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Showing posts from July, 2017

Jane Austen Is Everything

On the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen is still everywhere, often where one least expects to find her. Most of her devotees will have their own story; mine occurred in a Manhattan courthouse, with its stale-coffee smell and atmosphere of anxious boredom, in the midst of jury selection for a criminal trial involving a double homicide. Upon learning that I taught British literature, the defendant’s attorney—a woman who spoke with intimidating speed and streetwise bluntness—skipped the usual questions (how much did I trust police testimony, had I ever been a victim of a violent crime) and asked instead whether I taught Jane Austen. Puzzled by her indirection, I answered yes. A theatrical flash of disgust crossed her face: I was, evidently, one of those people. At which point the presiding judge interrupted to say: “Careful, counsel. Some of us here like Jane Austen.”

The hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap is not just an iconic figure but a symbol of Literature itself. As Austen’s own Em…

A Possible Keats

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to…

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

"Jerusalem is the holy city," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, "yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry . . . the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone." Jew, Christian and Muslim alike feel compelled to rewrite its history to sustain their own myths. "A hundred patients a year," Montefiore notes, "are committed to the city's asylum suffering from the Jerusalem syndrome, a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion." The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well, and although not his purpose, one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices. 

Montefiore takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation – Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar,…

Czeslaw Milosz’s Invincible Reason

“What occurred in Poland was an encounter of a European poet with the hell of the twentieth century, not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one,” the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz declared in his 1983 collection of lectures, The Witness of Poetry. “This situation is something of a laboratory, in other words: It allows us to examine what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions.” What Milosz meant by “historical conditions” was the complete disintegration of European culture—“the sudden crumbling of all current notions and criteria”—between 1939 and 1945. Like other Polish poets, Milosz felt the need to respond in a radical way to the disgrace of Europe—its sinking into inhumanity, its complicity in genocide—by trying to remake poetry from the ground up. It was starting over again after what seemed like the end of the world.

The poet in Poland, Milosz argued, experienced history on his pulse. By writing his own experiences he was also writing the experiences of other…

How Gustave Flaubert captured the turbulent politics of his age

Sooner or later, virtually every piece of literary lore is dragged from the popular imagination, stripped of impunity and ritually debunked. For a long time, every­one was busy enjoying Coleridge’s story about the knock on the door that ruined “Kubla Khan” – hunting for a moral, smarting with vicarious frustration. Then biographers arrived to spoil the fun, pointing to the absence of an unwanted visitor from the first version of Coleridge’s preface, wondering what “a person on business” could want with a poet on opium that he would travel more than 20 miles and then detain him for an hour. And you know the one about Jack Kerouac, stabbing out his novel on a hundred-foot “scroll” during a punctuation-phobic three-week Benzedrine haze? Try: years of drafting, yards of Scotch tape, caffeine, commas.

The latest candidate for this treatment is the composition of Gustave Flaubert’s first novel, Madame Bovary, which was serialised (and censored) in 1856. At the end of the previous decade, Fla…

Charlotte Brontë’s Teaching Career

Beginning life as a governess was far more unpleasant for Charlotte Brontë and her sister Anne than it was for Jane Eyre. When only a little more than eighteen years old, Anne served for nine months (April–December 1839) as governess for the Ingham family in charge of their two oldest children. Her novel, Agnes Grey, recounts her disillusionment as she begins to learn what being a governess actually entails.

It opens with its eponymous heroine ironically recalling her happy anticipations: “How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers.” In considering sources for John Reed, we have already met Agnes’ pupil Tom Bloomfield who introduces himself by showing her his trapped birds that he happily tortures. His sister Mary Ann, a six-year-old child, ignores her teacher, literally lying on the floor much of the time. Their mother persistently sides with the children…

Huckleberries on hot summer days - Henry David Thoreau

Despite Thoreau’s achievements as a writer, environmentalist and social activist (he was, among other things, a passionate abolitionist and supporter of John Brown), many of his contemporaries considered him little more than a crank, a self-involved Pied Piper for the children of Concord, MA, whom he led in search of huckle­berries on hot summer days. As Lauren Dassow Walls makes clear in her excellent Henry David Thoreau: A Life, he was a man of obsessively high principles, self-contained, a stickler for details who insisted on his own way of seeing the world, however quirky. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become a good friend, referred to him as “a singular character . . . ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”. Walls quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to good effect in a letter introducing him to Henry James, Sr, assuring James that once he got past the younger man’s “village pedantry and tediousness of facts”, he would dis…

Kafka: The Impossible Biography

The prospect of a new Kafka biography is like an invitation to a party that is bound to be entertaining but may end badly. Situating Kafka’s writing within the cultural and political landscape of European modernism and the late Austro-Hungarian Empire is a worthy, if daunting, endeavor. Less certain is whether such efforts to contextualize his corpus actually garner insights into it. Kafka’s readers are intrigued by virtually any anecdote about him, but few would allow that the abiding mysteries of his texts will be resolved by learning that he lived in Prague, was the son of a fancy goods merchant, and enjoyed going to the beach. Nor does history provide a reliable key to unlock his works, which have dates but do not date. If they are decidedly not a product of our time, there appears to be little chance of them ever going out of style.

Although Kafka’s importance is incontestable, scholars and casual fans alike fiercely debate every feature of his corpus. Each plot twist or curious t…

The Myth of an Apolitical Montaigne

I USED TO IMAGINE Michel de Montaigne as a voluntary hermit, tucked away in his book-lined tower, inventing the essay as religious wars raged down below. This image is unrepresentative and misleading. Montaigne pursued a public career and lived a dangerous life. At various times, he was kidnapped by bandits, forced to outwit a neighbor who tried to seize his estates, and constrained to stay outside the city of which he was mayor, lest he be assassinated. His retirement from the drama of his times indicated the failure of political ambition, not the fulfillment of a hermetic vocation.

Perhaps Montaigne’s worst misadventure took place in Paris in 1588, when he was caught in the wake of a political incident so dramatic it later became the subject of operas. He was visiting Paris to speak with King Henry III of France, when the king decided to murder his most troublesome subject. The victim, the Duke of Guise, led an organization called the Catholic League, dedicated to preventing the orde…

The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described h…