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Fairytales Punish the Curious - Angela Carter

In the spring of 1977, Angela Carter met the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart in London at the launch of Bananas, a new literary magazine. A prolific writer at the age of 37, Carter was already the author of eight novels, two collections of poetry, and one collection of short stories—“profane pieces,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed. Her story in the issue, titled “The Company of Wolves,” was a feminist retelling of “Red Riding Hood,” in which the adolescent girl, unafraid of her foe, ends up sleeping sweetly “between the paws of the tender wolf.” Smart’s 1945 novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the story of a disconsolate, abandoned woman, was about to be reissued by Virago press, where Carter was on the editorial board.

Carter admired Smart’s “exquisite prose,” but she was scornful of the book’s wrenching, self-punishing descriptions of erotic love. (A representative line: “But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to…

Jane Austen, on the money

“Anyone”, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, though of course she didn’t mean “anyone” but “me”, “who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Times have certainly changed: chaste aunts these days are about as rare as a Bob’s your uncle and the twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who might resent you are now millions worldwide who will happily abuse you on Twitter. We’re all Janeites now: and if you’re not, look out. In a world – to use a phrase that might usefully serve as the introductory voice-over to the trailer for any recent Austen adaptation/biopic/retelling – in which the mute are always inglorious and fame is the only guarantee of val…

The Mysterious Music of Georg Trakl

Stanley Cavell liked to talk about the two myths of reading subscribed to by Western philosophers. “According to one myth the philosopher must have read virtually everything, at least the whole of Western philosophy, broadly conceived,” he wrote in his memoir, Little Did I Know (2010). The other myth specified that philosophers, pure thinkers that they are, should read virtually nothing. “Heidegger is an obvious exemplar of the former myth,” Cavell observed, “Wittgenstein of the latter.”

And yet, both philosophers, the voracious reader and the seemingly reluctant one, found themselves, at pivotal moments in their careers, turning to the arresting work of the early twentieth-century Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914). Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein and Heidegger responded to Trakl’s striking and still mysterious poems in sharply divergent—one might almost say opposite—ways. James Reidel’s recently completed three-volume translation of Trakl’s major work, timed to coincide with the ce…

Robinson Crusoe - Essay by Virginia Woolf

There are many ways of approaching this classical volume; but which shall we choose? Shall we begin by saying that, since Sidney died at Zutphen leaving the Arcadia unfinished, great changes had come over English life, and the novel had chosen, or had been forced to choose, its direction? A middle class had come into existence, able to read and anxious to read not only about the loves of princes and princesses, but about themselves and the details of their humdrum lives. Stretched upon a thousand pens, prose had accommodated itself to the demand; it had fitted itself to express the facts of life rather than the poetry. That is certainly one way of approaching Robinson Crusoe–through the development of the novel; but another immediately suggests itself–through the life of the author. Here too, in the heavenly pastures of biography, we may spend many more hours than are needed to read the book itself from cover to cover. The date of Defoe’s birth, to begin with, is doubtful–was it 1660 …

Jane Austen Is Everything

On the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen is still everywhere, often where one least expects to find her. Most of her devotees will have their own story; mine occurred in a Manhattan courthouse, with its stale-coffee smell and atmosphere of anxious boredom, in the midst of jury selection for a criminal trial involving a double homicide. Upon learning that I taught British literature, the defendant’s attorney—a woman who spoke with intimidating speed and streetwise bluntness—skipped the usual questions (how much did I trust police testimony, had I ever been a victim of a violent crime) and asked instead whether I taught Jane Austen. Puzzled by her indirection, I answered yes. A theatrical flash of disgust crossed her face: I was, evidently, one of those people. At which point the presiding judge interrupted to say: “Careful, counsel. Some of us here like Jane Austen.”

The hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap is not just an iconic figure but a symbol of Literature itself. As Austen’s own Em…

A Possible Keats

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to…

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

"Jerusalem is the holy city," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, "yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry . . . the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone." Jew, Christian and Muslim alike feel compelled to rewrite its history to sustain their own myths. "A hundred patients a year," Montefiore notes, "are committed to the city's asylum suffering from the Jerusalem syndrome, a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion." The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well, and although not his purpose, one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices. 

Montefiore takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation – Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar,…

Czeslaw Milosz’s Invincible Reason

“What occurred in Poland was an encounter of a European poet with the hell of the twentieth century, not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one,” the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz declared in his 1983 collection of lectures, The Witness of Poetry. “This situation is something of a laboratory, in other words: It allows us to examine what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions.” What Milosz meant by “historical conditions” was the complete disintegration of European culture—“the sudden crumbling of all current notions and criteria”—between 1939 and 1945. Like other Polish poets, Milosz felt the need to respond in a radical way to the disgrace of Europe—its sinking into inhumanity, its complicity in genocide—by trying to remake poetry from the ground up. It was starting over again after what seemed like the end of the world.

The poet in Poland, Milosz argued, experienced history on his pulse. By writing his own experiences he was also writing the experiences of other…

How Gustave Flaubert captured the turbulent politics of his age

Sooner or later, virtually every piece of literary lore is dragged from the popular imagination, stripped of impunity and ritually debunked. For a long time, every­one was busy enjoying Coleridge’s story about the knock on the door that ruined “Kubla Khan” – hunting for a moral, smarting with vicarious frustration. Then biographers arrived to spoil the fun, pointing to the absence of an unwanted visitor from the first version of Coleridge’s preface, wondering what “a person on business” could want with a poet on opium that he would travel more than 20 miles and then detain him for an hour. And you know the one about Jack Kerouac, stabbing out his novel on a hundred-foot “scroll” during a punctuation-phobic three-week Benzedrine haze? Try: years of drafting, yards of Scotch tape, caffeine, commas.

The latest candidate for this treatment is the composition of Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, which was serialised (and censored) in 1856. At the end of the previous decade, Fla…

Charlotte Brontë’s Teaching Career

Beginning life as a governess was far more unpleasant for Charlotte Brontë and her sister Anne than it was for Jane Eyre. When only a little more than eighteen years old, Anne served for nine months (April–December 1839) as governess for the Ingham family in charge of their two oldest children. Her novel, Agnes Grey, recounts her disillusionment as she begins to learn what being a governess actually entails.

It opens with its eponymous heroine ironically recalling her happy anticipations: “How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers.” In considering sources for John Reed, we have already met Agnes’ pupil Tom Bloomfield who introduces himself by showing her his trapped birds that he happily tortures. His sister Mary Ann, a six-year-old child, ignores her teacher, literally lying on the floor much of the time. Their mother persistently sides with the children…

Huckleberries on hot summer days - Henry David Thoreau

Despite Thoreau’s achievements as a writer, environmentalist and social activist (he was, among other things, a passionate abolitionist and supporter of John Brown), many of his contemporaries considered him little more than a crank, a self-involved Pied Piper for the children of Concord, MA, whom he led in search of huckle­berries on hot summer days. As Lauren Dassow Walls makes clear in her excellent Henry David Thoreau: A Life, he was a man of obsessively high principles, self-contained, a stickler for details who insisted on his own way of seeing the world, however quirky. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become a good friend, referred to him as “a singular character . . . ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”. Walls quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to good effect in a letter introducing him to Henry James, Sr, assuring James that once he got past the younger man’s “village pedantry and tediousness of facts”, he would dis…