Showing posts from June, 2017

How A. E. Housman Invented Englishness

In person, A. E. Housman was so shy and furtive that Max Beerbohm once compared him to “an absconding cashier.” For such a crabbed and elusive figure, though, he continues to draw a surprising amount of attention: books, articles, musical tributes, even a Broadway play, Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” Academics know him the way he is mostly depicted in that play—as a formidable classicist, probably the greatest of his generation. But the real source of his fame is a single small volume of poetry, “A Shropshire Lad,” which has never been out of print since it was published, in 1896. Somehow, these sixty-three short lyrics, celebrating youth, loss, and early death, became for generations of readers the perfect evocation not merely of what it feels like to be adolescent and a little emotional but of what it means to be English. We don’t have anything remotely like it in American lit. Some of Emily Dickinson’s brief lyrics come closest—tonally, and in their mastery of the short, c…

Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot’s long-distance relationship

The George Eliot of popular imagination is something of a contradiction – an “honorary man” upon whom the Victorians bestowed the status of literary greatness, even as they flinched at the illegitimacy of her “marriage” to George Henry Lewes. And while Eliot’s lofty status – combined with her “living in sin” – prevented her from maintaining close ties with some of the era’s supposedly more respectable female writers, one author in particular went out of her way to befriend her.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the literary celebrity of the age. Her book, a phenomenon in Britain as well as America, had inspired popular songs, unofficial porcelain figurines, and was cited by some as a cause of the American Civil War. Since each was then the most famous female author on their respective side of the Atlantic, it stands to reason that the two would have felt they had something special in common. Yet many biographers have written off the rela…

Haruki Murakami’s Lonely Men

It’s rare, though not impossible, to connect emotionally with one of Haruki Murakami’s characters. They are transparent nonentities, serving to focus and magnify. Think of Aomame from 1Q84, who floats through a slightly shifted alternate world, observing but largely apart from it. The nameless narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World cooly scrutinizes a bizarre world inside his own mind. Like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, they serve as a lens for the peculiarities that surround them: They’re impressionable and neutral at the same time.

These viewpoint characters are usually men, because for Murakami, and for the audience he imagines—that is, for the audience that most male writers imagine—male characters are the most transparent. This isn’t a criticism of Murakami so much as an observation of the literary culture we’re all working with: Femaleness is seen as an additional ingredient, something extra and inessential to the real condition of humanity. The clearest len…

Queen of arts - Virginia Woolf

At one point in The Value of Virginia Woolf, Madelyn Detloff talks about variations in categories of identity. She gives examples of relatively new ones (such as intersex, queer, or transsexual) and points out that the arrival or departure of viable statuses is not in itself a new phenomenon. “It was simply not possible to identify as an American, for example, before the seventeenth century.” This must have been hard. Even more unexpectedly, she continues: “Nor is it possible today to identify as the King of France, although the category certainly existed in the seventeenth century”. I don’t know how many people are (or were) personally affected by this cancellation of potential. But there is at least one king of France who has been alive and well for some time. Bertrand Russell brought him into legitimate existence as a logical problem of reference, with the announcement, in an article of 1905, that “The present King of France is bald”. Thus exposed in a wigless twentieth-century wor…

Cramming for Success - Thomas Hardy

Human character, we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great c…

The Powerful Reticence of Elizabeth Bishop

In 2009, when Alice Methfessel died in California at age 66, everything in her house was rifled through and catalogued. That’s because Methfessel had once been the lover of the poet Elizabeth Bishop—the woman to whom Bishop dedicated the National Book Award-winning Geography III. When “a mass of unidentified paper sitting in a storage container” was discovered among Methfessel’s effects in 2010, her heirs “promptly sold the lot to Vassar,” in the words of Bishop scholar Lorrie Goldensohn.

The discovery of letters at Methfessel’s ranch property was not the first time that Bishop’s private writing has been found and published since her death in 1979. It’s an exposure that the poet would not have welcomed: Bishop was a private person during her lifetime, and deliberately withheld her personal life from her published poems. The decision to publish after her death the poems that Bishop had kept private in life has sparked controversy. In 2006, Alice Quinn of the New Yorker edited a collecti…

On ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

The first centennial of the Soviet revolution, indeed the fifth centennial of Luther’s, risk distracting us from a literary earthquake which happened just fifty years ago and marked the cultural emergence of Latin America onto that new and larger stage we call globalisation – itself a space that ultimately proves to be well beyond the separate categories of the cultural or the political, the economic or the national. I mean the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, which not only unleashed a Latin American ‘boom’ on an unsuspecting outside world but also introduced a host of distinct national literary publics to a new kind of novelising. Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways, to broach new content, to tell stories by way of forms you never knew you were allowed to use. What is it, then, that García Márquez did to the readers and writers of a still relatively conventional postwar worl…

Goethe: Life as a Work of Art

In the long history of Western culture, it is given to very few to have an entire era named after them. Socrates sits within Antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci within the Renaissance; even Shakespeare has been subsumed into the ‘Elizabethan age’. That the ‘age of Goethe’ (Goethezeit) should have become a standard term for the years spanning the Weimar poet’s active life – roughly, 1770 to 1830 – suggests, then, his overwhelming importance to the German psyche. Without Goethe, one might say, the great tradition of high culture that characterises modern Germany would never have begun; without Goethe, the archetypes of the national imagination – the raging Werther, the ageing Faust – would never have come into being.

How could one man accomplish so much? Among the many merits of Rüdiger Safranski’s masterly biography is that it explores the full range of Goethe’s achievements. Novelist and naturalist, statesman and poet, Goethe (1749–1832) made significant contributions to an astonishing array …

Arundhati Roy Returns To Fiction In Fury

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (Knopf) is a book that people have been waiting twenty years for. In the late nineteen-nineties, when Roy was in her thirties, she did some acting and screenwriting—she had married a filmmaker, Pradip Krishen—but mostly, she says, she made her living as an aerobics instructor. She had also been working on a novel for five years. In 1997, she published that book, “The God of Small Things.” Within months, it had sold four hundred thousand copies and won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to a non-expatriate Indian—an Indian who actually lived in India—or to an Indian woman. Roy became the most famous novelist on the subcontinent, and she probably still is, which is a considerable achievement, given that, after “The God of Small Things,” she became so enmeshed in the politics of her homeland that, for the next two decades, she didn’t produce any more fiction.

Now, finally, the second novel has come out, and it is clear th…

Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist

Saint Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.

There is a poem by WH Auden, called “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead

The purpose of this lecture is to ask if this lane is a two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, …

The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau had a genius for inspiring haters. More than 160 years after Walden first appeared, that genius is undimmed. In a 2015 New Yorker essay memorably titled “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz called him “narcissistic,” “pinched and selfish,” “as parochial as he was egotistical,” and an execrable writer whose best-remembered work is “unnavigable” and “fundamentally adolescent.” In his own time, satirical poets derided him as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dwarf, a stubby-legged imitator of the more famous Transcendentalist.

When I teach Thoreau to law students and undergraduates, they tend to agree with the “Pond Scum” assessment. They find him vain; they leap to defend the “old people” that Thoreau insisted had nothing to teach him, the shopkeepers he called “occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life.” They suspect that he failed to check his privilege by reflecting on the conditions that enabled a Harvard-educated young white man to wander freely in th…