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Showing posts from January, 2017

Edna O'Brien: how James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle shook the literary world

In his 50s, as his genius escalated and transmogrified, James Joyce admitted that he was at the end of English, saying he could no longer use ordinary words with daytime association, as this was a book of the night, “bauchspeech from his innkempt house”. The Work in Progress, as it was called, would be Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years in the doing. He wrote on the lid of a green suitcase that he had purchased in Bognor Regis, on a lacklustre honeymoon, wrote at night and laughed a lot at his own puns and polyglot language. His wife, Nora Barnacle, would get out of bed and tell him to stop writing and therefore stop laughing and moreover the work was just chop suey. She was the one person who was not afraid of him and he loved her for it.

He had one-tenth normal vision and his list of ailments read like a footnote to the work – glaucoma, iritis, cataract, crystallised cataract, a nebula in the pupil, conjunctivitis, torn retina, blood accumulation and abscesses. He felt himself broth…

Was ‘the other Brontë’ the best of them all?

Fans of the novels and poems written by the sibling inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage always have a Top Brontë. Fame-seeking Charlotte and mysteriously reclusive Emily usually grab the limelight. My father reread Emily’s only novel every five years, annotating his student copy of Wuthering Heights and monitoring his opinions depending on how his own love life was going. He shared his choice with the playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis, until the day she read Anne’s final letter, and was taken aback as its sudden significance ‘catches at my heart’, making her wonder about the less wowed, less known, youngest sister.

This wonderful biography begins at a disadvantage. All but five of Anne’s letters are missing. The surviving biographical facts can fit a single page. But Ellis’s first solution is to tell Anne’s story through the characters at the centre of her life. Chapters are devoted in turn to the children’s heroic mother, Maria; their selfless aunt; their bereft Reverend father; t…

Mrs. Wharton in New York

Edith Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones. Her mother was a Rhinelander, one of the poor ones, or more accurately not quite one of the rich ones. Her paternal grandmother was a Schermerhorn. Thus the “Knickerbocker element” survived in her pedigree. These were the remnants of the old Dutch patroons who were themselves early overwhelmed by immigrants from the British Isles and by British military force. It was early indeed since Peter Stuyvesant surrendered in 1664 and New Netherland or New Amsterdam became New York. From the beginning the old society was beleaguered; had it not been there would be no Manhattan, this world city as porous as cheesecloth. Traders from New England came down from Maine through Connecticut and were not at first as roundly welcomed as we might imagine today. And, needless to note, worse was to follow the little band of old New Yorkers, causing them vainly to whisk their tails against the flies and gnats like so many carriage hors…

Paul Auster's Novel Of Chance

According to a currently popular line of philosophy, a self is merely the sum of all the stories we tell about a particular human body. It’s an idea that resonates through the work of the writer Paul Auster, in whose fiction both selves and stories are precarious constructions, fascinating but unstable, more illusion than reality. In “4 3 2 1” (Holt), Auster’s first novel in seven years and, at eight hundred and sixty-six pages, the longest by far of any book he has published, a single man’s life unfolds along four narrative arcs, from birth to early adulthood. “Clearly you’ve read Borges by now,” the faculty adviser remarks to one of these iterations of Archie Ferguson, a character who, like most of Auster’s heroes, is fanatically bookish. “4 3 2 1” is indeed a doorstop of forking paths.

All four Archie Fergusons share the same origin story, one that has much in common with Auster’s: a paternal grandfather who arrives in the United States with a Jewish name, which gets converted to so…

‘I’m Nobody’? Not a Chance, Emily Dickinson

“In the Trumpian sense of the term, she’s the ultimate ‘nasty woman.’ An inspiration. Volcanic. When I start to write about her, I always feel, uh-oh.” The volcano referred to is Emily Dickinson, as described by the contemporary poet Susan Howe in the catalog for an exhibition, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” opening on Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum.

The show is one of the largest gatherings ever of prime Dickinson relics, and it comes with an aura the size of a city block. It instantly turns the Morgan into a pilgrimage site, a literary Lourdes, a place to come in contact with one aspect of American culture that truly can claim greatness, which we sure can use in an uh-oh political moment.

The show has a mission: To give 21st-century audiences a fresh take on Dickinson. Gone is the white-gowned Puritan nun, and that infantilized charmer, the Belle of Amherst. At the Morgan we get a different Dickinson, a person among people: a member of a …

George Gissing: The Immortal Dickens, Bleak House

I was whilst engaged upon Bleak House that Dickens, for the first time in his career, complained of feeling overwrought. He began the writing of this book in November, 1851, just a year after the close of David Copperfield, and was busy at it until August 1853; the first of the usual twenty monthly parts appeared in March, 1852, with illustrations by Hablôt K. Browne. Doubtless the story cost him a great deal of trouble, for he had set himself a task alien to his genius -- that of constructing a neatly elaborate "plot," a rounded mystery with manifold complications, to serve as the vehicle for his attack upon a monstrous abuse. His letters of the time show that he was not working with the old gusto; he felt his other literary tasks, going on concurrently, very burdensome, to say nothing of the strain imposed by amateur acting and ceaseless social engagements. Of course the method of monthly publication, with author but a little in advance of printer, was, notwithstanding Dic…

The stories behind the story of Albert Camus’s ‘The Stranger’

When Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was published in France in early 1942, no one, least of all its 29-year-old author, could have guessed the impact the book would have, then and in the future. The Outsider / The Stranger (Stuart Gilbert’s English translation, published in 1946, had different titles in different countries) wasn’t exactly a best-seller in its early years. It came to have a life of its own, but oftentimes, there was no separating the book from its writer.

It wasn’t just how the book came to be written, or the fact that Camus wrote it as the Second World War broke out, but because of the aura that surrounded Camus soon after the book’s publication. It coincided with the recognition of Camus as a key figure of the French resistance.

The Stranger continues to have a vivid afterlife. It became synonymous with existentialism, to Camus’s own chagrin, and it won its author fame and notoriety in equal measure. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Camus – the most enduring one with Camu…

Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner

The young Thomas Hardy was determined to make a living out of literature. But the market was crowded, and he had no influential connections. For years he struggled to find a voice that would sell. What finally brought success was the “partly real, partly-dream country” that he created from his lifelong association with rural Dorset. The imagined Wessex that emerged from his novels of the early 1870s – Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd – appealed to a nostalgic appetite for vanishing pastoral traditions among the urbanised population of Victorian Britain. He wrote about the country, but his popularity was a product of the city.

Mark Ford’s absorbing new study argues that our wish to see Hardy as a man of Dorset has distracted us from his formative life as a Londoner. In Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley ponders the sensitive “nervous motion” of his cousin Sue Bridehead, making her quite unlike the stolidly rustic women he had known as a child. “London had done it, he supp…

Jane Austen at 200: still a friend and a stranger

“Downright nonsense” was the verdict of Mrs Augusta Bramston, a Hampshire friend and neighbour of the Austen family, on reading Pride and Prejudice. In 1814, Jane Austen published Mansfield Park, a sophisticated study of love and family life. Mrs Bramston nevertheless thought she ought to give it go, and having struggled through volume one, “flattered herself she had got through the worst”.

Jane Austen recorded this and other hilarious remarks from friends in a list of opinions on Mansfield Park. The document, in Austen’s own neat handwriting, is just one of the funny and sad items in the British Library’s new exhibition, Jane Austen Among Family and Friends, which opened on Tuesday.

Austen surely recorded the comments in a spirit of malicious mockery rather than regret. Even if only a small number of readers appreciated her at the time of her death in 1817, she hopefully knew just how brilliant a writer she was. Two hundred years later, everyone knows it. Her face is to appear on £10 …

Montaigne On Trial

French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.

 “Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from t…

Anne Brontë: the sister who got there first

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material…

The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi

Couple of years ago, when Coldplay’s Chris Martin was going through a divorce from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling down, a friend gave him a book to lift his spirits. It was a collection of poetry by Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, translated by Coleman Barks. “It kind of changed my life,” Martin said later, in an interview. A track from Coldplay’s most recent album features Barks reciting one of the poems: “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.”

Rumi has helped the spiritual journeys of other celebrities—Madonna, Tilda Swinton—some of whom similarly incorporated his work into theirs. Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,” one of them goes. Or, “Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul.” …