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Showing posts from March, 2017

Virginia Woolf: Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid

The Germans were over this house last night and the night before that. Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a sound — far more than prayers and anthems — that should compel one to think about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence we —-not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born — will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead. Let us think what we can do to create the only efficient air-raid shelter while the guns on the hill go pop pop pop and the searchlights finger the clouds and now and then, sometimes close at hand, sometimes far away, a bomb drops.

Up there in the sky young Englishmen and young German men are fighting each other. The defenders are men, the attackers are men. Arms are not given to Englishwomen either to fight the e…

The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist

Has George Eliot been lucky in her biographers? Since Gordon Haight’s monumental classic biography, published in 1968, her story has been rewritten again and again, mostly by women. Eliot was a writer with many names and many identities; she attracts all comers. Brenda Maddox even wrote a brief and cheerful scandal-biography (2009), which suggests that Eliot led a racy sex life, demanded rapacious sums for her novels and flung herself at every man who took the slightest interest in her. Maddox is one of the few biographers who looked carefully at the Italian police reports of the sad fortunes of John Walter Cross, whom Eliot actually married in May 1880, seven months before her death. Cross was twenty years her junior and threw himself into the Grand Canal while the couple were on honeymoon in Venice, a failed suicide attempt that generated a lot of malicious speculation. Cross, unkindly described as ‘George Eliot’s widow’ after her death in December that year, tended the sacred flame…

Some modest proposals - Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, whom T. S. Eliot called “colossal”, will be 350 this year. He is a giant among satirists, but also among political writers, and a poet of distinction admired and imitated by Byron, Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Eliot also called him “the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose”. F. R. Leavis, who didn’t like him, called him “a great English writer”. He is often nowadays claimed for “Irish literature”, to which he would have objected. Swift considered himself English, and Irish only in the sense of having been “dropped” there. He was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, and Ireland will be marking the anniversary with multiple celebrations, in Dublin, Trim and elsewhere, while England will respond more modestly, if at all. He died, also in Dublin, on October 19, 1745, and every year a symposium commemorates this in the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift lived and worked for the last thirty years of his life. Th…

How Jane Carlyle survived a miserable marriage

One hour in No. 5 Cheyne Row, Virginia Woolf observed, will tell you more about the Carlyles than all the biographies. The house lived in by Thomas and Jane Carlyle from 1834 until their respective deaths, and now owned by the National Trust, was one of the great battlegrounds of domestic history. Here Jane warred against bedbugs and coal dust and her husband’s obsession with the vast and unstoppable Lady Harriet Ashburton (there were three people in her marriage), and Carlyle warred against the intrusions of the outside world. While next door’s rooster kept him awake at night, by day, as Jane wrote in one of her peerless letters, he was disturbed by men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, doorbells, gentleman raps, twopenny-post-raps and footmen-showers-of raps. Not to mention the dutiful piano-practising of the girl in the adjacent house, the racket of hawkers, organ-grinders and washer-women, and the hourly c…

Jane Austen: Galloping girl

Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression,” self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career” can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’ thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish. 

Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her …

Why Milton still matters

Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s ‘fatal trespass’ and the expulsion from Eden that soon became a monumental pillar of the literary canon. Samuel Johnson — who as a Tory deplored Milton’s revolutionary politics — placed it first (for design) and second (for execution) ‘among the productions of the human mind’.

Some readers, though, have always found it dear at any price. Deeply torn between his awe at the ‘wonderful performance’ of Paradise Lost and his horror at the ideas of this ‘acrimonious and surly republican’, Johnson in his Life of Milton leads the prosecution as well as the defence. ‘Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure,’ he sniffs. ‘We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere fo…

Péter Nádas - Interview

Péter Nádas is Hungary’s leading contemporary writer. A scholar not only of literature, but of culture, horticulture, and above all the human body and its communications, Nádas presents a picture of temperament and elegance in the great tradition of the European intellectual. He has often been compared, perhaps syntactically, to the high realists Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. Susan Sontag, one of Nádas’s earliest and most vocal champions, compares his plays to the “encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch” and the “declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.” I myself see him, in many ways, as the Thomas Mann of our times.

Born into a fascinating literary culture, isolated from but enveloped by the vast history of Christian Europe, in a denuded country just rebuilding from World War II, the worst catastrophe in its tumultuous thousand-year history, Nádas chronicles the peaceful prison that was (and is) Hungary in a passionate, playful, and eloquent voice. His perspicacity is disconcertingly palpabl…

What Orwell discovered in the North

“Mr. Orwell must have wasted a lot of energy trying to be a novelist. I think I must have read three or four novels by him and the only impression these dreary books left on me was that nature didn’t intend him to be a novelist.” This was QD Leavis writing in 1940—by which time Orwell had written three novels, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter: doubtful if these would have earned him more than a footnote in a review of the literature of the 1930s. So when and how did this average novelist become a writer of such global impact? It all began 80 years ago, on 8th March to be exact, when The Road to Wigan Pier was published.

To begin at the beginning, Victor Gollancz, publisher and noted supporter of left-wing causes, had decided to commission a writer to spend some time in the north of England. They would provide an account of the lives of the poor and unemployed for his new Left Book Club. Socialist sympathiser, relatively unknown young writer but with a…

The Never-Ending Lukács Debate

Before 1914, Lukács’s early works were received with great antipathy by the literary establishment in Hungary; they were found to be too “German” — that is to say, too philosophical, not impressionistic and positivistic enough. That was only the beginning, of course; from then on, Lukács would be attacked from the right incessantly, all his life. Lukács didn’t fare much better in leftist circles, either. When his most important book, History and Class Consciousness (1923), came out, it was savaged by both the Second and the Third International. It wasn’t to be republished until the 1960s. Lukács was given an ultimatum: if he wanted to stay in the Party, he had to repudiate the book and subject himself to self-criticism, which is what he eventually did.

He was harshly criticized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soon after he relocated from Vienna to Moscow, Lukács was exiled to Tashkent, and silenced. But in 1945, the Party needed him — or rather, his fame — in Hungary. He agreed to re…

Kafka: A Life Beyond Literature

There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications are complex. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Ka…

Angela Carter’s Feminist Mythology

The English novelist Angela Carter is best known for her 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber,” which is a kind of updating of the classic European fairy tales. This does not mean that Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood chews gum or rides a motorcycle but that the strange things in those tales—the werewolves and snow maidens, the cobwebbed caves and liquefying mirrors—are made to live again by means of a prose informed by psychoanalysis and cinema and Symbolist poetry. In Carter’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” retitled “The Tiger’s Bride,” the beast doesn’t change into a beauty. The beauty is changed into a beast, a beautiful one, by means of one of the more memorable sex acts in twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the heroine is ushered, naked, into the beast’s chamber. He paces back and forth:
I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his…

Simon Schama on Joseph Roth

Those of us who are habitually guilty of the misdemeanour know how easy it is to bore for Joseph Roth. The Radetzky March, his 1932 novel of the Habsburg empire’s decrepitude, is so rivetingly peculiar that it inspires a kind of evangelical cult passion among its devotees.

“Read this and your life will change,” we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. “So what’s it about?” they reasonably inquire. “Ah, well,” you say, “it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster ... ” “Oh, right, thanks,” they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: “Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an o…