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A Day at a Time - Christa Wolf’s life under surveillance.

There are many mechanisms of expression more private than a diary. Thinking is invisible, and talking is impermanent. A diary, however, has public aspirations: All writing is to some degree expectant of an audience. The preface to One Day a Year, the meticulous yearly record that the East German writer Christa Wolf maintained from 1960 until 2011, concedes this point. At first, Wolf claims that her notes represent “pure, authentic” life with “no artistic intentions.” But only a few lines later, she admits that “the need to be known, including one’s problematic characteristics, one’s mistakes and flaws, is the basis of all literature and is also one of the motives behind this book.” We amass days, Wolf suggests, in the secret hope that someone else will witness and redeem them. The price we pay for our exhibitionism is a life conducted under observation.

One Day a Year was inspired by “One Day in the World,” a project devised by the socialist-realist writer Maxim Gorky. At the First Con…

Zadie Smith’s Varieties of Individuality

“If I have any gift at all,” Zadie Smith admits in one of the essays in Feel Free, “it’s for dialogue—that trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences.” Smith does voices. Sometimes literally: an audio recording of her reading her story “Escape from New York,” includes the treat that is impressions of its three characters, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor. Her fiction, of course, is full of voices, but the rendering of this familiar trio and their escape occupies that fertile gray area somewhere between entirely real and entirely fabricated. It isn’t mimicry, which leads nowhere, but a curious sort of imaginary impersonation, which leads everywhere.

Imaginary impersonation sounds like a purely fictional mode, yet it’s the way she approaches all writing, which brings together “three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self.” It is these three, she tells us in her introduction, that constitute writing “(for me)”.…

The Heart of Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s heroes were often alone, and close to hostility and danger. Sometimes, when Conrad’s imagination was at its most fertile and his command of English at its most precise, the danger came darkly from within the self. At other times, however, it came from what could not be named. Conrad sought then to evoke rather than delineate, using something close to the language of prayer. While his imagination was content at times with the tiny, vivid, perfectly observed detail, it was also nourished by the need to suggest and symbolize. Like a poet, he often left the space in between strangely, alluringly vacant.

His own vague terms—words like “ineffable,” “infinite,” “mysterious,” “unknowable”—were as close as he could come to a sense of our fate in the world or the essence of the universe, a sense that reached beyond the time he described and beyond his characters’ circumstances. This idea of “beyond” satisfied something in his imagination. He worked as though between the intricate…

Stronger than fiction - Charlotte Brontë

On May 30, 1851, the London publisher George Smith, arriving home from work, stumbled on a strange scene in his drawing room. Charlotte Brontë, all of 4 feet 10 inches tall, was upbraiding William Thackeray, who towered over the diminutive novelist by at least a foot. Miss Brontë was furious at the way the author of Vanity Fair had recently introduced her to his mother, in the hearing of strangers, as “Jane Eyre”. How would Mr Thackeray like it, the fierce little woman wanted to know, if she referred to him by the name of one of his characters? She was enraged by Thackeray’s thoughtless unmasking of her in public as the author of the recent hit novel Jane Eyre. Against growing evidence to the contrary, she still clung fondly to the belief that her “Currer Bell” pseudonym was generally secure. But on top of that she was outraged – “white with anger”, said a chuckling Smith – at having her own identity elided so completely with that of her heroine.

You might have expected more of Thacker…

Martin Amis, Style Supremacist

Martin Amis has in his life generally toed what he calls “the Flaubertian line”—the belief that writers generate their boldest imaginative success by keeping things stable and routine at home. His novels contain little coziness and much mass murder, their daring perhaps leveraged by his own domestic regularity. Amis’s more serious tabloid brushes—over a change of literary agents, in the nineties, and a change in residence, from London to Brooklyn, in 2010—have been widely spaced and personally resented. He fights an inclination toward grudges (“acrimony pageants”) and, now and then, with weariness or exasperation, has had to cudgel back against charges of misogyny and, more lately, Islamophobia. (“What I am is an Islamismophobe.”) He remains needlessly concerned about “left-handedness”—the slackening that can happen “when writers of fiction turn to discursive prose.” His nonfiction books now number half as many as his novels, and the connection between both stretches of the shelf is o…

Unripe fruit - Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt must have met Reinhard von Haeften at the very end of 1793 or early the following year. In April, Haeften came to stay in Bad Steben and, about a month later, Humboldt let slip, in a letter to Carl Freiesleben, that in Bayreuth “everybody knows that I live under one roof with Lieutenant Haeften, who is always around”.

In November, another letter reached Freiesleben. Might he like to accompany Humboldt on a journey to Switzerland? They would be joined by a third party:
This person is a Herr von Haeften, Lieutenant with the local Grevenitz regiment . . . . This Reinhard von Haeften has for a year now been my only, and hourly company. I live together with him; he comes to visit me in the mountains [Bad Steben]. I have, to enjoy him the better, completely broken away from all other society.A geological trip on which, as Freiesleben must have concluded, Humboldt’s attention would mostly be devoted to an unknown lieutenant, can’t have been an entirely attractive propo…

Milton's Morality

In 2016, during the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Bard was feted by dozens of books, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, performances of his plays, lectures, and a Shakespeare Day gala attended by Prince Charles himself. The London Tube map replaced the names of its stops with titles of Shakespeare’s plays. Google, of course, did a doodle.

In 2017, it was all Jane Austen—the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s death. Like Shakespeare the year before, she was everywhere, not least in the pages of the New York Times, which ran some 20 articles on her, musing about everything from what she might tell us about Brexit to why the alt-right loves her so much. The Atlantic stated unambiguously that “Jane Austen Is Everything,” and it sure did feel that way. Her face now graces the U.K.’s new £10 note.

Pity poor John Milton. Last year also marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in English and one of the greatest w…

Joseph Conrad: Old man of the sea

When Joseph Conrad began The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1896 he had two novels to his name, and had recently concluded a twenty-year career as a British merchant seaman. His two earlier books, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), were both set in the Malay archipelago; The Nigger was the story in which he turned directly to his experience as a mariner for inspiration. It is the tale of James Wait, a black sailor from St Kitts who is dying of tuberculosis on board the merchant ship Narcissus as it sails from Bombay to London. Wait’s illness elicits wildly different reactions from his fellow crew members: pity, suspicion, frustration, indifference; and the values they assign to his eventual death – coming just after the ship itself nearly sinks – are an index not just of their varying casts of mind but of their humanity. The racial slur in the title of the British edition (the book appeared in America as The Children of the Sea) is a crude reflection of the cre…

What Life in Confinement Meant for Ezra Pound’s Work

Perhaps no other poet in the 20th century presents more forcefully than does Ezra Pound the need to separate the life from the work — and the impossibility of doing so. Pound’s visionary role in leading poetry in English into the modern, after the etiolations of the late 19th century, seems incontestable. So do his generosity and loyalty as a critic and friend (to Eliot, Joyce and others), his tirelessness as a teacher, his unorthodox brilliance as a translator from multiple languages and above all, his supreme ambition for poetry, expressed in his long poem the “Cantos,” and in its animating conviction that poetry not only could but should guide the practical motions of society itself.

On the other hand, Pound was a sort of Antaeus. As long as his feet were on the ground that fed him with images and experiences, he was a giant. In the air, as a seer, a social theorist and a philosopher, he was notoriously vulnerable. He worshiped strong leaders; he indulged in a virulent anti-Semitism…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Six weeks after a London criminal court permitted the unexpurgated publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on November 2, 1960, a forlorn rearguard action took place in the crimson and gold chamber of the House of Lords, then still a chamber of hereditary peers, profoundly conservative in a rural and military way. The sixth earl of Craven recounted an experience he had recently had at a bleak modernist café on a concrete bridge over the new superhighway from London to Manchester, itself a symbol of Britain’s modern age.

Describing D. H. Lawrence’s famous but overrated novel as “a book with a filthy reputation known to every schoolboy troubled by desire,” the noble earl recalled with dismay the scene he had witnessed. “At every serving counter sat a snigger of youths. Every one of them had a copy of this book held up to his face with one hand while he forked nourishment into his open mouth with the other. They held the seeds of suggestive lust, which was expressed quite blatantly, by gla…

Balzac’s Novel of Female Friendship

Out of the more than ninety novels that make up the so-called Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac, only a handful are still widely read or assigned in schools, at least in the Anglo-American world: Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Lost Illusions, perhaps Cousin Bette, the late novel from which I first learned to read French by dutifully looking up every other word. Yet Balzac was arguably the creator of the modern social novel, “the first and foremost member of his craft” and “the master of us all,” according to Henry James, who wrote about him again and again. His influence was pivotal for writers as varied as James, Flaubert, Zola, Dostoyevsky, and Dreiser, all of whom imitated yet rebelled against him. To his successors he was a rough-hewn genius with an immense appetite for life. “What a man he would have been had he known how to write,” said Flaubert. “But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much nor had such breadth.” They were awed…

Li Qingzhao: The Approach of Happiness

The wind has stopped,
the fallen flowers fallen
deeply.

Outside the window, their red petals,
heaped like snow,

the memory,
after-blooming,
of crab-apples—a time
when spring is wounded.

The wine is spent, the song
finished. The jade pitcher empty.

The bronze lamp flickers and dims.

I cannot bear
such secret bitterness,
or even one more cry
of the shrike.

Translated by Wendy Chen

The Ghost and the Princess - The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia

There is an “official theory” about the nature of minds that “hails chiefly from Descartes,” wrote Gilbert Ryle, an Oxford philosopher. According to the theory, each person has a mind that is a private, inner world. It has no spatial dimensions and is not subject to laws that govern physical objects, yet it is mysteriously connected to a material body during a person’s earthly life. Ryle dubbed this “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.”

People have not always thought of the mind and the body in this way. Homer’s heroes are not depicted as composites that are only partly physical. Their awareness, intelligence, and other mental activities are part of their bodily lives. And although the shades of the dead lurk in the Homeric underworld, these etiolated creatures are little more than fading echoes of the living. Some later Greek philosophers explicitly stated that the soul is made of physical stuff. For Democritus, it was tiny units of solid matter. For the Stoics, it was a mixture of…