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Sex and intellect

In 1903 Edith Wharton met the writer Vernon Lee in Italy, and started reading John Addington Symonds. By 1905 she had begun an intimate friendship with Henry James and the circle of male homosexual writers around him, and was soon reading Walt Whitman and Nietzsche, while having an affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton. Through these influences, Wharton was drawn away from American discourses about sexuality in fiction (which were generally moralistic in this period, regardless of the gender of the writer), and towards British and European aestheticism and sexual liberation. It is after this period that we begin to see the multiple echoes of Oscar Wilde in her work. Wharton used Wilde in order to engage in a necessary, indeed central, argument about what happens to the aestheticist and sexual liberationist project once it is undertaken by heterosexual women.

From 1905 to the end of her career Wharton at times imitated Wilde’s phrasing, and not always successfully. She at…

Super Goethe

Herr Glaser of Stützerbach was proud of the life-sized oil portrait of himself that hung above his dining table. The corpulent merchant was even prouder to show it off to the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar and his new privy councilor, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. While Glaser was out of the room, the privy councilor took a knife, cut the face out of the canvas, and stuck his own head through the hole. With his powdered wig, his burning black eyes, his bulbous forehead, and his cheeks pitted with smallpox, Goethe must have been a terrifying spectacle. While he was cutting up his host’s portrait, the duke’s other hangers-on were taking Glaser’s precious barrels of wine and tobacco from his cellar and rolling them down the mountain outside. Goethe wrote in his diary: “Teased Glaser shamefully. Fantastic fun till 1 am. Slept well.”

Goethe’s company could be exhausting. One minute he would be reciting Scottish ballads, quoting long snatches from Voltaire, or declaiming a love poem he had just made up…

Author of Himself - Evelyn Waugh

Some of the most incongruous moments in literature come when the fancifully extravagant collides head on with the soberly punctilious, and brightly coloured butterflies are plucked out of the sky to be broken on pedagogy’s slowly turning wheel. John Gross once suggested that the idea of a graduate seminar on the novels of Ronald Firbank would itself be Firbankian – a net flung over soap bubbles, a nail hammered through gossamer threads, or rather, in strict procedural terms, an attempt to interpret something that can occasionally seem to be written only to defy interpretation. Much the same, you suspect, can be said of Evelyn Waugh (1903–66). The appearance of his collected works, monumentally assembled in forty-three stout hardback volumes at £65 apiece, offers the same bewildering spectacle of scholarship running amok through material that, in the majority of cases, was expressly designed to keep scholarship at bay. None of this, naturally, is to disparage the work of the series’ ge…

The Poet of Ill Tidings - Bertolt Brecht

Although far better known internationally as a playwright than as a poet, Bertolt Brecht had a supreme gift for language. He applied much of the same plucky, rebellious spirit to his poems that he did to his world-class theater productions of the late Weimar years, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht began publishing his poetry as a teen, around the same time that Germany was gearing up for the First World War. By the 1930s, his work had taken on a decidedly anti-Nazi bent. In 1937, while exiled in Svendborg, Denmark, Brecht produced a cycle of unrhymed epigrams that he called Deutsche Kriegsfibel (German War Primer), which he published in the Moscow-based German monthly Das Wort and later included in his Svendborg Poems. Brecht’s frequent collaborator from his Weimar years, the composer Hanns Eisler—who, in American exile, would furnish the score for the anti-Nazi Hollywood film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), co-written by Brecht and dire…

Temporary king - Anthony Powell

Rather more than halfway through Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, at the beginning of the cold winter of 1946–7, we find Powell and his wife Violet freezing in London, grateful for the ham sent to them as a gift by their friend the writer Malcolm Muggeridge – who has gone to America on a journalistic assignment – and spending a lot of their time with their other close writer-friend, George Orwell. All three men read one another’s work as it was being written, offering judgements and encouragement. For some time, the friendship was a sort of triumvirate.

Muggeridge, who during his days as a television pundit became far more famous – in Britain, anyway – than either of the other two, is now an extinct comet, all but unheard of. Orwell’s immortality in the history of literature seems assured, though at this stage, Powell was trying to allay his disappointment over the fact that Animal Farm had “made no great impression on the general public”, as Spurling puts it. What of Pow…

Milton’s Satan and the struggle for power

Just over 350 years ago (on October 10, 1667, to be precise), the poet and MP John Denham went into the House of Commons “one Morning with a Sheet, Wet from the Press, in his hand”. Asked “What have you there, Sir John?”, he replied, “Part of the Noblest Poem that ever was Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age”. This encounter, recorded by Jonathan Richardson in 1734, supplies a possible publication date for a poem which would become one of the most important in English: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Milton’s name was already well-known. He was the controversial blind man who publicly advocated the execution of King Charles I in 1649 before serving in Oliver Cromwell’s republican government. Milton also spoke out against the Catholic Church, didn’t believe in the Trinity and had written pamphlets about the merits of divorce. His anti-monarchical stance didn’t prevent Denham, a lifelong royalist, from praising the poem. But Milton wrote Paradise Lost (dictating it, since he had become com…

Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell

Why is it always Orwell o’clock? Why is everything mildly unpleasant about government instantly Orwellian? Why is every banal propaganda effort obviously 1984 sprung to life? Why is it all as crushingly predictable as the Orwell Prize, the outstandingly foreseeable new Churchill And Orwell double biography, and now a new life-size bronze Orwell statue outside the BBC?

There is a simplicity and a clarity to Orwell’s prose. It flows nicely. But there is also nothing special about it other than the fact it has been canonised as the ultimate in English authorial excellence.

This is still very much a surprise to me, because there is just so much wrong with it. Are the violent caricatures of Jews in Down And Out In Paris And London really defending the downtrodden in 1933? Are the rantings (against amongst others, vegetarians) in The Road To Wigan Pier even coherent? Were the baying hysterical yellow people forcing a European into Shooting An Elephant really an appropriate metaphor for colon…

Søren Kierkegaard

I fell for Søren Kierkegaard as a teenager, and he has accompanied me on my intellectual travels ever since, not so much side by side as always a few steps ahead or lurking out of sight just behind me. Perhaps that’s because he does not mix well with the other companions I’ve kept. I studied in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of philosophy, where the literary flourishes and wilful paradoxes of continental existentialists are viewed with anything from suspicion to outright disdain. In Paris, Roland Barthes might have proclaimed the death of the author, but in London the philosopher had been lifeless for years, as anonymous as possible so that the arguments could speak for themselves. 

Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It’s a strange word to use for a thinker…

Virgil Revisited

One of the most magical passages in the Aeneid occurs when the hero, in search of the golden bough that will allow him entrance to the Underworld, is shown the way by two doves, emblems of his mother, Venus. In David Ferry’s new translation, the moment unfolds as follows:

He stood there where he was and watched to see
What signs he might be given by how they went,
Alighting to feed a little, then flying a little,
Alighting a little again to feed on the grass,
Then flying a little way, and alighting again,
Then flying a little again, feeding and flying,
Keeping themselves just far enough ahead
So that they can be seen by him who follows….

With all translations of the Aeneid into English, extra words are needed to convey the meaning of the more condensed Latin; this passage in Virgil’s text takes only four lines. But it is what Ferry accomplishes—his delighted attention to the movement of the doves, teasing the reader forward, and again forward, along with Aeneas; and his confidence, as a poet, …

Charmed life - Mary McCarthy

In a late television interview, when asked if she had any regrets about her career, Mary McCarthy smiled gnomically and said something to the effect that she wished she had written more and read less. I have been worrying about this remark for decades, as it seemed to highlight one of the major tensions of the writing life: the uneasy and potentially dangerous relationship between reading and writing, between input and output, between absorption and invention. In her, this tension was marked.

McCarthy wrote a great deal, but her fictional output was limited and fits neatly in two compact volumes into the smart boxed set of the new Library of America edition, edited by Thomas Mallon. There are seven novels and eight stories (four previously uncollected). The first of the novels, The Company She Keeps (1942), can be read as a series of interconnected short stories, all reflections of a central female character, the formidable but tormented Margaret Sargent. Some of the chapters were ori…

Completing the Portrait: John Banville Tells Us What Isabel Archer Does Next

IT WAS A TRUTH universally acknowledged, at least at the time of its original publication, that the ending of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is inadmissibly abrupt. Acknowledged by all, that is, except Henry James. He had chided George Eliot for spelling out the conclusions of her novels in far too much detail (and in fact, if one reads the final chapter and epilogue to Adam Bede one gets a sense of what James means); he did not intend to make the same mistake himself. To defend the opinion of the masses, however, who insistently demanded more of the Portrait, it could very well be that James used his critical judgment of Eliot to excuse himself from spinning more of a yarn that had, after all, reached a difficult impasse.

At the end of the novel, we are left with the same question we have had all along, the question also of Ralph Touchett, and indeed of James himself as he began to write the novel: namely, what will Isabel Archer do? It is now, as it was then, a fascinating ques…

Philip Roth, Patriot

Philip Roth’s new collection of nonfiction, mostly writing about writing and about other writers, is called, with Rothian bluntness, “Why Write?” (Library of America). It’s the first nonfiction collection Roth has produced in many years, though some pieces in it have appeared in two previous volumes, “Reading Myself and Others” and “Shop Talk.” Where John Updike, his competitive partner in a half-century literary marathon—in which each always had the other alongside, stride by stride, shedding books like perspiration—produced eight doorstop-size volumes of reviews, essays, jeux d’esprit, citations, and general ponderations, Roth ceased writing regularly about writing sometime in the mid-seventies. Since then, there have been the slightly beleaguered interview when a new book came out, the carefully wrought “conversations” in support of writers he admired, particularly embattled Eastern European ones, and, after his “retirement” from writing, a few years ago, a series of valedictory ad…

Homo Duplex - Joseph Conrad

Corresponding with Bertrand Russell in 1922, Joseph Conrad confessed: ‘I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.’ Conrad was responding to Russell’s book The Problem of China, published in the same year, in which Russell had pinned his hopes for China and the world on ‘international socialism’ – ‘the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any sort of definite meaning’, Conrad observed. International socialism, he continued, was ‘but a system, not very recondite and not very plausible … and I know you wouldn’t expect me to put faith in any system’.

Conrad was a sceptic who believed that the human world was fuelled by illusions. He felt strongly about a number of the political issues of his day, such as the threat posed to Europe by Russian autocracy, and was horrified by the rapacity he witnessed being inflicted on the local population when he travell…

Theodore Dreiser’s New York

In late November 1894, in the depths of the 1890s depression, Theodore Dreiser arrived in New York. He soon headed for City Hall Park, where he bulled his way into the World building, successfully evading the hired muscle who barred the doors of most Park Row newspapers, keeping desperate job seekers at bay. Once inside, he managed to land an unsalaried position as a space-rate reporter, paid by the column inch, on the strength of having served a lengthy journalistic apprenticeship in various midwestern cities.

Dreiser liked newsmen. He appreciated their cynical dissent from prevailing pieties. “One can always talk to a newspaper man,” Dreiser would write, “with the full confidence that one is talking to a man who is at least free of moralistic mush.”

His own life had rubbed him free of Victorian illusions. His family was grit-poor, his father a beaten man. The Dreisers were always on the move—being evicted or chasing cheaper rents—and ostracized as trash by “respectable” people. The s…