Poem of the week: Autumn at Taos by DH Lawrence

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico.

DH Lawrence wrote that, in New Mexico, a “new part” of his soul “woke up suddenly” and “the old world gave way to a new”. In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because “all is god”. In a related way, America, in the shape of Walt Whitman, liberated his poetic landscape.

This week’s poem, “Autumn at Taos”, seems to occur in real time. The speaker is encountered while out riding, and the poem’s rhythms let us experience the small, muscular, intimate “trot-trot” movement of the pony through the contrastingly immense sweep of landscape. Repetitions slow the pace, acting as reins. For instance, when “the aspens of autumn” of line one immediately reappear in the second line, the narrative seems to pause and look around. Lawrence is not an unselfconscious poet, whose brilliancies happen by chance. His judgment is nowhere more apparent than in these repetitions. Look at “mottled” in stanza three. At first we see distantly a mottled effect; then the speaker makes it clear that the mottling is produced by cedar and pinion. No sooner have the trees come into focus than, out of the blue, out of the idea of “mottled”, comes that amazing otter. The word acts as a little visual bridge.

Earlier, aspen and pines formed the stripes of a tigress, and the grey sage of the mesa, a wolf-pelt. The otter, at first, seems only its sleek self, but it’s clear from later in the poem, when the speaker is relieved to get back to “the pine fish-dotted foothills” (curious but effective elision) and “Past the otter’s whiskers”, that this liquescent, “silver-sided” creature embodies another variation of the landscape.

The otter is as fierce as the previous creatures, if less hairy. “Fish-fanged” suggests the slender length of the teeth, and, inevitably, the impaled fish. We get, in effect, a fish’s view of its looming predator.

With the introduction of the mythical hawk of Horus the man on the pony himself becomes mythic. “Behold me” he says, biblically, “trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden/ Great and glistening-feathered legs…” For a moment, we might think of Christ, mounted on an ass, entering Jerusalem. Horus was an Egyptian god represented by the sun as a winged disc but Lawrence may be conflating him with the feather-clad Mexican sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Whatever his provenance, this bird gets royal poetic treatment. A duller writer might have gone for the “natural” word-order of his trio of adjectives: “great, golden, glistening-feathered…” Lawrence’s arrangement, split by the line-break, redeems the full force of words (“golden”, “great”) that are almost poetic clichés. The tarnished adjectives are suddenly made to tower and flare.

There’s a sexuality in these movements and positions, the rider bestrid by Horus or moving slowly under pines that are like the “hairy belly of a great black bear”. They might even imply different states of being. In Lawrence’s anti-democratic view of society, there were sun-men, an elite, and lesser mortals to be “thrust down into service”. Perhaps here he enacts a passage between both states: at any rate, the speaker is “glad to emerge” from the bearish pine-wood, and celebrates his release with a fresh, sunlit vision of the aspens, which, “laid one on another”, remind him of the hawk-god’s layered feathers.

Looking back on the “rounded sides of the squatting Rockies” unleashes more big-cat imagery, landscaped into metaphor. Possibly the speaker is a little unnerved by the “leopard-livid slopes of America”, comforting himself as he reassures the pony that all these predatory “fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes/ Are nerveless just now”. That “just now” implies only a temporary reprieve. The land, and the sensuous life-force it embodies, will triumph over its colonisers, artists included.

“The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world,” DH Lawrence wrote. The effort of attention here is also an effort of painterly imagination and out of the two he has made a strikingly original landscape poem. The creatures in it are not meant to emerge with that vivid, individualised presence of the different beasts of Birds, Beasts and Flowers: even the otter is a quick sketch. But the vision of natural integration between the land and these subliminally-present creatures could not be more alive. And, as so often in the animal poems, part of the charm lies in watching the amused, earnest, marvelling, deeply affectionate man who is watching the animal. Among the creatures in this poem is that small human figure on the pony, not a sun-god, but an English poetic genius, printing in his own way the new paths of technique which the American genius, Walt Whitman, has cleared before him.

Autumn at Taos

Over the rounded sides of the Rockies, the aspens of autumn,
The aspens of autumn,
Like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines.

Down on my hearth-rug of desert, sage of the mesa,
An ash-grey pelt
Of wolf all hairy and level, a wolf’s wild pelt.

Trot-trot to the mottled foot-hills, cedar-mottled and pinion;
Did you ever see an otter?
Silvery-sided, fish-fanged, fierce-faced, whiskered, mottled.

When I trot my little pony through the aspen-trees of the canyon,
Behold me trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden
Great and glistening-feathered legs of the hawk of Horus;
The golden hawk of Horus
Astride above me.

But under the pines
I go slowly
As under the hairy belly of a great black bear.

Glad to emerge and look back
On the yellow, pointed aspen-trees laid one on another like feathers,
Feather over feather on the breast of the great and golden
Hawk as I say of Horus.

Pleased to be out in the sage and the pine fish-dotted foothills,
Past the otter’s whiskers,
On to the fur of the wolf-pelt that strews the plain.

And then to look back to the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies.
Tigress brindled with aspen,
Jaguar-splashed, puma-yellow, leopard-livid slopes of America.

Make big eyes, little pony,
At all these skins of wild beasts;
They won’t hurt you.

Fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes
Are nerveless just now.
So be easy.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/14/poem-of-the-week-d-h-lawrence

Poem of the week: Trenches: St Eloi by TE Hulme

British troops marching to the trenches

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the western front during the first world war. 

The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.

No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.

It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.

The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.

The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.

Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.

Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.

An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.

“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.

Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.

Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/10/poem-of-the-week-t-e-hulme

Ten of the best sentences as titles

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford

The title of Ford’s tragedy of sexual jealousy and incestuous passion is also its closing statement. After a final bloodbath, the Cardinal pronounces judgment on Annabella, who has had carnal relations with her brother and then been killed by him: “Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ’tis pity she’s a whore?”

He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope

Trollope found a brilliant title for his tale of male jealousy, stuffed with references to Othello. Louis Trevelyan becomes convinced that his young wife Emily is carrying on with a male admirer (she isn’t). He is driven madder and madder by his suspicions, separating from his wife and stealing their son from her.

 The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Having stuck a thoroughly gloomy Gertrude Stein aperçu about a “lost generation” at the head of this story of émigrés in France and Spain in the 1920s, Hemingway balanced it with a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes which broadly means “life goes on”. Its modernised version became the book’s title.

The Lady’s Not for Burning, by Christopher Fry

Fry’s verse drama is the origin of the least understood literary allusion in the history of political rhetoric, Mrs Thatcher’s famous declaration “The lady’s not for turning” in 1980. Fry’s unlikely comedy is set in the late middle ages, its title referring to the beautiful Jennet, who is sentenced to burning for being a witch, but who is fancied by most of the male characters.

 I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Via the teenage Cassandra’s journal we get the misadventures of the castle-dwelling but impecunious Mortmain family (Dad is an author with writer’s block). The title refers to Cassandra’s ambition, as an aspiring writer, to “capture” everything she sees in her journal – and also to her trick of locking her father in a tower to get him to write.

 We Never Make Mistakes, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In this unconsoling pair of stories, the nightmare of Stalinism (asserted in the title) is treated obliquely. In the first, a “good Communist” army officer has to decide whether to turn a “lost” soldier over to the authorities. In the second, a former political prisoner takes up residence with an impoverished old woman who has been betrayed by the system.

 We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, by Arthur Ransome

Ransome’s title parodies the excuse you might make for badly behaved youngsters. The Swallows’ mother allows them to go sailing provided they promise not to go out to sea, but, after a series of accidents, their boat drifts out of the mouth of the river …

 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard

Two minor characters from Hamlet become the baffled protagonists of Stoppard’s play, which takes its title from an announcement made by the English Ambassador at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy. They have been killed as a result of Hamlet’s “commandment”, bamboozled victims of a court plot.

 We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

Why is this title so good? Perhaps because of the grim humour of it. Kevin’s mother, Eva, writes letters to her apparently estranged husband about her growing awareness that there is something very wrong with their son.

 Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

You cannot guess the meaning of Ishiguro’s title until you read the book. Kathy H recalls her days at a very special school, whose pupils have been selected by criteria that slowly become clear. The title is the refrain of an old pop song with which the narrator becomes obsessed.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/nov/11/ten-best-sentences-as-titles

Poem of the week: Square One by Roddy Lumsden

City workers walk across London Bridge

City workers walk across London Bridge.

Several commentators on recent books blogs have said they’d like to see a discussion of Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, and PotW’s own MeltonMowbray posted a request earlier this year. So for this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one of my favourites from Lumsden’s latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (recommended if you haven’t already got a copy). I hope aficiandos and new readers alike will enjoy the elegiac virtuosity of “Square One.”

Panning shots of the razzmatazz of contemporary London begin with an unnaturally motionless River Thames, which contrasts with the surrounding fluidity of endless construction and self-invention. The location is mirrored in spirited, slangy diction, and a repetitive device that stitches all together in bright gold lamé thread. On the page, you almost see the green light. Read the poem aloud, and you hear the gunning of engines in the repetition of the hard “g” – described in phonetics as a voiced, velar stop.

This technique recalls the generative devices of the poets and novelists of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) who choose specific verbal constraints as a means of triggering ideas. The most famous, and diabolically complicated, is probably the “story-making machine”, set in motion by Georges Perec in the construction of his novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Poets have experimented with lipograms, palindromes, etc. Whereas these techniques need not, and mostly do not, emerge from the material, the “go” device in “Square One” connects directly to the poem’s theme and rhythmic energy-supply. It also echoes the dominant phonemes in the names of the two mythological giants who’ll emerge in the poem’s last line – Gog and Magog.

This is the London of Boris, bendy buses and bad bankers, but it’s also a tumult of lives harder to record, more slippery and edgy. As well as “the emos, indie kids/ Goths and ravers melting down the day” in stanza one, the prefix nets a jolly haul of “gowks”, “gonzos”, “gorillas” and “gomerils” to flesh out the “city’s multiplicity of fools”. Food is a vivid class-indicator: the “retired politicians” feast on dumplings and meggyleves (Hungarian sour-cherry soup) as well as scandal, while others “stare at bangers and bubble, tea/ gone cold … “. But the poem seems to imply freedom of choice. I like the fact that the power-brokers are simply given their space in the gorgeous, rotted tapestry, without comment. Brand- and place-names, from Gossamer to Gospel Oak, add further texture.

Are any other Oulipan devices used in the poem? I had a subliminal sense that further patterns were sometimes employed, but without being able to put a finger on them. I even wondered about the game of Go, which can be played with a 13 x 13 board (the stanzas are all 13-liners here), but drew a blank.

The title might suggest the Square Mile, or any of London’s many squares: it also recalls Larkin’s famous reference in “The Whitsun Weddings” to “postal districts, packed like squares of wheat”, a curious simile, since, contrary to northern myth, London has many postal districts nearer the breadline than the cornbelt. “Square One” might be anywhere, but it implies return, a reluctant new start. While elegising a lost Albion, the poem knows that new mythical creatures are constantly being born.

Perhaps the day of the poem represents a vaster historical period, one stretching from an almost-absurd respectability (“gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs” to start the day and “dawn trains given the/ go-ahead at suburban junctions”) to the present social chaos. The poem’s author is a Scot, but an end-of-empire regret seems hinted. The accumulation of details evokes the thrill of change and movement, together with a despairing sense of being swept away into anonymity. Yet there’s no question that the speaker loves the city. The sun rises and sets almost romantically in images of the “gold tide,” the “slant shadows” of the high-rises, and the “misted moon.” Noted for its stillness in the first stanza, the river remains obstinately static, but, at the end of the poem, it seems to have found a voice, and utters a punning command to “own torn myths”. And this is exactly what the poem so exuberantly does.

Square One

Going steadily, rowed out from east to west, concrete
gondolas brink the Thames, which is still – it’s the land which is
googled by gravity, thrown around – an optical illusion
good enough to fool the city’s multiplicity of fools:
goons and gomerils who labour under Mammon’s lash,
gowks and golems who queue to flash their lips and lids in
god-forsaken church halls, reeking basements and seeping
Golgothas, clamped blithe to ardour: the emos, indie kids,
Goths and ravers melting down the day we launched with
gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs, skirted girls at Nonsuch and
Godolphin thronging in corridors, dawn trains given the
go-ahead at suburban junctions, the first trace of the sun’s
gold tide as it washes back to our side of the sphere, but now,

 going for lunch, you swing between delight and throwaway,
gourmet and grease, dither between syrah in a silver
goblet or Tizer from a sprung can; you might stare over roasted
goose at the Gay Hussar, at your companion’s bowl of
goulash, as retired politicians two tables over whisper scandals,
gossip through dumplings and meggyleves, hissing the latest
Gordon or Boris anecdote, Obama’s honeymoon months,
government soap; you might stare at bangers and bubble, tea
gone cold; evening settles in at Kilburn, down Battersea Park;
Golders Green wanes; high-rises throw slant shadows over
Gospel Oak; students breathe the soot of a bendy revving on
Gower Street; in the doorways of basement strip joints,
gorillas strike stances; toms swap fat packs of Fetherlite and

 Gossamer, hitch into their tangas and fishnets waiting for the
gonk to finger a phone box card, the way a kid fingers what he
got from the kitchen drawer; evening touches Camden where
gonzos sup Stella; dancers shift in the wings of the opera;
goluptious girls slip into slingbacks, swim into creamy
gowns, or swash out of them, as that misted moon plays
go-between in a city of secrets, crimson or bilious – what
good will come of us, falling in the dark, our names
gouged into plane-trees? – we are becoming history,
godmothers to our own torn myths: twisted and crazed,
gorgeous giants, we hang spinning over the still river:
Go on! it murmurs – own torn myths – and midnight mentions
Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/17/poem-of-the-week-roddy-lumsdent

Readmill Networks Lonely Bookworms

Traditionally, reading has been a solitary activity. But two Berlin-based Swedes hope to change this. They’re close to launching new software called Readmill, which promises to create a social network for bookworms to share their reading habits, margin notes and recommendations.

The pool table in the living room is covered by a wooden slab, a second room is full of boxes, and David Kjelkerud still has no idea how the coffee machine in the kitchen works. There’s simply no time for such trivialities. He is, after all, feverishly building a start-up. Two months ago he moved from Stockholm to Berlin with his co-partner Henrik Berggren to catapult book reading into the Internet age.

The duo is finalizing the last pieces of Readmill, an intelligent bookmarker for digital books. In their shared office space in Berlin’s central Mitte district, also occupied by start-up Amen, a flurry of development is going on, interrupted by tech conferences, presentations for investors and the search for cooperation from E-book industry players.

The goal is to transform book reading into a social activity, bringing together readers via their e-readers, and to grab a share of the booming E-book market. Other companies have their eye on social reading as well, such as the platform LovelyBooks. But Readmill, set to go live soon, wants to take the idea even further.

Both avid readers, Berggren and Kjelkerud have an ambivalent relationship with books. Kjelkerud calls them “somehow cold and unsocial.” Reading is solitary, and anyone who wants to discuss a passage must first shut their book, he explains. Berggren says that even digital books and the internet-connected reading devices haven’t changed things much. “There are many E-book services, but none of them are really social,” he explains. What was missing were good ideas to network books and readers with each other.

Last.fm for Books

Readmill, an intelligent bookmark for e-books, is their answer. The program looks over the reader’s shoulder, keeping a protocol of their progress and showing sections that have been highlighted and commented upon by other readers. This way Readmill members create a semi-public reference list for their books, giving them the possibility of alerting friends to interesting passages for discussion.

Music fans will recognize this principle from Last.fm, a music website that analyzes listening patterns to develop new artist and concert suggestions, in addition to bringing users with similar tastes together. Like Last.fm, Readmill’s software operates on three levels: as a background process for reading applications, as a web service that processes reading habits, and as a reading app for the iPad, where members can upload e-books that aren’t copyright protected.

Also similar to Last.fm, Readmill gets interesting when as many other e-book reading programs and devices as possible feed the Readmill central server with data. By year’s end, Berggren told SPIEGEL ONLINE, the company hopes to be supporting enough reading programs so that it could, theoretically at least, be combined with 80 percent of all e-books.

Publisher Partnerships in Progress

It isn’t an impossible goal. Currently there aren’t that many different reading devices and programs. Publishers and reading device manufacturers will also benefit from Readmill, its creators say. “Ultimately, Readmill is about discovering books,” Kjelkerud says. With partnership negotiations with publishers underway, the possibility of Readmill adding a book purchasing function isn’t far off.

But the company isn’t just focused on e-books. To help connect old-fashioned book lovers through Readmill, they’ve also created an android app called ReadTracker, with which users can also follow their reading progress on paper.

Berggren and Kjelkerud say that it was only their move to Berlin from Stockholm in March 2011 which made the realization of their social book dream possible. It was both a challenge and an opportunity to free themselves from social obligations to enable a sole focus on their project.

“It was so hard to always have to reject my friends’ bar invitations,” Kjelkerud says. Berggren adds: “With such a move you’re also making it clear to yourself that now things are serious, that now we have to push through.”


Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,795764,00.html

Poem of the week: Stone by Janet Simon

A stone

‘A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone’.

“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.

There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.

But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.

The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.

The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.

The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”

Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.

This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.

These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.

It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.

Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.


You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.

      You pass this stone to me
      with pleasing manners.
      You sanction me to hold it
      for a few minutes
      and to speak uninterrupted
      in my own defence.
      Your gracious patronage
      reduces me to gibberish.
      To avoid stuttering
      I place this outsized pebble
      in my quivering mouth.
      Its frigid texture
      is cold, impenetrable.
      I cannot chew on it.
      I spit it out.

      An angry passerby
      picks up this stone
      and hurls it
      through your window.
      Your creamy skin
      turns puce-vermillion,
      and as he runs away
      you bolt your doors
      and ring for the police.

      I bend down and pick up
      this stone.
      It hasn’t changed
      its shape or colour.
      Its unrelenting stoneness
      pleads with me.

I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/24/poem-of-the-week-janet-simon

Poem of the week: All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby

Day of the dead

Mexicans mark the day of the dead in San Gregorio. Bellerby’s poem likewise seems to melt the borders between life and death.

Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.

 Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”

 All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”

The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.

Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?

Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.

 The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.

 The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.

 Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.

 I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

 This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.

 Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

 The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

 Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

 Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

 And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/01/poem-of-week-frances-bellerby

10 of the best women dressed as men

Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind/Ganymede in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind (as Ganymede) in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

Bradamante covers herself with armour and fights as a manly knight. “He” is befriended by the Saracen warrior Ruggiero, who realises his luck is in when his new comrade takes off her helmet and shakes out her long tresses. Ruggiero is instantly love-struck.

 As You Like It by William Shakespeare

The bard loved to give us a bit of cross-dressing (Portia, Imogen, Viola, Julia …), but with Rosalind he outdid himself. In As You Like It he has a boy actor playing a woman who dresses up as a man who pretends to be a girl (in order to help Orlando with his wooing). Talk about fluid ideas of gender …

 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Out in the wilderness, Don Quixote’s friends are looking for the deluded knight. They meet Dorothea, a young woman wearing male clothing. She tells her tragic story – she has been seduced then discarded by a rich man’s son and has adopted this disguise in order to flee.

 The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker

The thief Moll Cutpurse dresses in a man’s clothes but arouses the interest of many male admirers. When her would-be lover Laxton arranges a rendezvous, she arrives in disguise and fights him with a rapier. “Venus … passes through the play in doublet and breeches, a brave disguise and a safe one if the statute untie not her codpiece point.”

 The Country Wife by William Wycherley

Margery Pinchwife’s cruel husband is terrified of being cuckolded, so when he takes her out to the shops in London he dresses her as a young man. However, the rakish Horner is in on the trick and takes the opportunity to kiss and manhandle the “pretty” gentleman in front of the tormented Pinchwife.

 The Rover by Aphra Behn

Our heroine, Hellena, disguises herself as a young gent so she can prevent the man she loves, Willmore, succumbing to Angelica, a famous courtesan. In her male guise she tells Angelica a story of Willmore’s affair with another woman, rousing her to fury and alienating her from the “roving” Willmore.

 The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The dark, brooding monk Ambrosio – a pillar of rectitude – is attended by an admiring young novice, Rosario. “He seemed fearful of being recognised, and no one had ever seen his face. His head was continually muffled up in his Cowl.” No wonder – for one day in Ambrosio’s cell he reveals himself to be the beautiful Matilda, and effortlessly seduces the devout Ambrosio.

 Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Éowyn desperately wants to avenge her father, killed by orcs. She disguises herself as the male warrior Dernhelm and fights alongside the Riders of Rohan in battle, even managing to kill the Lord of the Nazgûl – who has boasted that no man can ever defeat him and is nonplussed to discover that his opponent is, in fact, a woman.

 Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Nan Astley, a simple girl from Whitstable, falls for male impersonator (or “masher”) Kitty Butler, whom she sees strutting her stuff on stage. Eventually she joins her in the act, and later walks the streets of London dressed as a man. When she is picked up by the wealthy widow Diana she cohabits with her in the guise of “Neville”.

 Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Searching for her brother, who is missing in action, Polly Perks cross-dresses in order to join the Borogravian army. She befriends another squaddie, Lofty Tewt, who confides that “he” too is a girl. Slowly the truth becomes apparent: everyone in the regiment is in fact a woman dressed as a man. Naturally, they triumph in battle. JM


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/28/ten-best-women-dressed-men

Ten of the best men dressed as women

Alan Cumming in The Bacchae

Alan Cumming in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae.

The Bacchae by Euripides
Pentheus wants to witness the revels of the Maenads, women under the ecstatic influence of Dionysus who range freely in the woods and mountains. He is persuaded by the god that in order to do this he must dress as a woman. He is spotted spying by the possessed women and is torn to pieces.

Metamorphoses by Ovid
Thetis, Achilles’ mother, knowing that her son will die if he fights in the Trojan war, disguises him as a woman among the daughters of King Lycomedes. Odysseus turns up with some girly presents plus a spear and shield, which are immediately seized by the warrior, who thus reveals himself.

Epicene by Ben Jonson
Rich, grumpy, misogynistic Morose proposes to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying, provided he can find a “silent woman”. A spouse called Epicene is found, and turns after marriage into a perfect shrew. Morose pays Dauphine to rid him of the termagant, whereupon his resourceful nephew pulls off the wife’s wig and reveals her to be a male in disguise.

Don Juan by Lord Byron
In Istanbul, our hero is sold as a slave to one of the sultan’s eunuchs, who commands him to dress as a woman. He has been spotted by the sultana, Gulbeyaz, who has designs on him. When the sultan arrives he rather fancies “the new-bought virgin”. “I see you’ve bought another girl; ’tis pity / That a mere Christian should be half so pretty”.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
In a sequence usually omitted in film adaptations, Mr Rochester dresses as an old Gypsy woman and turns up at his own dinner party to read the fortunes of the guests. Even Jane does not recognise him, until he suddenly throws off his disguise.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
On the run, Huck and escaped slave Jim find some women’s clothes on an abandoned houseboat, and Jim persuades Huck to go ashore disguised as a girl, to find out if people are still searching for them. As “Sarah Williams” he is admitted to a lady’s house, but she sees through his disguise when he begins to forget his own supposed name.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Farmer Gregory Rose shows his devotion to the rebellious Lyndall by dressing himself in her mother’s clothes in order to serve as her nurse when she is terminally ill. She accepts his disguise and is consoled by his presence.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
In prison for stealing a car, Toad wins the sympathy of the jailer’s daughter, who dresses him as a washerwoman to help him escape. He wanders the countryside, hitching a lift first on a barge and then in the very car that he earlier stole. Foolishly, its owners let this friendly lady take a turn at driving.

William the Showman” by Richmal Crompton
William Brown is staging a historical waxworks show with the Outlaws and decides that the poor audience response is down to the lack of “famous ladies”. After a quick raid of sister Ethel’s wardrobe, he struts his stuff as Mary Queen of Scots.

On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard
Rustic apprentice Christopher and his garrulous companion Weinberl travel to Vienna with a hare-brained idea of going “on the razzle”. Hiding from their boss, they end up in Madame Knorr’s women’s clothes shop, where they must don capacious tartan women’s garb and pose as mannequins. More cross-dressing follows. “I’m not the woman you think I am … I’m not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am”.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/nov/04/ten-best-men-dressed-women

Ten of the best cathedrals in literature

Salisbury cathedral

Salisbury cathedral, the focus of William Golding’s novel.

The Spire by William Golding

Salisbury resident Golding imagined the building of the cathedral whose spire towers over the city. Ignoring the warnings of others, the obsessive Dean Jocelin drives the work on, convinced that an angel is prompting him. As he becomes madder, the miraculous building takes shape out of the dust and chaos.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Dickens’s last novel is set in the precincts of the cathedral of Cloisterham. “… a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath.” Murderous passions are nursed in the shadow of the great cathedral.

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

The cathedral is the central character in Hugo’s huge historical novel. All his characters gravitate to it. Quasimodo is the bell-ringer and swings down on a rope from the towers of the Cathedral to rescue the Gypsy girl Esmerelda from the gallows. They seek sanctuary in the great church, but violence and death pursue them there.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Housewife Emma Bovary has an assignation with student Léon Dupuis in Rouen cathedral. “In the choir a silver lamp was burning, and from the side chapels and dark places of the church sometimes rose sounds like sighs, with the clang of a closing grating …” For Léon, the religious solemnity is fitting: he is a devotee of love. Emma arrives, tries to pray, but is overwhelmed by “the tumult of her heart”.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The clergymen of Barchester find the pursuit of God’s purposes is an often ignoble business. The unworldly Septimus Harding, precentor at the great cathedral, is drawn into a furious dispute about church corruption, his only solace being the sublime sound of the cathedral choir as its songs ascend to heaven.

Old St Paul’s by Harrison Ainsworth

Ainsworth’s best-selling Victorian romance is set in the 1660s. During the great plague, the old cathedral becomes a hospital. At the climax, the great, dilapidated old building burns down, trapping two of the novel’s villains in its vaults where they are drowned in molten lead.

The Choir by Joanna Trollope

Trollope’s tale of submerged provincial passions is set in the cathedral city of Aldminster, where the cathedral itself is falling down and the costs of repairs seem likely to be met by abolishing the costly boys’ choir. From the worldly dean to the idealistic choirmaster, everybody wants the best for the cathedral, the good of which becomes the justification for whatever they want to do.

“The Cathedral” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote a sequence of six poems inspired by a visit to Chartres cathedral with the sculptor Rodin. In the second, the poet muses on what the influence is of this huge tracery of stone, overwhelming rather than elevating. “And in the towers’ quelled ascent, / and sudden spurn of skies, sat Death”.

“A Cathedral Facade at Midnight” by Thomas Hardy

The poem recalls a night walk in the cathedral close at Salisbury, where Hardy took the movement of light across the building as a metaphor of ancient belief in the light of modern unbelief. The facade is thick with “the pious figures” of saints and clerics, holy men and women seen “Under the sure, unhasting, steady stress / Of Reason’s movement, making meaningless”.

The Cathedral by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Huysmans has his alter ego, Durtal, who has converted to Catholicism, explore the elaborate symbolism he discovers in stone in the great gothic edifice of Chartres cathedral. An apparent rejection of modernity, it was a bestseller.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/07/ten-best-cathedrals-in-literature

Ten of the best Hamlets

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Tom arrives in London and goes with his witless companion Partridge to see Garrick play Hamlet. Partridge is unimpressed. “‘He the best player!’ cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, ‘why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.'”

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Mrs Malaprop naturally has a Bardic bent. Talking of Sir Anthony Absolute’s handsome son, she remembers Hamlet’s praise of his father only a little inaccurately. “‘Hesperian curls – the front of Job himself! – An eye, like March, to threaten at command! – A station, like Harry Mercury, new . . .’ Something about kissing – on a hill.”

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Goethe’s Bildungsroman, the hero owes the formation of his character as much to Shakespeare’s plays as to any experience of the world. Wilhelm joins a theatrical company and stars in its production of Hamlet. Several chapters are devoted to scene-by-scene analysis of the play, leading to a triumphant performance.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip and Herbert Pocket watch the absurd Mr Wopsle play “that undecided prince” in a production heckled by a rowdy London audience. “On the question whether ’twas nobler in the mind to suffer, some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said ‘Toss up for it’ and quite a Debating Society arose.”

Ulysses by James Joyce

In the “Scylla and Charybdis” section Stephen Dedalus opines about the Dane, hinting at Shakespeare’s covert Catholicism. “Not for nothing was he a butcher’s son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm. Nine lives are taken off for his father’s one, Our Father who art in purgatory.” He reckons the play was written out of Shakespeare’s anger at being cuckolded.

“William Holds the Stage” by Richmal Crompton

William has set his heart on playing Hamlet in the school play and takes the stage, uninvited, to deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. His recall is about as accurate as Mrs Malaprop’s, but still remarkable, as he delivers the speech while chased by stagehands.

“Hamlet” by Boris Pasternak

All well-read Russians have been happy to discover their own predicament in the situation of the Great Dane. Pasternak’s narrator is an actor about to play the role: “I’ve slowly come out / To the stage, and leaning at the door, / Try to gasp in echo’s distant sounds, / What’s prepared for me in my life’s store”. Then he becomes the part. “It is defined – the action’s order, / And the road’s end . . . hypocrisy’s all over”.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Writer Bradley Pearson develops a tendresse for Julian, the daughter of a friend who is also a rival author. His affair with her would be sufficient revenge, but is twisted by his obsession with Hamlet. He can consummate his passion for the epicene Julian only when she dresses up as the prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Hamlet’s antics as seen by two childhood friends, drafted in by Claudius to find out what the prince is up to. They’re as mystified by his words as the most befuddled A-level candidate, though they see he is “stark raving sane”.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

The novelist admits that he thinks of himself as Hamlet. In Lunar Park a character called Bret lives on Elsinore Lane, goes to places like Fortinbras Mall, Osric hotel and Ophelia Boulevard. He is haunted (down the phone) by the spirit of his father, whose death he is called to avenge.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/04/ten-best-hamlets

Ten of the best fishing trips

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Crusoe learns fishing when he is living as a slave in Moorish captivity. His skills come in useful once he is shipwrecked. “I frequently caught fish enough, as much as I cared to eat; all which I dried in the sun, and ate them dry.” He also hooks a dolphin.

“Point Rash-Judgement” by William Wordsworth The poet is walking with friends when they notice “a Man / Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone, / Angling beside the margin of the lake”. They moralise to each other about the fecklessness of someone who is enjoying such sport in the middle of the harvest, but then he turns towards them and they see he is “gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks / And wasted limbs”. He is fishing because he is starving.

“The Fisherman” by WB Yeats Fishing can make you noble, it seems. Yeats recalls a man who went “To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes / At dawn to cast his flies”. Silent and intent, “Climbing up to a place / Where stone is dark under froth”, he is contrasted with all the vain and clamorous men that the poet has known.

The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter Jeremy is a frog, who dons a Macintosh and galoshes to go fishing. A good thing too, because after catching and releasing a stickleback, he gets swallowed by a hungry trout. The trout finds the coat indigestible and regurgitates the fortunate Jeremy, who hops home resolved not to go fishing again.

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway Nick Adams is off on his own, camping in the wilds of Michigan. He eventually catches a huge fish. “There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped.” Gradually you realise that the minute description of Nick’s pursuit is an evasion of the trauma of war from which he has recently escaped.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan Much of this hippy classic was written during the author’s camping trip in Idaho, which features in the book. It is a collage of sketches and memories in which fishing recurs, a boyhood enthusiasm that focuses the author’s bucolic ideals.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver A woman finds out that her husband and his pals discovered the dead body of a woman floating in the water where they were fishing. It emerges that they decided not to let the discovery spoil their male-bonding trip, tethered the corpse for a couple of days and went on fishing. Her husband cannot understand her horror.

“Pike” by Ted Hughes Hughes invokes boyhood memories of fishing in a pike-patrolled pond. “It was as deep as England. It held / Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old / That past nightfall I dared not cast.” The boy fishes frozen in fear, thinking of the pike “That rose slowly toward me, watching”.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx Quoyle flees to Newfoundland and comes to rest in Killick-Claw, a town on the edge of the Atlantic suffused with the tang of fish. He works for the local newspaper, whose editor calls in sick almost every day so that he can go fishing. Quoyle is slowly reborn, finding out all about love and cod fishing.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth Roth’s novel ends with a fishing episode that is as far from philosophic serenity as you can get. Zuckerman finds Les Farley, whom he knows to be a killer, ice fishing on a secluded New England lake. On the ice next to him lies the ice-augur, his murderously sharp cutting tool. “And now you know my secret spot . . . You know everything . . . But you won’t tell nobody, will you?”


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/27/ten-best-fishing-trips-literature

Making It New

How the Greek and Latin classics have been imitated, adulated and misunderstood over the centuries.

For the ancient Romans, the word “classicus” originally designated somebody belonging to the highest tax bracket. To be “classical” was to be in the upper crust. By the fifth century A.D., the term had taken on wider meanings; the classical was distinguished not only by its excellence but by belonging to the past, and the past was by definition superior to the present. Today it’s now almost axiomatic that the older and more venerable the classic, the younger and fresher it may seem. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote that “Homer is new this morning and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.” Even Chanel’s “little black dress” is a classic because, like Homer’s “Iliad,” it never goes out of date. The classical in all its forms continues to exhibit an astonishing resilience.

“The Classical Tradition” is a guidebook of great erudition that is notably well written and unexpectedly compelling. It definitely is not another of those solemn introductions to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Instead it is a lively compendium of the manifold ways in which the enduring creations of the classical tradition, and the Greek and Latin classics, have been imitated, adulated, denounced and misunderstood—or understood all too well—over the past two millennia.

In their introduction, the editors—a triumvirate, as is only fitting (Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis)—state that they aim to strike a balance between “an unwavering commitment” to the truth and “an undogmatic appreciation of the endless resourcefulness and inventiveness of human error.” Accordingly, the tradition in question isn’t simply the preserved legacy of Greece and Rome in art and literature, philosophy and statecraft; it comprises the centuries of commentary and interpretation that have elaborated and embellished that legacy.

The Classical Tradition,” boasting some 563 articles (as well as 150 beautiful color plates), has an extraordinarily wide range. There are the topics you expect to find, such as classical architecture or education or philosophy, all clearly and expertly presented. The many biographical entries are especially rich, presenting figures from the classical period and the many others who drew on the classical inheritance for their own achievements over the centuries: architects and painters and sculptors, poets and philosophers and scholars, as well as gods and heroes.

Here we find Picasso—for whom the myth of the Minotaur was so important—rubbing shoulders with Plutarch, whose famous “Lives” of classical figures, among much else, served as a source for Shakespeare. Here Galileo, who drew on Seneca and other classical authors for his “most speculative arguments,” appears not far from Ganymede, the beautiful mortal boy whom the gods transported to heaven. We are told that Ganymede’s story—in various forms and with various moral purposes—appears in Homer and Plato, in a painting by Michelangelo, and on a column capital at the 12th-century cathedral in Vézelay, France, “which shows the boy terrified, upside-down in the beak of an eagle, and menaced by a hellish demon.”

There are superb shorter articles on the persistence of classical themes in comic books (“Asterix,” “Wonder Woman”) and cinema (think only of “Last Days of Pompeii” and “Ben-Hur,” among dozens of other films). The physical permutations of the tradition are traced not only in urban design but in such structures as catacombs and sewers. Each article brings some unexpected insight or little known fact into the discussion, to illuminating effect. In the article on Julius Caesar, the author cites Karl Marx’s enthusiastic praise of Caesar’s military prowess, while in the article on Achilles we are reminded of how savagely Shakespeare portrays that ancient hero, in “Troilus and Cressida,” as a cowardly egomaniac.

In the classical tradition as presented here nobody stands still; and sometimes the posthumous tribulations of ancient figures seem worse than what they experienced while alive. In the article on “Cicero and Ciceronianism” we learn that the reputation of that ancient orator and statesman was badly damaged by the great historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who denounced the hapless Cicero as a “bombastic” public speaker and a “sleazy politician.”

One has the impression that the editors of “The Classical Tradition” asked their contributors to write in as entertaining a way as they could. The scholarship is impeccable, but there is a donnish drollery in many of the articles. Thus in the entry on “Pronunciation of Greek and Latin,” not a subject normally rich in laughs, we learn that ancient Greek sheep said “bay bay,” not “baa baa,” and that in the 19th century “educated English people knew that the answer to the question ‘Why were Roman sailors wicked?’ was ‘Because they were nautae.’ ” The contributors, all 339 of them, seem to have had some fun in carrying out their assignments, and this communicates itself to the reader.

The Roman poet Ovid, who died in exile around 17 A.D., described “The Metamorphoses,” his masterpiece, as “a continuous song.” As the author of the article on Ovid notes, the poet was describing the seamless way in which his tales of transformation flowed one into the other, but the phrase also describes the long afterlife that his poem has enjoyed. It has been translated and imitated repeatedly, inspiring poems, novels, plays, films and operas, as well as sculptures and paintings.

The classical tradition of which the “Metamorphoses” forms so central a part might also be described as just such a “continuous song,” with all the variations that so fabulous a melody inspires. Ovid sang of “bodies changed into new forms.” That is what the classical tradition itself has been doing for centuries. It is a maze of transformations. At last, in this marvelous guide, it has found its Ariadne, whose thread (we are prompted to remember) helped to guide her lover out of a labyrinth.

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575617651875578066.html

Ten of the best angels in literature

Il Paradiso by Dante Guided by Beatrice, Dante ascends to the Primum Mobile, where the angels dwell. Beatrice explains the nine orders of angels, hierarchically arranged: Seraphim (the closest to God), Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

“Aire and Angels” by John Donne In amorous enthusiasm, Donne takes literally the notion that his beloved is an “angel”. She is as pure as a heavenly being, but has had to take bodily form, “For, nor in nothing, nor in things / Extreme, and scatt’ring bright, can love inhere.” When an angel appears it takes “face, and wings / Of aire”.

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe Good and Evil Angels appear in the play as a double act. “O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, / And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,” says the Good Angel. But the Evil Angel’s counsel – “Go forward Faustus in the famous art” – is more welcome. Finally the Good Angel exits and the Evil Angel gleefully invites Faustus to the “vast perpetual torture-house” that is hell.

Paradise Lost by John Milton Milton’s angels don’t just fly around doing good (or ill), they eat, drink (fruit juice only) and chat. Adam asks the visiting angel Raphael whether angels have sex, “To whom the Angel, with a smile that glowed / Celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue, / Answered, ‘Let it suffice thee that thou knowest / Us happy, and without love no happiness’.” Yes they do.

“The Angel” by William Blake The poet dreams of hiding his “heart’s delight” from his guardian angel, who flees from him. The poet resentfully arms himself against his angel’s kindness. “Soon my Angel came again: / I was arm’d, he came in vain; / For the time of youth was fled, / And grey hairs were on my head.”

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy “I don’t believe in anything supernatural,” says Tess, but she gets an angel for a suitor. Angel Clare even plays a harp. This human angel (“more spiritual than animal”) wants a “pure” woman and is too high-minded to be able to understand Tess’s corporeal nature.

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald Fred Fairly is a scientist, an academic at St Angelicus (“Angel’s”) College, who can’t help thinking of angels. “Fairly perhaps sees a bird flying over the fens, and he looks attentively at a young woman, and he combines the two of them, and imagines an angel. That is how the imagination works.” He falls in love with Daisy, who is a kind of angel (a nurse, anyway).

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie Bollywood film star Gibreel Farishta has an angelic screen name (Farishta means “angel” in Urdu) and after his plane is blown up over the English Channel he is magically transformed into the very angel Gibreel. He alights in England and we find he has acquired a halo. But is he a force for good, or a deluded soul?

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman Pullman has derived more than his title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, though his interpretation is Blakean: we find out that there was indeed a war in heaven once, but the rebel angels fought for freedom against “those who want us to obey and be humble and submit”. Will and Lyra enter the world of angelic conflict and acquire their own guardian angel called Balthamos.

Skellig by David Almond Another Blakean children’s tale, in which Michael finds a mysterious winged man called Skellig living in the garage of his parents’ dilapidated new house. He looks like a tramp and eats spiders. Michael and his new hippy friend Mina care for this being who has fallen to earth, who becomes more and more angelic and finally helps save the life of Michael’s baby sister.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/13/ten-best-angels-literature-mullan

Hollowed by time

LEO TOLSTOY died one hundred years ago today, aged 82. His last days and hours succumbing to pneumonia in a railway master’s house were followed by the entire world. A special telegraphic wire was installed in Astapovo to transmit news about the state of his health, and newspapers carried reports from the Russian and foreign press. Tostoy was hardly aware of all the commotion.
Nine days earlier he had left his estate in Yasnaya Polyana in secret before dawn, accompanied by his doctor. Having contemplated leaving home several times before, he decided it was finally time to break away from his family life, from the rows over his literary heritage, from the battles between his wife and his secretary. On the night of his escape he wrote that he was doing what people of his age do: leaving the worldly life to spend his last days in quiet and solitude.
On the way to the station he stopped at Shemardino convent to see his sister. He stayed the night in a hotel by a monastery, and again left at four in the morning, heading south. He did not get very far, reaching Astapovo with a high fever.
His escape from Yasnaya Polyana inspired his contemporaries with awe. It was seen as a heroic release from the constraints of life, the removal of the last barriers between him and the God. (“The release of Tolstoy” was the title of a wonderful account of Tolstoy’s last days by Ivan Bunin, a Russian poet and writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1933.) Tolstoy’s death—like his life—was a monumental event, particularly in Russia. Writers, artists, followers and peasants flocked to his funeral. Trains from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, where he was brought after his death, were packed. (The government forbade the running of extra trains.)
A “cinematograph” filmed the coffin being carried by peasants. A choir of 100 people sang “Eternal Memory” and a procession of some 10,000 people in black coats followed the coffin. There were no clergymen at the funeral. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. His relationship with God did not need intermediaries.
Leopold Sulerzhitsky, one of Tolstoy’s friends and followers, once wrote in a letter that there were two Tolstoys—the great and the real. “The great has remained and will remain for ever, and that is why he is not lost, but the kind friend, tender and patient, full of humility is gone for ever.” This assessment is in keeping with a new biography of the man by Rosamund Bartlett, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life”. Informative and detailed, with the facts of Tolstoy’s life and the usual tributes to his ideas, the book sadly lacks the flare necessary for breaking beyond the obvious.
“I fear the death of Tolstoy,” Anton Chekhov once observed. “If he were to die, a large empty space would appear in my life… So long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and snivelling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished into the outer darkness.” Chekhov never lived to see Tolstoy’s death, having died of tuberculosis six years before him at the more gentle age of 44. But he was right to understand that Tolstoy’s presence imposed certain ethical restrictions on Russian society.
Devastatingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is hardly marked in Russia. Tolstoy was a man who opposed state violence, who considered the Church’s union with the state as blasphemous, who denounced pseudo-patriotism, and who wrote to Alexander III asking him to pardon those who assassinated his father. These principles are firmly out of fashion in today’s Russia. By turning Tolstoy into an icon, the Soviets ultimately hollowed him out.
A recent political manifesto published by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia’s most odious, wealthy and Kremlin-favoured film directors, is a good example of the country’s dreary move away from Tolstoy’s ideals. Called “Right and Truth”, the 10,000-word call for “enlightened conservatism” draws on the ideas of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of Russia’s most reactionary thinkers, who viewed Tolstoy as one of his most dangerous enemies. (He once denounced democracy as “the insupportable dictatorship of vulgar crowd”, and saw Tolstoy’s non-violent resistance as a real threat.) As a senior figure in the Church, Pobedonostsev helped to initiate Tolstoy’s excommunication. In 1899 the Holy Synod banned all prayers in Tolstoy’s memory after his death.
A hundred years after Tolstoy’s death, this ban feels very much in place in Russia today.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2010/11/remembering_tolstoy

Memory Makers

On the publication of scrapbooks by legendary photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton, fellow nostalgist Charlotte Moss revels in the art of cut and paste

Scrapbooks are diaries of a sort. While I have yet to come across a scrapbook with scandalous confessions or incriminating evidence, a private collection of pictures and ephemera can reveal volumes about the creator’s life.

DEAR DIARY: Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks were works of art in their own right.

Scrapbooking does not have a reputation as cool, which has always struck me as odd. Few other art forms invite you to employ your taste and wit as you mash up your favorite images and ideas.

It is the most democratic and accessible art, and according to the Craft & Hobby Association, it is the top-selling category in the country’s $27 billion craft and hobby industry. I remember creeping into my grandmother’s attic and finding a trunk with my mother’s scrapbook of valentines. I felt as though I had met my mother in a different time. All of my life, I have created scrapbooks and collected others from inspiring women such as Elsie de Wolfe, Pauline Trigère and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Weighing in at 14 pounds, “Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook” (Assouline) offers reproductions from the iconic Vogue and Vanity Fair photographer’s personal scrapbooks. It showcases images that Beaton took as well as pictures taken by others that he admired. They’re arranged in idiosyncratic collages and spreads, ironic juxtapositions and “once in a while just a great picture,” New York gallerist James Danziger wrote in his forward to the book. In an interview I asked Mr. Danziger about the collection of images chosen from Beaton’s scrapbooks for this volume. He said they are like a “valentine to a liberal arts education, from Greco-Roman statues to pop stars.”

The pages above feature a montage of Hollywood stars; others show bullfighters and dancers

The photo spreads selected were distilled from approximately 40 scrapbooks and over 8,000 photographs from the Cecil Beaton Archive. Beaton started collecting postcards when he was three years old. Later on, his country house weekends were not complete without a session of “cutting and pasting,” comparing notes and reviewing the pages of a previous weekend’s accomplishment. In his diaries, Beaton describes a scene at Wilsford, the home of his great friend Stephen Tennant. “We looked at scrapbooks of old photographs and [Tennant] rhapsodized suitable texts,” he wrote. These were gatherings one would have paid to observe.

From bullfighters, bodybuilders, dancers, society figures, the Royal family, actors and artists, there is a commonality that struck the book publisher Martine Assouline as she edited the scrapbook pages selected for the book. She described it to me as a “lesson in elegance.”

Some might say the proliferation of digital cameras and the attendant Facebook and Flickr pages have rendered physical scrapbooks less relevant than they used to be. But why not see them as newfangled iterations of an age-old artform? Witness the creativity that users are unleashing on Polyvore, the scrapbook-y fashion website that lets users mix and match pictures of clothing, accessories and arty backgrounds to create one-of-a-kind “sets.”

As in all, endeavors that become systematized, CAVEAT EMPTOR…. Homogeneity lurks. Proceed with caution. Memories are precious; protect them. Personalize them. Be creative, add, subtract, layer, annotate. My favorite quote from David Hockney says it all: “The thing about high tech is that you always end up using scissors.”

Charlotte Moss is a designer based in New York.


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575616680209182858.html

You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Why W.C. Fields is funnier than G.K. Chesterton. Or is he?

Judd Apatow’s Collection of humor pieces, “I Found This Funny,” comes with a warning right there on the cover. The subtitle promises Mr. Apatow’s “Favorite Pieces of Humor” but cautions that the selections include “Some That May Not Be Funny at All.” Just in case we missed the point, Mr. Apatow repeats the caveat in his introduction: “I am well aware that significantly more than three pieces in this book are not funny.” He apologizes to those who might mistakenly have picked up the book expecting a compendium of amusing stories. “To be honest, one third of this book might be depressing. I was in a strange place when I picked these pieces.” One marvels at the honesty—and wonders what he could have been thinking.

The first offering is by James Agee, a fellow a bit too earnest to be good for many laughs. “A Mother’s Tale” is a gruesome little fable about the abattoir ever awaiting the bovine masses. Yes, as the bloody-minded fairytale comes to a close, there is the smallest of jokes—a little calf has heard the mother cow tell the whole story and understood none of it—but it’s just a little relief at the end of what is otherwise a grim advertisement for vegetarianism. By this measure “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a laff-riot.

Skip forward a story or two and one finds Mr. Apatow’s own contribution, “How I Got Kicked Out of High School,” a diary of his odyssey helming the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” The pilot is bought. The program airs. The reviews are great. The ratings are not. His back starts to hurt. Did he mention that the reviews were great? The ratings tank. The show moves to a lousy night. His back is killing him. The show is honored by the Museum of Television & Radio. The series is canceled. He gets back surgery. “I did the best work I’ve ever done. I received the best reviews I’ve ever received,” Mr. Apatow writes. “It was the lowest-rated show on NBC.” He suspects that the show failed because he and his team refused to “be like all the other ‘successful’ teen shows.” At least what Mr. Apatow lacks in humor he makes up for with self-regard.

Steve Martin with Johnny Carson in 1980. (These days Mr. Martin writes novels; see review at right.)

Elsewhere in the collection he selects a couple of “Saturday Night Live” scripts, including “Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster.” Barely rescued on the tube by Adam Sandler’s goofball demeanor and a lascivious turn by Alec Baldwin, the written skit can only be described as lame.

And then there are the various pieces about comedy that frankly make no effort to be funny. Take Jonathan Franzen’s biographical musings on his childhood infatuation with the “Peanuts” comic strip. “I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle,” Mr. Franzen writes. “He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house.” So Snoopy is a not-animal animal—a truly curious turn of phrase in which authorial pomposity competes with compositional clumsiness. (For my money, pomposity wins.) Also notable is the fact Mr. Franzen had to identify Snoopy as a “cartoon beagle” (I guess for the sake of those too dense to realize that ceci n’est pas un chien). You could say Mr. Franzen’s prose is funny, if unintentionally so.

Among the book’s actually amusing selections are some pages from Steve Martin’s autobiography. Though the excerpt isn’t exactly a gaggle of gags, it is charming and well told. Mr. Martin recounts how he got his start in show business, playing various stock melodrama characters—villain, hero, comic relief—in a rickety, canvas-roofed theater at Knott’s Berry Farm called The Bird Cage. After each show there would be “a ten-minute ‘olio’ segment,” with an actor or two coming out to perform their specialties. It was there, Mr. Martin writes, that “I was able to work steadily on my fledgling comedy-magic act.”

We don’t learn from Mr. Martin why actors and comedians refer to such little routines as “olio” acts. But the answer to that question can be found in “Humorists,” by Paul Johnson. The journalist and historian has written biographical sketches of people he finds funny. One of them, William Claude Dukenfield—better known as W.C. Fields—learned his trade in vaudeville, where his particular specialties were juggling and balancing things: He could balance two billiard balls on the tip of a pool cue. “In his early stage career he performed ‘Olio Acts,’ ” Mr. Johnson writes of Fields, “tricks in front of the oilcloth stage curtain lowered for scene changing.”

Mr. Johnson admires Fields’s mastery at juggling his “hates,” which included—to judge by his quips—dogs, babies, Eleanor Roosevelt and the IRS. But Mr. Johnson likes sly sight gags, too, like the ones packed densely into William Hogarth’s paintings of 18th-century England. In one, a newly elected, and presumably corrupt, member of Parliament is hoisted on a chair and “carried in triumph” through the streets in his rural county. “But his posture is precarious,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for his bearers are drunk, and a huge sow and her piglets have charged through their legs. The MP in fact is about to be precipitated into the stream which flows through the little town.”

Mr. Johnson credits Benjamin Franklin (who used short jokes to fill dead space in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”) with inventing the American taste for one-liners. “God heals, and the doctor takes the fees” is one Franklinism. Another: “One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they are valued.” Then there is Charles Dickens, who “looked at the mass of humanity and plucked out of it the egregious and the eccentric for our delight.” Mr. Johnson cites a character from “Our Mutual Friend,” a villainous man named Wegg who is paid to read aloud to a newly rich dustman. Wegg “charges extra for poetry, for ‘when a person comes to grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should be paid for its weakening effect on the brain.’ ”

Some of Mr. Johnson’s choices are a bit more of a stretch. He gets much amusement out of Samuel Johnson, whom he sees as part of a category of “really funny talkers” that includes Sydney Smith, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. The part of Dr. Johnson’s wit that Mr. Johnson values, though, makes the great man seem like a cultured precursor of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, relishing mockery and taking much “merriment” at others’ expense. Mr. Johnson also strains to find comedy in the work of G.K. Chesterton, who is too sententious to be truly amusing. Even Mr. Johnson concedes: “To GKC the act of making a joke was one of the most serious decisions you could possibly make, on a par with publishing a political manifesto, or a declaration of war.” You could say that “Humorists” is a motley collection.

Mr. Johnson doesn’t go to much effort to explain what he thinks makes comedy work, but he does endorse a theory that we like to laugh at “chaos, contemplated in safety.” He is particularly tickled by the “chaos artists” who make a mess of everything, whether through sputtering rage or plain idiocy. Such slapstick is ancient in origin and has been endlessly recycled. As Charlie Chaplin himself once told Mr. Johnson: “The best jokes are the simplest, and oldest. The finest stage direction ever is Shakespeare’s, from The Winter’s Tale: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ ”

There is raw energy in the old chased-by-a-bear shtick, and Mr. Johnson revels in it—just as he takes joy from the Marx Brothers’ unsubtle antics.

It is amusing in itself to see a writer as sophisticated as Paul Johnson—the author of more than a dozen works of history—relishing humor in its less elegant forms when, by contrast, a writer of rather raw comedies such as Judd Apatow prefers the affected sotto voce typical of highbrow short stories. Mr. Johnson chuckles with P.G. Wodehouse and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Apatow furrows his brow with James Agee and Jonathan Franzen. What gives?

I suspect that where Mr. Johnson is secure enough in his erudition to be seen indulging a taste for slapstick, Mr. Apatow is eager to prove his intellectual bona fides, desperate to be taken seriously. Now that’s funny.

Mr. Felten writes the biweekly Postmodern Times column for the Journal.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575616784158389048.html

The Adventures of Samuel Clemens

Twain’s autobiography, finally available after a century, is a garrulous outpouring—and every word beguiles

There was always something divided about Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a psychological fault line implicit in his desire to be known professionally as “Mark Twain” and in the word twain itself. One half of the great writer sought to reveal himself in an autobiography planned as early as 1876, when he was only 40. The other half quailed at trying to emulate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s frank “Confessions.”

“Rousseau,” Clemens pointed out, “confesses to masturbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites.” If we allow that fiction is a superior form of lying, it’s a fair guess that at least two of these embarrassments can be laid to the door of the author of “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain (let’s call him that, for critical convenience) enlarged on his qualms about self-revelation in a letter to his brother Orion. He noted with a touch of envy that Rousseau had been “perfectly aware of the shameful nature” of certain requisites of a true autobiography, “whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy and sweet & unconscious .”

The last four words were not so heavily erased that Orion could not read them. In 1899, still struggling to find an honest way to write his apologia pro vita sua, Twain told a reporter: “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. . . . It is too disgusting.” The depth of that disgust was clear when he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about “the author-cat” raking dust over every noisome revelation, “which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell . . . the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.”

It seems clear that Twain, an enormously successful writer and platform personality, had a black view of himself that went far beyond questions of sex or mendacity. His instinct was to take the often harsh facts of experience and sweeten them into something as delightful as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”—which, aside from being his most perfect book, is a boyhood memoir so thinly disguised that it could have been called “The Adventures of Sam Clemens.”

If he had not died in 1910, just as American puritanism was yielding to Freudian analysis of the torments of memory, Twain might have realized that his personal derelictions were (as far as we know) few, and by no means contemptible. Mark Twain was actually a magnificent person, blessed with literary genius, bonhomie and exquisite humor. His family and friends adored him. From the 1880s on he had the respect, even the reverence, of literary peers on both sides of the Atlantic. Publishers and lecture agents fought to sign him up. When, in 1894, he was ruined through no fault of his own (except the lifelong delusion that he was a shrewd investor), Henry H. Rogers, one of the busiest financiers on Wall Street, came to his rescue, as a national treasure that could not be foreclosed on.

By the time Twain had paid off his last debt and found himself wealthy once more, the most popular author-lecturer since Charles Dickens, he was an old man, bereaved of his wife and two of his four children. (Only one, his daughter Clara, would survive him.) Hamlin Garland, a fellow Midwesterner, observed that “Clemens, like many another humorist, was essentially sad.” Yet his volcanic vitality was intact, and the rapturous reception of his 70th-birthday speech at the Players Club in New York, in 1905, prompted him to return to the manuscript of his autobiography.

After some 30 or 40 false starts, it was already a formidable manuscript. Perhaps “repository” is a better word for what he proceeded to pile up over the course of six manic months in 1906 and left behind, still incomplete, at his death: an unorganized, crumbling, sneeze-provoking mass of letters, diaries, oral transcripts (more than 5,000 pages of them), news clips and other memorabilia. Now to be published in its entirety—this is the first of what will eventually be three volumes—”Autobiography of Mark Twain” aspires to completeness and definitiveness. Yet, as even the publisher admits, it is less a book than a gigantic fragment: the outpourings of a egotist so garrulous that the type sometimes dwindles to a size that will constrict your pupils.

Fortunately, Twain was that rare motormouth whose every word beguiles us. That does not mean that this book does not ramble. On the contrary, rambling is its deliberate style. Except for a few “written” passages of orthodox narrative and other preliminary scraps, it is mostly a collection of stream-of-consciousness monologues, dictated in Twain’s New York townhouse between Jan. 9 and March 30, 1906.

He congratulated himself on having hit upon something new in nonfiction, after more than 30 years of stylistic experiments: “a form and a method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face . . . like contact of flint and steel.” At the drop of an ash from his cigar, he could segue from memories of “Uncle Dan’l,” the original of Nigger Jim in “Huckleberry Finn,” to a headline in that morning’s newspaper. Oral flexibility transcended the drag of linear narrative and enabled Twain to be selective in his truth-telling. And since saying a thing was, in a strange way, less specific than writing it, he could edge closer to self-exposure—always with the liberating assurance that his comic persona would step in and make light of stories that threatened to become embarrassing or libelous.

To their credit, the editors of this centennial edition (most of the “Autobiography” has been published before, but in fragmentary and bowdlerized forms) make no attempt to connect Twain’s non sequiturs, other than simply to reproduce them in the order they were set down. Footnote fetishists will appreciate the meticulous annotations of every item needing amplification. And best of all, there is no tampering with Twain’s language, that superb instrument capable of a thousand modulations. Seemingly informal, it is in fact precise, taut, studded with mots that could not possibly be more juste: “I remember the raging of the rain on that roof . . . ”

Thanks to the shorthand skills of his stenographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, we could almost be guests in the great man’s bedroom. Curly-headed, bristle-browed and a touch bronchial at this time of year, Mark Twain lies propped up after breakfast and talks enchantingly about his barefoot boyhood in Missouri, his apprentice days as a printer’s brat and cub reporter, and his years piloting on the Mississippi. Then comes adventure after improbable adventure as he wanders across the breadth of the U.S., prospecting for silver here, escaping the penitentiary there, compulsively scribbling his experiences.

The publication of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in 1867 brings him his first fame and his first trip abroad, during which he meets the Buffalo heiress Olivia Langdon and vows to marry her. That dream is realized amid an accelerating rush to wealth and bestsellerdom, as book follows book and his travels expand to encompass the globe. In the process, he builds up an international reputation as the funniest man alive.

It is a mystery how Paine’s writing arm did not go into convulsions over, say, Twain’s story about being coached as a duelist in antebellum Nevada, or the one about the Episcopal minister whose hair turned green, or others about the over-efficient burglar alarm, the stammerer who tried to cure himself by whistling, and (most sublime of all) bare-assed Jim Wolf going after amorous cats on an ice-slick roof, with 14 saucers of red-hot candy below: “The frosty breeze flapped his short shirt about his lean legs; the crystal roof shone like polished marble in the intense glory of the moon; the unconscious cats sat erect upon the chimney, alertly watching each other, lashing their tails and pouring out their hollow grievances; and slowly and cautiously Jim crept along, flapping as he went . . .”

But no, I won’t spoil the story with further quotation. Let Twain get to his punch line with his own precise timing, in the sure knowledge that he will immediately trump it. This is the way with great raconteurs, and great melodists in music: There is always the delicious promise of more and better to come.

Aside from the occasional explosion of sulfurous wrath against some malefactor (“If I had his nuts in a steel trap . . . “), and one or two shock confidences (as when Twain unfairly blames himself for the death of his only son), there is little in this huge volume to justify his scruples about publishing it posthumously, in installments spread over a century, to spare the sensibilities of persons mentioned.

The most he will say about sex is that he finds it difficult to kiss and caress his near and dear. But this was less a matter of physical coldness than of upbringing. He does not sentimentalize any of the many painful experiences of his later years as a writer, publisher and bankruptee and maintains a self-control even when describing the loss, to heart disease, of his beloved wife, Livy.

Occasionally, maybe once in 50 pages, the old man will go on a little too long. His dreams, dietary problems and complaints about stock-market reversals are as boring as yours and mine. Many of the news stories he fixates on seem dated now. (An exception is the Moro Massacre of March 8, 1906, when clean-cut American boys in the Philippines behaved just as barbarously as they would later do at My Lai and Abu Ghraib.) On the whole, however, this volume is hard to stop reading. Twain’s prosody is so sure, and his powers of observation and selection so great, that he can take the most unpromising material—a real-estate deed, a letter from a would-be author—and make it glitter, like dull stone that turns out to be quartz or even diamond. Like Nabokov, he knew how to “caress the details, the divine details.”

There is a passage describing the interior of a farmhouse that young Sam lived in as a boy that matches anything in “Speak, Memory.” Significantly, however, these couple of pages are among the few that Twain took the trouble to write rather than dictate. If his autobiography is, ultimately, inferior to Nabokov’s, it is because he was mistaken in thinking that improvisations—even inspired improvisations—can ever cohere into a satisfactory whole. Unless there is line, there can be no architecture.

By June 1909, Twain realized that he was on the way to producing the longest book ever attempted. He lost heart and left it unfinished—at a half-million words. His stream of consciousness had become an unmanageable flood: He needed to get out of it before he drowned.

One of the first magazine men to pitch for serial rights to the autobiography prophetically advised Twain to insert a clause in his will allowing for full publication in “the year 2000 . . . by electrical method, or by any mode which may then be in use.” This edition is a bit late for that deadline. But stylistically speaking, it can only gain by appearing at a moment when the preferred forms of human communication are torrential texting and tweeting. What an irony that our supreme literary craftsman should be seen, in retrospect, as the inventor of the blog!

Mr. Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven. “Colonel Roosevelt,” the final volume of his trilogy on the 26th president, will be published this month.


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303341904575576672011487264.html

Not Quite a Genuine Likeness

‘Steve Martin doesn’t feed off the audience’s energy—he instills energy in the audience,” the movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote. “And he does it by drawing us into a conspiratorial relationship with him.” Over the past decade, Mr. Martin has diverted some of that energy into writing three rather serious novels. Are readers as prepared to collaborate in Mr. Martin’s storytelling as his legions of fans were in his stand-up?

“Shopgirl” (2000), Mr. Martin’s debut novella, was a pensive Beverly Hills romance with a varnish of foreign-film sophistication. But its spell was ruined by a hectoring omniscient narrator who repeatedly flouted the Novel 101 rule of characterization: Show, don’t tell. Three years later, “The Pleasure of My Company” showed much improvement, enhanced by the affecting voice of its emotionally challenged protagonist, who sought and eventually found human connection despite his fear of leaving his Santa Monica apartment. Here the narration succeeded in creating an alliance with readers instead of a barrier against them.

How disappointing, then, to note that voice and character have become obstacles for Mr. Martin once again. “An Object of Beauty” is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young woman navigating her way through the Manhattan art world. The novel’s narrator is an old friend of Lacey’s, an art critic named Daniel, who chronicles her rise to prominence from an entry-level cataloguing job in the basement of Sotheby’s auction house.

Problem No. 1 here is Daniel, whose role as narrator so eclipses his presence as a character that he seems more voice-over than earthling. In fact, he is not physically present for most of the novel’s key scenes, though he can describe them in detail. “If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don’t,” he admits. “I have found that—just as in real life—imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.”

Readers may be willing to go along with this contrivance, up to a point. That’s when they realize that all the novel’s characters are nearly as insubstantial as Daniel. Lacey, for instance, is a one-note song of self-interest, willing to engage in all kinds of deceitful behavior to realize her dreams of buying and selling art. To inject some complexity into her personality, Daniel remarks on her “joie de vivre,” her “openness to adventure,” her “sense of fun.” Yet all we see of her in action is a grim, calculating climber, outlined in such broad strokes that we are not moved to feel anything for her at all.

If the characters are so flimsy, then what holds this novel aloft? It turns out that the main event is a series of disquisitions about modern art, accompanied by reproductions of the works—by the likes of Milton Avery, Andy Warhol and Robert Gober—under discussion.

Occasionally these orations come from characters, including Daniel the narrator, but more often they seem to appear from on high, like leaflets from a helicopter. Sometimes they are incisive (“All great pictures flow toward museums”); at other times they are prosaic (“The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright’s questionable masterpiece that corkscrews into Fifth Avenue”). Together they tell a coherent story about the art market of the past several decades: its booms and busts, speculators and crooks, triumphs and fiascos. But despite Mr. Martin’s diligent efforts they are, by fiction-writing rules, only information dumps, distracting readers again and again from Lacey’s story.

Readers looking for more seamless collaborations with art-world novels might turn to Michael Cunningham’s “By Nightfall” or Fernanda Eberstadt’s “When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth.” These authors don’t allow their books’ milieu to engulf their characters, a predicament Mr. Martin has not been so fortunate, this time, to avoid.

Ms. Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704104104575622982817238718.html

Ten of the best spas

“Tunbridge Wells” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

The mineral spring waters of the Kent town allured fashion-conscious Restoration folk, witheringly described in Rochester’s poem. “I trotted to the waters / The rendezvous of fools, buffoons, and praters, / Cuckolds, whores, citizens, their wives and daughters”. His fellow punters “without drinking, made me purge and spew”.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

In Georgian Bath, the novelist’s alter ego, Matthew Bramble, suspects that the mineral water pump is connected to the baths: “What a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below”.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Catherine Morland gets the chance to go to Bath and enjoy the social whirl because her mother’s friend Mrs Allen has a gouty husband. We never find out whether Mr Allen is cured, but Catherine gets a husband in the pump room.

St Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott Scott’s tragic tale of two brothers in love with the same woman is set in a small Scottish town where a spring of mineral water is discovered, making it suddenly a fashionable destination. Scott based St Ronan’s on the town of Innerleithen, whose popularity was greatly increased by his novel.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexei, the narrator, has come to Roulettenburg as tutor to a Russian family. “Granny”, a rich relative, arrives to take the waters, and Alexei helps her lose lots of cash – but catches the gambling bug himself. Will his ability to win money impress the lovely Polina?

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi is married to dull civil servant Instetten, who cannot understand why, after the birth of their first child, she does not become pregnant again. She is despatched to take the waters at Bad Ems, and while she is away her husband accidentally discovers letters showing that she has had an affair.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

This Edwardian tragedy begins with the meeting of two apparently strait-laced couples, the Americans John and Florence Dowell, and English Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, in the German spa town of Nauheim. It is “a special heart cure place”, where Dowell has travelled because of his wife’s infirmity. But her relationship with Ashburnham will suggest that the waters have more than invigorated her. 

In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield’s stories are narrated by a young English woman who is staying in a Bavarian boarding house while taking a cure. In the Luft Bad she lies around naked with all the other women. She gets hosed down and is told “there is a man who lives in the Luft Bad next door. He buries himself up to the armpits in mud and refuses to believe in the Trinity”.

The Escape by Adam Thirlwell

Thirlwell’s anti-hero Haffner, an ageing libertine, finds himself in an Alpine spa town, where he has travelled to try to reclaim his wife’s villa, stolen by the Nazis. The other characters may be there for the waters, but Haffner, in his late 70s, seeks health through sex, mostly with a helpful yoga instructor.

C by Tom McCarthy

McCarthy advances his neo-modernist credentials by sending his constipated protagonist Serge Carrefax to a spa town called Klodebrady, where his excrement is analysed by the disapproving Dr Filip. “Nationality seems less of a defining label here than type of illness.” He too gets a bit of a sex cure.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/20/ten-best-spas-literature

The Man Who Launched a Blockbuster

Previously unpublished emails show how Stieg Larsson set out to defy the conventions of the crime novel

Stieg Larsson did not live to see the enormous success of his Millennium trilogy, which has now sold over 46 million copies world-wide. But a new book, “On Stieg Larsson,” offers a window into the creative process behind the series of thrillers, which revolve around the antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

“On Stieg Larsson,” which is part of the Millennium Trilogy Deluxe Boxed Set to be released on Nov. 26, includes four essays about the author, as well as an exchange of emails between him and his book editor, Eva Gedin, as they finished up the series. Below are two emails sent by Mr. Larsson in 2004, with his thoughts on the development of the books. On Nov. 9, soon after the last of these emails, Mr. Larsson—who was also the editor of Expo, an anti-racism magazine, in Sweden—died suddenly at the age of 50 after having a heart attack at his office. His first book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was published in Sweden in 2005.

Stieg Larsson on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1987, on assignment for a Swedish news agency. His Millennium trilogy has now sold over 46 million copies.

Friday, April 30, 9:44 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

I’ve just realized that it’s Walpurgis Night [a traditional spring festival celebrated in northern Europe]. I had forgotten all about it. The young are muttering away and cannot wait to go home or go out for a few beers, and I’ve promised to let them loose after nine. Poor old Daniel Poohl—he’s our assistant editor-in-chief and has been sleeping in the office for a couple of weeks now. They’re going on about setting up a branch of the trade union. Hmm.

You’ll get book III as soon as I’ve tied up a few loose ends. I’m looking forward to meeting Elin [Sennero, a copy editor]. I am not altogether confident of my ability to put my thoughts into words: My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them, and I am used to both editing and being edited. Which is to say that I am not oversensitive in such matters. Sometimes we will disagree about matters of fact, and like everybody else of course I have a few hobby horses I am unwilling to abandon. I think the first few chapters are a bit long-winded, and it’s a while before the plot gets under way. The idea was really to build up a substantial gallery of characters and set the scene before the story got going. Etc.

I’m pleased to hear that you think the books are well written. That makes an old churner-out of texts feel happy.

You might be interested in a few of my thoughts concerning the books:

In many respects I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels. I have used some techniques that are normally outlawed—the presentation of Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, is based exclusively on the personal case study made by Lisbeth Salander.

I have tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn’t have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn’t listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model airplanes. He doesn’t have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotypical “slut,” as he himself admits. I have also deliberately changed the sex roles: In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo,” while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical “male” characteristics and values.

A rule of thumb has been never to romanticize crime and criminals, nor to stereotype victims of crime. I base my serial murderer in book I on a composite of three authentic cases. Everything described in the book can be found in actual police investigations.

The description of the rape of Lisbeth Salander is based on an incident that actually took place in the Östermalm district of Stockholm three years ago. And so on.

I have tried to avoid making victims of crime anonymous people—so, for instance, I spend a lot of time introducing Dag Svensson and Mia Johansson before the murders take place.

I abhor crime novels in which the main character can behave however he or she pleases, or do things that normal people do not do without those actions having social consequences. If Mikael Blomkvist shoots somebody with a pistol, even in self-defense, he will end up in the dock.

Lisbeth Salander is the exception to this quite simply because she is a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people. She does not have the same concepts of “right” and “wrong” as normal people, but she also has to face up to the consequences of that.

As you have probably realized, I have devoted an awful lot of space to secondary characters who, in several respects, play just as big a role as the main characters. The intention, of course, is to create a realistic universe around Blomkvist/Salander.

In book I Dragan Armansky [head of a security firm] was introduced in considerable detail: Obviously he is going to be a secondary character who keeps cropping up. In book II the group of police officers around Bublanski and Sonja Modig are given prominent roles. And in book III Annika Giannini [Blomkvist’s sister] and Erika Berger [editor-in-chief of Millennium magazine, where Blomkvist works, and Blomkvist’s occasional lover] are much more prominent than in the earlier books. In book III another person appears who will be a regular member of the gallery of characters in future books. This is wholly intentional on my part. I think that secondary characters can often be much more exciting than the main player.

The only character with whom I have had difficulty is Christer Malm [Millennium’s art director]. In my original plot he was going to play more or less the same role as Erika Berger, but it didn’t work with him as editor-in-chief. And so I was forced to invent Erika Berger, who became a much more entertaining character.

I am going to have a problem with Miriam Wu [Salander’s girlfriend] down the line—I don’t really know what to do with her. The difficulty here of course is that Lisbeth Salander cannot acquire confidantes and at the same time remain an outsider. We shall have to see what happens.

As far as Paolo Roberto [a real-life former boxer who appears in the second novel] is concerned, I’ll have a chat with him in the near future. Kurdo [Baksi, a friend who also appears in the series] is not a problem. He’s my “little brother,” after all. We’ve known each other for many years.

All the best,


Thursday, Oct. 28, 11:39 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

Great that you like number three. It was a bit easier to write than the first two. Please tell Lasse Bergström [the former head of Norstedts, publisher of the books, who called the books “unputdownable”] that he is obviously an intelligent and sensible person of impeccable taste, and that flattery will get him everywhere.

Hmm. I cannot be sure, but I have the impression that you Norstedts people are seriously enthusiastic about my books. O.K., I know they are not bad, and of course I am delighted to read such flattering judgments: but I hope that you are not, for whatever reason, holding back negative comments. I am perfectly capable of coping with criticism

It is most satisfying to see that Lasse noticed that I changed the genre from one novel to the next: he cottoned on exactly to what I was trying to do.…



Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618743115014852.html

Fantasy Not Just For the Young

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking-Glass

By Lewis Carroll (1865, 1871)

The only good thing, I found, about having gone to Rugby School, the famous and wretched boys’ boarding school in the British Midlands, is that Lewis Carroll went there too. The two Alice books are wonderful for children, and in some ways perhaps too good for children, full of adult wisdom and trickery. The first book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” was initially met with dismissive notices (though John Tenniel’s illustrations were well received), but it quickly became a beloved classic. What is most admirable about the second book, “Through the Looking-Glass,” is that it is emphatically not a return to Wonderland; Carroll’s great feat is to have created two entirely discrete imagined worlds for his heroine. I have loved Alice all my life and can still recite “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from memory if asked to do so, or even if nobody asks.

Peter Pan

By J.M. Barrie (1911)

‘Peter Pan’ was a play first, and really the play is better than this subsequent novelization, so I’m cheating a bit here. But the tale of the boy who never grew up is an imperishable one, which not even its subsequent Disneyfication could destroy. Those misled by the 2004 movie “Finding Neverland” into thinking that J.M. Barrie was a tall, gorgeous sex god resembling the actor Johnny Depp may be surprised to learn that the author was in fact extremely short, just 5 feet 3 inches, and almost certainly remained a virgin until the end of his life. So, in more than one way, Barrie was a boy who never grew up, and “Peter Pan,” rooted in this painful reality, would become an archetype, the archetype, of our yearning for youthful anarchy, for what another writer, A.E. Housman, called the “blue remembered hills” of childhood. And there is a mystery at the heart of “Peter Pan,” which Barrie deliberately refused to solve: What was Captain Hook’s name before the crocodile bit off his hand?

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55)

I was introduced to the Tolkien trilogy—”The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “The Return of the King”—and its prequel, “The Hobbit,” by a history teacher when I was 15, the perfect age at which to read Tolkien. I plunged into the world of Middle-earth with a will, even acquiring the rudiments of Elvish and the ability to recite the dread inscription on the Ring of Power in the dark tongue of Mordor. I believe that the secret of the trilogy’s enduring success lies in Tolkien’s infinitely detailed creation of the world it inhabits—there is so much “back story” that is only hinted at, so much to do with the history and legends and religions of dwarves, elves and men, that the world we are given becomes almost too rich with allusion to that submerged information. And then, of course, there is one genuinely immortal character, a greater creation than Gandalf the Grey or the Lord of the Rings himself: that is to say, Gollum.

The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman (1995)

Any book that begins with the death of God is OK by me. I love Philip Pullman’s fabulist world of familiar spirits, “daemons” and magic “dust,” his journey from a notably weird Oxford to flying cowboys, Nordic witches and giant, warrior polar bears. And under all the playfulness is a vision of a secular-humanist universe that has captured the imaginations of adult readers as well as youthful ones. This is an age polluted by much spiritualist and “holy” mumbo-jumbo and easy fanaticism; “The Golden Compass” and the rest of Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy are a powerful counterweight to all that claptrap and have the added benefit of really being fun to read.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon (2003)

Books for older children or “young adults,” to use the strange formula of the marketplace, have been taking on more and more complex real-world issues—child abuse, crime, poverty, illness, death. If you have ever known anyone with Asperger’s syndrome, especially a child, you will know how tough it can be to be around. I know just such a boy as the one in this book, whom I love very much, even though, when asked to play ping-pong with me, he tends to say, “Oh, but Salman’s so old and useless, I’ll just thrash him,” and then goes on to prove that he was right. This kind of imperative truth-telling in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” exonerates the book’s young hero from involvement in the killing of a dog; his subsequent investigation into the crime is beautifully carried off. And we would do well to remember what Sherlock Holmes said in the story “Silver Blaze” about the original “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Holmes was reminded, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” and he replied: “That was the curious incident.”

Mr. Rushdie’s most recent novel, “Luka and the Fire of Life,” has just been published by Random House.

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704584504575616090409906822.html

Trying to Show the Unknowable

The ordeals, strategies, problems and triumphs of Holocaust literature.

‘A novel about Auschwitz,” Elie Wiesel once wrote, “is not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz.” The testimony of Holocaust survivors, he seemed to imply, is inherently true, while literary representations of the Holocaust are, at some level, inherently false.

Of course, it is not a simple matter. As Ruth Franklin argues in “A Thousand Darknesses,” her superb study of Holocaust literature, every canonical work, including “Night” (1958), Mr. Wiesel’s famous book about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, blurs the distinction between fiction and reality. If the best works do so self-consciously, as she contends, there is always the danger that certain works will cross the line into bad faith, inviting charges of distortion or fraud.

And indeed, in recent years, a number of Holocaust stories have been exposed as hoaxes. The case of Binjamin Wilkomirski stands out. After being lauded by survivors for faithfully conveying their ordeal, his purported memoir, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” (1996), became a scandal when it was discovered to be, like the author’s name and personal history, a fabrication. Ms. Franklin does not discuss “Fragments” in detail, but it offers a touchstone for her investigation, showing the tension between Holocaust testimony and the fiction derived from it—in this case, fiction posing as lived experience.

Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material. There is the case, for instance, of the postwar German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, who rewrote an obscure Holocaust memoir by one Jakob Littner and turned it into a superior work of art. For “Schindler’s Ark” (1982), the novelist Thomas Keneally based his narrative on careful research of Oskar Schindler’s life, almost to the point of making the book (as one critic said) a “workaday piece of reportage” rather than a textured work of fiction. For the film “Schindler’s List” (1993), as Ms. Franklin observes, Steven Spielberg more freely manipulated the factual history to create, for his audience, the potent illusion of “witnessing” the Holocaust.

Ms. Franklin is especially drawn to difficult cases. Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jewish Pole, was a prisoner at Auschwitz and served in the camp’s Sonderkommando—the squad that processed the dead and their belongings—if only for a day. Although fellow survivors reported that he acted heroically in the camp, he suffered, Ms. Franklin concludes, a “psychological wound.” In the stories collected in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” published soon after the war, he adopted the voice of a cynical narrator who alternately mocks Jewish victims and recoils in disgust at their suffering. By implicating himself in the workings of the camp, Ms. Franklin says, Borowski found a powerful way to explore the tangled roles of victim and perpetrator.

In other cases, fiction’s autobiographical core is even more perplexing. Imre Kertész draws on his own experience in Auschwitz for his novel “Fatelessness” (1975), but the naiveté of his narrative voice denies us the consolation of straightforward testimony. “We can never be certain,” Ms. Franklin says, “of an episode’s truth-value.” In his quasi-autobiographical novel “Blood From the Sky” (1961) the Ukrainian-born French writer Piotr Rawicz presents two capricious storytellers who deliberately obscure facts and recount brutality in language at once florid and sardonic. Together they create a form of “anti-witness”—not false witness but witness whose immersion in evil has made mental and moral clarity impossible.

Nonfiction writers may seem to be more trustworthy, but we must not always take their words at face value, Ms. Franklin warns. Primo Levi, whose profession as a chemist helped him survive Auschwitz, presented his own experience—in “If This Is a Man” (1947)—in language of scientific clarity. But he also took many liberties in telling the stories of his comrades. In W.G. Sebald’s mesmerizing blend of fiction, encyclopedic detail and travelogue in “Austerlitz” (2001) and “The Emigrants” (1993)—both grounded in the experiences of Jewish children in the Holocaust—Ms. Franklin finds a painstaking strategy for restoring people and places to life. “Restitution,” Sebald called it.

Questions of authenticity became acute once therapists and cultural theorists asserted that trauma was transmissible, permitting readers (and filmgoers) to “bear witness” to events they had not experienced. The archetypal test case is Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” Because Kosinski cagily led readers to believe that his story of an unnamed boy wandering through a violent Eastern European landscape was based on his own childhood, Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller, among others, hailed it as a Holocaust masterpiece. Once it became known that the story’s incidents were invented—and that Kosinski’s family had hidden safely from the Nazis during the war—the book was condemned as a sadomasochistic fairy tale. By exploring the gray zone between witness and voyeurism, however, Kosinski had suggested that the lies of literature could provide surprising access to horrific events.

If the documents on which historians depend can prove unreliable, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.) Still, by scrupulously defending the integrity of literature, Ms. Franklin has offered her own eloquent testimony.

Mr. Sundquist is a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.”


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703514904575602652942567516.html

Maxim Jakubowski’s top 10 crime locations

LA story … Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Big Sleep.
Maxim Jakubowski is a writer and editor who was the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer for 10 years. He has edited anthologies of noir tales about London, Paris and Rome and is currently working on a Venice volume. Following the Detectives, which has just been published, is an illustrated book that follows the trail of some of crime fiction’s greatest sleuths, discovering the cities and countries in which they live and work. His new novel, I Was Waiting For You, moves between Paris, New York, Barcelona, Tangiers, Venice, Los Angeles and Rome.

“I have always felt that one of literature’s virtues and attractions is that it can powerfully evoke places and times and bring them to life alongside plot and characters. Hardy’s Wessex springs to mind, as do Thomas Mann’s Venice or the Saint Petersburg of Dostoevsky and the teeming London of Dickens. But I would argue that crime and mystery fiction offers the perfect blend of storytelling and sense of place, where characters and atmosphere prove of unique appeal: the location works as an extra, indispensable character and is indivisible from the sometimes breathless action taking place in the narrative. Think of Stockholm and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, Sara Paretsky’s Vic Warshawski and the mean streets of Chicago, Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho and Barcelona, Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana or Mankell’s Wallander in Ystad. What with the tsunami of popularity that crime and thrillers have enjoyed over recent years, there are now few places on the map that are not associated with a specific detective or cop. These are some I find most distinctive.”

1. Los Angeles in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939)

 Although Michael Connelly is fast becoming the bard of modern Los Angeles, Chandler remains the pioneer whose iconic Philip Marlowe novels define the city’s mean streets and sprawl. From rich mansions to backstreet dives, shady bookstores and cheap hotel rooms, Chandler captures the essence of a city in flux between affluence and despair with tarnished knight Marlowe at the helm.

2. London in Derek Raymond’s I was Dora Suarez (1990)

From Sherlock Holmes onwards, London has been mapped by successive generations of crime writers, but none has evoked the loneliness of lost souls whose dreams have been shattered by the big city like Raymond in his Factory novels. His anonymous avenging angel figure of a cop is based in Soho’s Poland Street and roams a familiar but grim landscape which no tourist would ever contemplate visiting. A bleak but unforgettable view of London.

3. New Orleans in James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain (1987)

This was the first novel in which Burke introduced his ex-Vietnam vet anti-hero Dave Robicheaux as he roamed ceaselessly through the humid streets of the French Quarter, the Garden District and the adjoining bayou country in search of justice while wrestling with his own demons. The shimmering prose catches the smells, colours and unique atmosphere of the Louisiana city. The decline of the Crescent City has been chronicled in his following books, all the way to hurricane Katrina.

4. Paris in Fred Vargas’s Have Mercy On Us All (2001)

The French capital in which Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg investigates is the real Paris – the small popular ‘quartiers’ with their bars, small local businesses and merchants, neighbourhood restaurants and secret histories – not the Paris of the Eiffel tower and the Champs-Élysées. Her idiosyncratic and at times whimsical plots allow her sleuth to look behind the facade of bourgeois Paris and unveil a hotbed of intrigue and crime, a striking web of darkness behind the facade of the City of Light.

5. Bologna in Barbara Baraldi’s The Girl With the Crystal Eyes (2008)

Italian cities are not just striking monuments and a crowd of churches. Baraldi’s colourful serial killer chiller in the tradition of Dario Argento’s “gialli” film thrillers transforms the cobbled streets of Bologna into a shuddering symphony of darkness. The whole city turns into a gothic world of shadows when night falls, a place where Hannibal Lecter and Hitchcock would feel right at home. Emo psychogeography at its most striking.

6. Brighton in Peter James’s Dead Simple (2005)

The best British crime writers thrive when they associate a character with a city (Ian Rankin’s Rebus with Edinburgh, John Harvey’s Resnick with Nottingham) and Peter James’s cop Roy Grace has put the Brighton of Graham Greene into the shade. His investigations, assisted in a major way by the fact James spends a day a week on average with the local police force, explain why Brighton, behind its gentle facade, is in fact one of the UK’s capitals of crime. From sea front to back alleys, posh areas and rundown streets, Roy Grace’s Brighton has become a portrait of England today.

7. Miami in Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (1984)

Maybe it’s the weather that warps the mind, but Florida is a bedrock for fictional crime. Local authors from John D MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen, James Hall and Vicki Hendricks have all dissected the often bizarre manifestations of evil and retribution, often inspired by real life, but the late Charles Willeford, with his Hoke Moseley series, best captures the quirky, violent, contradictory place that is Miami. Drugs, beaches, crazed immigrants, rednecks, cults, alligators and crooked cops, it’s all here in abundance. Anyone who’s spent time in Miami airport will recognise the madness in a trice.

8. San Francisco in Joe Gores’s Spade and Archer (2009)

Steve McQueen and Bullitt and the Haight-Ashbury of hippie days have created an indelible image for the city on the bay in the public mind, but it is also the stamping ground of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, one of crime’s iconic sleuths. Ironically, the fascinating city is best recreated in all its teeming complexity and contrasts in Gores’s latter-day prequel to Spade’s adventures, in which he fills in the gaps that Hammett left. The treachery of Chinatown, the looming shadow of the Golden Gate bridge, the darkened warehouse districts, and the sharp contrast between haves and have-nots fix San Francisco like a fly in amber.

9. Oxford in Colin Dexter’s The Dead Of Jericho (1981)

What with the sheer number of fatalities in Oxford during the course of the Inspector Morse novels, many tourists might still believe it to be one of the UK’s most dangerous cities, but there is no denying that Colin Dexter put the city on the fictional map. Quiet campuses. the architectural splendour of academia and its buildings, warm country pubs, opulent houses, working-class shabbiness all come together to construct a convincing image of the city, to the extent that there are now numerous local tours based on the world of Morse which attracts visitors by the busload. How crime fiction put a city on the map!

10. New York in Lawrence Block’s Small Town (2003)

One of American mystery writing’s treasures, Lawrence Block is a New Yorker through and through, despite many years of travel. Small Town is his paean to Manhattan, a sprawling narrative that moves effortlessly between Greenwich Village, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side and all points in between and could almost be used as map in your peregrinations through the canyons of the Avenues and side streets. He seizes the unique vibrancy of the city, alongside a gripping plot.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/17/crime-top-10-locations-fiction

Anna Shevchenko’s top 10 novels set in Moscow

Exaggerated and distorted through fiction … Moscow through a rainy window.

Anna Shevchenko studied at the National University, Kiev, before moving to the UK to study at Cambridge University.  A linguist and international negotiator, she speaks seven languages and is the author of two cultural guides to Russia and Ukraine. Her first novel, Bequest, is an international thriller set in both Kiev and Moscow.

I chose the books where Moscow is more than a setting – it shapes the characters and their actions, almost becoming a character itself. I was always intrigued by the way the cityscape can influence the mindset: Moscow, for example, can be seen as a chaotic cluster of villages, a cobweb of streets or as a grid.

The Moscow of Russian authors builds various stage sets which resemble giant, grotesque Russian dolls with grimaces on brightly painted faces. Their image of Moscow is often exaggerated or distorted.

Western writers’ Moscow settings are more linear: they recreate and distill the existing reality of controlled society, reflecting western perceptions of monochrome gloom and danger and, recently, of the bizarre chaos of the post-Soviet capital.

The Moscow of my novel, Bequest, is a hungry metropolis, which swallows its provincial victims and influences the decisions of one of its characters.

1. Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin (Moscow in 1598)

Pushkin’s drama about the rule of Boris Godunov, a charismatic leader with dark secrets, untangles Kremlin intrigues and plotting. Red Square is full of drunken crowds, raw emotion and brutal force. (“Why doesn’t my baby cry when he needs to? Everybody is crying …” asks a peasant at the square, throwing her baby on the pavement.) Moscow is dark and intense.

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Moscow from 1810-1813)

The city of glamour and gambling, of superstition and appearances, relationships and glitzy balls.

“Moscow is about gossip, St Petersburg is about politics,” says one of the characters.

It contrasts with the abandoned and burned city of 1813, Moscow after the Napoleonic invasion: the city of lost hopes, lost loves and lives.

3. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Moscow in 1900)

Moscow as a symbol, rather than a city, a dream of escape from drab provincial reality for three educated sisters.

Their “To Moscow!” is a desperate cry for help. They do not return to the capital of their childhood, abandoning their hopes of a perfect life. This play is often compared with the story of the Brontë sisters, but I find it very Russian for all its melancholy, nostalgia and layered emotions.

4. The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov (Moscow in 1927)

Masterly theatrical satire of the Moscow of the first post-revolutionary decade. Moscow here is a railway station, full of con artists, chaos and … missing chairs. One of them contains diamonds, hidden under the shabby upholstery: just as the sparkles of humour and joie de vivre are hidden in an impoverished Moscow, under communist slogans of canteens providing carrot burgers.

5. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Moscow in 1933)

My favourite book of all time. I re-read it on my birthday, together with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, every decade (at 20, 30, 40), always to discover a different angle, a new depth.

The phantasmagoria of Satan’s arrival in Moscow in the 1930s is mixed with the sadness of doomed passion. This is a Moscow full of irony and covert satire on the first ominous stirrings of Stalin’s regime. This book made the Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow a place of literary pilgrimage.

6. The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Moscow in 1949)

“If a man has no freedom even in prison, where else might he have it then?” asks one character.

Moscow as a prison. The characters work in the first circle of hell – as prisoners in the KGB secret research institute, Sharazhka. They joke, laugh, love, make complex moral choices, but there is no escape from Moscow and from themselves. Autobiographical, chilling; a powerful triumph of the freedom of the human spirit.

7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Moscow in 1981)

For me, as an insider of the Soviet system, Martin Cruz Smith’s crime novel was one of the best western descriptions of the Moscow map as a grid of Soviet ideology at the beginning of the 1980s.

The background of the story of Soviet investigator Arkady Renko is the hypocrisy and corruption of the system, with the mutilated bodies in a Moscow amusement park as the main attractions.

8. Generation ‘П’ (published as Babylon in the UK) by Victor Pelevin (Moscow in the early 1990s

Victor Pelevin is an author you either love or hate, but you cannot remain indifferent to his description of a new generation – the generation that thrived in the post-Soviet Moscow of the early 1990s, where the move from collective to individual is through smoky underground passages, hallucinating mushrooms, drugs and consumerism.

9. The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Moscow in the late 1990s)

The Day Watch-Twilight Watch-Night Watch trilogy, by Sergei Lukyanenko, became a phenomenal bestseller in Russia, satisfying Russian craving for all things mystical.

The Night Watch is my favourite, set in the futuristic and twisted Moscow of parallel worlds. Dark evil forces, vampires and ordinary Muscovites coexist. Walking the streets of Moscow, you never know where you will be crossing the line …

10. Icon by Frederick Forsyth (Moscow in 1999)

The city is dark and intense. There are Kremlin intrigues and drunken crowds, a charismatic leader with dark secrets and brutal force.

… Or have I said that already about the Moscow of 1598, in Boris Godunov?


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An Epistolary Performer

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s humorous and impassioned dialogue with friends, enemies—and himself

“It’s been ten years since Katie excommunicated me. She used to keep a lightweight typewriter for me in London when she worked for Oxford Press in Dover Street, but I offended her after John Berryman’s death while she and I were having a beer, and she said, ‘How dare you speak of John in a place like this?’ As John’s death was hastened by alcoholism I didn’t see that there was anything improper in reminiscing in the presence of so many bottles. But Katie said in a trembling voice: ‘Take your typewriter away and never come to see me again.’ ”

So wrote Saul Bellow (1915-2005) to the playwright Robert Hivnor in 1985. The vignette tells us a great deal. That Bellow could always tell a good story. That he could inspire great affection, which could quickly turn into abrupt dismissal, especially on the part of women. That he always thought of himself as the innocent party. And that such episodes troubled him perhaps more than he let on.

An American, Montreal-born Saul Bellow in 1964.

“Katie” was Catharine Carver, who had been Bellow’s editor at Viking. She was as passionate in her support of “her” authors as she was of their privacy. That you do not speak ill of the dead or gossip about those who are not present were central tenets of her life. She invariably refused to release the private letters of the authors she had worked with and who had become her friends, no matter how much editors and biographers begged her.

I have a lot of respect for her position. I wouldn’t want my private letters to be made public. On the other hand, I’m not willing to forgo the experience of reading the letters of Keats, van Gogh or Kafka just because they were not written to me. And I’m sorry that the fascinating new volume of Bellow’s letters does not contain the ones he wrote to Catharine Carver.

The publication of the letters of Keats and van Gogh would have ensured their immortality even if not a single poem or painting by them had survived. Saul Bellow’s letters are not in that league, but their publication is a major event, offering not only a rich mine of information for those interested in his work but also a fascinating book in its own right. That they don’t quite reach the heights of the genre may not even be a reflection on Bellow but may be the result of the vagaries of history. For though the first letter here dates from 1932, when Bellow was just 17, there are a mere 120 pages of letters covering the years before the publication of “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953 and his sudden rise to fame.

But the years before public recognition, when an artist is pouring out his hopes and frustrations (usually to one devoted friend, a Theo van Gogh or Max Brod), are usually the most interesting ones—and perhaps one of the reasons why the letters of Keats, van Gogh and Kafka are so moving is that fame only came to them posthumously. In a 1992 letter to the novelist Stanley Elkin, Bellow wrote: “When I was young I used to correspond actively with Isaac Rosenfeld and other friends. He died in 1956, and several more went in the same decade, and somehow I lost the habit of writing long personal letters—a sad fact I only now begin to understand.” He goes on to suggest that these deaths threw him back upon himself. “I suppose the letters in ‘Herzog’ reflect this solipsistic condition. . . . With me, for a long time, it’s been fiction or nothing.”

There are no letters to Rosenfeld here (he informed Bellow that he had thrown them away in the course of one of his moves, and Bellow professed to be relieved) or to close friends such as Delmore Schwartz, and so it may be that the best of Bellow’s correspondence is, necessarily, missing from this volume.

But it’s also possible that Bellow never opened up completely to anyone, even in his youth. On her return from a tour of Eastern Europe with him in 1960, Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt: “Saul and I parted good friends, though he is too wary and raw-nerved to be friends, really, even with people he decides to like.” And in the 1992 letter to Elkin, Bellow confessed: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were also practicing to be writers.”

The letters do often feel like performances. This can be part of their charm. His mock-letters to old and trusted friends are hilarious: “Dear Mr. Berrimon,” he writes to the poet John Berryman, “I ‘ave souvent theenk of your conference sur I-do-and-do-not-wish-to-be-cast-upon-your-shore. It is a titre sublime. Et sérieusement, vous avez peint ze human situation more better than J.-P. Sartre avec une seule strook.” “Dear Yevgeny Pavlovitch,” he writes to the critic Alfred Kazin, “You know me, Yevgeny, and my Russian lack of organization. I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to. So, do I have that letter from the man? Of course not.”

The one-liners that are a glory of the novels abound here. “To have a holiday in Jerusalem is something like consummating a marriage in a laundromat.” “Will I read your book?” he writes to John Cheever. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?” Of an official visit by Václav Havel to New York: “Havel and I chatted for about three minutes and were separated as if we were tomato seeds in the digestive tract.” There is nothing studied about such images: They seem to burst out of him as soon as he puts pen to paper.

The letters are also full of those wonderful vignettes that pepper his books, comic and perceptive at the same time: “Just now we’re in Positano, on the gulf of Salerno,” he wrote in a 1950 letter, “in the midst of the mountains and hanging over the sea. . . . On holy days the Saints are taken for a walk by a procession. It would seem incredible for the gods never to see the sun, and they are shown it on Sunday.” Or from Chicago in 1968: “I saw N Leites [a Sovietologist at the University of Chicago] with his bald musclebound skull hurrying through melting slush, moving with ballistic energy from 53rd to 55th, a bottle under his arm—moving with such force, and the muscles of shyness and analytic subtlety (probably pointless) gathered up on his shaven head.”

There’s so much going on here, such swift and impassioned dialogue between the spiritual and the physical, the place and those who inhabit it, that, as so often in his books, we can only gasp in joyful wonder. Just as the volume brings out how much a part of a group of the children of immigrants Bellow was, both in his early days in Chicago and in his New York years and later life—when his editors, his agents and most of his friends were nearly all first- or second-generation Jewish-Americans (Berryman and Cheever are notable exceptions)—it also reveals how unique he was in his gifts and energy. At the age of 3, in Montreal, he was speaking French in the streets and Yiddish at home and working his way through Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew with a rabbi. At 8, desperately sick in a hospital in Chicago, he was devouring a New Testament he found there, falling in love with Jesus, sensing that he must keep this from his family. As a young man, he writes that he is working hard at his music and his Hebrew. In his old age, he takes up Latin and Caesar’s “Commentaries,” reads the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and corresponds with Owen Barfield, the anthroposophist and cultural historian.

If playfully turning T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish with Isaac Rosenfeld at 13 was not all that different from what his contemporaries at Eton might have been doing with Homer or at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand with Racine, there is the added sense here that it is an amazing thing for little Jewish boys from Chicago to be entering such a world. Remembering his youth in an essay, he later wrote: “The children of Chicago bakers, tailors, peddlers, insurance agents, pressers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on relief, were reading buckram-bound books from the public library and were in a state of enthusiasm. . . discovering their birthright, hearing incredible news from the great world of culture, talking to one another about the mind, society, art, religion, epistemology, and doing all this in Chicago.”

But of them all only Bellow found a way to channel both the energy and the newfound learning into a sustained oeuvre. How he did this is one of the stories that unfolds in the course of this book. Utterly confident from the start, he coped with the usual rebuffs of youth and finally got a novel published when he was 29. “Dangling Man” appeared in 1944 to warm reviews and was quickly followed by “The Victim” (1947). But at the same time, even as he defended his work to friends and editors, he admitted to being dissatisfied with what he was writing. It felt too tight, constricted, too willed. But how to find freedom and not descend into chaos?

The years 1948-52 were crucial. Living on a Guggenheim grant in Paris with wife and child, he began to find an answer. A voice was released in him, and Augie March was born: “I am American, Chicago born . . . and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.”

“I knew . . . that I’d put my hand strongly to a good thing and was making it resound,” he wrote to his editor Monroe Engel as he was working on it. “Easily or not at all,” became his motto in the writing of the book, and, as with Samuel Beckett in the same years, the breakthrough took him to where his real interests lay. He never looked back.

Although in later life he felt that “Augie March” was too loose, it was the key that unlocked his genius. The next 20 years were miraculous, as one masterpiece followed another: “Seize the Day” (1956), “Henderson the Rain King” (1959), “Herzog” (1964), “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970). All were greeted with acclaim, and prizes were showered upon him, culminating with the Nobel in 1976.

After that, a decline set in, not helped, in my opinion, by his continuing to teach, first at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and then at Boston University. Unlike Beckett or even his great rival, Bernard Malamud, Bellow was unable to reinvent himself with success. From “Humboldt’s Gift” (1975) to “Ravelstein” (2000), works that would have been admirable from anyone else were, for him, merely repetitive. “Humboldt” is baggy, overblown and irretrievably sentimental in its belief that to be a businessman or a crook is somehow to be more in touch with life than to be an intellectual, “Ravelstein” a lesser version of “Henderson” and “Herzog.”

Bellow confessed late in life that he had never expected the degree of fame he got and that perhaps he had not known how to deal with it. The middle portion of this book consists of rather too many letters in which we find him complaining of how his ex-wives are treating him, never recognizing that he might be partly to blame. He married, divorced, married again, divorced again, until, at the fifth attempt, in his 70s, he settled into a contented old age with a wife almost 50 years his junior. He fathered a fourth child at 84, and spent more and more time giving speeches at the memorial services of old friends and writing to others about the old times.

The last letters—suddenly more natural, less defensive—are the surprise of the book. Bellow’s sharpness of observation and his way with words is unabated, as in this account of the grandfather of the girl to whom the first letter in this volume is addressed, Yetta Barshevsky: “I even came to know Yetta’s grandfather, whom I would often see at the synagogue when I came to say Kaddish for my mother. He was an extremely, primitively orthodox short bent man with a beard that seemed to have rushed out of him and muffled his face. He wore a bowler hat and elastic-sided boots. The old women, it seems, were wildly radical communist sympathizers. The grandfathers were the pious ones.”

It is in this funeral address, given 64 years after his letter to Yetta, that he struggles for the last time with the great mystery which his whole writing life had been devoted to articulating: “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response. Today’s memorial testifies to Yetta’s secret power, the power of being Yetta.”

Since his death, Bellow has to some extent come to be taken for granted. These letters—introduced with a fine essay by Benjamin Taylor and lightly annotated by him (sometimes too lightly, but better that than the overkill of a scholarly edition)—may help to remind us of his essential qualities of linguistic brilliance, comic exuberance and a very Russian and very Jewish awareness of the depths as well as the foibles of men.

Let’s re-acquaint ourselves with him.

Mr. Josipovici’s most recent book is “What Ever Happened to Modernism?”


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The Zealotry Of Free Thinkers

Many philosophes ended up gouty and spherical, despite the austerities

The history of ideas is a field that is extraordinarily difficult to popularize. Philipp Blom’s approach is to use collective biography, in the case of “A Wicked Company” the 18th-century thinkers of the Enlightenment’s “forgotten radicalism,” as he puts. They include Diderot, Hume and Rousseau, perhaps not household names like Christopher Hitchens or Oprah Winfrey, but “forgotten”—surely not?

The guests at Baron d’Holbach’s twice-weekly salons were called “wicked company” by British actor-manager David Garrick, who frequented the salons during two sojourns in Paris in the 1760s. Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men, who had rebelled against oppressively small-minded fathers, fleeing to the big city, where they “dared to know” before settling down to the minor celebrity they had acquired by old age. It is not the story of a major event, like the French Revolution, but it has faint ancestral resonances for the atheists, humanists and rationalists who, to popular amusement, recently threatened to arrest the pope on his visit to Britain.

The radicalism of Mr. Blom’s group of thinkers consisted of advocating democracy over monarchy and aristocracy; racial and gender equality; the right to choose one’s individual way of life; freedom of thought and expression, including freedom of the press; and, finally, religious toleration, including the right to believe in nothing at all. Most important, they thought there were no fields of human activity that might not benefit from the application of philosophic reason. Commonplace nowadays, these views were shocking at the time.

Mr. Blom focuses on the rival salons of Paris and the often fraught personal relations of his subjects. The salons were organized by aristocratic men and women, affording the philosophes opportunities to try out their literary wares and show off their quick-wittedness. Some of these convivial occasions involved gargantuan quantities of food and wine, if Mr. Blom’s sample menu offering 30 dishes is any guide. No wonder so many philosophes seem to have ended up gouty and spherical, despite the moral austerities they often enjoined on others.

The atmosphere was undoubtedly heady with speculation. The novelist Laurence Sterne noted that “an infinitude of gaiety & civility reigns among them—& what is no small art, Every man leaves the room with a better Opinion of his own Talents than when he entered.” The more skeptical historian Edward Gibbon remarked on the “intolerant zeal” of those who “preached the tenets of Atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.” That is an arresting assessment, considering Gibbon’s own skeptical views of religious belief.

Mr. Blom’s coupling of the lives of the philosophes with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued. If readers weary of the ins and outs of philosophical materialism, never mind, since another bodice-ripping liaison dangeureuse is just around the corner. It is useful to be reminded that Diderot, Jean d’Alembert and their contributors produced a 17-volume Encyclopédie consisting of nearly 80,000 individual articles and 20 million words, not to mention an additional 11 volumes of illustrative materials. That it was a collective enterprise probably explains why its editors did not enjoy the posthumous fame of a Kant or Voltaire.

Mr. Blom’s other strategy is the essentially romantic one of pitting his brave little band of free thinkers against a rather stereotypical “authority.” The Catholic Church (and the Calvinist fathers of Geneva) appear only as a reactionary presence, ever ready to symbolically burn books and persecute their authors, as part of an ancien régime whose complexities are not explored. That a parallel Catholic Enlightenment strove to reconcile reason with religion by jettisoning the more obviously ludicrous aspects of faith seems to have passed the author by.

As Mr. Blom concedes, the more mainstream Enlightenment thinkers were appalled by the social implications of his radicals’ views. And even the radicals themselves seemed to have had their doubts. Voltaire was not alone in wishing dark religion upon his servants, to inhibit their thieving fingers, even though he remained a deist himself. Rousseau was also, rightly, worried about the coldness of a purely material universe. And consider a love letter that Diderot wrote in 1759 to his mistress, Sophie: “If there were a kind of law of affinity among our organizing principles, if we could make up one shared being . . . if the molecules of your dissolved lover could become agitated, move and seek your molecules scattered through nature!” Poor Sophie.

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s instrumental view of “civic” religion would lead, directly, to the grotesqueries of the Jacobins’ Cult of Reason—personified by the fat actress Désirée Candéille prancing about half-naked as the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame in 1793—and to the state’s systematic murder of those who rejected such secular cults, a prefigurement of the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Mr. Blom seems to be celebrating the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment for positing “a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty.” That view of the world is certainly embraced by their intellectual descendants today. But judging by the crowds of people I recently saw mob Pope Benedict XVI on a grim London public-housing estate, it may take more than Mr. Blom’s book to make the radical Enlightenment broadly appealing, especially since the pope’s message combines faith, love and reason.

Mr. Burleigh is the author of “Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror.”


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The Lady and the Playwright

He had her from “Must you go?”

It was Jan. 8, 1975—opening night of the revival of “The Birthday Party” at London’s Shaw Theatre. Lady Antonia Fraser—historian and author of the best-selling “Mary Queen of Scots”—was in the audience and then at the postperformance dinner for the play’s author, Harold Pinter.

[ccfraser] Lady Antonia Fraser

As the festivities wound down, Lady Antonia, daughter of the Seventh Earl of Longford, wife of British M.P. Hugh Fraser, and a brainy and very dishy mother of six—comparisons to Julie Christie and Marianne Faithfull were frequent and reasonable—accepted a ride home from neighbors. But first she wanted to offer quick congratulations to the man of the hour: “Wonderful play, marvelous acting,” she told Pinter. “Now I’m off.”

“He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. ‘Must you go?’ he said. I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning . . . my projected biography of King Charles II. ‘No, it’s not absolutely essential.'”

So began a 33-year marriage of true minds that ended with Pinter’s death from cancer on Christmas Eve in 2008, at the age of 78. He was “loopy” about her. She was “dippy” about him. He called her his destiny, wrote her love poems, ordered up flowers for her in extravagant quantities and described their situation as “joyous, dangerous and unavoidable.”

Unavoidable indeed. Lady Antonia left her husband. Pinter left his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant. The British tabloid press, agog—titled Catholic aristocrat consorting with working-class Jewish playwright!—never left them alone.

The couple’s blazingly happy relationship—they married in 1980—is chronicled in Lady Antonia’s affecting new book, “Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter.” It is neither biography nor memoir, but an assemblage of gleaming bits and pieces fashioned from her diary—a mosaic of moments, low and high (his diagnosis of esophageal cancer in 2001; his 2005 Nobel Prize), private and public (the covert meetings in dark bars at the dawn of their affair; Pinter’s highly vocal railing at human-rights violations; his support of the Serbs and rage about the Iraq war).

An inveterate journal-keeper for more than 40 years, Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” a month after Pinter died. “I never intended to publish it. It wasn’t written for that reason,” she said, drinking coffee in the lobby alcove of her midtown hotel after an early morning swim. “But I was sitting in a restaurant with an old friend who was trying to cheer me up and who happened to ask, ‘Do you still keep diaries?’

“The whole thing, including the title, came into my head like that. It was an act of love and remembrance, really, a book of celebration at a time of such tremendous grief,” continued Lady Antonia, 78, who has a posh, creamy voice you must sometimes bend close to hear and who has a manner that is equal parts grand and grandmotherly. “It was a very surprising thing for me to do because I’m not a very candid person, and I don’t believe I would or could write it now. It was the effect of grief.”

There were no touch-ups of the text, no airbrushing, she insisted. “A sense of historian’s honor. I wouldn’t do that.” But 33 years did have to be shaped and arranged into manageable length. “This was not the American Civil War.”

In assembling the book, whose diary entries are sometimes appended with commentary and memories, Lady Antonia operated with one basic rule: “Everything had to relate to me and Harold. I couldn’t just put in things because they were fun.”

Fortunately, that self- imposed stricture allowed for anecdotes and encounters involving (in no particular order) John Gielgud, Joan Collins, Helen Mirren, Jude Law, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Karl Lagerfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael Gambon, Salman Rushdie, Steve McQueen, Vaclav Havel, Princess Diana, Warren Beatty (who put the moves on Lady Antonia) and Samuel Beckett. Duly recorded was a side-splitting exchange between the two giants of the theater. “I’m sorry, Sam, if I sound gloomy,” said Pinter, to which the “Waiting for Godot” author most courteously replied, “Oh, you couldn’t be more gloomy than I am, Harold.”

Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” “like a bat out of hell,” she said. Ultimately, however, the deeply ingrained habits of a historian took over. In the book’s more thematically arranged middle portion, “I did think ‘I am now exercising my profession. I’m seeing what fits where and how to construct it.’ That was rather fun, because I also thought ‘at the end there are going to be no references, no bibliography. It’s all me. I am the source notes.'”

Since the book’s publication last spring in Britain—it was released in the U.S. last week—Lady Antonia has grown to expect several things from reporters. There will surely be an exclamation of surprise that Pinter wasn’t really very, um (pause) Pinteresque at all. He was chivalrous and romantic, a doting stepfather and step-grandfather (and seriously afraid of bugs and heights). There will almost certainly be a request for Lady Antonia to read one of the poems from Pinter that are sprinkled through the diary (she complies with admirable composure). And of course there will be a question about what her late husband would make of the book. “As I was writing I was confident that he was, as it were, with me,” Lady Antonia said. “And I tell people that he would have loved two things about it, that his poems run through it and that I draw no veil over his politics at all.”

Lady Antonia, whose books include biographies of Oliver Cromwell, James I of England, the wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette is currently without a subject for her next book. During Pinter’s final illness, she had done considerable work on a biography of Elizabeth I, but abandoned the project after finishing “Must You Go.” “I thought, ‘I can’t go back. I think it’s a fascinating topic but I don’t have anything special to say,'” she recalled.

“I’m very self-disciplined. If I’m going to spend years thinking about something, then the reader is going to have my best. They’re not going to have something I cobbled together because I said I’d do it,” continued Lady Antonia, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and whose fascination with religion has found expression in almost her entire oeuvre. “So I repaid the advance—ouch, ouch—and there it is. I shall do something, but I really haven’t had a minute this year. On Jan. 1, I will go back to my usual routine.”

The work on “Must You Go” was no replacement for grieving—only a postponement. “After I’d written it and was getting it ready for publication, I did have a kind of letdown,” said Lady Antonia. “But by that time I was stronger, as one is.”

Closure? She recoils at the word and the notion. “Thank you very much. No closure,” she said tartly. “I don’t want closure in stopping mourning. I don’t want it to stop. But it is the oddest thing when something happens and I think ‘I must tell Harold.’

“And I can’t.”

Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.


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Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s top 10 supernatural families

The Pevensies in the 2005 film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Gang of four … the Pevensies in the 2005 film of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has been a competitive cheerleader, a volleyball player, a teen model and a primate cognition researcher. She graduated from Yale University with a degree in cognitive science and used her research to imagine the werewolf world in her first novel, Raised by Wolves. She currently teaches Yale’s most popular undergraduate class, Sex, Evolution and Human Nature, which looks at what evolutionary psychology and mating behaviour in animals can tell us about human nature.
“There’s only one thing I love more than a good supernatural story, and that’s a story that explores what it means to be a family: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whether it’s a family of choice or blood makes very little difference to me, but there’s something so compelling about the idea of being connected to other people and part of their lives in a permanent and often complicated way. One of the reasons I chose to write about werewolves was because it offered a lot of opportunities to explore growing up within – and sometimes away from – your family (or, in werewolf terms, your pack). So, in honour of my two favourite things in literature, I give you my top 10 supernatural families in fiction.”
1. The Weasleys (the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling)

From Fred and George to the insufferable Percy (not to mention Ginny’s performance in Chamber of Secrets), the Weasley family is brimming with memorable characters and complex relationships – leading to some of the best lines and most heartbreaking scenes in the entire seven-book series.

2. Nick and Alan Ryves (The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan)

One’s a strategist, the other has a habit of keeping swords under the sink. But as different as they are, these demon-hunting brothers exemplify what it means to put family first – while their twisted family history makes their dedication to each other all the more affecting. With the end of the trilogy forthcoming, my biggest concern isn’t the fate of the various romantic relationships in the book. It’s the brotherly bond at its core.

3. Paige, Lucas, and Savannah (Women of the Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong)

I love that we’ve seen Savannah (part demon, part sorcerer, part witch and altogether unprecedented) grow over the course of the series from a 12-year-old kid to a 21-year-old striking out on her own – almost as much as I like the way inheriting custody of Savannah forced Paige, a temperamental young witch, to grow up overnight. Add in Paige’s husband (sorcerer, lawyer, idealist) and this family is the neatest mix of light and dark, with their devotion to each other stronger than any of their supernatural ties.

4. The Sharpe family (White Cat by Holly Black)

Who doesn’t love a family of con-artists? Between a mother in the slammer, a grandfather who used to magically “work” death for a living and older brothers with nefarious plans of their own, this book gives a whole new meaning to the term “family business”.

5. The Pevensies (the Narnia series by CS Lewis)

While not supernatural themselves, these four dimension-traversing siblings set the bar for family-centred fantasy adventure. Inspired by their adventures, I used to force my brother to look for fantasy worlds hidden in our closets. He was not pleased.

6. The Cullens (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

While most people think “romance” when they think of the Twilight franchise, I think the idea of being adopted into a beautiful, mysterious and tight-knit family holds just as much wish-fulfilment appeal as Bella and Edward’s human/vampire romance. As a reader, I never fell head-over-heels for Edward, but I would love to play vampire baseball with the Cullens.

7. Stefan and Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries by LJ Smith)

Long before Twilight mania, these two brothers – on-and-off mortal enemies, doomed to forever fall for the same girls – gave readers a vampire family to sink their teeth into. Reading about them makes me think you really can’t escape your family, even if you try for more than a hundred years.

8. The Stackhouses (The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris)

The Stackhouse family has their share of (figurative) skeletons in the closet – supernatural relatives, illicit affairs and everyday trauma and tragedy – but at the end of the day there’s nothing Sookie wouldn’t do for her brother, Jason, or the cousins (human or not) that just keep crawling out of the woodwork.

9. The Murry family (A Wrinkle in Time quartet by Madeleine L’Engle)

Another family that may not be actually supernatural, the Murry family finds itself constantly entangled in adventures of the science-fiction variety nonetheless – time travel, space hopping, even adventuring into the family baby’s mitochondria. Plus, what other family can boast a Nobel prize-winning mum?

10. The Peltiers (the Dark Hunter series by Sherrilyn Kenyon)

I’ve always been fascinated by big families, so the Peltiers – who have 12 children and run their own bar – would be a favourite of mine even if they weren’t also were-bears (yes, were-bears).


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/04/top-10-supernatural-families

Ten of the best zoos in literature

“Tobermory” by Saki

Mr Cornelius Appin teaches a cat to talk. “A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it.” Clovis observes: “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.”

“At the Zoo” by AA Milne

Even in Milne’s child-centred celebration of the zoo, there is a tinge of terror. “If you try to talk to the bison, / he never quite understands; / You can’t shake hands with a mingo – / he doesn’t like shaking hands./ And lions and roaring tigers / hate saying, ‘How do you do?’ / But I give buns to the elephant / when I go down to the Zoo!”

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

In O’Neill’s thoroughly weird play, Yank, a ship’s stoker, loses his self-esteem when a woman calls him a “beast”. In the zoo, he seeks kinship with a gorilla: “Ain’t we both members of de same club – de Hairy Apes?” The gorilla “wraps his huge arms around YANK in a murderous hug. There is a crackling snap of crushed ribs.”

The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson

In the near future, Britain is at war with an alliance of European powers. Simon Carter, the narrator, is the secretary of London Zoo, whose troubles weirdly echo those of the political world. Their institution gets a new lease of life with political prisoners being sacrificed to the animals to entertain the public.

“The Jaguar” by Ted Hughes

At the zoo, most of the wild beasts have become indolent and tame. “The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun. / The parrots . . . strut / Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.” Only the jaguar keeps his primal intensity, pacing his cage, “hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short, fierce fuse”. Just like Ted Hughes?

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

William and Neaera, lonely 40-somethings, meet at London Zoo. They are fascinated less by each other than by the three green sea turtles in the zoo’s aquarium. They scheme to release these creatures with the help of a sympathetic keeper. Soon the turtles are heading towards the sea.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

If we are to believe the novel’s psychopathic yuppy narrator, Patrick Bateman, the nastiest of all his many murders is committed, appropriately, at New York’s Central Park Zoo. Strolling through the menagerie, he encounters a small child whose mother is briefly distracted and duly dispatches him. He leaves the zoo with his “hands soaked with blood”, unapprehended as ever.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The zoo is where divorced parents take their estranged children for a “lovely” day out. In Lively’s multiple-narrator novel, one section is duly given over to selfish Claudia’s little daughter, Lisa, who describes in a thoroughly puzzled fashion a day at the zoo with her mother and Jasper, her careless father.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Martel’s narrator grew up observing closely the behaviour of animals in the zoo his parents ran in India. “Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other.” His observation of animal cohabitation becomes useful when he finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

“A Strange Barn” by Lavinia Greenlaw

This sequence of poems from Greenlaw’s Minsk explores the different animal enclosures at London Zoo, reaching out to events occurring in the years in which they were built. The aviary is linked to the making of Hitchcock’s film The Birds; the penguins in their 1934 pool tell us about the rise of fascism.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/06/ten-best-literature-zoos-mullan