Showing posts from 2017

Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle For Truth

In July, 1950, Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Jerzy Putrament, the general secretary of the Polish Writers’ Union. The two men had known each other for many years—they had been contributors to the same student magazine in college, in the early nineteen-thirties—but their paths had diverged widely. Now the arch-commissar of Polish literature told the poet, “I heard that you are to be moved to Paris. . . . I am happy that you will be coming here, because I have been worried about you a little: whether the splendor of material goods in America has overshadowed poverty in other aspects of life.”

The language was polite, even confiding, but the message could not have been clearer. Milosz, who had been working as a diplomat in the United States for four years, was no longer considered trustworthy by his superiors. He was being transferred to Paris so that he would be within reach of Warsaw. Sure enough, a few days before…

“A subsisting and alas! self-seeking me” - Jane Carlyle

In 1840, Rowland Hill succeeded in implementing the penny post scheme, which proposed that any letter weighing less than an ounce should cost no more than a single penny to send. Overnight, a form of communication that had previously been afforded only to the upper class with any sense of regularity was made available on a mass scale. The effects were galvanizing: the reform of the postal service transformed Victorian Britain, but it also offered an unrestricted platform for self-expression and -construction; distance and quantity provided no obstacle to the faithful recording and dissemination of one’s thoughts, coterie speech and quotidian observations. Letters became a means of instantly transcribing the self, and a relatively direct line may be drawn between the epistolary culture of 19th century Britain and the rich subjective interiority of modernist literature.

It is against this backdrop of letter writing that the life and works of Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, to…

What Ferrante learned from Woolf

In her essay, “Three Guineas” (1938), Virginia Woolf begins by describing the double standard she discerns within England’s “educated class”. While well-to-do families, she notes, pour untold resources into “Arthur’s education fund” – that “voracious receptacle” – the daughters don’t fare nearly so well, having been denied access to the kinds of instruction the sons treat as a birthright. Education, in short, remains patrilineal. Even the daughters of “educated men” go largely uneducated.

I thought about “Three Guineas” the first time I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, since it is a story not just about female brilliance, but the manifold ways it can be thwarted – mostly by what the novel presents as a particularly banal and blinkered form of patriarchy. In the first of the Neapolitan novels, for instance, the gifted Lila is forced to leave school when her parents refuse to pay the fee required for a middle school entrance exam. Her mother, Nunzia, is timidly supportive, but…

It’s Only Me - Michel de Montaigne

In the end, it wasn’t that difficult to find. From Castillon-la-Bataille take the D936 east towards Bergerac; you can’t miss the turn, they said. (They’d be surprised what we could miss.) But there it was anyway, a large sign instructing us to turn left and then just a kilometre or two up through rising ground amid lush countryside to the tiny village. At the shop attached to the château it was confirmed that the tour would start at eleven, as the website had said. We had arrived in good time to get ahead of any crowd: the next tour wasn’t until the afternoon and we didn’t want to be forced to hang around. As it turned out we were the only ones there and so, when the two young women who were to be our guides to the tower arrived at the starting point at eleven sharp, the proceedings were, as a courtesy, conducted in English rather than French. The tower is all that remains of the original buildings on the estate acquired by Ramon Eyquem in the late fifteenth century and eventually bequ…

The Virtuoso of Compassion - Caravaggio

Two museums, London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted exhibitions in the fall of 2016 with the title “Beyond Caravaggio,” proof that the foul-tempered, short-lived Milanese painter (1571–1610) still has us in his thrall. The New York show, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” concentrated its attention on the French immigrant to Rome who became one of Caravaggio’s most important artistic successors. The National Gallery, for its part, ventured “beyond Caravaggio” with a choice display of Baroque paintings from the National Galleries of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as other collections, many of them taken to be works by Caravaggio when they were first imported from Italy.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a new play about the artist, Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, focused on the monumental painting of the same name in Naples that also provides the focus for Terence Ward’s moving nonf…

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris

In the final chapter of Gustave Flaubert’s “ Sentimental Education ” (1869), Frederic Moreau and his old school chum Deslauriers reminisce by the fireside. They trade news about mutual acquaintances, many of whom have featured vividly throughout the previous 400 pages. “And as they exhumed their youth,” Flaubert writes, “at every sentence they kept saying: ‘Do you remember?’ ” We take leave of the two as they recall an event predating the novel: a doomed trip to a brothel. “ ‘Ah, that was our best time!’ said Frederic. ‘Could be? Yes, that was our best time!’ said Deslauriers.”

As literary historian Peter Brooks describes it in his persuasive new book, “ Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris ,” that scene captures much of what contemporary critics found so baffling and distasteful in Flaubert’s novel. The protagonist, somewhat of a rake and a social climber to begin with, has just withstood a series of personal and political upheavals. He has seen his romantic hopes dashed, pursued affairs an…

The cosmology of Poe

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne … I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious – for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.
‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), Edgar Allan Poe 
Nature’s power enthralled the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, and galvanised some of his most memorable works. He was particularly captivated by the natural world’s ghastly capacity for destruction. In the short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, for instance, a sea voyage turns into sheer mayhem when a fierce vortex hurls the vessel toward its briny doom, shattering it into splinters. As if he were a journalist reporting a maritime calamity, Poe describes each stage of the devastation in riveting detail. His amateur interest in science lends his tales a measure of credibility that makes them all the m…

The many lives of John le Carré, in his own words

If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to my success to get the best out of myself, and by and large, however good or bad the best was, that was what I did.

And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a blackclouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive until lunchtime.

I love writing on the hoof, in …

Was Jane Austen a ‘secret radical’?

Jane Austen’s face — demure, bonneted, with a few stray curls over her forehead — peers out pensively from the new British 10-pound note, debuting this fall to mark the bicentenary of her death. The bill superimposes her image over a stately mansion surrounded by vast gardens, with a horse and carriage in the foreground. The quotation below comes from “Pride and Prejudice”: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

This is the Jane Austen we think we know: conventional, proper, unthreatening, writes Oxford professor Helena Kelly in “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical,” her new critical reassessment of the author. In fact, all the standard tropes about her are wrong, or at least misleading. The iconic image from the BBC remake of “Pride and Prejudice” — Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging, dripping wet, from the lake at Pemberley — exists nowhere in the novel. What little we know of Austen’s biography is likely to be false, tainted by the desires of her family to make her app…

From rum to gay - Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys’s gift was singular, fugitive, volatile – as was she, which made for a fitful literary career. But it was a long and productive one, too. There are fifty-one stories here, bringing together three collections – The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976) – with five uncollected tales. This volume first appeared in the United States in 1987, but this is the first time it has been published in the UK.

Though Rhys (1890–1979) had written since her teens, she was thirty-seven before her first book, The Left Bank, appeared. It came with a preface from her editor (and lover), Ford Madox Ford. Introducing his new author, he seemed as disquieted as he was impressed by her techniques and her commitment; so much so that his puffing-up strays into fantasy: “with cold deliberation”, he writes, “she eliminated even such two or three words of descriptive matter as had crept in her work”. Well! “Brrrrr!”, as Rhys writes in one story, of an especially…

Reading Emily Dickinson

Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

There are reasons to believe that the effort to present Dickinson’s poetry in its original handwritten intimacy is misguided, starting with the belief (mine, admittedly) that she would h…

Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

At 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.

This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.

In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as…