Friday, 27 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 brother to Dean Swift, “whose glauque eyes glitt bedimmd to imm! whose fingrings creep o’er skull: til, qwench!” He wrote with thick coloured crayons and the help of three magnifying glasses. Sometimes his concentration was such that he almost lost consciousness and in extremis said, as when writing Ulysses, that he was only “a transparent leaf” away from madness. It is interesting that this tumble of language, this transubstantiation of words, these heavenly and unheavenly vocables, poured out from him without any thought of his blind eyes, as they came directly from the unconscious mind. It was when rereading and correcting that he became aware of impending wreckage. Yet he returned unremittingly to the task, with new, convoluted polyphonic words, building his Tower of Babel and fulfilling his prophecy of keeping the professors and the literati puzzled for hundreds of years.

Despite his antipathy towards, and mockery of, Freud, he was now invading the world of dream and he told the French journalist Edmond Jaloux that his intention was “to suit the aesthetic of the dream, where the forms prolong and multiply themselves, where the visions pass from the trivial to the apocalyptic, where the brain uses the roots of vocables to make others from them which will be capable of naming its phantasms, its allegories, its allusions”. At this point one is inclined, like Molly Bloom, to cry out, “O rocks! ... Tell us in plain words.”

As instalments of the work appeared in literary magazines, bile and condemnation proliferated. It was “linguistic sodomy”, the work of a shipwrecked mind and a monstrous leg-pull. Only Beckett saw Joyce’s radical intention of grinding up words so as to extract their true purpose, then crossbreeding them and marrying sound with image to compose a completely new kind of language.

Elsewhere, Joyce was assailed. DH Lawrence said that the instalments were all “old fags and cabbage-stumps”, Nabokov deemed them “a cold pudding” and HG Wells warned Joyce that he had “turned [his] back on common men”, with the result being “vast riddles”, “a dead end”. Ezra Pound, Joyce’s most robust advocate, said that “nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization”.

Joyce was all alone and discouraged. Was he “an imbecile in my judgment of language?” he asked, then resolutely declared, “I cannot go back.”

Even his faithful friend and patron Harriet Shaw Weaver began to have doubts about his puns, his aqueous passages and his riparian geography, fearing that he was losing touch with those readers astounded by the genius of Ulysses. He sought to allay her fears. He sent her keys to the more obscure words, but the keys were themselves mind-boggling. “Wolken” was “a woollen cap of clouds” and “passencore” tallied with “pas encore and ricorsi storici of Vico”. His monthly income from her had to be doubled, because the harder he laboured the more he drank and tipped lavishly in restaurants. Then in October 1927 she received the following short note – “I am working very hard on the final revise […] on which I am prepared to stake everything.” This was “Anna Livia”, his melodic chapter with which he hoped to win over recalcitrant readers. He wrote seven versions in all, constituting thousands of hours of labour, each episode more enriched, more exuberant and more transmutative. What he was doing was leaving a literary ghost mark for a world that was unprepared for it. Anna is both woman and river and “her fluvial maids of honour”, from all corners of the world, constitute 350 river names. It appeared in Criterion magazine, and at the instigation of TS Eliot it was published by Faber for one shilling net. Joyce composed a ditty to boost sales:

It begins in gay, effervescent mood, as two washerwomen on opposite sides of the River Liffey regale each other with scathing gossip. The sounds are of water, birdsong, bird cries, the beating of the battler on convent napkins, baby shawls, combies and sheets that a man and his bride embraced on. So they tuck up their sleeves, loosen the “talk-tapes” and egg each other on to tell it “in franca lingua. And call a spate a spate.” We are introduced to Anna, a shy, limber slip of a thing, “in Lapsummer skirt and damazon cheeks”, her hair down to her feet, “her little mary” washed in bog water, with amulets of rhunerhinerstones around her neck. “You’ll die when you hear.” We learn of her nymphet shame in the sloblands of Tolka and the “plage au Clontarf”, smacking cradle names on her paramours, “lads in scoutsch breeches”, the surf spray on her face and “the saywint up [her] ambushure”. From the city, she graduated to the “dinkel dale of Luggelaw” and there, under the silence of the sycamores, many are allowed to roam in her kirkeyaard, including a heremite named Michael Arklow, who plies “his newly anointed hands” into the “strumans” of that fabled hair. To give some idea of Joyce’s exigent method of writing, that same hair, which was borrowed from the head of Livia Schmitz, wife of Italo Svevo, also resembles the Dartry reservoir, streaked red from the canisters thrown in from the nearby dye works, and Joyce being Joyce, it transforms and ends up being the colour of bog land at sundown.

Joyce had to increase his income because the harder he laboured the more he drank and tipped lavishly Anna sets her cap at Bygmester Finnegan, a “duddurty devil”, rumoured to have committed some fiendish sexual act in Phoenix Park. She dispatches her boudeloire ninnies and backwater sals to call on Finnegan, in residence on a barge in Howth. She warns them to go “aisy-oisy”, letting on that she doesn’t care. In time, Finnegan takes her as wife, having chosen her for her seven hues. Joyce’s rapturous description of Anna’s bridal preparations belongs easily in The Song of Songs:

First she let her hair fall and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils. Then, mothernaked, she sampood herself with galawater and fraguant pistania mud, wupper and lauar, from crown to sole. Next she greased the groove of her keel, warthes and wears and mole and itcher, with antifouling butterscatch and turfentide and serpenthyme and with leafmould she ushered round prunella isles and islets dun quincecunct allover her little mary. Peeld gold of waxwork her jellybelly and her grains of incense anguille bronze. And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow. Then she made her bracelets and her anklets and her armlets and a jetty amulet for necklace of clicking cobbles and pattering pebbles and rumbledown rubble, richmond and rehr, of Irish rhunerhinerstones and shell-marble bangles. That done, a dawk of smut to her airy ey.

Anna is more Celtic geisha than traditional wife. In the “way of a maid with a man” she tickles his pontiff’s fancy with tricks and ruses, doing a turn on the fiddle, legging a jig, singing a hymn or warbling “The Rakes of Mallow”. Her cooking comprises “blooms of fisk” and “staynish beacons on toast”, with wishy-washy tea, “Kaffue mokau” or fern ale in “trueart pewter mug”. Anything to plaise him. She procures all the nice little whores, the lizzies and the doxies, “to hug and hab haven in Humpy’s apron”, while wishing she did not have to. She gives birth to three children, Shem and Shaun and Izzy, named after Chapelizod who pines for her Tristan. In time, the father’s affections veer towards the daughter and Anna wishes that he would rush upon her darkly, as he used, “like a great black shadow”.

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Thursday, 26 January 2017

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; the controlling Charlotte; the uncompromisingly independent Emily; and their brother Branwell, who Charlotte says ‘thought of nothing but stunning (drugs) and drowning (drink) his distress of mind’, jointly provide a prism through which Ellis’s elusive protagonist emerges.

Providing the reassuring plain-speaking in this extraordinary household is Tabby, the moor-rooted, emotionally indispensible housekeeper. But it is Anne’s quiet good sense and loyalty that at first dignifies and distinguishes her. The early fictional landscapes of Gondal, the children’s jointly imagined world, established a strong connection between Emily and Anne. At first overshadowed and overprotected by Charlotte, Anne earned her sisters’ respect when she took a job as a governess. Branwell’s affair with the wife of Anne’s employer had disastrous consequences, as disgraced brother and guilt-stricken sister returned home.

Ellis’s other prime source lies in Anne’s two daringly autobiographical novels, each written ‘with such clarity, such vigour’. Not only do they describe the mid-19th-century woman’s predicament as she abandons the ‘delicate concealment of facts’ with unprecedented honesty, but they draw unhesitatingly on Anne’s own life. In Agnes Grey (1847) the unflinching cruelty of the privileged child’s treatment of the dependent governess mirrors Anne’s first-hand experience of hierarchical Victorian society. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) Branwell’s drunkenness is the inspiration for the chemically addicted husband from whom Helen, the protagonist, must escape in order to ‘make a woman of herself’.

The narrative thread of Take Courage is given further emotional punch by Ellis’s own story, which runs in parallel to that of Anne. Interlacing references to the writings of Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson, Ellis finds an arresting compatibility with Anne through her own long-term health problems as well as her sense of lack of fulfilment and of feeling ‘boxed-in’. As Ellis engages with Anne’s life, her own tentative real-life romance grows while she invites us with engaging intimacy to follow her route to self-discovery.

As her private circumstances begin to shift, Ellis lives and breathes Anne’s life, walks the Haworth moors and the London streets and travels to Scarborough, drinks whisky (‘Branwell’s top tipple’), and eats porridge for breakfast every day, just as Anne herself chose to do. Through immersing herself in the quotidian detail, the feeling of being a Brontë becomes movie-screen vivid, irradiating the poverty, the carpet-less floors, the curtain-less windows, the relentless peeling of potatoes, the motherlessness and the unrequited love as the genius of creativity flourishes within the bleak parsonage walls. Ellis also writes at first hand with arresting beauty of the landscape around Haworth, where ‘rain made the moors’, of the extraordinary phenomenon of a ‘bog burst’, of the treeless landscape that ‘feels like all horizon’.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

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 horses.

Into this enclave, old New York society, Edith Wharton was born. She took her positioning seriously and the old stock with its thumb in the dike of Manhattan was one of her themes as a novelist. It might be said of her what Henry James wrote of Hawthorne: “It is only in a country where newness and change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life, that the fact of one’s ancestors having lived for a hundred and seventy years in a single spot would become an element of one’s morality.”

Being from New York rather than from Salem, Massachusetts, she was not a Yankee and not a lingering puritan conscience inhabited by ghosts and provincial scruples. She grew up a cosmopolitan from the first, early traveling abroad with her parents; she married after the usual biographical unsteadiness in the matter of broken engagements and again traveled abroad, then settled on Park Avenue and in Newport and, much later, built herself a grand house in Lenox, Massachusetts, kept traveling, finally sold the house, divorced her husband, Edward Wharton, “cerebrally compromised Teddy,” as Henry James called him, summing up this wild manic depressive who gave her a lot of trouble. Along the way she had a three-year affair with the romantically overextended seducer Morton Fullerton. And then in 1913, after the divorce, she settled permanently in France. There was more to it than that.

Edith Wharton was twenty-nine when her first short story was published and thirty-seven when her first collection appeared in 1899. Two years before The Decoration of Houses, written with the architect Ogden Codman, had been published. Even though starting late, Edith Wharton quickly became a professional writer in the best and then again in the less than best sense of the phrase. She wrote steadily, novel after novel, made money, and spent money with a forthright and standard-bearing loyalty to those twins of domestic economy, taste and comfort.

She liked expensive motorcars and once told Henry James that the last of these had been purchased with the proceeds from The Valley of Decision, a two-volume mistake about eighteenth-century Italy with characters named Odo and the Duke of Monte Alloro, and showing that Italy can be as dangerous for certain English-language novelists as the vapors from the undrained Marshes. (To this point: Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, a weary and unsuitable surrender to the moist murk a gloomy eye might discover in the beautiful country. Hawthorne himself did not make the common surrender to Italy and complained of “discomforts and miseries,” found the Roman winter an unadvertised blast of chills, and could not countenance nudity in sculptures.)

Henry James, looking at the motorcar purchased by the assault on Italy, and referring to The Wings of the Dove, is reported to have said, “With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small go-cart, or wheel-barrow, on which my guests’ luggage is wheeled from the station to my house. It needs a coat of paint. With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.”

There is a tradesman’s shrewdness in Edith Wharton’s work. She knows how to order the stock and dispose the goods in the window. She was a popular author, or, to be more just, her books were popular, not always the same thing. (Even in her day there were writers, many of them women susceptible to sentiment, who trafficked in novels in the present-day manner—more soy beans on the commodities market.) Edith Wharton is free of lush sentiments and moralizing tears. In The House of Mirth, her triumph, she is not always clear what the moral might be and thereby created a stunning tragedy in which the best and the richest society of New York revealed an inner coarseness that might remind one of pimps cruising in their Cadillacs.

Nevertheless she is often caught up in contrivance as a furtherance of product. And she likes the ruffled cuff and wonderful transcontinental glamour, interesting enough in itself, but speeding to pointlessness, something like the wonder about it all when a heavy rain falls on an elaborate garden party. The novel is viewed as a frank transaction between elements, elements to be laid out and pasted down like tiles in a frame. A “situation” is of course the necessity of fiction. Yet what of the cracks, the anxiety we sense in greater novelists about the very intention of the careful arabesques so purposefully designed and all of a sudden baked hard as rock?

In a story by Chekhov called “Terror,” a young man has been flirting with the wife of his good friend and she has been sighing in the Russian manner for him. Somehow he at last takes her to his room and the husband enters to get his cap left there earlier, set up, we would say, by the dramatist’s art. At the end the young man wonders: “Why has it turned out like this and not differently? To whom and for what was it necessary that she should love me in earnest and that he should come to my room to fetch his cap? What had the cap to do with it?” A Question about the domination of structure imposed upon a violence of feeling that would in any case have led the two to mount the stairs, open the door?

Neatness of plotting; balancing of the elements by a handy coincidence beyond necessity: that is the way it often goes with this prodigious worker, busy at the morning’s pages. She tends to lay hold with some of the gregarious insistence she displayed as the sort of hostess who organizes trips after lunch. Too many caps to be retrieved at the bedside of indiscretion, too much of a gloss. It’s the last slap of the polishing cloth and then forge ahead in a majorful fashion.

The Reef for instance: the young man is hoping to marry the recently widowed woman he has long loved. She puts him off with family affairs in her mother-in-law’s château in France and with problems relating to her young child and to her stepson. All are Americans, but the château somehow appears as naturally as if it were a deed to a wood lot. In a fit of chagrin the young man has an affair in a cheap Paris railroad hotel with a penniless, adrift American girl trying her hand at this and that abroad. This manifestation of impatience over and done with, the widow and the young man recombine, so to speak; and soon the girl from the railroad hotel turns up and will become engaged to the stepson, heir to the château and all the rest. The plot is suspenseful and executed with considerable gallantry and many Jamesian pauses in articulation—questions that do not quite ask, answers that hang in the air, the cues in the matter of a dialogue to a moral dilemma. The convenience of the young girl’s turning up to be promptly fallen in love with by the heir is too brilliant, too much like a train throwing off passengers at the most useful station.

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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 something more Gentile-friendly on Ellis Island; a family history marred by murder; an emotionally remote, entrepreneurial father; a childhood in suburban New Jersey, a place that Archie, in all his incarnations, comes to detest. Archie’s father, Stanley, at first adores his young bride, Rose, but as the novel’s four plots diverge after Archie’s birth, in 1947, the marriage survives in only one of them. Archie himself doesn’t make it past Chapter 2 in one version of his story, killed when lightning shears off a branch as the boy romps beneath the trees at summer camp.

Sudden death has been a preoccupation of Auster’s since his own summer-camp days. At the age of fourteen, while hiking during a storm, he was part of a line of boys crawling under barbed wire when lightning struck the fence, killing the boy in front of him. Chance, understandably, became a recurring theme in his fiction, and in “4 3 2 1” it contributes to the four distinct paths of Archie’s life. So, too, does character. In one story line, his father’s furniture store burns down, his father collects the insurance for it, and life goes on relatively undisturbed. In another, Stanley’s brother confesses that he’s run up big gambling debts that can be paid off only if Stanley allows an arsonist to burn down the store. Stanley waits in the building to thwart this plan but falls asleep and dies in the fire. In yet another, Stanley’s warehouse is burglarized, but he refuses to file an insurance claim, because he knows that an investigation will reveal that his other brother was behind the crime. In the fourth, Stanley ends up a rich man after ejecting both of his ne’er-do-well brothers from the business long before they can cause any serious trouble. As a result, one Archie—let’s call him the Manhattan variation—grows up fatherless, and clings fiercely to his mother when the two move to the city. The Montclair variation grows up in straitened circumstances but with an intact family. The Maplewood Archie lives in bourgeois affluence as his father becomes obsessed with money and his parents become increasingly estranged.

Auster’s novels tend to fall into two categories, Paris and New York, a division of tone, style, and ambition rather than of setting—paradoxically, some of his most Parisian fiction takes place in New York City. He remains best known for the three short novels that make up “The New York Trilogy”: exemplars of his Parisian mode, they were first published in the nineteen-eighties and are the foundation for a career far more celebrated in Europe than in his native land. Descended from Kafka by way of Camus and Beckett, these books are existential parables about the absurdity of the writer’s life, calling attention to their own artificiality and grafted onto the apparatus of hardboiled detective fiction. In “Ghosts,” a P.I. named Blue is hired to observe another man, named Black, through the window of a neighboring apartment. After more than a year of watching Black, Blue begins to suspect that it is he who has been the target all along:

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book.

In his New York mode, Auster pays tribute to what Rose Ferguson thinks of as “dear, dirty, devouring New York, the capital of human faces, the horizontal Babel of human tongues.” The young characters in “4 3 2 1” worship the city as only Jersey kids can; it is a manic paradise, visible but just out of reach. In such novels as “The Brooklyn Follies” and “Sunset Park,” Auster’s evident intention is Dickensian. He packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony.

That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster. His prose, even when impassioned, has a bland, synthesized quality, and in his Parisian mode it has deliberately been boiled down to the bones; the ease with which this style can be translated contributes to his popularity overseas. In “4 3 2 1,” which is more of a New York novel despite the predictable metafictional twist at the end, his sentences come tumbling out in multiple clauses, mimicking the breathless rumination of his earnest, callow, fairly humorless and slightly stuffy protagonists:
The fundamental quest both before and after his new life began had always been a spiritual one, the dream of an enduring connection, a reciprocal love between compatible souls, souls endowed with bodies, of course, mercifully endowed with bodies, but the soul came first, would always come first, and in spite of his flirtations with Carol, Jane, Nancy, Susan, Mimi, Linda, and Connie, he soon learned that none of these girls possessed the soul he was looking for, and one by one he had lost interest in them and allowed them to disappear from his heart.
Auster’s medium isn’t really sentences or paragraphs or scenes but narrative, events shoehorned into a sequence that endows them with significance: Blue has been hired to watch Black, therefore Black must be doing something worth watching. The narration in Auster’s novels typically dominates every other element in a ferocious and doomed assertion that the world the book describes is not ruled by happenstance. Maybe that’s what all storytelling is meant to do: reassure its audience that a legible causality shapes our world and our lives. The main character in the first novel of “The New York Trilogy,” “City of Glass,” seeking comfort after the death of his child, loves mystery novels because the world of such fictions is “seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, however trivial, can bear a connection to the story’s outcome, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence.” Plots, especially the solution-hungry plots of detective stories, give meaning to the flotsam and jetsam of lived experience.

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Sunday, 22 January 2017

‘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 household, a village-dweller, a citizen.

She was born in 1830 to rural gentry in Western Massachusetts, and one of the earliest items in the show gives an impression of modest Yankee privilege. It’s a portrait of Dickinson at around age 10 with her older brother, Austin, and young sister, Lavinia, done by a local artist, Otis Allen. It’s sort of a big deal to have it here: This is the first time it has left Houghton Library at Harvard since it arrived there in 1950. And the Morgan displays it well, against rose-patterned wallpaper that replicates the original, only recently uncovered, in Emily’s Amherst bedroom. In a sweet coincidence, the roses on the paper echo the flower the poet-to-be holds in her portrait.

As the daughter of a lawyer-politician — her father, Edward, was elected to the United States Congress in 1853 — and a lifelong consumer of newspapers and periodicals, Dickinson had a good sense of what was happening in the world. She went to grammar school, and was a bookworm, but had friends and a poised, dry sense of humor, as some teasing early letters to her brother suggests.

In 1847, she spent a year as a boarding student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, her one stint in higher education. And from that time came what many devotees will consider the exhibition’s star attraction: the much-reproduced daguerreotype of the 16-year-old Dickinson with her pale skin and wide-spaced eyes. It’s another rare visitant — it last left home at Amherst College in 1986 — and it’s almost a shock to see how small it is: pocket-size, like a holy card or a talisman.

Dickinson said that she liked Mount Holyoke, but I don’t know. It had its stresses. Part of the curriculum was religious, with students expected to make a profession of faith before graduating. The school informally divided potential candidates into three categories: those who would readily comply; those who would need some persuasion; and “No-Hopers,” to whom they paid special attention. Dickinson, who had developed an allergy to orthodoxy, was a No-Hoper, and proud.

It’s important, in presenting a revisionist view of her, especially a normalizing one, to note that from the start, resistance was her natural mode, and one that grew increasingly pronounced, and eventually acute. The end of her schooling signaled the start of a new phase of her life. She was again at home and beginning to work in a serious way on poetry, which required concentration and a degree of isolation: a commitment, the willingness, I guess you could say, to make a vow.

I think it wasn’t easy. The 1850s were a period of personal tumult. Her school friends had dispersed. Several had married. Among them was Susan Gilbert, with whom she had forged a tight emotional and intellectual bond, and whom she relied on as a first reader and editor of her poetry. In 1856, Gilbert — there’s a picture of her here — married Austin and lived with him in the house next door to the family homestead.

By 1858, Dickinson had accumulated enough poems to begin collecting them in handwritten, thread-bound booklets known as fascicles. And from around this time comes what is thought to be another portrait, a daguerreotype that surfaced in 2012 and is on first-time public view at the Morgan. It’s a portrait of two seated women, the one on the left tentatively identified as Dickinson; the other one as her friend, and possible romantic partner, Kate Scott Turner.

In the show, it’s placed side by side with the earlier, authenticated photograph. The Dickinsons in each, with their candid, unguarded gaze, share a clear, if inconclusive, resemblance. And her pose in the dual portrait is extremely moving. Far from being the timid, removed figure of myth, she looks directly at the camera and reaches, in a half-embrace, to touch the back of her friend.

Much of Dickinson’s poetry from this time has an experimental, incendiary flair; images of combat and violence occur. It’s as if she were experiencing the Civil War before it happened. And when it did happen, her production soared. Oddly, in the midst of the conflict, war was rarely her active theme. But like Walt Whitman, who began working as the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse in a military hospital in Washington, Dickinson seems to have been caught up in the emergency-room atmosphere that gripped the nation, a mood probably not entirely different from the one found in a divided America now.

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

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 Dickens's deliberate defence, as bad a one as novelist has ever contrived, and we, who owe to it so many of Dickens's blemishes, cannot condemn it too severely. Imagine him to have written how, when, and where he pleased, making his books short or long with regard only to their subject, and choosing his own time for putting forth the complete story, how different would be the possession bequeathed to us!

In the serial issue David Copperfield had not had a great sale; Bleak House began at once with a larger, and presently rose to a circulation of nearly twice that attained by the earlier and better book. The wise man does not try very hard to explain such statistics, but it seems intelligible that the opening chapters of Bleak House should have excited that sort of curiosity which in the public at large means interest; there is a lawsuit involving a great fortune, and there is a mystery affecting aristocratic lives. Herein lay novelty; for the two preceding books, Dombey and Copperfield, had opened with childhood, and followed a regular biographic tenor. Dickens's first idea with regard to their successor was to call it Tom-all-Alone's, and to make Jo the centre of interest; obviously a project of no great promise and soon abandoned. I have somewhere read a suggestion, that in the changed character of his later works, where "plot" takes the place of biographic narrative, we are to note the influence of Dickens's friend, Wilkie Collins; but in the year 1851 Wilkie Collins had published only his first, and uncharacteristic, work of fiction, Antonina, and it is more likely that, if influence there were of one novelist upon the other, Bleak House had its part in the shaping of Collins's successful work; Inspector Bucket, at all events, certainly gave a new type to the novelists of crime.

Dickens thought he was making an advance in art. He had been occasionally reproached for the old-fashioned, happy-go-lucky progress of his stories, and now set himself resolutely to amend the fault. The result was a fiction which his biographer considers very nearly perfect. "Look back from the last to the first page of the present novel, and not even in the highest examples of this kind of elaborate care will it be found that event leads more closely to event or that the separate incidents have been planned with a more studied consideration of the bearing they are severally to have on the general result. Nothing is introduced at random, everything tends to the catastrophe, the various lines of the plot converge and fit to its centre, and to this larger interest all the rest is irresistibly drawn" (Forster, Bk. VIII, Chap. I). Now, if we omit the objectionable word "plot," this is a description of faultless art in the constructing of a story; it will apply, in its degree, to every fine drama, scenic or narrative. But in the case before us its application is imperfect, owing to Dickens's failure to distinguish between art and artifice. In the fable of Bleak House there is much ingenuity, but an almost total disregard of probability the fitting of incidents suggests a mechanical puzzle rather than the complications of human life; arbitrary coincidence takes the place of well-contrived motive, and at times the motive suggested is glaringly inadequate. Briefly, the plot is not a good plot; infinite labour was wasted in a mistaken direction and here, as in so many of Dickens's novels, we have to enjoy the book in spite of its framework.

To make matters worse, the scheme is not homogeneous; intermingled with this weft of elaborate pattern are patches of a totally different order of work, the chapters of autobiography supposed to be written by Esther Summerson. In Copperfield, the first-person narrative was a great success, for it was indeed Dickens himself who spoke throughout, with all his qualities of humour and observation, vigour and pathos, allowed free play; one understands that the memory of his delight in achieving that masterpiece tempted him to a repetition of the same method. The result was most unfortunate. Of Esther Summerson as a woman we are liable to form no conception whatever, and we utterly refuse to believe that any hand save one penned the chapters bearing her signature. An attempt is made to write ''in character,'' but it is speedily abandoned, and I imagine it would be an easy thing, by the changing of a very few words on each page, to incorporate these Esther portions with the rest of the narrative. The object, presumably, of writing a book in this way is to obtain the effect of varied points of view regarding characters and events; but it is of necessity a mistake in art. With a skill much greater than that of Dickens, the device is employed in Daudet's "Le Nabab," where one still feels that the harmonious construction of the novel is unwarrantably disturbed.


So much for technicalities. To come to the root of the matter, Bleak House is a brilliant, admirable, and most righteous satire upon the monstrous iniquity of "old Father Antic the Law," with incidental mockery of allied abuses which, now as then, hold too large a place in the life of the English people.

Needless nowadays to revive the controversies which the book excited; we know that the Court of Chancery disgraced a country pretending to civilization; we know that, not long after the publication of Bleak House, it submitted to certain reforms yet it is interesting to remember that legal luminaries scoffed at Dickens's indignation and declared his picture utterly unlike the truth. One of these critics (Lord Denman) published a long and severe arraignment of the author, disputing not only his facts, but his theories of human nature. This novel, asserted Lord Denman, contained all Dickens's old faults and a good many new ones. Especially bitter was his lordship on the subject of Mrs. Jellyby, whom he held to be a gross libel on the philanthropic cause of slave emancipation. Many readers, naturally, found subject of offence in Mr. Chadband. Indeed, Bleak House seems to have aroused emotions in England very much as Martin Chuzzlewit did in America, the important point being that in neither case did Dickens's satire ultimately injure him with his public; in the end, the laugh was on his side, and with a laugh he triumphed. Not a little remarkable, when one comes to think of it, this immunity of the great writer. Humour, and humour alone, could have ensured it to him. It is all very well to talk of right prevailing, of the popular instinct for justice, and so on; these phrases mean very little. Dickens held his own because he amused. The noblest orator ever born, raising his voice in divine wrath against Chancery and all its vileness would not have touched the "great heart of the People" as did these pages which make gloriously ridiculous the whole legal world from His Lordship in his High Court down to Mr. Guppy on his high stool.

The satire is of very wide application; it involves that whole system of pompous precedent which in Dickens's day was responsible for so much cruelty and hypocrisy, for such waste of life in filth and gloom and wretchedness. With the glaring injustice of the Law, rotting society down to such places as Tom-all-Alone's, is associated the subtler evils of an aristocracy sunk to harmful impotence. With absurd precedent goes foolish pride, and self-righteousness, and every form of idle egoism; hence we have a group of admirable studies in selfish conceit -- Harold Skimpole, Mr. Turveydrop, Mr. Chadband, Mrs. Jellyby. Impossible to vary the central theme more adroitly, more brilliantly. In Bleak House London is seen as a mere dependance of the Court of Chancery, a great gloomy city, webbed and meshed, as it were, by the spinnings of a huge poisonous spider sitting in the region of Chancery Lane; its inhabitants are the blighted, stunted and prematurely old offspring of a town which knows not fresh air. Perfect, all this, for the purpose of the satirist. In this sense, at all events, Bleak House is an excellently constructed book.

There is no leading character. In Richard Carstone, about whom the story may be said to circle, Dickens tried to carry out a purpose he had once entertained with regard to Walter Gay in Dombey and Son. That of showing a good lad at the mercy of temptations and circumstances which little by little wreck his life; but Richard has very little life to lose, and we form only a shadowy conception of his amiably futile personality. Still less convincing is his betrothed, Ada, whose very name one finds it difficult to remember. Nothing harder, to be sure, than to make a living picture of one whose part in the story is passive, and in Bleak House passivity is the characteristic of all the foremost figures; their business is to submit to the irresistible. Yet two of these personages seem to me successful studies of a kind in which Dickens was not often successful; I cannot but think that both Sir Leicester Dedlock and John Jarndyce is, each in his way, an excellent piece of work, making exactly the impression at which the author aimed. Compare Jarndyce with Mr. Pickwick and with the brothers Cheeryble. It is to their world that he belongs, the world of eccentric benevolence; he is the kind of man Dickens delighted to portray; but Mr. Jarndyce is far more recognizably a fellow-mortal than his gay predecessors; in truth, he may claim the style of gentleman, and perhaps may stand for the most soberly agreeable portrait of a gentleman to be found in all Dickens's novels. Sir Leicester, though he shows in the full light of satiric intention, being a figurehead on the crazy old ship of aristocratic privilege, is a human being akin to John Jarndyce; he speaks with undue solemnity, but behaves at all times as noblesse oblige, and, when sinking beneath his unmerited calamities, makes no little claim upon our sympathetic admiration. We have travelled far since the days of Sir Mulberry Hawk; the artist, meanwhile, had made friends in the privileged class of his countrymen, and had learnt what the circumstances of his early life did not allow him to perceive, that virtue and good manners are not confined to the middle and lower orders. He would not go so far as to make Sir Leicester intelligent; in spite of personal experience, Dickens never reconciled himself to the thought of "birth" in association with brains. His instinctive feeling comes out very strongly in that conversation between the Baronet and the Ironmaster which points to Dickens's remedy -- the Radical remedy -- for all the evils he is depicting.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

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 Camus in a trench coat, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lips – were all taken between 1944 and 1945, after the War, and after the book was published (when Camus’s favoured Gauloises were once again available).

The Stranger, that sparest of novels, retains its ambiguity 75 years after its publication. It’s a novel born of its times and yet enduring. It has been analysed at various levels: for its characters and the motives – baffling and intriguing – that drive them. What drives Meursault in his life, and what makes him commit the act that condemns him; the disbelief on the part of the magistrate and the chaplain, their (absurd) entreaties in the name of religion; its unidimensional female characters, not just Marie, but even Meursault’s dead mother; and then, the silent Arab in the novel, whose passivity has, however, in recent times, evoked a reaction, especially a novelistic one.

In her book on The Stranger, Alice Kaplan doesn’t attempt to answer every question. It can, almost like the very book it seeks to unravel, be read in many ways. As a biography of a book, and of its author during the time of its writing. It’s also a primer on what makes a great classic, or what makes a writer, write a great classic. It is also about how a book comes into being. As Kaplan demonstrates, a classic is never created in isolation; it is propped up by its admirers, its supporters and an entire team of adherents. Camus, in this sense was fortunate. It was fortune, hard-earned, and richly deserved.

In mid-1940, when Camus finally completed the manuscript in a lonely hotel room in Paris, it was the book he just had to write. The Stranger “was a book he found in himself, rather than writing a book about himself.” It was fiction that was in him, Kaplan writes, waiting to be discovered.

The Stranger was not a straightforward book by any measure. It came out of Camus’s heartbreak and disappointments, within himself, and his own creative life. Both his lungs had already been affected by tuberculosis, his first marriage to Simone Hie had failed, and he faced a life without the prospect of a steady job. Camus had been published twice already, but he was an Algerian writer and this made him somewhat “provincial”. Paris was the scene of literary activity and recognition, but Paris seemed farther away than ever at that time.

For all this, in early 1939, Camus set out to write an oeuvre; to fashion a literary legacy for himself. The Stranger would form the first of his writings: part of a trilogy that included the play Caligula and the long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. These emerged out of Camus’s concerns with the philosophy of the absurd – that freedom is meaningless, and doesn’t signify anything for the universe remains essentially indifferent, his interest in writing “negative fiction”, and his own life, growing up in a working-class neighbourhood, Belcourt, in Algiers. Algeria was a French colony till its independence in 1962.

Kaplan maps out the influences on Camus – literal and personal. His childhood was largely “silent”, and spent with his mother and uncle, both deaf, and so language was reduced to a minimum, largely referencing objects, never abstractions. But it was precisely this period of disappointments that gave him reason for hope. A lifelong idol, Andre Malraux, writer, activist, spoke against the growing threats of Fascism while on a visit to Algeria. Camus’s mentors, besides his teacher of philosophy, Jean Grenier, also included Pascal Pia, a radical journalist and editor. Camus went to work for Pia’s leftist newspaper, Alger-Republicain; and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between them.

Camus reported and wrote of the criminal trials he witnessed in court, a couple of which Kaplan details, such as the trial following the murder of a conservative Islamic theologian. The trials and the courtroom scenes gave Camus several insights into ethnic tensions that prevailed in Algeria, and the absurdity of the justice system; French justice only appeared to heighten the injustices of colonialism.

Like his great contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus also read American noir. As Kaplan writes, Sartre read Dashiell Hammett before he wrote Nausea, a philosophical work that reads like a detective novel. Camus preferred James M Cain’s bestselling The Postman Always Rings Twice, translated into French in 1936. Meursault’s narration echoes, Kaplan suggests, Frank’s first-person confession in Cain’s novel. Cain evoked, as Camus himself acknowledged, “sensationalism through understatement.”

The Stranger was completed as Camus worked during the day in a dingy hotel room in Paris, while in the evenings, he worked for a newspaper set up by Pia. It was a time of loneliness and camaraderie. As the war raged on, Camus moved from Paris to Oran in Algeria, a city on the coast, to the west of Algiers. (The outbreak of typhus in Oran would influence Camus’s second novel, The Plague, published in 1947.)

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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 supposed.” The vortex of London, with its unpredictable opportunities and competitive pressures, was also the phenomenon that made Hardy.

Architecture, not fiction, was what first took him to live in the capital. His father was a builder, and a respectable career as an architect seemed to the family a natural progression for their talented boy. Hardy had been apprenticed to a local architect in Dorchester for five years when he arrived in London in 1862, at the age of 21. It was as an assistant architect in the thriving offices of Arthur Blomfield that he found work. A dedicated self-improver, he combined his daily duties with an intensive programme of reading, visiting museums and galleries in order to study paintings, attending concerts, operas, plays and church services, playing the violin, taking lessons in French, and writing poetry. He lost the Christian faith of his youth (though not what he termed his persistently “churchy” tastes), and moved closer to a radical hostility to the settled hierarchies of class and money. His growing disaffection meant that he had no inclination to pursue fashionable social connections, and he would in any case hardly have had time for them.

Some of Hardy’s activities in these early years were, as Ford remarks, wilfully eccentric – such as his “peculiar attempt to rewrite the book of Ecclesiastes in Spenserian stanzas”. Such a project was unlikely to win fame and fortune. Attempts to publish his poetry came to nothing, and it began to look as though recognition as an architect was a more realistic prospect. He won first prize in two competitions, one for the design of a country mansion, and another for an essay on the topical subject of the “Application of Coloured Bricks and Terra Cotta to Modern Architecture”, which won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ silver medal. Hardy was clearly gratified by these accolades, but they were not what he really wanted. His unrelenting pursuit of a cultural education became an obsession that brought him to the point of collapse. Exhausted and apparently defeated, in 1867 he returned to Dorset and resumed work as an architect with his first employer.

The five years Hardy spent in London might have put paid to his chances as a writer. But he was quick to recover health and hope, and to profit from what he had learned in the city. He had come to understand that novels, not poems, offered the best chance of a literary career. The modern discontents that he had encountered in London gave him a subject. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was a protest against the rigid prejudices that had frustrated his aspirations. It did not find a publisher, but readers’ reports were encouragingly respectful.

Hardy had acquired another reason for perseverance, for Emma Gifford, his future wife, was convinced that he had a prosperous future as an author. He had to prove that she was right before he could embark on marriage. With characteristic resolve, he began to turn out novels with astonishing regularity, gradually making his way towards an acknowledged position in the literary world. His first published book, Desperate Remedies, was designed to cater for the urban taste for sensation fiction. Under the Greenwood Tree, a stronger novel, came out in the following year, and began to explore the possibilities of a rural setting. A Pair of Blue Eyes appeared in 1873, when Hardy was 33, and its modest success gave him the confidence to become a full-time writer. The next novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, made his name. Hardy was able to marry, and moved with his new wife back to London.

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Saturday, 14 January 2017

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 notes and £2 coins, and the bicentenary of her death will see a slew of exhibitions showcasing her writing and world.

The British Library show concentrates on the handful of people who did value Austen: her family and friends. To them, she was not just an entertaining writer, but a daughter, sister and especially an aunt to her 33 nieces and nephews. Yet, while the Austens were proud of her, they couldn’t quite comprehend that she had published four well-received novels. “Every country has had its great men,” wrote her niece Caroline, “Such a one was my Aunt.” She was actually doing her best to talk up Austen’s achievements, but lacked the language with which to do so. “Great” writers were so obviously supposed to be male, and not anyone’s aunt.

Many of Austen’s stories – and some of her very earliest are on display at the British Library – were first written for family members, to be read aloud during quiet country evenings in the various parsonages, cottages and, in a few lucky cases, the mansions in which the extended Austen clan lived.

Until she published her books, Austen had no income apart from pocket money from her father or brothers. “Her whole world was her family,” explains Sandra Tuppen, the exhibition’s curator. “They gave her stability to write, she was reliant on them for money.” But with that came a sense of obligation. The exhibition contains a watercolour of Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s mansion in Kent, where Jane spent long periods as the poor relation relied upon for cheap childcare. Once you know this, you understand how Austen the novelist used her insider-outsider perspective to skewer the vanities of the genteel world.

George Austen, Jane’s father, looms large in the exhibition. First, there’s the mahogany writing desk he bought her for her 19th birthday, which folds up into a neat, lockable box for travel. It represents a vote of confidence from the man who would act as her first, if unsuccessful, literary agent. One of the British Library’s treasures today, the desk’s drawers would have concealed the drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

George also purchased the notebooks in which Jane wrote out the uproarious and wicked short stories of her adolescence and teens. The notebook called “Volume the Second” contains Jane’s own handwritten version, for example, of “The Beautiful Cassandra”. The heroine falls in love, but not with a bewitching young viscount. The object of her desire is a bonnet. She steals it from a shop, before going to a confectioner’s where she “devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away”. Cassandra’s riotous adventures take place in 12 short chapters, each a sentence long: another joke was that this “novel” contained only 350 words. The three of Jane’s notebooks containing her teenage writings have been reunited by the British Library for the first time in 40 years.

But then there’s a letter from Jane to her brother Frank, telling him of their father’s death in Bath. His decease plunged his widow and daughters into financial crisis, for with George’s death their income simply stopped. From then on Jane had to live upon the charity of her brothers. “It’s a difficult society in which to be a woman,” explains Tuppen. “At one point, Jane has to stay in Kent for two months because there’s no one free among her brothers to ‘bring’ her home again.” It was not respectable to travel in a public stagecoach alone. Frank was Jane’s benefactor, but also her controller.

Every word written by Austen was published long ago, so what is there to gain from seeing the real thing? The paper, the pens, the handwriting are all important, according to Tuppen. “The kinds of book she had to write in affected how her stories grew,” she says, pointing out that all the exhibits are small, no sheet of paper wider than a handspan. Paper was expensive; Austen had to use it carefully. “You also get a sense of her as a human being, quick thinking, very witty,” Tuppen continues, pointing out one letter where she has flipped the paper to squeeze more words in upside-down.

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

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 the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.

Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.

The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.

He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.

But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.

This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.

Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.

As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle.

The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”

Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.

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Friday, 6 January 2017

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, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among ... rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

Anne grew up poor. Agnes’s family are not rich to begin with, but things really get desperate when her father Richard loses their meagre savings on a dodgy investment and slumps into depression. So the women take over. Agnes’s capable, enterprising mother Alice slashes their expenses. Then they start working out how they might make more money. Mary goes for the most genteel work she can find: she starts selling her watercolours. Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. Her family scoff that she’s much too young, but she persuades them. She arrives at her first job, with the Bloomfield family (in real life, they were the Inghams), feeling a “rebellious flutter” of excitement. But instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”. And when the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell asked Anne’s sister Charlotte if the scene with the nestlings had really happened, Charlotte replied that no one who had not been a governess really knew the dark side of so-called respectable human nature.

Anne was after more than shock value; she wanted to show that Tom’s cruelty was sanctioned, even encouraged, by his family. Agnes realises that Tom’s cruelty is all of a piece; whether he is torturing birds, hitting his sisters or kicking his governess, he wants to “persecute the lower creation”, because he sees women, girls and defenceless animals as his to exploit, abuse and oppress. After months of being wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, overworked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horrors of a first job – Agnes has started to understand how the world works. Her consciousness has been raised. And then she is fired.

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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.” Barks’s translations, in particular, are shared widely on the Internet; they are also the ones that line American bookstore shelves and are recited at weddings. Rumi is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim.

The words that Martin featured on his album come from Rumi’s “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem that he wrote toward the end of his life. Its fifty thousand lines are mostly in Persian, but they are riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Koranic anecdotes that offer moral lessons. (The work, which some scholars consider unfinished, has been nicknamed the Persian Koran.) Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, told me that Rumi probably had the Koran memorized, given how often he drew from it in his poetry. Rumi himself described the “Masnavi” as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”—meaning Islam—“and the explainer of the Koran.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion,” Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told me recently.

Rumi was born in the early thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. He later settled in Konya, in present-day Turkey, with his family. His father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. It was there that he met an elder traveller, Shams-i-Tabriz, who became his mentor. The nature of the intimate friendship between the two is much debated, but Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Koranic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.

This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Koran acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”

The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.

In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

It’s verse of a very particular kind. Barks was born in 1937 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in English literature and published his first book of poetry, “The Juice,” in 1971. The first time he heard of Rumi was later that decade, when another poet, Robert Bly, handed him a copy of translations by Arberry and told him that they had to be “released from their cages”—that is, put into American free verse. (Bly, who has published poetry in The New Yorker for more than thirty years—and whose book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” from 1990, greatly informed the modern men’s movement—later translated some of Rumi’s poems himself.) Barks had never studied Islamic literature. But soon afterward, he told me recently, over the phone from his home in Georgia, he had a dream. In the dream, he was sleeping on a cliff near a river. A stranger appeared in a circle of light and said, “I love you.” Barks had not seen this man before, but he met him the following year, at a Sufi order near Philadelphia. The man was the order’s leader. Barks began spending his afternoons studying and rephrasing the Victorian translations that Bly had given him. Since then, he has published more than a dozen Rumi books.

In our conversation, Barks described Rumi’s poetry as “the mystery of opening the heart,” a thing that, he told me, “you can’t say in language.” In order to get at that inexpressible thing, he has taken some liberties with Rumi’s work. For one thing, he has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ ” Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph. When I asked him about this, he told me that he couldn’t recall if he had made a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references. “I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “I used to memorize Bible verses, and I know the New Testament more than I know the Koran.” He added, “The Koran is hard to read.” Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “ ‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.”

Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggest that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.

For his part, Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Koran so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Safi has compared reading Rumi without the Koran to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.

Rumi used the Koran, Hadiths, and religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional readings. One of Barks’s popular renditions goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” The original version makes no mention of “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi wrote were iman (“religion”) and kufr (“infidelity”). Imagine, then, a Muslim scholar saying that the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love. What we, and perhaps many Muslim clerics, might consider radical today is an interpretation that Rumi put forward four hundred years ago.

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