Showing posts from May, 2017

George Eliot – how a novelist shared her wisdom

Some great novelists are there in their novels. None is more present than George Eliot. Take a small example from The Mill on the Floss. Mr Tulliver, the mill owner, has well-nigh ruined himself by pursuing a doomed legal suit against a cleverer rival. Now he must get his wife to borrow some money from her affluent brother-in-law.
Mr Tulliver would never have asked for anything from so poor-spirited a fellow for himself, but Bessy might do so if she liked. It is precisely the proudest and most obstinate men who are the most liable to shift their position and contradict themselves in this sudden manner …The first sentence inhabits Tulliver’s self-deluding thoughts; in the second (separated by that chasm of a paragraph break), the narrator discovers a psychological pattern that any of us might recognise. 

The narrator offering this reflection is Eliot. Over and over again in her fiction a precise description of a character’s thought processes generates, in the next sentence, a generali…

Human, all too human - Friedrich Nietzsche

In October 1876, around the time of his thirty-second birthday, Friedrich Nietzsche set off on his first journey to Italy. He was at this point Professor of Classical Philology in Basel, a post he had secured at the astonishingly young age of twenty-four. Nietzsche had been quite sickly, suffering from a number of ailments, ranging from debilitating headaches and vision problems to frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. It was thought that some restful time in the pleasant climate of the south would do him good. Malwida von Meysenbug, a well-to-do aristocrat and writer, invited Nietzsche to join her, and secured rooms in the Villa Rubinacci, perched up the rocky cliffs of Sorrento, across the gulf from Naples and Vesuvius. Richard and Cosima Wagner were a short stroll away, luxuriously ensconced at the Hotel Vittoria. They too were resting, with a monumental undertaking recently completed. A few months before, Wagner’s cycle of music dramas, Der Ring des Niebelungen, had had its premi…

‘Fiction takes its time’: Arundhati Roy

When Arundhati Roy completed her new novel, her first in 20 years, she told her literary agent, “I don’t want all this bidding and vulgarity, you know.” She wanted interested publishers to write her a letter instead, describing “how they understood” her book. She then convened a meeting with them. “OK,” her agent prompted afterwards. “You know what they think. You’ve met them. Now decide.” 

“Oh no,” she told him. “Not yet. First I’ll have to consult.” He was puzzled. “You consult me, right?” “No, I have to consult these folks. You know, the folks in my book.” So the author and her agent sat together in silence while she asked the characters in her novel which publisher they liked the best. When Roy announced their choice, her agent pointed out that his bid was half what other publishers were offering. “Yes,” she shrugged. “But they like him.”

Seeing my expression as she relates this, Roy starts to smile. “Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.” They…

White Mischief - Evelyn Waugh

When the final reviews—that is, the obituaries—came in, Evelyn Waugh’s were mixed. His literary accomplishments were noted, so too his Catholic apologetics, but heavy emphasis was put upon his reactionary views and his snobbery. Waugh’s son Auberon, responding to these notices, countered that they were wrong about his father’s snobbery (he scarcely cared about pedigree) and his politics (“politics bored him”), and missed the main point about him: “[i]t is simply that he was the funniest man of his generation.”

Quite so, though it needs to be added that in the case of Evelyn Waugh funny was not always the same as amusing. Amusing suggests light, whimsical, charming. P.G. Wodehouse is amusing. Waugh’s humor tended to the dark, and, given his often gratuitous pugnacity, usually had a victim, or at least an edge. When the favorite of his seven children, his daughter Margaret, wished to live on her own, he told her “you are no more ready for independence than the Congo.” After Randolph Chur…

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 …