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‘As I Lay Dying’ remains one of the most perplexing novels of the modernist canon

To hear William Faulkner tell it, to write As I Lay Dying he “took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which man can suffer – flood and fire, that’s all”. That’s all. And yet his 1930 tour de force, which he began the day after Wall Street crashed on October 24 1929, remains one of the most perplexing novels of the modernist canon.

As I Lay Dying is the third novel Faulkner set in his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, which is based on north-eastern Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. To some extent, the novel’s raw story is indeed simple. It narrates the cursed 10-day journey of the poor white Bundren family from their hill-country farm to the county seat of Jefferson to bury Addie, their wife and mother, in accordance with her wishes.

The novel is pervaded by the sweat, hunger and poverty that characterised the Depression-era South – and indeed much of the nation at this time. It also conjures the dialect, customs, characters and landscape of rural M…

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

Here is a novel that could so easily have been loud. It is set among large events: the fight for Indian independence and the second world war. It features characters from history who enter the lives of the novel’s fictional characters, often to dramatic effect – the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the singer Begum Akhtar, the dancer and critic Beryl de Zoete and the German painter and curator Walter Spies. It has at its heart a young boy whose mother leaves him to live in another country, and whose father responds to this crisis by also leaving the child for an extended period of time, and who is later imprisoned for his anti-British activism. There are many reasons to turn up the volume dial.

But readers of Anuradha Roy, whose previous novel Sleeping on Jupiter was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize, know that shoutiness or showiness is never her style. She is a writer of great subtlety and intelligence, who understands that emotional power comes from the steady accretion of detail. A…

The Tragic Sense- Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) remains the greatest English language novelist since Charles Dickens, and many of the best writers of the 20th century, including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, paid homage to his excellence or came under his influence. And as one learns from the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s new book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Conrad was a hero to William Faulkner, André Gide, and Thomas Mann. What’s more, “He has turned up in the pages of Latin American writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. He’s been cited as an influence by Robert Stone, Joan Didon, Philip Roth, and Ann Patchett; by W.G. Sebald and John le Carré.”

A Pole by birth, for 20 years a merchant seaman by profession, a late-blooming novelist for whom English was his third language (after French and his native Polish), a spinner of yarns about seafaring ordeals and romances with dusky beauties, Conrad has be…

Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom

The most original, radical and controversial of all early modern philosophers was born in Amsterdam in 1632. Bento de Spinoza was the middle son of one of the many families of Portuguese origin who, as Judaizing “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition, had settled in that tolerant Dutch city in the early decades of the century. He was raised and educated in an open (and non-ghettoized) Jewish community – quite rare in the seventeenth century – and entered the family’s importing business (dealing in dried fruit and nuts) after his father’s death in 1654. Bento (he would have been called “Baruch” in the synagogue – both names mean “blessed”) was, at this time and to all appearances, an upstanding member of the Sephardic congregation.

And yet, by the summer of 1656, something had changed. On July 27 that year, the following proclamation was issued by the parnassim (directors) sitting on the ma’amad (governing board) of Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation:

The Senhores of the ma‘amad make it …

Was Jane Eyre Written as a Secret Love letter?

In the summer of 1846 Charlotte Brontë faced two crises. Both she wished to keep secret.

First: due to cataracts, her father was going blind. Why was this so calamitous?

As a Church of England parish priest Patrick Brontë enjoyed a small but permanent income, a large rectory that was home for his children, sister-in-law, and servants, and the social status that made him a leader in his community.

His children, now all adults, had enjoyed a happy and secure childhood living in the Haworth parsonage. Crucial to all four had been the constant writing of fiction and poetry. Virtually all of it remained unpublished. When they reached maturity, it was time for the young Brontës to find work to help support the family. In this they failed. Charlotte, when she was 19, and Anne, when she was 20, got brief jobs as governesses; Emily, at 20, taught for some months in a boarding school for girls; but all soon returned home. Branwell, also at age 20, tried being a tutor in the home of a clergyman,…

'The Moonstone' Is A Hidden Gem Of A Detective Novel

I was about 12 when I first encountered The Moonstone — or a Classics Illustrated version of it — digging through an old trunk in my grandfather's house on a rainy Bengali afternoon. I loved the Classics Illustrated series (the graphic novels of my youth that simplified famous novels for children), presenting us with swashbuckling plotlines, and heroes and villains that were unmistakably, unashamedly, what they were supposed to be.

The Moonstone was all I could have hoped for. A mysterious, cursed jewel, wrested from India, only to be stolen later from a great British mansion. Enigmatic, dangerous priests who follow it across the ocean in hopes of wresting it back. A young, beautiful, rich and courageous heroine (who in my mind looked very like me). Deaths. Disappearances. Romance. Bungling policemen. A smart butler. And enough twists and turns to keep a reader on tenterhooks until a highly satisfying ending is delivered. I devoured it in a day, and thought back on it with pleasure…

Kierkegaard’s Muse

This biography would not have been written if the woman portrayed, Regine Olsen (1822–1904), had not been loved and jilted by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who went on to devote a massive body of philosophical work to her. Kierkegaard courted Regine for a year, then broke it off when he realized his aloof, melancholic disposition made him unfit to be a good husband. When she fought his decision, even going so far as to say she would be willing to live in a cupboard in his apartment—for she was a small woman, but loving, fiery, intelligent, sardonic—he acted like a rogue to try to make her hate him enough to accept their separation.

He never quite succeeded in convincing her he was a rogue. For six years Regine saw Kierkegaard on walks and at church; they would smile and sometimes nod at one another but they never spoke. In the meantime, Fritz Schlegel was courting her. One Sunday in church, Regine smiled and looked questioningly at Kierkegaard; he nodded back. W…

The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne: the first unapologetic literary celebrity

Either you love it, or you really have missed something. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to give it its full title, is one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic, funny and deliciously conversational novels ever written. Its author, Laurence Sterne, died 250 years ago on Sunday. An entirely obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known locally for the wit of his conversation and of the sermon that he occasionally gave in York Minster, he burst onto the literary scene in 1760, in his late 40s, with the first two volumes of this book (he added another seven volumes at intervals over the next seven years).

Tristram, its narrator, tries to tell the story of his life but keeps being diverted by the need to describe the quirks of his utterly eccentric family. He starts at the moment (and I mean the very moment) of his conception, and then finds himself working backwards in time to explain the chains of events that made him who he is. Like all of us, he is the “sport of small accident…

“No Longer the Person I Was”: The Dazzling Correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casarès

ON THE MORNING of June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. That same night, Albert Camus and Maria Casarès landed in bed together. Though the latter event did not amount to a hill of beans to those unfolding on the French coast, Camus and Casarès would never again be the same. Nor will they ever be the same for those who read their correspondence — 865 letters (at more than 1,000 pages) stretching from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1960.

By the summer of France’s liberation, Camus was a household name in France. Two years earlier, the twentysomething Algerian-born author had galvanized the French literary scene with the publication of his novel L’Étranger (The Stranger). In 1943, he joined the resistance newspaper Combat and quickly became its editor in chief. Faithful to the newspaper’s watchword — De la résistance à la révolution (From resistance to revolution) — Camus announced, in fiery language, that resistance was simply a first step. The goal was not jus…

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…