Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Elizabeth Bishop's Art Of Losing

The first of Elizabeth Bishop’s losses was her father, who died when she was eight months old. The second loss was more protracted: Bishop’s mother, shattered by her husband’s death, suffered a series of breakdowns. Sometimes loving in her behavior, sometimes violent, she went in and out of mental hospitals and was finally committed permanently, when Elizabeth was five. At the time, in the spring of 1916, the little girl was living with her mother’s family in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, a comforting place where she had often stayed before. Like many uprooted children, she had vivid memories: the pictures on the pages of the family’s Bible, the rhyme that her grandmother made when shining her shoes (using imaginary “gasoline” and “Vaseline”), and, when she was six, being taken away—“kidnapped,” she felt—by her father’s far more prosperous family, to live in their large and loveless house in Worcester, Massachusetts. It seemed then that she had lost a country, too. Although she was born in Worcester and had spent her earliest life there, and although her father had grown up in the same house, she did not feel at home, or even American: when she sang the required songs at school, the words “land where my fathers died” seemed aimed directly at her.

In later years, a psychiatrist told Bishop that she was lucky to have survived her childhood. In fact, soon after arriving in Worcester she developed both asthma and eczema sores, which became so severe that she was confined to bed. It was only when the family feared that she might truly be dying that she was bundled off again, this time to live with her aunt Maud—one of her mother’s sisters—and Maud’s husband, Uncle George, in a run-down harborside town outside Boston. The sea air was meant to do her good, and it did. Far more helpful, however, were the kind ministrations of Aunt Maud and another of her mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace, a trained nurse who came to help coax her back to health. And when the asthma returned, causing her to miss weeks of school, her aunts read her the enthralling stories in verse of Tennyson, Longfellow, and the Brownings, which she absorbed so deeply that she believed they entered her unconscious. She started writing poetry when she was eight. At twelve, patriotically reconciled, she won her first authorial prize, for an essay on the subject of “Americanism.”

This second chance at childhood made her so grateful to her aunts (or so afraid of further losses) that she never told them, or anyone, about how Uncle George touched her when he insisted on washing her in the bath, or how he tried to feel her breasts once she began to have breasts, or even about the time he grabbed her by the hair and dangled her from the second-story balcony. These wretched facts, revealed in Megan Marshall’s new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), derive from a trove of letters, unknown to previous biographers, that Bishop wrote to her psychiatrist, in 1947. (Marshall explains that she discovered the letters in plain sight, in the Bishop archives at Vassar, where they were made available, after being locked away for decades, in 2009.) Bishop’s bluntly objective chronicle of abuse—“Maybe lots of people have never known real sadists at first hand”—adds far more evidence than was needed to convince us that she was indeed lucky to survive.

Despite the book’s often harrowing content, and Bishop’s lifelong drive toward alcoholic self-obliteration, Marshall’s account is lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy. Another newly disclosed group of letters, from the same source, documents a passionate love affair that Bishop began when she was nearing sixty, with a much younger woman, a relationship that lasted until the poet’s death, at sixty-eight, in 1979. (Bishop’s homosexuality was a carefully kept secret in her lifetime.) Marshall, an aspiring poet in her youth, writes from a deep sense of identity with her subject: she studied with Bishop at Harvard, in 1976, and her biographical chapters are interspersed with pages of her own memoir, also centered on family, poetry, and loss. It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher. Marshall seems still sensitive to having given up poetry, the one great thing that Bishop, for all her losses, never let go. There’s an emotional undertow even in Marshall’s treatment of poetic forms (the sestina, for example, of Bishop’s early poem “A Miracle for Breakfast,” or Marshall’s student attempt at the mad complexities of Catullan hendecasyllabics) and in her unwavering reverence for the magic that form cannot explain. The book is ultimately about how words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy.

Because Bishop didn’t just survive. By the time Marshall entered her class, she had won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and an award from the government of Brazil, where she lived for many years. She’d been the subject of a brief biography; Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter had set her poems to music. But the Bishop phenomenon had barely begun. In 1983, the revelation of Bishop’s sexual identity prompted Adrienne Rich, our leading feminist poet, to discern qualities of “outsiderhood” and “marginality” throughout the poems; Bishop’s work now appeared to be not merely good but “remarkably honest and courageous,” and Bishop herself became a contemporary heroine. In the decades since, her relatively small body of work—some hundred published poems, a dozen stories—has been greatly outweighed by volumes of letters, previously unpublished poems and drafts of poems, biography, and criticism. In 2008, she became the first female poet to be published by the Library of America. She even made it onto a U.S. postage stamp, in 2012. As Marshall points out, an Internet search under her name today yields millions of results, ranging from “Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia” to “Popular Lesbian and Bisexual Poets.”

She would have been appalled. Except perhaps for her mentor, Marianne Moore, it is hard to name a poet whose work so thoroughly disinvites private scrutiny. Admirers of Bishop’s early work—Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell—praised its cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.” What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away.

“I hadn’t known poetry could be like that,” Bishop wrote of her first encounter with Moore’s work. Bishop was a literary star at the élite girls’ boarding school where she was sent, at sixteen, courtesy of her father’s family, and maintained a similar status when she got to Vassar. She was a class behind her equally ambitious friend Mary McCarthy. When the stodgy Vassar literary magazine wouldn’t accept their writing, the two young women joined with friends to form a magazine of their own. As the campus poet, Bishop was chosen to interview T. S. Eliot when he came through during her junior year, in 1933. Her own poems at the time tended toward imitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins or of the English Baroque: elaborate, archaic in tone, willfully artificial. Discovering Moore, the following year, changed everything. Here was a poetry resolutely modern and hard-edged yet meticulously structured and linguistically glittering. Perhaps most important, here was a rich new variety of subjects: in place of romantic love or God or childhood, Moore offered poems about animals—snakes, chameleons, a big-eared desert rat—and exotic objects (“An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish”); she even had one about a gritty American coastal town, like the town where Bishop had lived with her aunts. Strong yet mysterious, set in the immediate world, these poems demonstrated a way to proceed. Bishop had no religious beliefs; she couldn’t bear to contemplate her childhood; she couldn’t reveal anything about whom she loved. For all her determination to be a poet, what was she to write poetry about?

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Monday, 27 February 2017

Horrors of Waugh

In 1958, while on military training in Cyprus, Auberon Waugh accidentally shot himself in the chest with a machine gun. He was nineteen. Over the next ten days he fought for his life, having lost a lung, two ribs, part of his hand and his spleen. His mother Laura flew out immediately to be by his side. His father, Evelyn, preferred to remain at home. “I shall go out to travel home with Laura if he dies”, Waugh wrote detachedly to his friend Lady Diana Cooper. In the event, this was unnecessary; Auberon was brought back to England and installed at the Queen Alexandra Military hospital. Even so, it was a further week before Waugh managed to go and visit his son. By this point, Auberon had developed a chest infection due to a back abscess and again feared that death was near. “Dear Papa”, wrote Auberon on what he thought would be his deathbed. “Just a line to tell you what for some reason I was never able to show you in my lifetime, that I admire, revere and love you more than any man in the world.” The next month, with Auberon still too ill to be operated on, Waugh stopped his allowance of £25 a month. Auberon wept “bitter tears of rage”.

This is not the only instance of Evelyn Waugh’s unconventional approach to parenting documented in Philip Eade’s new biography. Whenever Laura fell pregnant – seven times in all, though only six of the children survived – his attitude was consoling rather than celebratory. “It is sad news for you that you are having another baby”, he wrote once – it evidently not having occurred to him that it was they who were having the baby. When his children came to school age, he openly rejoiced at the end of the holidays. He went out of his way to avoid spending Christmas with them when they were little, either staying in boarding houses or travelling abroad. There is also a famous story, not recounted by Eade, of his managing to procure a banana during the gourmet wasteland of the Second World War. The Waugh children had never seen the exotic fruit before – let alone tasted one – but their father, after showing it off proudly, covered it with cream and sugar and devoured the whole thing himself.

It would be anachronistic to judge Waugh solely by his fatherly standards; most men of his generation and class had little to do with their children. But it is illuminating to see how much his children adored him, despite his neglect and occasional cruelty. His daughter Meg, particularly, worshipped him, even offering to come back and live at home to be near him after she had grown up. His friends, likewise, were fiercely loyal, although Waugh teased and bullied and satirized them in life and in his novels. Eade’s fine biography does a good job of pinning down the particular puckish charisma that made Waugh so popular.

A large part of this charm, of course, is his comic genius. Waugh is by far the funniest writer of his generation. Eade’s biography is peppered with humour; the letters, liberally quoted, are full of jokes and witty observations. Even when he was unhappy he managed to be funny. On his thirtieth birthday, having been turned down in marriage by Teresa Jungman, he wrote to a friend “I celebrated by . . . going to the cinema in the best 1/6 seats. I saw a love film about two people who were in love; they were very loving and made me cry”.

Waugh’s letters to Teresa Jungman are one aspect of Eade’s biography that is entirely original; they had not been seen before. Another is the unpublished memoir by Evelyn Gardner, Waugh’s first wife, who left him for another man after less than two years of marriage. Eade uses these sources sensitively and judiciously, as he does with all his others. His biography is very much about the life rather than the work; although the novels are mentioned, Eade does not go in for any textual analysis.

The reverse is true for Ann Pasternak Slater, whose book uses Waugh’s novels as a way into his life. A renowned Waugh scholar, Slater examines the novels in turn. Her work sheds light on how Waugh’s Catholicism influenced his work; her chapter on Brideshead Revisited is particularly strong. She explains, for example, that “On Good Friday the doors of the tabernacle, where the Host – representing the body of Christ – is kept, are left open because there is no Host to be protected. Its void symbolizes Christ’s absence from the world between His death on Good Friday, and Resurrection on Easter Sunday”. Gems such as this – previously unknown to me, brought up Catholic – illuminate details of the text that otherwise could go unremarked upon. She makes one appreciate Waugh’s craft as a writer, drawing attention to themes and devices.

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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Be brave - Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (1919–99) was—unlike most modern writers—intelligent, nice, and good. Her physical beauty seemed to reflect the inward beauty of her soul. In person, she was observant, responsive, and acute, as well as serene and the mistress of herself. She had a great deal of love to give and was loving to the world in general. Born in Dublin, she was educated by high-minded bohemians at Badminton School, near Bristol. The influential headmistress shared a bedroom in Iris’s dormitory with another woman, but was also a “moral guide” who discouraged intimate friendships among her girls. Nonetheless, she gave an imprimatur to Iris’s lifelong propensity for lesbian affairs with various butch types, including her best friend and an unnamed temptress who threatened her marriage.

In 1938, at Oxford, where she earned a first-class degree in classics, Iris joined the Communist Party to express her solidarity with sufferers. Even someone as bright as Iris could, by adhering to the party line (which could suddenly change, as Orwell observed, while one went to the bathroom during a meeting), remain blind to political reality after the purge trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the Russian invasion of Finland. Cold baths and irregular Greek verbs prepared her to become a junior civil servant at the wartime treasury. Once there, still full of misguided idealism, she passed information about her work to the Communists. She later said the party had “taught her from the inside how a small, ruthless group of individuals can wield destructive power.”

After the war, she worked with refugees in occupied Austria and witnessed the complete breakdown of European society. She was more attracted to Estonians than Etonians, and the refugees in her fiction are spiritually as well as politically displaced. One of her favorite quotes, from Seneca, was: “Why weep for the end of life? The whole of it deserves our tears.” Her life was a quest for knowledge, experience, and freedom. She was drawn to Existentialism (and wrote the first book on Sartre in English) because it was “concerned with the concrete puzzle of personal existence, rather than with general theories about the universe.” In books like The Sovereignty of the Good, she praised thinkers who “live out the consequences of their own attitude of mind.” She defined moral philosophy, a striking contrast to the Logical Positivism that dominated Oxbridge in her time, as the study of “what in the last resort can only be lived.”

Throughout her life Iris was surprisingly promiscuous. As a girl at Oxford she cried when a young man tried to undress her, but later solemnly announced, “I have parted company with my virginity [and feel] relieved from something which was obsessing me.” Once she got the hang of it, she became terribly keen on sex—both with those she was attracted to and those she wanted to console. Like Will Rogers, she never met a man she didn’t like. Riveted by “the metaphysics of the first kiss,” she wrote that there had never been a moment “when I have trembled on the brink of such a [passionate] exchange & drawn back.” One of her fundamental assumptions was that she had the power to seduce anyone. She was thrown out of lodgings by several indignant landladies. Alluding to Crime and Punishment, she exclaimed that if they were in Russia, the last one to chuck her out would have been “destined to be killed with a hatchet.”

Many, many men fell in love with Iris, a “shaggy little Shetland pony.” She could, like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into her vast carelessness. But she too was rejected, first by an Oxford contemporary and then by an Hungarian. She was once seen crying (she wept easily) in a bus. When a colleague tried to comfort her, she uneasily reassured him with: “I’m quite all right. It’s just this love business.” In her novels she is not merely omniscient but firmly in control of her unruly characters. It’s fascinating to read about her sex life and imagine her in the grip of passion or falling short of her own high moral standards.

The most notable of her legion of loves and lovers were the English soldier Frank Thompson, the great Italian classicist Arnaldo Momigliano, the Czech anthropologist Franz Steiner, and the Romanian novelist Elias Canetti. In this new biography Peter Conradi describes the handsome and heroic Thompson as “brilliant, tall, slim, fair-haired, grey-blue-eyed, high-cheekboned, a gifted poet, an intense idealist dedicated to stopping Hitler.” After parachuting into pro-Nazi Bulgaria and fighting on the side of the partisans, he was betrayed and captured. After foolishly affirming his Communism, he was (contrary to the Geneva Convention) summarily executed. Thompson and his men all died while raising the salute of freedom. The villagers
were sobbing, many present declared the scene was one of the most moving in all Bulgarian history, that the men’s amazing courage was the work of an English Officer who carried their spirits as well as his own.
Momigliano, Steiner, and Canetti were —like her adored Oxford professor Eduard Fraenkel (who lusted for, but never bedded, Iris)—older, eminent, exiled, and physically unattractive European Jews who satisfied her intense need for father figures and gurus. Iris felt that “any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood” and declared: “I am practically a Jew myself.” Steiner (the only one of these gurus who was not married) was—like his namesake, countryman, and hero Franz Kafka—sweet, frail and sickly, suffering, neurotic, and blocked. He too needed an axe to break the frozen sea inside him. His cardiac condition made their lovemaking a precarious event. “In the end it happened,” he passively wrote. “But she was afraid because of my heart. Neither of us made a single spontaneous movement.” Two weeks later, he described a pathetic and humiliating but deeply moving scene, worthy of the tortured relations of Kafka and Felice Bauer:
We undressed, but on the draughty sofa my pains became once again severe. She was the more sensible of the two of us, told me to have a rest, and then helped me into my clothes. All that with so much concern, goodness, love and tact that this evening brought us closer to each other than a successful union. Soon afterward, Steiner died at the age of forty-three and joined Thompson in Iris’s “private pantheon of martyrs.”
Steiner was succeeded by the jealous, brutal, and monstrous Canetti who, like Iris’s philosophical hero Ludwig Wittgenstein, was both brilliantly numinous and destructively demonic. Canetti not only disbelieved in God but also hated religion. He declared “the Day of Judgment would happen when the human race arose with one voice to condemn God.” In his most influential book, Crowds and Power, he reduced history, Conradi writes, “to slaughterhouse, blood-lust and a [Nietzschean] will to power.” If the gentle Steiner appealed to her maternal side, the egomaniacal Canetti satisfied her “rather specialized love for the tyrant.”

When she published her first book and began to disengage from Canetti, Iris fell in love with the equally bookish and brilliant, quixotic, eccentric Oxford don John Bayley. She married him in 1956 and lived in contented squalor (their roof leaked on the exact spot where they lay in bed) for the next forty-three years. When, at first, they desperately needed a place to embrace and kiss, they instinctively headed for the London Library. Climbing the iron stairs to an empty stack, they “leaned against the shelves in the half darkness & clung to each other. J. wept.” The novelist A. N. Wilson, once Iris’s biographer, believed John acted as Prospero, “a sort of controller of the demons and spirits who flew in and out of her consciousness.”

Conradi never explains how Iris managed to avoid pregnancy. There’s no mention of abortions for Iris (which may have prevented her from having children later on), though she helped other women procure them. Her mother had married when pregnant, had a difficult birth, and didn’t want any more children. Though amazed that she’d produced such a brilliant child, she perversely hoped that Iris wouldn’t have any children of her own. Iris, who had strong maternal feelings, thought children would not interfere with—indeed, might well enhance—her creative life. Conradi relegates this crucial question to an offhand footnote, and never explains why she and John never had a child.

Conradi is good on Fraenkel, Thompson’s wartime career, Iris’s refugee work, her sex life, and her relations with Steiner and Canetti. His biography, though well researched and clearly written, is also deeply flawed. In the oddly defensive introduction, he admits that he has not fulfilled the biographer’s primary task by reading all of Iris’s letters, scattered in libraries throughout the world; that he has “little space” (in more than seven-hundred pages) to explore her recent friendships; that he focuses on her formative years, 1919–56; and that he might well have called his book Young Iris.

With strange imbalance, Conradi covers her first twenty-five years in two-hundred pages; the next twelve years in 210 pages; and the last forty-three years, when she wrote all her books and established her reputation, in 190 pages, including her last twenty-eight years in only seventy pages and her last five years in only nine. It’s not clear whether Conradi agreed not to poach on John Bayley’s territory (though Bayley had published three books on Iris before this biography appeared); was overly sensitive about the feelings of living people; feared libel; or had his book ruthlessly cut by the publisher. But he certainly made a fatal strategic error. As Conradi buries the major part of her life under a tedious and pedestrian analysis of her novels, the narrative grinds to a halt. This book is stuffed, like a turkey, with the crumbs of his previous critical book on her work.

There are other serious problems. Conradi makes unseemly and irritating references to himself as well as to his earlier book, his lover, and (three times) to his dog. He stultifies the reader and again clogs the narrative with a mass of trivial, boring details: a long list of ancestors who, in the nineteenth century, died young; the clothing worn, games played, and sweets bought in kindergarten; the badge of her school uniform; five pages on her group of strolling players; otiose descriptions of a flat, the names of characters in fragments of unpublished novels, the plants in her garden. The ubiquitous footnotes at the bottom of the page are a pointless and pedantic attempt to cram even more unassimilated details into the book. But he doesn’t make these details come alive to illuminate Iris’s character.

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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Unhappy Endings - Carson McCullers

We’re in the closing moments of Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel “The Member of the Wedding.” The setting: a well-worn kitchen in a small Southern town during the Second World War. There’s little in the room: a chair, a stove. Everything else has been packed up—everything, that is, except the memories of the two women in the room, as they supervise the noisy comings and goings of movers. They are Berenice Sadie Brown, a middle-aged colored housekeeper, and Frankie Addams, a thirteen-year-old motherless white girl who has grown up in the house under Berenice’s charge. A year ago, McCullers writes, Frankie felt like “an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.” Her fears—which were largely existential; no mere adolescent quirks, these, since Frankie serves as McCullers’s stand-in—dominated her home. Then she fell in love with the romance—or her idea of the romance—between her brother and his fiancée, her “we of me,” as she called them. Berenice tried to warn Frankie against the sad allure of a love that remains forever beyond one’s grasp. To illustrate her point, she talked about her late husband, Ludie, and the men she’d been drawn to since his death:
“I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces. My intention was to repeat me and Ludie. Now don’t you see?” 
“I see what you’re driving at,” [Frankie] said. “But I don’t see how it is a warning applied to me.”. . . “You and that wedding. . . . That is what I am warning about. . . . 
You think you going to march down the center of the aisle right between your brother and the bride. You think you going to break into that wedding, and then Jesus knows what else.”
Now Frankie is moving on, away from Berenice’s “preaching.” In the 1952 film adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” the director, Fred Zinnemann, draws a telling visual comparison between Berenice’s heavy black body draped in black—a Masha of the Mason-Dixon Line—and Frankie’s lithe white figure darting here and there, her speech glowing with a nearly unbearable romanticism, like a Nina, unmindful of her imminent fall. James Baldwin once said that whites cleaved to the very thing that he, as a black person, could not afford: the romance of innocence. As Ethel Waters plays Berenice, we see in her face Baldwin’s sad realization: Frankie may choose to be an outcast, but Berenice has no choice. Frankie claims to dream of belonging, but, as Berenice knows, she has little interest in fulfilling that dream. She has invested too much in her own sharply defended and defensive outsiderness. Her emotional satisfaction will come from blaming “freaks” like Berenice (her closest point of identification and thus resistance) for keeping her from weddings that she doesn’t really want to go to, anyway—since being included would interfere with the comfort she takes in being “unjoined.”

Today, Berenice could be read as what Toni Morrison calls the “Africanist presence”—the black female figure whose marginal status defines the privilege of others. “Africanism has become . . . both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability,” Morrison writes in her illuminating study “Playing in the Dark.” But McCullers, rather than using Africanism to offset whiteness—as Melville, Twain, and others have—seems to use it as a way of identifying her own unjoined self. Can a white writer, a woman, who came to maturity in relatively secure circumstances during the Depression and the Second World War, be described as Africanist in spirit? (In some circles, this would be called having soul.) In a review of McCullers’s first novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1940), Richard Wright remarked:
To me, the most impressive aspect of [this book] is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressure of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
In fact, as far as the description of black characters goes, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is McCullers’s most imperfect work. One black male has woolly hair and lips that seem “purple against his black skin.” There is the taint of a “Negro smell” in a cabin. Strange dialect and syntax separate “educated” blacks from laborers. Ultimately, these tics seem best passed over—they are the sloppy reflex of the liberal testing her boundaries, excited to be in the presence of the “exotic” but having no new language with which to describe it; she falls back on the vocabulary of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell. What Wright sensed was actually McCullers’s lack of Southernness. Unlike so many other writers from the region, she didn’t luxuriate in rhetoric or try to break down the blood knot of race and class that kept Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County. Nor did she share Katherine Anne Porter’s skill for writing intellectual political parables. In her essay “The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing,” McCullers admitted to having little interest in history—the Southern writer’s most consistent trope. Such shortsightedness accounts for some of the very real limitations of her work. But it also accounts for her ability to understand and identify with those unmoored from their surroundings or searching for a self in the modern world. It’s impossible not to notice, while reading through the Library of America’s newly published edition of McCullers’s five novels, that almost all of her characters—from the wayward children to the deaf-mute, the alcoholic Communist, the hunchback dwarf, the pederast, and the closeted homosexual Army captain—are Africanist, in that each defines the status quo by existing outside it.

She was born Lula Carson Smith, on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, a town where dogwood and wisteria bloomed along the avenues in early spring. Nearby were Fort Benning and the brown waters of the Chattahoochee River, which, since the early nineteenth century, had been used to power the local cotton mills and factories. McCullers’s father, Lamar Smith, was a mild-mannered watch repairman from Tuskegee, Alabama, who in 1910 had moved to Columbus in pursuit of work. There he met and married Vera Marguerite (Bebe) Waters, a small woman of Irish extraction and great ambition. Unlike their neighbors, the Smiths weren’t very interested in religion, and promoted social awareness instead—a Yankee sensibility that was at odds with the town’s conservatism. Marguerite enjoyed tweaking the townspeople with such remarks as the now famous “Oh, yes, my daughter Lula Carson”—then a teen-ager— “and I have such a good time smoking together. We do almost everything together, you know.”

Neither of the couple’s two younger children—Lamar, Jr., born in 1919, and Margarita Gachet, born in 1922—was doted on in the way Lula Carson was. According to Lamar, Jr., quoted in Virginia Spencer Carr’s tenderhearted and thorough 1975 biography, “The Lonely Hunter,” Lula Carson was spoon-fed a sense of her own exalted status long before she had actually achieved anything. (“I’m going to be both rich and famous,” she told a young playmate.) Nevertheless, writing was not McCullers’s first love. She wrote plays and skits to amuse her parents, but her real passion was music. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, she trained to become a concert pianist, and in 1930 she began studying with Mary Tucker, a former soloist and the wife of a career officer stationed at Fort Benning. Tucker’s commitment instilled in her young protégée the discipline she would eventually put to use as a writer. In return, she grew to love Tucker and her family—McCullers’s first “we of me,” which she favored over her own family simply because it was not her own. McCullers’s relationship with her mother was intense, and she feared that she would never be free as an artist until she was away from Marguerite’s prying eyes. (McCullers’s adolescent characters rarely have mothers.)

In 1932, Lula Carson took to her bed with rheumatic fever, which was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. After a few weeks of recovery, she decided that she lacked the genius and the physical stamina to undertake a concert career. Moreover, she would not be content, she concluded, to be the interpreter of someone else’s aesthetic architecture. In her 1948 essay “How I Began to Write,” McCullers recalled that her first novel, “A Reed of Pan,” which she wrote when she was fifteen (the manuscript has been lost), embodied her longing to get out of Columbus, to see New York, and to familiarize herself with the unfamiliar. “The details of the book were queer,” she wrote. “Ticket collectors on the subway, New York front yards—but by that time it did not matter, for already I had begun another journey. That was the year of Dostoevski, Chekhov, and Tolstoy—and there were the intimations of an unsuspected region equidistant from New York. Old Russia and our Georgia rooms, the marvelous solitary region of simple stories and the inward mind.” In Decision, in 1941, McCullers explained that the rigid social order portrayed by the “Russian realists” mirrored what she had observed in her own part of the world: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.”

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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Shipwrecked: looking for God in The Ancient Mariner

Charles Lamb once told a story about having Thomas De Quincey to supper. Lamb was Samuel Coleridge’s oldest friend and De Quincey was Coleridge’s greatest fan, so their talk naturally centred on the poet. While De Quincey badgered his host for information about his hero, Lamb, to allev­iate his boredom, pretended to mock “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a poem he in fact greatly admired. (“I was never so affected with any human Tale,” Lamb wrote; on first reading Coleridge’s ballad, he had been “totally possessed with it for many days”. In response to Wordsworth’s complaint that the mariner had no character, Lamb explained to him that the trials undergone by the seafarer both “overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was”, erasing “all consciousness of personality”, “like the state of a man in a Bad dream”.) On this occasion, however, to wind up De Quincey, Lamb described the sailors who died aboard the mariner’s ship – Coleridge’s “many men, so beautiful” – as nothing but “a gang of Wapping vagabonds, all covered with pitch, and chewing tobacco”.

 “But, Mr Lamb, good heavens!” gasped the horrified De Quincey, covering his ears. “How is it possible you can allow yourself such opinions?” With a sarcastic smile, Lamb informed his guest that had he known they were going to talk “in this strain”, they should “have said grace before we began our conversation”.

Malcolm Guite is the chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and reading Mariner: a Voyage With Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a little like saying grace before discussing Coleridge. This is Coleridge as a middle-aged Anglican as opposed to Coleridge the opium addict or the creator of Christabel, literature’s first lesbian vampire. Guite argues that the two-volume life of the poet by Richard Holmes, “brilliant” though it is, does not draw out his contribution to Christian thinking, which is the purpose of the present book. “Prayer”, he writes, is the poem’s “central theme and prominent at all its turning points”. The ballad is a narrative of sin and atonement: when the mariner kills the albatross he experiences profound guilt and isolation. He finds repentance in the blessing of the water-snakes; when his ship goes down “like lead into the sea”, his submersion is a baptism.

Guite is by no means the first to interpret “The Ancient Mariner” as an allegory of man’s fall: critics have usually divided between pagan, for whom the poem is a drug-fuelled nightmare or an account of debilitating guilt, and Christian, for whom it offers hope. For Guite, the mariner’s “redemption” lies in returning to “the land of the Trinity”, where his new mission is “to tell his own transformative tale to those who need to hear it”. A different interpretation of the mariner’s life on land is to see it as a form of purgatory: a pariah, he is doomed to roam the world repeatedly confessing his crime – if killing an albatross with a bow and arrow can be called a crime (depending on your interpretation of the poem).

At the heart of Guite’s argument is the recognition that “The Ancient Mariner”, written when Coleridge was 25, prophesies the sufferings that lay in store for him: his catastrophic marriage, his doomed romance with Sara Hutchinson (loving her, Coleridge said, was like being hit by a fatal arrow), his opium addiction, the loss of his poetic powers, the comfort he found in his final years as the Magus of Highgate. The guilt-ridden, wandering, compulsively verbal Coleridge mirrors his guilt-ridden, wandering, compulsively verbal mariner; the poet’s tumultuous inner life resembles his subject’s harrowing sea voyage. Coleridge, who referred to himself as a “mariner” and a drowning man, saw both life and death as a voyage (“Death itself will be only a Voyage—” he wrote, “a Voyage not from, but to our native country”). The voyage has subsequently become the ultimate metaphor of the Romantic period, and “The Ancient Mariner” the movement’s flagship poem. That art might anticipate, rather than mirror, life was not such a strange idea to Coleridge: our greatest works of imagination, he explained in Biographia Literaria, open up spaces into which we have yet to grow, just as “the chrysalis of the horned fly” leaves “room in its involucrum for antenna, yet to come”.

Mariner, which Guite likens to a journey, is composed of two halves. The first looks at Coleridge’s youth and early adulthood up to the point of meeting Wordsworth and writing “The Ancient Mariner”. The second contains a line-by-line explication of the poem which draws attention to its religious tropes (the rhyme, for example, in “cross” and “albatross”). Slotted in to a Christian frame, this notoriously unresolved poem appears less strange, less savage, far easier to swallow, and Guite puts his argument together like pieces of a teleological puzzle: “Just as the mariner met the pilot and hermit at the moment his ship was sinking, and was rescued by them, so Coleridge was rescued from the shipwreck of addiction and despair by Dr Gillman, with whom he lived for the last years of his life.”

If the poet’s life was not as neat as this suggests, it’s because Guite is a theologian first and a biographer second. Richard Holmes’s Coleridge is half in this world, leaping over fences, and half in the next, but Guite’s Coleridge is less vivid. Coleridge wanted to show that the imagination was as real as solid matter, Guite writes, yet he is so immersed in the invisible in these pages that it is hard to see him at all. The first, and only, time we are told what Coleridge looks like to other people is when, on page 91, Guite quotes Dorothy Wordsworth’s description of him as having a “wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth”.

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Friday, 10 February 2017

Why are ‘doomed’ poets considered the only good ones?

In Deaths of the Poets two living examples of the species, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, retail the closing moments of close on 30 poetical lives, ranging from Thomas Chatterton to Robert Frost, Lord Byron to Rosemary Tonks, John Clare to Thom Gunn. Why? Because they feel the influence on ‘our’ generation (Farley was born in 1965 and Symmons Roberts in 1963) of the ‘confessional’ American poets, several of whom cast a solemn glamour over their calling by killing themselves — John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Because they think that a shrinking appetite for poetry itself, and an unflagging curiosity about the most dramatic elements in poet’s biographies (of which death must count as one), is bound to turn the end of a life into a ‘lens’ through which we view everything that came before it. And because they suppose that there’s an ‘association between poets and mortality’, since a lot of people think if poets are any good they must be ‘doomed’ — not to mention melancholy, drunken, lascivious and incapable of tying their own shoelaces.
All these notions have their interest, but it has to be said they don’t inevitably shed much light on anyone’s work. And as Farley and Symmons Roberts also say, it’s perfectly easy to create an alternative image of the poetic past, by listing all the long-lived and lucid poets who, however they might have experienced difficulties and feared death, insisted on clinging to life and reason. Larkin made the point memorably, as Farley and Symmons Roberts allow: ‘Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy,’ he said, ‘it’s the big, sane boys who get the medals. The object of writing is to show life as it is, and if you don’t see it like that you’re in trouble, not life.’
To put all this another way: Deaths of the Poets is no less interesting as an idea than a book on poets and some other aspect of their existence — childhood, say. But while Farley and Symmons are good at telling (pretty familiar) stories, they’re hampered by the weakness of their founding arguments, and by their reluctance to follow up on them.
To take one instance among many: after quoting an excellent remark that Nadine Gordimer made to Christopher Hitchens —‘ a serious person should try to write posthumously’ — they miss the chance to discuss how writers’ sense of mortality might provoke them to devise ways of taking aim at eternity over the heads of the present. In a book more deeply concerned with poetry itself, this might have led them in turn to discuss the whole notion of how poets treat ‘contemporary subjects’ in their work. And then to consider ideas about the death of the author that we associate with Roland Barthes. And then to explore the sense of lateness and transcendence that lie at the foundations of most people’s impulse to write.
That said, Farley and Symmons Roberts are generous with simpler pleasures. They deal with an impressively large number of cases; they are generally clever at making their two voices sound like one (except when they’re talking about religion, and a rather singular-sounding academic note emerges), and they are determined not to write gloomily about a gloomy subject. So determined, indeed, that the tone of the book in fact becomes a bit of a problem. Its style is generally so breezy (‘conned’, ‘fingered’, ‘nails it’), the catch-phrases so determinedly catchy (‘death is the big line break’, Robert Lowell is ‘the Daddy of the Confessionals’), it’s difficult not to think that the boys should stop wisecracking so much, since thinking properly about their subject means something like being in church.
Should stop making a fuss, too, since in a book that inevitably involves a lot of travel and research, they routinely make heavy weather of both. They’re so overcome when they reach the house where Anne Sexton killed herself, they don’t even get out of the car. When they look through Gunn’s archive they feel ‘squeamish’. Elsewhere, they’re variously slapping on the Factor 40 as they head round New York in the heat, feeling sick as they fly over the Great Lakes, running through ‘nervous checks’ of passports and wallets, and in a ‘panic over whether we’ve enough euros to cover our meal’.
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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Voice from the Asylum - Ezra Pound

Among the bombings that marked the beginning of 2017, one took place on New Year’s Day at the CasaPound bookshop in Florence, an outpost of the Italian neo-fascist or ‘alt-right’ CasaPound movement, which takes its name and inspiration from the American poet Ezra Pound. As Daniel Swift points out in the ‘CasaPound’ chapter of The Bughouse, in December 2011 ‘a CasaPound supporter went on a shooting spree in a market in Florence and killed two Senegalese traders and wounded three more’. He also notes links between Pound and the American neo-fascist and white supremacist John Kasper, suspected of orchestrating the bombing of a high school. On trial in Florida, Kasper, a disciple of Pound who visited the poet regularly, ‘held a copy of Mein Kampf in one hand’.
Swift’s book does not draw connections between Pound and American ‘alt-right’ campaigners of our own day, but it might be easy to do so. An article on the ‘alt-right’ website Radix, dated 31 December 2016, begins, ‘The United States is a sick place. In 1958, famous poet Ezra Pound once noted that “America is an insane asylum,” and those words seem truer today than they did back then.’ The writer of the article appears to be a supporter of Donald Trump.
Examining some of Pound’s late prose writings, Swift concludes that ‘Pound never calls for violence, but preaches brutality in code.’ His book concentrates on the period, between 1945 and 1958, when Pound was incarcerated in the huge Washington mental hospital of St Elizabeths – which Pound nicknamed ‘the bughouse’ – after his legal team had successfully argued that he could not be tried for treason because he was insane. Before joining about seven thousand other inmates at St Elizabeths, Pound had been detained in Guantanamo-like conditions in a prison camp near Pisa controlled by US forces. The crime he was accused of was making, throughout the Second World War, radio broadcasts for Mussolini in an attempt to convince Americans of, among other things, the rightness of the Fascist cause. For Pound, America’s modern political leaders had abandoned true American values; he considered Hitler to be a martyr, Churchill a supporter of ‘kikes’ and Mussolini a great ‘Boss’.
Pound was lucky not to be executed as a traitor. The defence of insanity saved him but also condemned him. From the asylum he submitted for publication his Pisan Cantos, which was soon awarded one of America’s most prestigious literary awards, the Bollingen Prize. This is a reminder, if one were needed, that he continued to be regarded as one of the 20th century’s leading English-language poets. He had, after all, been at the heart of the Imagist movement; he had also produced, in Cathay (1915), perhaps the greatest volume of verse translations in English and, Swift asserts, ‘arguably the book which invents modernist poetry’; his friend T S Eliot had described him as il miglior fabbro (‘the greater craftsman’) after Pound helped edit The Waste Land; his ongoing Cantos, an epic of Coleridgean and Ossianic ambition, ranked among the most provocative achievements in the poetry of the Anglophone avant-garde. At the heart of Swift’s book is the issue of how Pound could be at once Fascist, madman and great poet.
Although it ranges across many aspects of Pound’s career, covering territory familiar from earlier biographical studies, The Bughouse operates as a stylish and rather sketchy group biography, focusing on Pound’s most distinguished visitors at St Elizabeths. These included Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, T S Eliot, John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Frederick Seidel. Several of these poets were familiar with mental illness. Eliot, for instance, had experienced nervous breakdown and knew what it meant to live with a partner who suffered from hallucinations; Lowell spent significant periods in psychiatric hospitals. Although he lacks the psychiatric training and unfettered access to medical records enjoyed by Kay Redfield Jamison (whose new book, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, is a work of remarkable insight), Swift has trawled publicly available records of St Elizabeths and treats Pound’s stay there with eloquence as well as understanding.
Swift’s strength is his refusal to separate Pound’s writings from the issues of Fascism and insanity. Controversially, Swift sees Pound’s Section: Rock Drill cantos (published after the Pisan Cantos) as ‘a document of madness’, bound up with conspiracy theories about ‘history’s hidden schemes’, among them the notion that ‘the British involvement in the Second World War was motivated by a quasi-racist plot, devised by Churchill, to kill Germans’. Pound was convinced that poetry could be used as a sensitive instrument to discern and articulate patterns within history. He sought in the Cantos to write an epic poem that would contain and interpret history (including American, European, Chinese and other histories) for the benefit of mankind. Yet the megalomaniac nature of this project – a sort of versified globalisation – was bound up with what one of the doctors who examined him called ‘delusions of persecution and grandeur’.
Sometimes Swift, whose prose is winningly jargon-free, sharp-eyed and pacey, indulges himself too much in repeating motifs: on page 38, for example, Charles Olson ‘notes how Pound worries at the frayed cuffs of his shirt’, and on page 49, Olson ‘records that at their first meeting Pound worried at his shirt cuff’. Sharper editing would have combed this out. Occasionally Swift’s style has notes of Paterian ambition. He mixes group biography with travelogue, literary criticism and political analysis, restlessly refusing to commit to any single genre. Among the Pound critics whom Swift admires is Hugh Kenner, whose combination of encyclopaedic sweep and glancing analysis can be both enthralling and frustrating. Although Swift’s aperçus are striking, he glissades too speedily from topic to topic, refusing to spend long on any one of Pound’s connections with the poets and family members with whom he had relationships during his incarceration, or on Pound’s present-day legacies. Sometimes he strives too hard for journalistic impact: ‘Ezra Pound was the most difficult man of the twentieth century.’ A university-level teacher of literature who is commendably uneasy about academic and mental ‘institutions’, Swift at other times pulls his punches. Of ‘the Ezra Pound International Conference, known affectionately as EPIC’, he says simply, ‘I hear no mention of fascism or anti-Semitism.’ Although conscious of ‘the scholarly dreamworld’, Swift seems loath to disrupt it too much. When he writes that ‘Pound scholars are like a family; and his family are scholars’, this sounds both too cosy and too cultish.
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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

John Ruskin Taught Victorian Readers and Travelers the Art of Cultivation

Near the dawn of the twentieth century, a young Englishwoman named Lucy is visiting an ancient church in Florence, unsure of what she is looking at, or how, exactly, to see it. She doesn’t have her Baedeker, a popular travel guide, and is feeling lost without it. “She walked about disdainfully,” we learn, “unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.”
The woman unsure of her own reaction to a lovely church without consulting “Mr. Ruskin” is Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E. M. Forster’s celebrated 1908 novel, A Room with a View. The reference to “Mr. Ruskin” might be lost on many modern readers, although Forster obviously felt no obligation to explain it when he wrote his story. The man in question, John Ruskin, had died eight years earlier, in 1900, but his memory was still fresh in popular culture. In Ruskin’s heyday, just about every educated Victorian knew who he was.
Born in 1819 to a wealthy merchant and an overbearing mother, Ruskin was an English writer on art, nature, literature, and political economy who dominated cultural thought throughout Britain—and, to some degree, the Western world—in the second half of the nineteenth century. Given his relative obscurity today, it’s hard for contemporary readers to grasp how famous Ruskin once was. Reverently read and reflexively quoted, his pronouncements on everything from painting to poetry to private capital rang among his fans with an almost scriptural authority. His mother had once longed for him to be a bishop, and as an arbiter of his society’s standards, Ruskin, in his own way, came close. “Taste . . . is the only morality. . . . Tell me what you like,” Ruskin asserted, “And I’ll tell you what you are.”
Forster was being wry when he mentioned Lucy’s predicament—that she didn’t know what to think until Ruskin had told her what to think. But Forster’s tongue-in-cheek remark also acknowledged the spell Ruskin once cast over people of culture—or, at the very least, people who wanted to be considered culturally sophisticated. The slavish devotion of Ruskin’s disciples irritated D. H. Lawrence, who found it all a bit much. “The deep damnation of self-righteousness . . . lies thick over the Ruskinite,” Lawrence lamented, “like painted feathers on a skinny peacock.”
Maybe Lawrence’s dart came poisoned with a little envy. What author, after all, wouldn’t want the kind of reception Ruskin enjoyed in his prime? Ruskin’s many books, “bound in vellum or limp leather, were to be found lying beside the Idylls of the King on the tables of those who did not normally read, but wished to show some evidence of refinement,” the late art historian Kenneth Clark observed. “For almost fifty years, to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.”
Ruskin was revered not only by the public, but by other writers and noted thinkers, including British prime minister William Gladstone. “From Wordsworth to Proust there was hardly a distinguished man of letters who did not admire him,” Clark wrote. “Austere critics like Leslie Stephen believed him to be one of the unassailable masters of English prose, and, on the death of Tennyson, Gladstone (whom he habitually insulted) wished to make him Poet Laureate.” Gandhi and Tolstoy would claim him as a powerful influence, too. Charlotte Brontë claimed that she did not truly perceive visual art until she read Ruskin’s Modern Painters. Ruskin, she said, “seems to give me eyes.”
Ruskin did not become England’s poet laureate, which was no doubt for the best, since he wrote very little poetry, and most of it was forgettable. Even so, readers tended to think of Ruskin as a kind of poet, since his prose style, rich in metaphor, leaned toward the rhapsodically romantic. Victorians versed in Wordsworth loved this sort of thing, but to the modern ear, Ruskin can often seem overdone. Here’s how Ruskin describes a swallow: “It is an owl that has been trained by the Graces. It is a bat that loves the morning light. It is the aerial reflection of a dolphin. It is the tender domestication of a trout.” There you have it, a swallow compared to a bat, a dolphin, and—in a phrase only dear Ruskin could coin—“the tender domestication of a trout.” It’s as if Ruskin is free-associating metaphors before our eyes, hoping that something, anything, will stick.
Ruskin could get carried away on the page as he so often got carried away in life, and his sense of abandon somehow resonated with Victorians who found, in their socially constrained era, a sense of liberation in reading his sentences. He was, in a number of respects, the quintessential Victorian, his desire for strict moral probity conflicting with serious personal demons. Ruskin dominated his age because he frequently seemed so thoroughly a part of it, but there remains a question about whether his work deserves to endure as more than a period piece.
What is true, and has been for years, is that few people read Ruskin anymore. ”No other writer, perhaps, has suffered so great a fall in reputation as Ruskin,” Clark noted in 1962. A generation or two later, Ruskin’s profile remains low. An edition of his Collected Works stretched to 39 volumes, but little of it remains widely available in print. The sheer size of his oeuvre is an abiding complication, mixing the good with the bad, all of it defying the kind of easy summary that makes a literary persona truly marketable.
Like the house where he once lived, which was full to the brim with art, books, and curios: “Ruskin’s life and work are crammed with things, so that it is not perhaps too surprising that he has survived piecemeal,” his biographer, John Dixon Hunt, has mentioned. For the newcomer, the best introduction to Ruskin is his Selected Writings, a Penguin Classic arranged and introduced by Clark, which is, sadly, no longer in print. From Ruskin’s enormous output, Clark distilled about 350 pages of prose on art and architecture, nature, society, and economics. His extracts are necessarily fragmentary, but, intentionally or otherwise, Clark’s editorial scheme deftly expresses Ruskin’s kinetic mind, which favored movement and change over a sustained and systematic argument.
Here’s a Ruskin passage that says a lot about how he wrote:
I believe we can nowhere find a better type of a perfectly free creature than the common house fly. Nor free only, but brave; and irreverent to a degree which I think no human republican could by any philosophy exalt himself to. There is no courtesy in him; he does not care whether it is king or clown whom he teases; and in every step of his swift mechanical march, and in every pause of his resolute observation, there is one and the same expression of perfect egotism, perfect independence and self-confidence, and conviction of the world’s having been made for flies.
First and foremost, perhaps, Ruskin’s rumination suggests his powerful attention to detail. That he would focus so perceptively on a little bug that everyone regards as a nettlesome house pest really speaks to the kind of eye his admirers came to love. His gift for seeing the tiny thing that implies the larger truth made him a compelling art critic, able to interpret geniuses of antiquity and his own time in such expansive works as Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice. Secondly, of course, his reflection points to an abidingly political sensibility. In Ruskin’s rendering, the house fly becomes a way to consider the nature of human freedom—the degree to which we should embrace convention and tradition, and the extent to which we should flout it.
The idea no doubt struck Ruskin’s straitlaced Victorian contemporaries as a radical one, dampening his appeal among the ruling establishment. Another quality of this passage is its resistance to quick classification, touching on aesthetics, politics, and the natural world. Clark tucks it into a subject heading on society and economics, but it would just as easily have been right at home in the anthology’s sections on art or nature. Ruskin insisted on seeing one thing as connected to everything else, which is why his discussions of art led him into questions of politics. He thought that good art grew best from good social conditions. Ruskin was skeptical about technological progress, an early prophet of the perils of pollution, and worried about the market principles underlying capitalism.
“The first of all English games is making money,” he complained. “That is an all-absorbing game; and we knock each other down oftener in playing at that, than at foot-ball, or any other roughest sport: and it is absolutely without purpose; no one who engages heartily in the game ever knows why.” He warned his fellow Englishmen that coal mining and consumption were threatening to destroy the air and land that had made their country great. All “the true greatness she ever had,” he said of England, “she won while her fields were green, and her faces ruddy; and that greatness is still possible for Englishmen, even though the ground be not hollow under their feet, nor the sky black over their heads.”
Although Ruskin was generally wary of the changes transforming nineteenth-century commerce, those same changes helped create a class of tourists who became a core audience for his books. “There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe . . . than this,” he once told a lecture audience, “that you will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.” What Ruskin seems to be saying is that a painting or piece of sculpture should be tested against the landscape and culture it’s intended to represent. That idea resonated with nineteenth-century readers, who were increasingly able not only to see the art of places like Venice in museums, but to visit these destinations. Ruskin became a celebrity interpreter of what English families might see abroad, his books a welcome traveling companion.
With growing prosperity, tourism was becoming a mass market, and Ruskin a crucial figure in mediating this newly opened world. “The Grand Tour had been an institution among aristocrats, in which men and women of privilege traveled through Europe as if it were a finishing school, absorbing its art, culture and languages at their leisure, the better to enrich themselves and English society on their return,” scholar Radhika Jones has noted in explaining the mood of the time. “Why should the professional classes, and maybe even working-class men and women, not engage in that pursuit as well?”
Although he enjoyed success as an author and lecturer, Ruskin’s personal life was a mess. His mother was an early helicopter parent, accompanying him to Oxford and renting rooms for herself there when he attended the university. His 1848 marriage to Effie Gray ended several years later, and she had it annulled on the grounds that their union had never been consummated. In 1859, he fell in love with a 10-year-old girl, Rose La Touche, waiting until she was 18 to propose marriage. The marriage never happened. La Touche died in 1875, and the loss advanced Ruskin’s lapse into dementia. He died a broken man in 1900, just as the century he had done so much to shape was receding from view.
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Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing - Franz Kafka

In 1917, one of Franz Kafka’s few readers sent him a letter. It was a rare taste of recognition. This reader, Dr. Siegfried Wolff, wanted something. Not an autograph, a signed book, or a manuscript page. He wanted answers. He had bought a copy of “The Metamorphosis” for his cousin, who passed it to Wolff’s mother, who passed it to another cousin. None of them could figure out what it meant. Dr. Wolff read the story for himself and came away equally confused. “Only you can help me,” he wrote to Kafka. “You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of ‘The Metamorphosis.'”
The supplicating Dr. Wolff came at the head of a long line of readers who would be stymied by Kafka’s stories. Not having Kafka around to pester for answers, many of the perplexed wrote their own guides. Perhaps no modern author has initiated such a frenzy of interpretation with so slender and fragmentary a body of work. Three unfinished novels, one volume’s worth of shorter pieces, some aphorisms: even if we include his journals and letters, Kafka’s work would fill a very small shelf, yet it bears the weight of a whole scholarly industry. Despite this glut, there have been comparatively few full-dress biographies. (A notable exception is Ronald Hayman’s K: A Biography of Kafka.) For many years the owners of the best collection of sources on Kafka’s early life, the literary estate of Max Brod, refused access to researchers. Even for those interested in a biographical approach Kafka remained frustratingly inaccessible, and the best work on his life has been partial, like Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial about Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer.
These barriers were still in place when Reiner Stach decided to enter the field. He had to compose his three-volume biography of Kafka out of chronological order, hoping that Brod’s estate would eventually be opened to him. Volume two came first, treating Kafka’s middle years, then volume three, carrying the story to his death, and now, at last, volume one, about his youth. Given the state of the field, with Brod’s archives only recently opened, Stach’s completed trilogy has no competition as the definitive biography: nowhere else, at this point, can you learn so much about the life and times of Kafka. But even apart from any temporary preeminence, Reiner Stach’s biographical trilogy belongs in the company of the masterpieces of literary biography. Like Leon Edel’s Henry James, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, it is comprehensive but raised above mere competency through astonishing architectural beauty. Thanks to the superb work of Stach’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the trilogy also stands out in English at the sentence level, for the unbroken clarity, verbal ingenuity, and unflagging momentum of its prose.
Stach’s overarching goal is to answer Dr. Wolff’s question: what are we to make of Kafka’s texts? In the preface to book two (which, due to publication order, is really the preface to the whole work), Stach writes that upon reading Kafka,
Two questions come to the fore: “What does all this mean?” and “How does something like this come about?” Pursuing the first question, readers wind up in a jungle of textual interpretation; pursuing the second, they toil at a biographical crossword puzzle that cannot be completed.
Stach manages to avoid both forms of futility. His innovation is a new angle on the old question. He announces: “How it happened. That ought to be the starting point.” The question that should primarily engage us in a literary biography, he suggests, is one of production. He approaches Kafka’s texts not as ciphers he will decode, but as artifacts whose making he will describe. By focusing on the act of writing, he fashions into a coherent whole a long and detailed trilogy, written over the course of decades. It carries us through explorations of everything from the history of Prague to the sociology of letter-writing to the architecture of bathing pools. All of it subtends the goal of discovering what conditions could foster a writer who worked like Kafka.
Perhaps this succeeds because few writers have worked like Kafka. Stach describes it:
If we were to observe the ebb and flow of Kafka’s literary productivity from a great height, we would see a wave pattern: an initial phase of intensive, highly productive work that comes on suddenly and lasts several hours a day, followed by a gradual decline of his powers of imagination, lasting for weeks, and then finally, in spite of his desperate attempts to fight it, a standstill and feelings of despair for months on end.
Proof of the swift ebbing of creativity that Stach describes are the three unfinished novels (The Man Who DisappearedThe Trial, and The Castle) that rise like shipwrecks on Kafka’s shore. “It is […] a legend,” Stach writes, “that Kafka regarded the failure in general and the fragmentary character of his novels in particular as the appropriate expression of his aesthetic desire or even of himself.” No, he simply failed to carry his projects to their desired conclusion. What restrained him from working regularly? Why did his creativity seem to dry up prematurely every time? These are the mysteries Stach requires three volumes to explain.
Kafka was born in Prague and continued to live there for most of his life. His father, Hermann, was a first generation city-dweller. He never forgot that he had escaped the toil and uncertainty of a village. “For Hermann Kafka,” writes Stach, “mistrust, combativeness, and crude utilitarianism were lofty virtues that he sought to inculcate in his children to make them fit for survival in a dog-eat-dog society.” He was an impatient and quick-tempered man, and his effect on the sensitive, physically weak Franz was devastating. In an undelivered letter that Kafka wrote as an adult to his father, he recalled a specific incident that encapsulates the psychic wound. Once, when tiny Franz tried the bedtime avoidance technique of asking repeatedly for a drink of water, Hermann ran out of patience, dragged him onto a balcony, and locked him outside in the dark. This is the archetype of Kafka’s nightmare. He always felt disproportionately condemned by unreceptive judges; he worried that the surest human bond could suddenly disintegrate; and he felt alienated from normal social existence, locked forever on an existential balcony in a spiritual night.
This almost mythopoetic version of Kafka’s origin story — or at least the origin story of the particular neurotic sensibility subsequently named “Kafkaesque” — has often born too much explanatory weight, not least because it feels tailor-made for psychoanalysis. While Stach gives the father-son relationship its due, he refuses to stop there. Plenty of other things in Kafka’s circumstances were conducive to anxiety and alienation.
For example, Kafka was born to a Jewish family in Prague. The Jewish population of Prague was mixed up in a centuries’ old antagonism between the German and the Czech populations. Jews were distrusted, often hated, associated with the Habsburg regime that had suppressed Czech nationalism — so the story went — ever since the defeat of the Bohemian revolt in the 1620s. In Kafka’s lifetime, after the first World War destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the embers of Prague’s stale grudge were fanned by new racism and ancient religious bigotry, bringing the city to the verge of pogrom. Kafka did not live to see the conflagration; but all three of his sisters died in concentration camps. Even without an angry and overbearing father, Kafka’s life would not have been free of paranoia in Prague.
Fortunately, even beneath cruel patriarchs and among the oppressed, there is life. And Stach’s Kafka is more alive than he has ever been in a biography. We learn about his love for books and friendship and nature and travel and swimming. With the care of an archeologist, Stach picks up each available piece of Kafka’s history, habits, and personality, brushes off the dust, holds it to the light, and turns it carefully to examine every side.
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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The passions of Elizabeth Bishop

“I’m not interested in big-scale work as such,” Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer. “Something needn’t be large to be good.”

True to this statement, Bishop spent her career producing finely designed, precisely executed poems, elegant and exquisite miniatures, few in number and subtle, albeit significant, in their impact. Her work brought acclaim and awards, and since her death in 1979, her reputation has continued to climb. But during her life, she often felt insecure about her career, and there is no denying that next to the flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities that tended to dominate American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop often struck one as — the characterization is practically mandatory when discussing this poet — a modest figure.

At the head of this pack of outsize personalities was Robert Lowell, with whom Bishop had an intimate and complex relationship, a friendship that included romantic elements despite the fact that she preferred women. Compared with Lowell’s elite Boston Brahmin background, her origins and early life — a mostly unremarkable childhood spent largely in rural Nova Scotia, a landscape to which her imagination returned again and again — were indeed strikingly modest. As her inclination against “big-scale work” suggests, a certain sort of modesty was a central element of her attitude toward art. Her output, too, was modest; during her life she published only about a hundred poems.

Although proud of her perfectionism, which she claimed to have learned from her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop at times agonized over the slenderness of her oeuvre. As Megan Marshall writes in her new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop,” as of the early 1970s, her career “still wasn’t what she’d hoped — she could still be ‘cast into gloom’ by the thought of her more prolific peers.” In 1949, she wrote to Lowell that “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it” — a remark that not only suggests an explanation for her small number of completed works, but also indicates a certain attitude toward literature and life.

Marshall’s book focuses more on the life than on the literature. And Bishop’s life, like everyone’s, was at times difficult and messy, if not as visibly and extravagantly tumultuous as many of her poetic peers. Unlike many of those poets — Lowell, of course, but also Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and others — she kept the difficulty and mess out of her writing, permitting the poems only to gesture toward them in indirect, encoded ways. Her work was never about self-display, let alone self-dramatization. Beneath the surface, though, lay considerable complexity and genuine drama.

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