; elle s’y coupa la joue, le sang sortit (“fell at the foot of the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings; she cut her cheek, it began to bleed”).

I read “Madame Bovary” in the city of my birth, Naples. I read it laboriously, in the original, on the orders of a cold, brilliant teacher. My native language, Neapolitan, has layers of Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, Spanish, English, and French—a lot of French. Laisse-moi (“leave me alone”) in Neapolitan is làssame and sang (“blood”) is ’o sanghe. It’s not so surprising if the language of “Madame Bovary” seemed to me, at times, my own language, the language in which my mother appeared to be Emma and said laisse-moi. She also said le sparadrap (but she pronounced it ’o sparatràp), the adhesive plaster that had to be put on the cut I’d gotten—while I read and was Berthe—when I fell contre la patère de cuivre.

I understood then, for the first time, that geography, language, society, politics, the whole history of a people, were for me in the books that I loved and which I could enter as if I were writing them. France was near, Yonville not that far from Naples, the wound dripped blood, the sparatràp, stuck to my cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side. “Madame Bovary” struck with swift punches, leaving bruises that haven’t faded. All my life since then, I’ve wondered whether my mother, at least once, with Emma’s words precisely—the same terrible words—thought, looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! (“It’s strange how ugly this child is”). Ugly: to appear ugly to one’s own mother. I have rarely read-heard a better conceived, better written, more unbearable sentence. The sentence arrived from France and hit me right in the chest, it’s still hitting me, harder than the shove with which Emma sent—sends—little Berthe against the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings.

The words entered and emerged from me: when I read a book, I never think of who has written it—it’s as if I were doing it myself. So as a child I didn’t know the names of authors; every book was written by itself, it began and ended, it excited me or not, made me cry or made me laugh. The Frenchman named Gustave Flaubert came later, and by then I knew quite a lot about France: I had been there not only thanks to books and not happily, as in books; I could measure the true distance between Naples and Rouen, between the Italian novel and the French. Now I read Flaubert’s letters, his other books. Every sentence was well shaped, some more than others, but not one—not one ever had for me the devastating force of that mother’s thought: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! In certain phases of my life, I’ve imagined that only a man could conceive it, and only a man without children, a peevish Frenchman, a bear shut up in his house honing his complaints, a misogynist who thought of himself as both father and mother just because he had a niece. In other periods, I’ve believed, angrily, bitterly, that men who are masters of writing are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write. Today, instead, I’ve returned to the beliefs of early adolescence. I think that authors are devoted, diligent scribes, who draw in black and white, following a more or less rigorous order of their own, but that the true writing, what counts, is the work of readers. Although the page of Flaubert is in French, Emma’s laisse-moi, read in Naples, has Neapolitan cadences, the brass fittings make ’o sanghe gush from Berthe’s cheek, and Charles Bovary stretches the child’s skin by sticking ’o sparatràp on it. It’s my mother who thought, but in her language, comm’è brutta chesta bambina (“How ugly this child is”). And I believe that she thought it for the same reason Emma thinks it of Berthe. So I’ve tried, over the years, to take that sentence out of French and place it somewhere on a page of my own, write it myself to feel its weight, transport it into the language of my mother, attribute it to her, hear it in her mouth and see if it’s a woman’s phrase, if a female really could say it, if I’ve ever thought it of my daughters, if, in other words, it should be rejected and erased or accepted and elaborated, removed from the page of masculine French and transported into the language of female-daughter-mother. That is the work that truly leads to France, juxtaposing sexes, languages, peoples, eras, geography.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

JM Coetzee’s new novel asks a crucial question: When everyone’s the same, can a person be different?

Strangeness is a difficult quality to represent in an age when it’s all around us, all the time: from a species of bees becoming endangered to thousands of Americans even considering voting for a certain businessman in the running for President, and celebrity breakups being bundled alongside proclamations of the world ending by climatologists in your Facebook feed.

It’s easy to forget that we’re living in some of the most disorienting years in any century. And what’s more unsettling than all of these things is how we’re taking it all in our collective stride. How do you write a realist novel that can genuinely unsettle you amidst everything else that’s vying for your attention?

JM Coetzee’s answer, if The Schooldays of Jesus is anything to go by, is that you don’t. Not write a “realist’ novel anyway, or at least, not in the sense we understand "realism". Coetzee seems to be suggesting, and very slyly at that, that we leave behind such demarcations and come with an open mind to savour what a master of the craft has to offer us when he really does not have anything left to prove; when he is free to indulge himself a little.

It’s useless reducing this novel to one primary theme; there’s simply too much happening, pared down as it is with immense authorial discipline and brevity. But, in keeping with the theme of strangeness, we can certainly ask this question of it: how do you write an allegory for an age with no use for allegories?

Coetzee’s “Jesus” novels follow the adventures of David, a strange, gifted child who arrives on the shores of Novilla, (which means “heifer” in English) with his caretaker Simón, from an unspecified camp called Belstar. As people make the journey across the oceans to Novilla, they lose their memory of a previous life, and essentially start from scratch. What led to such an immigration is never made clear, and it’s one of the many conditions the novel requests that the reader blindly accept.

The two of them try to settle down in this new city, with Simón convinced for some reason that he will identify David’s mother the minute he sees her, in spite of never having met her before. Ultimately, they do find David’s “mother”, Inés, who after an initial bout of uncertainty, decides to adopt David. The first book was essentially the story of their meeting, and their encounter with the insipid, bland existence that Novilla had in store for them. In Novilla, no one goes hungry, but there is little aside from bread to be had, for the most part.

People lead a peculiarly unimaginative existence, and seem quite content with a lack of sensation in their lives. However, several philosophical discussions and minor incidents later, the three characters are forced to flee this life again, as David proves to be too different for the city authorities to handle. The “parents” are asked to enter David in a boarding school of sorts as a means of checking his reckless bouts of reasoning, but David escapes, and the three of them soon flee Novilla for Estrella.

It is in Estrella that our novel begins. David’s difficult nature has blossomed further: he is not a “bad” kid, by any means, but he is certainly odd. David questions everything unceasingly, to Simón’s exasperation. He does not seem too convinced by human morality and reasoning, choosing instead to surrender to wild flights of fancy. He keeps putting new spins on facts of life that we seem to take for granted, and these make for some of the most interesting parts of the book.

In one chapter, Simón and David discuss one of Coetzee’s pet themes, the ethics of eating meat. David, in what is almost a parody of the Socratic dialogue, asks Simón: “Why do they have to die to give us their meat?” One is instantly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where a giant, headless chicken developed by one of the numerous laboratories of the future, provides an endless supply of meat without dying. The question, reformulated through a child’s eye, becomes a profound one: are we aware of the death that we participate in every day when we eat meat, or has the notion of the living, breathing animal come untethered from the idea of food?

There are only two schools of note in Estrella: one specialising in dancing and the other in song, and David is enrolled in the former. Soon he finds himself surrounded with arcane theories that link numbers with the stars, both of which are “brought down” to Earth through the human appropriation of dance.

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Jane Austen: The Secret Radical

Judging from her introduction to Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, it seems fair to say that Helena Kelly is not a fan of the forthcoming Jane Austen £10 note. The “idealised picture” chosen by the bank looks “far less grumpy” than the “unfinished sketch it’s based on”. The background is a stately home “where Jane didn’t live” and the selected quotation – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” – is “spoken by a character who shortly afterwards yawns and throws her book aside”. 

I also have mixed feelings about this banknote. It was not, as Kelly asserts, a simple matter of the Bank of England celebrating the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Rather, it was the culmination of a hard-fought campaign that I started when the bank announced that the only female historical figure on our banknotes was being replaced with Winston Churchill. And so when the bank produced this mocked-up note, part of me was delighted. We had won. But another part of me was, like Kelly, frustrated by yet another representation of Austen that fed the beast that enables presumably intelligent people to describe Austen with a straight face as “the 19th-century version of Barbara Cartland”.

It is this beast that Kelly tackles in a meticulously researched book that is, at its heart, a stern telling-off of us as readers. “We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive,” she admonishes. “But we haven’t been willing to do that with Jane’s work.” With Austen, we do not skim further than the surface.

Sometimes, we don’t even skim as far as that, content to revel at the level of what Kelly calls “the unknown knowns – things we don’t actually know, but think we do.” The things we think we know about Austen based on countless twee tea towels and throbbing film adaptations, the things an audience member was presumably thinking of when she stood up at a Margaret Atwood event I attended recently and thanked the author for “saving me from having to read Jane Austen”. She hasn’t read Jane Austen. But she knows her, as indeed we all do.

Well, as Kelly says: “We know wrong.” We have to try a little harder. After all, in a letter to her sister Austen herself explains: “I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

Austen was writing at a time of intense political turmoil. Threats from abroad (wars with France and America; the French Revolution) made for a country on alert for threats from within, where “any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous”. Britain became “more and more like a totalitarian state, with all the unpleasant habits totalitarian states acquire”. Habeas corpus was suspended; the meaning of treason was expanded to include “thinking, writing, printing, reading”. Kelly tells us of carpenters imprisoned for reciting doggerel and schoolmasters imprisoned for distributing leaflets. “There can hardly have been a thinking person in Britain who didn’t understand what was intended – to terrify writers and publishers into policing themselves.”

In this climate, where it “was expected that letters would be opened and read by the authorities [… and] that publishers would shy away from anything which challenged societal norms too openly”, conservative writers flourished, while most others of a radical bent responded by turning to nature (think pre-political career Wordsworth), or to the past and/or abroad (think the gothic novel). Austen was unique as a novelist of this period in writing “novels which were set more or less in the present day, and more or less in the real world”.

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Saturday, 29 October 2016

Margaret Drabble: ‘I am not afraid of death. I worry about living’

We are often told that in earlier times all cultures had a concept of the afterlife – that “everybody” believed in some form of life after death, be it a journey over a river to a dark land, an eternity of hellfire and torment, a paradise with angels and ambrosia, or a reunion with loved ones. We have created many metaphors to carry us across the Styx. Some cultures believed, and believe, in rebirth and the migration of souls. In 21st-century Christian countries, orthodox religious services still routinely profess faith in the resurrection of the body. Painting and poetry and mythology offer us visions of heaven and hell, some horrific, and some, like Stanley Spencer’s, reassuring and comforting. But I’ve always suspected that most of us, even in the pious, priest-dominated Middle Ages, didn’t really believe what we said we believed. Most of us knew that when we were dead, we were gone. We went nowhere. We ceased to be. That’s what we didn’t like about death – not fear of hell, but fear of nothingness.

This is, historically, anthropologically, a heretical position to hold, and when I try to argue it I am usually shouted down. I’ve got no historical imagination, I am told. Things were different then, scholars insist. Human nature was different then.

And maybe it was. Even in my lifetime, I have known a few people of faith, true believers, who would certainly have gone to heaven, if there were one. More than a century ago, Robert Browning may well have expected to meet his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the hereafter, as he wrote in his great death-defying poem “Prospice”, one of the first works I ever learnt by heart. “O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, and with God be the rest!” Their lives together on Earth had been so miraculous that one miracle more would not have been surprising.

The delusion of an afterlife also seems to have a grim hold on modern-day martyrs, if we can believe all that we are told. But that’s another story, another subject, and so alien to most of us that it is hard to contemplate.

I would contend that in the largely secular west we now live in a post-religious era, where true faith in survival after death, pleasant or unpleasant, is restricted to a small minority. That’s not a contentious position, but it leaves the rest of us to struggle with the meaning of death, as we can no longer see it as a staging post to somewhere else, or as a great adventure, or even, in the alleged last words of Henry James, as “the distinguished thing”. Death is becoming less and less distinguished.

One of the problems with death in our time is that it becomes increasingly avoidable, or at least postponable. We are materialists, and we don’t believe in the soul. There is no ghost in the machine. We find medical solutions to medical problems, we dutifully take our statins, and our financial advisers and their actuaries declare that our life expectancy is increasing day by day, hour by hour. This is meant to be a good thing, like the ever-rising price of property, but on one level we all know it is not. When more good news about longevity is proclaimed on radio bulletins, there is usually a curiously sombre note of foreboding in the announcer’s voice. For it is not a sustainable trajector.

Popular science and even academic conferences discuss the possibilities of human beings living for hundreds of years or longer, but some of us remember the terrible fate of Jonathan Swift’s immortal struldbrugs on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels, condemned to live on with diminished faculties into extreme old age. Swift does not mince his words: his immortals (of whom the women are of course more “horrible” than the men) “had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …” He might have been describing the inmates of a 21st-century care home for the elderly.

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The last love affair of Elizabeth Bishop, and the losses behind “One Art.”

In the spring of 1970, Robert Lowell accepted a position at the University of Essex, in England, leaving a vacancy at Harvard, where he’d been teaching poetry for one semester each year since the fall of 1963. He wrote to his old friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, then fifty-nine, to ask whether she would fill in for the fall semesters of 1970 and 1971. Despite Bishop’s meagre teaching experience, the college was happy to offer her the job on the strength of Lowell’s recommendation and the National Book Award bestowed on her “Complete Poems,” in 1970.

Bishop was living in Casa Mariana, her restored colonial home in Ouro Prêto, the picturesque former mining town in southeastern Brazil to which she’d retreated after her longtime partner, the Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, three years before. For two decades, Bishop had found solace in Brazil from the horrors of her early life in the suburbs of Boston—her father died when she was eight months old, her mother was institutionalized after bouts of insanity four years later, and she spent the rest of her childhood being shuttled between the households of relatives, some of them abusive. But Lowell’s invitation found her at a moment when she needed relief from memories of Soares. Bishop had recently sent The New Yorker two long poems, “In the Waiting Room” and “Crusoe in England.” The first contained a coded acknowledgement of her grief, a “big black wave” that threatened the young Bishop, and the second bade farewell to Soares in its closing lines, when the repatriated Robinson Crusoe recalls the loss of “Friday, my dear Friday,” who “died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” Had Soares lived to one more March birthday, the couple would have spent seventeen years together.

Bishop accepted Lowell’s invitation, overcoming her memories of terrible students during a semester at the University of Washington, in 1966—“their hatred for my sex, their LSD fantasies, their bluffing,” as she’d confided to friends in Brazil. Harvard, she hoped, would be different, and it was: though the shop windows in Harvard Square were still boarded up from the past spring’s antiwar riot, she found her students eager to learn, primed for her advent by Lowell. She was the first woman to teach English S, Harvard’s most advanced writing course, and the first woman poet to have her name published in a course catalogue. The Radcliffe women, who had access to all of Harvard’s courses, had begun to agitate for female professors, but Harvard’s English department still was not welcoming to women faculty members. The last female poet to teach at Harvard was May Sarton, who held a two-year lectureship in the early fifties, but only her colleague John Ciardi was permitted to teach a poetry course or named in the catalogue; Sarton taught freshman composition.

Not that Bishop wanted to be known as the first woman poet to teach creative writing at Harvard, or as a woman poet at all. She’d always been irked when described in reviews or introduced at readings as one of “our best women poets,” or “the greatest feminine poet of the decade.” Men and women “do not write differently,” she insisted. But hers was a position increasingly under attack. First, May Swenson wrote urging Bishop to give permission for a poem, preferably “In the Waiting Room,” to appear in a new “scholarly and significant” anthology, “The Women Poets in English.” Hoping to overcome Bishop’s resistance, Swenson described the volume as the first such collection to be published since 1825, and “not propagandist or ‘womans lib.’ “ Still, Bishop refused, and on women’s-lib grounds: “Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is?” she wrote to Swenson. “I don’t like things compartmentalized like that. . . . I like black & white, yellow & red, young & old, rich and poor, and male & female, all mixed up.” Segregation, whether social or artistic, could only work against women’s acceptance as equal to men: “Literature is literature, no matter who produces it.”

A few years later, a younger poet, Adrienne Rich, pressed Bishop to contribute to another anthology devoted to American female poets. Rich’s first book of poems had been published in 1951, after being selected by W. H. Auden for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. But it was not until the nineteen-sixties that Rich, who’d married a Harvard economics professor and given birth to three sons in quick succession, turned prolific, finding freer expression in the language of the antiwar and women’s movements that she joined after moving to New York City. She eventually left her husband, in 1970, and came out as a lesbian, in 1976. Bishop declined to be included in the collection, but she expressed to Rich an urge to follow her path, to write more openly about “the situation of woman.” Along with other vexations of her teaching job—such as coping with the fragile egos of students who, she noted in her journal, viewed Cs as failing grades, and deliberating over which student to select for the Harvard Monthly Prize (one year she chose an older married student who was not even enrolled in the college)—she particularly disliked being seen as a female role model. Speaking to a group of students at Dartmouth after a reading in 1973, one year after the Ivy League school went co-ed, she’d been asked by a “militant young lady” whether she felt like a “woman—(of all things!), when I write poetry.” The question was absurd, she thought. But, at least some of the time, the answer was yes.

In the classroom, Bishop addressed her students by surname—Miss Agoos, Mr. Sorensen—and tried to be tactful, believing that “the more polite the teacher, the more polite the students.” “Teaching writing,” a phrase she placed in quotation marks, still seemed a dubious enterprise: “Group reading, group discussion, all this going over and over and over, usually strikes me as a wasteful form of time-passing or therapy, with little or no connection to writing,” she once groused in an evaluation written for an M.I.T. creative-writing instructor under review. But she admitted that “some students do learn a lot in writing classes and . . . their writing does improve.” She wondered why she had once been “scared to death of ‘boys’ when I was at the age I should have been wild about them—was afraid to talk to them, etc—and suffered hells,” and now, “forty years too late,” she found herself perfectly at ease.

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Friday, 28 October 2016

Sara Coleridge by Virginia Woolf

Coleridge also left children of his body. One, his daughter, Sara, was a continuation of him, not of his flesh indeed, for she was minute, aetherial, but of his mind, his temperament. The whole of her forty-eight years were lived in the light of his sunset, so that, like other children of great men, she is a chequered dappled figure flitting between a vanished radiance and the light of every day. And, like so many of her father’s works, Sara Coleridge remains unfinished. Mr. Griggs [1] has written her life, exhaustively, sympathetically; but still . . . dots intervene. That extremely interesting fragment, her autobiography, ends with three rows of dots after twenty-six pages. She intended, she says, to end every section with a moral, or a reflection. And then “on reviewing my earlier childhood I find the predominant reflection. . . . ” There she stops. But she said many things in those twenty-six pages, and Mr. Griggs has added others that tempt us to fill in the dots, though not with the facts that she might have given us.

 “Send me the very feel of her sweet Flesh, the very look and motion of that mouth — O, I could drive myself mad about her,” Coleridge wrote when she was a baby. She was a lovely child, delicate, large-eyed, musing but active, very still but always in motion, like one of her father’s poems. She remembered how he took her as a child to stay with the Wordsworths at Allan Bank.

The rough farmhouse life was distasteful to her, and to her shame they bathed her in a room where men came in and out. Delicately dressed in lace and muslin, for her father liked white for girls, she was a contrast to Dora, with her wild eyes and floating yellow hair and frock of deep Prussian blue or purple — for Wordsworth liked clothes to be coloured. The visit was full of such contrasts and conflicts. Her father cherished her and petted her. “I slept with him and he would tell me fairy stories when he came to bed at twelve or one o’clock. . . . ” Then her mother, Mrs. Coleridge, arrived, and Sara flew to that honest, homely, motherly woman and “wished never to be separated from her.” At that — the memory was still bitter —“my father showed displeasure and accused me of want of affection. I could not understand why. . . . I think my father’s motive,” she reflected later, “must have been a wish to fasten my affections on him. . . . I slunk away and hid myself in the wood behind the house.”

But it was her father who, when she lay awake terrified by a horse with eyes of flame, gave her a candle. He, too, had been afraid of the dark. With his candle beside her, she lost her fear, and lay awake, listening to the sound of the river, to the thud of the forge hammer, and to the cries of stray animals in the fields. The sounds haunted her all her life. No country, no garden, no house ever compared with the Fells and the horse-shoe lawn and the room with three windows looking over the lake to the mountains. She sat there while her father, Wordsworth and De Quincey paced up and down talking. What they said she could not understand, but she “used to note the handkerchief hanging out of the pocket and long to clutch it.” When she was a child the handkerchief vanished and her father with it. After that, “I never lived with him for more than a few weeks at a time,” she wrote. A room at Greta Hall was always kept ready for him but he never came. Then the brothers, Hartley and Derwent, vanished, too; and Mrs. Coleridge and Sara stayed on with Uncle Southey, feeling their dependence and resenting it. “A house of bondage Greta Hall was to her,” Hartley wrote. Yet there was Uncle Southey’s library; and thanks to that admirable, erudite and indefatigable man, Sara became mistress of six languages, translated Dobritzhoffer from the Latin, to help pay for Hartley’s education, and qualified herself, should the worst come, to earn her living. “Should it be necessary,” Wordsworth wrote, “she will be well fitted to become a governess in a nobleman’s or gentleman’s family. . . . She is remarkably clever.”

But it was her beauty that took her father by surprise when at last at the age of twenty she visited him at Highgate. She was learned he knew, and he was proud of it; but he was unprepared, Mr. Griggs says, “for the dazzling vision of loveliness which stepped across the threshold one cold December day.” People rose in a public hall when she came in. “I have seen Miss Coleridge,” Lamb wrote, “and I wish I had just such a — daughter.” Did Coleridge wish to keep such a daughter? Was a father’s jealousy roused in that will-less man of inordinate susceptibility when Sara met her cousin Henry up at Highgate and almost instantly, but secretly, gave him her coral necklace in exchange for a ring with his hair? What right had a father who could not offer his daughter even a room to be told of the engagement or to object to it? He could only quiver with innumerable conflicting sensations at the thought that his nephew, whose book on the West Indies had impressed him unfavourably, was taking from him the daughter who, like Christabel, was his masterpiece, but, like Christabel, was unfinished. All he could do was to cast his magic spell. He talked. For the first time since she was a woman, Sara heard him talk. She could not remember a word of it afterwards. And she was penitent. It was partly that my father generally discoursed on such a very extensive scale. . . . Henry could sometimes bring him down to narrower topics, but when alone with me he was almost always on the star-paved road, taking in the whole heavens in his circuit.

She was a heaven-haunter, too; but at the moment “I was anxious about my brothers and their prospects — about Henry’s health, and upon the subject of my engagement generally.” Her father ignored such things. Sara’s mind wandered.

The young couple, however, made ample amends for that momentary inattention. They listened to his voice for the rest of their lives. At the christening of their first child Coleridge talked for six hours without stopping. Hard-worked as Henry was, and delicate, sociable and pleasure-loving, the spell of Uncle Sam was on him, and so long as he lived he helped his wife. He annotated, he edited, he set down what he could remember of the wonderful voice. But the main labour fell on Sara. She made herself, she said, the housekeeper in that littered palace. She followed his reading; verified his quotations; defended his character; traced notes on innumerable margins; ransacked bundles; pieced beginnings together and supplied them not with ends but with continuations. A whole day’s work would result in one erasure. Cab fares to newspaper offices mounted; eyes, for she could not afford a secretary, felt the strain; but so long as a page remained obscure, a date doubtful, a reference unverified, an aspersion not disproved, “poor, dear, indefatigable Sara,” as Mrs. Wordsworth called her, worked on. And much of her work was done lastingly; editors still stand on the foundations she truly laid.

Much of it was not self-sacrifice, but self-realization. She found her father, in those blurred pages, as she had not found him in the flesh; and she found that he was herself. She did not copy him, she insisted; she was him. Often she continued his thoughts as if they had been her own. Did she not even shuffle a little in her walk, as he did, from side to side? Yet though she spent half her time in reflecting that vanished radiance, the other half was spent in the light of common day — at Chester Place, Regents Park. Children were born and children died. Her health broke down; she had her father’s legacy of harassed nerves; and, like her farther, had need of opium. Pathetically she wished that she could be given “three years’ respite from child bearing.” But she wished in vain. Then Henry, whose gaiety had so often dragged her from the dark abyss, died young; leaving his notes unfinished, and two children also, and very little money, and many apartments in Uncle Sam’s great house still unswept.

She worked on. In her desolation it was her solace, her opium perhaps. “Things of the mind and intellect give me intense pleasure; they delight and amuse me as they are in themselves . . . and sometimes I think, the result has been too large, the harvest too abundant, in inward satisfaction. This is dangerous. . . . ” Thoughts proliferated. Like her father she had a Surinam toad in her head, breeding other toads. But his were jewelled; hers were plain. She was diffuse, unable to conclude, and without the magic that does instead of a conclusion. She would have liked, had she been able to make an end, to have written — on metaphysics, on theology, some book of criticism. Or again, politics interested her intensely, and Turner’s pictures. But “whatever subject I commence, I feel discomfort unless I could pursue it in every direction to the farthest bounds of thought. . . . This was the reason why my father wrote by snatches. He could not bear to complete incompletely.” So, book in hand, pen suspended, large eyes filled with a dreamy haze, she mused —“picking flowers, and finding nests, and exploring some particular nook, as I used to be when a child walking with my Uncle Southey. . . . ”

Then her children interrupted. With her son, the brilliant Herbert, she read, straight through the classics. Were there not, Mr. Justice Coleridge objected, passages in Aristophanes that they had better skip? Perhaps. . . . Still, Herbert took all the prizes, won all the scholarships, almost drove her to distraction with his horn-playing and, like his father, loved parties. Sara went to balls, and watched him dance waltz after waltz. She had the old lovely clothes that Henry had given her altered for her daughter, Edith. She found herself eating supper twice, she was so bored. She preferred dinner parties where she held her own with Macaulay, who was so like her father in the face, and with Carlyle —“A precious Arch-charlatan,” she called him. The young poets, like Aubrey de Vere, sought her out. She was one of those, he said, “whose thoughts are growing while they speak.” After he had gone, her thoughts followed him, in long, long letters, rambling over baptism, regenerations, metaphysics, theology, and poetry, past, present and to come. As a critic she never, like her father, grazed paths of light; she was a fertilizer, not a creator, a burrowing, tunnelling reader, throwing up molehills as she read her way through Dante, Virgil, Aristophanes, Crashaw, Jane Austen, Crabbe, to emerge suddenly, unafraid, in the very face of Keats and Shelley. “Fain would mine eyes,” she wrote, “discern the Future in the past.”

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Kierkegaard’s Rebellion

Around 1840, Niels Christian Kierkegaard began a sketch of his second cousin Søren. The face remains, like the portrait itself, unfinished. Though the sitter was already twenty-seven you would swear he was still an adolescent. The gaze is intense, the eyes innocent and preternaturally large. You can just glimpse the light sideburns he grew to cover his cheeks after the fashions of mid-nineteenth-century masculinity. But the mouth, held firm in conviction, betrays him: the lips are too delicate, sensuous, petulant. A year later he would cancel his engagement to Regine Olsen to begin a life of celibacy that would also mark the start of his philosophical career: “My engagement to her and the breaking of it,” he wrote, “is really my relationship to God.”

Kierkegaard is widely considered the most important religious thinker of the modern age. This is because he dramatized with special intensity the conflict between religion and secular reason, between private faith and the public world, and he went so far as to entertain the thought that a genuine reconciliation between them is impossible. Society, for Kierkegaard, is a place of leveling conventions, and the ethical principles that bind us together ignore the genuine self. It is faith alone, uncontaminated by public understanding, that distinguishes the authentic individual, and faith is something wholly interior, a leap into paradox.

At their limit such arguments suggest religious absolutism; they extol the believer even if his belief runs against all accepted codes of humanity. In reading Kierkegaard’s works one begins to fear that the individual whom he celebrated as “the knight of faith” too closely resembles that figure upon whom we have heaped so many of the anxieties of our own time: the religious fanatic.

But Kierkegaard’s thinking is more subtle than this. A lover of irony, he signed many of his works with pseudonyms: Vigilius Haufniensis (“Watchman of Copenhagen”), Johannes de Silentio, Anti-Climacus, and, perhaps best of all, Hilarius Bookbinder. Everyone in Copenhagen knew that Søren was the author of his works, but this did not deter him from giving his pseudonymous personae a further twist of the pen, at times adding to the title page of a book the scholarly note that it had been “edited by Søren Kierkegaard.”

But at other times he was deadly serious, a moralizing Lutheran who excoriated the high officials of the Danish reformed church and held forth obsessively on themes of faith, sin, and anxiety. Among his most famous works are bitter satires and invectives against bourgeois conformity that are interlaced with the same veins of explosive resentment that Dostoevsky would mine in his Notes from Underground (which was published less than a decade after Kierkegaard’s death in 1855).

No single line of inheritance connects Kierkegaard to our present day. One tradition bridges an unlikely divide, linking the pious Kierkegaard to the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. In the 1920s and 1930s philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre began to pluck from Kierkegaard’s writings the central themes of existential philosophy. Though they did not share his theism, they borrowed his image of the human being as incorrigibly mortal, condemned to a worldly existence bereft of all rational certainties. The French philosopher Jean Wahl assigned Kierkegaard a principal part in his Petite Histoire de l’existentialisme (1947): “The word ‘existence’ in the philosophical sense that it is used today,” Wahl declared, was originally “discovered by Kierkegaard.”

In histories of philosophy it is still commonplace to name Kierkegaard the founder of existentialism. But another legacy connects him to the rebellious movement known as “crisis theology,” associated chiefly with Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed pastor whose Epistle to the Romans transformed the landscape of twentieth-century religious thought. It is not hard to see why Barth found instruction in Kierkegaard, whose writings meditate to an obsessive degree on the absolute chasm between God and humanity. For Kierkegaard, as for Barth, God remains “wholly other” and cannot be pressed into service for mundane causes.

But Kierkegaard was an unbending conservative, and the political consequences of his religious absolutism remain uncertain. His hatred of the mob, for instance, fosters a healthy skepticism toward political conformity but also a disabling contempt for the public good. A rather different line of influence connects him to illiberal critics of modern democracy such as Carl Schmitt, the Nazi legal theorist who cited the Dane as an authority when he claimed that the ultimate problems in politics require radical decision, not reasonable deliberation. The world of Kierkegaard scholarship is thick with complaints that he has been misunderstood and that he was in fact neither an arch-conservative nor an “irrationalist” (a standard charge). But the truth is that his influence spans ideologies of all kinds, and his legacy is contested only because its meanings overflow all boundaries of doctrine and argument.

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Wednesday, 26 October 2016

What to Make of T. S. Eliot?

In 1914, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was introduced to a student at Harvard University who greatly impressed him, and who would later become quite famous himself. Russell left behind his first impressions of T. S. Eliot in a letter that possibly inaugurated the now-standard fiction of the poet as representing a final, repressed branch of the old Boston Brahmans:
My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.
Eliot struck many of his contemporaries as a person not unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” Virginia Woolf mentioned him in a letter to her brother-in-law: “Come to lunch. Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.” With his fine manners and noble bearing, Eliot was all too restrained by his own sense of decorum and propriety. The novelist Aldous Huxley even called him “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks” after visiting Eliot at his office at Lloyd’s in London, reporting that he “was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.” Many years later, the poet was still fostering this bloodless caricature of himself, preferring to pretend that he was just “a mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” Not everyone believed the story as presented. As early as 1962, the critic Randall Jarrell saw in it a fundamental misunderstanding, which he singled out for an extraordinary comment in his summary of “Fifty Years of American Poetry”:
During the last thirty or forty years Eliot has been so much the most famous and influential of American poets that it seems almost absurd to write about him, especially when everybody else already has: when all of you can read me your own articles about Eliot, would it have really been worth while to write you mine? Yet actually the attitude of an age toward its Lord Byron—in this case, a sort of combination of Lord Byron and Dr. Johnson—is always surprisingly different from the attitude of the future. Won’t the future say to us in helpless astonishment: “But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytic point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source-listing, scholarship, and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!”
Today the task before any reader of Eliot’s poetry is to examine the human anguish still buried under the exegesis. That is no easy assignment. For the poet himself very much wanted that anguish, and the sources of it, to remain forever hidden. This concealment was monumentally important to him, and he labored ferociously at it throughout his life.

By 1938, Eliot had already directed his then literary executor John Hayward to “suppress everything suppressible,” and that attitude only hardened as time passed, sinking into absurdity when, in 1984, Eliot’s second wife dubiously claimed the copyright even to the papers of Eliot’s first wife. The poet had left behind a will demanding that no biography be written, ever. His estate did its best to comply and prevented anyone from quoting any copyrighted or unpublished material without exception, while it routinely requested exorbitant sums for his work to be reprinted in anthologies. It is hard to think of another writer in the last hundred years (other than J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon) who went to such extraordinary lengths to frustrate not only biographers and scholars but even ordinary readers.

Thus it has taken fifty years for any evidence to surface that would justify Jarrell’s premonition that Eliot was more like the scandal-plagued Lord Byron than we could possibly imagine. Still, there were signs along the way, odd visual clues, for those who cared to notice. Virginia Woolf, vexed by the poet’s appearance in 1922, noted in her diary: “I am not sure that he does not paint his lips.” Meanwhile, Osbert Sitwell was “amazed to notice on his cheeks a dusting of green powder—pale but distinctly green, the colour of a forced lily-of-the-valley. I was all the more amazed at this discovery, because any deliberate dramatization of his appearance was so plainly out of keeping with his character, and with his desire never to call attention to himself.”

Let us halt for a moment and consider this image: Eliot, the austere banker with a bowler hat, was actually walking around London in the 1920s with his cheeks powdered green and his lips rouged. No wonder that his friends were astonished. Neither Sitwell nor Woolf “could find any way of explaining this extraordinary and fantastical pretence; except on the one basis that the great poet wished to stress his look of strain.” Others came to a different conclusion. Hart Crane was so certain that Eliot was a homosexual like himself that he referred to him, according to Allen Tate, as the “prime ram of our flock.”

None of these stories dented Eliot’s cadaverous image for thirty years. The first blow was struck in 1952, when an article in Essays in Criticism written by the scholar John Peter caused a famous scandal with its reading of “The Waste Land” as a homosexual lament for the poet’s dead friend, Jean Verdenal. Rather than ignore the essay, Eliot had his attorneys inform the journal’s editors that a libel suit was assured if the article appeared again. So seriously was this threat taken that most of the issues were swiftly destroyed; libraries were even told to cut out the article if they had a copy already. Naturally, other scholars were wary of pursuing similar theories until 1977 when James E. Miller Jr. (with the help of an NEH grant) published T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, and reignited a discussion that had been silenced 25 years before.

Miller’s book suffered a hostile reception, with numerous critics aghast at the author’s impertinence at forwarding such theories. By this time, of course, Eliot was dead, but in his later years he had become a cherished layman of the Church of England and a man of high moral stature. Simply put, Miller’s book was treated as blasphemy, when it wasn’t just ignored or mischaracterized. Expecting such reductive crudity, Miller denounced this tendency to distort his ideas in the early part of his book (“The language ‘homosexual interpretation’ seems deliberately designed to jar the sensibility and provoke negative vibrations”) and at the back of his book (“Such characterizations are not only reductive but destructive, not to say simple-minded”).

In spite of his protestations, Miller’s name became synonymous with this interpretation. As recently as 2006, the poet Mark Ford complained in a review that Miller was like “a McCarthy-inspired gumshoe” who just wanted to “persuade his readers that Eliot was gay.” Yet Miller was not interested in “outing” the poet; he was interested in understanding the verse of “the most subjective and daemonic poet” of the last century. Ultimately, the hostility of his fellow scholars conspired to do a disservice to Miller, and to his 1977 book—which is a neglected classic of criticism, and one of the very few essential works on Eliot’s poetry.

What Miller would have made of all the recently released Eliotica is a bittersweet thought, since he passed away in 2010. Valerie Eliot’s excruciatingly slow “editing” (which was actually deliberate delaying) of her husband’s letters came to an end with her death in 2012, after which three volumes appeared in three consecutive years. A sixth volume, appearing in 2016, gives us the poet’s correspondence through 1933, with a mere 32 years left to cover. That should give the reader a sense of how much Eliot we haven’t read, and how much we still don’t know.

Just consider his critical prose: Ronald Schuchard and his international team of scholars are halfway through publishing almost 7,000 pages of it in an online-only edition, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press (among many others). Or take the recent publication of the two-volume Poems of T. S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, and weighing in at a combined 2,032 pages. Though Eliot himself issued his first Collected Poems in 1936, and the definitive-sounding Complete Poems and Plays appeared in 1952 (and let’s not forget the “Centenary Edition” published in 1963), it must be said that Ricks and McCue are the first editors who have been allowed to publish all the verse that Eliot left behind. That is to say that, at the fourth attempt, we have all of Eliot’s poetry together at last.

That burden, along with the desire of Ricks and McCue to edit every line a capite ad calcem, has resulted in a table-buster. Volume I of The Poems alone is a massive 1,311 pages—with 877 pages of commentary for 314 pages of poetry. All the verse that Eliot cared to collect in his lifetime, and that generations of poetry lovers have memorized, is finished by page 219. There remain almost 100 pages of uncollected verse for most readers to discover (much of it brought together previously by Ricks in his superb collection of Eliot’s early unpublished work, Inventions of the March Hare).

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Monday, 24 October 2016

Flaubert — the writer’s writer par excellence — is a real challenge to write about

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse’.

This might have been the influence of his freethinking father, an eminent Rouen surgeon, but perhaps it was just the spirit of the age. The Napoleonic adventure was over; the sun of Romanticism had set. As Winock reminds us, quoting Alfred de Musset’s Confession of a Child of the Century, ‘the young saw the foaming waves ebbing away from them… and those oiled gladiators felt unbearably wretched’.

The depressing lycée which Gustave attended in Rouen can’t have helped: ‘Life at boarding school was harsh. The premises were poorly heated and rudimentary, hygiene left much to be desired; discipline was rigorous’ and ‘student insurrections were not uncommon’. Schools in biographies nearly always have an air of Dotheboys Hall about them. I taught at that school in 1979–80 and found it exactly as Winock describes.

Wallowing in lost illusions was normal for the time, as was the argot of scientific jargon and obscenities which Flaubert used throughout his life: ‘I feel waves of hatred against the stupidity of my era suffocating me. Shit is rising into my mouth, as with a strangulated hernia.’ Politics left him cold or, rather, seething with indifference:

The idea of la patrie, the fatherland — that is, the obligation to live on a bit of earth coloured red or blue on a map, and to detest the other bits coloured green or black — has always seemed to me narrow, restricted and ferociously stupid.

Like countless bourgeois teenagers of the 1830s, Flaubert decided to make the best of a bad job by becoming a writer: ‘Let us intoxicate ourselves with ink, since we lack the nectar of the gods.’ ‘What is surprising here,’ says Winock, ‘is not the attitude but its staying power.’ Flaubert’s last work, unfinished and probably unfinishable, was a Dictionnaire des idées reçues. To judge by what survives, it would have taken the form of a conversation manual for fools: ‘ENGLISHMEN: All rich.’ ‘ERECTION: Said only in reference to monuments.’ ‘FRANCE: Needs an iron hand in order to be ruled.’ Flaubert’s hope was that readers of his ‘encyclopedia of human stupidity’ would never dare say anything again in case they ‘inadvertently uttered one of the sentences in the book’. It might have been subtitled, ‘World, Shut Your Mouth’.

‘Why write yet another biography of Flaubert?’ asks Winock in his opening sentence. For that matter, why write a biography of Flaubert at all? He spent almost his entire life sitting in a summerhouse above the Seine, fuming at the stupidity of the human race, and writing — which is to say, filling up the wastepaper basket and salvaging an occasional sentence — for 14 hours a day. When he looked up, he saw the masts of invisible ships passing on the river and, on one occasion, the Obelisk of Luxor on its way to Paris. That was Flaubert for nine-tenths of his waking existence — ‘a big, stout, superb Gaul with an enormous moustache, a powerful nose, and thick eyebrows sheltering a seabird’s blue eyes’, dipping his pen in an inkwell shaped like a frog.

Luckily for his biographers, he travelled quite a lot, notably to Egypt, where, like many an ‘artistic’ young man of the time, he tried out sodomy. He told a friend after a visit to the baths in Cairo, ‘It was a laugh, that’s all. But I’ll do it again. For an experience to be done well, it must be repeated.’ (‘Expérience’, that faux ami, should obviously be ‘experiment’.) He also contracted syphilis, as did ‘practically everyone’, according to the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Nonetheless, as the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot puts it, he had ‘an active and colourful erotic career’. There are some detailed examples in his letters to the poet, Louise Colet; but we know almost nothing about his long affair or friendship with the English governess, Juliet Herbert, who translated Madame Bovary before it was published. (The translation, which Flaubert called ‘a masterpiece’, has disappeared.)

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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Model White Writer - Carson McCullers

In the past few weeks, there has been an escalating public debate about the social role of the white writer, stimulated by the novelist Lionel Shriver’s speech at a writers’ festival in early September. It is a cultural moment that has made white writers look in the mirror and wonder if we have been confusing it with a window. White writers are not used to being objectified in this way. One of our conceits has been to imagine ourselves as neutral, objective, and value-free. Yet this sense of “objectivity” is itself constructed, organized, and enforced. And, within the context of racist police violence and obstructions to voting, it is particularly striking that the current incarnation of this old question has reëmerged in the language of “rights.” As Shriver told her audience:
Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Shriver conveys an image of white writers besieged by fierce and powerful forces that are leveraging punitive controls. Yet, despite her stance, many writers of color have generously responded to Shriver’s talk instead of dismissing it with silence. The African-American novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote in the Times:
It’s the wish not so much to be able to write a character of another race, but to do so without criticism. And at the heart of that rather ludicrous request is a question of power.
The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, in the Los Angeles Times, contextualized the debate in terms of material realities:
It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.
But what of the white writer who wishes to be artistically engaged but who simultaneously does not want to re-create cultural dominance in her work? Are there complex, nuanced representations by other white people which we might turn toward? I suggest that one answer may lie in the unlikely legacy of a pale, sickly writer from the mid-twentieth century, who smoked and drank herself to death by the age of fifty, and whose own personal turmoil and self-destruction may be at the root of the enormous insights about difference found throughout her work. 

In 1940, a white twenty-three-year-old woman, slight and awkwardly charming, from segregated Georgia, published an extraordinary novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Richard Wright, in his review in The New Republic, wrote:
To me the most impressive aspect of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
The writer in question was Lula Carson Smith, known to history as Carson McCullers. In her subsequent novels “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Member of the Wedding,” and “Clock Without Hand” (typed with one finger when she was paralyzed from multiple strokes), in the novella and story collection “Ballad of the Sad Café,” in the memoir “Illumination and Night Glare” (dictated from her bed), and in two plays, “Member of the Wedding” and “The Square Root of Wonderful,” McCullers inhabits a startlingly broad range of characters: a Jewish, gay deaf man; a dwarf; a black Marxist doctor and his adult children; and a number of role-defying white girls with great dreams. McCullers had an almost singular ability to humanize any kind of person, many of whom had never appeared in American literature before she created them.

For example, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” defies most black characters created by white authors, in any era. Middle-class and educated, Copeland is a physician, whose family life is emotionally complex; intellectually, he is a Marxist:
All that we own is our bodies. And we sell our bodies every day we live. We sell them when we go out in the morning to our jobs and when we labor all the day. We are forced to sell at any price, at any time, for any purpose. We are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. And the price which is given us for this is only enough so that we will have the strength to labor longer for the profits of others.
The only contemporary writer who approaches McCullers’s breadth of characterization is Caryl Phillips, the novelist from St. Kitts, who can inhabit a male slave owner so in love with a black slave that he frees him, and then reverses the crossing to chase him to Liberia; or a white woman in the eighteen-twenties, discovering the Caribbean for the first time; or other masterful illuminations of perspectives not his own. But McCullers remains the standard-bearer for white authors, and for almost twenty years now I have been on a journey to try to understand how she did it. Who does a white writer have to be in order to overcome the institutionalized ignorance in which we are shrouded?

I have tried—with varying degrees of success and failure—to capture in my novels, plays, and screenplays the world that I inhabit, one of difference. My first book, “Sophie Horowitz Story,” published in 1984, included what I believe to be the first Asian lesbian character in an American novel, not that the characterization succeeded beyond mere existence. In four novels about the aids crisis, I represented gay men with aids, sometimes in the first person. But black characters remained secondary. It was only in my novel “Shimmer,” from 1998, that I first started working with black co-protagonists. A historical novel set at the dawning of McCarthyism, “Shimmer” re-created the so-called American Dream fiction, with a young gay white woman and a young black straight man as the emblematic Americans striving to “make it”—but, in this case, discovering that the American Dream is simply not available to them.

I was proud of my research, my listening, my delving into plays and novels by black writers to attempt the re-creation that McCullers found with “ease”—the room of black people where no white person is present. This, of course, is the hardest work of a white writer, because that is a room we can never enter. Personally, “Shimmer” is a favorite of my novels, but the illusion of success came crashing down one day, some months after publication, when the novelist Jacqueline Woodson took me aside. She mentioned a section, halfway into the story, set in network-TV conference rooms where scripts for “Amos ‘n’ Andy” are being written. Jackie pointed to a scene where one of the black protagonists, a young woman researching her family’s history, comes to believe that her beloved grandfather, a proponent of “uplift,” was once married to a white woman. Jackie explained that this concern about hidden racial mixing was a white anxiety. She told me that black people know the history of slavery and rape, and don’t carry the same concepts of racial purity as white people. That, in fact, I had committed the error I most feared: putting white consciousness into the mind and mouth of a black character.

It was around this time that I first discovered Carson McCullers. I have since written a play about McCullers; I am currently writing a movie about her, and am about a third of the way through a novel in which her death plays a central role. For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.

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Friday, 21 October 2016

Watching the sun set - The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire

In July 1944, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, proposed a meeting of the Big Three, the Anglo-American-Soviet triumvirate that was presently to be victorious in the war against Nazi Germany. His idea was that he, Roosevelt and Stalin should each sail in his own battleship to an anchorage off Invergordon in Scotland, where each would be provided with his own mansion on shore, and the King of England could entertain them all at Balmoral.

Just a year later, we see Churchill, by then no longer presiding over His Majesty's government, saying goodbye to Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India, who has been in London trying to arrange the handover of power to his Indian subjects. "Keep a bit of India", are Churchill's wistful last words to him - all he can say, as the British prepare to dissolve the empire he himself had famously surmised might last a thousand years.

The two passages superficially summarise the message of Peter Clarke's work. In the first the British empire is apparently still in the full flush of pomp and confidence, led by a charismatic genius, thinking in battleships; in the second it is reduced to bathos, its now impotent champion figuratively closing the door as the pro-consul returns, panoplied but forlorn, to his duties. In between, as this long book majestically demonstrates, the empire tortuously, deceptively and often misleadingly progresses towards extinction. "Buggering on" is how Churchill himself once described it.

And it is above all his story, as the truest personification of the empire - inspiring, fallible, maddening, foolish, visionary, lovable and often misleading. It is a tale less tragic than pathetic. At its start Churchill is genuinely heroic, properly representing a nation in arms, and recognising already that it was likely to be Britain's finest hour. Halfway through we see him struggling to maintain its status as the two gigantic allies inexorably assume control of the war - they never did bring their battleships to Scotland, but instead met at Yalta, where Churchill made do with a 22-year-old passenger liner. And by the end he has been dismissed from office by his own electorate, battered by the long struggle and apparently more interested in the past and future than in the present.

The pathos, however, lies not in himself - he never seems personally pathetic - but in his times, and the Shakespearian fascination of Clarke's narrative concerns the nature of history. The British empire's principal enemy was its principal friend. Even at their most generous, Americans of all parties were essentially hostile not to Britain itself, but to its imperial pretensions. Even Lend-Lease, which Churchill characterised as the most selfless act in history, turned out to be a sort of Pyrrhic gift, and an inescapable theme of the book is American suspicion of British imperialist motives, expressed in the squabbling of generals, the malice of Zionists and the constant nagging of isolationist newspapers.

Little by little in these 560 pages, as the war ends and the uneasy peace begins, we watch the British presence pale, and British influence weaken. Professor Clarke's thousand days are approximate - his first chapter is set in September 1944, his last chapter takes us to August 1947, and in fact the empire struggled on into the 1960s. It is true, though, that in the couple of years between VE Day and the day of Indian independence, the imperial sun palpably set. Palestine and Mau-Mau, Suez and the groundnut scheme, even the death of Churchill himself - these were like the repetitive closing chords of a Beethoven symphony that tantalisingly recur when we have long known how it is going to end.

If that one incomparable character dominates the story, an extraordinary gallery of less striking players strut their hours in it: Roosevelt and Gandhi and Bevin and Montgomery and Uncle Joe Stalin; the austere Stafford Cripps, the hatchet-faced Molotov, Truman of Kansas City; rock-like General Marshall, the irrepressible General Patton. And all around them too, their responses swept here and there by propaganda, atavism and the fortunes of war, the cannon-fodder millions of the belligerent states.

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Friday, 14 October 2016

The Man Who Invented The Drug Memoir - Thomas De Quincey

Long before he tried opium, Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist, was addicted to books. The cycles of “remorse and deadly anxiety” that he suffered in his adult life began when he was seven, after a kindly bookseller lent him three guineas. This, according to Frances Wilson’s new biography, “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was De Quincey’s “earliest trespass”: a “mysterious (and indeed guilty) current of debt” that he feared would carry him away. Among the books De Quincey acquired, there was a history of Britain, expected to grow in time to “sixty or eighty parts.” But he craved something vaster and more dangerous, so he purchased “a general history of navigation, supported by a vast body of voyages”: a work that was, like its subject, “indefinite as to its ultimate extent” and, as he was told by a jesting clerk, might involve as many as fifteen thousand volumes. It would “never end,” De Quincey reasoned, since by the time “all the one-legged commodores and yellow admirals” of one generation had finished, “another generation would have grown another crop of the same gallant spinners.” You can hear the elation mixed in with the dread: according to a logical short circuit that was characteristic of his thought, an infinite subject meant infinite books. Debt was only the punctuation between ecstasies. De Quincey was happiest when he was chipping away at the sublime, volume by volume or vision by vision, and his happiness was always dangerously leveraged.

Wilson’s book is a revelatory study of its subject. De Quincey was thirty-six when “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” his sensational memoir of addiction, was published, anonymously, in 1821. At the time, Wilson writes, England was “marinated in opium, which was taken for everything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” It was swallowed in the form of pills or dissolved in alcohol to make laudanum, the tincture preferred by De Quincey. The Turks, it was said, all suffered from opium dependence. But English doctors prescribed it with abandon. The drug was given to women for menstrual discomfort and to children for the hiccups. All the while, its glamour was growing: it was ancient, shamanic, a supernatural tether to otherworldly visions. You could find reference to it in Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare. In his essay “Coleridge and Opium-Eating,” De Quincey wrote that he had found it referenced, too, in John Milton’s great Biblical epic:
You know the Paradise Lost? and you remember from the eleventh book, in its earlier part, that laudanum already existed in Eden—nay, that it was used medicinally by an archangel; for, after Michael had “purged with euphrasy and rue” the eyes of Adam, lest he should be unequal to the mere sight of the great visions about to unfold their draperies before him, next he fortifies his fleshly spirits against the affliction of these visions, of which visions the first was death. And how? “He from the well of life three drops instill’d.”
The image of Adam getting high in the Garden of Eden may seem outlandish, but opium had made a kind of Adam out of De Quincey: in “the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain,” he wandered through ancient cities “beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatómpylos,” crammed with “temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles.” Opium deepened his “natural inclination for a solitary life” by giving a cosmic cast to idleness. “More than once,” he wrote, “it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window . . . from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, without wishing to move.”

Motionlessness is not peace of mind, but De Quincey, who struggled his entire life to find a comfortable way to inhabit time, had good reason to prize it. Writing late in his life to his daughter, he identified “procrastination,” which he linked with unpardonable guilt, as “that most odious of vices”: the procrastinator is doomed, since “in midst of too-soonness he shall suffer the killing anxieties of too-lateness.” “Our fate is always to find ourselves at the wrong station,” he wrote. Once he’d bought one book, it was too late; he had, in effect, bought them all, which excused him to buy a second book and then a third. This was the destructive logic behind his opium use: to have started something was to be already too late to stop it, as though a delegate, sent to the future, were messing things up for the innocent De Quincey, back here in the past. It was an insight about time, and also about identity. De Quincey seemed to fear the idea that there were others of him, distributed throughout time and space, acting as his agents without his explicit command. He understood himself, for good or for ill, to exist in duplicate or triplicate. Probably every great autobiographer, characterizing the choices and dilemmas faced by an almost unrecognizable younger person whose name he bears, feels a version of this; for De Quincey, it was a lifelong fixation, heightened by his addiction and marring his happiness even as it informed his greatest work.

His confusion set in early. He was born Thomas Quincey, in Manchester in 1785; the prefix was added when he was around eleven, in one of his mother’s many attempts to suggest an aristocratic lineage. A series of blows levelled the family before De Quincey’s tenth birthday. His sister Jane died when he was four. Two years later, his beloved sister Elizabeth, his “leader and companion,” died at the age of nine, likely of meningitis. In “Suspiria de Profundis,” De Quincey writes that on the day after her death he sneaked up the back staircase to view her body, laid out in her bedroom:
Entering, I closed the door so softly, that, although it opened upon a hall which ascended through all the stories, no echo ran along the silent walls. Then turning round, I sought my sister’s face. But the bed had been moved; and the back was now turned. Nothing met my eyes but one large window wide open, through which the sun of midsummer at noonday was showering down torrents of splendour.
The corpse is dispatched with stock adjectives: “frozen” eyelids, “marble” lips, “stiffening” hands. De Quincey is fixated, instead, on the “solemn wind” that “swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries . . . the one sole audible symbol of eternity.” He adds, “And three times in my life I have happened to hear the same sound in the same circumstances, namely, when standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day.”

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

T. S. Eliot: Whispers of Immortality

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

                         .  .  .  .  .

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonnette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

                                                               1918, 1919