Tuesday, 29 November 2016

100 Years After Jack London's Death, Hearing His Call

Jack London, who died 100 years ago this week, occupies a space in which few writers can set foot. Although it's not especially unique for writers' lives to be marked by sickness and excess, London was prolific despite these constant threats to his productivity. Even as illness loomed, he managed to publish over 50 books and hundreds of articles in the last 16 years of his life.

At a young age, London developed a hard discipline for writing — often jotting down as many as 1,000 words a day and getting by on little sleep. "All I wanted," he said once, "was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that 'something' which we all need." For much of his career, financial strains didn't afford him the luxury of slowing down. But in time, that work ethic literally paid off, and made him the first American author to earn a million dollars in his lifetime. (It also likely contributed, however indirectly, to his untimely death at the age of 40.)

When Mrs. Foster-Grant, my 11th grade creative writing teacher, passed out copies of The Call of the Wild, I was immediately uninterested. Its cover — a large dog howling against a backdrop of the full moon — wasn't enough to make me care. Weeks went by before I even cracked the thing open; I got by on assignments with the help of smart neighbors whose shoulders I could see over without a problem. But life has a strange way of ensuring you give specific books their proper due.

Around that time, I was listening to a track by a rap group called L.A. Symphony when one of the MC's unleashed an odd couplet that gave me pause: "Slip to the right and then left/My name is Jack London and I got bad breath." I replayed it over and over to make sure I was hearing correctly. While I figured the lyric was just an attempt at being provocative and didn't hold any deeper meaning, it got my attention. I fetched the book from my knapsack and dug in to see what the big deal was.

And that's when I finally heard the call of the wild. There is a melancholy that runs through books like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, London's biggest books. The novels are rich and expansive, easily the most insightful novels ever to star dogs. They are also notably different in scope: One is about transformation and the power of embracing one's true self, while the other revolves around the reality of oppression and allowing oneself, at least to some extent, to be tamed for the purpose of peace and harmony. Both books can be uniquely difficult to read at points, their violence and cruelty taking center stage and revealing harsh truths about the cost of survival. And about their author.

In a 1913 interview with the Milwaukee County Leader, London shed some light on his approach to life and work:
"You may wonder why I am a pessimist. I often wonder myself. Here I have the most precious thing in the world — the love of a woman; I have beautiful children; I have lots and lots of money; I have fame as a writer; I have many men working for me; I have a beautiful ranch — and still, I am a pessimist. I look at things dispassionately, scientifically, and everything appears almost hopeless; after long years of labor and development, the people are as bad off as ever. There is a mighty ruling class that intends to hold fast to its possessions. I see years and years of bloodshed. I see the master class hiring armies of murderers to keep the workers in subjection, to beat them back should they attempt to dispossess the capitalists. That's why I am a pessimist. I see things in the light of history and the laws of nature."
Sure, that kind of pessimism can seem too emotionally taxing. But the ability to look at certain areas of society "dispassionately," as London puts it, can be beneficial in sparking change, and creating art that considers the variety of human experience and suffering.

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Chekhov and the Buried Life of Katherine Mansfield

‘Tchekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him…’ Lev Shestov1 

The critic John Middleton Murry marked the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Katherine Mansfield, with a notoriously bad poem, which he published in his own magazine Adelphi in January 1924. ‘Was she not a child’, the elegy asked, ‘A child of other worlds, a perfect thing/ Vouchsafed to justify this world’s imagining?’2 In casting Mansfield, a short story writer who died young of tuberculosis, as a ‘perfect thing’, Murry recycles the terms of his own characterization of Anton Chekhov. In a review of Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s Letters published in the Athenaeum less than four years earlier, in which he called him ‘the hero of our time’, Murry hailed the publication of his Letters as ‘an opportunity for the examination of some of the chief constituents of his perfect art’. For Murry, the chief constituents of the art are the moral and spiritual perfections of the artist:
We do not consider [Chekhov] under the aspect of an artist. We are inevitably fascinated by his character as a man, one who, by his efforts […] worked on the infinitely complex material of the modern mind and soul, and made it in himself a definite, positive, and most lovable thing…Somehow he achieved […] the mystery of pureness of heart, and in that though we dare not analyse it further lies the secret of his greatness as a writer […] measured by the standards of Christian morality, Tchehov was wholly a saint.3
Unlike Murry, the Russian émigré critic D.S. Mirskii did not tremble before the sacred mysteries of Chekhov’s greatness. ‘Chekhov’s English admirers think that everything is perfect in Chekhov’, he complains, ‘to find spots in him will seem blasphemy to them’.4 Mirskii did dare to analyse Chekhov’s art in formal terms. ‘His method of constructing a story is akin to the method used in music’, he writes, ‘the lines along which he builds them are very complicated curves, but they have been calculated with the utmost precision’.5 With laconic respect, Mirskii adds that ‘if Chekhov has had a genuine heir to the secrets of his art, it is in England, where Katherine Mansfield did what no Russian has done—learned from Chekhov without imitating him’.6

When Mirskii wrote this, Murry was about to publish his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters,7 imitating the example of Chekhov’s brother, Mikhail Chekhov, who published around 2000 of his letters in a six-volume edition between 1912 and 1916, creating a new model of literary ‘life and letters’.8 Chekhov arrived in England—through the translations of Constance Garnett and others—as simultaneously a great letter-writer, with a biography ‘perfected’ by early death, and as a dramatist and short story writer. Murry’s publication of Mansfield’s Letters was a crucial part of his attempt to create a composite image of literary perfection out of her life and work. This so disgusted Mansfield’s close friend, the émigré translator, S.S. Kotelianskii, that he broke off relations with Murry, complaining that he had ‘left out all the jokes’ to make Mansfield into an ‘English Tchekov’.9 However, it was not just Mansfield’s jokes that Murry left out when he edited the letters left by her in his trust for publication, turning her into his (bestselling) hagiographical image of an English Chekhov.10 In the last 5 years of her life, in a dialogue with Chekhov that runs through her letters and notebooks, of which Murry left few traces, Mansfield worked at (rather than worked out) her thoughts on the writer’s vocation, literary form, illness, life, death, and time. Murry excised all but a few of the references to Chekhov in her letters, almost entirely erasing from the record the work she did on Kotelianskii’s literal translations of Chekhov’s letters for publication in the Athenaeum, which Murry himself edited. Murry also removed all traces of Mansfield’s discomfort with his part, as an influential critic, in creating the English cult of Chekhov. In a footnote in the preface of his 1927 edition of Mansfield’s Journal, in which assertiveness seems to stand in inverse relation to persuasiveness, Murry protested that Chekhov had had no influence on her imaginative writing:
There is a certain resemblance between Katherine Mansfield’s stories and those of Anton Tchehov. But this resemblance is often exaggerated by critics, who seem to believe that Katherine Mansfield learned her art from Tchehov. That is a singularly superficial view of the relation, which was one of kindred temperaments. In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s technique is very different from Tchehov’s. She admired and understood Tchehov’s works as few English writers have done; she had (as her Journal shows) a deep personal affection for the man, whom, of course, she never knew. But her method was wholly her own, and her development would have been precisely the same had Tchehov never existed.11
Introducing his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters, Murry expressed the hope that, ‘together with her Journal’, they would ‘form an intimate and complete autobiography for the last ten years of her life’. Mansfield’s ‘one concern was to leave behind her some small legacy of truth’, he explained: ‘because I believe that not a little of her ‘truth’ is contained in these letters, I have tried to make the record as complete as I could’.12 In a ‘literary study’ of Mansfield, Murry writes of her as a possession. He made up his mind, he says, that after her death, Mansfield ‘no longer belonged to me but to the world’. ‘It seemed to me a matter of cardinal importance that the world should know what manner of woman—or girl (for she wasn’t much more when she died)—Katherine Mansfield was’.13 Mansfield was 34 when she died: not at all a ‘girl’, as she herself had insisted. Someone like Murry, who claimed that he had read her letters ‘many times’, might have recalled this letter that she wrote to him from Paris in May 1915: ‘Whose fault is it that we are so isolated—that we have no real life—that everything apart from writing and reading is ‘felt’ to be a waste of time’, she asked, before setting out, over the course of a lengthy paragraph, all that she had seen and sensed as she sat on a bench in a flowering garden behind Notre Dame: mothers, nurses (one Chinese, in green trousers), grandfathers, and ‘little staggering babies with spades and buckets’: Why haven’t I got a real ‘home’, a real life – why haven’t I got a chinese nurse with green trousers and two babies who rush at me and clasp my knees – Im not a girl – Im a woman. I want things. Shall I ever have them […] Registering the tension between ‘life’ and ‘writing’ that was to become a preoccupation of her later letters, and in which the figure of Chekhov was to become imbricated, Mansfield ends, ‘Oh, I want life – I want friends and people and a house. I want to give and to spend (the P.O. savings apart, darling.)’ 14 When Murry edits this letter (without indication) for publication, he cuts everything after ‘waste of time’, deleting her vivid paragraph about the Parisian babies, her protest that she is ‘not a girl’, and her dig (laced with the endearment ‘darling’) about his tight-fistedness.15 This was just one of many passages in her letters that contradicted the perfect image of the writer that Murry was trying to create out of the materials left, with ambiguous instructions from Mansfield, in his trust. For Murry, shaping her letters, journals, and short stories into a ‘single whole’ (following the model of Keats, and implicitly of Chekhov) involved de-professionalizing Mansfield. ‘She was never what we understand by a professional writer’, he wrote; ‘her art was not wholly distinct from her life’:
She was distinguished by the peculiar gift of spontaneity’ which ‘means [in this critical sense] an absence of any cleavage or separation between the living self and the writing self… When the human being is confused, at a standstill, bewildered in its own living experience, then the voice of the art is silent.16
However, the lines that he has cut from Mansfield’s letters are, precisely, ‘bewildered’; they register a ‘standstill’, a sense of painful cleavage and separation between the living self and the writing self. The voice is not silent, rather it has been silenced by the now all-powerful editor. Murry is at pains to present her writing as something other than a ‘technical achievement’17: She was not a person who constructed patterns of objective beauty; she was not a person who ‘told stories’; she was essentially a person who responded through the instrument of a ‘more than ordinary organic sensibility’ – to her experience of Life.18

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Emily Dickinson's Singular Scrap Poetry

The poems of Emily Dickinson began as marks made in ink or pencil on paper, usually the standard stationery that came into her family’s household. Most were composed in Dickinson’s large, airy bedroom, with two big windows facing south and two facing west, at a small table that her niece described as “18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen.” It looked out over the family’s property on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, toward the Evergreens, her brother’s grand Italianate mansion, nestled among the pines a few hundred yards away. Dickinson had a Franklin stove fitted to a bricked-up fireplace to keep her warm, which meant that she could write by candlelight, with the door closed, for as long as she wanted. In much of the rest of the house, the winter temperature would have been around fifty degrees. Though she usually composed at night, Dickinson sometimes jotted down lines during the day, while gardening or doing chores, wearing a simple white dress with pockets for her pencils and scraps of paper. A younger cousin recalled her reciting the “most emphatic things in the pantry” while skimming the milk.

The way that Dickinson’s poems made it out of that house, eventually reshaping American literature, is a story that is still unfolding. Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously; publication was, as she put it, as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” Not that she intended her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters to friends, sometimes with other enclosures: dried flowers, a three-cent stamp, a dead cricket. She also tried a form of self-publishing: from around 1858 until roughly 1864, she gathered her poems into forty homemade books, known as “fascicles,” by folding single sheets of blank paper in half to form four consecutive pages, which she then wrote on and, later, bound, one folded sheet on another, with red-and-white thread strung through crudely punched holes. These books were found in Dickinson’s room after her death, in 1886, by her sister, Lavinia, along with hundreds more poems in various states of composition, plus, intriguingly, the “scraps,” a cache of lines that Dickinson wrote on scavenged paper: the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper.

There were now two separate troves of Dickinson’s poems. The ones from her bedroom belonged to Lavinia. A second group, of more than three hundred poems sent in letters, belonged to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother, Austin. Lavinia, soon after entrusting her collection to Susan for editing, abruptly reclaimed it, and delivered the work instead to Austin’s mistress (and Susan’s nemesis), Mabel Loomis Todd, who, with Thomas Higginson, a mentor of sorts to Dickinson, put out the first editions of Dickinson’s poems, in the eighteen-nineties.

Soon, a wide readership formed and her posthumous fame grew, nourished by the stories people passed around. After a gregarious girlhood, it was said, Dickinson had gradually become a near-total recluse, known around Amherst as “the myth.” Children boasted of catching a glimpse of her at an upstairs window. Some thought she was a mystic. Later readers assumed that she was in love with Susan. Lyndall Gordon, a recent biographer, argued that Dickinson was epileptic and feared suffering one of her seizures in public. You can find support for any of these theories, and many others, in the poems; their quirks, though evened out by her early editors, nevertheless lend credence to the idea that she was a familiar New England stereotype, the flighty, eccentric, proto-spinster daughter.

Much of Lavinia’s pile ended up at Amherst College, the cornerstone of its special collections; Susan Dickinson’s batch went to Harvard, along with several household treasures that had been preserved at the Evergreens. Most of the scraps remained in Amherst’s archive, curiosities sought out by tenacious Dickinson scholars but unknown to the public at large. Then, in 2013, a handsome facsimile edition, “The Gorgeous Nothings,” was published by New Directions, followed, this fall, by a compact selected edition, “Envelope Poems,” the fruits of a collaboration between the Dickinson scholar Marta Werner and the poet and visual artist Jen Bervin. These volumes complement an astounding new digital resource. In 2013, Harvard launched the Emily Dickinson Archive, with the coöperation, if not exactly the blessing, of Amherst, which insisted on open access to all manuscripts. (Harvard, which hoards its Dickinson materials in Houghton Library, reportedly wanted users to buy subscriptions.) Readers can now find Dickinson’s scraps in print and in digital facsimile. Like many previous Dickinson drops, going back to the eighteen-nineties, they radically alter our vision of perhaps the greatest poet to write on American soil—and, somehow, they’ve emerged on the other side of print culture. It is a pleasant fancy to imagine that Dickinson, ever the tortoise in relation to rushing time, knew that, in the end, we would catch up to her.

There are countless expressive features of a Dickinson manuscript, all but a few of them effaced when her poems enter a standard print edition. First, there is Dickinson’s handwriting, long a source of fascination. Higginson famously compared Dickinson’s hand to “fossil bird-tracks,” an insight about the shape and the saturation of her letters, and also about their flickering gait as they cross the white of the page. The Dickinson scholar Domhnall Mitchell and others have suggested that “the layout of a Dickinson autograph is deliberate or motivated” in potentially every regard, from the capital letters of various sizes, to the spaces between letters and words and lines, to the marginalia, which are often crammed with variant choices of word or phrase. Dickinson’s dashes are ubiquitous in all but the earliest editions of her poems, but fewer editions reproduce her plus signs, which mark an unfinished or provisory line, later to be filled in. There are watermarks and embossments around which Dickinson steers her words. The paper is ruled, except when it is not. Now that the Internet has destabilized the conventions of the printed page—in which a poem is a block of language so many inches wide and so many inches long, with pure white space surrounding letters and phrases set at fixed intervals—it is harder than ever to defend the translation of Dickinson’s wild, dynamic graphic surfaces into such confines.

It has been argued that Dickinson refused publication exactly because it was synonymous with print, whose standardizing tendencies she knew would miscarry her precision effects. When, in 1866, Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican (under a title likely chosen by its editors, “The Snake”), Dickinson complained to Higginson that, among other problems, she was “defeated . . . of the third line by punctuation.” Her manuscript had read, “You may have met Him—did you not / His notice sudden is—.” But, when the poem appeared, the editors had supplied a question mark: “You may have met him—did you not? / His notice instant is.”

The question mark makes the second half of line three auxiliary to the first: “You may have met him—did you not [meet him] ? / His notice instant is.” But Dickinson’s preferred punctuation, while it leaves the possibility of the auxiliary clause intact, allows for other syntactical relations: “You may have met him—[if you haven’t, you should know that] / His notice instant is.” The words “notice” and “not” reflect each other more vividly without the hard stop of the intervening question mark. Dickinson seems to have preferred “instant” over “sudden” in later drafts of the poem, but when it appeared in the second edition of her work, edited by Todd and Higginson, a comma materialized in the spot where the question mark had gone. “I had told you I did not print,” Dickinson once wrote to Higginson, suggesting that it wasn’t shyness or modesty that kept her from publishing; it was a fierce constancy to her vision of the page.

The envelope poems suggest the current exhilarating paradox of Dickinson’s work: her unique actions of mind are bound in unusually dramatic ways to slips of paper a hundred and fifty years old or more, rarities whose near-perfect reproductions are nevertheless now widely and freely available online. It sometimes feels as though Dickinson’s sojourn in print, so fraught from its inception, was a temporary measure, now nearing its end as it’s replaced by a better technology. To write this paragraph, I looked hard at an envelope: what a mercurial object it is, more like origami than like a sheet of paper. If you use the back of a closed envelope, as Dickinson did in “A 496/497,” you get three squat triangles, like faces of a flattened jewel. She wrote within, and occasionally across, the folds and creases of this complex surface. To read the lines, you have to turn the image counterclockwise. The vertical column of the first panel then becomes a broad horizon, which, when the poet runs out of space, picks up on the third blank panel. The pleasures and the challenges of this kind of reading are impossible to ignore; next to a clear facsimile of these manuscripts, a print version seems, at best, a kind of crude trot. “Letters are sounds we see,” the poet Susan Howe, a major force in Dickinson studies, wrote. Handwritten letters express a far greater variety of sounds than printed ones. And, if the letters are sounds, so, too, are the spaces between the letters, the margins and gaps, the shape and other material aspects of the paper she chose.

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Women On The Verge - Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

And that is it. What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives—these things are all unknown. In 1991, when her first novel, “Troubling Love,” was about to be published in Italy (“L’Amore Molesto,” its original title, hints at something more troubling than mere trouble), Ferrante sent her publisher a letter that, like her fiction, is pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright. It lays out principles she has not deviated from since. She will do nothing for “Troubling Love,” she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal, and the effortful prying of the Italian press—Why have you chosen this privacy? Are you hiding the autobiographical nature of your work? Is there any truth to the rumor that your work is really by Domenico Starnone?—has about it the kind of repressed anger that attends a suicide. Ferrante is probably right when she claims that an author who does publicity has accepted, “at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.” Our language betrays us: nowadays, you triumphantly sell a novel to a publisher; thirty years ago, a publisher simply accepted that novel.

As soon as you read her fiction, Ferrante’s restraint seems wisely self-protective. Her novels are intensely, violently personal, and because of this they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader. There are four novels available in English, each translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at this magazine: “Troubling Love,” “The Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter,” and now “My Brilliant Friend” (all from Europa Editions). Each book is narrated by a woman: an academic in “The Lost Daughter,” and a writer in “The Days of Abandonment.” The woman who tells the story of her Neapolitan youth in “My Brilliant Friend” is named Elena, and seems to cherish the possibilities of writing and being a writer. More than these occasional and fairly trivial overlappings with life, the material that the early novels visit and revisit is intimate and often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator’s desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage and amid the burdens of child rearing. The novels present themselves (with the exception of the latest) like case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success. But these are fictional case histories. One can understand that Ferrante has no interest in adding her privacy to the novelistic pyre.

“The Days of Abandonment” is Ferrante’s most widely read novel in English, with good reason. It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual. Olga is thirty-eight, is married to Mario, lives in Turin, and has two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” The calm opening sentence belies the fury and turmoil to come. Olga is blindsided by Mario’s announcement. First, there are the obvious responses: loathing, jealousy, despair. She yells without control at Mario:
“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
What menaces Olga more deeply is the threatened dissolution of her self. What does her life amount to, without the intact family unit? “What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture,” she reflects. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She is haunted by the memory of a dark figure from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman who lived in her apartment building, whose husband left her, and who, in her abandonment, lost all identity: “Every night, from that moment on, our neighbor wept. . . . The woman lost everything, even her name (perhaps it was Emilia), for everyone she became the ‘poverella,’ that poor woman, when we spoke of her that was what we called her.” Young Olga was repelled by “a grief so gaudy,” and is desperate, in her own abandonment, not to act like the poverella, not to be “consumed by tears.”

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Monday, 28 November 2016

Georges Perec: essay

Georges Perec was 75 last month. It needs to be said that he died in 1982; but there are many ways in which he is still alive. Shortly after his death, a planet was named after him (a small one, admittedly).

He is still a member of a literary movement called OuLiPo: the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop for potential literature) does not see death as an obstacle to membership. His love of writing work in eccentric, apparently impossible forms continues to inspire. But can a work written by such crazy systems ever be a masterpiece?

In Life: a User’s Manual (1978), composed with a tight mathematical structure, and tricked out with puzzles, Perec proved it could be: this is a novel that manages to distil a vision of the world into a tour of an imagined building of apartments and, although the building is soon to be demolished, Perec’s own monument to it shows how his work can last longer than stone. It is surely among the world’s greatest novels.

As if to demonstrate that Perec can still be productive, Vintage Classics is publishing The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. The book was written in 1968, but appears only now in a completed English version.

This delay tells us two things. One is that it has been hard to convince anglophone readers that Perec is anything more than quirky and to persuade new audiences of the seriousness that lies behind his work. The other is that he wrote so much that, like a distant planet, news of all his creative energy has yet to reach us.

The quirkiness is hard to refute. Much of Perec’s work comes from game-playing. OuLiPo is devoted to creating texts using extreme constraints. Perec produced an entire novel without using the letter “e”, although he also offered a text whose only vowel is “e”, and a palindrome that’s 500 words long. How, we might ask, could anything written with so many obstacles be worth reading? Do these things even make sense? Aren’t these works just whimsical – parlour games, as one member of OuLiPo put it? The Art and Craft gives us another chance to consider this. To write a whole novel on the theme of approaching your boss might seem like stretching a point; and those who fear that OuLiPo exists to generate texts for the sake of it would have their worries confirmed by the information that this story exists in flowchart form.

But what a flowchart it is. When you look at it, you don’t really know where the process starts. You go to see the boss. Is he in his office? No. Is the secretary in? Yes. Is she in a good mood? Yes. Can you see the boss? Yes. Does he ask you to be seated? No. When you ask about his daughters, do one or more of them have measles? And so on.

Wherever this procedure leads you, you can’t fail to notice that the arrows either send you round and round the chart, or else point to a waste-paper basket, as if it’s the ninth circle of hell. David Bellos, an expert on one of the world’s tricksiest writers, is also Perec’s finest translator and has rendered the tale into English. In his biography, Georges Perec: a Life in Words, Bellos quotes the author’s assessment of the journey the story took from flowchart to prose: “I have followed ONE BY ONE all the steps of the route chosen, going back to the start every time an arrow sent me back there… the end result is a text of 57 pages built entirely on redundancy.”

The result isn’t redundant; indeed, in a world where bonuses at one end of the pay-scale lead to redundancies at the other, the satire behind The Art and Craft becomes all the more trenchant. But the question remains – why would a writer put such care into projects that are ultimately self- defeating and futile?

Perec is a great storyteller and a wry humorist. There is always a point in reading his work. But the sense that these narratives are going nowhere, or chasing themselves around into oblivion, is the aesthetic that lies behind almost everything he wrote.

This appears to be a 20th-century malaise, of a piece with those Samuel Beckett characters who chunter inventively into the void, and of a piece with Beckett himself, who, having established that he had nothing to say, went on to consider how to say it. It appears to be a modern frustration that the world is incoherent and nothing really means anything any more.

But Perec’s case of this malady is acute. The central horror of the century was his. He was Jewish. Neither of his parents survived the war. His father died in battle as the Germans swept towards Paris; his mother was murdered in Auschwitz.

It is almost shocking to think that a novel without using the letter “e” is a response to this. The title of the book is a clue, though: in French, it is La Disparition. A document of disparition – disappearance – was the closest thing Perec could have to a death certificate for his mother. In the novel, a detective, Anton Voyl, must work out what is missing from a world facing disaster.

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A Gentler Céline

“Céline is my Proust!” Philip Roth once said. “Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books… . Céline is a great liberator.” Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born on this day in 1894. He was a French writer largely remembered for his first novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” a loosely biographical work teeming with disease, misanthropy, and dark comedy. He was decorated for bravery in the First World War, and wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to the Second, after which he was declared a national disgrace and imprisoned for collaborationist sympathies. Céline, in short, is one of the great problems in twentieth-century literature: you find yourself irresistibly drawn in by the fearless singularity of his vision, even while aware of the appalling place to which it led him. What’s striking is how absent his grievous opinions are from his great novels where one can occasionally glimpse a gentle humanist buried beneath a bitterly stung idealism.

Everything that Céline became was an act of will. From a modest background, he was taken out of school early to work in trade, but he seemed unable to hold down jobs. The First World War—in which he was wounded while voluntarily undertaking a dangerous mission—freed him from this humdrum future; he educated himself relentlessly and came out of the war determined to be a doctor. He worked as an obstetrician and later in a public dispensary for the poor. The mind that emerged from this background is defiant, obscene, unsparing, willfully provocative, but it is also entirely without vanity.

Céline does not attempt a novel of ideas. His work has little in common with that of his contemporaries Sartre and Camus. And he defies the expectations of more traditional fiction—any impulse towards heroism, transcendence, escapism are absent. One is forced to read Céline in a different way—to not only share his perceptions but to somehow feel them. With his speech rhythms, his slang, his heavy use of ellipsis, he embroils you in the writing. But this is much more than a trick of style; it is the work of a wildly original imagination. His writing is intensely physical: a New York subway train is “a cannonball filled with quivering flesh”; he describes the “long, oozing house fronts” of the poor Paris suburbs and the “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.” His experience as a soldier and doctor perhaps account for a biological fixation in his imagery and a perspective of pitiless objectivity. Here he is describing the act of speech:
When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth which screws itself up to a whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of fetid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment … Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state—that’s the unconscionable torture. (“Journey to the End of the Night”)
While using language to persuasively undermine itself, this passage captures the essence of Céline’s deepest comedy: the energy of the writing versus the sense of utter futility he conveys. The sheer stylistic exuberance with which he puts forward character is often in devastating contrast to the pointless, calamitous schemes in which they are caught up. The best example of this is the editor, writer, and inventor whose insane and increasingly manic moneymaking schemes make up a third of “Death on the Installment Plan”:
Courtial des Pereires himself never stopped producing, imagining, conceiving, resolving, making claims … his genius tugged at his brains from morning to night…And even at night it didn’t rest…He had to hold tight to resist the torrent of ideas…And be on his guard…It was incomparable torture … Instead of dozing off like other people, he was pursued by chimeras, new crazes, fresh hobbies…
The artistic energy Céline puts into creating this character, crafting one episode after another of virtuosic absurdity, seems of a piece with his own description of the novel’s paradox: “For me, you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on. That’s what “Death on the Installment Plan” is, symbolically, the reward of life being death.” Céline draws his vitality, his linguistic life from a joy in describing human action that comes to nothing.

There is no room for pathos in Céline’s vision. He seems almost to fear it—as if it might be a mere literary indulgence. Although he describes the most wretched, pitiful scenes, he is always quick to undermine our sympathy. In “Death on the Installment Plan,” waiting for a train at Gard du Nord, Ferdinand is embraced by his mother’s “misshapen carcass”:
“I was terribly ashamed […] She hugged me so hard, with such a storm of emotion, that I reeled…On those occasions the tenderness that welled up from her misshapen carcass had the strength of a horse…The idea of parting drenched her in advance. A howling tornado turned her inside out, as if her soul were coming out her behind, her eyes, her belly, her bosom…it hit me in all directions, it lit up the whole station… […] I didn’t dare admit it, but in a way I was curious…I’d have liked to know how far she could go in her effusions…From what nauseating depths was she digging up all this slop?“
Running through this scene is the shame the family feels in an unfamiliar public space so far removed from their usual poverty-stricken surrounds. They cling to one another at the station, feeling miserably exposed, “timid, furtive.” But having set this up, Céline undercuts it with his curiosity about his mother’s emotions, her “slop.”

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Stormin’ Norman - Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the fall of 1939, just as World War II began. His famous novel about part of that war, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948, and at age 25, like Lord Byron, he awoke to find himself famous. Sixty years later, looking back on the book’s immense success—it topped the New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list for 11 consecutive weeks and remained on that list for 62 more—he commented on the experience of sudden fame: “I knew I’d be a celebrity when I came back to America [he and his wife were living in Paris] and I felt very funny towards it, totally unprepared. .  .  . I’ve always seen myself as an observer. And now I knew, realized, that I was going to be an actor on the American stage, so to speak.”

From that time until his death in 2007, Mailer’s career both as observer and actor—manifested in the 40 or so books he would write—gave us, in the words of Warner Berthoff, “a uniquely substantial record of what it had meant to be alive” in that long era.

Although Mailer has been capably biographed before and was the subject of a large oral history by Peter Manso, J. Michael Lennon’s 960-page account of him won’t be improved upon. Not satisfied with producing this herculean biography, Lennon has followed it with a comparably thick selection of Mailer’s letters. Lennon knew Mailer for decades, talked extensively with him, and recorded what he heard. Unlike many biographers, Lennon feels the need to say something in judgment, however brief, of every one of Mailer’s books. To do this, while keeping the “life” narrative moving along, is a feat he performs with care and without pomposity.

Lennon is especially attentive to Mailer’s undergraduate life, where he compiled a lopsided academic record, with a major in engineering sciences and six courses in creative writing. As a sophomore, he read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and what works of Henry Miller he could lay his hands on; both Lawrence and Miller would be central figures for the writer Mailer became. He wrote stories, published a novella (A Calculus at Heaven), and wrote a long unpublished one, A Transit to Narcissus, about a “lunatic asylum” in Mattapan, where he briefly worked. In an often-quoted anecdote, we find him, a few days after Pearl Harbor, debating with himself whether the war novel he was to write would be best set in Europe or the Pacific. Deciding that he didn’t know enough European history, he chose a scene that few knew much about: the Philippine terrain of The Naked and the Dead.

Some of Lennon’s most fascinating pages are about Mailer’s service as an infantryman in the war and, after the war’s end, as a cook in Japan. Lennon points out how the urban Mailer, child of Brooklyn and Harvard, nevertheless wrote, in more than one of his books, landscape descriptions that “crackle and pulse with energy,” ranking with the best of postwar American writers. Diana Trilling, one of Mailer’s earliest supportive critics, noted that the most dramatic moments in The Naked and the Dead “are precipitated by intensities in nature.”

Such intensities, however, were absent from the two novels that followed his bestseller. In the mid-1950s, Mailer, stung by the failure of his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), and the mixed reception of his third, The Deer Park (1955), dreamed up the first of his impossible projects, that of writing eight interlocking novels that would explore topics such as pleasure, crime, communism, and homosexuality, ending with mysticism. The sequence would emanate from the mind of a character, Sam Slovoda, the protagonist of Mailer’s lively story “The Man Who Studied Yoga.”

What eventually ensued was not a novel at all but the first and best of Mailer’s miscellaneous books of nonfiction, Advertisements for Myself (1959), a work that more or less coincided with his stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales. In her own book about the event, Morales testifies that Mailer said to her, as she was being wheeled into the operating room, “I love you and I had to save you from cancer”—which is perhaps enough, and too much, to prove the madness that he succumbed to. His public explanation, scarcely a better one, was that “a decade’s anger” was responsible.

It was about this time that I began to read Norman Mailer with excitement, his dreadful off-the-page behavior notwithstanding. The polemics of Advertisements, conducted (in Lennon’s words) in an “obscene, prickly, but conversational” tone, enlivened his no-holds-barred reviewing of contemporary fictionists, as it did the braggadocio, heavily tinged with comedy, of his story “The Time of Her Time.” As a mild-mannered English professor who spent his own time admiring, among others, the words of Henry James and Robert Frost, I found this impossible person more than good company.

I followed Mailer avidly through the 1960s, what may be called his great decade: through the collections of prose that succeeded Advertisements (The Presidential Papers, 1963; Cannibals and Christians, 1966); the surprisingly assaultive, not exactly well-made novels (An American Dream, 1965; Why Are We in Vietnam? 1967); and his memorable accounts of the political conventions of 1968 (Miami and the Siege of Chicago). His burgeoning confidence that he could take on any subject produced a book about the moon landing (Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970) and one about women’s liberation (The Prisoner of Sex, 1971). The insistently combative figure who graced these books was well-described by Richard Poirier in his still-important critical study of 1972:
He is quite unable to imagine anything except in oppositions, unable even to imagine one side of the opposition without proposing that it has yet another opposition within itself.
The metaphor of war, which Poirier explores as a key item in Mailer’s work, was perfectly in tune with the announcement Mailer had made in Advertisements that he was “imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” Heady stuff, especially for one, like myself, not at all inclined toward revolution of any sort.

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The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and – most of all – his wife also kept journals. Of these, the greatest diarist of them all was Sofia, the Countess Tolstoy.

She began keeping diaries at 16 but did so avidly after 1862, when she married Tolstoy. She never stopped writing in her journal until her death in 1919, as the Bolshevik revolution threatened to overwhelm Yasnaya Polyana, the 4,000-acre estate where she had lived for more than half a century. "There was a meeting to decide how best to defend Yasnaya Polyana against looting," she writes in her final entry. "Nothing has yet been decided. Carts, oxen and people are streaming down the highway to Tula." History, as it were, threatened to destroy everything she loved.

Tolstoy was of noble lineage, with a large estate and many celebrated books to his name. He had travelled widely in the west, and gambling and whoring were particular obsessions. Yet he seemed willing, even eager, to settle down with an innocent girl of 19, who eventually bore him 13 children, helped him in his work (she personally copied out War and Peace as well as Anna Karenina many times), and supervised a complex estate.

It was a wild ride for Sofia, but she proved equal to the task. Her husband appreciated her intelligence, and she loved not only him but his reputation. It seemed, to her, a privilege to live in proximity to a man whose fame grew exponentially as he aged. The problem was that Tolstoy shifted gears dramatically in midlife, becoming a religious guru, turning his back on fiction. He evolved into a kind of saint, attracting disciples from around the world (including Gandhi). He shaped his own version of Christianity, discounting its miraculous aspects. Worse, from Sofia's viewpoint, he threatened to give away all his property, including the copyright to his work, to the Russian people. A psychodrama emerged, with Sofia battling Tolstoy's disciples for access to his soul. Her diaries become increasingly frenzied in the 1880s and 90s, and the last decade of Tolstoy's life (1900-1910) makes for harrowing reading, as in this entry for 19 November 1903:

I went to [my husband's] room this evening as he was getting ready for bed, and realised I never hear a single word of comfort or kindness from him nowadays.

What I predicted indeed has come true: my passionate husband has died, and since he was never a friend to me, how could he be one to me now? This life is not for me. There is nowhere for me to put my energy and passion for life; no contact with people, no art, no work – nothing but total loneliness all day.

She sees herself as surrounded by "the raving of lunatics". All the talk around her was of celibacy, vegetarianism, and political resistance. Her husband had become his followers, and they crowded around, camping outside the manor house, pestering for interviews, taking photographs, telling the whole world that Sofia and Leo Tolstoy were at odds. She wondered if other people really needed to know her private business. One reads the earlier diaries with a sense of nostalgia for a lost world. On 4 October 1878, she wrote:

My daughter Tanya's fourteenth birthday. As soon as I got up I walked to the little plantation where the children were having a picnic . . . There were four bonfires . . . We had enormous fun and ate a lot, and we had magnificent weather. We got home and were just starting a game of croquet when what should we see but a procession of horses and donkeys filing along our "prospect" . . . The children were tremendously excited and immediately rushed over, leapt on the donkeys and started riding about on them . . . We drank Tanya's health in champagne; she blushed but was very pleased.

Life among the Tolstoys was good (one can find out who the characters are in these entries by searching the excellent footnotes provided by translator Cathy Porter). It consisted of dinner parties, teas, balls, picnics, hunting expeditions, concerts, theatrical outings (opera was a particular interest for Sofia), and long walks or rides in the countryside. Winters were usually spent in a townhouse in Moscow. It was all very grand, and – eventually – the propensity for self-indulgence disgusted Tolstoy, and he rejected this life, surrounding himself with like-minded people.

For her part, Sofia could not stand her husband's circle. "What unattractive types Lev Nikolaevich's followers are! There is not one among them who is normal. And most of the women are hysterics." He seems often very icy with her, as in this incident noted on 5 February 1895. She and her husband, whom she calls by the intimate name of Lyovochka, have gone out to shoot snipe:

Lyovochka was standing behind one tree . . . and I asked him why he didn't write anymore. And he stooped down, looked around in a rather comical way and said, "Nobody can hear us but the trees I think, my dear." (He called every­ one "my dear" as he got older.) "So I shall tell you. You see, before I write something new I need to be inflamed by love – and that's all over now!"

"What a shame!" I said, adding as a joke "You can fall in love with me if you like, then you could write something!"

"No, it's too late!" he said.

As one quickly sees, Sofia was herself a gifted writer. Without apparent effort, she draws countless portraits of her contemporaries, and it's fascinating to get her view of Tolstoy's encounters with such figures as Turgenev or Chekhov. His large world passes before us in scene after scene. And there is often a great deal of tension, as Tolstoy seemed always at odds with someone or something, including church and state. Increasingly the Tolstoy estate became the centre of a movement that prefigured the revolution of 1917. Sofia did not approve, as she could see that many of his followers were using him for their own political ends.

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Thursday, 24 November 2016

No Easy Answers to “The Némirovsky Question”

LITTLE MORE THAN a decade ago, in 2004, Suite Française was published in France. The book quickly became a popular and critical success. It dominated the bestseller lists in France — and, two years later, in the United States — and won the prestigious Renaudot Prize, making its author, Irène Némirovsky, a literary star. Or, better yet, remaking her a star. As readers discovered, none of this fanfare would have been new or unusual for Némirovsky, who had already established a solid literary reputation in the 1930s.

The difference was that, this time around, she had been dead for more than a half-century. Foreign-born and Jewish, Némirovsky was deported from France and murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, a victim of the very historical forces she narrates with stunning detachment in Suite Française.

Now, more then a decade after Némirovsky’s return from oblivion, Susan Rubin Suleiman, the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, offers a personal, poignant, and perceptive account of what she rightly calls the lingering “Némirovsky question.” By this, Suleiman means the many questions which revolve around the dark star of Némirovsky’s relationship to Judaism, other Jews, and her own Jewish background. The author handles this complicated subject — which has created a cottage industry among academics and fueled very public debates — with lightly worn erudition and deeply felt compassion.

Born in Tsarist Russia in 1903, Némirovsky immigrated with her parents to France shortly after World War I. Barely settled, the young woman, confident and outgoing, entered the Sorbonne and nurtured her literary ambitions. In an era when few women enrolled in universities, and even fewer pursued writing careers, Némirovsky set herself apart. She continued to follow her own path when, in 1926, she married a fellow Russian-Jewish émigré, Michel Epstein. A banker, Epstein shared his young wife’s love of French culture and encouraged her efforts at writing. The problem — if that is the word — is that Epstein, like Némirovsky, had not taken French citizenship. Once married, they continued to delay the process of naturalization. Their reasons remain elusive, but the consequences — following the fall of France and advent of the Vichy regime — were clear and tragic.

In 1929, Némirovsky’s first novel, David Golder, reached the bookstores. Not only was it a hit — it remained Némirovsky’s bestselling work until the posthumous publication of Suite Française — but it also revealed the author’s ambivalent attitude toward the nature and place of Jewish immigrants in France. The novel’s eponymous hero, like Némirovsky’s own father, is a Russian Jew who settles in France and becomes a fabulously wealthy businessman. Golder, who abhors his fellow Jewish immigrants, eagerly clambers up the social ladder. Driven by insatiable ambition and riven by inner conflict, never fully accepted by a French society steeped in anti-Semitism, he dies alienated from the society that shaped him, as well as the society that refuses to accept him.

Critics, however, were — and remain — divided. In 1930, some praised the work’s indelibly drawn characters and psychological insights, while others argued that the characters were crude anti-Semitic stereotypes and the only psychological insight to be taken away was Némirovsky’s Jewish self-hatred. In 2008, Ruth Franklin amplified these claims in The New Republic, slamming Némirovsky as “the very definition of a self-hating Jew” and David Golder as a “racist travesty of a novel.” For good measure, Franklin added that this was not a one-off: when it came to Jewish self-hatred, Némirovsky “did it over and over again” in her subsequent books. Even Suite Française was not spared. For Franklin, the absence of Jewish characters in the novel was one more symptom of Némirovsky’s allergy to Jews and to herself.

Suleiman will have none of this. Not only does she make a powerful case for the narrator — Némirovsky herself — being the Jewish character in Suite Française, but also argues that Franklin’s critique ignores the complexities of Némirovsky’s ties to her Jewishness. In her fiction, Némirovsky captures the ambiguous status of Jews in interwar France, as well as the many fault lines that ran through this motley community. She knew firsthand the scorn and suspicion, shame and self-doubt that flowered in the no-man’s-land between native-born and foreign-born Jews, Ostjuden and German Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, professionals and artisans, capitalists and communists. “Instead of tarring her with the label of self-hater or antisemite,” Suleiman observes,
we do best to consider her as a Jew who knew exactly where to pour salt on the deepest wounds of Jewishness — in other words, who was intimately familiar with the feelings of anxiety and existential unease, coexisting with equally strong feelings of pride, ambition, and irony toward non-Jews as well as toward oneself.
In truth, Némirovsky was also familiar with the unsavory politics of the journals for which she wrote in the 1930s — yet another piece of evidence that her detractors cite as proof of her anti-Semitism. Most notably, she had a long relationship with Gringoire, a literary paper that grew increasingly anti-Semitic over the course of the decade. Suleiman notes that Némirovsky started with the paper before it underwent this change. More important, Némirovsky’s writings were not a pastime — they paid her family’s bills; she simply did not have the financial freedom to drop a relationship that grew increasingly knotty over time. (These knots redouble upon learning that the paper’s editor, Horace de Carbuccia, continued to publish Némirovsky’s work, though under a pseudonym, after Vichy passed its anti-Semitic legislation.)

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Suffering and Sanctity - Emma Donoghue

In 1869, the “Welsh Fasting Girl” Sarah Jacob was a national sensation. She was also an enigma: a twelve-year-old child who appeared to have survived without food for two years. Sarah was just ten when her fast began. An otherwise unremarkable child living in rural Carmarthenshire, she first began to refuse food after a short illness. Some claimed her to be a miracle, a fasting saint; visitors travelled across Britain to bring her money and gifts. But the apparent miracle provoked controversy in the national press, with pilgrims and scoffers battling over the bona fides of this small Welsh child. To settle the case, sceptical doctors placed her under strict observation by a team of nurses. Scientific curiosity was quickly satisfied; under a twenty-four hour watch, Sarah Jacob starved to death within days. Her parents ‑ who had refused to send the nurses away as the girl weakened ‑ were later convicted of manslaughter.

It was a tragic and, in many ways, an inexplicable case. But Sarah Jacob was only one of the ‘”fasting girls” who exerted a strange fascination in the Victorian period. As the most famous of them all, she is surely the inspiration for Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Wonder. Like Room, which inspired Donoghue’s Oscar-winning screenplay, this novel again presents a story of a child in captivity – though in this case, the prison may be one of her own making. Anna O’Donnell is eleven years old, a pious and intelligent child who has apparently not eaten in the four months since her Confirmation. The lineaments of her story closely follow that of Sarah Jacob, but Donoghue has transported it to 1850s Ireland, and to a countryside still in recovery from the cataclysm of famine. It is a setting in which self-willed starvation seems all the more inexplicable and for those around her the mystery of the girl’s survival might be horribly pointed. Why should this child be saved, and not all the others? If it is a religious miracle, it seems a cruelly belated one.

But that random stroke of luck, or miracle, accounts for the fascination which these fasting girls exerted across Victorian Britain. In an age when childhood illness often ended in death, the inexplicable survival of girls like Sarah Jacob made them not just objects of curiosity but also of desire. They were charmed, or blessed; like the ascetic saints of the Middle Ages, they suffered and yet they survived – like modern incarnations of Catherine of Siena, given to punitive and extreme fasting.

But the fasting girls had their detractors too. These cases channeled superstition more than institutional religion, and in doing so they also challenged the growing authority of science and professional medicine in the late Victorian period. In the culture wars of the time, the fasting girl might have seemed a dangerous relic from an earlier age: a last rallying of folk religion and superstition. And so a child’s sickbed could quickly become a battleground for the competing claims of folk cures and modern medicine, religious miracle and science. In the case of Sarah Jacob, that clash proved fatal.

There is no mystery as to the cause of her death in 1869. The real mystery is in the actions of the adults around her. Between the need for a miracle and the desire for proof, somehow a young girl was allowed to die. In 2014, the historian Stephen Wade published an account of the case which explored the mystery in terms of the conflict of religion and science in Victorian Britain, the medical treatment of women and the culture of spectacle. The Wonder takes Sarah Jacob’s story as a frame for quite a different set of concerns. Donoghue’s story is told by an outsider, Lib Wright - an English Nightingale nurse who is engaged by a local committee to investigate Anna O’Donnell’s case. Lib is to watch the child by day and night, sharing her duty with a reticent Catholic nun. The stage is set for a conflict between English rationalism and Irish superstition, the claims of science and those of religion.

The character of Lib Wright is rather broadly drawn: a prim woman with a native suspicion of Ireland and its Catholics. Country practices confuse her ‑ she “understood nothing about this place” – but her determination to understand and expose Anna’s fraud gradually turns to concern. The two are pitted in a game of wits against each other, one that is reflected in the riddles Lib poses to Anna and which the intelligent child invariably solves. But Ireland itself remains a riddle to Lib, with its piety and its superstition, its people’s belief in maleficent fairies and beneficent saints: “Like babies, the Catholics, babbling as they squeezed their beads.” Out walking, she follows a road through a bog and finds that, aggravatingly, it leads nowhere. It is another example of Irish fecklessness and carelessness, she suspects, until a local man explains that the road is a legacy of famine relief works, built to occupy the destitute and forestall the need for charity. The road to nowhere is the result of British mismanagement rather than Irish ineptitude.

But Lib’s innocence is perhaps too roughly sketched. She is a British straw man introduced to a post-famine Ireland, a character set up to pay a stock role – to be corrected for her prejudices, her religious bigotry and her arrogant attitude to a culture she cannot understand. The reader will always be several steps ahead of her, even in guessing at Anna’s true condition and the secret behind the child’s survival. The dramatic irony is perhaps necessary; it is a product of a more informed historical perspective. Lib points out that even a Nightingale nurse does not have access to the medical training enjoyed by male doctors, and so she is confused by the clear signs of malnourishment in Anna:
The milk-white skin was dry to the touch, brownish and rough in places. Bruises on the knees, typical in children. But those tiny spots on the girl’s shins, blue-red – Lib had never encountered them before. She noticed that same fine down on the girl’s forearms, back, belly, legs: like a baby monkey. Was this hairiness common among the Irish, by any chance? Lib recalled cartoons in the popular press, depicting them as apish pygmies.
As time goes on, she becomes almost blind to the girl’s deterioration. It is a suggestion, perhaps, of how the O’Donnells are able to live with their daughter’s condition: by becoming almost unaware of it. Lib’s developing relationship with Anna O’Donnell fosters that blindness. The girl is re-created in the image of the religious iconography of her time: pious, patient, obedient to a fault. To Lib, her pliability at first seems cunning. But Anna’s piety is sincere, and her condition seems fed by a religious culture of self-abnegation and self-denial. Yet it is doubly significant that Anna should have stopped eating on her Confirmation day. As she says, that day marks “the end of being a child”. In this much Donoghue nods to contemporary theories on the causes of anorexia –that a trigger may be the onset of puberty and fear of sexual maturity – but she steadily avoids anachronism in Lib’s exploration of the child’s case. Anna believes that she is fed with “manna from heaven”. Whether the manna has a spiritual or earthly source is for her nurse to discover:
A case of hysteria she might possibly be, but utterly sincere. Lib felt her shoulders drop. No enemy, then, this soft-faced child; no hardened prisoner. Only a girl caught up in a sort of waking dream, walking towards the edge of a cliff without knowing it. Only a patient who needed her nurse’s help, and fast.
The waking dream in which Anna is caught mirrors the child’s confinement in Room. Like the fasting girl, Jack is unaware of the peril of his situation. What both children need is an adult saviour. This is the role given to Lib Wright. Though her naive attitude to the Irish appears laughable for much of the novel, it falls to her to liberate the child from the grip of Irish superstition, and from a psychologically sadistic Catholicism. In doing so, she must battle a band of men – the committee who have brought her to Ireland to investigate the case. They are an uninspired band, full of prejudice. Among them is a doctor who believes that the child has somehow survived by developing a reptilian constitution with a “less combustive” metabolism:
“… Perhaps our young friend presents a rare type that may become common in future times.” McBrearty’s voice shook with excitement. “One that may offer hope for the whole human race.” Was the man mad? “What hope?” “Freedom from need, Mrs Wright! If it were within the bounds of possibility for life to endure without food… why, what cause would there be to fight over bread or land? That could put an end to Chartism, socialism, war.”
The doctor does not mention that it would also put an end to Irish famine. In a reverse to Lib Wright’s expectations, in the battle between science and superstition it is the local priest who serves as sceptic here, though he is unwilling to intervene with the O’Donnell family. Lib must look for support instead from the nun who is sharing her watch, but that woman’s ideas of duty and propriety are far different from her own.

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Pure Literature: On Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich

I MET A MEMBER of the Russian Academy of Sciences during a diplomatic reception more than 10 years ago in Europe. At some point during our conversation, Nigeria and Russia were mentioned in the same sentence, and my interlocutor came completely undone. “What has happened to us?” he wailed. “We were once a superpower, and now we’re compared to Africa.” It would have been interesting to probe that sentiment, but I didn’t have the wherewithal. I had no idea what the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union had done to my Russian friend.

I had seen evidence of the rough transition to democracy and a market economy during my travels through Central Europe in mid-1993. Prague had mostly been restored to its prewar glory, but in Budapest currency touts accosted me as soon as I left the train station. Facades were crumbling and petty tradesmen plied their wares in the streets. In Bratislava, then the six-month-old capital of newly independent Slovakia, my brother and I restarted a rattletrap electric tram that had stalled on a vast, empty boulevard by manhandling the power coupling. Drunks were passed out on the street, the clocks and elevator in the hotel didn’t work, and we ate our fill on stacks of virtually worthless former Czechoslovak currency. The psychological toll of the twilight of Central and Eastern European communism has not attracted broad attention in the West. While the extraordinary events of 1989–’91 have their thrilling, galvanizing moments — the election of a Solidarity majority to the Polish parliament in 1989; the January 1, 1990, inauguration speech of Czechoslovak President Václav Havel; the confrontation with Soviet troops in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 — the period following has been of little interest to anyone beyond the small retinue of ex-Sovietologist academics and economists. Yet many of today’s geopolitical crises — from the turmoil in Ukraine to the wars in the Middle East — stem indirectly, if not directly, from the dramas and traumas of the first post-communist decade. It’s important to recall that all the countries freed of Moscow’s yoke, including 15 suddenly independent Soviet republics, shared in some measure the same destabilizing experience.

Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich are both recent Nobel laureates in literature from Central and Eastern Europe who have written intimately about this civilizational sundown. Müller uses fiction, while Alexievich is among the handful of winners — including, notably, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Winston Churchill — whose most important contributions are nonfictional. But both writers, each in her own way, capture the experience of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

Herta Müller was born and raised in a German-speaking family in the small Romanian commune of Nițchidorf in the Banat, a historical region that straddles parts of Romania, Serbia, and Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire resettled Germans in the region after taking it from the Ottoman Turks in 1718. As a displaced minority, the Banat Germans have long had a fraught relationship with the Romanians. During World War I, Romania sided with the Allies, making the Germans a hated enemy within. During World War II, a coup installed a Hitlerite fascist state. The Banat Germans were dragooned into German SS units and some gained notoriety for particular barbarity against Jewish and Serb populations.

Romania had chosen the wrong side. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, the Soviet Union occupied Romania and installed a sympathetic communist government. Romania’s Axis partnership became an inconvenient truth in Moscow, which scrubbed the country’s history of collaboration in favor of a heroic socialist narrative. The Banat Germans became especially inconvenient. In the great upheaval that swept Europe after the war, Soviet occupation forces rounded up all Banat Germans aged 17 to 45 and transferred them to work camps in the Russian interior. The shame of serving Hitler, along with the official communist narrative, virtually eclipsed the horror suffered by these people, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than speaking the wrong language. Müller’s mother was one of these exiles, taken from her home as a teenager.

Müller fictionalizes this moment in one of her novels, published in English as The Hunger Angel (2009, trans. 2012). The story of its 17-year-old protagonist is based heavily on the experience of her mother and of Oskar Pastior, another German-speaking Romanian writer. Pastior died in 2006, before the book was released, and before the full scope of his life’s tragedy was revealed: in the 1960s, before he emigrated to Germany, he had been an informant to Romania’s all-seeing secret police, the Securitate.

The surveillance, harassment, and horror of a backward socialist state is Müller’s primary subject, which she experienced firsthand. Her first collection of stories, published in English as Nadirs, was a clear but dark view of village life among the Banat Germans, which made her few friends at home when it was published in Romania, in a heavily censored version, in 1982. The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, which originally appeared in 1992, is her most recent book to be published in English. In it, she turns her sharp, observant eye on city life and the surveillance state just before the fall of communism.

Svetlana Alexievich is a true Soviet subject, a concept that now makes little sense in our fragmented world. She was born in what is now Ukraine and has long lived in what is now Belarus, both former republics of the USSR. Importantly, she writes in Russian, which remains a lingua franca in many of these nations. Originally a teacher like Müller, she started writing as a journalist and published her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, about the experience of Soviet women in World War II, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. She later wrote about the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. Secondhand Time, now supplely translated Bela Shayevich, is considered her masterpiece.

The majority of Alexievich’s informants are female. The choice to focus on women’s stories, she argues, offers practical, aesthetic, and political benefits. Men tend to talk about what they did; women talk about what they feel. The latter approach drives a stake through the official Soviet narratives of material accomplishment and a power cable into the heart of history. Joseph Stalin supposedly noted that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. Alexievich has sought out the individual tragedy behind those numbers. She tells the story of a hysterical mother recalling the suicide of her teenage son — not an isolated incident among his group of friends. Another woman lost most of her family in remote Siberia after years of internal exile. A college student talks about detention and abuse following her participation in pro-democracy protests.

In this kaleidoscope of different voices, consistent themes arise: bewilderment, loss, regret, anger, blame, disillusion, violence, and endemic, wretched drunkenness. Alexievich gently disparages the sovok — a derogatory term which denotes the Soviet citizen and connotes that citizen’s indoctrinated mentality. Many of her subjects readily identify themselves as irremediably Soviet. They were not prepared for the change that came like a thunderclap. The academics and engineers, former soldiers and partisans, mothers and sisters and daughters all woke up on the same day to find that the country and the system they were taught to believe in had disappeared. Their jobs vanished and their pensions collapsed with the ruble. Tremendous but unaffordable abundance replaced cheap scarcity. Terrorism and gangsterism supplanted the security state. Communist brotherhood, however cynical, surrendered to bloody nationalism. They left behind global stature for feeble gigantism. There was nothing familiar to any of this. What was left to believe in? Most of Alexievich’s subjects struggle to define their lives in the absence of an overarching narrative. This is not simply a philosophical problem of Russian identity. Her subjects confronted frighteningly real problems of insecurity, poverty, and exile. All of Alexievich’s stories are heartbreaking, but I have never been made to feel the personal consequences of the collapse of Soviet identity so deeply as when reading her tale of an Azerbaijani Romeo and Juliet. It is recounted by an Armenian woman who fell in love with her Azerbaijani neighbor when both countries were part of the Soviet Union. After the USSR fell, the woman fled the violence washing over Baku as Azerbaijan and Armenia began to bludgeon each other in Nagorno-Karabakh. She settled in Moscow and waited seven years for her husband to join her. Both of their families disowned them for marrying outside their cultures and faiths. Today they live as undocumented refugees, scraping by and fearing deportation.

Alexievich’s subjects argue and rant and contradict themselves: Gulag victims demand the return of Stalin, a patriotic Afghanistan veteran emigrates to Canada, a mother not yet 30 years old excoriates herself for her victimhood at the hands of two husbands and her vindictive, alcoholic mother. No one can believe that a country that defeated Hitler could simply implode on its own. The younger generation cannot understand the older. Neither can figure out what to do next. The only people who appear remotely happy are a woman who abandoned her husband and children to marry a jailed convict whom she had seen in a dream (“Pure literature!” someone remarks), and an unrepentant capitalist who calls her self-imposed loneliness “a kind of freedom.”

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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Richard Lovelace: A Paradox


TIS true the beauteous Starre
    To which I first did bow
Burnt quicker, brighter far
    Then that which leads me now ;
        Which shines with more delight :
        For gazing on that light
        So long, neere lost my sight.


Through foule, we follow
    For had the World one face
And Earth been bright as Ayre,
    We had knowne neither place ;
        Indians smell not their Neast :
        A Swisse or Finne tastes best,
        The Spices of the East.


So from the glorious Sunne,
    Who to his height hath got,
With what delight we runne
    To some black Cave, or Grot !
        And Heav'nly Sydney you
        Twice read, had rather view
        Some odde Romance, so new.


The God that constant keepes
    Unto his Dieties,
Is poore in Joyes, and sleepes
    Imprison'd in the skies :
        This knew the wisest, who
        From Juno stole, below
        To love a Beare, or Cow. 

The Genius of Berlin - Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, is pretty much untranslatable. Much of it is written in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin. A translator can ignore this, of course, and use plain English, but then you lose the flavor of the original. Or he can go for an approximation, adopting a kind of Brooklynese, for example, but this would not evoke Döblin’s louche Berlin milieu so much as Damon Runyon’s New York.1 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, set in eighteenth-century London, was successfully reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill into a Weimar Berlin masterpiece, but that wasn’t a translation; it was a transformation, of place and time. 

Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Döblin’s novel, is a pimp, not a bad sort, but given to sudden helpless rages. He whipped one of his girls, Ida, to death with an eggbeater. But that is not how Döblin’s epic tale begins. It begins when Biberkopf is released from Berlin’s Tegel prison, paralyzed with fear at having to pick up his life again in the infernal metropolis. He meets a poor bearded Jew, who tries to comfort him with some Yiddish wisdom. Biberkopf’s spirits are further revived by a rough sexual encounter with Ida’s sister. He quickly finds a new girl, called Polish Lina. This time, he vows, Franz Biberkopf will be a respectable man, ein anständiger Mensch; this time, he will stay away from crime. But he can’t. In Döblin’s words (my translation):
Although he does all right economically, he is at war with an outside force, unpredictable, something that looks like fate.
Biberkopf wants to believe in human goodness. But the part of the metropolis he knows, concentrated in the mean streets around the proletarian Alexanderplatz (“Alex”) in east Berlin, grinds him down. He is punished for his naive trust in others.

Biberkopf’s fate, a sorry succession of shabby deals, drunken brawls, petty crime, and murder, is the stuff of a pulp novel or B-movie. At key moments in the story, he is betrayed by men he regards as his closest friends. Otto Lüders, the uncle of Polish Lina, gives him a share in his business as a door-to-door salesman of shoelaces. Biberkopf has sex with one of his customers, a grieving widow, whose late husband he physically resembles. In exchange for her moment of consolation, she gives him a fat tip. After he tells Lüders about his good fortune, Lüders proceeds to rob her. When he hears about this, Biberkopf goes on a drunken binge. But he still trusts his friend Reinhold, a petty mobster, who can’t bear to stay with the same woman for more than a week or two and insists on passing on one after another to Biberkopf. Since he grows fond of the women, Biberkopf calls a halt to these sordid transactions. Reinhold feels insulted.

Soon after, Biberkopf is tricked into taking part in a heist, and Reinhold almost kills him by pushing him out of the get-away car, hoping he’ll be run over. Biberkopf survives minus one arm. A new girlfriend, Mieze, moves into his room, passing on to him the money she makes in the streets. Reinhold, out of malice, envy, and contempt, wants to take Mieze away from Biberkopf. When she resists Reinhold’s advances, he strangles her. Biberkopf, blamed for the murder, goes temporarily mad, but he is not prosecuted and he emerges a saner, more mediocre, less delusional man. He is offered a job as a security guard in a factory. In Döblin’s laconic words: “He accepts. There is nothing more to say about his life.”

The greatness of Döblin’s novel lies not in the plot but, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder observes in his essay on the book, in the telling.2 Franz Biberkopf is one of the modern world’s richest literary characters, as memorable as Woyzeck, Oblomov, or Madame Bovary. We get to know him not just from the outside, as a fat, muscular, working-class Berliner, a lover of schnapps, beer, and women, an “unpolitical” man, a fixture of the bars and cheap dance halls around the “Alex,” but from the inside too, in a constant stream of interior monologues filled with his dreams, anxieties, confusions, hopes, and illusions.

Döblin has often been compared to Joyce, and Ulysses is sometimes cited as his model. Döblin always denied this, however. He wrote:
Why should I imitate anybody? The living language I hear around me is enough, and my past gives me all the material I need.
But he read Joyce after he had begun writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and said that the Irishman’s work had “put the wind in my sails.”3 In fact, both writers, living in the age of Freud and Jung, were attempting to do something similar, to break down the barriers between conscious behavior and subconscious drives by delving into the churning magma of their heroes’ chaotic inner lives.

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