I kept a journal for 25 years. Its various volumes are stacked away in a cupboard. Often I wonder if I should just toss them out – this book warned meI kept a journal for 25 years. Its various volumes are stacked away in a cupboard. Often I wonder if I should just toss them out – this book warned me that if I do, I should make sure they're destroyed, not just discarded.
Masters' book is the oddest book I read in 2016 – half mangled biography, half half-hearted detective story. I enjoyed the twists and turns, and several of the sad entries made me laugh out loud. If you've ever taken your journal entries seriously, this is a cautionary tale....more
Sometime in the late 90s I heard John Kelly do Joni Mitchell at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint in San Francisco – a performance that hovered comicaSometime in the late 90s I heard John Kelly do Joni Mitchell at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint in San Francisco – a performance that hovered comically, magically, on the threshold between parody and homage. The crowd (Joni aficionados all) pitched at the edge of their folding chairs and as the first chords of one of Mitchell's standards sounded, you'd hear delighted chuckling and low murmurs of "I love this song!" My appreciation for Joni falls firmly in this mingled mess of reflexive irony, nectarous nostalgia and amazement.
So when I spotted Malka Marom's book of interviews on a table at Green Arcades I thought, really? Is there anything there? Something pushed me to pick it up. I read it all on a couple flights back and forth across the continent, impressed beyond expectation by Mitchell's life as an artist as much as by her artistry. Malka has known Joni from the beginning of her career; the interviews span the decades. Marom does a fine job editing these interviews. Instead of straight chronology she mixes things up a bit, including snippets from her interviews with musicians and producers who worked with Joni. The conversations transcend gossip or autobiography: the thread running through them is the creative process, what it means to honor one's muse, to keep exploring.
As I write this review Mitchell is silent, recovering from an aneurysm, and Prince has just died. An early recording of Prince performing "A Case of You" has just been posted on YouTube – a tender coda to the lives of two exceptional, incomparable musicians.
Benjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favoritBenjamin Taylor's abbreviated biography is not the place to begin with Proust – there are massive biographies by George Painter (a sentimental favorite) and Jean-Yves Tadié, as well as Edmund White's handsome abridged version.* Taylor's book belongs more in the good company of slim volumes like Proust in Love or Monsieur Proust's Library, a view into one aspect of Proust's life and work: the mysterious inner alchemy that turned a lazy fop into the author of the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Taylor doesn't provide any dramatic revelations. What he offers is a series of polished reflections on the transition that will engage anyone who's worked their way through the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I could have forgiven his omission of one of the more distasteful aspects of Proust's private eroticism, but appreciated his light touch.
On the subject of Proust's erotic tastes Tadié writes: "He required increasingly complicated scenarios: voyeurism and masturbation had always been at the wretched core of this. Proust possessed nothing and no one despite his attempts at relationships; the power he tried to exercise over people was of a moral kind, which explains the cross-examinations, the solemn pacts, the inevitability that to be loved by him was to stand trial. He never succeeded in these relationships except with his mother, and with Céleste Albaret. We should console ourselves with the thought that no historian has ever classified writers according to their sexual achievements."** All just and accurate and beyond anything said by earlier Proustians – though what is so wretched about voyeurism and masturbation I do not see.
Indeed - such are the besetting sins of any writer, more or less. The astonishing thing is that Proust's books seem to know everything about love, jealousy and the permutations of desire.
___________ * For those looking for instant insight into Proust, I highly recommend The Proust Project with lightning essays by André Aciman, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Susan Minot, Colm Tóibín, Edmund White et al.
A fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroyiA fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroying the world it's been given. Humboldt appears as a brilliant, even heroic, transitional figure between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, between the positivism of science and the inwardness of art, between Goethe and Darwin. Wulf is also good at demonstrating his influence on other naturalists, not only Darwin but Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh (new to me), Ernst Haeckel and John Muir.
Because I'd just finished reading On the Move: A Life, I couldn't help being reminded of Oliver Sacks, who also stood outside his own profession of neurology to capture the human and artistic dimension of knowledge, creating a new kind of scientific literature in the process. I was also intrigued to find out that Humboldt never married. He claimed his passion was only for science, but he was rarely without the company of another charismatic young man. His equally famous brother, Willem, "disliked his brother's intense friendships – probably a mixture of jealousy and a concern for what might have seemed the inappropriate nature of these connections." And finally, to my private embarrassment, I realized I've confused Alexander and Willem my whole life. (Humboldt University in Berlin is named after both of them.)
The dark irony is that, although Humboldt was revered his warnings about how humanity was destroying its own environment were largely ignored. What should be obvious to everyone is still the stuff of partisan politics, and the grim conviction deepens that nothing will be done until it is too late, that it is in fact too late already.
My trouble is that my intelligence is materialistic, agnostic, pessimistic and solitary, while my heart is incurably tender, romantic, loving and gregMy trouble is that my intelligence is materialistic, agnostic, pessimistic and solitary, while my heart is incurably tender, romantic, loving and gregarious.
Last weekend I had dinner with a friend who was reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, and she mentioned T. H. White and his love for goshawks. Afterwards I hunted down my battered, banged-up copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography – which I'd bought only because I loved her Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune's Maggot – a biography Sadie Stein called "a small masterpiece of humanity." It is indeed all that, and a little less.
My response to White's life is divided. Somewhere in my teens I got a copy of The Once and Future King and despite (or because of) my love for all things Arthurian, I hated it. White's characters were jokey and anachronistic, and after Malory (the absolute opinion of youth) it was an abomination. I never gave the guy another chance.
Warner didn't reverse my judgment of White's most famous book, but she did warm my feelings for the man himself, a man apparently conceived in unhappiness. T. H. White is a study in loneliness – a loneliness however richly qualified by imagination, love of nature, animals and other solitary souls. A consummate bachelor, his greatest love was his Irish Setter Brownie. The saddest passages in the book are his letters about her death. "She was the central fact of my life." His other great love was a 12-year-old boy. White is straightforward in his own account.
It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of this impractical, unsuitable love. Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I love. He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings – not that they are bad in themselves. It is the public opinion that makes them so.... The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on.
Warner describes the result.
He could not still his heart. During the next four years he was to live at the mercy of a love which could only be expressed in falsities, which he dared not let out of his sight, which he could not trust, could not renounce, could not forego without sinning against his own nature, could not secure.
While most of the book tracks White's failures and impressive success at writing and friendship, quoting perhaps too liberally from his letters, it is his essential sadness that finally impresses itself on the reader. "He had been unlucky with his happiness," Warner concludes. White himself wrote in his diary shortly before his death at 57: "I expect to make rather a good death. The essence of death is loneliness, and I have had plenty of practice at this."...more
An extra star for The Fellowship because the Zaleskis flouted my expectation. I was skeptical. The authors previously published Prayer: A History andAn extra star for The Fellowship because the Zaleskis flouted my expectation. I was skeptical. The authors previously published Prayer: A History and Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditions – titles that would send me running to the opposite end of the bookstore – but this book provides a richly detailed portrait of an odd quartet, not the pious pondering I feared I'd find.
There's already a library of books on these writers, starting with Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (1978). Worse (for me) there is also evangelical America's obsession with Oxford Christianity, instantiated in the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Yet at some point in my teens and twenties I read almost everything by these men, so I suppose this book was a way of looking back at my own life, starting with C. S. Lewis's books on "mere Christianity." Those hearty apologetics seemed glib even when I accepted their substance. A sample:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn't be a great moral teacher. He'd either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he's a poached egg – or else he'd be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
Or maybe not. (To my delight, the Zaleskis supplied some background on the poached egg madman, who was an urban legend dating from the early 20th century.)
It is the most controversial of Lewis's fictions, intensely disliked by many of his readers, extravagantly praised by a few, an anomaly among his works with its female narrator, its bleak landscapes, its bitter, ironic tone – more than a few passages might have come from Camus or Sartre – its complex plot, its cultivated obscurities, and its uncertain conclusion… the book's presiding darkness and relentless melancholy make it a struggle to read and nearly impossible to cherish.
That last line made me laugh out loud. What I remember most from the book is Lewis's palpable love for the Greeks. It was also my introduction to the grim myth of Psyche and Eros, my favorite account until I read James Hillman's The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology years later. I'm also fond (at least in memory) of another late book, Studies in Words, which elicited the sour response from Tolkien "[Lewis's] ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner."
Volumes have been written on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, and on Tolkien himself. Like everyone else who is lucky to discover it before they're too old, I was completely captivated by The Lord of the Rings. However, apart from his Middle-Earth obsession, Tolkien has always struck me as the least interesting, most cantankerous member of the group, and the Zaleskis' account only confirmed this impression.
Finally Owen Barfield, for me the most interesting of the Inklings. I discovered Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry in my early 20s and was so intrigued by his version of the "evolution of consciousness" that I ended up writing an MA thesis on his work. Reading The Fellowship confirmed my suspicion that I never fully acknowledged his work, or rather that I'd pushed aside the aspect I could never accept – his unshakeable commitment to Anthroposophy and Rudolph Steiner – preferring to focus instead on his provocative meditations on poetry and consciousness. (His magnum opus What Coleridge Thought might be justly titled "What Barfield Thought.") Barfield spent most of his career as a solicitor in obscurity while the other Inklings triumphed; he came into his own in his 60s, celebrated in the United States by the likes of Howard Nemerov and Saul Bellow and surviving into his 90s.
The Zaleskis conclude that the Inklings represent an unprecedented achievement: they "renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature… they have recovered archaic literary forms not as an antiquarian curiosity but as a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties and longings." This is bland and unconvincing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is not.
Albert Camus was the first "existentialist" (a label he refused) I read in high school. And for many years that's what he remained to me – the authorAlbert Camus was the first "existentialist" (a label he refused) I read in high school. And for many years that's what he remained to me – the author of The Stranger, The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, etc. It wasn't until I read Tony Judt's Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century that I gained an appreciation for the troubled life and raw courage of the man himself. Robert Zaretsky's book is in the same company, less polemical, more an extended meditation on Camus and his contradictions.
I read its final chapter – "Revolt" – on the same afternoon that I finished Jean Lartéguy's The Centurions and it was a sobering contrast. In the last decade of his life Camus, born in Algeria to a poor Pied-Noir family, found himself trapped between the Parisian left, the French right and the Algerian independence movement. All sides behaved badly, although each claimed moral superiority. Camus refused to take sides, alienating everyone. "Violence is at one and the same time unavoidable and unjustifiable." The most damaging attacks came from Sartre, his erstwhile ally. By 1956 he'd stopped speaking publicly on the matter, except for a scandalous response to a reporter in Stockholm, where he received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.
People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.
Taken out of context, the comment was incendiary. Sartre had no qualms siding with the bombers. In his forward to Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, he intoned:
In the first days of the revolt you must kill; to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his foot.
Sartre, a genius born to privilege, could always upstage Camus, but for all his foibles and insecurities, Camus is both nobler and more convincing. Zaretsky notes the irony.
Too many writers – myself included – remind others of the reasons to admire Camus. Were he alive today, Flaubert might add to his Dictionary of Received Ideas: "Camus: a good man in dark times."
I'll risk the cliché.
I also appreciated Zaretsky's emphasis on Camus the lover of beauty, specifically the sun and sea of Algiers.
"Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever the difficulties the enterprise may present, I would never like to be unfaithful either to one or the other."
In a superb passage, Zaretsky compares Camus to George Orwell.
the many resemblances between the two men are riveting. Both were committed antifascists, but also committed antitotalitarians; both risked their lives in the struggle against fascism (Orwell in Spain, Camus in occupied France); both were journalists and essayists as well as novelists; both men, though despised by many on the European Left, never surrendered their identification with the values of democratic socialism; both men, equally hostile to the imperial policies of their countries, had also lived in the colonies and refused to simplify their complex reality. Of course, both men were also inveterate smokers, tubercular, dead at the age of forty-six, and since hailed, unfortunately, as secular saints.
The photo he prefers to remember Camus by is the one with his friend Michel Gallimard.
Saki is the nom de plume of Hector Hugh Munro, born in Burma in 1870, where his father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police. His great-unclSaki is the nom de plume of Hector Hugh Munro, born in Burma in 1870, where his father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police. His great-uncle was devoured by a tiger while hunting in India (an incident later immortalized in Staffordshire pottery). In 1872 his mother was charged by a cow; she miscarried and died. He and his siblings were shipped back to Britain where they were raised by a set of strait-laced aunts who could barely tolerate children. And therein lies the tale.
I've loved (the little I knew of) Saki ever since I read The Open Window at 11 or 12, and still pick up my colorful copy of The Complete Short Stories and find something new. A few years ago I wrote the libretto for Srendi Vashtar, a comic opera composed Nicholas Pavkovic. So I was delighted to discover this recent study.
But – there is a danger in inquiring too closely into the object of one's affections. Saki's heartless, Wildean humor is the art of a damaged boy; that is its genius and limitation. Sandie Byrne is very good at tracing the darker cross-currents below the puckish play of his fiction. As V.S. Pritchett observed in one of his essays,
Saki was short of pity. He was an egoist and had no soothing word for pain. He knew that certain kinds of pain cannot be forgotten.
Saki's miniatures bristle with the revenge of animals and children on the world of uncaring adults; their sparkle and laughter barely conceal the sharp teeth of their sentiments. Byrne is too wise to make excuses: she presents this rare Edwardian in all his feral brilliance and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions. I'd forgive much for Laura alone....more
Bishop has been fortunate in her critics and biographers (David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet; Lorrie Goldensohn's Elizabeth Bishop). Tóibín provides somBishop has been fortunate in her critics and biographers (David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet; Lorrie Goldensohn's Elizabeth Bishop). Tóibín provides something different, an intense appreciation of one writer by another. He doesn't hesitate to mingle his own memories and methods with his discussion of hers, nor does he shy away from offering his own analysis of Bishop's famous reticence and control.
It was an essential aspect of her talent, indeed of her gift, as a poet, that she did not manage to confront what mattered to her most. Instead, she buried what mattered to her most in her tone, and it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion.
He muses upon her loves and friends. Sometimes it seems he's drifting far from his subject but each divagation brings us closer. I particularly appreciated his pages on Thom Gunn, who knew Bishop from her time in San Francisco, whom Tóibín knew from his time in San Francisco. I consider Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats almost without equal. Tóibín compares its Elizabethan elegies with Bishop's late verse, his taut restraint with hers. (Her grief, I find, is much colder.)
Mostly, though, he pulled me back into the poems, quoting generously and sending me time and again to my battered paperback of The Complete Poems, marveling again at "The Armadillo" and "The Moose" and (my new favorite) "The End of March." He admires her exquisite craft, even more the spirit behind it.
Faith goes; language remains. Slowly, the new faithless language takes on a power much greater than it ever had when it was there merely to express faith. Language is all there is now.
I read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writeI read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writers: Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, and Frank O'Hara. An odd octet, but it reflects Mendelson's interest in "the conflicts between the inward, intimate private lives of authors and the lives they led in public, the choices they continually made between wearing a mask and exposing their face." Of this group, I'm only familiar with Maxwell, Auden and O'Hara. At some point in my reading life, I sampled the others and waved them aside for boring me, which probably makes me an immoralist.
I can't say Mendelson changed my opinion, but he certainly illuminated my prejudices. It's tempting, even in a sally such as this, to pluck sour cherries from each chapter, but I'll limit myself to a few bon mots:
Instead of writing the novels he wanted to write, Trilling wrote fictions about other people's novels and made them seem like truth.
Kazin's breast-beating mythologizing was his favored method of consoling himself: he confessed to a grave fault that he didn't commit so that he could avoid thinking about the lesser one he did. To betray his people was daemonic and exciting; to betray his wife was merely tawdry.
"Saintly" is a word that recurs in everything written about Maxwell and his work. But in the same way that his friends ignored the primitive, amoral magic that governs the realistic-looking world of his fiction, they ignored his contempt for any ethical understanding of life.
Mendelson's morality is sharp in every sense, and informs his criticism throughout. Its import is best grasped in the contrast he makes (several times) between European and American writers. In the chapter on Mailer he notes:
No European writer imagines writing the Great English or French or German Novel because the great theme of European literature is the mutual relation of individual persons with each other and with the differentiated hierarchy of the social world… The European novel always exists in dialogue with other novels. The Great American Novel – if it could actually exist – would stand alone in its capacious greatness.
I was surprised to learn of Bellow's fascination with the work of Owen Barfield. (For a period in my 20s I was also fascinated, to the point that I ended up writing a master's thesis on the man.) And I was a bit shocked by his judgment that
The moral and emotional truths that Maxwell's wise-sounding realistic novels studiously deny are the same truths that his wild and naive-sounding improvisations – freed from his power, released from his circle – triumphantly and movingly affirm.
The best chapter is on Auden (not surprisingly; Mendelson is the author of Early Auden and Later Auden). Mendelson focuses on Auden's "religionless Christianity" (a term from Bonhoeffer), summed up in the duty to love one's neighbor.
Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it a secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
Mendelson concludes his study with Frank O'Hara, and naturally this was my favorite. Its few pages are packed with precise, vivid appreciations of the man and his poetry. "O'Hara was a major writer who tried to convince himself that he was a minor one." That's perfect. Frank we love you get up....more
Jan Morris is that rare writer who elicits affection in her readers, a warm feeling that's complicated but not compromised by the awareness that she uJan Morris is that rare writer who elicits affection in her readers, a warm feeling that's complicated but not compromised by the awareness that she used to be James Morris, the intrepid correspondent for The Times on the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. She's most celebrated as a travel writer, but I'm especially partial to her memoir Conundrum and her Pax Britannica trilogy (which I've been enjoying all over again as an audiobook).
Her latest (and apparently her last) book is pure whimsy – detailing her "infatuation" with Vittore Carpaccio, a Venetian painter of the Italian Renaissance whose name is more generally associated with an artful plate of sliced raw beef, devised (we're told) in 1970 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice because the meat reminded him of "Carpaccio's characteristically red pigments." Immediately I was reminded of a book about another chromatic Venetian, Calasso's Tiepolo Pink, its title plucked from Proust. As evidenced by Eric Karples' Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time, Carpaccio also plays a role in Proustian reverie.
But back to Morris, whose book is short but conveys appreciation and personal delight on every page. I was charmed by her chatter about her favorite painting St. Augustine in His Study – for decades misunderstood as "St. Jerome in his study." But in place of Jerome's iconographic lion, Carpaccio set a winsome little dog in the center of the floor, and Morris shares our pleasure in this figure among all the other minutiae of painterly wit. As she's indulging both us and herself, she's happy to leave serious symbolism to the art critics. "So what?" she asks. The works appeal because of
their subtle confusion of truth and imagination, the dismissal of logic applied with such infinite accuracy. It is another world that Carpaccio is creating, reality of another kind. In its arcane mixture of fact, illusion, allegory and entertainment it reminds me of the Mabinogion, the great corpus of medieval Welsh legend or … Magic Realism.
Indeed, the generous illustrations included with her book reminded me of the fantastic drawings accompanying old editions of fairy tales or Mother Goose in which I'd lose myself by the hour when I first discovered books for myself. That old magic is everywhere in these paintings and Morris is alive to all of it.
No one is sure what Carpaccio looked like, but Morris suspects that he slipped his likeness into his own paintings and provides a short excursus on the theories, only to conclude "I have no hard evidence to support me. I simply recognize, on and off throughout his œuvre, what I have come to call the Carpaccio Face." Likewise, I was happy to see that she has inserted her own image into this book: mischievously she compares the experience visiting these paintings in Venice to being "rather like listening to a lively travel writer, concerned to tell us just what he sees around him, and transport us amusingly to see it too."
What she says of Carpaccio, I would say of her own work – that she is an artist of "that simple, universal and omnipotent virtue, the quality of Kindness."...more
My first compliment goes to Knopf, the publisher of this deliberately white, hefty little tome. Its glossy stock made it too heavy to carry around, whMy first compliment goes to Knopf, the publisher of this deliberately white, hefty little tome. Its glossy stock made it too heavy to carry around, which was fine because I took my time with it anyway, listening to Schubert’s lieder with each chapter, following the German poetry as best I could. Up to now I’ve regarded Winterreise as a cold slog. Bostridge completely transformed my appreciation.
The book of course has its conceits, in terms of format and indulgences. As other reviewers noted, some of Bostridge’s digressions are silly or slightly absurd, as if he’s reaching too far to “embroider” (his word), but almost always I appreciated his eccentricity, the capacious range of reference, the splendor of citations and illustrations – after all, this is High Culture and we might as well enjoy the trimmings. Some stand-outs: a brisk tour around the linden tree through German literature; the musical illumination of Will-o-the-Wisp; another excursus on ice flowers in German literature (including photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley); the melancholy semantic echoes in einsamkeit (loneliness), which draw us in turn to the weird paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; the inspired choice of a typographical poem by e. e. cummings to introduce the discussion of “Last Hope.” Yet every conceit is grounded by Bostridge's evident love for the music and his long history of performing it.
Schubert based his song cycle on the poems of Wilhelm Müller – and, as Bostridge remarks with reference to his re-creation of Goethe’s “Erlkönig”
Schubert never lets go of the musical or poetic logic… it is difficult to go back to the poem without the music and not feel, somehow, robbed.
When it comes to Müller’s poetry, Schubert's transmutation of Romantic agony is sublime. It’s impossible for me to read the utterances of this tortured soul wandering through his snowy landscape without hearing “the self-indulgence of endlessly perpetuated, inner-directed pain.” As with, for example Cioran, there’s the sense that one is celebrating misery itself. But the music moves us past the ridiculous, into something more mysterious, the Joycean “ineluctable modality of the visible” in which everything is a signature of something more furtive, more profound, more “German.” You’ve got to decide to go with it, as with any work of art. This “anatomy of an obsession” is beautifully done, a work of art in itself....more
During the decade I lived in Chicago I used my membership at the Art Institute for every good reason (escaping work, cruising) but most of all for theDuring the decade I lived in Chicago I used my membership at the Art Institute for every good reason (escaping work, cruising) but most of all for the collections themselves, including some masterworks by Van Gogh. I particularly recall a haunted self-portrait, and my sentimental favorite, Bedroom at Arles (the second version, as I discovered from Bell). Last summer in Amsterdam I made the obligatory visit to the Van Gogh Museum, which true to cliché left me gaping with wonder and emotion. Bell includes a small reproduction of one of the final paintings, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds – it's pretty, but nothing prepares you for the size and power of the original.
In Van Gogh's case more than most, the paintings are entwined with the painter's troubled life, swirls and studies of anguish applied to canvas, colors that ravish perception. Like Beethoven or Michelangeleo, Van Gogh is the archetype of the Tortured Artist, which made him difficult to bear. "It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless." (This from his brother Theo)
The desperate downward trajectory, the story of a genius watching himself disintegrate even as he creates great art, reminded me also of Nietzsche. Julian Bell's short study neither wallows in grief nor exalts it; it's a fine appreciation of what Vincent achieved, of his brother who made that work possible, and of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who saved him for the rest of us....more
Like any other fan, I've got an image in my mind of Bolaño pieced together from the way he fictionalized himself in his books and interviews. Mónica MLike any other fan, I've got an image in my mind of Bolaño pieced together from the way he fictionalized himself in his books and interviews. Mónica Maristain provides a more rounded picture, based on indefatigable interviews with his old friends and acquaintances. I'm not sure it adds anything to the pleasure of reading Bolaño – it may actually detract from the experience – but it does satisfy a reader's curiosity. She clears up a couple legends, for example, the story that he'd been a heroin addict, which is apparently completely wrong. Not surprisingly, he sounds like a guy it would have been a blast to know. There are some entertaining exchanges, for example:
MARISTAIN: He wasn't at all handsome, but he was very seductive…
RIPPEY: Who told you that he wasn't handsome? He was extremely handsome, of course....more
A caustic reader of this darkly-entertaining biography might call it Lying Every Day. To call Seneca a "man of contradictions" is kind. He is the preeA caustic reader of this darkly-entertaining biography might call it Lying Every Day. To call Seneca a "man of contradictions" is kind. He is the preeminent example in antiquity of someone who wanted to have his philosophical cake and eat it too – preaching the ascetic virtues of Stoicism and abnegation while living a luxurious life as a Roman multimillionaire. His essays harp on the dignity of death and the heroic freedom of suicide, while his day job as Nero's court philosopher required him to connive at political murder, including Nero's assassination of his own murderous mother. One ancient historian blames Seneca's usurious greed for triggering the rebellion of Boudicca, warrior-queen of ancient Britain, resulting in the deaths of 80,000 Roman soldiers and just as many British. Buckets of blood. Yet at the end he couldn't bleed himself. He tried hemlock (in a stagey imitation of Socrates), and finally suffocated himself in a steam bath. He seems to have died convinced that he was what he pretended to be....more
Even after reading all of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu in both the Modern Library and Penguin editions, it never occurred to me to wonder muEven after reading all of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu in both the Modern Library and Penguin editions, it never occurred to me to wonder much about C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first translator of Proust's long novel into English, until I came across an admiring review of this book in the Economist. There's no telling when this book will be published in the US, so I ordered it from the UK without regret.
Moncrieff was a man of many parts, all more or less delightful: not only the "soldier, spy and translator" of the subtitle, but "a generous family man, a promiscuous homosexual and a converted Catholic" as well (a phrase I just copied from Sam Taylor's review). And he's lucky to have as his first biographer Jean Findlay, his great-great-niece, a distant recipient of his generosity, a gift she fully repays. She presents Moncrieff with all his foibles, which is also to say, with all his charm.
Moncrieff was one of those public-school-educated corps of gallant young men who marched off to the fields of Flanders full of Homer and high spirits. He was, for a time, close friends with Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen et al. Like them, he was also homosexual (although Graves eventually said goodbye to all that). There's something astonishing about this mix of men, who even in the most horrific circumstances were able to transmute their experience into poetry.
Many letters from the Great War are about carnage and stinking trenches and lice and disease, but, although he experienced all of these, Charles wrote chiefly about friendships and flowers, and about the beauty of the French countryside and the idiosyncrasies of the French and Flemish people, especially at places where he was billeted.
Yet, even from the trenches and the hospitals (where he ended up, missing part of his leg), he produced unsparing criticism of the war poets:
He suggested that war played a trick on English poets, distorting their perspective, confusing their roles and exiling their muses. He maintained that real poets did not improve through war, if anything they deteriorated. He attacked the emotion war inspired in poetry, its demolition of idealism, its degradation of human hope. Poetry was for him about truth and beauty and preserving these as shields for the human heart.
This "poetic bubble" protected him the rest of his short life from despair. In his letters from Italy where he'd gone to live in the Twenties, one senses his delight in life even as he suffers bouts of trench fevor and his body is slowly eaten away by stomach cancer.
His encounter with Proust doesn't happen until halfway through the book, and it's an interesting story in itself, surprising practical and unromantic. Yet it's also clear from the translation that he "got" Proust before anyone else. These days his version is dismissed as too "dressy" – starting with his Shakespearean title in place of the more prosaic "in search of lost time." (The biography details his failed efforts to get Proust's opinion before the translation was published.) And indeed, Proust was appalled, but when he read the translation of Swann's Way at the very end of his life, he was full of praise. F. Scott Fitzgerald called the translation "a masterpiece in itself" and Conrad preferred it to the original. Moreover, Moncrieff completed (almost) the translation while he also translated a small library of other literature, including Stendhal and Pirandello, and within the space of time it took team of translators to complete the newer Penguin translation.
In Findlay's words,
The new Penguin translation is more literal, but Charles's version goes through the sieve of his soul; it involes his history, his education, and his experience of the trenches.
For me, there's also the matter of pure charm that is especially important in the first volume, in which Marcel recounts the tale of his childhood visits to Combray and the tortured passion of Charles Swann. The Lydia Davis translation is generally hailed as superior, yet (for me) it misses the Moncrieff sensibility that captured me on my first reading. For example, the scene in which when Marcel has been sent to bed so that the family could entertain Swann in their country garden:
But to-night, before the dinner bell had sounded, my grandfather said with unconscious cruelty, "The little man looks tired; he'd better go up to bed. Besides, we're dining late to-night."
Marcel is in agony and convinces Françoise, his aunt's servant, to deliver a note to his mother.
At once my anxiety subsided; it was now no longer … until tomorrow that I had lost my mother, for my little line was going –to annoy her, no doubt, and doubly so because this contrivance would make me ridiculous in Swann's eyes – but was going all the same to admit me, invisibly and by stealth, into the same room as herself, was going to whisper from me into her ear; for that forbidden and unfriendly dining-room, where but a moment ago the ice itself—with burned nuts in it—and the finger-bowls seemed to me to be concealing pleasures that were mischievous and of a mortal sadness because Mamma was tasting of them and I was far away, had opened its doors to me and, like a ripe fruit which bursts through its skin, was going to pour out into my intoxicated heart the gushing sweetness of Mamma's attention while she was reading what I had written. Now I was no longer separated from her; the barriers were down; an exquisite thread was binding us. Besides, that was not all, for surely Mamma would come.
Those burnt nuts served with the ices seem to me the emblem of that lost summer evening. In the Davis translation it is indeed less flowery:
… where, just a moment before, even the ice cream – the granité – and the rinsing bowls seemed to me to contain pleasures that were noxious and mortally sad because Mama was enjoying them so far away from me …
Even with the granité, the magic is missing.
In the end it's a matter of taste. Findlay's biography has enriched my own appreciation for the man behind the words. In the middle of the book, there's a short passage detailing Moncrieff's visit with the poetry editor Edward Marsh.
It was an intimate dinner, after which Charles no longer called him Mr Marsh but addressed his letters to 'Dearest Eddie'. Marsh showed him his famous art collection… by 1914 he had brought together the nucleus of what became one of the most valuable collections of modern work in private hands. It covered every inch of the wall space in his apartments at 5 Raymond Buildings. Surrounded by colourful paintings, they had a lively and literary conversation, and Charles left at 2 a.m.
That final sentence is as perfect a description of ordinary happiness as any I know....more
The best biography I've read this year, all the better for skipping the usual boring "Childhood" chapters. Prochnik begins at the end of the world – wThe best biography I've read this year, all the better for skipping the usual boring "Childhood" chapters. Prochnik begins at the end of the world – with Zweig in Petropolis, Brazil, 1941, in his final stage of exile. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Pushkin Press, I've been reading Zweig's little books for years, the novellas and the curious overheated interpretation of Kleist and Nietzche in The Struggle with the Daemon, without ever knowing what to make of the author. Now I have the context.
Prochnik provides an apt counterpoint to the quirky nostalgia of The Grand Budapest Hotel. In this account, Zweig is a privileged, tragic, not quite sympathetic figure. There are many wry moments of humor:
Zweig was an extrovert who liked to fantasize about being an introvert. (106)
Again and again, Zweig's life reversed the order of Marx's famous comment about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In Zweig's case it was always farce first and tragedy the second time around. (44)
This is funny, and then again it isn't. The Epilogue opens with a photograph of Zweig and his young wife dead on their bed.
Also worth noting: Other Press has done a fine job publishing this book – the binding is a rich violet to match the color of the ink Zweig famously used, and the typeface feels as luxurious as its subject. That craft made this biography all the more pleasurable to read....more
An exposé endlessly repeating itself. Teeman fills in lacunae but anyone who's read Vidal over the years will find few surprises. I enjoyed the talesAn exposé endlessly repeating itself. Teeman fills in lacunae but anyone who's read Vidal over the years will find few surprises. I enjoyed the tales of old Hollywood and the Roman romps, but was a bit sickened by the story of how it all ended.
If Vidal himself hadn't been such a fund of scurrilous anecdote, you'd have to feel sorry for him. Fortunately no pity is required.
I've been reading two biographies lately – the hefty Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life and this slim biography of Masaoka Shiki. Compared to the prodigI've been reading two biographies lately – the hefty Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life and this slim biography of Masaoka Shiki. Compared to the prodigious Benjamin who compels admiration, Shiki's Life struck me as remarkably slight, almost parodic, the story of a poet who never had a love affair and spent the last years of his short life confined to his bedroom by tuberculosis, writing poems about persimmons and wisteria while coughing up blood, a series of newspaper essays (A Six-Foot Sickbed) and a waspish diary (Supine Notes) that registers precise notes on his bowel movements and bitter complaints about his sister/nurse. His passions are as strong as they are comically inconsequential.
And yet by all accounts he was a great man, of sorts. Keene concludes that Shiki "changed the nature of poetry," rescuing the forms of haiku and tanka from oblivion. This book is occasionally surprising, sometimes dull, and finally mysterious.
Walter Benjamin's obscure illuminations are famous for their intractable, mutually contradictory meanings. Depending on your cast of mind, he can be aWalter Benjamin's obscure illuminations are famous for their intractable, mutually contradictory meanings. Depending on your cast of mind, he can be a Marxist or a metaphysician, a fantasist or a deconstructionist. For me, his literary criticism and mystical sense of history represent the most surreal instance of the theological imagination in the 20th century. His fascination with "redemption" reminds me of Kafka's apothegm: There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.
This excellent biography by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings provides a contour of Benjamin's contradictions, resisting the temptation to simplify or polemicize, while setting his critical philosophy within the context of his sad, heroic life. Apropos of his final "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the authors remark, "For Walter Benjamin, history remained from first to last a Trauerspiel."
Highly recommended for aesthetes of the recondite....more
This short book by Fritz Stern, an esteemed historian of modern Germany, is remarkable, highlighting the decent, dignified heroism of Bonhoeffer and hThis short book by Fritz Stern, an esteemed historian of modern Germany, is remarkable, highlighting the decent, dignified heroism of Bonhoeffer and his less famous friend and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. These pages brought back distant memories of my own studies in theology – reading Bonhoeffer's Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison in the context of that brief moment in the 70s of radicalized evangelical Christianity, liberation theology, the "death of God" and the rise of the moral majority.
It's tempting for readers of both right and left to appropriate Bonhoeffer as a champion. Stern's book is in part a response to a recent Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas, who "betrays throughout a quite amazing ignorance of the German language, German history, and German theology." Stern also notes "its bizarre effort to rescue Bonhoeffer for fundamentalist evangelicals."
Stern is at pains to locate Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi in the merciless context of Nazi Germany, and to a lesser extent, the theological revolution initiated by Karl Barth. Although the two men claimed only to take "the path that a decent person inevitably takes," they demonstrated extraordinary courage and ingenuity. Stern's book is anything but dramatic; even so I shrank back in fear at what they dared and endured.
Stern also echoes the bleak irony noted by Ian Buruma in Year Zero: A History of 1945: resisters fared far worse after the war than criminal collaborators. Stern quotes Günter Hirsch, in 2002 the president of the Supreme Court: "in the Federal Republic hardly any judges or prosecutors involved in the thousands of judicial crimes of the Third Reich were convicted." On the other hand, Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi, their friends, families and fellow resisters were for years stigmatized as traitors by the defeated German nation. One suspects none of this would have surprised Bonhoeffer. His letters from prison ponder the meaning of "religionless Christianity" — a provocative, necessary idea. For me he remains an exemplary Christian....more
Last October I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. I still haven’t finished it – in part because in the first few pages, as Macfarlane iLast October I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. I still haven’t finished it – in part because in the first few pages, as Macfarlane is hiking the ancient Icknield Way, he recalls a previous hiker and writer – Edward Thomas – whom he calls “the guiding spirit of this book.” Like most Americans, my primary association with Thomas is Robert Frost. The two men became best friends, irreplaceable friends, walking and talking through the countryside when Frost was living in England just before World War I. Frost gave Thomas the confidence to write poetry, even as he chided him for his indecisiveness. In fact, Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” that old chestnut I was forced to recite in 9th grade, was written for Thomas. Thomas wasn’t flattered. In fact he felt taunted by it – and in response wrote “Roads,” the haunting poem from which this biography gets its name. Frost returned to New England; after a period of excruciating indecision, Thomas headed off for France – where he was duly shot.
Macfarlane’s reference put me on the track of Thomas and I discovered that Matthew Hollis had just written this biography, a book almost as melancholy as its subject. It took me six months to read because I couldn’t face the end. Before Frost, Thomas had written reams of reviews, criticism, biography, accounts of the English landscape – over a million words by his own estimate. “Hackery” was his word, and several British reviewers repeat the term, although Helen Vendler (in what I consider the best review of the book) rates the writing higher, as did Frost who heard poetry in the prose.
The early poems echo with Frost’s “sentence sounds” but Thomas quickly discovered his own voice, writing (as Macfarlane says) a lifetime’s poetry in a few short months. What I (along with everyone I suppose) treasure in these poems is the way Thomas hovers at the edge of language, translating what one senses bodily – movement, colors, smells (“Today I think/Only with scents”), beauty and blackness. "Adlestrop" is a psychic snapshot captured when a train halts by a small station in the summer Oxfordshire countryside:
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willow, willow-herb, and grass, And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
A very English moment – but what dogged me through the book, tortured me so that I’d put it down for weeks, was the self-inflicted misery of Thomas’s life, his near poverty, his burdened family, his awful sense of self. The shadows grow darker and longer after Frost departs and the war begins. Thomas is so miserable with himself that he feels drawn to France, as if his passion for life could only be answered by suicide. He wrote some marvelous words about why he had to go; perhaps he believed them. But Hollis makes it clear he'd damned himself out of unhappiness and uncertainty. He wasn't alone. The carnage of the First World War is still beyond belief, the hideous stupidity of young, intelligent men mowed down by the thousands on a single day, day after day, for years. Thomas knew he would not return.
Now all roads lead to France And heavy is the tread Of the living; but the dead Returning lightly dance…
Only 144 poems to redeem a wasted life – but they do. Completely. "Dylan Thomas believed he had grown to be loved by so very many that we could hardly think of a time when he was not alive. 'It is as though we had always known his poems, and were only waiting for him to write them.'"...more
Andrea Pitzer has made a fine book out what all readers of Nabokov know – behind the glitter, the wordplay, the baroque plots, the hauteur and hilaritAndrea Pitzer has made a fine book out what all readers of Nabokov know – behind the glitter, the wordplay, the baroque plots, the hauteur and hilarity is horror, the historical horror of the 20th century. This is most evident in the early novels (Invitation to a Beheading; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; Bend Sinister; Despair), but Pitzer shows how these dark themes play out just behind the surface of the more artful novels – Lolita; Pnin; and Pale Fire. In her view, Nabokov engaged in a lifelong polemic against the evils of totalitarianism while refusing to write “political” novels and heaping scorn on those who did. She illuminates the characteristic “about-face” that occurs repeatedly in his writing: “The setup, the long arc of mordant observation or ornate beauty, gets undercut at the last moment by a phrase reframing everything that has just happened, indicting the narrator’s callousness and the reader’s collaboration with it.”
None of this is especially new, but the emphasis is. I was particularly intrigued by her explication of Nabokov’s anti-antisemitism in Lolita, in which the word “Jew” is never mentioned. Also fascinating is the uncanny history of Nova Zembla, (or Novaya Zemlya), the most dreaded camp of the Gulag but also – as Zembla – the lost kingdom of Kinbote, the crazed word-wizard of Pale Fire.
I was less captivated by her contrast of Nabokov with Solzhenitsyn, except for the final wonderful tale in which Vladimir and Vera sit waiting for the recently-exiled Soviet author in the Salon de Musique of the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel. Apparently Solzhenitsyn drove across Switzerland, right up the grand entrance of the Hotel, then drove away. “The Nabokovs waited at the table for more than an hour before rising to go. The two men never met.”
The last three months I’ve been reading a couple grim books – Robert Gellately’s Stalin’s Curse and Vladimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History – recounting some of the darkest decades of the 20th Century. The horrors of Fascism and Communism are almost impossible to imagine– the incredible suffering, the millions murdered. Not exactly what I want before bed. But they deepen the point of Pitzer’s book and only make more mysterious the magic of Nabokov, who said he had only learned to recognize suffering “after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes and shot through the heart.” It’s the art he made out of this suffering that finally astonishes, fictions both heartless and bedazzling, not quite like anything else ever written....more
I'd never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor before I picked up the NYRB edition of A Time of Gifts at the end of 2005 – and I was bedazzled. I can't betteI'd never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor before I picked up the NYRB edition of A Time of Gifts at the end of 2005 – and I was bedazzled. I can't better Artemis Cooper's description of the book:
eleven chapters of writing that had been built up, layer upon layer, over the years… so folded over one another, so detailed in some passages and so deliberately blurred in others, uproariously funny one minute and burrowing into the bowels of historical conjecture the next, that the book reads like a journey across a continent that exists somewhere between memory and imagination.
Like the "young writer" she quotes, I "began reading straight away but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn't be this good."
So, naturally, I approached this biography with both high expectations and a degree of skepticism. Could it really be that good? Reading Cooper's account of Paddy's walk across Europe in the winter of 1933-34, I couldn't stop myself from thinking, "but the original is so much better." And then something flipped. I was fascinated by the actual facts (as much as they can be recovered) as Cooper disentangled Fermor's memory from his imagination, and from whatever she can deduce besides.
I didn't hurry through this book; I read it over a period of months. It seemed to get better every time I picked it up. Cooper knew Leigh Fermor and her biography is full of warmth and affection, but it never tilts toward hagiography. The writing is strong and straightforward; it steadily conveys the charm of Paddy's character and intelligence. There are very few biographies that one finishes thinking: I would love to have known that man.
The most famous tale about Leigh Fermor is no doubt his capture of General Kreipe in 1944, as a British officer cadet in Crete. The most spectacular moment in this episode, at least for me, occurred when the dejected German recited, in Latin, the first stanza of Ode 1.9 by Horace. Leigh Fermor completed the ode and their mutual love of the Roman poet (in Cooper's words) "went a long way towards humanizing the relationship."
Paddy's life was packed with incidents like this. There is a certain humbling aspect in reading the biography. Leigh Fermor has more adventures in 5 pages that most of us do in our entire lives. That just isn't fair. Yet I almost grieved when he died at the very ripe age of 96, "calm and fully conscious." Cooper must have some magic of her own. ...more
A few months ago I bought the new Van Gogh biography, and it's been snoozing on my shelves ever since. So I felt a bit foolish picking up a second booA few months ago I bought the new Van Gogh biography, and it's been snoozing on my shelves ever since. So I felt a bit foolish picking up a second book on Van Gogh. But Eksteins' book promised to be both less and more. At the heart of Solar Dance is the curious tale of Otto Wacker, "a young gay dancer turned art impresario" (flap copy) who in the final years of the celebrated, maligned Weimar Republic introduced a small gallery of previously-unknown Van Goghs into the art market. Most, if not all, of these paintings were forgeries. The tale is rich with irony: these same paintings were authenticated (then de-authenticated) by a raft of experts, and purchased by wealthy, tetchy collectors. The artist who painted them – like their original owner, an émigré who supposedly spirited them out of Russia – has never been identified.
The tale of Otto and his forgeries is worthy of one of those legendary New Yorker articles of 50 pages, but it's not enough for a whole book. Eksteins seems to realize this – and here's where the book gets into trouble, at least for me. Precariously, both Van Gogh and Wacker made to stand not only for Weimar culture, but for modernity itself (its uncertainties, instabilities, etc.). The warning sounds early: "More than ever today, Van Gogh is ours, and we are Van Gogh. And Otto Wacker is one of us." (p 3) Although this may have a certain apothegmatic ring, it really doesn't mean anything.
This disposition toward inflation and ludicrous "connections" mars what is otherwise a fairly interesting book:
Over the years the Oppenheimers acquired ... a few Van Goghs. These Van Goghs dominated a living room decorated in gilt. At the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer would produce his own version of a rising sun, a scientific work of art "brighter than a thousand suns." (p. 254)
[The poet Paul Celan] survived the Holocaust, but his parents did not. How was he subsequently to express himself? Could he even use the German language? And would not any notion of poetry automatically be a lie after Auschwitz? (p. 271)
Automatically?! This turns Adorno's already specious dictum into mechanical nonsense. One final example:
When students rioted in Chicago in 1968 their demands included the abolition of money and the acknowledgement that every human being is an artist. Such is the legacy of Weimar. And such is the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh. (p. 278)
Fortunately, most of the book isn't this vacuous, and I'm still looking forward to reading Eksteins' classic Rites of Spring.
Note: this is review of the U.S. edition published by Harvard, which has a different subtitle (and possibly different pagination) from the Canadian edition....more
O'Brien streamlines the Faustian pandemonium of Byron's erotic and poetic life into a swift, sometimes moving, narrative. I've had Fiona MacCarthy's mO'Brien streamlines the Faustian pandemonium of Byron's erotic and poetic life into a swift, sometimes moving, narrative. I've had Fiona MacCarthy's magisterial biography weighing down my nightstand for a couple months, but the print's too small for tired eyes. Then I found O'Brien's book in a used bookstore. Her account is convincing, if impossible – a larger than life genius, heartless, polysexual, extravagant, an Adonis with a clubfoot whose friends literally fought over pieces of his corpse. I recall William Pritchard's summary of Hart Crane: "a fine messed-up life." Byron makes Crane look tame and small; he makes everyone look tame and small.
Here's Byron at the end, when he realizes his fabled allure is no longer working with his final fascination:
I watched thee on the breakers, when the rock Received our prow and all was storm and fear, And bade thee cling to me through every shock; This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier. … Thus much and more; and yet thou lov'st me not, And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will. Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
"For all his swagger and bravura, Byron's real theme was love." George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, did not go gentle into the dying of the light. He was one of the most spectacular ragers of the 19th century.
The name of Fred Halsted will ring a bell for very few readers, and those few will be as incredulous as I was to discover a slick Semiotext(e) monograThe name of Fred Halsted will ring a bell for very few readers, and those few will be as incredulous as I was to discover a slick Semiotext(e) monograph dedicated to his obscure, obscene ouevre – mostly hardcore homosexual art films from the 70s and early 80s. Like Justin Spring in his extraordinary Secret Historian, the filmmaker William E. Jones has salvaged a forgotten outré artist from the refuse heap of history.
Way back when, Halsted was infamous for LA Plays Itself (1972), an almost incoherent experimental film that starts with a naturist's sunny ramble through the Malibu hills and ends with a lad getting fist-fucked in a warehouse – a trajectory (comically recounted by Jones) that posed peculiar problems for the MoMA curator presenting the film at an early screening for museum patrons. Halsted's following films featured further S/M rhapsodies, as did his few pieces of one-handed fiction.
For me the fascination isn't with the work itself (which I never found appealing), but with Jones's resurrection of the milieu in which Halsted lived and died. The gay subculture of the 70s and early 80s was a wild weird wonderland, an exuberant Dionysian underworld coexisting with a sometimes strident utopian politics. Jones enriches his book with some pulpy Halsted interviews (by Mikhail Francis Itkin, aka Saint Mikhail of California; and Rosa von Praunheim) that are alternately hilarious and hair-raising. The book is also exceptionally well-illustrated, although not SFW unless you work in a porn store.
"So Fred, how does it feel not to be the most beautiful person in the room anymore?"
Halsted's biography is itself a grim fairy tale – a damaged, handsome young man who recreates himself as a hardcore icon. As Jones sums it up: "Fred came from nothing, and whatever he learned, whatever he owned, he acquired himself through guile and exploit. Without supportive parents, sufficient money or education, Fred had little choice. His looks were what he had to work with... That Fred was able to achieve the success he did qualifies as a triumph." It's also a lacerating love story. Halsted found his soulmate in a young buff blond boy named Joey Yale, who in turn destroyed his soul. In its seedy desperate permutations, Halsted's story is spectacular - a Faustus for fist-fuckers. ...more
A pleasant harmless book that fails to live up to either its subject or its author's reputation. There's little here about the "the original Alice" anA pleasant harmless book that fails to live up to either its subject or its author's reputation. There's little here about the "the original Alice" and what there is is fairly dismissive. Two pages from the end, Winchester writes that "Alice's later years were suffused with a terrible sadness" – which seems sweeping and idiotically glib when he continues "She missed something, and we all may like to imagine precisely what that something was: long-ago golden Oxford summer afternoons, that time of delicious foolishness, when Charles Dodgson would come a-calling..." Yes we all may; now let's have a toasted crumpet and weep.
There's even less about Lewis Carroll, the astonishing author of Alice in Wonderland. What there is instead is an extended footnote to Dodgson's fascination with photography (notoriously his photography of little girls; unsavory anachronistic associations of pedophilia are summarily swept aside, and rightly so). Yet, as other Goodreads reviewers have noted, Winchester's brisk history of the incipient enthusiasm for photography in 19th century England omits any illustrations, unless you count the photo on the dust jacket and I don't. This is inexcusable. No doubt we should blame the publisher. (Luckily, with a bit of Googling, the images can be discovered online.)
A few weeks ago I picked up John Ashbery's celebrated translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations and as I was browsing through it I realized I had only thA few weeks ago I picked up John Ashbery's celebrated translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations and as I was browsing through it I realized I had only the sketchiest notion of Rimbaud's life – essentially a few mangled fragments from Enid Starkie's 1968 doorstop and some noxious images from Total Eclipse. All I knew was that he'd written a handful of iconoclastic poems, had filthy sex with Verlaine, then pitched it all aside and wandered off to Africa to die.
Graham Robb's biography, as I expected after reading Strangers last summer, is superb. Robb embraces the full context of Rimbaud's short life, reaching beyond the mythic Satanic adolescent to include the equally intrepid imperialist/explorer. "I have tried at least to allow Rimbaud to grow up," Robb begins. Whatever your aesthetic or political investment, Rimbaud's brilliant brutal life (and death) is astonishing, disgusting and grimly funny. Robb is also quite funny, especially when he's dissing all the Rimbaud biographies which preceded his own.
My only complaint with this mostly well-designed book is the abysmal quality of the photographs, which look like copies made from copies on a cheap office machine. Someone at Norton should be slapped.
Anyway, our life is misery, endless misery! So why do we exist? Send me your news. Best wishes. – Rimbaud writing from the Marseilles hospital where he died. ...more
Maybe this book of bite-sized bitterness doesn't aim for the heights, but it's completely enjoyable. Shaffer sets out to show that, throughout the hisMaybe this book of bite-sized bitterness doesn't aim for the heights, but it's completely enjoyable. Shaffer sets out to show that, throughout the history of western philosophy, "big brains and broken hearts have gone hand in hand." It's not a difficult proposition to prove, yet each instance provides comic evidence that intellectual and romantic intelligence may be inversely proportional. Painful for the genius involved, no doubt, but imagine the philosophic poverty of a cheerful Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Now that is an unhappy thought. ...more