Saturday, 31 December 2016

Günter Grass: from enfant terrible to Grand Old Man

‘Light as a feather, free as a bird.’ Günter Grass starts this final volume of short prose, poetry and sketches with a late and unexpected reawakening of his creative urge. After peevish old age had brought on such despondency that ‘neither lines of ink nor strings of words flowed from his hand’, he was gripped — out of the blue, and to his evident relish — by the impulse to ‘unleash the dog with no sense of shame. Become this or that. Lose my way on a single-minded quest.’

It makes for an invigorating opening: a three-paragraph paean to the unruly and questioning spirit which drove Grass’s writing throughout his hugely productive career.

He established himself from the first as a darkly comic force, his 1959 masterpiece The Tin Drum exposing the failures of his parents’ generation with a shrewd and deft storytelling energy. While much of Germany was still licking its wounds, Grass preferred to rub salt in them — and laugh while he was at it. Readers born after the Third Reich were drawn in their thousands to this boldness, the following two volumes of his Danzig trilogy confirming him as the moral compass for a generation of German left-wingers.

An inveterate attention-seeker and political animal, Grass made the most of this status, aligning himself closely with post-1968 reformers; for a time, Willy Brandt, another great idol of the post-Nazi generation, was rarely seen without Grass at his side. By the late 1970s, Grass’s books were publishing events, with enormous first print runs. But while he was beloved of the left, he was never beholden to it, or to anyone. He took aim wherever he saw fit, enraging feminists with his depiction of women in The Flounder (1977); speaking out against reunification in 1990, and the haste and the presumption with which it was conducted; and, in 2012, getting himself banned from Israel over a poem. Like Oskar, his drumming protagonist, he liked to make a big noise — or a big stink, depending on your perspective. Some in Germany saw him as a Nestbeschmutzer, a chick that fouls its own nest. In this volume, he too chooses a bird to describe himself: ‘With Nature’s all-powerful help, I’ve always hoped to be reborn as a cuckoo, drawn to the nests of others.’

Metaphors always loomed large in Grass’s writing, Peeling the Onion, the title of his 2010 memoir, being a case in point. The book was notable primarily for disclosing his teenage membership of the Waffen- SS, the lateness of this revelation causing outrage, given the moral status he’d so long enjoyed and exploited — not least because it formed a key part of the advance publicity. Distasteful as this was, perhaps, as the title suggests it was just such layers of experience, and of silence, which allowed his early fiction to be so insightful.

For decades, Grass was rarely out of the German national conversation, and his literary success and his ability to hog the limelight often overshadowed fellow writers of his notably brilliant generation, especially Siegfried Lenz, Stefan Heym, Christa Wolf, and his fellow Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll. Little wonder there was resentment. Walter Kempowski noted that, in interviews, he would inevitably be asked about Grass, while Grass was rarely asked about him. I imagine Grass was rarely asked about anyone other than himself, his latest publication or intervention more than enough to provide ample copy.

It is not Grass’s fault, of course, that journalists turned to him at the exclusion of others. He was unfailingly interesting, even when he was being pompous or falling from grace. But he certainly courted, and perhaps also came to feel he deserved, such attention. It is notable, in any case, that the only one of his literary contemporaries he mentions in this volume is the poet, editor and translator ‘our Hans Magnus’ Enzensberger and his verses about clouds. Not to praise, you understand, but to offer a rather spiteful analogy: ‘He loves how they bow first to one wind and then another.’

Two artist friends from Grass’s younger days appear in these pages. Franz Witte found early acclaim as a painter, but suffered repeated bouts of severe depression and died young; Horst Geldmacher produced murals, interiors and public artworks, and became something of a local Düsseldorf legend before his own early death; both, it is said, gave rise to characters in the Danzig trilogy. But Grass had left Düsseldorf and its postwar art scene even before The Tin Drum was published, and here describes it critically: ‘a pleasingly fake bohemia’ that ‘had rid itself of memory’. His old friends don’t come off much better: ‘genius going to waste’. The first stanza of ‘Farewell to Franz Witte’ is fond: ‘Where did you go? Leaping nimbly through the window/of the mental institution/as I see you still’. But ultimately, it is unclear if Grass regrets his friend’s pain, or is merely berating him for not amounting to anything in his eyes.

The intellectual company Grass preferred to keep in his last years was of a more exulted order: Jean Paul, Rabelais and Henry James are all referenced here, often obliquely, as if to let only the reader sufficiently in-the-know into this erudite circle. In one prose meditation, suffering from insomnia, Grass finds Claude Lévi-Strauss (‘a scholar of myth, already ancient in his own lifetime’) knocking on his study door in the small hours. Grass confesses to having appropriated metaphors (what else?) from The Raw and the Cooked — and to never having acknowledged the debt. Lévi-Strauss, gracious to a fault, tells him he stole well and wisely, and encourages him to steal more; there are ‘still merry tales to tell’. Of course Grass had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this — but then he was always best taken half in jest, all in earnest.

Grass does, however, also turn his critical gaze on himself. Decay and decline are the obvious preoccupations of the pencil and charcoal sketches in this volume: dried frogs and fungi, rotting windfall apples, bent coffin nails. Striking more for their subject-matter than for their execution, the drawings enlighten nonetheless: among the most distinctive are those of a mutilated hand, fingers lopped off at the knuckle by huge scissors, cast iron and menacing.

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Friday, 30 December 2016

Beyond Expectations: Rereading Dickens

Fifty years was long enough, I suppose, to put off reading Charles Dickens again. I had read him, and loved him, in college—“Hard Times” and “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were the most admired texts in the nineteen-sixties; and then, on my own, soon after college, I read “David Copperfield” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” with its hilarious impressions of the newspaper-and-spittoon dominated America of the eighteen-forties. I knew a couple of the other novels because they had been read to me, after lunch, in seventh grade, at my New York private school. You could put your head down on the desk and go to sleep—no one would bother you. The rest of us listened. Our homeroom teacher, a woman with freckled skin and white hair named Ruth K. Landis, read first “Oliver Twist” and then “Great Expectations” in a steady dulcet voice. At the emotional climaxes, Miss Landis grew rather tearful, but no one mocked her. It was an enchanting way to launch the rest of the school day. I mention all this because my acquaintance with Dickens was more or less typical of what literary-minded, privileged boys and girls of a certain era enjoyed.

In any case, by my mid-twenties I had abandoned Dickens for Henry James, who was ever so much more worldly and intricate, and who had a finer, less melodramatic sense of evil (though there is always someone in James who is trying to gain control of your soul or your money or both). James left New York and Boston behind and set up in London and Rye; American civilization was insufficiently complicated for him, but Americans as individuals interested him a great deal. Dickens wrote nothing that meant as much to me and my friends as “The Portrait of a Lady,” with its high-minded, presumptuous, ambitious, and noble heroine, Isabel Archer.

In recent years, I put Dickens off again and again, which of course meant I was afraid I wouldn’t much like his books, afraid that the return might be akin to visiting, out of duty, a somewhat faded aunt or uncle and submitting to an embarrassing performance of patched-together jokes and moldy recollections, which might or might not be interesting—one’s interest in such meetings is often selfish—as a reflection of my own temperament at twenty. No doubt I feared finding that my own youth was a lot less clever than I wanted it to be.

At last, after many resolutions abandoned, I read “Great Expectations” and fell into a happiness granted rarely to any reader. The marvellous fable at the heart of it feels like a twisted fairy tale (Dickens was friends with Hans Christian Andersen, who showed up at Dickens’s country house, in 1857, and refused to leave for five weeks). Its hero, Pip, comes to consciousness, at least for the purpose of this first-person narrative, when he is seven, an orphan boy mulling over the tombstones of his parents and little brothers. A convict, Magwitch, rises up from a grave and threatens to cut his heart and liver out if he doesn’t run home for some food. A mysterious bequest follows, seemingly presided over by the demented and vengeful Miss Havisham, a living ghost who celebrates her own romantic disaster, using her beautiful ward, Estella, as an instrument of revenge. The bequest falls from the sky like a shower of gold greeting a newly crowned tsar. Pip, raised by a country working-class family, will be a gentleman. It is a fable that appeals to our love of social advancement, a new life, fresh experience.

Page by page, the book is less hearty than I remembered (except for a few passages of Pip’s contrition at the end) and much funnier—really savage in many passages. There is, for example, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, who “kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity who used to go to sleep between six and seven every evening in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.” There are the clerks at Mr. Jaggers’s law office: one of them looks like “something between a publican and a rat-catcher—a large pale puffed swollen man,” followed by “a little flabby terrier of a clerk with dangling hair (his cropping seem to have been forgotten when he was a puppy),” and, finally, “a high-shouldered man with a face-ache tied up in dirty flannel, who was dressed in old black clothes that bore the appearance of having been waxed.”

Far from being musty, the book spills over with astonishing moments. In chapter thirty-three, Pip greets his longed-for ideal, the beautiful, literally heartbreaking Estella, at a coach station in London. She has come in from the country, and he is excited, nervous, irritable. He takes her inside the inn at the coach depot for tea. They enter the empty dining room.

I was, and I am, sensible that the air of this chamber, in its strong combination of stable with soup-stock, might have led one to infer that the coaching department was not doing well, and that the enterprising proprietor was boiling down the horses for the refreshment department.

So much for the great romantic moment. “Great Expectations,” in which Pip longs so much for love and for decency, clarity, clean sheets, good food, fresh country air and sunshine, is filled with offal and awfulness.

What’s remarkable about these flourishes, apart from their vicious exactitude in nailing the varieties of the grotesque, is how easily they read, how they appear tossed off in the normal exercise of powers almost Shakespearian in their strength. What I had forgotten was Dickens’s joy in writing, which he shares with the reader. You are rooting for him to take chances, to score, to go for it, to reach for the seemingly irrelevant detail, the louche metaphor. He exhibits so exuberant and generous a degree of writerly candor and companionability that the reader is always loyal to him: this man is happily working to entertain us. The nastiness, which comes more frequently than his reputation would lead you to expect, is itself an aspect of his generosity to the living world. George Orwell remarked in an essay on Dickens, from 1939, that though Dickens had attacked the entire British establishment (law, parliament, nobility, educational system, etc.), no one was personally mad at him. It was almost universally felt that his malice was the underside of his love of sunshine and good people; his rage has as much excited life to it as his celebration of decency and loyalty.

As everyone has noticed, there are moments when Dickens’s grasp of absurdity and decrepitude makes him our contemporary, or at least a modern writer; for instance, the amazing anticipation of Kafka and expressionism in the look of Mr. Jaggers’s law office—“Mr. Jaggers’s room was lighted by a skylight only, and was a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it.” He had, it seems, an almost gleeful appreciation of shabbiness, sordidness, decay, misshapenness, and irregularity—falling houses, untended gardens, the mess and slime on the Thames down toward Gravesend. Old England is dying and has yet to be replaced by the new; there are no exciting buildings or inventions—at least not in “Great Expectations.” When Pip joins his friend Herbert Pocket in Barnard’s Inn, he experiences the following:
A frowzy mourning of soot and smoke attired this forlorn creation of Barnard, and it had strewed ashes on its head, and was undergoing penance and humiliation as a mere dust-hole. Thus far my sense of sight; while dry rot and wet rot and all the silent rots that rot in neglected roof and cellar—rot of rat and mouse and bug and coaching-stables near at hand besides—addressed themselves faintly to my sense of smell, and moaned “Try Barnard’s Mixture.”
An ecstasy of disgust—rot, rot, rot! It’s the smell of shit, impossible to get out of your nostrils or your clothes. No contemporary writer could be more explicit. Dickens is the poet, as well, of foul weather, of mist and murk. How consistently he makes you realize in “Great Expectations” that people in the early nineteenth century lived, and often groped, in the dark much of the time.

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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Colm Tóibín​​: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist​, 100 years on​

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with the confidence, ease and innocence of a story told to a child and ends with a tone that is hesitant, suspicious, fragmented and estranged. Between the two comes the education of one Stephen Dedalus, as the nets of race, religion and family attempt to ensnare his tender soul and complex imagination.

Stephen is a born noticer and an attentive listener. He is also someone who can take himself and his experiences with immense seriousness and then, a few pages later, put on an ironic disposition, as though his own very thoughts and the sufferings he endured were made to be fictionalised. (The earlier version of the book was called “Stephen Hero”.) In A Portrait, there is a constant and nourishing conflict going on between the artist and the young man, the artist concerned with style and texture and the refraction of experience, the young man with registering what he saw and remembered, how he grew.

For many Irish male writers who came after Joyce, from Frank O’Connor to John McGahern to Seamus Heaney, the sifting of early memory, the detailed description of parents, domestic space, school, religious belief, came with the matching account of the young artist’s effort to navigate these through solitude and reading, through knowledge and language.

In an essay written in 1982 to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth, the Irish poet John Montague, who died earlier this month, a writer who had also mined his own childhood, wrote of the influence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “No one could overestimate the effects of [the book] on later Irish writers … Or on the national psyche: many young Irishmen came to painful consciousness reading those corrosive pages. The Dublin of my student days was strewn with versions of Stephen Dedalus, including myself, though I wonder what the women thought of it!”

“Little failed saints,” Montague wrote, “we knew eternity too early.” Almost every section of Joyce’s book belonged to common Irish Catholic experience. Aged eight or nine, once a week, in Enniscorthy Cathedral, with the lights dimmed, we heard the priest intone: “Death comes soon and judgment will follow, so now, dear children, examine your consciences and find out your sins.” When I read the hellfire sermon in A Portrait, I had heard some of those very words, even though I was born 40 years after the book came out.

The Christmas dinner scene, with the bitter argument about Parnell between Stephen’s father and his aunt, could easily have come from many Irish tables in the 1970s and 80s as families rowed over what was happening in Northern Ireland.

Since corporal punishment in schools continued until as recently as the early 80s, anyone who had the misfortune to be educated by priests or Christian Brothers (or indeed nuns) would have fully recognised the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished. It happened to us all.

When I went to work as a language teacher in Barcelona in 1975, with many English people among my colleagues, I was constantly aware that how they spoke and how they saw language was utterly different from how I did. When there was discussion over the pronunciation or meaning of certain words (or the use of “bring” and “take”, which are different in Ireland and England), I felt much as Stephen did when he met the English Jesuit. “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”

But, like Joyce, I soon got over this feeling and saw that the best English was spoken in Lower Drumcondra. I soon took the view also that received pronunciation was, like all language, both a gift and a burden, and the distance between us a sort of joke. “It seems history is to blame,” as Haines the Englishman says in Ulysses.

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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Émile Zola – on the run in Upper Norwood

On Christmas Day 1898, France’s most famous writer, if not the most famous writer in the world at the time, was living in a hotel in Upper Norwood, south London. Émile Zola was the author of a clutch of international bestsellers – Thérèse Raquin, Germinal, La Terre, Nana – but this Christmas he was holed up in a room he hated, unable to speak English, longing to get back to France.

How had it come to this? It was only two or three years ago that I pieced together what Zola enthusiasts have known all along: that he was on the run.

Early on the morning of 19 July 1898, Zola had stepped off the boat train from Calais, carrying nothing more than a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper and the name of the Grosvenor Hotel on a bit of paper. The writer who, for me, had been forever fixed in Paris – I imagined him to be a little like Toulouse-Lautrec but more anonymous, creeping around brothels and sewers, interviewing low-lifes and writing their answers in a black leather notebook – had actually spent months in the UK, in hiding from the French authorities. And there was one word that explained everything: Dreyfus.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an army officer who had been found guilty of espionage on the basis of one document – in French, the bordereau – which supposedly proved that he had leaked information about a gun to the Prussians. He was sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Was Dreyfus guilty? One view of this was that of course Dreyfus was guilty: he was Jewish. Another was that Dreyfus was innocent because the bordereau was not written in Dreyfus’s handwriting but in the handwriting of someone else, Major Esterhazy.

By this time, the affair was dividing France down the middle: on one side a monarchist, nationalist, Catholic and antisemitic bloc, and on the other, an alliance of Republicans, Protestants, secularists and socialists.

There were probably several reasons why Zola got involved, but the reason Dreyfus’s supporters approached him was that Zola had, in May 1896, written a ground-breaking article “Pour les juifs” (“On behalf of the Jews”). This was an article written against the folly of antisemitism at the height of nation-wide hysteria against Jews. What’s more it was in a sense written against his former self, the author of L’Argent (Money) a novel which had reproduced many antisemitic stereotypes.

Zola’s intervention on the pro-Dreyfus side was sensational, if not decisive. He and the editor of the newspaper L’Aurore, Georges Clemençeau, wrote a long article which was headlined “J’Accuse …!” – in truth an open letter to the president of France, Félix Faure, which accused the army top brass of conspiracy and trial-fixing. Zola’s libel was made in the full knowledge that it would be likely to bring down the power of the state on his head, because that was all part of the plan. Finally, the pro-Dreyfus camp thought, all the most recent discoveries proving Dreyfus’s innocence would be heard in court.

It was not to be so: the state restricted the evidence to nothing more than Zola’s words, par ordre (“by order of”) – an order that Esterhazy was found innocent only because the court martial had ordered it. Zola was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3000 francs. Instead of serving time, he had fled and by Christmas had been in England for five months.

Exile had made Zola’s web of relationships even more complicated. In all but name, Zola had two wives: Alexandrine and Jeanne. Alexandrine was Madame Zola; she and Zola, now 58, had been together for 28 years but had no children. Zola and Jeanne Rozerot had been together for 10 years. She was 27 years younger than Zola and they had two children, Denise and Jacques. In the sudden and dramatic turn of events that had led to Zola living in the Queen’s Hotel, Upper Norwood, he would find himself one moment frantically scanning the papers for news of the Dreyfus case, the next juggling Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children, the next trying to get on with what he hoped would be the first of a new kind of novel, one that offered solutions to the plight of France, rather than simply “dissected” it, as he put it.

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Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Bookish Pleasures Of A Henry James Yearbook

In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.

The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since—one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970—it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of James—and neither is Smalley, though her father makes several appearances.) But earlier this year, the centenary of James’s death, the University of Chicago Press brought out a new edition of the “Year Book,” with a foreword from Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College and the author of “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.” The work also has a new title: “The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master.”

“The Daily Henry James” is barely two hundred pages. There are generally four or five calendar dates per spread, and under each date is the title of a work by James, its year of publication, and a quotation from that work. Each month begins with a seasonally appropriate quotation. (November, for example, offers a meditation on the “romance of a winter afternoon in London.”) A few other quotations are matched with similarly relevant dates, but otherwise they occur in no particular order: you bounce around from “The Awkward Age” (1899) to “Roderick Hudson” (1875) to “The Ambassadors” (1903). Snatches of dialogue (“ ‘It’s so charming being liked,’ she went on, ‘without being approved’ ”) and descriptions of characters (“His idea of loyalty was that he should scarcely smoke a cigar unless his friend were there to take another, and he felt rather mean if he went round alone to get shaved”) sit alongside extracts from his essays (on Trollope: “His great, his inestimable merit was complete appreciation of the usual”). Rather sweetly, the longest daily quotation arrives on James’s birthday, April 15th: a passage from “Washington Square” describing a childhood spent around the Square, as James’s was.

How does one read such a book? Are you supposed to open it to the relevant page every morning? Open it occasionally at random or read it straight through? I went first to my birthday, hoping for something that would resonate. I found this: “Against Americans I have nothing to say; some of them are the best thing the world contains. That’s precisely why one can choose.” I read this as a tacit endorsement of my choice, a couple of years ago, to move from England to America. Then I went to the birthdays of my friends and family, whose quotations were disappointingly irrelevant. It felt like checking the horoscope.

“The Henry James Year Book,” the original 1911 publication, was meant to be used, not just read. Harvard’s Houghton Library, devoted to rare books and manuscripts, has a first edition, and I went to see it after flipping through “The Daily Henry James” for a while. In the earlier book, each quotation occupies its own red-ruled box, which takes up half a page, and under each quotation is a blank space, for the book’s owner to write down the birthdays of those she knows. (“The Year Book” was not an appointments diary, good only for a single year: its dates are not matched with days of the week, and no year is specified.) The “Year Book” is odd, but it’s not unique: a number of authors received similar treatment in the later decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The publication in England of the “Tennyson Birthday Book,” in 1878, inspired a George Eliot birthday book later that year. Its editor, a Scotsman named Alexander Main, had already had great success anthologizing Eliot: his “Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Works of George Eliot,” published in 1871, went through ten editions in twenty-five years. In the preface to that anthology, Main declares his hope that the book will be a guide to wisdom and virtue.

By contrast, Smalley focusses on James’s ability to delight. In her preface, she writes of the “happiness” she enjoyed while working on the book and the “pleasure” she hopes its readers will experience. Gorra, too, stresses the pleasure that readers can find in the anthology, which, he suggests, derives from its decontextualizing method: because observations from James’s fiction about human nature are here detached from any particular situation, we can better appreciate their “epigrammatic force,” as well as “the extraordinary precision” of his descriptive prose, his “sheer ability to make us see,” which can be “easy to miss when caught by the flow of a narrative.”

There’s something to this. “When you love in a deeper and intenser way, then you are, in the same proportion, jealous,” an unspecified character from “The Golden Bowl” says in the entry for October 11th. “When, however, you love in the most abysmal and unutterable way of all—why then you’re beyond everything, and nothing can pull you down.” Without knowing who makes this remark (it’s Maggie Verver), or the context for her words (she’s talking to her father about her marriage), we don’t know how to interpret this observation. Is the speaker someone toward whom we should feel sympathetic or skeptical? (Sympathetic, if you’re wondering.) Someone whose views on love we should believe or dismiss? (It’s complicated.) And so, instead, we sit, for a moment, with this notion on its own. What is the relation between love and jealousy? Does the greatest love pass beyond jealousy?

In his preface to the New York edition of “Roderick Hudson,” James wrote, “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw . . . the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” In “The Daily Henry James,” relations begin nowhere: the fragments have no connection to one another, and don’t add up to any meaningful narrative. The result is that the book offers Jamesian atmosphere rather than Jamesian plots: flicking through the anthology, you experience the elements that make up James’s novels in the way that you might experience them in real life. You see characters briefly, as at a party or in the street; virtually every page provides an observation on the American character, a description of the grounds of an English country house, a fastidious young man reflecting on the character of a great artist, or someone pondering what one should do with youth, wealth, and beauty.

I was reminded, as I turned the pages, of “Dickens’s Dream,” the 1875 watercolor by Robert William Buss, in which a sleeping Charles Dickens sits in a chair in his study, characters from his novels surrounding his head and spreading out into the corners of the room. Buss died before he could finish the painting, so only Dickens and the characters closest to him are in color; the other characters are faint black-and-white sketches, filling the air in a Dickensian miasma. A red-jacketed Paul Dombey appears to sit at the end of Little Nell’s deathbed, which hovers above Dickens’s knee. On the other side of the room, Harold Skimpole frolics above the writing desk, while by his side Captain Cuttle squats and Mr. Dombey raises a top hat. Today, the worlds of nineteenth-century novelists come in 3-D, too: there’s the annual ten-day Jane Austen Festival, offering attendees the chance to explore the Bath of Austen’s novels, as well as to learn the dances and crafts that her characters would have practiced. Until it closed last month, Dickens World, a themed attraction in Kent, England, promised visitors a tour through the “atmospheric streets, courtyards and alleyways of Victorian England.”

Dickens World layered Dickens’s novels and Dickens’s life, putting Peggotty’s Boat-house, from “David Copperfield,” alongside a mocked-up blacking factory, like the one in which Dickens worked as a child. “The Daily Henry James” suggests to readers a similar doubleness. When you hold the little book in your hands, you hold small shards of works that, in their complete form, would take up an entire shelf, but you also hold a piece of the publishing culture of James’s time. The new version retains Smalley’s original preface, as well as letters of introduction that were printed in the 1911 edition, from James himself and William Dean Howells. (James signs off his very enthusiastic, very Jamesian letter of introduction with “I take the thing for a very charming and illuminating tribute to the literary performance of–henry james.”) These remind us that the book is a reproduction of a hundred-year-old anthology—and the removal of the original anthology’s blank spaces turns the work into a museum piece, discouraging twenty-first-century annotations.

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Monday, 26 December 2016

Finding Humility In Camus’ The Plague

Shortly before Christmas Day 1946, Albert Camus delivered a book manuscript to his publisher. Unhappy with what he had written but unable to write any more, Camus consoled himself that this “complete failure will teach me modesty.”

As it turned out, his book, The Plague, became an immediate bestseller upon its publication. Seventy years later, it remains a bestseller — a work as compelling today as it was at the start of the Cold War, when the defeat of one form of totalitarianism — Nazism — gave way to the equally grim totalitarianism of Communism.

It is not clear whether the book’s success taught Camus modesty. What is clear, though, is its potential to teach modesty, political and moral, to others.

The novel’s plot is simple: Sometime in the 1940s, the plague settles upon Oran, a city in French Algeria. Fearful and feckless, Oran’s political leadership refuses to name the threat for what it is. They justify their dithering by the refusal of medical officials to affirm, with absolute certainty, that the plague is, indeed, the plague. Maddened by these hesitations, the book’s protagonist, Doctor Rieux, exclaims: “It has small importance whether you call it the plague or some kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent it killing off half the population of this town.”

As the daily body count climbs, however, officials finally quarantine the entire city. Most of Oran’s residents, who had thought the plague could never happen in their lifetime, passively submit to their lot. But a small group of individuals instead join forces to resist the plague, forming sanitary squads that care for the ill and bury the dead. At first, their motivation isn’t clear. These men — a laconic doctor, an investigative journalist, a petty official, and a mysterious traveler — seem to share nothing other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet we soon discover they also share what we can call an ethics of attention. The traveler, Jean Tarrou, expresses this code when he tells Rieux about a childhood experience, accompanying to work his father, a state prosecutor. Watching his father argue for the death penalty, Tarrou was shocked by the contrast between the man of flesh and blood sitting in the dock and the euphemisms filling his father’s closing argument.

Forever changed by the experience, Tarrou tells Rieux that we must keep an unending watch on our own selves and our words. The good man is “the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.” What this comes down to, Tarrou concludes, is seeing and speaking clearly: “All of our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clear-cut language.”

Much has been written on how the president-elect’s peculiar relationship to language reflects our “post-fact” and “post-truth” age. But The Plague reminds us that these same phenomena loomed over Camus’s age. While Camus spoke of lies instead of “post-fact” and propaganda rather than “post-truth,” he nevertheless battled against an earlier iteration of our current predicament.

By the time he completed the manuscript, the Iron Curtain was lowering over Europe. The show trials of dissident Communist leaders in Central and East Europe offered the second act to the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. In France, the univers concentrationnaire (the universe of concentration camps) was already being mapped by David Rousset, analyzed by Raymond Aron and recreated by Arthur Koestler.

At the same time, French Communist intellectuals denied the facts themselves, while fellow-travelers on the Left, while acknowledging them, denied their moral significance. As the brilliant apologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued, every political system is based on violence. Unlike the violence of capitalism, which is inherent to its workings, the violence of communism is a regrettable means leading to a radiant future.

Such casuistry on behalf of a murderous ideology — one thoroughly opposed to the reality-based community of postwar Europe — enraged Camus. Shortly after the publication of The Plague, he declared: “Today things are clear and we must call something ‘concentrationnaire‘ if that is what it is, even if it is socialism. In one sense, I shall never again by polite.”

Similarly, Rieux and his motley band of resisters insist, as one of them declares, “in calling things by their name.” It is only by getting the words right — using them to describe the world as it is — that one can act right and make the world a bit more the way it should be. Totalitarianism — for which the plague stands as the allegorical representation — gets words wrong. It uses them to describe a world that isn’t, and thus creates a world that should never be. It comes to power through the harrowing of terror, and maintains itself through the hollowing of language. Hence Camus’s reason for joining the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation: We were fighting, he declared, “for that fine distinction between the true and the false.”

But to what end? By the time the sanitary squads help defeat the plague, Tarrou numbers among its victims. It was Tarrou, moreover, who had earlier reminded Rieux that his efforts to save his patients will never be lasting.

The doctor’s reply — “Yes, but it is no reason for giving up the struggle” — at first sounds pat. But instead, it sounds the depths of human purposefulness: the demand, in the face of political or ideological absurdity, for justice and dignity. In The Rebel, his philosophical companion to The Plague, Camus insists on a key element to our resistance against absurdity: “to insist on plain language so as not to increase universal falsehood.”

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Thursday, 22 December 2016

That Sad Young Man - F. Scott Fitzgerald

l was quiet on the Riviera, and then the Fitzgeralds arrived, Scott and Zelda and Scotty. The summer season opened. There had been talk about their coming. They were coming; they were not. One day they appeared on the beach. They had played tennis the day before, and were badly burned. Everybody was concerned about their burns. They must keep their shoulders covered; they must rub on olive oil. Scott was too burned to go in the water, and much of the time, he sat aside from the rush of things, a reflective, staid paterfamilias.

That the Fitzgeralds are the best looking couple in modern literary society doesn’t do them justice, knowing what we do about beauty and brains. That they might be the handsomest pair at any collegiate houseparty, inspiring alumni to warnings about the pitfalls ahead of the young, is more to the point, although Scott really looks more as the undergraduate would like to look, than the way he generally does. It takes some years of training as the best host of the younger set, and as a much photographed and paragraphed author, to be quite so affable and perfectly at ease with all the world.

Scott feels that he is getting on in years, that he is no longer young. It weighs upon him, troubles him. He is almost thirty. Seldom has he allowed a person of such advanced age to enter his books.

“I have written a story. It is not about the younger generation. The hero is twenty-nine.”

It must be some comfort to him that he is so superbly preserved, so stocky, muscular, clear-skinned, with wide, fresh, green-blue eyes, hair, blond not grey, with no lines of worry or senility, no saggings anywhere. Mrs. Fitzgerald doesn’t show her age either; she might be in her ’teens. Perhaps Scotty does. Yes, there is no denying she looks her four.

There were rumors that Scott had had a sip or two of something up in Paris, and had come South to rest. No one could have guessed it, but he is summary with any such doubts:

“Don’t you know I am one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation?”

There have been whispers certainly. But the young man who drives his publicity manager into a lake, as Scott once did, is bound to get some reputation of that sort. There was no reason on this occasion why he should not have turned the car to the right as most people did, and as the publicity man comfortably expected, but having had perhaps a cocktail or two, it seemed more amusing to turn to the left off the road. The publicity man was not drowned however.

That was after one of those Long Island parties which established his place before the world as a host. If he is worried now about the advancing years he had better buy up two or three Biltmores before he extends that general invitation:

“Grow old along with me!
“The best is yet to be—.”

This popularity on two continents may explain something of the financial mystery which so appals him. Ever since “This Side of Paradise”, money has poured in upon this young couple, thousands and thousands a month. And just as fast it has poured out. Where it goes, no one seems to know. Least of all evidently, the Fitzgeralds. They complain that nothing is left to show for it. Mrs. Fitzgerald hasn’t even a pearl necklace.

According to Scott he has known poverty. There was the terrible winter after the war, when he wanted to marry Zelda, and had only a ninety-dollar-a-month advertising job and no prospects. He had gone South to see her, and when they parted at the station he hadn’t even enough money for a Pullman. He had to climb into a Pullman, and then sneak through into the day coach.

It was then that he saw that advertising did not pay, and he threw up that job, and went home to St. Paul to write a novel. Statistics show that 12,536 young men annually throw up their jobs and go back home to write a novel. This has all come about since Fitzgerald set the example, for the book he wrote that winter was “This Side of Paradise”, and he was launched.

His success as an author was a great surprise to the home circle. He had always lived in St. Paul, but the Fitzgeralds were not what is known as literary people, in spite of their descent from the author of the “Star Spangled Banner”. Scott’s father was in business, and Scott was never addicted to prowling about the public library. He was much too attractive a boy to be allowed much seclusion.

However he did enjoy scrawling note-books full of various suggestions and impressions and witticisms, when the other faithful students of the St. Paul Academy and later those of the Newman School as well were busy adding and subtracting and wondering over what takes the ablative. In the Newman School he decided to run off a musical comedy, and two years later he spent his whole Freshman year at Princeton writing the Triangle Show, which left him no time for algebra, trigonometry, co-ordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted the show, and he tutored his way back to college and acted in his own work as a chorus girl.

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Monday, 19 December 2016

‘Be Silent, Recover My Strength, Start Again’: In Conversation with Elena Ferrante

I interviewed Elena Ferrante by email over the summer of 2016. This was about a month before the New York Review of Books published a long article by an Italian journalist alleging her “true” identity. She read my questions (which were written in English) and wrote her responses in Italian. Her replies were translated by Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Ferrante’s many books. I had been hesitant about conducting this interview when I was offered the opportunity, for I admire Ferrante’s reticence. Yet, debating it with myself, it seemed it would be a mistake not to ask this great writer questions, if I had the chance.

For those who are unaware, Ferrante is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the world, and rightly so. In 2011, she released the first of a series of four books (each around 350 pages in length) called The Neapolitan Quartet, which follow two female friends from the time of their childhood in Naples in the 1950s to the present day. The books thrillingly unmask the consciousness and social situation of these women, tracing the complex bonds and political struggles of several generations of families in twentieth-century Naples. Reading these books, I felt a keen loss over the many great books that had not been written by women down through time; Ferrante made me long for even more first-rate writers to map (and to have mapped) the many underwritten aspects of the female experience. To me, the books have a distinctly female point of view: the point of view not of the natural victor but of one who has to fight for the right to observe.

Her three earlier and shorter novels (Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, published in Italian between 1992 and 2006) are like tinctures of the quartet: exquisitely precise and intensely felt, they magnify moments in a life and are written in a style and language that calls to mind few others—perhaps Clarice Lispector, for being just as brutal, penetrating, and heartbreaking. Ferrante’s books are profoundly contemporary while giving the same satisfaction as many nineteenth-century novels, as if Ferrante were not living in a landscape of busily competing media, but rather writing in a world where the quiet of readers can be taken for granted. She is formally risk-taking yet is a masterful storyteller. Her books rush you along in a swell of complicity, curiosity, feeling, and suspense. I cannot think of a single person I know who has not read Ferrante only to fall helplessly into her world. She has collapsed the gap between the sort of books that writers feel awe for and that the reading public can’t get enough of—the rarest thing.

Speaking personally, as a writer who has engaged in the various publicity and marketing strategies that many of us allow, I was interested to talk to Ferrante about how she knew from the beginning that she wanted to avoid the performance of self. I wanted to ask about how she—as a great illustrator of the human condition—has navigated such experiences as motherhood, discipleship, and rebellion. Naturally, I was curious to know how she wrote her books, but I didn’t ask too many craft questions because I know that for any writer, composition is ultimately a mystery.

Ferrante has managed, for decades, that difficult and enviable thing: the maintenance of total privacy as a human being, along with total openness as a creator through her art. I, and many of her devoted readers, hope there is even more of that art still to come. We are so grateful she took the time to do this interview, although as you will see, she doesn’t consider this an interview at all.


Sheila Heti: You’ve remarked that you forget the books you read. Do you think there’s some connection between being a reader who forgets (I am too), and being able to create and write? Maybe forgetting is a subconscious kind of remembering that allows writers to recombine what they’ve taken from literature, in ways that are particular to them.

Elena Ferrante: Yes, that’s probably the case. I do forget, I forget especially the books I’ve loved very much. I have an impression of them, I have a feeling for them, but to discuss them I would have to reread them. If I had a clear memory that allowed me to cite passages, point out crucial moments, any attempt at writing of my own would seem to me lost at the start. Imagination is said to be a function of memory. I prefer to think that it’s a function of nostalgia. We compose stories knowing very well that we are the last to arrive. And yet every time it seems to us that we are returning to the moment when the first human being, with nothing but the truth of his experience and the urge to reinvent it at every step, began to tell a story.

You once said, “I tend to edit and then inevitably revert to the original draft, when I see what I’ve lost by editing.” I agree: there is always some power in the way a person first catches the words on the page. Can you talk about your instinct to keep the rawness with your instinct to clean up? If you often prefer the first draft to the edited draft, what does your editing process consist of?

I detest vapid, sugary, sentimental tones and I try to get rid of them. I detest refinement when it cancels out naturalness, and so I look for precision without going too far. I could continue like that, with a fine list of intentions, but it’s just talk. In fact I move by instinct, a spontaneous movement that, if I put it in order, becomes merely a banal guidebook. So let’s say that, pulled this way and that by countless readings, by varied layers of taste, by inclinations and idiosyncrasies, I generally aim at what seems to me perfection. Then, however, perfection suddenly seems an insane excess of refinement and I return to versions that seem effective precisely because they are imperfect.

Picasso said the new work of art always looks ugly at first, especially to its creator. Did you find your books ugly in the way Picasso meant? Yes, certainly yes, but not because I feel the book as new; rather, because I feel it as mine, tarnished by contact with my experience.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!

In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.

"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.

She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.

"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"
And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.

But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.

"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.

Depending on Distance: Mrs. Ramsay as Artist and Inspiration in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a novel of artists and within its pages appear two characters who are clearly labeled as such. One artist is Augustus Carmichael, the poet who spends his days reclining on the lawn. We are told that his work meets with success after the war: “He was growing old...he was growing famous” (Woolf, 1927/2005, p. 197). Beyond that we know little about him save the few thoughts by other characters about him. The other labeled artist is Lily Briscoe, who spends nearly the entire book either painting or thinking about her painting. Everything in her world, it seems, is anchored to her artwork. Interestingly though, Lily is not eager for others to view her work. In fact, she actively monitors her surroundings to prevent such an occurrence: “she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest some one should creep up, and suddenly she should find her picture looked at” (p. 21). It is by the thoughts and from the viewpoint of this private artist that we find the majority of the story narrated. There is, however, another significant artist in the story: Mrs. Ramsay. Focusing on her dinner party as her major artistic endeavor reveals several parallels to Lily’s artistic work, ranging from descriptions to demises. While Lily’s art can be described as the art of representation, Mrs. Ramsay’s is best considered to be the art of connection, and ultimately it is Mrs. Ramsay’s art that allows Lily to complete her own, while providing a glimmer of hope for its permanence.

"So much depends... upon distance"

Woolf describes Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner scene as if looking at a painting. She begins with physical description and setting before homing in on the details that illuminate a deeper meaning. Woolf begins the dinner scene with a surface level description of its physical appearance as Mrs. Ramsay is “taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on infinitely long table and plates and knives” (p. 85). As in studying a painting, the viewer first notices the setting and event portrayed before looking at deeper details and eventually for meaning in the artwork. Later, when the candles are lit, the description zooms in to focus on more specific details: “the flames stood upright and drew with them into visibility the long table entire, and in the middle a yellow and purple dish of fruit” (p. 99). This dish of fruit serves to guide readers’ attentions. In fact, Woolf continues its description through the filter of Mrs. Ramsay’s mind:
What had she done with it, Mrs. Ramsay wondered, for Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas, made her think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the shoulder of Bacchus (in some picture), among the leopard skins and the torches lolloping red and gold...Thus brought up suddenly into the light it seemed possessed of great size and depth, was like a world in which one could take one’s staff and climb hills, she thought, and go down into valleys... (p. 99)
This passage does two things to position the party in the realm of art. The first is its allusions to Neptune and Bacchus. Like so many artists before her, Mrs. Ramsay is connecting her creation to those characters and scenes that have come before and that readers and viewers will recognize and identify with. Furthermore, Woolf specifies in parentheses that the image Mrs. Ramsay has in mind is, in fact, another painting, as if to make certain readers do the same.

To further identify the dinner party scene as a painting, Woolf chooses to not only zoom in on the details, but to exclude everything beyond the scene. She notes that the “faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight,” “the night was now shut off by panes of glass,” and that the attendants “were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island” (p. 99).

In this way, the dinner scene takes on the characteristic of a painting as everything outside of the viewable area ceases to exist. As in a painting, the viewer is not privy to what exists, if anything, outside of that which the artist has chosen to recreate on the canvas. In this way, the scene has been described like a painting, has referenced another painting, and been framed as a painting. This perhaps leaves readers with the responsibility of likening the scene, when viewed in the context of the novel, to some other work of art. Described as it is, in many ways the scene comes to represent the novel’s own Last Supper. This is a group of people from varied backgrounds gathered together to eat at one table, at the behest of a central character who serves to unite them. Many of these characters, including the event’s creator herself, will soon die, making a repeat of the evening an impossibility.

There is, of course, the argument that this description of the dinner party as a painting is not due to the party’s being a work of art, but rather to Woolf’s own choices as a novelist. She describes scenes spatially and has multiple characters describe what they see, as their minds seek meaning and connections in the world and characters around them. While this is certainly true, Mrs. Ramsay’s actions and thoughts as she hosts and conducts the social interactions that form the dinner party clearly serve to raise her into the role of an artist at her easel. The description of the first physical action in the dinner party scene reveals Mrs. Ramsay ladling soup. This action will be mirrored by the motions of Lily’s painting years later, long after Mrs. Ramsay is dead:
The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it—a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related; and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming over her) a space. Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next towering higher and higher above her. (pp. 161-62)
Every part of the description of Lily’s painting echoes Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party. From the action of ladling soup represented by Lily’s brush strokes to the paint “flickering” over the canvas as the candles flickered over the faces around the table at the dinner party, to the “brown running nervous lines” that enclose the space much as the window panes did at the dinner scene, to the “hollow of one wave” as a reprise of the party “in a hollow, on an island,” these two scenes are inextricably linked on every level by way of their descriptions.

Beyond that scene in particular, though, Mrs. Ramsay’s thinking, as she attempts to guide the party in the directions she desires, mirrors Lily’s thinking as she paints, both before the dinner party and all those years later. We see Mrs. Ramsay acknowledge this fact: “Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy—that was what she was thinking, this was what she doing—ladling out soup...” (p. 86). Unlike Lily’s watching the others in their various activities as she paints, however, Mrs. Ramsay’s thinking is for a purpose; hers is to complete her own artwork. Lily uses an easel, canvas, brushes, and paints to create her art, but Mrs. Ramsay must use the dinner—its decorations, its food, and most importantly its attendants—to create a sense of connection among those attendants. Only in this will her project be a success. So she begins with ordering the Boeuf en Daube ahead of time, worrying about it being burned, telling the girl where to set it on the table, and ensuring that Mr. Bankes receives a choice piece. She also instructs her guests where they should sit: “‘William, sit by me,’ she said. ‘Lily,’ she said, wearily, ‘over there’” (p. 85). This is an ongoing process that, in fact, she notes should be adjusted in the future. Though they were the two she seated first, Mrs. Ramsay realizes she has made a mistake with Lily and Mr. Bankes. “Foolishly, she had set them opposite each other. That could be remedied tomorrow” (p. 106). And Mrs. Ramsay has grander plans for them than dinner conversation: “Oh, but nonsense, she thought; William must marry Lily. They have so many things in common” (p. 106).

Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party is the attempted creation of some thing that will somehow cause a moment to last or to endure beyond its own expiration. We see this in her thoughts and in the legacy that she leaves. As Wirth-Nesher (1976) notes in “Form as Fate: Everyman as Artist in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” “For Mrs. Ramsay...the creation of community, no matter how momentary, shuts out the darkness” (p. 74). However, the party does not begin that way. “But what have I done with my life?” laments Mrs. Ramsay as the dinner scene gets under way. “She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, as she helped the soup, as if there was an eddy—there—and one could be in it, or one could be out of it, and she was out of it” (Woolf, 1927/2005, p. 85). This begins to change, however, when Mrs. Ramsay notices that Augustus Carmichael (notably, the one commercially successful artist in the novel) is also looking at the dish of fruit. “...and to her pleasure (for it brought them into sympathy momentarily) she saw that Augustus too feasted his eyes on the same plate of fruit, plunged in, broke off a bloom there, a tassel here, and returned, after feasting, to his hive. That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them” (p. 99). In this uniting, we find Mrs. Ramsay’s success. She considers her party to be a success, as well, when we find her noting:
It partook, she felt...of eternity...there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling that she had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures. (p. 107)
She has succeeded in shutting out the darkness, in bringing people together, and in creating that moment which will endure. This enduring moment, we will find, ultimately provides the necessary inspiration for Lily to complete her own painting.

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Saturday, 17 December 2016

AS Byatt: Beatrix Potter and the beginnings of my need to be a writer

Storytelling is part of most people’s lives, almost from the moment we can understand language at all. Family tales, fairy stories, popular history, news and gossip are integral parts of human life. When I taught literature at University College London I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in the Senior Common Room bar with the artists from the Slade School of Art. I started to think about the fact that they worked with concrete materials – clay, stone, paint, film – whereas what I work with is the language we also use to conduct our daily lives.

In Amsterdam recently I had the great pleasure of talking with Edmund de Waal about how – and how early in his life – he understood that clay was what he would work with. Why do some of us need to make works of art? How do we choose what we work with? What effect does the shift from dailiness to art have on us as writers and readers?

I remember first noticing that the written word had a form that needed to be understood and thought about. Many of my generation of British children will have grown up with the series of school reading books, The Radiant Way, in which there is the unforgettable sequence of words: “Pat can sing. Pat sing to Mother. Sing to Mother Pat. Mother sing to Pat.” And so on. We discover the “th”, the “ng” which are not part of the sounded out phrases we are first taught. We discover the written word as opposed to the spoken word.

I think some writers become writers because they need stories, characters, other worlds. But there are those – and I have very slowly come to see that I am one of them – who think about words as painters think about paint. (Most writers have elements of both of course.) And yet, words retain their doubleness – their dailiness, their utilitarian ordinariness, and their work in poems and other works of art.

It is interesting to read what writers have written about the inability to write. One of the most startling and imaginative descriptions of this state is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s story, “The Letter of Lord Chandos”, written in 1902. In this story the imaginary Lord Chandos writes to his friend Francis Bacon to say that he has completely lost the ability to put ideas into written language. Chandos tells Bacon that he can no longer grasp the ideas of a tract he wrote at the age of 23 “as a familiar image made up of connected words, but now I can comprehend it only word by word … ” Nevertheless he is able to tell Bacon of his experience of having given orders for rat poison to be strewn in the milk cellar of one of his farms. He can describe the “sharp sweet smell” of the poison, the screams and struggles of the rats, when he has lost the capacity to generalise – he does not use this word or write of it in this way. It is an extraordinary essay, making its readers rethink the very nature of the relation between language and the world of things.

Ernst Gombrich, in his essay “Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art” touches on the gap between words and things from a different angle. He writes of paintings and sculptures where the artist has deliberately made a distance between words and things – Magritte, for instance, in The Key to Dreams, captioning a handbag as “le ciel” (sky), a leaf as “la table” (table), a pocket knife as “l’oiseau” (bird) and then, as Gombrich points out, dismissing us with laughter by simply calling a sponge “l’éponge” (sponge). We can and do think without language – with simple or tough images or with feelings and passions – but the normal run of our consciousness is linguistic, and we almost automatically translate passion into words.

What goes on in our minds when we think about using language? When we use language to write? I find I increasingly notice the language I am using as well as what I am trying to say or describe. Iris Murdoch spoke of the space between looking out of a window at the sky and the light and looking, at the same time, at the window itself, glass, dust, frame. When writing I switch from the emotion of the imagined world – curiosity, smells and sounds, spaces – to the forms of the words themselves.

As a child, like many of my generation of British children, I read Beatrix Potter after having had her tales read to me. The stories were full of life – the puddle duck looking for somewhere to lay her eggs, the badger snoring and pretending to sleep, the little dog unintentionally ingesting a pie made of mouse. It may be that they are now out of date. When I looked up Potter on Google I found, somewhat to my bemusement, a series of letters condemning her for cruelty and unpleasantness. As a child, and as a parent, I found her matter of fact sense of how things are, and pain, difficulty, fear and satisfaction, exciting and satisfying. I was a child in a war, in a world of danger and death, but her stories revealed cruelty and fear in a storytelling context. One of the glories of reading Potter – of having her books read to me – was the discovering of unexpected and unknown words. I think my favourite was and is “soporific” from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies – in which the author informs the reader that lettuce is “soporific”. Anyone who will want to be a writer will be excited by the juxtaposition of the words soporific and flopsy. There were sentences such as “Mr Drake Puddleduck advanced in a slow sideways manner and picked up the various articles” or ‘“I am affronted,” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchett.’ “Affronted” is a wonderful word to learn. I think that the shift in my childish attention from the story to the language may have been a beginning of my need to be a writer. Though that may be a story I retrospectively tell myself.

As I have suggested, writers may come only gradually and slowly to think about the medium in which they work. Words and language are the medium of our daily communication. Perhaps fortunately I only came gradually to be aware of, and to think about, the difficulty and the glory of the gap between words and things, the shifts we have to make as readers and writers between thinking about words and things and taking pleasure in the gap between them.

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Waugh's Gift

Novelist, travel writer, essayist, and biographer Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), the 50th anniversary of whose death rolled around this year, celebrated by those survivors who had the misfortune of knowing him at all well, was as wretched and ornery a human being as anyone could be who was not actually moved to suicide or murder.

He also happened to be funny as hell when the mood struck him, or when he was writing his classic comic novels. Cruelty was an ever-flowing font of amusement. He started young and refined his methods into old age—which in his case began around 40. As a schoolboy at Lancing College he delivered a regular verbal flaying to classmates he called Dungy and Buttocks. His last year at Lancing he founded the Corpse Club, "for people who are bored stiff." Boredom would be a perennial affliction for Waugh, and a source of lethal animadversions against all who contributed to his unhappiness: "I am certainly making myself hateful," the Lancing sixth-former wrote in his diary.

At Oxford, eschewing all work, he ran afoul of his tutor and college dean, the historian C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, and avenged himself with rhymes about this ogre's unseemly love of animals that he sang (drunkenly) under the offender's window at night: Cruttwell dog, Cruttwell dog, where have you been? / I've been to Hertford to lie with the Dean. Miscreants, morons, and malefactors in Waugh's novels and stories would share the Cruttwell name. During a dreary spell as a schoolmaster, Waugh diverted himself by categorizing his pupils as either "mad" or "diseased," which is to say stupid or pimply. Having married, at 25, a young woman who reputedly had been engaged to nine different men, and having been divorced 15 months later when she fell in love with someone else, Waugh wrote to his friend Harold Acton: "I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience."

In his emotional and moral breakdown he surrendered his soul to the Roman Catholic church and would infect his faith with the snobbery and general loathing for humanity that had bedeviled him before his conversion. To his friend Diana Cooper he would write, "How to reconcile this indifference to human beings with the obligations of Charity. That is my problem." When asked by Nancy Mitford how he could be a Christian yet "so horrible," he replied that, if not for his faith, he would be "even more horrible" and, in any case, would have killed himself long ago.

He could also be a raging horror to friends who violated the tenets of faith. When Clarissa Churchill broke with the church to marry Anthony Eden, who had been divorced, Waugh placed the Christ-killing hammer and nails in her hands: "Did you never think how you were contributing to the loneliness of Calvary by your desertion?" (Waugh himself remarried after securing an annulment on the grounds that his first marriage had not been entered into with all due spiritual gravity—which was, of course, true.) He regaled his old friend John Betjeman, an Anglican whose wife was converting to Catholicism, with the everlasting prospect awaiting him if he didn't wise up and join her in the only legitimate worship there is: "Awful about your obduracy in schism and heresy. Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation."

Lesser missteps on his old friends' part could trigger fury amounting to insanity. Henry Yorke (who wrote novels under the pen name of Henry Green) and his wife committed the faux pas of lighting up cigarettes at lunch, after having asked Mrs. Waugh if that would be acceptable. Waugh sent the china crashing to the floor, declaring that smoking at meals was unforgivably vulgar and that his guests must have been consorting with Jews in New York. Then he left the room.

Henry Yorke had offended already by writing novels about the working class, a subject Waugh vividly despised. The jumped-up lower breeds were overrunning one of the last preserves of civilization: literature as it had been practiced by writers who appreciated every nuance of class distinction, "the ramifications of the social order which have obsessed some of the acutest minds of the last 150 years." And the rot was everywhere, starting in the great universities. In a 1955 open letter to Nancy Mitford in Encounter, Waugh skewered Home Secretary R. A. B. Butler's Education Act, which "provided for the free distribution of university degrees to the deserving poor. .  .  . L'École de Butler are the primal men and women of the classless society." To Waugh, the classless society was no society at all.

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Friday, 16 December 2016

Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

In 1975, a 63-year-old Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her long-time friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, who was then 58 and just two years from his death. “I’m going to be very impertinent and aggressive,” she wrote. “Please, please don’t talk about old age so much, my dear old friend! You are giving me the creeps.” In many ways, Bishop’s admonition of Lowell is the perfect expression of a particular antagonism toward the changes and challenges brought on by aging. This discomfort isn’t simply garden-variety fear, or even denial, but an insurgency-like resistance.

You see this attitude about growing older reflected in pop culture today. A recent USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study looked at the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 and found that older characters were often discussed with ageist and “troubling” language, and that senior citizens are underrepresented in the medium. Popular music is, and has always been, dominated by the young, and TV rarely focuses on the lives of people older than 60 with the same nuance it reserves for the young. There are exceptions of course, but because of this broader cultural antipathy, the inner lives of late-middle age and elderly Americans remain the unexamined deep sea of the culture.

Even the TV shows, songs, or works of fiction by or about an older person don’t necessarily represent the artist’s private experience of the world. This is where the late letters of great artists, particularly writers, can offer a valuable window into the realities of older age. It’s through his letters that we learn that Saul Bellow realized even the world’s best fiction and drama could not truly capture the personal side of aging. In 1996, Bellow wrote to the critic James Wood, “I had, as a fanatical or engagé reader, studied over many decades gallery after gallery of old men in novels in plays and I thought I knew all about them.” Bellow then mentions a number of characters, including Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace and King Lear, before concluding, “But all of this business about crabbed age and youth tells you absolutely nothing about your own self.”

Meanwhile, the epistolary collections of famous writers suggest that the ordinary letter, freed from the self-consciousness and professional considerations of the manuscript, can offer rare insights into aging. This year saw the publication of the fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1966-1989, representing his correspondence from the age of 60 to his death at the age of 83. This marvelous volume follows two equally important collections of letters from the past decade, Saul Bellow: Letters (2010) and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), which have been singled out by critics as works destined to become classics.

As 21st-century writers have transitioned from letter writing to email, a specific literary tradition seems to have come to its end, one that offered a slower, more meditative, and writerly microscope into all aspects of life, including the aging process. Reading these letters is meaningful, not so much because some elderly people are “wise.” Rather, there is much practical and intellectual guidance to be gleaned from spending time with imaginative, highly articulate individuals as they face the existential realities of illness, declining productivity, the death of friends, guilt, and, finally, letting go of cherished activities and passions.

Reading the late letters of Samuel Beckett, it becomes clear his youthful pessimism positioned him quite well for the physical and mental challenges of aging. In his introduction to Beckett’s letters, the editor Dan Gunn writes, “There is a sense in which if ever anyone were suited to, and prepared for, the inevitable winnowings of old age, that person is Beckett, harbouring as he seems to have done, practically from the outset, an old man within him.”

Whereas Lowell and Bellow were prone to ruminate philosophically on aging, Beckett would only mention it occasionally, and matter-of-factly, with little reflection or prejudice. Writing in 1968 about his ongoing eye troubles in his early 60s, Beckett notes: “Nothing to be done about eyes for the moment. They are perhaps very slightly worse, hard to say. Well there it is, old age in all its beauty, funny I didn’t see it sooner.” Certain instances in the letters, such as the preceding one, read as if Beckett had achieved a kind of Zen Buddhist “Middle Way,” where aging was neither something to resist nor analyze, neither good nor bad. It is a rather uncomplicated outlook, and possibly a sensible curative to a cultural impulse to preserve youth at all costs.

But despite the benefits of Beckett’s attitude, he’s not quite an exemplar of healthful aging: His “lifestyle” was that of a Parisian Bohemian, and he seemed unconcerned about the harmful physical effects of smoking and drinking. After an illness in 1969, he writes, “I am almost quite well again. I have not smoked for nearly a year, but hope to light up again soon. Whiskey too was out for a time but has now resumed its kind offices.” This all may sound deliberately reckless and irresponsible in 2016, but in the final analysis, Beckett lived until he was 83 and was active and productive late into life. His letters are a reminder to avoid seeking out a single cookie-cutter approach to living a long and active life, since everyone must draft their own map through trial and error.

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