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Showing posts from April, 2017

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…

Sages and Holy Fools - Milan Kundera

WHAT JASON M. WIRTH likes about Milan Kundera is that the Czech writer prefers fog to absolutes. His “universe of the novel” is concerned less with ideal theories and abstractions than with the complex suchness of things. Like all great writers, Kundera celebrates the ambiguity of human existence — the epiphanies of the everyday. The book takes its title from a passage in one of Kundera’s early novelsThe Joke, where the central character, Ludvik, says at one point: We lived, I and Lucie, in a devastated world: and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well. Ludvik eventually reaches an awakening to a humble solidarity with human beings in their ineluctable folly and contradiction. He realizes that messy lived experience does not conform to preset ideas. And this preference for existential contingency over metaphysical necessity is what Wirth identifies with the true art of the novel, the comic…

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – another American story of men escaping women

In 1960, a 28-year-old writer named John Updike published his second novel, Rabbit, Run. The New York Times called it a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion”. It singled out his stylistic achievement in particular, praising him for having created a “perfectly pitched voice for the subject”. This early review set the tone for what would follow, and for many years Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were hailed as a kind of unquestioned trinity of the best modern American novelists. When he died in 2009, 23 novels, countless stories, essays, and a few volumes of poetry later, the New Yorker pronounced him “one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing.” Even bearing in mind that the New Yorker had been, in essence, Updike’s house magazine for 50 years, this remains praise of an order few …

What Price Zelda? The extraordinary afterlife of an ordinary writer

Sixty-nine years after her death and 85 years after the publication of her only completed novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald is still making news. Z: The Beginning of Everything, a soap-opera-ish 10-installment Amazon TV series in which Christina Ricci plays the ill-fated wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, began airing earlier this year. It was based on Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling 2013 novel about the Fitzgeralds, the latest of a long string of fictionalized portrayals of the best-remembered married couple of the Roaring Twenties. Most of them, Z included, proceed from the premise that Zelda, who spent the second half of her life shuttling in and out of mental institutions, was a major artist in the making whose gifts were crushed by an uncaring husband who refused to admit that she was his creative peer. No one seems to have thought any such thing in Zelda’s lifetime, and for long afterward. Ring Lardner, who knew both Fitzgeralds well, summed up the case for the prosecut…

The function of criticism - T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) is a work of angry intelligence: it reads as if it were written under duress. Apparently Eliot would prefer to be writing about anything else, or to be silent. He accepts that criticism includes, unfortunately, every form of discursive writing from the most leisurely book-review to a supreme work of criticism such as Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal. In “Religion and Literature,” (1935) he says—in poor taste, admittedly—that we should not leave criticism “to the fellows who write reviews in the papers.” It is difficult to designate a function for a plethora. Given such a field of literary criticism, Eliot would like to see most of its wandering inhabitants ejected. In happier conditions, literary criticism would be rarely needed:
I have had some experience of Extension lecturing, and I have found only two ways of leading any pupils to like anything with the right liking: to present them with a selection of the simpler kind of facts about…

Margaret Atwood, The Prophet Of Dystopia

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said recently. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood said. “So take your pick.”

Atwood made the artist’s pick: she chose the story. She once wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who wa…

A Quiet Passion won’t solve the mystery of Emily Dickinson – but does the truth matter?

In 1882 Emily Dickinson was living as a recluse in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, guarded by her sister, Vinnie, when her brother, Austin, began an adulterous affair with Mabel Todd. Mabel was an Amherst College faculty wife, half his age. Austin was the college treasurer. They needed a safe place to conduct their secret liaison. They chose Emily’s house. What did she think of this? We know a great deal about Austin and Mabel’s affair, because both left diaries and letters, which are now kept in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. We know nothing of Emily’s view of the affair. We know that she and Mabel never met. We know that Mabel became fascinated by Emily’s poems. And we know that it was Mabel who championed the poems after Emily’s death in 1886 and nagged the publishers Roberts Brothers of Boston to print a small edition in 1890. That edition, reprinted 11 times in the first year, made Dickinson famous.

Since then her fame has grown to legendary proportions. Even in her…

Witness to a Century - Czesław Miłosz

Any single decade of Czesław Miłosz’s life was eventful enough to provide ample material for a volume of biography on its own. He lived to the age of ninety-three and his collected poems form a volume of 1,400 pages, so this 500-page study of his life and work is a miracle of compression. Only the physical strength of a bear and the patience of St Simeon Stylites, plus a degree of luck, could have enabled Miłosz to survive the many catastrophes and disappointments he experienced before finally receiving, aged almost seventy, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. His childhood was scarred by the devastation wrought on his native land, the Lithuanian-, Polish- and Jewish-populated area around Vilnius (then Wilno), during the First World War by the German and Russian armies, a period when his family had to flee to survive. This conflict was followed by the Polish–Soviet War and skirmishes between Poland and Lithuania. Miłosz’s turbulent student days in Vilnius required him to negotiate a…

The Codebreaker - On the critical legacy of William Empson

Today, when literary criticism—especially the close reading of lyric poetry—has become a suspect discipline, largely dismissed for its elitism and irrelevance to the political order, Michael Wood's elegant and concise study of the great British literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) is especially welcome. Empson was all of 22 when he produced, at the suggestion of his Cambridge supervisor I. A. Richards, a bulky manuscript called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Published in 1930, the book quickly became a classic, read and hotly debated in classrooms across Britain and the United States. Not until the 1970s, with the rise of Deconstruction, did Empson's star go down, the irony being (as Wood notes) that he anticipated so many of the theorems of what he called, in a letter to a friend, "those horrible Frenchmen"—he referred to the chef d'école of Deconstruction as "Nerrida"—who were "so very disgusting, in a social and moral way." Wood explains:�…